I have a new job. It’s part-time, only three or four days a week and I’m cooking, actually cooking at a friend’s restaurant here in the burbs of Greenville. Even if I wasn’t working there I would tell you it’s my favorite restaurant in town; it’s Stella’s Bistro. Stella’s is very Southern, upscale Southern or new Southern, whatever you want to call it. We make salad dressings out of bacon fat, serve locally raised pork, beef and vegetables, go through collard greens like nobody’s business, put egg yolks into our grits, finish sauces with gobs of butter and make our own Andouille sausage and chicken liver terrine. It’s a pretty small kitchen in a building that has been four different restaurants prior to Jason & Julia Scholz coming along. And this is definitely the most successful itineration of this building in a nondescript strip mall off Fairview Road.
My duties? I’m just a cook. I have recipes to follow and am responsible for salads, some baking, hot and cold appetizers and I help out wherever else I can if I have a spare moment. If I screw something up a cook half my age fusses at me or jokes about my age and impending dementia. Since the kitchen is small and Stella’s is busy, there’s no wasted space. On an average Saturday night there’s five of us in the kitchen. Three cooks, Jason and a dishwasher. We bump into one another, constantly brush elbows, shoulders or butts. We cuss a little bit, talk about food a lot, share stories from jobs past and taste everything we make. In the throes of a busy night we grow quiet and focus intently on Gail’s voice. Gail expedites on the weekends and she is calm and soothing as a metronome, she provides a steady rhythm and reminds us of what dishes she needs right now and what she will need very soon. The amount of space
I have to work out of would send a chill down the spine of even the best TV “Chef.” The second night I was there I was reaching into the oven and was splattered with hot bacon fat as a moist chicken breast went into a hot frying pan, the moisture condensed into steam, atomized and quickly dispersed the bacon fat and I took a nice splash in the face, scorching hot bacon fat right in the face. But it was a Saturday night right about 8:00 p.m. so I shrugged it off and kept going. About 9:30 Harley, the guy cooking the chicken asked me if I was OK. Not that he didn’t care at the time, there’s just a lot to do at 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday night at Stella’s Bistro.
I held the title of Chef but the amount of administrative duties I had kept me on my toes for 65 to 70 hours a week, 6 days a week and on my days off I brought home a satchel of work. I was also a Department Head and in a given week I had a multitude of meetings to attend, reports to generate, schedules and menus to write and cost, invoices to code and enter, special events to plan, a corporate office to answer to and a ridiculously thin amount of labor to cook for an enormous campus. Every sixth weekend I was the Manager on Duty, basically the guy in charge of the campus. We had 150+ employees. We served three meals a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to the 100 or so folks in our health care facility and we had two ala carte dining rooms and a 100 seat ballroom for the 150+ residents in our independent living facility. A couple of years ago when we had a snowstorm I slept on campus for three nights. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed being a part of that place and I learned a lot about myself but when the 6:00 a.m. breakfast cook called off at 4:00 a.m., yours truly dragged himself in, cooked breakfast for 100 then dutifully trudged off to his slew of meetings. Sure the money was good but I rarely saw my family even though “fostering family time” was a highlight of the company’s work ethic. On my days off I caught up on my sleep then caught up on my paperwork and was often grouchy. I was taking an anti-depressant that was meant to help me focus and often needed a sleep aid, even at the end of a typical 12-hour day.
All that is behind me now. I really miss the people I worked with and the guests I took care of. I was there almost three years and made some great friends but the amount of stress I was under was untenable. Sure money’s tight now but I see my family every day, cook at home all the time and I write practically every day. And when Doughnuts for Amy is made into a movie, no one in my family is going to be surprised. And I have long since chucked the pharmaceuticals that were meant to help me be, well, normal. Happiness is invaluable.