Ray and Hell’s Kitchen

During my first year of college I worked at a corporate steak and seafood restaurant at the Maine Mall.  It was a dead end job, but they had a great Christmas party.   For summer I hit up a brother of a friend from my home town, Lynn Pressey, who was and still is the Executive Chef at The Stage Neck Inn, a high-end coastal resort in York, Maine.  I was kind of excited to work for him because he was a CIA grad and he was doing serious nouvelle (the flavor of the day) cuisine and had been covered by several publications.  He looked at my resume and talked to me about food and my experience and said that he didn’t really need anyone with my current skills, but his sister resort in Kennebunkport, which had a bigger staff and a more ‘continental’ menu was looking for a line cook.  He made a call and set me up at The Shawmut Inn.

The Shawmut has since been turned into a multi-million dollar private estate just down the road from the Bush summer house on Walker Point.  In its day it was a thriving resort with a great reputation.  I remember the Bush family dining there during George H.W. Bush’s time as vice president, and the stories of his reckless fun-loving son who enjoyed the town’s pubs and restaurants.  It was yet another step up in the standard of the property and the quality of the cuisine for me, and I welcomed the opportunity to put The Shawmut on my resume.

Chef Ray hired me to be a line cook, but I never felt he liked me much.  I think there was some animosity because I may have been forced down his throat by the acclaimed chef of the company’s flagship resort.    Ray was an ACF certified chef and a very good cook in his own right.  But he came off as a real hard-ass.  For me this place was a little bit of Hell’s Kitchen.  He was a big man and physically intimidating, outspokenly opinionated, and not afraid to yell.  He wanted everyone on their toes the whole time.  He used to come up to me and open my prep cooler, point at a container and demand to know “What’s in that 1/6 pan?”  If I didn’t get it right, he’d ream me a new asshole.   He’d walk by me while I was whisking hollandaise and ask “How old are you?”  I’d answer “19″.  “I can tell” he’d say and walk off.  I never knew what that meant, but it bugged me.

Ray had a Banquet Chef right out of the academy whose name was Gary.  Gary was up Ray’s ass so far only his feet showed.  Gary’s specialty was making lifelike statues out of cheese spread.  Even to this day that sounds as stupid as it was.  I hope I never see a life size pirate bust molded out of cheese ball cheese again.

The saving grace of the leadership team was the Sous Chef, again.  His name was Jonathon, and he was hands down the most talented chef I’ve ever worked with.  He had both trained and intuitive methods and food knowledge that seemed infinite, and he did everything by the seat of his pants.  I worked for him later in two other places and I swear to this day I never ate anything that he made which was not totally incredible.  We joked that he could make road kill taste great, but I knew it was true and suspected it might have happened more than once.  From living in some California caves in the 60s, to peeling potatoes in France in the 70s, Jonny had done it all.  We became good friends and he became a key mentor for me in the understanding of food, fat, and flavor.  Jonny deserves his own post.

Also noteworthy was Jack, my fellow line cook, who would later get me my first kitchen management job in Portland’s old port.  Jack would graduate from CIA and become an important chef in the old port. At this time he was a Deadhead who had come off the road to make some money as a broiler cook.  I did the ovens, steamers and the dreaded lobster kettle; Jack did the expediting, grill and broiler; and Jonny did the sauté. We had a cold line with a pastry chef and garde manger on the other side of the kitchen.   We also had a pretty big boy brigade on dishes that helped with the potato peeling and grunt work.  We tended to goad the boys a lot.  Our favorite thing was to get something really gross, and then all chip in to a pool to get one of them to eat it.  One time we got one to eat a pint of mayonnaise for 10 bucks.  Another time we got one of them to attempt a full #10 can of bacon fat.  We had put up 50 bucks, but the kid barely got through half of it and started puking.  I’m pretty sure he wasn’t quite right for a few days.  We were pretty abusive to them and they pushed back some.  It’s certainly not something I’m proud of looking back, but it was a reality in that kind of kitchen in those days.  It’s a dynamic I have worked hard to avoid in my own kitchens.

Clearly, I remember Ray most for being a hard-ass and having a temper.  He was a take-no-prisoners kind of guy.  I did and do respect him for the quality of food his kitchen put out, and the organization he brought to the kitchen.  We did some nice, really high end food.  I watched him and Gary and Jonny make seafood sausage and pate en croute, perhaps my first experience with charcuterie. I tried to glean knowledge, but it didn’t come freely.  Jonny practically had to whisper when he was giving me a new technique because Ray would come by and criticize it or make some snarky remark.  Ray had an ACF apprenticeship program that a few of the cooks were talking about joining.  I thought it would be a good resume item, so I expressed my interest to Jonny.  “Let’s face it Michael,” Jonny said to me, “You’re really not going to aspire to be a great chef, are you?”  I decided not to ask Ray to join and he never offered.

My job was pretty basic.  Cutting and cooking fish, duck, chicken and seafood.  I got a lot of the crappy brainless work like frenching lamb racks, and picking the sweet meats off of 40# bags of scallops.  So, I had a lot of creative energy to spend goofing off, and this really pissed off Ray.  One day we were joking around about demon possession.  For a little bit of levity before service, I grabbed a quarter cup of the mint jelly that we used to make a mint jelly demi-glaze for rack of lamb, put it in my mouth, fell to my knees, and spewed the jelly out of my mouth while I convulsed like Linda Blaire in the exorcist.  Just at that moment, Lynn Pressey, the chef from the Stage Neck and my job sponsor, walked into the kitchen.  I was on my knees, bowed backward, with my white chef’s coat covered with mint jelly; he looked at me rather curiously as he passed the line and headed up to Ray’s office.

I quickly cleaned the green jelly of my chest and got back to work.  I remember Jonny laughing his ass off for the next few minutes.  Then out came Chef Pressey.  He walked past the line and gave me a nod.  I smiled and continued working.  As if he knew the minute his colleague had parted the swinging doors, Ray let out a scream that scoured the walls and ceiling of the rather long kitchen.  Everybody stopped what they were doing and froze in fear.  Jonny looked at me and said “did you hear that? THAT was pure evil!” and he smiled his mischievous French-Irish smile.    I guess he was yelling my name, but it was pronounced with such force and so visceral that I didn’t know what he was saying.  Everybody looked at me like, “It was good working with you” so I figured he was calling me.  But Ray didn’t waste time clarifying his request with a “Quigg get the fuck in here” for good measure.

In recollection it seemed like a long way to his office, but it was only about thirty feet or so.  I could tell when I got there that the scream had been quite cathartic for Ray.  Sure, his face was pretty much beaming red, but his voice was even.  He calmly told me some things I didn’t know about how stupid he was for letting me get halfway into the season and fully trained and how at this point in the summer he would be doing me a favor to fire me and let me collect unemployment — apparently demon possession is not technically a fire-able offense without a previous written warning — so he would not give me the rest of the summer off at his employer’s expense.  He did make it very clear to me that I needed to redirect my creative energy.  It was actually a good learning experience and a look behind Ray’s scream revealed a very overworked, frustrated, but thoughtful person.  He made me feel pretty guilty for embarrassing him and he forced me to accept his standard, and I did from then on.

Ray was injured in a car accident that summer and was lucky to survive.  Jonny and Gary took over, which was a bit of a joke because they were like night and day.  We got through and Ray returned on crutches after a few weeks.  He was a changed man, clearly humbled by his experience.  The amazing thing was how much we were all very glad to have him back.  Gary and Jonny couldn’t keep anyone on track, nor could they keep our kitchen resourced with product.  Either one of them may have been able to do it, but together they were hopeless.  They kind of became enemies during the process and the whole kitchen became a bit of a free-for-all.  Even I was happy to have Ray back.  Everything fell back into place and we almost finished the season in good form.

We cooks and a few servers usually hung around in the employee parking lot and enjoyed a few beers together after closing up.  One night during the last week of the season, the garde manger had gone down to the employee parking lot to ice the beer.  He came in and shouted that the dishwashers were all making a run for it.   Crazy as it was, they had organized a revolt to get the best of us after all.  We caught just one of them.  I don’t remember his name, but I remember Jack convincing him that we would give him a steak dinner and share some beer after work if he would just stay and finish up with us.  He agreed.  We cooked him steak which he enjoyed thoroughly.  Then he went back to the dish station, but not for long.  The first chance he got he made a run for it.  The image of Jack running after the kid’s Volkswagen bug and jumping onto the rear bumper while screaming in rage makes me laugh now, but right then it was a disturbing turn of events.  That kid was not stopping either.  Jack jumped off the bumper and rolled onto the tar and the last of our boys sped away.  They had become a casualty of Ray’s absence and our inability to fill his shoes.

Unlike the hold Ray had over us as, the least of which being a job reference from a renowned establishment, we had nothing to hang over their heads.  I believe in the Machiavellian premise that it is best to be loved and feared, but as most people can’t be both, it is better to be feared than loved. I had feared Ray at first, but from his absence I learned to appreciate his leadership.    Our boy brigade didn’t fear us nor love us; in fact they hated us.  The only consequence of losing the boy brigade was that Ray arranged for us to have free beer during the extra time it took us to clean up the kitchen.  Even he and Gary chipped in for the rest of the week.  In a stupid way the revolt had brought us all together, or at least it served Ray for us to think so.

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