Dinner with the Family

macayo                                       macayo2

Every Wednesday was payday.  Every payday was dinner at Macayo’s.

My dad was working at Wells Cargo, a trucking company whose name was a riff on the Old West overland mail delivery company.  Each week on that special day he and I would make our way to one of two places:  a worn-down North Vegas casino called Jerry’s Nugget or an equally dusty relic known as Joe’s Bar.  At Jerry’s, there was a wheel to spin for every blue-collar grunt who cashed their check there with a chance to win a free shrimp cocktail, a free beer, even the chance to double your paycheck.  I don’t remember my dad ever winning a thing, but it was fun to watch him go through the motions.

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Joe’s Bar was also a North Vegas phenomenon.  Here was a place a young man whose mom needed cigarettes or whose dad needed a beer could could ride his bike towards and venture into, age be damned, to procure those items.  As long as they recognized me, I was the errand boy for vice.  These were different times…

Joe’s was a dusty bar, package liquor store and tiny casino all in one.  There was a drive-thru where you could get booze, sodas whatever.  Inside, it was always nighttime, regardless of the afternoon sun beating down at 110 degrees outside. Cool, dark and thick with cigarette smoke, Joe’s Bar was the perfect spot for those too down-on-their-luck to make their way down to the luxurious Strip.  My father would make his way to the counter, paycheck in hand ready to be signed and handed over. Cigarette dangling from her lips the clerk would count out the bills back to my dad and we would leave. No wheel to spin at Joe’s but I’m sure we received an unhealthy dose of second-hand carcinogens in exchange.

Back to the house to pick up Mom and my little bro Mark.  A short 20 minute drive to the altar of Mexican-food-abduction-by-Americans:  Macayo’s.  Macayo’s was a small chain of restaurants that began in Arizona and spread to Las Vegas.  Our local outpost was a regular spot for those in the area and we kids loved going there.

Their claim to fame was the “TCT”, listed on the menu as the Toasted Cheese Tortilla.  Basically mixed cheddar and jack cheeses sprinkled onto an 18” tortilla and heated through on a hot flattop griddle.  This oily masterpiece was then sliced like a pizza into 8 pieces which we would hungrily grab for.

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The kid’s menu consisted of typical fare:  hot dogs, cheeseburgers, mini quesadillas.  None of these however were a match (in my 10 year old brain) for the taquitos:  corn tortillas filled with shredded beef or chicken and deep fried.  I loved plunging them into the cheap salsa always present at the table and devouring them.  The best part of the meal came at the end, however.  Dishes cleared and spoons at the ready, the waiter would bring a small dish of rainbow sherbet for each child, the scoop topped with a tiny pink or blue plastic donkey.  I don’t know why it made an impression, but I remember the donkey to this day and use it as a story device when I talk to my staff about that little something extra.

Enjoy

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The beginning

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It was, as for most, my mother’s kitchen.

Classic 1970’s accouterments;  avocado-green stove, Formica counter-tops, rotary phone hanging on the wall.

We definitely didn’t speak in terms of “cuisine” in our house.  Meals were meat and potatoes meant for my blue-collar father who, after wrestling 10,000 pound semi-tractor/trailers all day at work, was not going to be satisfied with anything less than pot roast or roasted chicken, a giant mound of mashed potatoes and some common vegetable, typically green beans. This was rounded out by crescent rolls heated and held under a kitchen cup towel to stay warm, slathered with margarine out of a tub.

Fancy.

Long before the advent of molecular gastronomy and chef-driven recipe “labs”, mom’s cabinet contained a repertoire of basic spices with labels from Durkee’s, McCormicks, Schilling.  These versions would be laughed off as “primitive” by today’s sophisticated palates, but mom would wield them bravely in an effort to try and bring something new to her casseroles.

Since we were living the classic 70’s familial model of Dad-at-work and Mom-at-home, many were the days that found me in the kitchen with her after school.  She would have her arsenal of cheap spices at the ready and I would open each one and smell them, inhaling deeply.

The Christmas scent of cinnamon and allspice.

The Mediterranean scent of basil and garlic powder.

The herbal intoxication of tarragon and sage, of thyme and marjoram.

The subtle yet verdant green smell of rosemary, my favorite.  When we had fresh rosemary, my mom taught me how to bend the tiny leaves until they cracked open, releasing the oils inside which I would rub onto my palm to carry the amazing herbal scent around with me.  (Side note:  my dad taught me to do the same thing with pine needles while camping.  Crazy the things you remember from your youth..)

The smokiness of ground black pepper and the tang on my tongue of iodized salt from the blue canister of Morton salt, the one with the image of the girl carrying an umbrella while spilling salt behind her.

My mother’s other gift to me was a love of reading. I learned of spice routes and, while inhaling ancient smells, imagined caravans of camels with priceless satchels making their way to sultans to be presented and bartered.  While I had not yet left the safety and security of my parents house, in my mind I traveled far and away, aided only by my imagination and the fragrant tones of supermarket spices.  

Enjoy

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Life On Other Planets

Here is a little story about leaving Full Moon Cafe in Tulsa in 1994 and moving to company called Planet Hollywood.

As enamored as I was (and still am) of Tulsa’s charms, I longed to be part of a larger existence again.  I felt like I could make the “circuit” in such short order: from our place on Cherry Street to the shops of Utica Square, from the bars on Brookside and down on 18th street to the chain restaurants crowding 71st and Memorial.  Tulsa was closing in; I had run as ragged over a town as I ever have and I needed fresh looks, fresh experiences and a new story to tell.

My good friend Clint “Chewbacca” Chew from the Chili’s days called me out of the blue one day.  He said that he had just been hired as a kitchen manager for a place called Planet Hollywood and that I should look into it as they were on a hiring spree.

Planet Hollywood started as the movie-themed answer to Hard Rock Cafe.  I had heard about and seen the concept being blown up on TV, knew about the celebrity owners Ah-nold, Sly and Bruce.  Watched footage of the grand openings featuring Hollywood’s A-list and the blues band headliner fronted by none other than WIllis himself.

I sent them my resume, not believing that they would hire a kid living in Tulsa toiling away at an unknown bistro.  Yet, a phone call is what I got.  I was to fly to LA to meet with the Director of Operations.  The day before the flight I went sky-diving with some of the other workers at Full Moon, then closed the restaurant, not leaving until 3am.  My flight was at 7am and I didn’t dare miss it so I stayed up all night, rose, dressed in a suit and flew to LA.

Once I arrived in LA, I was instructed to go to the Admiral’s Club and meet up with John.  There were three other candidates there to meet John (one who would eventually become my GM); when John came out, we were told that we each had 15 minutes to interview.

As I entered the room, John gestured for me to have a seat at the table across from him.

“Tell me about the Full Moon Cafe”

“125 seat bistro concept, 3 full dayparts, live music, best place in town if you’re asking.”

“Why Planet Hollywood?”

“Tired of living in a small town – ready for the big time.”

“You seem awfully cocky.”

“John, yesterday I jumped out of an airplane, then worked a closing shift and didn’t sleep because I didn’t want to miss the plane.  If I’m cocky its only because I cheated death so there isn’t anything you can tell me to make me upset”  Then I disarmed him with a smile…

Somehow, I got the job.

A few days later I received a phone call from their HR department and was told that I would train in either Phoenix or NYC.  Ma’am, I politely told the HR person at the other end of the line, send me to NYC and you have me for life.  I had spent too many days camping in AZ as a young man, and was tired of rattlesnake wind and road runner sun.  I got my wish, and found myself on a flight to Manhattan, NYC, NY.

Once in NYC, I decamped from the plane and into the night air, plotting my next move. I hailed a cab. The cabbie placed my gear in the trunk and then sped toward our destination, clutching the radio mic to his mouth, speaking a mish-mash of Persian, Arabic and who-knows-what-else.  He would glance at me in the rear-view from time to time with a cock-eyed look, then back to the road as we barreled down the freeway.  Over the Brooklyn bridge.  Twisting down into the City.  Finally in front of Planet, at the old 57th Street location we found ourselves. The driver unloaded all of my bags in front of the restaurant.  I paid him and said hey man, thanks.  He looked at me, paused as if unaccustomed to polite behavior, then spun and entered his cab and sped off to parts unknown.

I stood here, finally, at the crossroads of the world.

I didn’t make a move to enter the restaurant, unsure of my next move.  I was parked on the sidewalk as a rube, waiting to be taken advantage of.  I glanced to either side, feeling the weight of being in this city, of arriving but perhaps not yet being worthy.

“Hey”.  I heard someone say.

I climbed down from the reverie in my head, and looked for the source of the sound.  It was a large man perched in front of the doorway to Planet.

“Hey man – I think I’m supposed to be training here,” I responded.

‘What’s your name?  I’ll check with the Manager.”

“David Lory”

“Ok…wait a sec”

I stood there as he went in to the building, hoping that he would come back at some point.  Soon, he did with a manager named Sean in tow.

“You’re late”.  I would soon recognize this as typical abrupt NY speak.

“Yeah, my plane was delayed and then it took forever to get here”.

Silence.

Finally:  “Ok follow me”.

We picked up my gear and then he took me on a walk a block over to an apartment building on 58th, across from Essex House.  He gave me instructions on how to get upstairs.  I carried my many bags of belongings upstairs to the corporate apartment and passed out.

The next day I reported as ordered for orientation.  The day was spent filling out new hire paperwork, receiving a training schedule and listening to the things I should and shouldn’t do. The following days were spent in the kitchen and we (my fellow trainees and I) followed a routine of learning recipes and prepping sauces, of learning how to portion chicken and cook burgers.  We then rotated to the front-of-house, moving through the different positions:  front door host (bouncer), front desk host, busboy, server, bartender.  It was at the front door host position that I encountered the great Samuel L. Jackson, who was about to blow up huge from his performance in Pulp Fiction but who I knew from his astonishing performance as Gator in Jungle Fever.  He was walking by, another famous face in NYC, while I gawked.  He smiled and said hi, then walked away and joined the masses who traveled by our front door every day.

The days rolled by, spent learning and reciting facts and figures learned with my nights spent  walking through the famed city, seeing landmarks only viewed 3000 miles away on television. Empire State Building to Central Park, from the World Trade Center to Times Square.

One day, the receiving manager came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to a clambake.  I didn’t know anything about what a clambake was (I just knew that it was an east coast thing) but was willing to extend my experiences in NYC as much as possible. There was to be 3 of us going to this thing but, come Sunday, as I waited in front of the restaurant, the receiving guy was the only one who showed.  He apologized, saying that the other person, his assistant, had to bow out.  He then mentioned that we should go pick up our ride.

I was confused, thinking he had a car but then remember that a lot of people in NYC did not.  Too expensive to own and park.  We walked around the corner and there it was, a battered red Ford Bronco.  We climbed inside.

“WTF is that smell?”, I asked.

He looked rather sheepish at me, then replied, “Oh that. Yeah. The meat company we buy from uses it as a hot shot delivery vehicle”.  “Hot shots” are last minute deliveries that the vendor hates because either they screwed up or the client screwed up.  Regardless it usually turns into the salesperson convincing a surly driver into a fast drop off across town.   I looked into the back where the rear seats would normally be.  Instead there was an expanse of flaked red and rusted silver metal coated in many spots with what looked to be dried dark red liquid.  I knew instantly what it was, but had to ask:

“Is that blood?!”

He shot a glance over his shoulder, shrugged and said “yep”. What we were smelling was the dried remnants of beef cuts, pork shoulder, sausages, offal that had leaked from bags or boxes.  Evidently refrigeration was not something they worried about for such short and fast deliveries

So there I was, a captive in this god awful smelling, rusty red beast barreling towards upstate New York.  Except we never made it there.  In these the days before GPS, smartphones, internet, we had to rely on his scribbled directions written on an old produce invoice.

Which were wrong.

We drove on.

And on.

“Pennsylvania State Line”  read the sign to my right.

Are you shitting me?!  Where the hell are we?  These were the thoughts going through my heads, but I said nothing.  Not being from here I didn’t want to make assumptions.

10 minutes later we pulled over into a gas station so he could call his friends.  Turns out we went about 90 miles out of our way and would not be making the clambake in time.  I just wanted out of the slaughterhouse-smelling red beast.  We decided to turn around and head back to Manhattan, stopping off at Hard Rock Cafe for a late lunch.  You would think that he would offer to pay for my meal after blowing my day off on a wild clam chase, but no.

Oh well, if you don’t have adventures I guess you have nothing to write about.

Stompin’ at the Savoia

One of my earliest gigs in the life was a “back-waiter’ position at Savoia, a French/Italian white tablecloth eatery east of the Strip.  It was owned by a man named Georges La Forge, whose other restaurant in town, Pamplemousse, was a local favorite specializing in classic French cooking.

Back-waiter is our life is essentially a busboy who, in addition to clearing tables and resetting tablecloths, also shares tasks such as clearing plates and refilling bread baskets.  It also serves as a type of internship for the back waiter to learn the intricacies of fine dining service from veteran servers.  While I didn’t think I would ever want to be one of the stuffy, career-waiter types who carried themselves haughtily through the dining room, I was indebted to my buddy and fraternity brother Jim who saved me from another penniless semester by vouching for me for the job.

The food was amazing at the Savoia, yet lost on a 21 year old kid raised on meatloaf smothered with tomato sauce or Kraft macaroni and cheese.  I remember a very tender osso bucco dish that, when brought back to the dish pit ½ eaten, would command the attention of the servers as they would grab the bone and rip into the tender beef as I watched thunderstruck that someone would eat discards from someone else’s plate!

Every Friday the chef would step back from one of his screaming matches with the owner (my high school French picking up only nouns and surely none of the swearing) and conduct a class in an aspect of cooking.  One week it was sauces:  bechamel, veloute, bernaise, et al.  The next week it was our famous profiteroles and the care put into baking with pate de choux.

One memorable week it was brandies and cognacs.  Grappa, stravecchio, armagnac, cognacs of different price points, quality and rareness.  Since my tastes at that time extended no further than cheap keg beer and the occasional shot of supermarket tequila, I had no understanding of the gift I was being given with the tiny samples.

The pinnacle of the tasting was Louis XIII, a cognac produced by Remy Martin that had a hallowed reputation as the best of the best. Presented in a handblown crystal decanter, this elixir was offered up for $125 per 2oz snifter to our guests. The all-knowing career servers slid forward in their seats to welcome this rare treat from the chef.  As we sipped the light-brown liquid, the room was silent as if we were Benedictine monks praying for absolution.

After tasting it, I only knew that the liquid going into my mouth, like the others that preceded it, was not to my liking, and would most likely come back up at some point.

It did.

Not long after the brandy class we were setting up the dining room for service and I suddenly felt the churn in my stomach and the water gushing into my cheeks.  I quickly turned to the bathroom and made it to the sink.  Priceless brandies came up and into the porcelain.  The chef would be absolutely pissed if he saw me I thought as I looked into the mirror.   Enough of this stuff for me.

My favorite part of working at Savoia was the bakery.  It’s where I learned about sorbet as a “palate-cleanser”.  It’s where I tasted chocolate dacquoise and apple mille-feuille.  I especially loved when the very cute pantry assistant would screw up an order of profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and offer them to me.  I fantasized that she did it out of some crazy affection for me but alas the slightly crusty baked pastry was the only treat offered.

The Savoia was a brief yet necessary stop for someone who would end up in the biz.  Fine-dining is something that I experienced but have never worked in since.  It gave me a look into a type of service that is increasingly rare, but still coveted by a small yet discerning group of people.  

 

Howling at the Full Moon Cafe

I believe that my first true restaurant management job came at the hands of Hal Walker and Greg McGill, owners of the legendary Full Moon Cafe.  The Full Moon was a 125 bistro-style restaurant at the edge of downtown Tulsa in Northeast Oklahoma.  It was there that I first learned about restaurant “day-parts”:  lunch, dinner, late-night…all with their own intricacies, successes and failures.  We had a great lunch biz due to our proximity to downtown, a strong dinner business due to Tulsa being one big bedroom community with not much else to do beside eating and drinking and finally a vibrant late night scene, complete with live music and a full bar.

I started as the Assistant Kitchen Manager, the right hand of a big, burly, hard-drinking scoundrel named Mike.  For some reason Hal and Greg thought my two years slinging Rojo burgers and fries at Chili’s combined with my experience at the shady Outerurban restaurant in suburban Tulsa would give rise to the next Top Chef.

It didn’t.

Instantly I was put into the asylum.  This was not a corporate kitchen a la Brinker International nor a sophisticated (albeit angry) dungeon like Savoia in Vegas.

Nope.

This is where a cook named Shad slaved over the broiler for 8 hours, then didn’t shower only to come back the next day to do it all over again, the claustrophobic line filling up not with the fragrant smells of Margarita Chicken or our amazing Tortilla Soup, but of day old sweat, cigarette/pot smoke and stale beer.

This is where Evan our weekend omelette guy would hook strips of parchment paper onto the apron strings of unknowing cooks (who all wore shorts) and light them on fire.  The normal kitchen din would be interrupted by a sudden “WHAT THE FUCK?!?!” as the victim would suddenly be slapping the backs of his legs in surprise, pain and fear.

This is where Greg would come in on Sundays and check the ice machine after his morning run.  But first a taste of the hollandaise sauce – god forbid it not be perfect.  One early morning I had to remake it 4 times to get it to his specs.

The ice machine was Greg’s other passion for some reason.  When he came in to the restaurant, he would ask me if the “ice had been knocked down”.  For those not in the life, in an industrial ice maker the trays release the frozen cubes on either side of the container; what happens is that the ice on that side builds to a point that engages the cut-off lever.  So you have a Himalaya of ice on one side while the other side is Death Valley.  Therefore, you have to knock down the ice or the machine will stop creating new ice.

One Sunday morning, on the other side of a raucous drunken night and nursing a particularly brutal hangover, I was slouching through my daily routine when Greg arrives.  After tasting the hollandaise sauce and proclaiming it good (surprisingly good for my condition), he asked me if I had knocked down the ice.

Fuck.  Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

After a night of French martinis at a bar across the street from the Full Moon, I was not 100% to say the least.  Crawling in to work that morning, I could barely remember the tortilla soup recipe let alone the damn ice machine.  So I did what you do in our thing.  I told him, “hell yes Greg”.

Then I stared at him unblinking, praying to the gods above that he wouldn’t check the machine and reveal my lie.

Either he believed me….or he saw that I was in a no mood or condition to care.    He looked at me for a few seconds and I could swear that he smiled slightly with a I-don’t believe-you look in his eyes.

“OK cool.  Have a great shift and call me if you need anything.”

As soon as he turned to leave, I wildly pointed to my dish guy and gestured for him to knock down the ice.  Crisis averted I went back to stirring the soup while sipping a clandestine Bloody Mary out of a paper cup to try and kill the pain.

Eventually I became the GM of The Full Moon and still to this day check the ice machine and the sales report at 9:30 at night, although I am 20+ years removed from that place.  9:30 was when the live music started and the owners wanted to know what $$ benefit we gained from paying local talent to play there.  The Full Moon Cafe is where I learned a lifetime of knowledge in 2 years, and I am forever grateful.

Side-note: I had a great experience while living in San Francisco with the former owners of the Full Moon Cafe years after leaving Tulsa.  At the time they were the chairmen of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association and chose SF as the location for their annual meeting.  They flew in and we met at Zuni Cafe for dinner then took a car service down to Buena Vista for their famous Irish Coffee.  The memory becomes kinda blurry at that point; suffice it say we are still on speaking terms.  Shout out to Hal, Greg and Kelli.

A lifetime of experiences in the restaurant biz

Hi there

For years now, I have often wondered about the stories that I’ve collected in my head regarding my restaurant life, wondering if they would be worthy of the written word.  I had previously published a blog (www.rocketbrandy.blogspot.com) that detailed the adventures of my Dad with me as a witness to his life.  While it remained unread to all but a friendly few, I always felt from that writing experience that I could articulate my own adventures in the restaurant biz and was just looking for a reason to do so.

I’ve always felt that our industry is a hotbed (pun intended, as you’ll read much later) of stories if only for the sheer amount of personalities involved: servers, cooks, bartenders, guests, managers, vendors and owners all coalesce into this miasma of daily insane interaction…a carousel of energies that somehow all come together to create memorable, maddening or mystifying experiences that are discussed, blogged, shared (and Yelped).

The restaurant biz is unlike any other of which I’m aware.  It is absolutely dependent on a cast of characters who somehow flourish working long hours + late nights while pampering egos that either know everything or nothing about food/drink while working for owners who are equally inept or woefully ignorant (although some exceptions exist).  We chase our frustrations with booze and each other while trying to maintain a modicum of normal life:  bills, family, friends.

I hope to entertain, enlighten, educate and hopefully make you take a good, hard look at the person serving and cooking the food you eat outside of your home.  Some entries will be old stories of mine.  Some will be episodes from the night prior. Still others will be informative and educational.  As a whole, my goal is to keep it interesting while changing names to protect the innocent.

The following pages detail one man’s experiences in This Restaurant Life.