My Uniform of Choice

Most people wear some kind of uniform at work.  Or school.  Maybe it’s a suit, a white shirt and a length of colored ribbon knotted around the neck, maybe it’s high heels and makeup.  For me, it’s jeans and Lucchese boots (although I have recently begun wearing Birks.  So sue me.)

I’ve been wearing jeans pretty much exclusively for over 45 years.   I got married in jeans in ’76.   In fact, it’s probably not a stretch to say that being able to be myself and not having to wear a suit or tie was a major factor in my choosing to become a cook.  It was definitely a factor in my choosing Memphis State for my freshman year of college as the other schools I applied to back in 1970 did not allow jeans on campus.  Seriously.

But I digress.

I wear jeans and do not own a pair of ‘slacks’.  It has become a point of pride.  So when I went to Las Vegas to interview for a job there I wore jeans.  I met the Executive ‘Chef’ and the vice president of Food and Beverage, then the Vice President in charge of restaurant development,  and then I met the President of the entire operation, all the while wearing jeans.  Finally I was invited into the inner sanctum to meet the owner.  I was wearing jeans.  And so it went.  I got the job.  In fact, I got a restaurant named after me.

A couple of months later we moved to Las Vegas and I reported to work at an off-site office building, as the hotel/casino was under construction.  On my first day the chef comes up to me and says “Sorry Jimmy, but you can’t wear jeans here”.

I felt as if my whole world was crumbling.

I noted that in seven interviews I wore jeans.  His reply: “When you open the restaurant you can wear jeans.  But here in the offices, you can’t.  Simple as that.”

So I went home to tell Stacey not to unpack our shit:  It looks like we’re going back to the East coast.  “You are not quitting this job over jeans!”  There was a tone in her voice that I had only heard once or twice in our marriage.

This sucks.

So I compromised on my scruples, my integrity and my identity and bought a pair of black Dockers.  For seven months I would ride my motorcycle to work wearing my jeans, go to my cubicle, open the drawer, pull out my Dockers and change, hoping nobody important would walk by.

I’m still trying to understand why that job didn’t work out……

Say it Ain’t So, Joe

Joe thinks I’m a dick.

He’s wrong.

Joe is the chef/owner of a nice little restaurant in town.  My wife and I had dinner there a few weeks back.  Joe came out to say hi, which was nice since I had never met him before.  Or so I thought.

Joe noted that I had done a few guest dinners at the Ryland Inn in White House, NJ where my friend Craig Shelton was the chef.  (Side note: the hostess was a teenager from Williamsburg who became the opening hostess for me at The Frog and the Redneck, and later married my chef, Dale Reitzer.  They now own Acacia).

But, I digress.

Joe was one of Craig’s line cooks and had the great fortune of being assigned to work with me on my dish for the big dinner.  Lucky guy.  Noting that was a long time ago, I jokingly asked if I was an asshole to work with (a recurring theme in my blogs).  The answer I got back was “total”.

Assuming he was joking, I moved the conversation forward.  Then, we agreed to have coffee together the following week.  Coffee turned into lunch and it was obvious that this guy was serious about food, and serious about our profession.  Real potential.  I’m gonna keep my eye on this one.

Then I reminded him of his response to my question.  He informed me that he had gotten so mad at me that evening that he walked out of the kitchen into the parking lot ready to quit his job rather than finish the evening with me.  wtf?

“I was there to help you”, he began.

Whoa.  Stop right there.  No wonder you didn’t like me, you silly goose.

You weren’t there to help me.  You were there to work.  You were there to work hard and learn.  You were there to do what was asked of you.

You see, I have very little time in a strange kitchen to put out a course of food for 200 people that will blow them away.  If you listen to my instruction I will very clearly convey exactly what I need you to do.  Your best response would be “Yes Chef” to everything I say for the next three hours.  You are not there to ‘help me’.  You are there to work, learn, and be part of a small, productive team.  If anything, I was there to help you.

I don’t think he got it.

This wasn’t my first rodeo.  I spent many years ‘helping’ put out great food for chefs over the course of my career.  As the years passed and young cooks began to see themselves as future TV stars, it became harder and harder to identify the ones dedicated to becoming the best cooks they could be: few and far between they are.

I recall one high profile event at Universal Studios a while back.  There were plenty of ‘famous’ chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Hubert Keller, Cal Stamenov, Thomas Keller and so on.  As we gathered for our booth assignments, we were offered a slew of culinary students from which to choose as many helpers as we needed.  I needed three and asked for volunteers who were willing to work hard and learn.  Three stepped forward.

“Ok”, said drill sergeant Sneed, “take off your sunglasses, button your coats up to the top, one fold of the cuff and no drinking, smoking, autograph hunting or wandering around until we are cleaned up, packed up and ready to go at the end of the night.  You will see plenty of your co-students walking around with a glass of champagne, a cig in their mouth, and an air of arrogance.  That will not be you.  Everybody still on board?”

Yes Chef!

Good, let’s get busy.

First, I need someone to slice the baguettes.  Here is how you hold the knife, here is the motion.  Do not push the knife, let its weight do the slicing or the bread will squish and the slices will be misshapen.  I’ll show you.  With your first motion you make a small cut on top of the bread, ¼” from the end.  Then, with long slicing motions you will let the weight of the knife do the cutting.  Do not push down on the knife. I know, it’s a lot of motions for once slice but do you see how nice they are?  That’s work you can be proud of.

Now, I need 600 just like those.

Returning a couple of minutes later I find that Sara has been following her instincts and pushing the knife thru the bread.

Stop!  I will show you one more time how to do this.  Use 8 or 9 slicing motions for each slice, just like this!

An hour later, Sara had turned 15 baguettes into 600 perfect, thin, symmetric slices.  “Now, toast them lightly, turning them over so both sides dry a bit and get a slight crunch.  Here, I’ll show you the first batch…..”

So, I hope you see, Joe, that there was much to be learned that night.  If you chose to be offended by being shown what to do, and criticized for not listening to my precise instruction, then I have no apology to make.  I want every cook that I work with to become better and I want to become better with every event I work.  But this I promise you.  I would never intentionally demean, degrade, or humiliate you, or any cook.  It’s not who I am.

That does not mean a cook won’t feel humiliated, but that would never be my intent.  It’s a crazy element of human nature that you can say something to one person, who acknowledges it and moves on, and say the same to another person who takes great offense.  As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.