Al was a Greek chef. I worked for him a couple of years after Dave, but still early in my career. After the music camp, I had worked at a couple of family style restaurants. One was a pancake house. They had a great breakfast; three of us could slam out 1000 meals on any weekend morning in a frenzied blur of eggs, pancakes, and grease. Usually though, I worked the night shift after school. That fare was diner food without the soul of being in a diner, pretty boring. The owner-operators were a couple of rich bachelors who fancied themselves mobsters; they wore heat. They had more interest in the waitresses than they did the food and guests. I jumped out of the fire and into the pot (heh) by taking a couple of extra pennies across town from a friend of my father’s. He was a dairy tycoon who wanted to break into the restaurant business a la Friendly’s; his establishment’s name was suspiciously similar. Anyhow, that place had no chef nor leadership. From my days at the pancake house, I actually knew more than their kitchen manager. The place was suffering so they brought in a consultant. He spent three days looking things over, watching everything we did, reading every recipe, then he told us to add water to our eggs. So much for the consultant. Once I had exhausted the pool of datable waitresses, I moved on to the Ho-Jo’s across the street. It was my first corporate job, and my first hotel job also. It was a very memorable experience for all the wrong reasons, which is why I’ll never forget Chef Al.
This place had a farcical cast of characters. My first day I meet MaGee, as he called himself. I got to work early in the morning and entered the kitchen. It was still and dark and quiet and I really didn’t know what to do. Then a voice came out from the hidden end of the kitchen, a high pitched frighteningly quiet voice, “I’ve been waiting for you” he said, still motionless. I could barely make out his frame. Then he snapped on the lights and I saw a very homely, tall, dark haired man with a thin mustache, and a look of anguish on his pock marked face. He said something along the lines of “If you listen to me I will protect you from the idiots, but if you listen to anyone else here they will fill you with shit.” MaGee was probably insane. I later learned he was obsessive compulsive, controlling, gay, not humorous at all, offended when you didn’t laugh at his jokes, and insultingly forward with homosexual innuendo, but only with me! He wasn’t a bad cook, though. Then there was Kelly, a fat old navy cook who sighed every time he did anything, including walking or talking. He sounded like: “Sigh” I can’t believe “sigh” that they hired a new cook “sigh” Al “sigh” must be getting “sigh” paid off “sigh” by MaGee, “sigh” to bring him fresh meat “sigh”. Kelly couldn’t cook worth a crap; fortunately he was too lazy to do anything. He literally moved like a snail. Then there was Mike, the sex obsessed line cook who couldn’t stop taking about his sex life or yours. He was tall and handsome in a cartoony way, with a big jaw and tall teeth. If he wasn’t talking about sex he was telling jokes, at which he always laughed heartily. Mike was my main line partner at night. He was better to hang with than MaGee and Kelly, so I was glad to work with him despite his rather creepy tendency to talk about his intimate escapades with his wife. We had some boys too, dishwashers and helpers. There was the raunchy biker chic dining room manager and her totally hot waitstaff; they were the most redeeming part of the entire staff. And there was Al.
Al was a short stout, beer bellied Greek man that seemed to be about 70 years old. He was slightly hunched over and he shuffled when he walked. He never called any of us by name. In his mild accent he called us “Valentino” and “Hoffa” and “Sinatra” and “Bogey,” and he did it interchangeably. Once we heard him talking on the phone and he paused to yell “Hey Valentino ..bla bla bla” to one of us. Then we heard him laughing to the person on the other end and he said “these fucking morons all think I have a pet name for them… what’s funny is I just can’t remember their stupid names”.
Al’s food was different. Maybe I learned a little about Greek seasoning and lamb. He had this really gross Greek spaghetti sauce, I say gross because of the way he made it and kept it. The taste was actually quite astounding. He ground up all the steak and lamb trimmings, including every bit of fat, cooked it for hours with oregano, garlic, nutmeg, crushed red pepper, peppers and onions, everything well ground and cooked forever. When he was done he had several inches of fat on top of the pot. He would keep this pot on the stove all the time, continuously adding more meat and ingredients. Honestly, I don’t think it was ever rotated, and it only occasionally ran out. Mike and I made fun of it, as well as the famous “Greek Platter” which was chunks of lamb, onions, and bell peppers tossed in olive oil with garlic and mint, broiled and served on white rice. People loved it. We thought it was stupid. One day I actually tasted the spaghetti sauce though. It tasted great, but it still freaked me out. We had to serve it from Al’s pot on the stove every time. You pulled the ladle up fast to separate the fat. He taught everyone exactly how to do it, but you still got a ton of fat. It poured like finely ground sloppy Joe on the pasta. The meat and fat broke from the sauce so it was disgusting to look at also. On balance, the corporate HoJo’s food was much better than Al’s. I still crave those clam tenders.
We used to smoke a lot of dope on the loading dock in the evenings. Al usually worked the day shift and the GM wore keys on his belt so we could always hear him coming. We were never busy except on fish fry night or if there was a bus tour, so we screwed off a lot. We abused our boys regularly, but they had it the worst from Al. He made them clean his car and his office and he never did anything physical himself if he could make one of the boys do it. One day we were out there on the dock bitching about how gross and lazy he was. One of them piped up, “You know he shits in the boxes and pisses in the trash cans then makes us carry them out to the dumpster when we clean the basement.” His office was in the basement and apparently he was too lazy to walk upstairs to do his duty. I didn’t believe it, but the guy said he had taken them out that day. That explained the smell, but I had to see for myself and the dumpster was right there . I saw for myself and still regret looking.
The whole thing made me quite uncomfortable, so that night I scribbled a note to the GM about quitting because I could not reconcile working in such an unsanitary, unhealthy, and disgusting environment. It was the only job I have ever walked out on. I should have waited for payday. When I went to get my check, Al had it downstairs. Down I went. I remember his puckered face, still deathly gray but glowing with fury. His eyes were dark and indignant, yet his look, though angry, was somehow bewildered. I could tell he felt betrayed and blindsided. He swung the check at me and yelled a bunch of Greek that I didn’t want translated. He finally got around to English. “Disgusting!” he yelled, “unsanitary! This is my job, this is my life! Why do you want to hurt me like this Valentino?” I took my check and mustered up the courage to look him right in the eye. I told him that I couldn’t believe he shit in boxes and pissed in trash cans. “What!” he said “What the fuck do you want me to do, shit in the fucking trash can?” “You kids think you know it all … I’ll make sure you’ll never work in a kitchen again you little fuck faced rat bastard!”
By the weekend I had a job as a line cook at one of the best restaurants in town. Al was a real whack job, but the money was good and the job had moved me from flipping burgers and eggs to cooking steaks and Pasticcio, so it was worth it.