I met President Ford too. This was at the St. Regis Hotel some years after the Agnew banquet in Cleveland and it was quite by accident, but I’m here to report that if you remember him, he looked in person exactly like he did on TV.
The first Sheraton I worked in was in Cleveland, Sheraton On The Square. I was a broiler cook in the Falstaff room there, one of its restaurant outlets. In all, that was an easy gig. We were rarely busy, we ate well and the waitresses wore French maids outfits which left little to the imagination. On top of all that, I had a parking space on the loading dock close enough to the employee entrance that I didn’t need a winter coat no matter how cold the temperature outside. The waitresses, just as an aside, were positively gorgeous and nice to boot, and if they wanted a steak or some lobster tails, well… they knew to bend over just a little extra when they asked.
The Sheraton On The Square was equipped with a grand ballroom banquet hall and while I worked there we did a fund-raising dinner for Spiro Agnew. That’s when I learned about the Secret Service: they really do come in and check all employee records and they really make anyone who is in any way questionable take the day off when the function occurs. They do set up machine-gun tripods on low-roof entrances and they do post snipers on the high roofs. They also post agents throughout the hotel, especially at all entrances, and they keep agents in and around the kitchen. The agents in the kitchen watch everything, from making sure the cooks are wearing plastic gloves to making sure those cooks aren’t doing anything with the food they should be doing.
In some of my writing I talk about doing a banquet for 5000 people. You need a Rotary Oven, which is basically a whole room unto itself with multiple shelves that go round and round like a Ferris wheel. Each shelf holds four or more huge roasting pans, each pan holding at least three whole prime ribs. You need electric server carts capable of keeping many stacks of food warm for long periods of time and of course you need a kitchen big enough to set up multiple full-service stations, not only for cooking and whatever that might entail based upon the demands of the menu, but also for plating, which is dishing up food and stacking it in the electric warmer carts. A 5000 plate dinner, such as we did for Agnew, meant starting to dish up the plates of food from four separate service stations 45 minutes before the meal was actually served to the guests .
At the St. Regis Sheraton in New York, after my training year, I became a saucier, and by the end of my second year, through attrition, I became first cook. As first cook, I was responsible for calling orders and making sure all food that went out was correct and timely if no chef, sous chef, or floor chef were in the kitchen. And of course at the same time I was responsible for all the orders that came from my station. If this sounds easy, think again and add on that the St. Regis kitchen, when I worked there, simultaneously put out food for five different restaurant outlets and room service, each restaurant outlet serving different food items. Any items that overlapped were served with different garnishes for the different dining rooms. On top of all that, add on all banquets with less than 75 covers came from the kitchen too; only if you had more than 75 covers did the banquet crew do your meal. At times we were serving the five dining rooms, room service and multiple banquets all at the same time.
The St. Regis was Sheraton’s premier hotel. The chef I worked for there went on to open Windows On the World. Menus were in French, orders were called in Spanish and virtually no English was spoken. Two very famous dining rooms were there, The Maisonette and The King Cole Room. It was here, in this hotel, that President Ford, during his short time as our President, held an intimate fund raising dinner on the second floor of the hotel.
I was a floor chef by then. Basically the floor chef was like a factory foreman. He called the orders and made sure that everything that left the kitchen to be served was perfect. Since the President’s dinner was very private and very exclusive, everything was prepared in the second floor banquet kitchen under Secret Service scrutiny much tighter and much more scrutinizing than that for grand ballroom banquet I did in Cleveland.
During the course of the dinner service downstairs in the main kitchen, I got a call from the second floor regarding something that the banquet chef needed, so I had it sent up with one of the banquet runners. Then, when we had a lull in our orders, I went upstairs to make sure everything was set and ready. I used the service elevator which led me to the banquet kitchen without having to step out into the front side, the guest side, of the hotel. But I wanted to check the dining room too and to speak with the banquet captain who was handling the waiter service, and to do this I had to cross the hotel on the guest floor. I was on my way to the dining room when President Ford emerged from a hotel room and turned so he was moving toward me in the hall. The Secret Service agents stationed on either end of the hall and the two that emerged with the President moved immediately to prevent me from being able to have any physical contact, but the President waved them off seeing that I had extended my right arm to shake his hand. He did the same and we shook hands.
“Good evening Mr. President,” I said.
“Good evening chef,” he said.
I was so nervous and so shaky that I didn’t know what to do, but as we withdrew our hands I said “I hope you enjoy our food.” The President nodded and walked on his way. Me, I floated on my way, my head and my thoughts totally off this planet.
I’ve met two other politicians both while I was a teacher in the Bronx, New York, and I’ve met a few other famous people in my life. But only shaking hands with the President of the United States robbed me of my wits and at least momentarily made me feel as if I were floating outside of gravity.
Once a month the cooks from the East store and the West store met in downtown Columbus at a restaurant-bar called “The Clock.” The Clock was pretty much halfway between the steakhouses and wasn’t all that far from Columbus Civic Center which housed a big concert hall. I saw Simon and Garfunkel there and Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen too.
I was all of twenty-one now and getting old. Mary had taught me how to do the prep cooking, how to make all the soups, sauces and specials they made there. Henry Lee had taught me to cut meat, and I was a fully seasoned broiler cook able to handle a full Garland, a charcoal grill and a second Garland if I had to. The line in the east store had a second Garland; we barely lit it up, but on holidays like Mother’s Day, when we could do more than 1000 covers, it came in really handy. The second Mother’s Day I was there, we did 1500 dinners, and more than 1200 of them were steaks. That day, the second Garland was a godsend.
Jim Morrison and The Doors were playing two nights at the Civic Center. None of the cooks really cared and even if I’d wanted to go see them, I had to work anyway. One of the concerts coincided with our meeting night at The Clock but they were essentially two unrelated events, ships passing in the night.
We were pretty toasted. Only four of us had shown up, Alvin and Henry Lee and Robert and me. Henry Lee and I had gotten there around midnight. We had been drinking at work, Henry Lee having hung out because I was driving him and because he was doing the night salad girl, a skinny buck-toothed girl named Phyllis. Phyllis was married too, so she and Henry Lee were a good pair, each with as much to lose if they got busted, which they did. That’s a story which appears in The Kitchen Stories. BB, the barmaid, was feeding us beers and Henry Lee had his own bottle of JTS Brown which we were sipping from. Henry Lee and Phyllis had disappeared downstairs for about a half-hour after the dinner rush while Jimmy and I cleaned up the line, and then they’d returned to the kitchen so Phyllis could clean up the salad station and set it up for Bee for the next morning. That downstairs meat room: if walls could talk!
When we had gotten to the clock, Robert and Alvin were already sitting in a booth. As you walked in, the bar was on the right, a row of booths on the left and beyond both was a rectangular dining room. Heading toward them, I stopped and said hello to a girl I knew who was sitting in a booth with four other girls. She was the sister of a former girlfriend. She and her friends had been to The Doors concert and had come to The Clock afterward to eat and hang out.
At one o’clock the bartender hopped over the bar and locked the double doors. This wasn’t the liquor law time, but it was a weeknight and that’s when The Clock closed on weeknights. Nothing much was happening. Only a couple of men sat at the bar and only a couple of booths were occupied. The dining room was empty and the kitchen already closed. About one-twenty there was a knock on the door. The bartender didn’t do anything and a moment later the knock came again, louder this time. The bartender still ignored it, but I heard “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God” being frantically shouted from that booth full of girls. “It’s them, it’s them.” The girls jumped up and ran for the entrance on the other side of which stood Jim Morrison and The Doors.
The girls stood there jumping up and down. We had looked from our booth but kept talking and drinking. The bartender, though, sprang into action. He pulled his shotgun from under the bar and came around. Stepping past the crazed girls, he pointed the shotgun at The Doors and called out “Get the F… out of here, you goddamned hippies.”
Not stupid, they immediately left. The girls informed the bartender of just who they were, but the bartender, shotgun still in hand, made it clear that it could have been Jesus himself and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Guess it was the long hair! But that’s how I met Jim Morrison and The Doors.
Skipping the long story that leads up to the why of it and just getting down to it, I worked in kitchens, professionally, for about 20 years and my first kitchen family was in Columbus, Ohio where on a good Ohio State Football Saturday we could do over 800 covers. The owner had two stores, one on the east side of town, one on the west. I worked primarily, but not exclusively, in the east. Mary, the preparation cook there, told me once that you always love and never forget your first kitchen family and she was right. I worked in many places after that one and while I remember certain people and lots of events and stories, that first kitchen family was my family and I’ve never forgotten them and still love them, just as Mary said I would. I loved Mary most, Mother Mary.
Mr. Jim worked in the east too. I was a young kid, only twenty, and he was an old man, not a young kid’s exaggerated estimation of an old man, a real old man, so-to-speak. He was sixty-five and back in 1970 sixty-five wasn’t like it is today. I’m sixty-five now and people say that that is like what fifty-five used to be or even less. At my age today, my statistical life expectancy still gives me twenty years—I’m good.
Mr. Jim had been a chef on the dining cars of the railroads way back before my parents ever knew each other. He was officially retired and worked part time in the east store doing the lunches. As soon as the lunch rush was over, he packed up and left, but he kept Mary in check by making sure everything she cooked was right. He joked around with Bee, the daytime pantry lady, but he didn’t mess with her work at all since the salad dressings were store bought. Bee was in her forties and she served as the kitchen manager which basically meant she had the keys to the storeroom and uniform closet. Mr. Jim didn’t mess with Henry Lee at all. Henry Lee was the meat cutter and lunch time broiler cook. He had an artificial leg though you couldn’t tell unless he was tired; that’s when the pain got to him and he limped. Mr. Jim didn’t bother with Henry Lee because he had decided Henry Lee, in his mid-thirties and still wild, was incorrigible. Drunk all the time and high on top of that, Henry Lee was married to Alfrieda, the pantry lady in the west store, but that didn’t prevent him from making it with any of the pantry girls and waitresses he could get. Ever the quintessential gentleman, Mr. Jim simply steered clear of him.
Mr. Jim was one of the most soft-spoken, even-tempered and calm people I’ve ever known. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a hothead with a foul mouth and a quick temper. He was my exact opposite. He never cursed, never yelled, never got nervous even when we were so behind the rush that we could never catch up. Sometimes that happens; sometimes you fall behind near the start of the lunch or dinner rush and then run behind the whole way. Stuff happens!
I did the fryers at lunch, Mr. Jim worked in the middle carving the round and dishing up some of the broiler items and Henry Lee did the broiler and charcoal grill. Tommy Stevens, the assistant manager, had charged Mr. Jim with teaching me to carve the round (and everything else he could teach me as it came along too) so when there was a lull or I had no orders working from my station, he bid me step over and do the job.
A steamship round, basically stated, is the hind quarter of the cow, the ham on a pig, if you will. It goes varied weights, but usually we cooked a half of one every morning and they averaged about thirty pounds. Eventually I would learn not only to carve the round but to cut a whole one in half using the band saw and butcher’s knife, and I would learn all the other meat cutting and butchering chores they did in-house too, which was just about everything except breaking down the cow. Personally, I never much cared for actual butchering work, but I did like simple meat cutting, taking a sirloin strip or top butt and making it into steaks. Henry Lee, with my help for all the time I worked there, cut the meat for both stores. Early in the afternoon Alfrieda would drive the truck over from the west and pick up the meat they needed for the night. It wasn’t unusual for Alfrieda and Henry Lee to argue, but that’s another story to itself.
We started out slowly, Mr. Jim and me. Mr. Jim would begin the carving, cutting down from the top, boning out the middle chunk of fat and evening out the “boat deck” so all I had to do was carve. “Come on, boy,” he would say (he called me boy almost all the time) and I would walk down to the broiler end of the line where a knife sheath with all the knives we used was attached to the counter. The knives were rented and sent out to be sharpened once a week on Wednesdays when the knife man came in and switched one set for another. I would take up a carving knife and Mr. Jim would stand over me, show me where to start, lean back on his heels and kind of chuckle at my hatch marks and uneven strokes. Lots of times Tommy was standing there too and Mr. Jim would assure him that I would learn, and Mr. Jim always found ways to use any meat I messed up by carefully arranging the plates so my bad cuts were not visible.
Mr. Jim had his own carving knife. Later in my kitchen career, more specifically when I got to New York and went to work at the St. Regis Hotel, I would be required to have my own knives, and by the time I left that hotel it was common to see cooks traveling on the subway with their knife rolls. The carving knives for the restaurant were wide and round tipped and grooved along the side of the blade. The blades were about a foot long and they looked like what I’ve posted here (left). But Mr. Jim’s knife was quite different. His knife blade was much thinner and much longer. It sits in a sheath on top of my refrigerator and is older than me and in better shape too (right).
Mr. Jim watched me and coached me and patiently guided me as I hacked away at the rounds. Day after day he started them off, evened them out and cut out that middle fat for me, so all I had to do was follow his cutting pattern. Each time I left too many hatch marks, he picked up his knife and set the “boat deck” right, making it smooth and level all over again. “Don’t worry boy, you’re learning,” he’d say. He must have been laughing inside as he stood watching me. He stood pretty much the same way, arms akimbo and kind of rocking back on his heels. Every now and then he would stroke his whiskers and sometimes shake his head.
But he was right. One day I did get it. One day, through no particular special effort of my own, it just seemed as if I could feel the meat through the blade of that knife and I could set that blade almost level to that “deck” so it softly slid along and cut a smooth, thin slice of beef to be plated. And that day, over and over, I could do it, making the same stroke repeatedly.
After a couple days, when Mr. Jim had watched me become consistent in keeping the round smooth and even, he inconspicuously withdrew. When it came time to start a round, he was busy working with Mary and told me go on and start it for him. Or he was in the meeting room arranging the trays of cut meat he wanted up on the line. Or he was out in the office with Tommy making sure the menus were set just right.
The first time I cut the center fat out, Tommy was standing on the other side of the line by the serving counter where the waitresses picked up their orders from under the warmer lights. Mr. Jim handed me a boning knife and bid me go to work. I dug around the fat, that thin boning knife pretty much perpendicular to the meat, and then I angled inward so that I could lift that chunk of fat out. Voilà. Except I cut too deep and attached to that fat was a big chunk of very red, very rare meat. “Too deep,” Mr. Jim said to me. “Look what he did,” Tommy said. Then Mr. Jim did something uncharacteristic of him. He scooped up that chunk fat with meat attached and waved it at Tommy. “The boy gotta learn,” he said. Only when Tommy had left the kitchen did he ever-so-softly tell me not to go so deep next time.
Eventually, while I still worked in that steakhouse, Mr. Jim officially retired. During a quiet moment on the day of his party, he handed me his knife and told me to use it well. That was 44 years ago.
NB: This was originally written on January 31, 2015
We had about thirty inches of snow a few days ago in a record blizzard-type storm. It actually made blizzard status and is among the top five total snowfalls recorded since record-keeping times. The very morning of the storm, my dog Rachel went to a new home. She’s pictured on the blog several times and I’ll put a final picture of her with this entry. She went to what we call doggy heaven because she went to friends of friends, living now on a cul de sac with four homes and no traffic. Her new family has a farm with five acres of land for her to run on. She has a boyfriend next door, a lab that she met on her initial interview. They immediately became friends, took off on an excursion and spent the whole of the visit playing together–people be damned. Her new family called the same afternoon to say they wanted her, and next day, storm day, she was off. I had fallen about ten times walking her, and while she’s missed here, she’s in a better place and a better space. When asked about her sleeping quarters, response was that they had a king sized bed with plenty of space. In our house she slept in her bed downstairs in the living room. That, a friend, five acres and being able to go from one house to another as the dogs on that cul de sac do says it all.
So I had to blow the snow twice that first time just to get a semblance of a cleared driveway and walkway. Then it was shovel to just start to get at the curbs so I would know the borders. A third pass with the snow-blower cleared it out so that I only needed to shovel to make the edges at the curbs.
It wasn’t too cold those first two days of cleaning and the wind had died down too. But since then we’ve had one full dusting which required a complete run over the property with the shovel and then a small snow of about an inch which required another shovel-job. During that last shoveling, it was cold and winds gusted every now and then. The snow kept falling while I shoveled and while I worked the first craziness set in.
I was shoveling uphill and into the wind. Since there wasn’t much snow, it wasn’t hard work, and since I’d layered my clothes and wore a hat and a hood over it, I was was warm enough, even sweating.
“I’ll bet the Germans didn’t have to shovel the snow,” I thought. “I’ll bet they made the prisoners do it. I’ll bet the prisoners didn’t have warm clothes or gloves,” I thought.
This was all in reference to my father. He was a POW from 1942-1945, or a “Guest of the Third Reich” as I’ve learned in the time from yesterday to this morning as some of the other prisoners referred to it.
My mind went wild as I worked. I didn’t actually know what the weather was like where he was, didn’t even know the name of the camp he’d been in. I didn’t know what living conditions were like, how he was treated, what he went through. All I knew were a couple of stories he’d told and a couple of other people in my family told. My father, even when asked directly, never spoke about his war experiences, and from what I’ve read on the internet last night, I surmise a lot of WWII POW’s were/are the same way. But he once told me that his army days were the best days of his life, and if most of my life I’ve thought of myself as pretty messed up and pretty crazy, that statement coming from him gave me a good idea where my craziness came from. How could being a POW for more than three years lead to the best years of his life?
So here’s what I’ve learned.
His POW record is public. I found it on the internet. His serial number was just as I remembered it, just as I remember my Aunt Bella’s phone number from when I was a little kid. She gave us a dime each to call her in an emergency and before she let my brother or me go out of her apartment we had to prove we had memorized her number. Dickens 2-0484. In those days, the first two numbers were the first two letters of words–my childhood home phone was BA9-6920, the BA being for Bayside.
He was in Stalag IIIB Furstenberg in Prussia from 1k/1942 to 07/02/1945. His record states that the detaining power was Germany, but we know that he was in an Italian camp first and was recaptured after the Italians fled. There are pictures and maps, but I could not recognize his face in any of the pictures. He was a private. From what I’ve read now of other prisoner accounts, corporals and higher did not have to work, but privates worked 12-hour shifts doing hard labor and only received the same rations as those who didn’t have to work. Did my father have to do hard labor? What did he have to do?
Jews were treated more harshly than other prisoners. They knew my father was a Jew because one of the stories he told was about his intake. The two men before him were Jewish and lied to the Germans. My father said that by the time of that intake (he’d been in the Italian camp before this one) he didn’t care anymore if he lived or died and so he told the truth. The next morning the Germans shot the other two men but they let my father live. Did they torture him? Was he beaten? What did they do to him? I know he was starved because he came home totally emaciated and the government kept him isolated to fatten him up. Only my mother (but I wasn’t born yet) and his mother were allowed to see him for the first six weeks he was home.
“Crazy,” I thought. “I think shoveling snow is hard. Compared to what he went through…”
It’s impossible for me to imagine what my father went through. No matter what I find from other people’s accounts, it’s impossible to imagine or understand. It’s even hard to find direct historical accounts of Stalag IIIB, although I’ve spent hours looking so far.
So much is crazy and so much is unimaginable.
And then comes the Final March. This was the final craziness. It answers to the weather, what started this for me this time. The Germans did not want to set the prisoners free as the Russians advanced upon them and so they took them from Stalag IIIB on a forced march toward Berlin. One account I saw indicates they marched the first twenty-four hours non-stop through blizzard conditions. The Germans took any warm clothing the prisoners had for themselves, just like they took what they wanted from the Red Cross Aid that came, when it came, and so many prisoners died along the way and many more suffered frost bite. They marched and marched, The Guests of the Third Reich did, to no avail for the Germans since they had to abandon the prisoners and flee anyway.
Update: We’ve had three more storms since then and more coming including a major one predicted for Monday. Each time I clear the snow, I think about my father. I know now that at the very least he had to march through that blizzard unprotected by warm clothing, and each time I think this my plight seems so minor, so nothing. I think that no matter what has happened in my life, although sometimes really hard for me, it pales in comparison to what my father went through. I’ve had this particular thought throughout my life and it leads to many more thoughts.
Farewell to Rachel. I know she is loved where she is. She was made strong and healthy with us and she was greatly loved.