Posted on September 24, 2014 - by

Cooking School

 

Lucy with Chef Norman

LUCY BURDETTE: Last winter at an artisan market at The Restaurant Store, where I was signing books, I met Chef Norman Van Aken. It was great timing, as I was writing about a chef for DEATH WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS, and he lent me some “telling” details about his career. As often happens at these events, he bought my book and I bought his–a new memoir called NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. It went onto my TBR pile and only last week made its way to the top. He had quite a wild life, hurtling across the country to work furious stints at different restaurants, including many in Key West. Unlike many of today’s young chefs, he never went to culinary school. He learned from the chefs above him and he studied cookbooks to stretch his recipes and his techniques. The book was very entertaining reading, and would especially appeal to lovers of Key West or foodies or people who’ve wondered about what the cooking life might be like.

Reading Chef Norman’s memoir got me thinking about one of my early jobs. During and after college, I worked in a restaurant called the Alchemist and Barrister in Princeton, New Jersey. A bunch of us college kids waited on the tables in the front of the house, while two big black men from Trenton, named Moses and Joe, worked the stoves in the back. We waitresses were young and cute (or so we thought) and we learned that the tips were better if we wore stacked heels and clingy black dresses. In the kitchen, the cooks slaved at the stove and the grill, finishing fifths of hard liquor across the evening, pretty much toasting themselves by the end of each night.

Lucy with Chef Joe

There were three specialties of the house–a blue cheese burger with red relish, a prime rib, and seafood Newburg in a gloppy orange sauce. If we servers had to return a prime rib to the kitchen because it wasn’t done to the diner’s satisfaction, the chefs became enraged. I can remember Chef Joe (though we never called him anything but Joe) turning a rejected slab of too-rare meat over on the plate, dosing it with a scoop of au jus and yelling: “You’ve got to cook it at the table, baby, cook it at the table.”

The whole restaurant staff drank like proverbial fish, including the owners. One night, after a fight between the cooks and one of the bosses–I’m guessing it had to do with a raise–both the chefs walked out. Either we had to close the business, or someone else had to cook. It certainly never occurred to me (or probably any of the other waitstaff) that the cooks had a reasonable beef and we should back them up and walk out too. Instead, I volunteered to take over at the stove–we stuck with burgers and salads, none of the fancier dishes the restaurant was known for. I’ve never been so hot and tired in my life. And I wasn’t paid very well for the rescue either. And that unglamorous evening was the closest I came to professional cooking. But strangely enough, I write about it now…

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