I got my first job when I was 15. My step-uncle asked if I wanted to make some money over the summer working in a local hotel with a strong catering department, a fine-dining restaurant and a casual greasy-spoon. I agreed. I started as a dish pig.
Working in a restaurant is like working in a carnival. Each employee is a character with a signature. In a carnival it may be a psychic power….in a kitchen it may be the prime rib, a lobster bisque or a signature dessert.
For example, I remember a old German guy named Andy. His week consisted of showing up on Saturday and spending 6 hours making his signature dish- crepes filled with chicken and peas which he served at Sunday brunch. He was methodical. He was miserable. He was an icon.
Sunday would arrive and he would serve the patrons, offering up crepes with chicken and peas to everybody in the brunch line. He had a thick accent and I swear half of the patrons has no idea what he was saying (it kind of sounded like grapes with shaking knees), but nobody dared to ask him to repeat in fear of neing denied the mystery crepe which hasn’t changed in 7 years.
A certain mentality runs through the food service industry. Each person attempts to solidify an identify among the surrounding white coats. Those who shine (or simply put in the time) may have their name put on a chef jacket and/or be given a prestigous title such as sous chef or fine dining manager.
I put in the time so I rose through the ranks to wear the white in the salad section. Mind you, the uniform selection was whatever housekeeping decided to clean and I quite often got stuck with a uniform made for a 300 pound line cook. On the other hand, I could look down at the dish pigs now. I now had the blank canvas to be able establish my name in the culinary world.
I needed a signature dish and I quickly determined what I would be….a fruit plate. I watched others slop cut-up cantaloupe, watermelon and honeydew onto a plate with a ramekin of cottage cheese and call it a fruit plate. I saw this as my opportunity. I added oranges or strawberries, used leaf lettuce as a base and cut up plums in petal shapes with a small grape in the middle to create a flower shape to set on top of the cottage cheese.
Patrons soon came in and asked if I was working before they ordered a fruit plate. It was my first taste of heroism. I had become a culinary icon. I had created my first signature dish.
This concept continues to drive my passion for food today. I love cooking and love to see how others cook to express their identity. It is the reason I like to cook and the reason I put thought into everywhere I dine.
Of course, working in this hotel for 4 years did a lot of other things. It taught me how to plan a menu, use a chef’s knife, peel potatoes, know the difference between basil and oregano, broil a steak, plate food, appreciate value, develop an ego and give me the credentials to even comment on how people more talented than me prepare dishes.
At that time, the only problem is I had no money, nobody to cook for and growing up in Sudbury, no exposure to chic and trendy restaurants. I was about to depart for university and I was afraid my passion for food would become stagnant and that my once impressive fruit plate would be forgotten forever.