WORKING IN KITCHENS DURING THE 60’S AND 70’S – PART III

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Frenchie the Butcher and Lloyd our Jamaican Sous Chef – 1971

During my three years as an apprentice at the Buffalo Statler Hilton Hotel I worked for two different executive chefs and three sous chefs. I had the opportunity to work in the butcher shop with Frenchie and bust out more chickens than I can remember, trim and tie prime ribs, cut strips from loins, and even try my hand at some flat fish. I spent a couple of months with Patsy, the pastry chef, and poached and peeled fresh Georgia peaches for his peche glace, and made a fair share of those famous Baked Alaska logs. A considerable amount of time was spent in Garde Manger building cheese platters, canapé displays, and cleaning hundreds of cases of lettuces. I did my time in banquets, as did everyone at the Statler and even finished my time as the lead line cook for the Beef Baron Restaurant. I never had the opportunity to work with the hotels saucier – this was his domain and he NEVER shared any of his techniques.

Keep in mind that things were different back then. There were no Robot Coupe food processors, Vita mix blenders, combi-ovens, convective steamers, immersion blenders, Pacojets, sous vide circulators, or slow cook ovens. We worked with fire and steam – ovens were on or off, flat tops were the center of the kitchen, and aside from a Buffalo chopper and Hobart mixer (the one with a clutch) – everything was done by hand.

I have more stories than I can list in this series of articles, but here is the Cliff Notes version of a few:

[]         I remember a steak function for something like 800 guests – all with selected degrees of doneness in advance. I’m not sure that I would ever take on a function of this type myself, but to Chef Rocky Pecoraro (the second chef I worked with at the Statler) the challenge was exciting. The two days before the event Rocky had a pot washer standing on the island of 12 flattops scrubbing them down with course sandpaper and polishing them with steel wool. On the day of the function these flat tops were cranked up till the centers were cherry red. All of the steaks were oiled and seasoned and then seared on the twelve flat tops. Flames were leaping six inches above the top of the stoves as we seared the steaks on both sides and then lined them up on end (fat side down) in roasting pans designated as rare, medium rare, medium, and well done. At the right time these pans would be pushed into deck ovens for finishing to the right degree of doneness.

The fat from the steaks combined with oil and seasoning dripped under the flat tops and continued to burn for hours. Two dishwashers stood by with fire extinguishers for hours keeping the flames at bay. I am not sure how the Ansul system failed to kick in, but I guess the chef was either lucky or maybe he even disengaged the system without letting us know.

Everything went well except the chef-miscounted steaks prior to cooking and we wound up with dozens of extras cutting into any small level of profitability from the event. The chef went from elation to self-directed anger at his mistake.

[]         In 1972, my last few months at the Statler, a special guest rented an entire floor of the hotel. Elvis Presley was scheduled to play at the Auditorium downtown and he made the Statler his home base for a few days before. No one had access to his floor except his bodyguards, housekeeping, and room service. In the basement of the hotel was a rarely use smaller banquet space that was converted into his rehearsal room – so Elvis could be heard throughout the kitchen at various times during the day.

On one occasion while I was working the evening line by myself, a room service order came down for the king. He wanted poached eggs. Pleased to have the opportunity to cook for the star I did my best-poached eggs. He sent them back twice and at that moment I decided to no longer be an Elvis fan.

[]         One day when I arrived at work the chef called me into his office and said that I would not be working at my normal station, but rather cooking in a small ancillary kitchen adjacent to the ballroom. As it turned out I was cooking separately for the Vice President of the United States – Spiro Agnew. I was honored at first until the chef told me that I was the only cook on shift who passed the Secret Service review. Everyone else had some type of shady past. I cooked food that was purchased separately by the Secret Service and did so as they watched my every step.

[]         One evening when the hotel was very quiet and the restaurant even more so, I was again the only person on the line and only accompanied by a person in garde manger and the pot washer. That night the fog was pea soup thick in Buffalo and as a result the airport was closed. In those days the airlines actually tried to take care of passengers and paid for nearly 200 people to spend the night at the Statler with dinner included. Our dining room went from a few guests to a 2-hour wait for tables. I have no idea what I served that night or how I managed to get meals out – I do remember, however, two things quite vividly:

  • I cut the tip of my thumb off on a meat slicer and wrapped it so that I could continue to work.
  • The maitre’d who was a nice guy, but very intimidating because of his height and build came to the line a few times starting with: “Chef I have a question…” I responded that I was too busy. He followed up again with the same response from me. The third time he asked I responded: “You can take your question and stick it up your ass!” He calmly walked behind the line, picked me up by my shirt and pressed me against the wall. He cocked his fist, but them had a change of heart and let me drop to the floor. I think in that moment I saw my life flash before my eyes. I shook it off and somehow went back to cooking.

Painted in Waterlogue

I am sure that the food in the Beef Baron that night was horrible and would             bet that some never received their meal, but we got through it. From that point on I tried to think about what I was going to say to people before I opened my mouth.

[]         I remember making hollandaise for a party of 300 in a 40-quart Hobart mixer with a sterno underneath as the only source of heat. It actually worked although you need to use almost twice as many egg yolks.

[]         I worked with a dishwasher crew who were somehow all related, shared one car, talked to themselves all the time, laughed without any apparent reason, but who always showed up to work and got the job done.

[]         I worked on a New Year’s Eve when at the end of the night the chef thought it was a good idea to have an open bar in his office for all of the cooks who worked a double shift. Bad idea.

[]         I remember cooks on the line in the summer getting a beer ration at the beginning of their shift – the logic was that you would sweat it off anyway.

[]         I recall taking my first few stabs at ice carving as the sous chef told me to come in on my own time if I wanted to learn. This is how passionate cooks who wanted to grow went about the job.

[]         I worked for an Austrian, an Italian and a Jamaican. I worked with a French butcher, an Italian pastry chef, a Portuguese saucier, Jamaican and Ecuadorian garde mangers, Russian and Polish servers, African American line cooks, alcoholics, hard-nosed veterans, those who were depressed and those who were eternally happy (could have been a variety of reasons). I learned that in the kitchen we are all equal and once dedicated to the requirements of the work are brothers and sisters of the kitchen.

[]         On a ordinary day in my final year at the Statler I arrived at work and as I was passing Frenchie boning out a leg of veal he looked at me and simply said “Big Guy – dead”. Don the banquet chef, the father of ten kids, the overweight crusty cook who never complained about the insane hours he worked, and the person who could drink more than anyone else I had ever seen had a stroke in his sleep and passed away the night before. No one said much of anything that day – there was no celebration of his life, no memorial service, no speech from the chef – just silence. I was never sure if it was the alcohol, the excessive weight, the stress of ten kids, or the grueling requirements of his job – more than likely Don’s demise was a combination of all of the above. We all mourned Don’s passing in our own way and likely wondered what his life might have been like outside of the kitchen.

[]         Finally, there was the time that I was serving a small banquet on the second floor and called down to the line cooks to pull the dessert from the freezer and send it up on the service elevator. After waiting far too long and not having anyone answer the phone I ran down the stairs to see what was going on. When I arrived in the kitchen the hood was on fire from overheated fat in the deep fryers. Flames were shooting up through the ductwork. The fire department arrived and put the fire out in short order but the restaurant had to be closed that night, the kitchen was a mess from an activated Ansul system, and guests had been evacuated for a hour or so – waiting on the streets of Buffalo until the fire department gave the all clear.

Oh, by the way, I didn’t call the chef who was off that day because he told me to never call him on his day off unless the place burned down. Hmmm..he was not very happy the next day.

I enjoyed my time at the Statler and learned a great deal – much of which I never would have been exposed to anywhere else. Even though I had worked in restaurants since I was 15 and even did so while going to college, it was my time at the Statler that really gave me a taste of the business.

**In the final chapter of this series I will present the value of working in large properties and how every cook, in route to becoming a chef, would benefit from these experiences.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

Restaurant Consulting and Training

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