posted by admin on May 16
Although I have only irregularly made offerings of burnt croutons and the odd charred game hen, I have been lucky so far at this property, the Kitchen Gods have been tolerant of my efforts to placate them and major catastrophes have been averted.
I have been troubled off and on with minor pieces of mischief from lesser Kitchen Grinches and Imps of Ill Persuasion when a libation has been overlooked, but such occurrences have been of the backed-up pot-sink or imbalance in the kitchen’s hood system type incidences that I am able to overcome with good plumbing and a/c relationships.
I have worked in some establishments were the Kitchen Gods have not been honored in the old ways and disasters were the norm. At a major conference hotel in New Orleans the Exalted Beings were extremely wrathful. Not a week went by without an “all hands to the prep station” situation. One such still haunts my early morning hours when darkness of spirit prevails in my light slumber and thoughts of disaster abound.
With its rows of convection ovens, tilt skillets and gigantic steam-kettles, the hotel’s main banquet kitchen was located adjacent to the employee and receiving elevator bank on the second floor. I was Saucier at the time and late one night, whilst alone in the eery echoing silence of this vast aircraft-hangerish space, accompanied by only a gargantuan batch of hubble-bubbling Gumbo-Base in one of the 100 gallon kettles, was distracted by faint but echoing peals of wicked laughter; from whence I could not determine. I shivered but shrugged off the icy-fingered feeling that peeled up my spine, and continued in my task of transferring the steaming sludge of base from kettle to hot product containers (called Cambros), each of which held around 20 gallons. Rectangular, approximately 3 foot by 1 foot by 4 foot high with a wheel at each corner, these containers were made of a semi-soft plastic compound which bulged a little as hot product was added. They were also top heavy, unwieldy and the wheels were apt to snag in the tiled interstices of the flooring. I had five such containers brim-filled and lined up in readiness to transport to ice-baths for cooling when, for no known physical reason, the end one teetered and gently leant against its neighbor in line and, in domino fashion, they all schlumped softly on their sides allowing a flood of tidal wave proportion to sweep across the floor. You would not believe how much floor area 100 gallons of liquid can cover – it seemed at the time a goodly acreage. This sticky, steaming gush of, very aromatic, slowly congealing product, following the contours of the flooring and aforsaid interstices of the tiles rapidly found the elevator bank – and its shafts. A goodly amount, following the innate law governing gravity, disappeared from site, if not mind. The mud flats of Romney Marshes had nothing on this vista of brown glutinous goo, sprouting clumps of semi-cooked okra (a very slimy vegetable in my opinion and one that I have not touched since), that beheld the eye. It took me hours to clean up and I still believe that the judicious sacrificing of a chicken roulade earlier in the shift could have prevented the mishap. Of course, no one believed my version, they all thought it was my fault – but life is never fair.
This property was well and truly hexed. If it wasn’t the”boxes” (walk-in refrigeration units large enough for a high-school dance), going down with resultant loss of persihable product with attendant odiferous fragrance, it was the main drains backing up in the dish-room and covering the entire kitchen floor in a two-inch layer of fetid floating half digested garbage.
Injuries abounded. From major arterial style gouting from encounters with meat band-saws to minor knicks, cuts, abrasions, grazes, bruising, scalds, burns and piercings that were not of the body beautification mileu, this kitchen emptied the first-aid station on a daily basis. For no apparent reason the timers on the banks of convection ovens, in which vast quantities of food were prepared for banquets catering to thousands of guests, would fail to chime at light brown and crispy, thus providing The Gods their burnt offerings. The labels on spice containers would become illegible and you would have Cayenne instead of Paprika added to your tilt-skillet of Beef-Stroganoff; well, at least they are the same color.
The contract kitchen cleaning crew, who spoke an Eastern European form of English unrecognizable by anyone except themselves, were not unaffected. They knew something was not quite right in this kitchen and, crossing themselves as they wandered in with their hoses and brooms, glancing warily and anticipating the wrath of the Unacknowledged Ones. It did not help them one iota. This crew, knowing that water pressure was the only way to clean and spruce-up a kitchen, would pressure-hose everything in site with exuberance; nooks, crannies, the insides of ovens, no where was inviolate. Upon my arrival in the morning, our cooking equipment looked brand-spanking new after their ministrations. But, like grubby children made to wash behind their ears for a second time, did not like the washing experience. Unfortunately, as all of the cooking apparatus had an electrical spark type ignition sytem for lighting their pilots, the ovens, tilt skillets, clam-shells, broilers and the like, being as stubborn as grubby kids, balked, refused to ignite and caused entire breakfast buffets to be prepared on zillions of individual butane stoves.
It was enough to deter the most ardent of Culinarians and, in the rotation of such things, I moved to another property – ostensibly to expand my knowledge, but if I am honest, to exorcise the demons that plagued. It was not a good move.
Another hotel, this property had been built in the 20′s and the kitchen reflected its venerable age. Even more daunting than working in an antique was the fact that the particular Kitchen Gods in residence were from a darker, more ancient age, malevolent in their treatment of those who did not bow to their wishes or show true humility. Zero tolerance was their creed.
I had been hired as a.m. Sous Chef and, as the property had a fine reputation for the food it prepared, looked forward to my first working day and the learning experiences that I would encounter. I was a naive fool, but it was a learning experience of sorts. I quickly learned that this kitchen had chewed-up and spat-out half a dozen Executive Chefs in the past two years (not a favorable omen), and with kitchen and front of house crews of morose and complaining mien who had given up. But who could blame them; it was an awful place. The banquet kitchens flooded each time it rained, which is a regular occurrence in New Orleans and the main walk-in cooler leaked from every condenser unit, entailing the judicious placement of buckets above the stored product and extremely careful removal of same each morning so that you did not decant a couple of gallons of icy water ‘tween toque and collar.
Wildlife abounded, both insect and mammalian. On more than one occasion I had to shoo away rats, who insolently greeted me while they breakfasted on the accumulated crust of grease on the stove tops, as I arrived each morning. They also had nice warm coats because I would find them in the cooler gnawing away at cantaloupes and honeydews.
The ovens and range-tops were carbonized, soot-crusted black holes, without benefit of operable gas regulators. This lack caused all flames to burn yellow and deposit further tallowy soot onto any pot or pan used, which then indelibly transferred itself to my uniforms; I went through six sets in my brief tenure. And the pots and skillets were of such an age anyway that any riveting originally used to keep pot and handle together had long disappeared. You were therfore limited in the quantity of liquid a pot could hold as it dribbled through the empty rivet holes. The flooring was cracked, grimed with un-nameable filth and so uneven that one had to high-step like a majorette when working on the line so as not to trip with one of the leaking, loosely handled, greasily carboniferous smeared pots. There were majorly pissed Gods in this kitchen.
The final event which transpired and from which I deduced that They would never be appeased, was the Turkey Fiasco; which also resulted in the firing of my Executive Chef. He had not paid homage as They expected and required, silly man. He had two dozen turkeys thawed and ready for cooking in the walk in cooler. His plan, cook overnight and be ready for the “Time Honored Banquet Buffet” for which the hotel was famous. Unfortunately, and one must say mysteriously, the walk in cooler turned itself into a walk in freezer. Impossible, cannot happen, flouts the laws of physics. That may well be so, but when the Chef opened up the Box to remove and transport his turkeys to their respective ovens, he was greeted by a blast of frigid polar air and the site of 24 ice-blocks of turkey. He did his best, dumping a bird each into 24 hotel guest room bath-tubs under running water, to no avail. In fact the Hotel Maintenance Djinns must have been in concert with Them as three bathtubs overflowed, one of which resulted in spoilage to an old carpet, Abusson I think. He then exacerbated this dilemma by attempting to cook them semi-frozen, and displaying on the carving stations. Pink turkey meat does not just look nasty, if you get my drift. So, bye bye Chef and chalk up another victory for Them. The Gods could not be mollified and, as rehabilitation of the working environment was not high on hotel’s to-do list, I departed shortly thereafter.
I have been lucky so far at this property. Our state and local health, safety, sanitation, fire, grease-trap and workers compensation authorities have found ‘nowt to malign. We also have great relationships with our friendly neighborhood refrigeration, plumbing and electrical contractors. No serious injuries, no fires, no cooler or freezer failures, no food poisoniong, no major rest-room embarrassments and, apart from a persistant drip in my office when Houston’s Rain Gods are angry, no flooding.
Perhaps burning a steak now and then is sufficient for the benign Gods who inhabit my particular kitchen, or do I hear a faint giggle?