Sunday, March 22, 2009

Meet the staff

When you're at a restaurant, do you ever wonder who's making your food? Who's sauteeing your fish and dressing your salad and squeezing that curly-Q of chocolate sauce on to your dessert plate?  

It's Julian. 

Julian was the baddest ass I have ever come across in the kitchen. He was like a Richard Roundtree badass motherfucker, and when he walked into the room, you cowered. Even the chef cowered, and he was his own kind of hairy, uneducated badass who made people cower, and occasionally cry, but that's another story.  In a kitchen of gamblers, drunks, and thieves, Julian was the baddest of them all.

He was a physical specimen the way NFL receivers are specimens: tall, lean, and built like an anvil. He was a bald-headed, pink-skinned black man, and he had a kitchen pedigree like no one else in the kitchen: stints at Jean Georges in New York, and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, both like the supermodels of the restaurant world. Which gave him the cred to walk in, and take over. Make the place his. Which he did, by adding his own personal culinary touches to all of the chef's dishes, especially the sauces. I always wondered how the chef took that. Probably by cowering. 

After his first night of service, while we were all cleaning our stations, we heard mad grunting coming from the basement. That was where the staff locker room was, as well as the refrigerated walk-ins. It was a scary kind of grunting, like maybe Dennis Hopper was down there with his oxygen mask from "Blue Velvet."  One of us summoned up the courage to walk over to the top of the stairs. The rest of us followed, all in our dirty white coats and checked pants. We all looked down.

At the bottom of the stairs was Julian, doing push-ups, grunting violently, like a wounded werewolf. At the end of a 12 hour shift. We would soon learn that this is how he ended all his shifts: with 100 crazy motherfucker push-ups. Then he would put on his coat and leave without saying a word, and I'm pretty sure his night would not end there. 

A few months later, there were rumblings that he had lied about everything. He never cooked at Jean Georges. He never attended Berkeley (like he told me one afternoon in my pastry kitchen when we were alone, and I picked up my chef's knife just in case). And then he started to get disgruntled - nothing was up to snuff.  The vegetables weren't fresh enough, the meat was second rate. Then one night, he dropped hot bordelaise sauce on his foot. The burn forced him to stay home for a few days, and then a few more, and then suddenly, he just stopped coming to work. 

I saw Julian once after that, crossing the street one afternoon near the restaurant. He looked bound, keyed up. He didn't see me. He was probably cooking somewhere else by then, telling them he had worked at Restaurant Daniel and Alain Ducasse in New York and that he had gone to Harvard. And I bet they cowered.  

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