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.

Holy Guacamole!

  Today was full of action and a day of new beginnings.

  Today was my first day at my second job.  I am now an official member of the restaurant industry working at a Mexican restaurant.  With a little conversation and input from me, it was decided I would start as a prep cook before moving on to the grill station.  Luckily in this restaurant, everyone learns pretty much every station so they can move back and forth effortlessly during lunch and dinner rushes.

  Immediately they threw a lofty task my way: turn 3 crates of avocados into guacamole.  After a brief tutorial on procedure and assembly, I put on my cut-proof glove (which resembled chain mail) and went to work on the hapless avocados.  After slicing I pitted and arranged them on giant sheet pans.  Then I scooped out the delicious innards into a bowl, mashed them about half way, added the carefully decided upon amount of red onion, cilantro, salt, jalapenos and lemon juice, then mashed them into a delicious and creamy consistency with a hand masher that was easily 3, maybe 4 feet long.  Then I portioned each single batch into 3 smaller batches, sprayed the top with lemon juice to prevent browning, topped with 2 layers of plastic wrap (one layer pressed flush against the surface of the guacamole) sealed with tape and wrote the date, AM or PM and initialed my name.  I then piled the nine batches that resulted into the walk in fridge where there seemed like barely enough room among the crates of meats, limes, cilantro, jalapenos and various salsas.  The restaurant was already filling with the intoxicating smells of slow roasted pork, chicken and beef.  About this time I took my lunch break.  It was 10:30 and the restaurant would be opening in 30 minutes.  All hands would be needed on deck when the customers starting piling in so the lunch and dinner breaks are usually taken early or late.

  Once the customers started to file in, I helped wash the dishes.  I would take a dish, rinse it, wash it, rinse it again, then submerge it in sanitizer before moving it to a drying rack.  My partner in grime spoke broken English to me while I spoke broken Spanish to her.  Through a series of gestures and motions we established a system that seemed pretty efficient, at least to me considering I had no professional restaurant experience.  Around this time I started to notice the sounds of the restaurant.  Normally music (fucking awesome music, at that) is played over the sound system so workers and patrons alike can enjoy the hip atmosphere.  I noticed that the music was completely drowned out at this point by marinated meats sizzling on the grill combined with the chatter of diners sitting all around.  I looked out of the kitchen porthole-style window.  A line of customers snaked around the perimeter of the dining room and all of the way out of the front door.  It was that sweet spot between 12:00 and 1:00.

  Next I ventured into the crowded dining room.  I wiped down the tables, stocked the napkins and forks, filled the ice dispenser, mopped up a spill and swept all of the errant debris that was collecting on the line behind all of my fellow workers.  Throughout the day, I did this 4 or 5 times.

  After a brief tutorial on bell pepper cutting and fast knife techniques, I set to dispatching a crate of peppers for fajitas.  I grabbed a crate of peppers from the walk in and noticed that half of the batches of guacamole I had made that morning were already gone.  In fact, the entire fridge seemed vacant compared to how I’d seen it that morning.  Strangers were eating something I had made!  I know it seemed like something small, but somehow it made me smile.  I took a blade off of the wall magnet, honed it a few times and tried to imitate the cuts I was shown.  I garnered a few positive comments (albeit in Spanish, but I understood enough to know that I wasn’t doing horrible) from my fellow coworkers.  Before I knew it, it was 4:00 PM and my shift was over.  I threw my apron into the trash bin (as is the custom – I might bring a few home and wash them in the washing machine if they are hardy enough to survive) and bid goodbye to everyone.  My manager (maybe in his late twenties) slapped me on the back and told me I had an awesome first day.  I began the one hour walk in the 90º F weather to my baby’s workplace feeling exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.

  It was the most physically (but not emotionally) demanding workday I had worked in a long time.  Between prepping 3 cases of avocados, emptying two bins of garbage and slicing a case of bell peppers, I developed aches and pains that I know will be amplified tomorrow while I’m trying to sell a custom frame to someone who has their head jammed far up their own ass and just happens to drop the little tidbit for the millionth time that they worked at an art gallery for four years, like I should give a fuck.  I am sore, I am beat and I am drained.  We worked hard and fast.  I didn’t have time to even sneak a smoke.  Everyone depended on one another and I soon learned the dance of moving past others in the kitchen while carrying a huge tray of prepped foods while avoiding a major collision.  It’s hard work.  A shit-ton harder than sitting behind a desk or standing behind a framing counter.  Would I do it again?  Abso-fucking-lutely.  Just a few hours at the job and I knew: THIS was what I was meant to do.  I immediately felt more comfortable in the restaurant than I had felt in the entire 3 weeks I had been working in the frame shop.  It didn’t even seem like work.  It was the fastest eight and a half hours of my life, and I can’t wait to do it again in another two days.

  During my walk I had a lot of time to think.  My other job in the frame shop is not boding very well.  The moods between the two jobs are like night and day.  They recently brought in a new store manager (one of four managers I have) that likes to yell at and demean people, especially a handicapped and particularly shy girl that I happen to admire.  Already I was told not to get comfortable at my restaurant job because of “big plans” that are in store for me.  Honestly, I don’t think I want any part of those plans.  Behind all of the product pushing and meeting quotas lurks a cadre of miserable workers – and it shows.  The mood is a feeling of downtrodden and defeated coworkers.  The shame is I really have come to admire the girls I work with in the frame shop and I feel that they like me.  I hate to ditch after 3 weeks of working there – though they know that food is my real passion.  It’s easy to say “Fuck you!” to a corporation, but the bonds you make with individuals are not so easily dismissed.  Either way, working two jobs and 60-70 hours a week nonstop is going to wear thin pretty quickly.  I know what I have to do, there is just no way for me to do it without feeling like a heel… especially after my awesome framing manager has been so kind to me.

  I will have to quit my framing job in the future.  For now, I will work both jobs in hope that I can devise a plan to leave that will allow me to sleep at night.

Chicago by way of Phoenix

  One of my mentors at my old job was a Chicago native.  Many times in our now-burned-to-the-ground office we would turn to talking about food as the day came to an end and our bellies started to growl.  Often he would wax nostalgic about the foods he used to take for granted that were no longer available in the southern U.S.  My mouth would water from the tales of the unique regional treatments of seemingly common foods.  A few weeks ago I passed an authentic Chicago sandwich shop as I was biking to the art store.  Remembering the stories I used to hear, I had to give it a try.

  Luke’s of Chicago is a family owned restaurant run by the Del Principe family and is located in a tiny shack.  They pride themselves with using the same recipes that were used in their Chicagoland restaurants over 40 years ago.  Bears posters, Mike Ditka autographs and photos of the Chicago river adorn the walls.  The restaurant smelled great and you could tell by the way conversation was flowing that most of the people in there were regulars.  I knew what I wanted without even reading the menuboard.  A man behind the counter grabbed a notepad to take my order.

“Whaddya want?” the man belted out.  I immediately recognized the accent and attitude as aggressively Chicagoan.

“I want one Italian beef with hot giardiniera and one Chicago dog all the way… two orders of fries and two drinks.”

With that, he turned around and put the order in to the kitchen.  After a short time, while I was explaining to Vess what I understood to be the intricacies of an authentic Chicago-style hot dog, our order was up.

“Thanks, pal. Come again.”

  His tone and curt manor probably had been misconstrued many times as rudeness.  I could tell he was really trying to be nice.  It was just that city living had made him speak more on the side of brevity.

  The sandwiches were soon eagerly unwrapped and cut in half.  I divvied up a half of each sandwich to Vess and me so we could see what each one tasted like.  I decided to try the Chicago dog first.

  For the uninitiated a Chicago dog all the way consists of this: an all beef dog nestled in a poppy-seed bun then covered with mustard, onions, a dill pickle, tomato, neon-green sweet pickle relish, sport peppers and a sprinkling of celery salt on top.  This is called being “dragged through the garden” and is the most traditional preparation.  I had ordered Chicago style dogs before from Sonic and Frank ‘n Stein.  Not that I am giving credence to a fast food restaurant’s ability to make authentic food (or anything else, for that matter) but I felt I knew what to expect.

  The first obstacle to enjoying this thing was trying to figure out how the hell to eat it.  It takes an inordinate amount of strategy to take a bite out of this sucker without condiments flying out of the opposite side.  Mostly, planning is futile and you end up picking scattered vegetables off of the paper and cramming them in your mouth with each successive bite.  After a brief consideration of plan of attack, I just said “fuck it” and dove straight in, opening my mouth as wide as I could manage.  My teeth hit the skin of the dog and it popped as my teeth passed through – a sure sign of a natural casing.  At that brief moment, I was sold.  There is so much going on with a Chicago dog: sweet, sour, beefy, fresh, pickled.  It’s really hard to describe because your taste buds are going apeshit trying to figure out what is happening.  I know all of the add-ons sound like overkill, but somehow they managed not to overpower the hotdog, which was of excellent quality and the single thing that made it worth eating.  Before I knew it, it was gone.  I suspected witchcraft.  Oh well, at least there was still the Italian beef sandwich to try.

  Again, I had eaten an Italian beef sandwich many times before at home.  Granted, it was a recipe that involved putting beef and broth in a crock pot, dumping in a jar of pickled peppers and letting it cook for a few hours… not very sexy, but I knew what to expect.

  Holy shit was I wrong.  This baby stunk up the room in the most delicious way possible when I unwrapped the paper.  I took a bite of the fresh Italian roll and it was dripping with quality.  The bread was crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside.  The beef was cooked medium and dripping with juices.  The acidity of the hot pepper giardiniera cut the richness of the beef making for a flawless combination.  It reminded me of eating the best French dip sub I had ever had.  I would even be tempted to put horseradish sauce on it but would fear physical harm for messing with tradition.This was one of those sandwiches that once you picked it up and took a bite, it would not touch the plate again.  I hastily tore through it and was picking scattered bits of beef up with my fingers in seconds flat.  I looked at the plate, once again trying to figure out where my sandwich had gone.  It was over too soon.  Then again, most good things are.

  In a city full of fusion restaurants, Luke’s was a nice pit stop.  Among the Italian pizza/taco shops and the Chinese/Mexican restaurants down the street where you get a platter with refried beans next to your sweet and sour chicken, it’s nice to see a restaurant that sticks with tradition.  I believe the recipes will continue to stand the test of time and I appreciate their effort to introduce people like me to something truly authentic.