Poached

poaching an egg

Not the act of cooking something in a hot liquid – but rather, the act of stealing someone away from another restaurant with the offer of better things.  I had read about the act of poaching crew members away from restaurants in a few of my Bourdain books.  Apparently it happens a lot.

*  The names of restaurants have been omitted to protect the scheming *

  My general manager brought up the idea of me becoming a kitchen manager about a month ago.  I wasn’t so keen on the idea because I knew what it entailed.  There’s a lot of delegation and a lot less of the hands-on activities that us grunts come to expect in a restaurant.  Sure there is better pay but I have come to love the feeling of satisfaction at the end of a physically strenuous day.  I really love working with food – not telling other people to work with food.

  After a few weeks of coaxing I finally relented, but I was completely honest with my intentions.  If my house sold I would be moving to a different apartment and going back to school.  My GM consented and my kitchen manager training started immediately.  I started to learn how to take inventories, prepare truck orders and deploy crew members.  I’m learned how to keep the walk-in well stocked until our next shipments come in and how to arrange the kitchen so that it is neat, clean and effective – pretty much all of the things you would expect in a KM position.  Soon after it was decided that instead of my training taking 4-6 months, they would try to rush me through in 2 months.  It is a lofty expectation and not one that I was particularly fond of.

  After a week or so my 22-year-old GM pulls me into the office to tell me he has received an offer to be a consultant at several up-and-coming restaurants and bars located at the inner harbor.  Some of them were ultra-modern cuisine, some were comfort food – but all were very nice and located in a prime tourist area.  They are all owned by the same family and they basically wanted to steal him away.  He gave them a ridiculously high number that he said would be necessary for him to quit his job.  It was a salary that was double what I was payed even at my best job.  Though I admired his guts, I laughed at his asking price.  Then he surprised me with a question.

“Would you like to go with me if I left?”

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“The pay would be better and you would be working in a bigger and better environment.”

“We’ll see.” I rationalized, “They haven’t even responded to your pay request.”

  Apparently my GM mentioned me in negotiations and the restaurant owner had been secretly spying on me as I worked.  I felt flattered, but was pretty sure his deal would never materialize.

  Then, on the same day, two unthinkable things happened.

  They approved his salary and we sold our house.

  At this point I started rethinking my plan.  Should I put school off and work a job where my connections and friendships with an expanding company will provide me with solid connections, or should I go to culinary school while working part-time on the side in hopes that it will be worth it.  I haven’t found the proper ratio of “who you know” to “what you know.”  Either way, I couldn’t stay where I was.

  Skip ahead to present day.  After a 2 weeks notice, a few interviews and a lot of sad goodbyes later, this week is my first week at the new restaurant.  Already I see many changes that are going to have to happen to bring everything up to snuff.  It’s going to be a lot of hard work.  My schedule includes three days of working until 3 AM, the drive is 40 minutes one way on a good day and the parking is $2 an hour, but hopefully it will all be worth it.

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The Hunger Blames

 If you watch Food Network for any length of time you’ll see those commercials for feeding starving children.  You know the ones.  A child actor with puppydog-eyes and a brown smudge of makeup carefully painted on his cheek stares longingly into the camera.  A celebrity voice questions while a tear rolls down the little boy’s cheek.

“Where will he find his next meal?”

  How can you watch and not feel guilty?  I usually have to look away in shame, disgusted that I overindulged in food earlier that night.  It’s almost as heartbreaking as watching those tear-jerking ASPCA commercials. (I still can’t watch those without bawling like a little baby.)

  Restaurants have a lot of leftover food at the end of the day.  I mean A LOT.  Luckily at work, we donate to an organization that distributes food to hungry people.  It’s a pain-in-the-ass prepping and getting the food from point A to B but it’s all for a good cause.

  The food has to be cooked.  This makes plenty of sense.  The last thing a charity worker wants to worry about while driving from restaurant to restaurant on a hot day is a case full of raw meat spoiling in the back of his van… not to mention the smell that could arise.  The food can’t be too old either.  A day or two is ok.  Nothing is wrong with the food.  It’s just not super fresh.  I’ve seen food thrown out that I easily would have hung on to for a few more days in my home fridge, but it’s good to see such strict standards.  It must also be weighed and logged.  Paperwork is a must here in case the source needs to be determined and so all of the food is accounted for, distributed equally and so on.  Proper storage is important as well.  Everything must be stored in containers, (usually our deep metal pans that we already don’t have enough of) securely wrapped and stored in our walk-in fridge.  An entire section of our walk-in is set aside for this purpose.  Real estate is at a premium in the walk-in since we don’t freeze anything but, in this case, the end definitely justifies the means.  I mean, we could be saving lives here!  It makes me feel good that less food is wasted.

  I noticed the next day that the food was still safely and efficiently stored, soon to have a new home in a starving belly.

and it was there the day after that

and the day after that

A week passed and it was well beyond the point of donation.  I walked into the kitchen as my manager was cursing and emptying the containers into a huge trash bin.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The fuckers never showed.”

That’s right.  The only thing that kept the food from getting to starving bellies was that the organization simply never came – the same organization that brags about how they are fighting hunger by collecting food from area restaurants.  I watched as organic beans, rice, hormone-free beef, chicken and pork were dumped into the trash – roughly 100 lbs worth.  Multiply this by the fact that there are 7 other locations of my restaurant within 10 miles of us.  Multiply again by the fact that our chain is not the only one that the charity collects from.  What is this charitable organization?  I won’t say – but it is a HUGE one… and nationwide.

  They are supposed to pick up food twice a week.  Turns out, they come about once every two weeks.  Whenever they do show it takes all I have not to spit on them.

  I’m sure there are organizations that do what they are supposed to do but I can only speak of my experiences.

  Now, when I see the commercials with the child actor with a trust fund wearing clothes that were carefully scuffed with sandpaper and pretending to be hungry I still feel disgust.

  It’s just not with myself anymore.

Memory Loss

  During my short time as an expert framer at Hell’s art store there were many negatives.  One of the positives that I never mentioned was the perks – the perks being that I could take home whatever was to be thrown away.  I picked up a nifty shot glass display case that was to be trashed because it was missing the glass on the front.  Hey, that’s ok with me – it makes them easier to access!  I also snagged two shadow boxes that are currently residing in the back of our closet.  Whatever was damaged out what fair game.

   One day I was in the frame shop when my manager (the one I actually liked) walked in carrying an envelope that is sent out after a piece of art has been left at the store for more than 90 days.  The letter informs the customer that if they don’t pick up their framed piece, it will be destroyed.

“Well, we know now why Mr. So-and-so didn’t come pick up his picture.”

  I looked up as she held out the envelope.  In big letters scrawled in pen on the side it read, “DECEASED”.

“Damn,” I said, “That’s depressing.”

The picture was pulled from the rack and put on a table to be thrown out.  I looked at the receipt.  He had payed over 300 dollars for this piece to be framed.

“Is there someway we can contact the next-of-kin or something?” I asked.

“Do you know how many (common surname here)’s there are in Baltimore county?”

  She was right.  We had called and sent letters.  There wasn’t much else we could do.  curiosity getting the better of us, we unwrapped the brown paper to see what the piece was before its date with the compactor.  It was an original watercolor of a woman holding her baby.

  I looked a little closer under the signature and noticed a date.

1914.  This thing was almost 100 years old.  Who knows how long this piece had been in the customer’s family.  I was informed that any of us were more than welcome to take it, otherwise it would be chucked in the bin.  Despite the offer, we all declined because of how morbid it seemed.  It’s like robbing a grave or something.

  A few days went by and the picture stayed on that table.  It seemed no one wanted to escort it to the execution chamber.  It was the elephant in the room.  Everyone saw it, but just ignored it in hopes that it would just go away.  Late one night I strangely found myself thinking about it without even realizing it.

  This was one of the last things an old man did before passing into the aether.  He had brought the painting down to the shop, picked out the frame, had it double matted and picked out the very best glass.  It was important to him… and as soon as someone got the balls enough to do it, it was going to be lost forever.  I refused to let that happen.

  I took it home the next day.

  I often find myself staring at it, wondering who the mother and child is.  I also wonder who the old man was and what significance the picture had to him.  It’s strange that I think so much about someone I never even met, but it seems… I don’t know, important somehow.  It’s a legacy.  It’s a small part of what he left behind – a part that his family can’t enjoy.  I felt obligated to share it here.

  In the off-chance that anyone reading this recognizes the art and can give me the name of the gentleman, I will gladly send the piece to you for free.  Until then, the mystery fascinates me.