Pride cometh before the green van…

I have never been a political man. In fact, I don’t give a shit whose in what office at what time so long as I can get beef short ribs and veal bones delivered in time to finish the three-day preparations that lead to each weekend. If someone were to get in the way of that happening perhaps I might take a stand for or against said person. Until that happens, fuck em! I think their all a bunch of bullshit artists and we would be well served to shake out the whole system and re-boot. Hmm…I guess that may have been a bit of a political statement in and of itself. Well, truth be told, I have no fear of displaying my contrast in opinion and warped sense of fair play, political or not. Hell, I’m the asshole that orders three double cheeseburgers with Mayo, a large order of fries and diet Coke. If that’s not contrast I don’t know what is. This little intro is an attempt to lull you into a state of open-mindedness before I open the can of hotbed debate I intend to discuss. The topics of which I speak are that of fevered and passionate opinion. I, for one have one of those opinions. In fact, I go as far as to have two opinions on the same dangerously polarizing debates. The subjects I am referring to are illegal labor and use of the English language

I hear a collective gasp as I utter the mere words. Good! This needs to come out. I will not continue to ignore the elephant in the room as we all turn our heads the other way. I have been in my business and operating at a very high level for twenty-five years. During that time, I’ve seen a virtual parade of co-workers, bosses, underlings etc pass by as I made my descent to my current perch in an industry in which I consider myself somewhat accomplished. As I look back over the years, I can see vividly many of the people I encountered. I can also see the extreme diversity of the fabric of which the restaurant industry is woven. Black, white, Latino, Asian you name it, we got it. This is not a racist industry to say the least. We do however, have an amazing ability to turn our heads, in an almost Linda Blair-like, 360 degree pivot. Especially when it comes to the subject at hand. “How dare you”? you ask, how can we not? Is my only response. As an industry we employ nearly 15 million people with an estimated 600 billion in gross revenue. Those are staggering numbers relating to an industry built on the backs of cast-offs, disregarded ex-whoever’s and soon-to-be actors, musicians, lawyers etc…How else would we be expected to fill the countless positions that need filling in order to feed everyone if not by turning our heads to certain less than helpful and all together useless hiring guidelines?

If we, as an industry, adhered to all of these guidelines set forth by our oh-so-concerned and well-meaning governmental officials… guess what? You would be enjoying a lovely meal on dirty plates in a filthy restaurant with disgusting bathrooms and kitchens served to you by… well, NOBODY! There is not a chance in hell that we would be able to pull of this minor miracle without the employment of an illegal workforce. I have made great efforts over the years to hire ANYONE willing to work provided they were able to perform the tasks at hand. I also made numerous attempts to hire only those that were actual citizens or legal residents of the United States. These attempts amounted to, much like my countless failed relationships, nothing more than frustration, disappointment and sorrow. My industry does not, by our own admission, have the highest entry-level pay scale. In our defense we also have one of the thinnest profit margins known to man. This is not an exaggeration nor is it a complaint. I make a very good living doing what I do and it is no more difficult or taxing on me then on any other hard-working person that strives for success. That being said, the challenges are many and the bulk of them rest in the staffing process.

You may or may not have noticed that there are precious few advertisements for schools actively recruiting students to learn the treasured art of dish washing. Or, for that matter, line cooking or table busing. There is no shortage however, of ads in the media that inspire one to become a CHEF. So what does this mean you ask. It means that we are a top-heavy industry filled with too many generals and not enough soldiers! Have you ever tried to lead a group of know- it-alls in one direction? It’s like a bunch of monkeys trying to gently hump a football. This is what it’s like trying to govern a group of people in a restaurant that all have years of experience in various operations that have as many differences as they do similarities. That is to say, there are as many bullshit culinary and hospitality management schools out there as there are assholes to run them and they are filled with as many liabilities to my staff as they are assets. If I had to rely on these balloon-headed goofballs to run my business I would put a gun in my mouth. This leaves me with precious few options in regards to staffing. What about seniors and part-time students you ask. Well, my grandmother is 85 my father is 66 and my cousin is 17. I love and respect them all but I promise you, they are not going to be the savior of this industry. This is not a part-time, kinda, sorta type of gig. If you work with me you do just that, you WORK! I don’t have the time nor the inclination to deal with bullshit requests for nights or weekends off for prom, cigar tastings or surgical procedures so that leaves Gram, Pops and Cuz out of the running for future employment.

This leaves me with a distinct and very willing segment of society from which to harness my work force. This segment is made up of every ethnicity and education level known. However, for the purposes of this blog and in an attempt to be a true reflection of my experiences thus far, I will be writing about a specific ethnicity. If I were in New York it would be people from Peru, Cuba and Brazil but we are not in New York we are in Chicago. Therefore, the people to whom I am referring are of Mexican descent. I will state for the record, that I have no racial bias of any kind. I don’t give a damn if you’re black, white, brown, purple or green. If you can do the work you can have the  job. But if you say you can do the work and can’t… look out! I will flush you out, likely in the middle of dinner service, relieve you of your duties, remove your still beating heart and send you on your way home with a hole in your chest and a large bite mark on your ass. That’s just the way it is, I do not apologize for it nor do I have any remorse because this is how you are able to have a consistently excellent meal and experience in  my restaurant on every single visit. Trust me, it’s better to not know all the details about how that sausage is made, simply thank me and push on…..     You’re welcome.

Now then, let it be said that I do not hire busboys and dishwashers to remain as such. I hire on the basis that I expect these new additions to grow and mature and eventually become more keystone staff members such as cooks and waiters. I believe very strongly in promoting from within. It is much more effective to elevate the status and position of an already existing employee then to embark upon a needle in a haystack search for America’s next top waiter. By following such practices, I often times find myself face to face with a newly formed, albeit fledgling, ego. This is clearly a monster of my own creation so I have nobody to blame but myself. Sometimes I move too quickly and if the person in question has the IQ of the average man or woman but the emotional maturity of my 4-year-old niece…well you get the picture. Such was the case with my dear friend Hector.

Hector worked with my brother and I at Le Francais so I knew he had the chops to make it with me here in Winnetka.   When one of the waiters heard through the Mexican Mafia that Hector was a free agent, I snatched him up. He hit the ground running three years ago and we were very pleased with his performance. Until…que the Dragnet music, I decided to move Hector into a back waiter position from his current position as busboy. In retrospect I see this was a mistake but you can’t get wet unless you jump in the water so, caution to the wind, I proceed as planned. It did not take long for Hector to become a complete jagoff toward both me and the rest of the staff. This happened incrementally but consistently over a period of months but it was easy to detect and needed constant adjusting. If not, this type of thing grows like a cancer and must be removed completely so as not to infect the rest of the team. Fast forward six months to a week ago Friday.

We are all humming along like a well-oiled machine preparing for a sold out evening that I was certain would yield great revenues and a dining room filled with the contentment of both staff and guests. This assumption was a slight misjudgment on my part as I was about to pull the string that would unravel the fucking sweater of my evening.  It’s 6:30 and the house is full, kitchen is busy and stressed but pumping each course out nicely as they most often do. The dining room is limping a bit as the same amount of pressure applied evenly to kitchen staff and wait staff has a dramatically different result. To illustrate, most dining room staffs are a bunch of fucking whiney bitches and they often times cry out as if being stretched on the rack when they have only experienced a skinned knee. Buncha slack jaw sissies! Actually, the team I have in the dining room at Restaurant Michael is, I will say without a moment’s hesitation, the finest I have ever had as a group in one restaurant. These people make a great living, work hard and effectively and rarely miss a beat. They are well led by Dan my Maitre d’ and sprinkled throughout with just the right amount of youth, experience, energy and charm. Quite a combo and it makes us a formidable adversary for any restaurant in Chicago I’m proud to say. And then there was the Hector situation.

I am at the pass between the hot line and the waiters as I often am in the beginning of a busy evening. This allows Miguel, my Chef de cuisine, the ability to shore up any weakness in preparedness on each station before coming to relieve me of my expediting duties before I say or do something that will in short order, derail the service and send us off onto a rocky road. Miguel will quickly right the ship but not before blood is spilled do to the less then delicate insensitivity of the namesake of the restaurant, Me. I have been asking, no begging, for the dining room and kitchen to communicate with each other and more importantly with me in English for about the past six months. I know this will make everyone on the staff a little uncomfortable but I also know that if they work on it, they will become better employees and will be of better service to my guests.

Now mind you, I’m not asking for a dissertation or a fucking verbal thesis on the beauty and virtue of the English language. A few choice, key phrases and sentences will do, especially to start. I couldn’t even get that. It began to piss me off a few months ago and I discussed it with Dan and with a few other key staffers able to converse fluidly in both Spanish and English. A skill by the way, I do not myself, have. However, this is, and I say this knowing full well how much of a trigger statement it is, AMERICA! I have a prominently Latino Staff and the ones that make the most money and are most comfortable at work speak English. I did not make this rule. I am also not about to add to my list of responsibilities in running this business, the need to learn fluent Spanish. I learned long ago that I do not have the capacity to do so. Why the fuck would I put that on my plate as well? I have, over the years, become quite well versed in the art of “Spanglish” the adopted Spanish/English hybrid language of the kitchen. I am able to direct traffic on each station, recognize when I’m being called a fat fuck in multiple dialects and when someone is speaking poorly of my Mother in one of the various popular slang, God bless their hearts. I am also able to sling back the same good-natured (and vulgar) insults and banter but I am in no way able to converse with a persons Latino Grandma without sending her away offended and in tears. On this fine Friday it all came to a head.

Hector walks into the kitchen with another bus person behind him and they are speaking casually to each other in Spanish about a table and its needs in the dining room. I hear this and a vein pops out of my forehead as I spin around and in a disturbingly calm voice ask “I thought I asked you guys to speak English in this restaurant while we are in service” Hector responds abruptly to my statement with one of his own. I will paraphrase here since I cannot be sure of each word since, at that point, my ears began to bleed from the pressure of holding in the rage that was about to be unleashed. It was something to this effect as was later confirmed by Miguel. “This is my language and it is the one I will use!” Well I’ll be dipped in shit! The gloves are now clearly off so I dive in.

“FUCK YOU! YOU DICK! (again, I paraphrase) I ASKED THAT WE SPEAK ENGLISH IN THIS RESTAURANT DURING SERVICE AND THAT’S THE WAY IT’S GOING TO BE! IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE AND TAKE EVERYONE THAT AGREES WITH YOUR IGNORANT ASS WITH YOU. THIS IS NOT SOME FILTHY LITTLE BAR IN DURANGO ASSHOLE. 

Granted, my delivery may be perceived as less than sensitive perhaps even, dare I say, a bit harsh. I love everyone on my staff a great deal and would (and have) done anything that I could to help them. Including, but not limited to, finding them an attorney, lending money, a place to live,(often times in my home), gifts for their children for special occasions, paid time off for family events and holidays… the list goes on. I do these things as much for myself as for them. It makes me happy to help and I feel good about myself when I have the chance to do so. If you ask for the shirt off my back I will happily give it to you along with any money in the pockets. If you attempt to take the shirt off my back I will stab you. That is the way it is. It’s a philosophy that may not be delicate and politically correct but it has served me well over the years and I will continue on as such.

Suffice it to say that Hector walked out in a huff in the middle of service that night taking another weak-minded bus person with him. I’m sure the whole time thinking “this will really fuck him, that fat prick” (in Spanish of course) In reality, he and the other idiot that walked out blindly with him were replaced in about twelve hours. This is after I was encouraged to call him and apologize for my insensitivity to his misunderstood plight. (Please insert hysterical laughter here….) I have this to say, when I have traveled to other countries, which I’ve done many times, I was expected to at the very least, attempt to communicate in that countries native tongue. I did so, poorly might I add, but I tried. I then came home and spoke the language with which I was raised. I am not, in any way, implying that I am smarter or more clever than anyone else, I just know that there are certain, non-negotiable truths in any society. The most basic of those truths is that if you refuse to even attempt to communicate in the language of the land then you will be judged and challenged on a regular basis by those that do. That’s it. There is no more to say on this point. It cannot be argued, it is fact. I am not saying it’s right or wrong, it simply is what it is.

To be honest, I will miss Hector. He was a decent kid and he had a pretty good way about him. I do however, feel a great sense of relief since his departure. The rest of the dining room has picked up the slack and have begun to train the new additions to the staff as I have requested, in English. I actually love the Spanish language, I find it romantic and filled with rhythm and an almost song like quality. I think I will begin to speak it on a regular basis when, that is, I move to fucking Mexico!

Advertisements

Ya know what else is organic?

Certified organic. The term has taken on a life of its own. Let’s begin with the Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word Organic…..the yield of a food stuff produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin, without the employment of  chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides. That’s it, nothing more. It certainly implies a great deal based on what we think we know, however, nowhere in that definition do I read the words “more healthful” “better tasting” “nicer to look at” OR, and this is a biggie, “planet protecting”. That’s all the word means is CHEMICAL FREE. That’s it. Does this mean it is better for us across the board? My contention is No. Ya know what else is organic? Horse shit! I don’t see a line around the block waiting for a plate full of it to cure what ails us so please, indulge me as I push on. I do not confuse organic with locally grown or sustainable so don’t fall into that trap. These are all different concepts that can stand alone or together but are mutually exclusive to each other. So, that being said, I do not wish to recieve a disertation from anyone in respose to this entry regarding either of those other two concepts I just mentioned. I agree and support both of them whenever it is fiscally responsible and possible to do so. So relax.

I have a couple of basic problems with the entire organic movement.

PROBLEM NUMBER ONE:

It has become, through strategic and very targeted marketing, a complete bastardization of what it set out to be. Much like “All Natural” has. But that’s another blog all together….. The movement began quite innocently.  A group of hairy legged, tree hugging, Birkenstock-wearing hippies decided to stick it to “the Man” and grow their own food without the use of dangerous chemicals and additives. Great concept, tough implementation, but admirable none the less. Then, the corporate America assholes got involved and found the ability to charge four times the cost of non-organic product with the use of fear mongering. A very popular tactic used by many powerful people to control others and influence their thinking with made-up bullshit. When the organic craze began to gain steam I was fully on board. My nieces and nephews were being born and I didn’t have any intention of feeding them chemical laden food in MY RESTAURANT damn it! At that point Restaurant Michael was in the developmental stage nearly 8 eight years ago and I was killing time. I was working for an all organic food company, hell-bent on changing the world of processed food one artificial ingredient at a time. I was their R&D Chef and had a great deal of power regarding the flavor profile of each item we were to put into production. It was a great distraction from what had developed into what had amounted to a fart in a space suit at Le Francais with our piece of shit, dishonest partner. I forget his name….some Leprechaun looking fuck if I remember correctly.

 Anyway, I digress. I was also charged with the responsibility of researching new and exciting ingredients with which to work in order to set our product apart from other, more established producers of similar concepts. I needed to find a way to make them better, tastier, and more visually appealing. In order to do so, I had two choices. One was to conceptualize an all new, never before seen food product. Plant or breed it, harvest the fruits of that process, bring it to market and get an organic certifying body to mark it with their stamp of approval. Fat chance of that happening. We already have a supreme being that creates these things (whatever that being may be in your belief) and they happen to, in my opinion, be doing a pretty strong job of it. My second option was quite a bit less ambitious albeit infinitely more achievable, or so I thought. Find products, animal, vegetable or otherwise that have accomplished the lofty goal of becoming organically certified. Sounds much easier to me. Well, I was fucking wrong! As it turns out, I had a better chance of taking the reins from the big guy upstairs and developing a new fruit, vegetable or animal on my own then creating a full recipe list of ingredients that were 100% organic.

But wait! As it turns out you don’t have to have an entire list of ingredients that meet 100% organic certification status. You are allowed, as a producer of certified organic product, a certain percentage of non-organic items in your ingredient list. In order to have the right to legally label your product USDA ORGANIC you must have a list of ingredients that is 95% organically certified. That means ingredients that are 100% organically certified on your sub-list for the label must make up 95% of that labels content. What the Hell? That last statement is  right? You see, there are two completely separate certifications the USDA has regarding the term organic. One is Certified Organic” and the other is “100% Certified Organic”

In my opinion, this is fucked! By definition, the process and resulting effects are mis-leading and fundamentally dishonest. In addition to this slight of hand bullshit there is yet a third classification thrown into the mix. If a product contains at least 70% organic ingredients it has, by law, the right to use the words “made with organic ingredients”  in its title and/or description. Provided they do not allow the word organic to stand alone on the label nor are they allowed to use the USDA ORGANIC seal. This all sounds just lovely. It seems the government is finally looking out for us. Come on? Really? Is that what you think? Consider this. Why, if all food items marketed as organic are capable of holding one of three (3) certifications, are they allowed to be displayed together in one area of the store? Why are there not three separate areas depending on the certification the specific item holds? Do we not have the right to know if the producers of products we are purchasing for upwards of double the cost, are being true to their word in regards to their sales pitch? Of course we do! But who governs this marketing loophole? Nobody, that’s who. Walk around the grocery store, any grocery store, and tell me if you see a separate section for each of these three types of organic certification. It is simply implied that everything in that section is “Organic”. The organic food producer is not allowed to use overtly non-organic items such as chemicals, pesticides and the like. However, they are allowed to use items from organically certified farms.

This leads me to PROBLEM NUMBER TWO:

An organically certified farm has to, in order to achieve that status, jump through several USDA implemented “hoops”. The primary hoop of interest is that the land from which certified organic product will be derived must be purged for a number of years. (At least three years is the average but it varies) In addition to this purging or purification time, the organic farmer must adhere to the all of the definitions set forth by the governing body. Many of which are found in the definition I laid out in the first paragraph but are not limited to that definition. And of course there are fees. Shocking! A fee is applied to all that wish to make profit in this country so why would the organic farmers be exempt from this uniquely American tradition?

Okay, the farm has done everything it needs to do in order to achieve its coveted certification. It begins, after years of zero yield due to the required purge time, to harvest product. A couple of years pass and over the course of those years a funny thing happened on a pretty regular basis. The fucking wind blew! Well what do you think that accomplished? If you said cross-pollination you would be correct! You win the prize. What is the prize you ask? Non-organic, organic food of course. Let me explain. It is NOT a law that an organic farm must be located in proximity to other organic farms in order to achieve its certification. That means an organically certified farm can and often times is, located near non-organic farms. In fact, it can be surrounded on all sides by non-organic farms! The Hell you say! No really, the fucking wind blows pollen from farm to farm and just like that you now have cross pollinated, non-organic product that is, for all intents and purposes, undetectable by the human eye–a pair of those eyes, by the way, every consumer happens to have. This is so much of an issue that a major seed producing company has stepped in with a fleet of attorneys in order to force their genetically modified seed down the throat of every farm they can find that doesn’t already use it. I won’t mention the name of this company for fear that I may find my big ass next to Jimmy Hoffa in a genetically modified corn field in Indiana. That said, Fuck em’ come and get me, I could use a break!

And finally PROBLEM NUMBER THREE;

This is where the rubber meets the road in my opinion regarding the separation and definition of ORGANIC vs. LOCALLY GROWN vs. SUSTAINABLY FARMED. Locally grown and sustainably farmed are concepts that are by no stretch of the imagination new. They are simply hot button buzz words that illicit a response. The response these buzz words gleen is one filled with well intended and all together misguided energy that forces, in a wave, the public perception to well up and overtake common sense. “Farm to Plate” also pisses me off. This concept is not new. It’s what you are supposed to do. Plant it, harvest it, eat it. How is this a new concept? Anyone with a backyard garden does this annually. 

Supporting our local farmers and the responsible, sustainably farmed products they produce is a noble and admirable concept–one that I support and get behind fully. That being said, in the heart of a Chicago winter, would someone please tell me where I may find a locally grown, sustainably farmed head of lettuce or for that matter, any delicate produce defined by seasonality and growing region. We don’t stop eating salads in January do we? Believe me, if you look hard enough you WILL find these things but the resulting cost and ultimate flavor of these out of season, nonindigenous products will be lackluster at best. Not to mention nutritionally speaking, void of the merits for which they are marketed. So, what this boils down to is simple. We are only able to support local and sustainably farmed produce and animal products when the season of a particular area in which we live allows us to do so.

I have always contended that any Chef that has Asparagus on their menu in October is a fool. Well, I am now one of those fools. I have asparagus still coming into the restaurant that is thin, tender and flavorful. Where is it coming from? Not Elgin and not Rockford……Nope. California. Yep, that’s right, California. The origin of the asparagus on my menu to date has shifted from Michigan and other growing areas in close proximity to Chicago to a source of, you guessed it, a sustainably grown farm in Napa Valley. Am I wrong to take advantage of the fact that these asparagus are every bit as good if not better than the ones I was able to get from local farms in the area during the local growing season? And by the way, did I mention the price is 1/3 less for the California stuff I’m getting now vs. the local stuff I got in June?  My profit and loss statement doesn’t think so. Did I also mention that these asparagus are, like many items on my menu, ORGANIC and grown chemically free? Just without the benefit of a stamp of approval from the government. It comes off as lazy and unimaginative to allow a product that is not in peak season to appear on a menu in a respected restaurant such as mine right? On the contrary.

 I will, I promise, catch up to every season as it comes into full swing. There will soon be locally grown root vegetables, venison and other locally farmed game on my menu. The asparagus will be gone soon enough in lieu of local product that I can put on the menu affordably and with a reasonable amount of confidence in the supply chain for these items. To force the season and what it brings to harvest just for the sake of having it first is, in reality the less then responsible choice. These asparagus of which I spoke arrive in Chicago in such massive amounts that the carbon footprint they leave in order to do so is minimal based on the sheer volume the shipment provides. The supply will dry up, the price will rise due to high demand and less availability and BINGO! The season shifts into a new phase. Compare that to the prick Chef with the over exaggerated sense of self-worth and entitlement that flys his or her fish in from Hawaii three times a week. Tell me who has the larger carbon footprint now? A ten thousand pound shipment of asparagus brought by rail or a six pound order of Yellow Tail Snapper that flies in three times a week on a first class seat from Hawaii. The same argument can be made for the Chef that demands the season change at their command thereby yielding product that, while chronologically correct, may just not be ready to make its debut for the season in this particular year. While the asparagus may be a few weeks out of what is considered to be the season, it still makes sense for the menu if the price and quality continue to merit their presence. It’s a self-correcting system if you pay attention and allow the market to speak to you in more than one way.

The point I’m trying to make is that we can be talked into believing almost anything if we embrace the concept without first learning of its validity. The local grower and sustainable farmer are now faced with two choices. A) Jacking the price so high for early demand and minimal supply and in the process, providing less than stellar product for crazy cost.  Or,  B.) Waiting to come to market with a product that has been allowed the time to fully mature both in flavor and nutritional value. I choose option B every time and never look back. It doesn’t have to be local, sustainably farmed or least of all, organic to be appropriate and responsible to serve. It just has to make sense. To blindly follow a concept, any concept, without fully understanding the impact of doing so, is the problem we all face. Believe me, I’m guilty of the same behavior. If it’s written and published in the news media or stated by a respected person of power or position it must be true. So, if that’s the case, did Bill Clinton actually inhale or not? That was clearly bullshit right?   Hey!!! Bullshit….. bullshit’s organic! Want to split an order with me?

Marlboro Reds and a Handfull of Vicodin?

Intrigued? Good. Now that I Have your attention we can begin. Consider, if you would, an industry that is driven no longer by the lure of fame and notoriety’ clearly a major effort considering the culture in which we –live everyday. Chefdom has begun to reflect the trappings of a Roman orgy of sorts–not so much in the hedonistic sense (the hedonistic side has always been very well represented) but more in the sense of “there’s a party going on and everyone’s invited”.

The problem is, with all the allure and flash of the dining experience from the customer’s perspective, the painful plight behind the scenes is often overlooked– a double-edged sword to say the least. The overall feeling of being part of something perceived as taboo piques the interest of nearly all that venture near the inexplicable gravitational pull of an industry known for wild and unfiltered behavior. It’s understandable to those on the inside. High stress levels, nearly unachievable expectations, a fishbowl professional environment of constant opinions and criticism on ones every move and decision regarding their work. An insufficient pool of talent from which to draw a proper support staff and the availability of every known late night vice imaginable……I can get a pack of Marlboro reds, spicy chicken wings, a hooker, a vile of crack, 6 Vicodin, a circus midget on a unicycle and a pound of foie gras from one guy with just one quick text, if that is, I have the right guy and a good amount of cash. And, for the right price, the circus midget can actually be the hooker and she’ll cook the foie gras! (I will pass the phone number on later.) I mean come on, how does this not set up like a recipe for disaster right?

The time has come for the meat of this story to be revealed. Please, keep in mind that about 90% of what you are about to read was manufactured anger and very much thought out before it happened. That is to say, I planned the whole thing so it would sidetrack and nearly derail. Here is the philosophy, in years to come, these cooks that are training and becoming bolder and stronger in my kitchen are going to, in turn, mentor their own team of recently graduated culinary genius. While in the process of doing so, they will need to have a few choice stories to pass along as rites of passage that they had to go through in order to justify their own less than stellar management skills. I am simply providing a few of those stories. Trust me, I tell my own stories from back in the day of my working for crazy French guys with wine on their breath and rage in their hearts as well. They’re war stories. Ya gotta have them for street cred. As for Sergio, well….. He’s just Sergio. Believe me when I say this, he gives it every bit as good as he gets it. Just not as loud, he’s more of a sneak.  So, that being said, no one was injured (at least physically) in the making of this rant and Restaurant Michael goes merrily, merrily along….. Read on, it’s all for show! I promise. (kind of)  😉

In any other professional industry I would be considered a fucking maniac. I would be called a self indulged, ego driven, narissistic, self- promoting asshole with a foul mouth, short temper and total disregard for any and all around me. Ah, but in the restaurant industry I am “Passionate”, So passionate in fact, that on many occasions (in years past of course) that “passion” has bubbled over and spilled into the dining room in the form of loud, rude, profane and often times disturbing tirades and rants that actually served to silence a room full of people who actually feared for the well-being of the poor soul on the receiving end. Undeniably a curious set of circumstances to fathom. A guest pays a substantial amount of money to come to my restaurant and enjoy an evening out. The evening is then interrupted by the afore-mentioned “situation” and then immediately after the tirade subsides I peer into the room, venture boldly out to each table and am met with not only a sense of approval but an almost morbid feeling that the guests with whom I’m speaking are comforted. Comforted by the fact that I care so much about their experience in my restaurant that I would, in fact, dissect any person, cook, waiter or otherwise to the point of bringing both their Mother and their religion into question!

What a sick bastard I am! I describe the situation to follow not as an attempt to make an amends but rather to illustrate the horrors my staff has to weather and endure in order to navigate the choppy waters of MICHAEL. God bless them all every one!

Now, I can only speak for myself and not for my fellow Chefs. However, I have been around long enough to know one thing for certain. It’s my and many of my peer’s fear that drives us to such childish and shitty behavior. Fear of not delivering on expectations and fear of not being seen in the light in which we desire–Not always looking good but damn sure trying not to look bad. We hosted a wine maker dinner at the restaurant last night and the dark side once again emerged, “The Beast” reared his arrogant, savage head in grand and fevered fashion. I’m both ashamed and proud that the old boy still has some fight left in him to be truthful. I kind of missed ‘The Beast”. For those of you that are unclear about whom I’m speaking, “The Beast” as he has come to be known, is the affectionate moniker I’ve bestowed upon my alter ego. Ego being the key word in that particular sentence by the way. My sick and twisted friend comes out to play when “Michael” has had enough and he needs the staff to fucking focus and walk the line. Clearly that could never be accomplished by simply speaking in a calm and concise manner that conveys the message without all of the fireworks provided by a visit from my furry friend. Last night’s performance was rather poignant since it’s been quite a while since I’ve felt the need or for that matter, the balls, to let this fool loose. When the fat bastard is allowed to roam freely, he does so for the most part, in the dirty end of the field, therefore it’s best that he play alone so I simply step aside. When I say dirty end of the field I mean that there’s a darkness that rolls in with a sense of impending doom that comes over the space I occupy and like a tractor beam, it sucks those unsuspecting naive folks around me in for the kill. “The Beast” was hungry last night and he fed with vigor.

I often times like to throw curve balls to the kitchen staff in order to better judge how comfortable they have become with their station and day-to-day responsibilities. Familiarity breeds contempt in any kitchen and I simply won’t have it. You must stay sharp in the kitchen at all times. If not, like a shark that stops swimming, you die. Inspiration for the kitchen has been a challenge for me over the past eight months or so simply because I’ve been distracted by the administrative side of the business as well as our recent expansion. That’s not to say I’ve allowed a slide in quality or integrity, in fact the key staff in the house have all stepped up to make up for my shift of focus but last night…….well, the focus shifted back with a whiplash type of frenzy that If I were a betting man, I would bet the farm that no one on staff expected. One of the cooks, who will know who he is when he reads this, (sorry brother) made the mistake of showing up 40 minutes late for the shift and then had the audacity to cite the fact that he was in the weeds with the amount of mise en place (preparations) that were heaped upon his station in order to ready himself for the special evening. The time of arrival and amount of one-sided prep on his station was a CURVE BALL! “The Beast” awakens when 30 minutes past the start of the shift have elapsed and he licks his chops with anticipation as our hero has yet to arrive to begin to prepare.

My day, much like any other small business owners day, consists of a ton of running around and organizing of the behind the scenes type of activity that allows service to appear relaxed and effortless. When the service does actually appear as such I realize that all of the hopping back and forth from one foot to the other, on rather arthritic ankles by the way, is very much worth the effort. But alas, my tardy young and soon to be headless cook arrives and immediately begins to falter. My focus now must shift from picking up floral for the week, placing orders for the weekend, containing and directing ding-a-ling contractors (that one is like eating soup with a fork by the way) and all the other bullshit I have to accomplish before the end of the day and beginning of service and I start to twitch.

This twitch serves as a ringing of the dinner bell for “The Beast” annnnnnd……….we’re off!

“Where are the silver pans I asked you to have ready for the Coquilles St. Jacques dish for this evening?” “Coming Chef.” “Coming Chef?!!?

We’re ten minutes away from service, what the fuck do you mean coming Chef?!!?”

“I’m a little behind from all the prep for the wine dinner and regular menu combined Che,f”

“Well I wonder how that could have happened. Do have any clocks in your home? Did you feel that I was a bit off the mark when I asked you to be here at 1pm and not 1:40?”

“No Chef, I mean, Yes Chef, I mean Yes to the clocks and no to the time thing….I mean…..what was the question again Chef?”

“Holy shit, you sir, are a disaster! Move and I will do it myself!” That very last statement of “I’ll do it myself” is a big red flag. The cook should, by now, realize that “The Beast” has indeed arrived and walks amongst us, but sadly, he does not realize this and the craziness ensues. Not only is the cook involved at this point but the entire staff is now in the path of destruction and they are all pissed off at the cook because of it. Poor guy just never knew what hit him. “You are fucked over here, why the hell didn’t you tell me you were this deep in the shit an hour ago?!!?” “Sorry Chef, I was trying to pull myself out of it and…….” “Sorry is right! This is a train wreck! Where the fuck is Sergio?!!?” Sergio is a waiter, he is also a frequent, and I must admit, favorite target of “Beasty” and there is no safe place for him to hide if he’s in the restaurant. You see, Sergio has been with me for 15 years, since he was 14 years old. He is as much of a little brother to me as he is an employee. This sounds warm and fuzzy but don’t kid yourself, remember the familiarity breeds contempt line from earlier? Well, I have a tendency to “Contempt” up and down poor Serg’s goofy ass like it’s a sport in an attempt to defer some of the wrath that I’m dispensing at the time. He’s proven to be a tough little bastard over the years and it seems to roll of his chubby rounded back–at least until he begins to present me with the bills for the therapist or he embarks upon a ritual beating of his family while screaming my name. What can I do? Since his parents did not seem to do enough to properly fuck him up, I feel it my duty to finish the job as his older brother by proxy.

Admirable I know, but also fun at times…(yes, I’m a bit twisted, we covered that already.) As all of this hilarity is unfolding my actual brother happens to pop by after a dinner meeting to pick his wife up some dessert in a feeble attempt, I assume, to soften the blow of coming home at 9pm. As I looked up and saw him I felt fuel being sprayed on the fire as I continued my rant. “Go get fucking Sergio Tommy! “Okay, okay, shut the fuck up” is his response. Tom is no longer even mildly effected, impressed nor motivated by “The Beast” as he has become numb to the sensation. “I’ll go find him, order me a couple of desserts for Cindy.” “SHUT UP AND GO GET HIM!!!” He ventures out to the dining room and soon returns to the kitchen with a shit eating grin on his face and tells me Sergio is pouring the wine for the course that my friend the cook, is currently in the process of fucking up. This does not bode well for Sergio as the longer I wait to see and unload on him the worse the beating will be. Even though he did nothing wrong, the verbal assault will be severe. Serg knows this after 15 years and wisely avoids the kitchen for the rest of the evening. I later come to find, after calling Tommy for my usual, post jagoff behavior apology, that he told Serg to get in the kitchen and Serg’s reply was “No fucking’ way Tom! Did you see his eyes? He’s got the crazy eyes! If I go in there now he will eat me!! I’m thinking of going home before he finds me. I feel bad for the cook but fuck em! I served my time in that role and that guys on his own.” Then he proceeded to bounce his chubby, charming ass back into the dining room to continue looking busy just in case I ventured out to find him myself. Good strategy. He still can’t walk and chew gum at the same time but he damn sure knows when to duck and cover, I’ll give him that. He also happens to have become a great waiter so I will have no choice but to allow him to live.

Now Dan, our Maitre d’ and savior of the dining room staff, walks into the kitchen and in a rather matter of fact way states that the wines are not yet poured for the course that is coming to the pick-up window and we need to slow it down. It the words of “the chief”  from JAWS……”We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  I spin around with the fresh blood of the recently slaughtered cook dripping from the corners of my mouth only to see Dan smiling unsuspectingly after the statement he just made. Realizing that something bad is happening his smile turns to dread as he also comes to realizes he just became Sergio. I could hear him think, “Why do I talk to this asshole during service?” followed quickly by, “Run you fool!” Too late son, the tide has turned and you are now locked on as the new target. “What did you say?! Say that again, say what you just said again! I want to be sure I heard you right! “Shit” was all he offered as a response.

Dan was only doing what I need him to do but more importantly, he is doing what he should be doing in the room and that is to control service and it’s pace. Reasonable enough right? Well, actually, reasonable only applies to a reasonable and sane situation and person, neither of which could be used to describe what’s going on here with me and my alter ego. In classic Dan form, he ignores my ridiculous behavior and pulls all of the cowering staff to safety as the gale force winds of Chef Idiot blow the ship near wreckage. Finally, and thank God, we near the end of service. I walk into the room to a stunningly happy crowd of wowed participants in the wild ride and take questions as I go from table to table. After about 20 minutes, I returned to the kitchen as if the carnage of the past two hours never happened. There is a confused silence as someone sends the dishwasher out to return the lug nuts that the recently deceased cook removed while on a smoke break, back to my tires. I wish everyone a good evening and thank them for a great effort and depart as the entire staff thinks in tandem……”perhaps lithium or Prozac would be a better choice then Vicodin next time, whada ya think Cheffy?”

What? no memo!

Suffice it to say nobody called to let me know that the whole restaurant world was turning upside down when it began a few years ago. It’s a cycle, every 20 years or so an evolution must take place. It’s what makes the world go round. It also evidently is what lifted us as a species out of the slime and mud we once inhabited. So I get it okay, nobody needs to chime in with some bullshit about me getting old and set in my ways. I already know that I am getting old and set in my ways. Save your typing fingers for now.

 That being said, lets move forward and get to the meat of the matter. This current evolution has taken a wrong turn and figuratively jumped the shark, as it were, and it’s gone far enough for my taste. I’m not going to go into great detail about specific cuisines and styles, at lease not in this entry. What I am going to do is ring the “Wake your ass up bell” for all of those young hot-shot Chef wannabes out there that are hell bent on teaching ME and my fellow aging compadres how to cook and how to run a restaurant. The time has come my friends to get your collective culinary heads out of your asses and pay attention. It was said to me 22 years ago by Chefs I respected and tried to one-up and they had it said to them 20 years before that by the older guard and so the process goes….

The difference today is the instant access to information at all times on all subjects be it true or simply made up bullshit. This feeling of “the power of knowledge” in the absence of actual skill and ability to run a business, is, in a word, tragic. Please allow me to explain. I was having a conversation with a Chef friend who happens to be held in very high esteem in the Chicago culinary scene a few days ago. By the end of the conversation we were both ready to round-up all of our collective interns and entry-level cooks and beat them with bunches of leeks! (The leeks would be bound beautifully with lovely, long strands of blanched carrot of course, I mean we are not savages!) After giving the conversation a bit more thought and deciding we did not want to be sued by the local arm of Citizens Against Cruelty to Idiot Cooks, We redirected our energy. My energy landed here. My Chef friend, while not suffering from the same addictive demons as I, (at least that he will admit to) landed at the local watering hole. From which another, much more colorful and demented conversation was born. (This will also be fodder for a future entry).

What I need to shed light on is the fact that along with the information superhighway and advent of social media we also have reality TV Super-Chefdom to combat. While there are a handful of really talented Chefs on TV (Gordon Ramsey, Mario Batali……..well I guess that’s it. Sorry) few of them are willing to admit to the fact that it took as much luck as anything to land them where they are on the tube. Even hard work was less of a factor than actual luck. I work hard, you work hard, anyone that supports their family with a shit paying job and no benefits works hard. We don’t all have fucking TV programs to use as a proverbial soap box do we? No. So, that being said, the dream of getting famous simply by virtue of hard work is a lovely pasture rife with horse shit.  Agreed? Okay, moving on.

The students being pumped out of the greedy culinary school machine are the main source of my angst. It’s really not the student’s fault. It’s the schools and their inept ability to both raise and lower industry standards in tandem in order to increase their profits and graduation rate. First off, we need to hit the subject of current food trends.

When I say hit, it is not a euphemism, I want to beat the“lightly truffled  foam” out of them! I’m quite certain of the fact that each generation of Chefs has had a proponent wave this familiar flag of resistance. What’s different this time around is the combination of the constant stream of information, the greed driven culinary school assholes and our narcissistic Chef-like lust for fame. A more volatile recipe for a disaster in an industry is not often seen. What we are fast approaching is just that, a disaster. I am not being overly dramatic here I promise you. It won’t be the end of the world, just the end of all this bullshit that allows soon to be Chefs to believe that being famous and being talented is six of one, half a dozen of the other. Allow me to sound like my old Pappy for a minute here as I say, when I was coming up 25 years ago, I actually had to learn how to cook before I opened a fucking’ restaurant! I know this seems like a stretch for many of you young culinarians out there but it’s true. I spent 12 years actually learning under talented, driven, egomaniacal, fucked up, addicted, short-tempered, long in the tooth Chefs. (All of whom I am very much like myself in many ways, I’m proud to admit) I would not trade that time in my life for any amount of money or fame. I actually learned to ply my trade before embarking upon trying to become a    Chef-whore for the media. These folks coming out of culinary schools now are being so pumped up with “you’re a Chef, you’re a Chef  rah, rah, rah! Go get ’em tiger. Show em what your made of.” bullshit, that they are destined to fail. And, if they don’t fail, by some miracle fluke of nature, they remain in my way and the way of my fellow TRAINED Chefs. By in the way I mean just that. They’re road blocks. They lure unsuspecting guests into the restaurants. Restaurants that they proceed to pollute with their untrained, method and technique-void silliness with flashy marketing and deep pocketed family investors. Upon doing so, these neophyte “Chefs” shit on the poor taste buds of the unsuspecting public and in the process, leave me with the responsibility of apologizing to these very same guests that they pissed off before coming to dine with us!

This behavior is offensive in every way not only to the dining public but to me. Some of these practicing, future bankruptcy cases actually have the audacity to charge up to 30% more than I charge for a meal that is not even in the same ballpark. Hell, it’s not even the same sport. When you spend $49 on a three course menu with me, you walk out knowing damn well where that money was spent. On top of it, I send out Grand Marnier Chocolate truffles before you leave and warm Gougeres when you arrive Gratis. When you go to see one of the new up and coming superstars you should feel honored that they had the inclination to even pick up the phone to take your reservation. If, that is, they feel you are important enough to be allowed to dine on their delicate genius derived menu items. Welllllll….. NO WAY! NOT ME! I’m not falling for this shit anymore! These young Chefs need to be told that practicing on MY CUSTOMERS is unacceptable. These very same people of whom I speak, even have the balls to give themselves the same title that I hold within a year or two of graduating from the greedy asshole culinary schools. Sorry folks, not gonna happen. I will not allow the proud title of Chef to be degraded any longer by this disrespectful behavior. Consider this a verbal spanking and stern warning, if you cross my path, I will invite you to cook in my kitchen with me for an afternoon and send you off with a look on your face that will tell all that see you that you have just been schooled!

  Nope, I don’t intend to fade away and be put out to pasture that easily and without a fight. There was and IS great value and importance in respecting the places from which we came and showing respect to those that forged the trail. I realize that this point is lost on the youth and energy of the new guard, much like it was lost on me when I was just starting out. I remember being ten feet tall and bullet proof for the first ten years of my culinary adventure as well. I am now  a mere 6’1 and riddled with simulated bullet holes fired upon my kitchen weary body by a constant barrage of opinions both informed and uninformed targeting my every dish and business decision.

Without the push and energy of the upcoming class of future Chefs there would be no progress, no evolution in the industry. All I’m asking for is that it be done with a bit more tact and respect for those of us that continue the fight with swollen joints, weak knees and checkered, restaurant tattered financial boo-boo’s reflecting on our credit. (See ladies, don’t I sound like a fine catch?) It’s actually critical to the fiscal health of the small restaurant operator such as myself.  I actually read an article written about a local “Hot New” restaurant a couple of years ago that quoted the Chef/owner as saying “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t have to be concerned with money and the finances of the restaurant”. WHAT?! Allow me a moment to do a Chester Cheeto head shake so I can process that bullshit statement once again. That, my friends, is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a restaurateur talking. That is a kid, whose Dad found a space and decided to pay the rent for his fuck up son so he wouldn’t OD on his drug of choice. That’s a fact. It is nothing more than culinary masturbation. The problem with this scenario is that this Chef, who I cannot name, sadly, is throwing the balance off for the rest of us by way of what he is charging VS. what he delivers and the way in which he delivers it.

A single, perfectly cooked lamb rack chop, sprinkled with red Hawaiian sea salt and paired with spiced root beer is not a culinary adventure. It is actually critic bait and it’s bullshit. I promise you, I can tell anybody anything I want about the food I am serving and I can make a believable case for what I’m saying. Think about it. The Chef walks out of the kitchen in his or her pressed white Chef coat with wisps of steam and smoke behind them as they strut into the dining area, backlit and glowing as if all-knowing and all-seeing. They approach your table and utter a few well-chosen, cryptic words and glide on to the next table.  You’re left with a heady feeling like the cheerleader that just got a big smooch from the quarterback after he throws the game winning touchdown. It’s the Jedi mind trick! “I didn’t care for this dish Chef”  “yes you did!” “Oh, okay, maybe I did…….” I’m trying to warn you folks, don’t buy it. There are some really talented young cooks out there today, just now getting their chops. Poised to take the reins, which, after the proper training, they will be deserving of.

 These are the young cooks that are doing it right. They are training under Chefs that will not only impart hard lessons but will inspire them to carry on tradition while still advancing the art and the craft of the industry in a more modern form. We are fortunate enough to derive our livelihood from the act of making others happy. I have one of these guys in my kitchen right now. I won’t mention his name, he knows who I’m talking about and he’s likely reading this now. So I will say to him the following…..Don’t get cocky smart ass! There’s a lot to learn on this path you’ve chosen. If you walk to quickly, you will miss the nuance of what it has to offer. Those nuances are the reason we get into this bullshit, beating of a business to begin with. We get the pleasure of instant feedback from those that we are fortunate enough to have dine on our creations. We get to wear fucking pajamas while we do it and we get to yell and swear at each other all day and night and still be considered artists of some kind. Yikes! I mean after all, how much luck can can a person have?

Good talk???

I have a cook in my kitchen that has been with me for five years, six months and three weeks to the date. His name is Salvador. Now I always believed that in order to stay with me in my kitchen for that length of time you must be one of three things… a fucking sadist, completely and irretrievably bat shit crazy or blindly dedicated to my cuisine and willing to go to any length in order to honor it. My friend Salvador has added a new and somewhat disturbing fourth option. Salvador is, in my very informed opinion after having worked with him over the past five years, a machine.  It is my belief, from what I could glean from conversations about, but never with, Salvador is, that he has several children that I have never met; all of whom are shared with the same lovely lady whom I also have never met.

 I know that his Mother sadly passed a few years ago. In order to not risk being able to return in a timely fashion to support his family, he had to forgo the funeral and suffered silently despite all of our efforts to get him to go to Mexico for the funeral. A stronger man than I is Salvador. I wept like a child upon the passing of my Grandfather and took three days off to help with family matters. There is a great line that Al Pacino delivers in one of his many films. “Some people when you squeeze them, they focus, others fold.”  I can say I have never folded, not yet anyway. I often crinkle, wrinkle, pucker and bend but I never fold. Salvador on the other hand….well there was just no question. He remained, through the week of his Mom’s funeral, crisp and focused. He was clearly sad and upset but the guy never missed a fucking beat! Pretty amazing if you ask me. Salvador is also, aside from Sergio, who I promise will be a future entry for this blog, the employee of mine with the most longevity.

Salvador also, by the way, has said exactly SIX (6) words to me in the entire five plus years that he has been with me. I am not exaggerating for effect here. Six fucking words! Would you like to hear those six gems? I knew you would so here you go…..“Liston” Spanish for Ready!…”Sale” Spanish for Ready/I’m cool…”Que Pasa” Spanish for What’s up/how ya doing…”Gracias” Spanish for Thanks…and last but not least…”Amigo” Spanish for Buddy/Friend. That’s it! No Merry Christmas, no have a good night, no enjoy your day off, no go fuck yourself! (I get that one a bunch in case you were curious and in a variety of languages)  That’s it, six words!  Also throw into the mix that he does not move his face, his lips or his body when uttering these precious few syllables. He does not laugh, he does not snicker he does not flinch. That’s because he’s a fucking robot. There can be no other explanation.

Please allow me to share with you the sparkling conversations and verbal gymnastics Salvador and I we have shared over the years. “Hi Salvador, how are you today?”…”Sale”… “are we ready for service Salvador?”…”Liston”…”Salvador, what’s going on buddy?”…”Que Paso” or simply…”Amigo”…”Here’s your check buddy”…”Gracias”. This seems like a stretch after five years to have had only these simple, privative communications but it’s true. The most amazing part of the equation is that Salvador has NEVER, not one time been late, absent, early to depart and most important of all, unprepared for service. He is, as I said earlier, a machine. The guy never stops moving. If there were a patron saint of line cooks named in honor of Salvador he would be known as “Our Man of Perpetual Motion”.  I have also, in five plus years, never seen him take a break, not to eat, drink be merry or go to the bathroom. MACHINE! What else can it be?

Here’s an interesting scenario. I make a mistake on his check and short him four hours for the pay period. Salvador says nothing. He knows for a fact that in the coming weeks I, in a classic and consistent fashion will make a mistake in the other direction awarding him with 6 hours he never worked! The man is patient, sly and cunning. He’s a short, pudgy Latino Ninja. He could be a Navy SEAL apart from the fact that he would never communicate with his fellow SEAL’s and they would all parish as he walks out of harms way right behind them! This guys got me talking to myself. What have I done to deserve such an employee?

In reality, I work for Salvador. He comes in, does what he wants and needs to do, follows no clock except for the one on Mexican time in his caveza (Head)….(for those of you non-Spanish speaking readers, myself included). He collects his pay with scarcely a one word utterance. For all intents and purposes he makes his own schedule by virtue of the fact that I know when we cannot afford to be without him and appears and departs like a ghost. Fuck! I want that gig! He gets to cook, go home to his kids and wife, takes public transportation that drops him twenty feet from both his door and mine and he can go the entire day without saying a single word to anyone. How did I miss the posting on this position? I want to be Salvador so badly I can taste it! He has a mustache with 8 hairs on either side of his face, he stands all of about 5 ft. 5 inches tall, is not breaking any beauty records, (suffice it to say he’s not my type anyway) and he has the personality of a walking Latin dust mop. Yet still, I want this guys life. Salvador has it figured out man.

If I ever get the chance to do it all again, I am coming back as Salvador. I want a bigger, fuller mustache though and perhaps a slightly larger vocabulary, say 8 to 10 words. But all in all, I wouldn’t change a thing about Salvador, it works for us. So in closing I will simply say to Salvador…..”Good Talk Buddy”?     and his response would be……”Sale”

Such a dork! I will never figure this guy out. I guess that’s the magic of Salvador.

Image of Maracas Courtesy of http://www.dailyclipart.com

I Go, You Go, We all Go with Ego

The Great Gazoo

 

I had a  strange experience last week with a Chef that I greatly respect and in many ways have been compared to. I do not agree with the comparisons to be honest, I truly believe that he has forgotten much more than I will ever know about French Cuisine and cuisine in general for that matter. That being said, I was a little shocked and actually pissed off by the way this event came to pass. This was a tease, I will return to this topic after I expound on the what drives the title of this entry.

The title begs the question, “Are you joking? a Chef that points the dirty end of the ego stick at anyone but himself!?!!?” Nope, this is not the case at all.  I will, for the sake of fairness and disclosure, disect my own big, ego- driven ass first before I turn, in rabid fashion on the rest of the world. Okay, me, well it’s rather obvious if you look closely at the facts of the matter. I own and operate a restaurant held in rather high regard. (Even if I do say so myself…and I do!) I ride up to this restaurant on my sparkling new, Black Harley Davidson. (Did I mention that I named the restaurant after myself?) Well, I kind of assumed it went without saying.  Anyway, I pull up to this fabulous establishment on my trusty steed, adorned with very loud exhaust pipes wearing no helmet as it may disturb my carefully arranged, wind blown, mid-back length, salt and pepper hair. I do, by the way realize that this lovely “Lord of the Ringsesque” hair style will look even nicer splashed with shades of red and bits of brain should I ever take a spill on this classic, beauty. No helmet can be worn, of course, because in my sick, fucked up, ego driven head, when wearing said helmet, I look like “The Great Gazoo” from the original Flintstones cartoons. Remember Gazoo? “Hello Dum-Dums” He was the little green alien that appeared to Fred with the big head and tiny body. Okay, perhaps the tiny body is a bit of a stretch but the helmet makes me look like an orange on a fucking tooth-pick so give a chubby brother a break!!!

Now that we’ve covered my work, my mode of transportation and my hair, let’s talk about my wardrobe shall we? I never, unless I can help it, go anyplace when I am not in a Chefs coat. Why you ask? Because, I AM CHEF DAMN IT!!!! The statement of who and what I am must proceed me and for that matter, my belly at all times. Now we can cover the press. Let me begin by saying, if you want to know how great I am simply ask me. I am not the least bit shy on the subject and for the record, if I don’t feel you are duely impressed with my proclamations I will make some shit up. Done it… Trust me… Ask the ex’s… But I digress.   The local media has blessed me over the years with a substantial amount of great press for which I am very thankful. However, if I find myself going more than a couple of months without inclusion in something media driven and unsolicited, I begin to shake uncontrollably, tear up and lash out at those I love and respect.   I mean come on, I’m the one that carries this family…friendship…love affair…business relationship…(I can go on and on I promise you) Until, that is, someone is driven to wave a piece of past written press coverage before my straping, handsome mug thereby assuring me of my self-worth once again, if only briefly, while I get on the phone to my publicist. At which point I proceed to blame her for not doing her job. How dare she charge me for time when nobody is paying attention to me!!! Don’t they know who I am for God’s sake? I’m Michael-The Fuckin’Chef-Lachowicz!!!

Get the picture yet? Well I did, about six months ago. See, with all of this fabulous shit I just listed above and with the promise of even more possible success with the addition of a private room for the restaurant. I, a 430 pound, drunken, drugged, pathetic excuse for an uncle, friend, son, brother lover, boss etc… EVEN CHEF, checked myself into a rehab center. Now don’t go getting all sappy and empathetic. I deserved exactly what I got. In fact, I got off easy. Trust me, if I was a bit further into this fabulous lifestyle I just described I would be fuckin’ dead. So here I am, not dead, in fact happy. Happier, to be honest, then I have ever been. Also, and I can’t believe it myself sometimes, thankful. Yep, that’s right, thankful. Thankful for what you ask? I’m thankful for my life and for my ability to recognize how my ego was driving me. Driving me, as a matter of fact, right off a cliff. We all do it right? True, most are not such assholes as to drive ourselves near death only to end up in a rehab center that makes you go to meetings where you have to be honest. And, are you ready for this? Hug other men! What the fuck!? Sorry, still not used to that ritual but while it’s not exactly growing on me, I can now do it without having to talk about the days sports events, breasts and cars and shit. See, even now, ego, ego, ego…all about how I look to others.

This all brings us back to the opening paragraph. I sent out an email on Thursday to proclaim the virtues of the weeks special. It was, as it turns out, an eye opener. I wrote in grand fashion about the special I was featuring and I felt it needed grand writing because of its very lineage. I made a terrible judgement call that was actually disguised as a gesture of respect. You see I mentioned the name of the Chef that made the dish famous in this country and the establishment in which it was showcased. Well fuck me! Never should have done that because the very next morning, I get a fax from Chef stating that he is upset that I took the liberty of using his name in my advertising for the restaurant as there are those that would assume that he is cooking in my kitchen. I will repeat that because it sounds like an oddly important fact to miss.  He said it would seem as if he were in MY kitchen cooking. Hmm…it smells like it’s about to “ego” in here.  Well, truth be told, I was ready to unload on this guy until I realized he was correct. I had no right to mention his name in the same breath as my restaurant. I should have asked his permission. I am more than reasonably certain he would have said yes and had he not, I would have done without and sold just as many on my own merits. But, you see, I needed to indulge my ego once again by making sure everyone knew of my association with him. In the long run, none of this amounts to a pile of salmon shit. (salmon was the focus of the special by the way) His ego drove him to fax me his distaste for my marketing ploy, my ego pushed me to include him in the first place and yet another Chef’s ego drove them to call me and righteously proclaim that he was the one to share the preparation of the dish with me to begin with.   Holy Chef shit Batman! Someone let me off of this crazy ego trip!!!! And if I get a fax from Batman or Fred Flintstone tomorrow morning I’m not writing anymore fucking blogs!!!!!

Just kidding, my ego won’t let me stop……..HA!

It’s good for you, I promise!

Alright, for those of you that have been following this fledgling journey thus far, this will be a bit of a departure. I am actually out of difficult customers for the time being about whom to bitch. But don’t fret, I’m certain they are just around the corner waiting for me to put down my guard. This entry is going to be a bit more informative. Call it soul searching  if you like. I’ll be dancing back and forth a bit between what I prepare for you to enjoy in the restaurant and what I feed (or rather fed) my own big ass to achieve the splendid form I sport about from day-to-day.

The idea came to me one day this week while enjoying my fourth day in a row of ritual beatings from my trainer Nate at Bally’s. You see my friend Nate, muscle-bound, mean little, 7% body fat having muppet that he is, loves to dole out a fabulous beating at least four times a week on my pudgy sad form. Truth be told, Nate is the only person, trainer or otherwise, that has been able to inspire me to stick to three solid months of hardcore workouts. I fuckin’ hate him. Actually, that’s not true either, he is, for all intents and purposes, a great guy that is saving my life. Enough about Nate and Bally’s. (at least until they sign on as an advertiser) This blog entry is about food, the food we all consume everyday. You see, I have countless guests each week that are concerned about the calorie content or preparation of a dish not to mention it’s sodium, carb and fat content. I am always happy to discuss these things with them.

Opening up a dialogue always seems to be the best way to put people at ease. I have always had the gift of being able to speak with authority on subjects about which I have a great deal of knowledge. The problem is I also have the gift of speaking with the same authority on subjects about which I know NOTHING. Now there is, on occasion, a subject brought to the table about which I know everything, I am simply the authority. To be clear, there is but one such subject and that is my restaurant and its cuisine. The hitch in the giddy-up is when I am asked about nutrition content on said cuisine. Don’t get me wrong, I do in fact, know all there is to know about every aspect of the food that comes from my kitchen. I purchase it, I receive it, I supervise the preparation and it comes through either mine or my Chef de Cuisine’s hands before reaching your table. About this there can be no debate. The question is….why am I so fucking fat!??!

If you know so much about cuisine and nutrition why have you not followed your own advice you might wonder. Well the short answer is, as my old man used to say to me, “Do as I say not as I do!”  This quote is in bold print for a reason. If you knew the old man you would not question the reason. You would simply do what I did. Say “okay Pops” and then under your breath say “You’re a dick with ears, what the hell do you know?”  ‘WHAT DID YOU SAY?!” “Nothing Dad….”  As it turns out he was correct about my eating habits. Still a dick with ears, but correct. The facts are that  my menu is not largely organic nor is it low-fat or low carb for that matter. It is however, tasty on every level. I am not claiming to be a health spa. I can however, promise this, everything on the menu is prepared from scratch and with great care to achieve balance not only in flavor but in nutrition.

I saw a segment on the WGN news this week that featured fair food. The new big seller in the south is deep-fried butter on a stick. Are you kidding me? Now it is clear from seeing and talking with me that my body has not exactly been my temple for the past ohh…..35 years, give or take a year. That said, come on, who the hell is eating deep-fried butter on a stick? Well there was a line of people in a variety of shapes and sizes waiting with drool on their soon to be dead, blue lips waiting for this chest grabber. My advice to them is bite the tip off of the golden brown batter that holds the melted butter center in place. Pour the hot liquid butter on the head of the asshole in line behind you and then, proceed to jam the sharp end of the stick directly into their heart. Remove and repeat this motion thirty to sixty times depending on how many layers of fat are to be penetrated. For me it would be closer to sixty.

I misspoke earlier. I now have two subjects about which I can speak with complete authority AND be correct. The second one is that I know for a fact that not one of those silly people waiting in line to launch a fat missile directly into their hearts asked “What’s the fat and calorie content of the fried butter on a stick?” Why? because if anyone had, the rest of the group around them would have risen up and beaten them for asking such a question and ruining their heart attack of an experience. In short ladies and gentlemen, I would never be so irresponsible as to serve or even offer a meal that would exceed your daily recommended intake of any of the key nutritional categories.

The truth is, we all have to be responsible for ourselves. I absolutely encourage any and all questions about the meal I am about to serve you. I love talking food in the dining room, it’s my passion. But please, keep in mind, one should never ask a question if the answer they receive will be a burden to them. So I guess what I’m trying to say is this, enjoy your meal in my restaurant. It’s wholesome and prepared with complete integrity on every level. The next day, give me a call and I will introduce you to Nate. Then we can both proceed to throw frozen sticks of butter at him. As he runs for safety, we can grab the butter, batter it, deep fry it and eat it as we clutch our chests, smile and flip him the bird…..Little bastard! Just kidding Nate, see you at Bally’s on Monday buddy.***

 ***In all seriousness, Nate is really my trainer and since I have been working with him I have dropped nearly 80 pounds and my body fat has gone down 8%. I will be happy to introduce anyone that would like to have a true professional work with them.  My goal is another 80 pounds by the first of the year. I think I have a chance if I stay away from the fried butter!                         Thanks Nate!!!

The price we pay……..

The title raises the question, “The price we pay for what?”  To begin, I want to speak to the cost of product in its raw state when it arrives at the restaurant vs what price is applied for the menu cost. They are worlds apart! If you suspect that the prices in restaurants are jacked up through the roof, I’m here to tell you, that you are 100% correct. Am I apologizing for this you ask? No. I would like to give you a bit of insight about the restaurant BUSINESS. Notice I emphasize the word business, please allow me to explain. Many people patronize a restaurant and become upset when they see a price on the menu and start to do a little quickie math in their heads.

Let me paint a picture for you about a recent tableside discussion I was drawn into with a first time guest. “Chef, may we speak with you for a moment please?” Of course, I’m all ears, how can I help you? “Well to be honest, my wife and I have gone over your menu and looks lovely but wildly over-priced.” In what regard, can you be a bit more specific? I replied knowing full well where this conversation was going and that the beast was about to be awakened. Fuck, I hate the beast. Why do people keep asking to speak with him? He is such a dick! I can barely control him when I’m calm and now I get the chance to introduce him to “the junior restaurant owners of America” who have pricing questions. Silly, silly, silly. Someone should have warned them, but alas, it’s too late, The cage is open and in these two unsuspecting folks wander. Time to batten down the hatches as the fun ensues. “We have dined all over the world as well as in countless fine restaurants in this country and we consider ourselves well-informed guests.” (Hmm, self-praise much?) I respond by asking, That’s wonderful, what is the connection between that statement and my menu prices? At this point the beast is still calm but very much on alert. “Your pricing structure… (Pricing structure?! the beast asks in a low grumbling voice) seems out of sync with the type of cuisine you offer. In fact, the prices seem unfair. We cook at home two or three times a week, and we prepare similar items to those on your menu.

Well now we are off and running, here comes the beast! I switch places with my inner friend and sit back to watch the festivities as the conversation shifts into a new gear. May I ask, do you ever get BUSY at home? What time is the rush? When does your ticket line and pick-up window fill up to capacity as more tables roll in? Does your dishwasher show up on time or do you pay $20 per hour in overtime to your cooks to clean the kitchen? (all of them semi-sober for that matter) What do you do, may I ask, at home while duplicating my cuisine, if the valet rams a guest’s BMW into the back fence in the alley? Do your busboys break china that costs a hundred bucks a throw and then hide the broken pieces? Have the fuel surcharges for each and every one of your suppliers doubled in the past year at home? How big, by the way is your staff at home? How have the costs of workman’s comp insurance effected your cooking prowess? Has the cost of dish detergent/pot and pan soap and cleaning supplies doubled over the past year? Have all of your incoming food and beverage invoices increased at least 20% this year alone?  Has your dining room and basement flooded to the point of losing the carpet upstairs and water heater downstairs twice in a week? Did you still manage to open on time without missing a step by paying 120 hours of overtime to Your staff?

We did! I have the finest staff in the world. I thank God for their dedication and loyalty ever day!  At this point we (the beast and I) need to take a breath. I also want to allow time for my eyes to roll back over in my head so I can see the look of sheer awe on the faces of the couple we were speaking with. I promise you, when I say beast I do not mean to imply that I raised my voice or was in any way disrespectful to this couple. I simply had to share with them to apease their morbid curiosity about my business and the choices I need to make to be able to stick around and remain profitable. Yes, I know full well that the word profitable is not held in high regard. Especially if the profit, God forbid, is derived from money spent by the general public. However, we all need to realize that this is a business and it must, on every level be treated as such or it will cease to exist. Case in point, how many restaurants have you watched open and close in Chicago in the past 5 years? Look closely, it numbers close to 100. Do you know why? Passion and total disregard for fiscal responsibility. Passion trumps responsible every day of the week for a Chef. Please understand, I count MYSELF on the top of this list of ding-a-lings. In fact, I could, after four of these major financial fuck-ups, call myself a ding-a-ling COACH! (Remember Les Deux Gros, Cochon Sauvage, Le Francais part 4, and most recently Wally and Agador’s) All of which were great concepts and on paper worked well, each with product I was and still am very proud to have served. The missing ingredient to complete these formulas however was…………fiscal responsability! I drove my poor brother fucking batty at the first two, our partner, jerk off that he was, batty with the third and myself into rehab with the last one. Well shit, I must have something to show for these little stumbles. Actually I do, bruises to my ego, my relationships, my credit and my liver! So going forward, expect to pay what it’s worth guys not what you see it going for on sale at Costco. Unless that is, you would like to rent my space and hire my staff to prepare it for you. In that case we are all yours. Their current boss is a real dick! I’m sure they would love to have a break from him….

In the Words of the Immortal Fog Horn Leg Horn: “I says what I means and I means what I says!”

This is just my fourth entry in “blog world” and already I’ve spurred on great controversy. It seems my colorful use of language has encouraged many readers to, in a myriad of gutteral almost primal responses, voice their opinion about said entries. I have to admit, I am not the least bit surprised. It’s quite common and often times correct to assume that the use of slang, profanity, sexual innuendo and the like would suggest the users inability to express themselves.

I think I can go as far as to say that most would tend to agree with this point.. Well……not me. In fact, I very strongly believe there is great strength in all types of language. All of the negative stigmas about the use of profanity aside, I see it as punctuation, a way to drive a point home with vivid and specific intent – think: George Carlin, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor – (not that I am comparing myself to these fantastic comedians)  The way I use these words is, in no way, gratuitous, actually, truth be told they are sprinkled about to illicit a response. “Is this guy really serious?” “He’s just trying to be controversial” “He must be out for a book deal or something” I hate to break it to you folks but the restaurant business is not all kittens and rainbows. If it is kittens and rainbows that you seek when reading this blog then I have some bad news for you, it’s not going to happen. I write about what happens to me in my day-to-day dealings with my guests, my staff, and my suppliers, There are a ton of blogs out there that litter the page with the regurgitation of what the author would have you believe is their “Passion” for cuisine. I am here to tell you that this is all a variation on the same theme. I will admit to you I actually started out to be just that–another Chef proudly proclaiming what a wonderful cook I am and asking you to drink that kool-aid. But why? Why would I want this blog to be like countless others? This is a place you can go to hear the real stories about the restaurant business and all the good, bad and ugly happenings within.

Trust me, I could expound endlessly on how many happy customers I am LUCKY enough to be able to feed on a daily basis. I will ask you this, do you care? I wouldn’t if I were you, the reader. After all, that’s my job for the love of God! If I had to run around telling everyone how good I was would you not begin to believe that I, myself, was not so sure. It is exhaustively boring to read someone babble on about their God-given talent and how fortunate you all are to be allowed to experience it. Give me a break please! Talk about an over exaggerated sense of self-worth.

This blog is here to showcase my shortcomings as well as my passions not simply for cooking but for the restaurant business as a whole. If you want kittens and rainbows go to a pet store at the end of a thunderstorm and pray for sun. (Before I get a bunch of emails from animal rights activists please let me state that I get all of my pets from the Anti-Cruelty society) Getting back to the original point of the use of profanity… In the world in which we live, can anyone honestly say they are shocked by my use of language?  I think it may be closer to the truth to say that in the age of the internet with all of its forums, chat rooms and feedback sites, that we all have a “Soap Box” upon which we can voice our opinions unfiltered in any way. Except, that is, when the court of popular opinion chimes in. Well not me! I refuse to bend to such a court’s opinion. In fact, I will run as hard as I can in the opposite direction.  A customer behaves poorly, either abusing my staff or spoiling the experience of eating in a civilized restaurant for their fellow patrons and I will react harshly. I always have and I always will.

Please understand, I LOVE AND RESPECT MY CUSTOMERS! You are the lifeblood of my restaurant. I cannot begin to express how unbelievably flattered I am to this very day that 120 people will actually take the time and make the effort to come and enjoy my cooking on a Saturday evening. It is truly a blessing. With the amount of restaurants there are to choose from today and after nearly 15 years of owning and operating my own establishments, to be selected as your dining destination for the evening is a privilege. That being said, can you now understand and relate to the fact that the actions I take against those that are out to lessen your experience in some way are on your behalf? That’s right. It’s not about me anymore. I am the oldest 41 year-old man you will ever see, I have little to prove to anyone but you, my customers. So please, cut a brother some slack if I drop the F-bomb here and there or rail the occasional savage dim-witted, would be trouble maker that happens to be out for the sole purpose of stirring up the bottom. If these folks happen into my establishment with those types of intentions then they get what they get. I am actually proud of the fact that I will not allow them to disrupt your dinner! (Or mine for that matter).

Now, for the sake of disclosure, if foul language is offensive to you STOP READING…… HERE!

For those of you that get a chuckle out of my colorful use of profanity rest assured. Another one of those fuckin’ entries is just around the bend!!!!   See, I knew you were going to read on anyway just to see what I would say. Now you get the point, sometimes it’s fun just to see what the author has to say. Unfair you say? We were tricked! Well write your own blog and you will be free to substitute “silly pants” for “fuckhead” anytime you like.  See, now that was gratuitous……. Tee-Hee!

The customer is always right?!??!!??!!?

Sometimes in the restaurant business things happen that make you stop and think, “I could NEVER make this shit up!”

 The following just  happened and I’m still reeling everytime I think about it.

 A woman calls up for a reservation, wanting to use her coupon from a well known company that rhymes with the word. Wonderful, that’s why I sent them out. Now, we only take “Coupons” before 6pm and after 8pm on Friday and Saturday evenings, always have, always will. This rule was actually sent to every participant as an amendment from the very company that issued it! 

Said woman calls on a Saturday night looking for a reservation that evening. Dan, my trusted Maitre d’, took the call and explained the “coupon” rules we had set forth in our deal, saying  she could not come in at 6:30 and that we were over booked. He said it over and over and this woman still barked at him on the phone saying, “I’ll come in whenever the fuck I want, I have a “COUPON!” Now anyone that knows me will attest that this is not the best way to get what you want from me. Dan remained cordial and gave in saying, “Okay if you can get here by 6:15 we will squeeze you in but you might have to wait a little bit.” She took the reservation and hung up in mid-sentence.

At 6:50 that evening, this woman and her Napoleonic, scumbag husband pop in, poorly dressed and a bit drunk and this is what ensued – Dan SAID, “We expected you nearly 45 minutes ago, I’m sorry but we had to give your table away. We tried to call the number we had for you but it went right to voice mail.”  “WHAT! yelled the woman, bitch that she was, so loud that the entire restaurant was staring at her! Dan came to the kitchen to tell me of the comotion and I had to come out! When I’m in the middle of a full house, on a Saturday night and we’re short one man in the kitchen, it’s unsettling to have to come out to address a man-child and his savage wife kicking and screaming in MY FUCKING DINING ROOM!

“Sir, how can I help you?” I asked. “You will seat us now! We had a reservation! “Sir, I understand that we tried to accomodate you and in return you show up 45 minutes late for the agreed upon reservation AND your wife had the audacity to swear and yell at my manager over the phone earlier today. “I do not like the fact that you are disrupting an otherwise lovely dining room with your silly behavior and I now refuse to seat you, good night” I turned to head back to the kitchen and this asshole spit on my back! It is only by the grace of God and the fear in Dans eyes that this rotten little motherfucker lived to see fresh air again.

I took $60 out of my pocket, threw it at him and told him he could stick his coupon up his ass.. I am 6’1, 330 pounds and and this guy was maybe 5 feet tall and a buck twenty soaking wet. He was lucky I caught a glimpse of all the wide-eyed guests in the dining room. I, quite out out of charactor mind you, decided to take the high road and allowed this prick to live to fuck with other restaurant owners.

 (I apologize to all my fellow restaurant owners for releasing this animal back into the wild.)

They left in a huge huff threatning of course to ruin me. (Give me a fucking break. These ding-a-lings have to lineup behind the people that want to ruin me.) As they stumbled out, the entire restaurant began clapping  in unison. I promply apologized to each table individually and poured champagne for everyone in the house. We also issued $25 gift certificates to each couple. These neofites cost me a bunch of money that night but everyone loved that I stood up for my staff and the restaurant. After all, there’s a limit to the shit I can take and these idiots tap danced all over that line.

After throwing the happy couple out, Dan, in his infinite wisdom asked : “Michael, what if he’s in the  Mafia or something?” “I laughed out loud and pointed out, “He’s driving a beat up, shit box BMW and he has a coupon! Are you serious? Like I said, you can’t make this stuff up!”