Searching for Leo Burke: My Sundays in a Jewish Kitchen

When I was very young, my parents lived in a modest, one-bedroom apartment in Vegas.  I have grainy images in my head of a crib, a black and white TV and faded curtains blowing in the desert breeze.

The property managers of the complex were an older Jewish couple named Rose and Leo.  My dad, from time to time would give Leo a hand around the property in exchange for some help with the rent.

At some point, perhaps while painting over graffiti or replacing a sink, Leo inquired of my Dad as to why there was never any family around to visit us. Unlike our neighbors, we never had older, familiar beings dropping in on Sundays to share a meal.  Truth was, my parents kept us away from extended family. They had not had great childhoods, and didn’t want to expose us to what they felt were not good people. So it was just the 4 of us:  Mom, Dad, little brother Mark and me.  No grandparents, aunts or uncles around.

“Why don’t you let Rose and I be the kid’s grandparents?”, Leo offered.  My Dad thought about it and agreed.  Multi-generational influences was something my parents wanted for us…just not from their sides of the family.

So, every Sunday became the day that we would go to the Burke’s. Even after moving out of the apartment and into our home across town, we would venture over for breakfast with our adopted grandma and grandpa.

Instead of eating fluffy pancakes made with cheap Bisquick like Mom would make, we had crispy latkes: fried potato thins topped with applesauce or sour cream.

In place of breakfast sausages there was lox: cold smoked salmon served with capers.

A bowl of tzimmes:  chopped fruits and vegetables simmered with nutmeg and a little sugar.  Instead of hash browns, there was kugel, a baked potato and egg noodle casserole.

Muffins were replaced with apfelstrudel: warm pastry dough wrapped around a filling of apples, cinnamon and raisins.  Babka bread or challah with honey.  Rose would pour orange juice in a blender for 20 seconds to froth it up for us kids.

When I turned 13, Leo would no longer hug me, preferring instead to shake my hand.  You’re a man now David, he said, and while a bar mitzvah, seder meal or Hebrew school was not in my future, he wanted me to know that I was an adopted part of his tribe.

As we grew older, the visits to their house slowed in their frequency.  Teenage friends and desires took the place of my grandparents, which I’m sure happens to most at that age. Rose and Leo passed away not long after college ended for me and I moved away.

My last image of Rose is of her in a housecoat sitting in an armchair in her living room, laughing out loud.  She also make a blanket for me by hand with this label attached.  I still have the blanket to this day:


I wish I would have spent more time with them in later years.  I could use a hug from Rose, a smile from Leo and to steal a homemade raspberry linzer cookie.


PS:  Here’s a link to a great latke recipe


Guerillas in the Midst: The People Who Work in Restaurants

The restaurant industry has a long history of attracting, shall we say, very “colorful” characters.  Part of me feels that one has to be a little off-center to want to do what we do:  the long hours, the late nights, the stress of preparing a crazy amount of orders in a hot, crowded kitchen or taking care of multiple tables filled with needy guests.  It takes a toll.

I have a friend who is an attorney and once we were talking about our individual careers.  I had an epiphany during our conversation. I realized that I could probably do his job, but I was pretty sure he couldn’t handle mine.  I’m not saying I’m smarter than he is…in fact I know I’m not.  I’m speaking more of the full throttle lifestyle of restaurant people in general, and the ability to manage this circus of personalities on a daily basis.

If you have been reading my blog, you already know about the after-hours cleaning crew girl who offered sexual favors to her teammates to make extra money, or about Evan at the Full Moon Cafe who would light the back of kitchen aprons on fire while the victim was wearing them.  Here are a few more of the fun players I’ve met in my travels.

One of my first restaurant jobs was at Church’s Chicken (the poor man’s KFC as we called it) in Vegas.  The GM there was a rascal named Jose who would refer to every woman as “Donna”.  It didn’t matter if they worked for him or came in as a guest.  He called them Donna, as in “Hey Donna, you want ketchup with that?” or “Donna, check the bathrooms, will ya?”.  I never got the story from him as to why he did that. Suffice it say that it never failed to crack me up, and I’m chuckling even now remembering that guy.

At Full Moon, we had a dishwasher named Mario, an older man with biceps of steel.  Every day, before the rush hit, Mario would be in the corner doing calisthenics and getting ready for the mountain of plates, pots and pans coming his way.  I would be checking the hollandaise and out of the corner of my eye there was Mario doing deep knee bends and stretching exercises to get ready for his shift like some maniacal Jane Fonda…

There was the Muslim kid at eatZi’s who looked like he just stepped off the beach in SoCal. When I interviewed him he mentioned that he was a practicing Muslim and that he would need to pray from time to time.  Given his experience and our need for a solid line cook I was like, no worries, we’ll make that work. Unfortunately, this dude would disappear to pray at the most inopportune times…like during the lunch rush.  I would be walking past the receiving door and there he was on a small rug in the parking lot, facing Mecca while my sandwich line was going down in flames.  He didn’t make it very long…

There was a manager I worked with once who would wear a tuxedo to every performance review he received.  I guess he felt it would boost his scores…

Another sartorial story involves a young man who came in for a dishwasher position, the worst job in the kitchen by far.  This kid came in wearing a suit and tie and carrying his Eagle Scout certificate…to apply for a minimum wage, entry-level crappy job. Needless to say I hired him on the spot..

At eatZis, there was a prep cook that was so brutally hungover, he secreted a 6-pack of Coronas under his station to make it through his shift.  He looked like hell and smelled like death, but showed up on time and was determined to make it through.  The executive chef came to me and said what should we do about the beer.  I just shrugged and told him you gotta admire the kid’s dedication…

Remember the scene from the movie “Waiting”, where the two miscreant kitchen guys were found in the dry storage room with whipped cream around their mouths, giggling while high as a kite from doing Whip Its?  Whats a Whip It, you ask?  This is where someone sucks the small amount of nitrous oxide (present as a propellant in cans of whipped cream) to get you high.  If you’ve ever purchased a can of whipped cream at a store and it doesn’t work, chances are someone had a party in the walk in cooler at the store.  WELL, we had our own kid at Full Moon Cafe named Trey who I would find sitting on a crate of oranges in the pass, laughing to himself with everyone else staring at him strangely.  I finally told him to stop wasting both his brain and my inventory. Buy a can on the way home, Trey…

One of my favorites involves a young lady named Maria who worked as a prep cook for me at eatZi’s.  She was from Guatemala, was learning English and overall a very sweet girl. However she would call out from work with the craziest stories. The best was when she called me to say that her “chango es malo”.

“Your what??”

“Mi chango is malo, Dah-veed!”

“I don’t know what you’re saying! Let me get someone to translate”.

I retrieved one of the guys in the kitchen to assist me.  After handing him the phone, he listened for a moment and then looked at me and laughed.

“Her monkey is sick and she has to take care of it…”

Turns out this young lady had a small monkey she kept as a pet and it would get sick from time to time.  I stared at him as if I were going insane.  I took the phone back.

“Maria, you need to get in here and get to work.  No more sick monkeys…”.

She showed up a couple hours late, looking at me sheepishly as I clocked her in. Eventually the poor monkey “was malo” just too many times and it caused her to lose her job.   Crazy.

Lastly, I remember an after-work event at a local Vegas sports pub where one young man was carried down the stairs and folded into an Albertson’s shopping cart, then wheeled home by drunken Chili’s co-workers.

Oh wait…that young man was me.


And On The Seventh Day…

Ah yes.  Sundays in the restaurant biz.  Not for the faint of heart.

Murphy’s classic axiom modified for This Restaurant Life states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong….on a Sunday in any restaurant in America.  Some of the roughest shifts I’ve had have been on Sundays and for good reason.

First, the staff you encounter on Sundays in any restaurant are often the least experienced on the team.  You must understand that all of the veterans have paid their dues, and are off brunching, lunching and counting all of the money they made Friday and Saturday nights. The Sunday crew DOES NOT want to be there watching the “straights” (i.e. non-restaurant folks) come in, fresh from the beach, laughing and ordering bottomless Mimosas while they themselves are hung over from a night of drinking.

Next, a lot of the guests don’t even want to be there.  Dad would rather be home on his recliner watching football and Grandpa is falling asleep at the table.  The kids pull and chafe at their “church clothes” and can’t sit still while the only one that wants to be there is dear old Mom, who frantically put this event together…hopeful to make a memory before the kids start throwing chicken strips at each other.

Sunday is also the day you will run out of stuff, and surely just the stuff that the guest wants the most.  Haven’t sold a slice of cheesecake in a week?  I guarantee on a Sunday you will run out and for some reason…that very day…everyone and their mother wants cheesecake.  Never fails.

Of course, everyone’s Grandmother gets either sick or dies on a Sunday.  The highest incidents of sick day call outs are overwhelmingly on Sundays, and they almost always involve some fabrication of pain and suffering on behalf of a family member.

We did have one young server recently who, having come into good fortune with last minute tickets for a local music festival, decided to call us and say that her grandmother has fallen ill and that she needed the day off to tend to her. Unfortunately for her, some of her teammates saw her frenzied and drunken postings from the event on Facebook and said something to one of the managers.  She was fired the following day.  Hell hath no fury than someone who had to stay late on a Sunday due to someone else calling out for their shift to go party.

If I owned a restaurant, it would definitely be closed on Sundays. Maybe some of us would get together for softball and a BBQ. Others could spend a solid day with their families or friends. Hopefully my business plan would allow such a thing.

I alluded to Murphy’s Law earlier, so let me tell you a story about My Worst Shift Ever.

It was Easter Sunday in Tulsa, OK.  I was the GM of a little place on the outskirts of town called The OuterUrban, a 150-seat suburban diner serving that ubiquitous fare known as American Mixed Grill.  For those not in the life, this is what we call the “catch-all” menu offerings of your local Chili’s, TGI Fridays, Cheesecake Factory,  In other words, not a lot of one type of cuisine, but a variety of foods thrown onto the menu in some inspired culinary “mash-up”:  a few burgers, some pastas, some salads, a plate of ribs and surely a chicken sandwich.

Something for everyone.

The reservation book was packed for Easter Sunday and this was to be the true first test of our little bistro. I arrived early that morning to make sure we were prepared for the crush of business that was sure to come after church let out.

Around 11:30am, we saw through the bay windows the first cars pulling in and emptying their contents of families, dressed to the nines and ready for a great meal.  We were ready.  Soon, the restaurant was full of guests, talking loudly and happily with family and friends.  The staff was hummingly along:  kitchen guys keeping up nicely while the service staff was chatting up regulars and new guests.

As I walked around the small dining room, shaking hands and kissing babies, I noticed a slight fog coming from between the two entry doors to the kitchen. Not to worry, I thought.  I figured the broiler/grill station was impacted with steaks and burgers and throwing off a little more grease than usual due to how busy we were.

As I continued to move about the space, jumping in to the bar to pour mimosas and Bloody Marys, I was concerned to see the haze in the dining room was increasing.  I ran back to the kitchen.

“What’s up in here?” I asked with no small amount of concern in my voice.

“I think the hood’s gone down, David!” replied Nate hysterically.

Ready to implode in 3…2…1…

In a commercial kitchen such as the one we had, there is a massive exhaust system that hangs over the grill, broiler and fryers in a way that sucks all of the heat and grease up and out of the top of the restaurant.  This exists not only to direct all of the grease that comes from cooking and frying 100’s of orders of food into a vent system that exhausts out of the top of the restaurant, but also to reduce the amount of heat present from so many cooking surfaces.  Without a vent system it would be almost impossible to work for any length of time in a busy kitchen.  Trust me…I’ve been there.

So, without anything to suck the greasy air out of the kitchen, it has to go somewhere.  And that somewhere was the dining room of The OuterUrban.

Soon, a haze started to settle above the tables.  You could see diners glancing towards the kitchen as a fresh cloud of greasy air would waft towards them every time a server pushed out of the exit doors with their orders.  Concerned looks soon took over as I stood by the bar, uncertain what to do; opening the back door of the kitchen wasn’t having the effect we thought it would. One guest, however, was absolutely certain what to do and that was to get in my face.

“What the hell is going on?!”  I didn’t want to remind him that he just left church service an hour prior…

“Sir, I’m not sure but I think there is something wrong with our kitchen exhaust system…”

“Do you realize you have people sitting here in their Easter clothes, all dressed up and this….this…mess is coming out of the kitchen getting all over them?!?”.

I do.

And I’m sorry.

In the end we had to buy a bunch of meals and say a bunch of sorrys.  We closed the OuterUrban for the rest of the day while we searched for someone to repair the vent hood.  On Easter Sunday. How many service guys do you think were available on Easter Sunday??

On the plus side, Sunday offers SIN or “Service Industry Nights” at most local watering holes.  Deep discounts on booze, maybe some free apps and the promise of big tips from fellow lifers to those unlucky enough to have to work that night.  Not to mention flirting with staff from other restaurants and commiserating over the insanity that we are all a part of.  I have fond Sunday night memories of a local dive in Tulsa called The Bull and Bear, a little place that we would take over until last call, snow racing by the windows while inside we would warm ourselves with shots of Rumpleminze and mugs of hot chocolate.  I guess there were worse ways to get over the craziness of working Sundays.


Books About The Biz

There are no shortages of books and other publications about (or taking place in/around) restaurants.  As someone who works in this business and is an absolute fanatic about the industry, I try to read whatever I can get my hands on; whether the weekly updates from Nation’s Restaurant News or the more esoteric reading of George Orwell’s turns working in hotels and restaurants in his 1933 classic Down and Out in Paris and London…I gain something from them all.

Below I’ve listed some of my favorites.  Check them out and see if they are some of yours as well.

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin


There are many reasons cooking in America has been elevated to an art form and a calling for many people, and Jacques Pepin is one of them.  He helped bring not only the passion of French cooking to this country, but the much harder to master technical skills as well.  Sat across the room from him at a perfect dinner in 2002 at The French Laundry.

Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin

eat me

Shopsin’s is a one-of-a-kind deli/market on the Lower East Side of New York. It’s owner, Kenny Shopsin, is famous for his surly demeanor, his promise to throw out any vegans who come in the door and his ability to not only memorize, but execute a menu that runs into the HUNDREDS of options.  Click below to see what I mean…

Click to access shopsinsmenu.pdf

A documentary about Shopsin’s titled I Like Killing Flies came out in 2004.  A must-see and you will laugh out loud at this curmudgeon with a heart (and spatula) of gold.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain


For restaurant lifers like me, this was it…this was the inside joke, the wink across the room, the silent toast celebrating what only we knew.

Bourdain’s tome hit like a freight train for industry people, who upon reading for the first time, and the 2nd time and the 5th, would exclaim “YEAH MOTHERF#*&ER!” regarding the truths we found inside.

He wrote it as a love letter of sorts to the guys and gals who populate restaurant kitchens across this land of ours, and while he has moved on to different adventures on Food Network, etc, he remains on the bucket list of fellow inmates with whom I will drink a bourbon someday.

Comfort Me with Apples + Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

Comfort me with apples                             tender_at_the_bone_reichl

The cool thing about Reichl’s work is not just the love affair she has with food and cooking but the INTIMACY with which she writes about them.  She makes you feel like you are right there, whether in her position as the editor-in chief of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine or in her anonymous, yet powerful, roles as food critic for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

California Dish by Jeremiah Tower

california dish  

Jeremiah Tower was present at the dawn of what is now chef-driven dining in America.  A self-taught devotee of food, Jeremiah (after receiving a masters degree in architecture from Harvard), approached the temple of locavore cuisine Chez Panisse and its sorceress Alice Waters and began one of the famed culinary partnerships of all time.

This book is a great look back at the evolution of modern American cooking. Jeremiah eventually left Berkeley to chart his own course with the legendary Stars restaurant in San Francisco, a launching pad for many culinary superstars of the 90’s and into today:  Mario Batali, Mark Miller(Coyote Cafe), Brenden Walsh (Arizona 206) and Mark Franz(Farallon) to name a few.

Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef by Marco Pierre White

devil in the kitchen

If you want to know why Gordon Ramsey acts the way he does, look no further than this man.  Once one of the youngest chefs to earn three Michelin stars for culinary excellence, he ran roughshod over the competition and demanded total excellence from the people working for him. Ramsey and many other young turks grew up under his iron gaze.

While today kitchen’s are a tad more…civilized…Marco Pierre White in his heyday was someone with a singular vision and to hell with anyone who got in his way.

The Soul of a Chef / The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

the-soul-of-a-chef-138189l1                          making of a chef

I hate Michael Ruhlman.

Ok, I don’t really hate him.  I just covet his writing skills and his ability to make it all seem so effortless.  These two books did a great job of distilling down what it takes every day to be a great cook at the level successful restaurants demand.

The Making of a Chef found Ruhlman enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America to take us inside this country’s most prestigious cooking school.  His follow-up, The Soul of a Chef, details top chefs from around the globe vying for the Master Certified Chef designation. In the 2nd half of the book, Ruhlman compares and contrasts passionate cooking through the eyes of the vaunted Thomas Keller and then-newcomer Michael Symon.

Both are fascinating to read and well worth the time for a restaurant pro or “civilian” alike.