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.