"More Thanksgiving Stuff of Legends…"

November 25, 2010

Back in The Day, when I was a fledgling line cook on his way up the culinary food chain of Napa Valley, Thanksgiving had sort of become a Holiday of Accommodation for me.  With a new-found disdain born of my recent experiences working with “the real thing”, my thinking went that if it wasn’t straight out of Ecoffier, my wanna-be French nose was in the air immediately.  How could I possibly sit by and subject myself to overcooked green beans and dry Turkey after I had spent all week making Sauce Écrivisse, trimming bones for Carré D’Agneau En Croûte, and slicing beautiful loins of milk-fed Veal?  Would I, yet again, have to suffer through another meal of those “time-tested recipes” used by my Mom and Aunts for years?  I had become such an ass, as Thanksgiving up to then had been a perfectly fine dinner we all enjoyed together, over-cooked turkey notwithstanding.

One year, I decided to take the reins, and took the pompous ass thing to new levels.  I called my Mom to inform her that I would be preparing the most vital portion of the Thanksgiving meal: the bird, the stuffing and sauce.

“This year, we are having Red Wine and Cognac Marinated Turkey with Wild Rice, Sausage and Chestnut Stuffing, and Wild Mushroom Sauce, and I’m doing the cooking.”

“No, Mom, not gravy.  Sauce.”

“No, really I want to.  Mom, it’ll be great.  I can do it.  Mom…”

Mom grudgingly agreed; the grudging part came mostly from her being forced to relinquish the all-important control factor of the dinner.   But also, if I pulled off the coup I was attempting, she would finally have to admit my career choice was actually valid.  For years now, she had been patiently waiting for the day when I would put down the knives and pans, go back to school, and get “a real job”.

The recipe called for a 48-hour marinade of the massive 21-pound bird I had purchased.  At the time I was a true bachelor who worked in a restaurant kitchen, which meant that at home I had one or two old frying pans, a motley assortment of  utensils, and nothing in the fridge except Dijon mustard, beer, and a bottle of Old Crow in the freezer.  I ate at work.  So preparing the meal I was attempting, and doing so at home, meant borrowing pans of suitable sizes and a vessel to marinate a bird the size of a Dodo, from the Chef.  We were closed at the restaurant for Thanksgiving, and I assured him all equipment would be returned unscathed on Friday. 

Home, at the time, was up in Angwin, a sleepy little conclave of hippies and Seventh Day Adventist college students in the hills, nine miles up from the restaurant in St. Helena.  My parents’ house, where the clan would gather, was in Napa, twenty miles or so down-valley.  Without realizing it, I had become what every self-respecting Chef Di Partie dreads:  I was a Caterer.  Restaurant cooks have a saying, paraphrasing Nancy Reagan:  “Just say No To Catering”.  Catering is always fraught with the potential for disaster and the need to be constantly “stomping out fires” when the main course for the event goes sliding across the floor of a van en route to the site; or some essential ingredient is left back at the prep kitchen, thirty minutes away.  My Thanksgiving adventure would prove no different. I loaded the groceries, my frozen Pterodactyl, and all the equipment into the back seat my 1971 Chevy Vega (one of a series of $250 cars I had back then) and headed for home around 10:30pm in a driving rainstorm.

The Chevy Vega, even in showroom condition, was a poor excuse for a vehicle; and mine could never be confused with anything remotely resembling dependable.  It had transmission issues, bad suspension, and a passenger-side window that was stuck either halfway up or halfway down, depending on your philosophy and that day’s weather.  Of course I had no insurance, no valid driver’s license, and about three cups of gas in the tank.  I told you I was a true bachelor restaurant cook, didn’t I?  But pride and reckless youth were powering this adventure and so A-Catering I will go…

About halfway up the hill to Angwin, the Vega decided to live up (or down) to its reputation.  The rear axle of this 70’s Detroit P.O.S. is held together by a small horseshoe-shaped pin, which secured the right rear wheel to the axle rod and left rear wheel.  As I rounded one of several hairpin turns on the road up the mountain, with my little car Loaded For Bear with pots and pans, the World’s Largest Turkey, as well as 5 or 6 bags of groceries, this pin decided that a rainy night in November on a dark mountain road would be an optimal time to let go. It disintegrated, detaching the right rear wheel from the axle assembly and turning my car into a three-legged Billy Goat. The Vega’s right rear side dropped with a sickening thud and some disconcerting grinding noises. It’s a particularly odd sensation, to be looking out the driver’s side window and see your right rear wheel passing you on the left, and disappear over the cliff on the other side of the road.  I managed to limp the Vega off onto the narrow shoulder, and began to assess.

I was at least two miles from home; and it was 10:30pm, and pouring rain.  Of course, this was back when Cell Phones were still the size of a shoe box, and pretty much a novelty item for people like Gordon Gecko, so I had no one to call and no way to call them anyway.  A triage of the situation called for leaving the Chef’s equipment locked in the dead car and hoping for the best.  I hoisted the bags of groceries onto my back, and started walking the last leg of the journey.  To add insult to injury, the last mile of the drive was up and over a 7% grade and down into town.

You never realize just how friggin’ heavy a 20-pound turkey is until it needs to be carried uphill, in the rain, in a plastic grocery bag while getting soaked to the bone.   Stumbling along a pitch-dark mountain road with six bags of groceries can cause one to ponder one’s career choices; and the drive and determination to not let Mom be right, yet again, and pull off my first Thanksgiving Dinner despite the obstacles, was fading fast. Just as I was seriously considering spinning the bag with the Turkey over my head and letting it fly for the first time in its life, headlights appeared behind me.  My next-door neighbor, a contractor, was on his way up the hill, returning home from tarping over an exposed construction site down in the Valley.  He zoomed up in his massive Ford F-250.  I loaded my stuff in the back and, after doubling back to the corpse of my Vega for the borrowed kitchen equipment, we arrived home and off-loaded.

The Thanksgiving meal was a roaring success, with the red-wine marinade turning out a bird that was juicy and magnificently bronzed.  The Wild Rice Stuffing and Mushroom Sauce were big hits too, even with my uncle, Big Mike, a staunch traditionalist when it comes to Holiday meals.  Friday was spent retrieving a used 1971 Vega rear end from the junk yard and I came away from that Thanksgiving with a new-found appreciation for the complexities of gray green beans, Durkee Fried Onions, and Sweet Potatoes topped with tiny marshmallows.

I suppose it could have been worse…


"Night of The Living Applicants…"

November 17, 2010

I have noticed a tendency for my personal financial situation to closely parallel that of the rest of the country.  Whenever those “leading economists” make their statements about job loss or stock markets dropping, my income tends to fluctuate in kind.  Could be that, like many people, I tend to be frugal when times are tight, and then spend like a sailor when they get better.  Maybe I’m just more average than I like to admit and get easily swept up in economic waves.

But most of the time, I am slightly ahead of the curve and my personal finances tend to improve, with the rest of the country following shortly thereafter.  However, I am rarely, if ever, mentioned by those “leading economists” as one of their  “leading economic indicators”; but they’d have a much better grasp on the situation if I were.  “Leading economists are pointing to an increase in the GNP, a rise in housing starts, and Naptive Napkin’s newly-fattened checking account as signs of the beginning of a turnaround…”

And so it is that this month will truly be the beginning of the end for any recession, depression, or other blips on the radar of the country’s financial woes, as I finally have a job.  One hundred forty seven days of job searching, with almost as many interviews, has yielded results.  I found The One I’d been looking for and am planning to hold onto it like Grim Death.

Life is not without its little ironies, and my new position is certainly not lacking in that department:  after ending my longest stint on the unemployment role in my 40-plus years of working life, I am now in a hiring role. I inherited a somewhat understaffed restaurant crew, so I am now on the flip side of Craig’s List.  The downturn in the economy has produced a “seller’s market” for employers.  That, coupled with a somewhat poorly worded ad has flooded the Inbox on our Craig’s List account with an alarmingly large volume of applicants.  Every time I log on to see what the chum in the water has stirred up, there are two dozen or so more emails.  It’s like I’m the guy barricaded inside his house in Night of The Living Dead, with hordes of applicants scratching and clawing at my doors and windows. The Zombies have put on a tie, shuffled over to their computers and hit the Send button.

The unintentional humor in resumes is inescapable.  You’ve really got to wonder if these people seriously read these things before sending them.   Here’s a bit of advice from a guy who, until recently, was out there gnawing on the flesh of prospective employers with the rest of you: spell check, use the Shift button at the beginning of a sentence, and use the punctuation keys for something more than making a Smiley Face.

Here is an actual response I got.  Really.  This came in an email, with the caption:  “Where do I send my resume?”

She could've at least listed her relevant experience in the form of a Tramp Stamp...

A piece of another one, where using the pre-formatted Resume Wizard was a good start, but follow through and proof reading was a little lacking:

“Walter’s Clothing    01/2006 – 05/2006
Store Clerk   address 66 Decatur St.
Stock and inventory
Customer service
Cleaning and closing the store

Aramark    08/2006 – 09/2006
Cleaner
Trash detail
Cleaning  Aircrafts
Assisting the Supervisor

Company Name    Dates of Employment
Job Title
Responsibilities
Responsiblities
Responsibilities

After several days of sneaking silently out to look at the messages in our Inbox, being careful not to stir up the Geeks and Freaks lurking there, I now have a new clarity on why it took me so long to get hired.  I was literally lost in the shuffle. I should’ve been sending pictures of me in my Tidy Whiteys.

Now on the receiving end, I am buried in the corpses of the under-qualified and the just plain silly, trying to find the living amongst the living-dead, and I need to cut to the chase.  Skimming quickly through the cover letter, I open these people’s attachments, scroll down to the “Experience” section of the resume, and if they have misspelled “restaurant” or have listed five jobs with four month’s tenure each, they are toast.   Next!

So, a lesson for all of you still out there in Job-Seeker Zombieland:  there’s about a 30-second window of opportunity for you to make an impression with a resume.  At least try to make is a good one.

"We-are-self-start-ing-people-per-sons-who-think-out-side-the-box..."


"Is There Anyone Hiding Down There In The Dark?"

November 3, 2010

When I first started writing this blog, I went all over the web looking for advice on how to make it successful (honestly, how to make some money off it…).  One of the many sites I researched advised against making the blog too much about current events, as once the event is no longer current, the entries become dated; and outside of high school kids trolling the internet for a paper to plagiarize, those entries would ultimately go the way of the Dodo.  So I’ve always tried to put up posts that were timeless, stuff that would have some validity and meaning when read by people 200 years from now.  Posts that would continue to ring up that 37¢ per week in Google Adsense cash for years to come.  Yeah, right. My blog is about as “timeless” as Flava-Flav.

Timeless. But with a clock, just in case you forget...

That being said, there was a current event this past month that I feel bears mentioning, as it could almost be considered timeless.  I’m talking, of course, about the Giants winning their first World Series in 58 years.

I spent many summers of my youth listening to games on my Dad’s little Motorola transistor radio in the backyard; and then listening to him curse at it when the voices of Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges relayed the bad news of yet another Giants’ disappointment.  Sometimes those curses and disappointments came as early as the last day of school, with the annual occurrence of the “June Swoon” wherein the Giants would drop precipitously in the standings for no apparent reason.  Some years the euphoria would last until late August; or in the very rare year, into a late-September first-round playoff loss.  After 40-plus years of this I think it’s safe to say that my Dad and I have more than paid our dues as loyal fans.   Many people would jump ship over to the A’s during those years, as they were the closest thing to a winner that could be found.  But for me, it was always the Giants.  They were like your family dog:  maybe he has gotten old, and a little fat; maybe he’s a flea-scratching, bag-o-bones that doesn’t see so good or fetch so good, and at times smells pretty bad.  But he’s YOUR dog, no matter what.  This year October brought the good times, finally, for we Orange and Black Faithful; and it was somewhat spooky that on the Orange and Black Holiday, the Orange and Black Team was still alive and kicking.

Halloween is my second favorite Holiday, after Thanksgiving.  Both have less societal pressure to consume (shop) attached, so you can enjoy yourself without going into debt for the first eight months of the coming year; and both have their observances centered around eating and partying.  Thanksgiving gets the 1st Place nod (tryptophan pun intended) in the Holiday Standings because of two things:  more food choices than just candy, and football.  Having the Giants still alive added a welcome, if somewhat disorienting and distracting, sports component to Halloween this year.

One other thing puts Halloween high on the list: spooky movies on TV, in abundance.  When I was a kid I was the first in line for the new Dr. Fibes movie, or any cheesy vampire flick with Christopher Lee; but these days, I’m not so big on the slasher-movies until Halloween.   Plus, I am a choosey about my gore. I am all about the Classics.

Scary cheese for a 10-year-old...

But this year, whenever I saw Halloween, Night of The Living Dead, or Psycho was on, I’d tune in, only to find the more recent, CGI-enhanced re-makes being shown instead of the originals.  It seems that about 20 years ago, Hollywood ran out of original ways to kill busty Co-Eds in cut-off jeans, so they just started making the old movies over again.  Technically perfect special-effects gore is just not the same as the terror that builds up while Mike Myers slowly shuffles toward Jamie Lee Curtis, hiding in the closet with that coat hanger, ready to skewer his eye like a Stay-Puft at a campfire.

Fortunately for me, this year Halloween was the premiere of “The Walking Dead” on AMC.  I am a huge fan of AMC:  Madmen, Breaking Bad, Rubicon, etc., all get Tivo-ed at our house.  The Walking Dead looked quite promising in its promos, and had the added interest of being filmed here in Atlanta (the running joke is that they didn’t need any Extras for the scenes of Zombies shuffling around Centennial Park downtown, they just used the crackheads already in residence); but due to the scheduling conflict presented by the once-in-a-lifetime World Series featuring Your San Francisco Giants, I would have to wait until Monday morning to see it.

So the next morning, after the wife and daughter head off for work and school at 7:30am, I grab my coffee and fire up the DVR.  Once again, AMC did not disappoint.  The excellent production values, acting, directing, and script made the first episode truly frightening.   If it hadn’t been for the full light of day outside, I would have been going through the house turning on every available light.  It was that good.

Trying to compose myself, I tuned off the TV and started going about my house-husband duties, when suddenly our dog starts barking at the front door.  This is a regular occurrence that usually solicits no more severe a response from me than a “Shut up”, as there is never anything to really be barking at.   Unless you count blowing leaves or the mailman arriving at the curb.  But Maya was insistent, standing by the door barking and snarling, so I started to get nervous. H-m-m-m…  I sidle silently up to our front door to investigate, halfway laughing at myself for being so spooked and halfway worried that the lack of lights on and no car in the driveway had someone seriously contemplating a daytime burglary.  As I neared the door, some motion near the front room windows caught my attention.  Someone was OUT THERE!!  Now I truly am frightened as nobody had knocked or rung the bell, and I can barely summon up the nerve to look out the small window in our door (cue the  music from Psycho:  “REE-REE-REE-REE!!”).  I look out, and nearly jump out of my skin when I see two people standing on the porch, looking back:  Jehovah’s Witnesses.  With copies of The Watchtower in hand, these two 70-something ladies had been waiting, contemplating a knock at a silent, apparently unoccupied house.  They took a last look, decided there was no one home, and shuffled off; and I collapsed onto the couch, trembling with the adrenalin rush of surviving a Zombie attack of a different sort.

Gotta wrap up this tale of abject terror as the Giants Victory Parade is coming on TV, and I think I hear some Mormon Missionaries shuffling around in my basement.  REE-REE-REE-REE!!!


"The Accidental Tourist…"

October 25, 2010

Here’s a post I found, hiding out in my Drafts Folder.  It was trying to keep its head down, hoping I wouldn’t notice; but like that one big lobster hiding under the rock in the back of the tank, I spotted it. Still fresh, too…

Hartsfield-Jackson Airport here in Atlanta is, depending on what’s going on at Chicago’s O’Hare,  either the busiest or second busiest airport in the country.  It’s a hub for Delta, of course, but also a jumping off point for hundreds of flights from other airlines to Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America.   Its massive amount of connecting flights has allowed millions of people to be able to say, “Yeah, I’ve been to Atlanta…” even though they’ve never left the concourse; and with all that was going on here this past Holiday Weekend, it was surely at or near capacity.

Memorial Day Weekend is literally the kickoff of the College Football season, and here in The ATL we had Georgia State winning their inaugural game last Thursday, and Georgia Tech playing at home on Saturday.  LSU was meeting North Carolina in the annual Kickoff Classic at the Georgia Dome, while  The Dawgs were hosting their first drunk-fest of the season for sixty thousand up in Athens.  Add to all of that a NASCAR Race at Atlanta Motor Speedway half an hour south of here; Dragon-Con, the geek-fest Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention (that’s not just for nerds anymore by the way), The Black Gay Pride Festival at Piedmont Park, plus various and sundry other neighborhood festivals, and you wind up with upwards of a couple hundred thousand people rolling through the airport over the weekend.  At least the Braves did the highway traffic the favor of leaving town for a series against the Marlins.  Amongst the throngs wandering the vast terminals at ATL this weekend, trying to make the best of things during a 20-hour layover on his way to a business/vacation excursion in Buenos Aires, was a great friend of ours from New Orleans, now living in exile in Indianapolis.

Glenn was one of those in attendance at “The Last Supper” at our house the Saturday before Katrina.  In true NOLA fashion, we decided to have a dinner party rather than do the sensible thing and prepare for evacuation the next day.  We cooked a grand Asian dinner with homemade potstickers, dumplings, and several other dishes, for a dozen guests.  Earlier that day, when we had ventured over to the West Bank to shop at a great Asian market in Algiers for supplies, was when we first noticed the lines of cars at all the gas stations, people preparing to evacuate.  I had seen the hurricane news on Thursday night after I’d gotten home from work (when I lived in California, I could never conceive of watching the Weather Channel for any reason; but down in the Gulf, people literally live by it during hurricane season).  That Thursday night, Katrina was beginning her march across south Florida and I figured it was hitting land and would lose steam and that would be that.  After our trip across the river on Saturday, we turned on the Weather Channel and saw Katrina filling the entire Gulf of Mexico; so we decided we would go ahead and fiddle while Rome burned, have our party, but pack the car and skee-daddle on Sunday morning, along with everyone else and their brother.  Glenn had left the next day, too, along with all the other party guests. So, long story not-so-short, we hadn’t seen him except during a brief visit he made to Napa over two years ago.  We just had to get together, airport crowds and traffic be damned.

So, after a quick excursion downtown to watch the Dragon-Con parade Saturday morning, it was off to the airport to pick up him and his new girlfriend.   We began making our list:  lunch at JCT on the Westside, then maybe on to King of Pops or Morelli’s for sweets.  Or should we hit Murphy’s in Virginia-Highland for brunch and then a visit to Green’s for some wine browsing?  We settled on JCT and two bottles of wine to go with lunch.  We had to pass on the frozen treats in favor of JCT’s irresistible Rum-Soaked Coconut Cake, followed by some lounging at home.

Except we didn’t have time for lounging, as my wife and daughter had pending appointments to get their hair done at a salon, half an hour north in Buckhead.  So, being a one-car family for now, the plan was for me to ferry the two of them North, then return to pick them up after I had gone back home, picked up Glenn and dropped him back at the airport, another fifteen minutes past our house to the South.

On the way to the salon, we get a phone call from another of the thousands landing at Hartsfield-Jackson over the weekend; our friend Jimmy from California had just arrived in town for a wedding.  We hadn’t seen Jim since we drove off from Napa last June, so we decided to try to work him into the schedule for a cocktail.  We arrive at the salon to find out that the hair appointments were two hours earlier and had been missed.  So, it was back into the car, back South for twenty minutes to pick up Glen; then another 15 minutes back down The 85 to the airport to drop them; and then back up to Buckhead to meet Jim.  Jimmy lived in Atlanta for about 8 years, so touring him around was not an issue.  We met him for drinks and appetizers on the patio at Nava, a Tex-Mex place that we discovered, on this visit, is decidedly a few years past its prime.  We had a great visit with Uncle Jimmy, though, and he went off to follow the rest of his agenda for the weekend, and we headed home.

It was on the final drive South and home that we began to realize our priorities as tour-guides are a little skewed.

My wife’s cousin and his wife have recently re-located to Atlanta for her internship at a local hospital; and when his mother-in-law visited from Mexico he took her, all in a single day, to the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, Stone Mountain, the Zoo and practically every other attraction known to man.  Now it’s not to say that we haven’t been to, and mostly enjoyed, many such places that are on the top of most tourists’ lists.  But Glenn and his new girlfriend are dedicated food and wine nuts like us; so our itinerary for  today had excluded the traditional spots in favor of those of a more culinary nature.  Asking us to show you around town is a little like asking the guy emerging from an AA meeting for directions:  “Go two blocks down, take a left at Joe’s Bar, head south until you pass two Package Stores, and turn right at the Irish Pub on the corner…”   We’ll take a pass on World of Coke in a hot second if it means we get some of that Coconut Cake.


"Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt…"

October 23, 2010

A few weeks back, I was able to cross another item off my “Living in The South Bucket List”.   Along with eating (and liking) grits, pimento cheese, and fried pickles, and attending (liking is not required) a NASCAR race, going to a bona-fide College Football Game was pretty high up there, so this was a biggie.

Some observations on College Football here in The South:

  • I come from California, where we don’t give a Rat’s Ass about College Football, unless Cal is playing Stanford, or USC is playing UCLA.  Nobody, graduate or not, flies a college flag from their front porch or the back of the pick-up truck on Saturdays, even when the aforementioned Big Game match-ups are imminent.  Not so, down here.  Any day of the year you can open up the Sports section of the AJC and find no fewer than three articles about UGA Football, maybe one or two about Georgia Tech and at least one about the SEC in general; and this includes months when school is not even in session.  During the season, check the front page masthead for coverage.
  • Why do the stadium music programmers at College Football games (or any sporting event, for that matter) think the only music white people like is Country-Western or AC/DC?
  • Do they ever play music (above genres excepted) that doesn’t involve Auto-Tune vocals?  I swear to God, if I hear “OMG” by Usher one more time, I’m going to open an artery.  The only non-Country, non-AC/DC song that didn’t have the Auto-Tune was the Star Spangled Banner; and I might even be wrong there as we were late and missed the Anthem.
  • Bud Light and Miller Lite, for $7 a pop as the only beer choices?  Really?
  • How hard is it to get face paint off?  Are there thousands of  kids attending classes on Monday morning in Athens with bright-pink skin after trying to scour off the red?
  • And why is it that only white folks paint themselves for sporting events?  Never mind.  I know.  We’re huge dorks.  That, and the alcohol.
  • Tailgating for six hours on a Thursday night?  And how much tuition did your parents fork out so you could blow off class?  Higher education, indeed.

And this is just for the pre-season...


A Place Holder: "Many Parts Are Edible…" (The Redux)

September 16, 2010

We’ve been reviewing our Atlanta “Bucket List” of restaurants we’d like to try, looking at menus on websites, reading reviews, etc.  One that we are considering has not one, but two different preparations of two different kinds of testicles (notice that everything is coming in two’s here…)

Now, I am as open minded as the next guy, maybe more so when it comes to what I will and won’t put in my mouth (yikes, the double entendres are coming hot and heavy here this morning!) but I would think one type should be sufficient for anyone.  These guys must be digging really deep into their butcher’s product list.

It all reminded me of a something I posted over a year ago on the topic of “parts is parts”; so here’s a redux for you, with apologies to Euell Gibbons and his 70’s TV ads hawking Grapenuts (which to me have no parts that are edible).

I’m leaving for Miami tomorrow for what will hopefully be the last in a month-long series of interviews.  I’m hoping that I finally land this gig so next week I won’t  find myself putting a checkmark in a box to answer questions like “Did you look for work?” or “Was there any reason (other than sickness or injury) that you could not have accepted full time work each weekday?”

Until then, if you haven’t already, please “Enjoy!”

“Many Parts Are Edible…”

This morning our cat caught a bird. This was not an unusual occurrence as he is a  formidable hunter and does not discriminate. We have found, at various times, parts of mice, lizards, snakes, gophers and birds on our back patio. The weird part is his surgical precision in removing the entrails from his trophies. The whole bird was left this time, minus the heart. “Sweet Jesus, Everett, they took his heart!” But he is an animal after all, and they do eat each other, given the chance.

Somewhere along the line of history, we humans decided it is not okay to eat each other, that cannibalism should not be a philosophical choice. Where and when this occurred I do not know, but I am sure it was well before the first Hannibal Lechter movie came out. I am also unsure whether this was a gradual process, such as the backlash against smoking (the Surgeon General warns that cannibalism can lead to low birth weight), or if it was one of those epiphanies where mankind slapped its collective self on the forehead and said, “You know, eating your Uncle Tony is not polite”. We stopped eating each other, and decided that sacrificing ourselves to the gods was counter-productive as well. So we turned on our friends in the animal kingdom.

I don’t know how it came to be that offal (and what a perfect, if misspelled, name that is!) like Sweetbreads were considered a delicacy; or how it was discovered that liver was good with bacon, but I am happier for it. However it occurred, we do eat some very strange things in restaurants. We are eating straight fat (lardo, another perfect name!), fat back (just add in “hairy” and this would be perfect, too), beef cheeks (from the face as well as the other end), shanks, ribs, knuckles, feet, tongues, kidneys, brains, and stomachs. And that’s just at the taco truck. I have seen Pork Blood Jelly on menus at Chinese restaurants and of course the ever-popular tripe at Italian and Mexican restaurants.

We have decided that it is not only okay to eat animals, but we have to eat each and every part of them. This idea probably stems from the early Caveman’s philosophy that using every part of the animal was economical. Killing a Mastadon is a bitch of a lot of work and we might not get to do it again for a while, so sit up straight and finish your hooves.

The vegetable kingdom is not without its “how the hell did they figure out you could eat this?” foods either. Jerusalem artichokes (a somewhat less than perfect name) are a puzzler. They grow deep in the ground, have a shape that makes peeling unbelievably difficult, and you have to have a hundred of the little bastards just to make a bowl of soup. Hearts of Palm, that staple of mediocre Country Club lunch menus everywhere, is really just that: the heart of a palm tree. It was probably a guy with a seafood allergy stranded on a desert island that figured that one out. And Tapioca: it’s made from the cassava root which is basically poisonous unless cooked well enough to remove the toxins. How many dead Sous-Chefs did it take to perfect that technique? “Eh? Henri ese dead? Vee vill need to kook it more, no?” Salsify is a root vegetable that is so face-twistingly bitter coming out of the ground that it has to be cooked several times in milk or some other liquid to make it palatable; and the trendy new vegetable item at haute cuisine places is purslane, or red amaranth. It’s a weed, people. After the constant battle I wage with this invasive, prolific gardener’s bane, I can almost understand the satisfaction derived from eating it. If it had guts, I’d go spit them out in the melon patch, like my cat with his bird parts. Take that, bitches, and don’t let me see you around here again!


"Be All You Can Be, Even If You're Not…"

September 9, 2010

I’ve been using “Writer’s Block” as an excuse for not posting anything these past few days, but I just haven’t felt like I’ve had any material.  My blog topics always hover in or around food, wine and the restaurant business; and while I have certainly had no shortage of food (as my scale can attest) or drink, I haven’t been “in” the restaurant business for over three months now.  Ninety-eighty days and counting, that I’ve been an unwilling part of our country’s unemployment statistics.  I guess I’d have to reduce that total by 6 if I was to count the week-long tryout up in New England with a restaurant group looking to open an outpost here in Atlanta.  I mean, they did pay me, as well as cover all my expenses.

It’s not that I haven’t been looking, or even had an offer or two.  If you counted them all up (which I have, since I’ve had the time) I’ve been on 22 interviews for 11 different positions.   I hope I’m not putting the curse on things by saying so (like I do by washing the car to make it rain), but I may be nearing the end of my long drought.  I have had five interviews now with a very high-quality company that’s in an expansion mode, even in this economy.   It is run by real pros that have their act together, and they can actually afford me.  This could be The One that could actually turns into a bona fide career move.  I’ll know more after an excursion up North again (different state this time) to meet the big bosses.  My fingers are almost disjointed, they are crossed so tight.

This last one has so far included three hour-long phone conversations, as well as two in-person meetings.  They also had me go undercover to their place here in town and have dinner.  All they asked was that I write up a synopsis of my experience and submit it, along with a receipt, and they’d take care of everything.  Well, the dining experience was less than stellar, which is good news for me as they obviously need some help there; but bad news for them as things are a tad bit worse than they had thought.

After over 25 years in “the biz”, no matter where I dine I can’t help but notice service faux pas and over analyze the food and beverage.   I always notice the busboy that puts his elbow in my face when clearing, or the server that needs to stand closer to his razor and maybe go out and buy a steam iron.  Friends that dine with me know that if I suddenly drop out of the dinner table conversation and start looking around, I’m “seeing” the place through the restaurant version of what John Madden called “Linebacker Eyes”:  always on the lookout for a problem, taking everything in, always seeing the big picture.  My wife or our friends will stop in mid-sentence, and say stuff like “Uh-oh, what’s wrong?” or “Oh no, he’s not happy…” I can’t help myself. I turn into Dexter, and my Dark Passenger just takes over, until all I can see are the cobwebs in the corners and the complete lack of ice in that Iced Tea refill; and it’s not even my Iced Tea!  It can be truly maddening.

So, it was no real struggle to commit my insights on this covert dinner to paper (keyboard), and my review was no less than five pages and 2500 words.  I told the whole truth and nothing but, God help me, hoping that doing so wouldn’t kick me out of the running.  I mean, don’t ask if you don’t want to know, right?  Well, shit-howdy if the exact opposite didn’t happen.   I submitted the receipt and my laundry list of their defects and screw-ups, along with just enough insights and suggestions on how to correct some of them.  I held back on the rest.  You don’t get to drink this milk until you buy the cow, baby.  The next day, I got a call back to meet with the Director of Operations, in person this time.  When he arrived for the interview, he pulled out a hard copy of my review notes and went through it point by point.  He had shared it with the other Mucky-Mucks, and they loved it.  He even commented very favorably on my writing skills.

I’ve always had a nagging bit of a self-esteem problem when it comes to job hunting, especially when it involves a step up the ladder.  No matter how many successes I can count in my professional life, and there have been many, whenever I am interviewing and trying to sell myself to prospective employers, I always seem to mentally fall back to the Groucho Marx philosophy of “I will belong to no club that would have me as a member.” Even though I’ve always gotten every job I’ve ever really wanted, I find myself wondering why the hell would someone hire me to run a business.  Then I look at people who have positions and careers I want to have (and could easily do), compare their skills and experience to mine, and wonder who in the hell it was that they had to blow to get their jobs.

I can’t speak to “real job” situations (outside of the hospitality and restaurant industry), but looking for work and interviewing in my business is all smoke and mirrors.  You are never closer to perfection than when you are filling out a job application.  Most restaurant mangers know that, with all the drunks, dope fiends, and sex addicts in line for a job in our industry, going strictly by the resume can get you in a heap of trouble.  Anyone can write, or pay someone else to write, a resume that will make them look like Mother Theresa. No matter how many times they got drunk, stole, or sexually harassed an employee, and got their ass fired, they can still manage to look good on paper.  And I can’t believe that HR people are surprised when they call references and get nothing but glowing reviews; you’d have to be a moron to put anyone on your references that wouldn’t recommend you as Citizen of The Year or want you to marry their daughter.  The best and surest method in our business is to bring someone in for a tryout.

Since most tryouts are not paid, and prospective employees are not covered by Worker’s Comp if they get injured, having people tryout is not in the strictest sense, legal. For that reason, and the fact that they’ve probably had a labor lawsuit or two to lighten their pockets, corporations mostly eschew the tryout.  Not being able to take advantage of this much more accurate barometer of someone’s abilities, corporate restaurant companies rely heavily on their resumes, interviews, pumped-up references, and the recommendations of their favorite Resume Pimp, the recruiter.  And so they may end up hiring someone who looked good on paper; but then they wake up the next day with their picture-perfect first date lying next to them under the covers, Prom Dress thrown over the nightstand, with hair looking like Albert Einstein and make-up that looks like a tropical fish with a hangover.

This is where my crisis of confidence can get a little confusing, and starts to do a sort of “Studio Fade”.  At first glance, seeing the title of Chief Operating Officer after a name on a business card can be intimidating.   But I buoy my confidence with the idea that this person may have ever only done one or two impressive things in their entire professional lives to get that acronym of C.O.O.; and one of them may have been writing a resume.  I can tell myself that, in all probability, the only real difference between them and me is the fact that they have the job and I don’t.

So my ability with words to clean and gut a restaurant like it was a large trout, may end up separating the wool (me) from the chaff (the rest of the field), and actually land me the job.  That, and the fact that I’ve got more semi-colons and animal analogies at my disposal.  Shit, John Starks made an NBA career off of one dunk over Jordan and Scottie Pippen, a feat he never came close to repeating; so I am really OK with getting a job I really want, just because I wrote an essay.