One of the most valuable educational experiences I was ever involved in was after college when I worked in a restaurant.
I lived in Cinnaminson New Jersey, just across the river from Philadelphia.
Leaving the comfortable insulated arms of academia, I was thrust into the real world and forced to start living a real life. My father and step-mother were quite gracious and gave me a room to call my own and food to eat. I did chores around the house…at the time; I was probably in some sort of depression, attempting to figure out what to do with my life.
Finally, one day my father sat me down and told me that if a “career” isn’t in my cards at the moment, perhaps it was time for me to get a job. Back in 1994-1995, it wasn’t too difficult to find hourly work. I ended up stocking shelves at a liquor store. It was easy work and brought in a few bucks. I decided that I liked earning money and applied to work in a restaurant across the street from the liquor store to bring in some more cash an keep me out of the house.
DiMarco’s Italian restaurant. And yes, there was mafia influence there. I had no previous restaurant experience so I asked to wash dishes. A recent college grad washing dishes. It was work, and I was happy to do it. It didn’t require much intellectual thought and I really got along well with the chefs, waiters and other staff. I scraped food off dirty dishes, ran them through the machine, scrubbed pots and pans and cleaned the nasty grease covered mats.
So the mafia had their way with the restaurant and it closed about 6 months after I started working. I still had my job at the liquor store and I watched another restaurant move into DiMarco’s. One afternoon, after my shift at the liquor store, I walked over and spoke with the chef. Strangely enough, he agreed to hire me as a cold appetizer and bread maker. I would later work my way up to a pastry chef and then onto hot appetizers. It was an exciting time to be in the restaurant business. We served fusion cuisine and I was baking some great breads and desserts. Basically, the chef gave me a recipe and I followed it, he would tweak it a bit and then it would be added to the menu.
I’ve written about all the drug problems the chef had – which is the reason why I left the restaurant effectively ending my time in kitchen forever…but my years there (I believe I was there 2 years) shaped me in ways that the classroom never could. I dealt with a cocaine addicted chef – his brother –in-law, part owner of the restaurant – struggling to keep the place going – struggling to keeps the chef’s hands out of the cash drawer.
I dealt with the wait-staff who ran solely on cigarettes, coffee and alcohol. I dealt with alcoholic/drug addicted dishwashers. High school bus-staff – overly sexed.
Hostesses who found ways to slip tips into their purses, and bottles of wine into their cars. The place was incredible. I learned how to operate in an extremely high stress environment. I screamed at waitresses, called them demeaning names…then shared drinks with them at 2:30 in the morning. I learned to cook some of the best cakes and breads in my life. How to make and caramelize the perfect Crème brûlée. Homemade ice-cream in some of the most rich and exotic flavors. The chef gave me full creative control…on most occasions J
And then, as quickly as I walked into that place…I walked out. Actually, it was quicker. No Human Resources Department to deal with no paperwork to fill out – just a quick slip into the kitchen – avoid the chef, find his brother-in-law…and give him the news. I went back to get my pay a few days later…never picked up my recipe book or my CDs. I was young enough then and not tied to any real responsibilities which allowed me to just walk out of the place. It felt good…but at the same time, it’s dangerous. The restaurant business was like that – and I loved it…which is probably why I enjoyed Inn Essence. This is my second encounter with Lombreglia and I really like his blue-collar writing…at least that’s the best way I could describe it.
The dangerous freedom to behave as I did at the restaurant and to leave as I did is something that the particular job afforded me and that freedom is something that I would wish we all could experience.