From the year 2000 to 2003, I worked in a lot of varied jobs to pay my rent while I went to college. A lot of those jobs were in kitchens, those hot and sweaty and crowded dens of iniquity. Years after, I read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and was transported to those times and those people with a strange sense of nostalgia and love. This past week Mr. Bourdain took his own life, casting my mind back to other memories of that time.
My own experience was not the high cultured cooking and baking environments Mr. Bourdain wrote about. In the backs of chain restaurants, I made salads and soups and fried a great many appetizers. I set baskets of greasy chicken and fries meant for families under heat lamps so the waitresses and I could slip outside for a cigarette or a drink or a joint. I cut my teeth on grills and flames and fry baskets being yelled at by older, more grizzled line cooks and enjoyed and sweated and learned.
Many of the kitchen connoisseurs taught my young dumb ass. Josiah "Slow Jo" Mendez taught me how to use my hand to test the proper tenderness of a steak and that ordering any meat well done meant the person would eat burnt trash. Any well done piece of meat has been relegated to the back burner for at least thirty minutes while fresh meat is served to customers with a more refined palate. Slow Jo also taught me to never order chicken that wasn't fried (you never knew how long that garbage bird has been cooked and reheated) and never order fish on Mondays because fresh orders come in on Tuesdays. Mr. Bourdain agreed in his book.
Another kitchen warrior, Gloria, helped usher me into manhood. She taught me how to use my tongue to tie a cherry stem in knots during an eventful slow Tuesday night shift. She also taught me how to plate food, that presentation meant something, that keeping a clean workstation saved time. Sitting back on the docks she also listened to my woes about school and girlfriends, telling me that shit did not matter in the long run. I just had to keep my head up, take care of myself, and move forward.
The Animal taught me how to get through a shift after being dosed with acid by a vengeful waitress. He kept beside me, put me on the fry station, and let me watch the grease bubble and shake. I stood for that six hour shift and rubbed the warm plastic handles and dumped the fries and chicken fingers and hush puppies when Animal yelled "Harker, fresh fish." I do not remember The Animal's real name, if I ever knew it, but I hear his wild laughter echoing whenever I fry something.
Slow Jo had a dozen beers in him when he went off the road driving home. We got word in the kitchen the next day. From what they knew he drifted off the road without stopping, probably asleep at the wheel.
Gloria did not listen to her own advice. She never took care of herself. The meth addiction she played around with when I knew her in the kitchen lead to a life of starvation and poverty. A mutual friend said she stripped in New Orleans for a while. She borrowed a handgun and shot herself. Nobody found her for days.
In case you are not sure where this goes, The Animal did not fare well either. He hung himself in his trailer by tying his boot laces to the kitchen cabinet. His girlfriend left him and after taking lord knows how many pharmaceuticals he decided to show her. That's what the note said when his mother came in to the restaurant demanding to know who gave her son the pills. I can see that woman's face and I can remember his laugh and I do not know his name.
When I read Kitchen Confidential over a decade ago, it reminded me of all the fun and crazy times in kitchens. When Anthony Bourdain killed himself last week, I remember the heartbreak. I do not know if any of these deaths could have been prevented. I do not care. I just have my memories of what happened and how to cook a decent steak.