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.
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.
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.
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.