Okay. So I was drunk at 7:00 AM when I got onto the kitchen floor that first day of work at the St. Regis. Actually we got onto the floor at 7:30. Raul, the head vegetable man and union representative, took me around and introduced me to everyone working at the time. Julio, a Peruvian Indian, was a pantry man along with Logart, Isaac Logart, who had been a Cuban middleweight boxer until he jumped the Cuban Olympic Team truck and defected in the 1950s. Logart was the number one ranked middleweight fighter in the world, but he never got a title shot because, as he told it, he wouldn’t take a dive. André was the Chef Garde Manger, and his sidekick’s name was John. They were from Bretagne. André was quite a chef. He worked at the White House sometimes since his friend was the Chef Garde Manger there and when they needed extra help or had something really, really special, André was called upon. Serge was André’s cousin, a bit of a screw up but a happy-go-lucky guy who could do the work when he was so inclined, which was mostly never. He probably would not have had a job if not for his cousin.
On the hot side was Jimmy, the broiler cook. He was Chinese but he spoke Spanish and he was the cousin of the banquet chef. Jimmy bought the beers from the cooks who didn’t drink at three for fifty cents and sold them at a quarter apiece. From Jimmy I learned that if you had a bucket full of beers in water and ice and dumped in a whole load of salt, the beers got cold almost immediately because the salt formed a crust on the top and whatever chemical thing happened, that was the result. By union contract, the cooks got 3 cans of beer a day and the chefs got 3 bottles of beer a day.
Next to Jimmy was Mario, the fry cook. He was Mexican. Down passed Mario was Miguel, also Mexican, the saucier, whose station I was to work on, and next to Miguel was Raymond, the soup and fish cook. Miguel always sent me away when it came time to season any food he was making. From Miguel I learned how not to be a teacher.
The vegetable station, mainly a big stainless steel table on which were many cutting boards, was situated beyond the fish station and right in front of the stock pots. Raul and his bandits stood here and cut all the vegetables for the day. Just passed this table was a partial wall and beyond it was the pot washer station. Tarzan worked there; he was built like an ape and was the six-for-five man and numbers game owner.
Right passed the cold food station you made a hard left into the bakery. This was Arturo’s domain. He was a true pastry chef. He was Italian but his pastry man was French. For the life of me, I can’t remember his name, but I can recall his face when I think about it. They made everything you could possibly imagine in pastries and cookies and pies and cakes, everything. Arturo decorated the grandiose wedding cakes made for kings and the super rich who could afford to have their affairs in this hotel, and they would do anything special that anyone wanted, so if a guest wanted a special cake made exactly like a Yankee hat, they would do it. Arturo was another union delegate.
Dominic worked in this station too. He was a baker. He made all the breads, rolls, muffins, brioche and croissants. Everything was made in-house, from mayonnaise on up. At one point in my tenure there, Dominic’s shift was changed to evenings and at about 11:00 PM each night the first trays of fresh croissants came out of the oven. Francisco, the night Garde Manger, and I would drink an espresso and pick the exact croissants we wanted to eat. Nothing in any kitchen I’ve ever worked in was more exquisite than this.
This was the day crew of the kitchen proper on my first day there. Underneath the kitchen was the butcher shop and the dishwasher station and a whole labyrinth of storerooms and walk-in ice boxes and freezers. Raymond was the butcher. I know the name repeats, but that’s how it was in real life. The Executive Chef, André Rene, hunted and he would bring the deer he killed to the hotel where Raymond butchered them. All hunting season we served venison, and when I became saucier, which is the first cook, I was responsible for making the currant sauce and the pepper sauce and ragout we served .
The cold food side spoke French and Spanish. The hot food side spoke Spanish. Orders were called in Spanish by the floor chefs. The menus were in French, although they had a Russian Room too. No English was spoken. The cooking bibles were Escoffier and Repertoire de la Cuisine, and the latter one didn’t contain amounts. If you needed a recipe, Repertoire only listed the ingredients; it assumed that the people using it already knew how to cook and only needed to refresh their memory.
I got my job at the St. Regis Hotel thanks to someone who couldn’t hire me because he had no open positions but who wanted to help me out. He made a phone call to his friend, the Executive Chef, and got me an interview from which I was hired as a rounds man, a relief cook, which meant I worked two mornings and three nights, each shift on a different station. I had Mondays and Thursdays off. Yes, that’s right! I had split days off and worked late Tuesday night then early Wednesday morning with barely enough time for sleep in between. The same was true for Saturday night to early Sunday morning.
When I reported for my first day of work, a Tuesday morning, I was an unknown quantity. No one knew me, I knew no one, and I certainly did not know anything about the “powers that be” there. I was shown where to get my uniform, then to my locker, and by the time I had changed, about 7:15 AM, an older man with a scraggly three-day salt and pepper stubble and a scruffy, unkempt grey mustache was sitting on the bench nearby waiting for me. One of his eyes was cataract-covered and noticeably wandering, but I would learn that this didn’t mean he didn’t see what was going on in the kitchen and all around him. He introduced himself as Raul, the chef legumière, and he told me he was one of the union stewards. I introduced myself and we shook hands.
Raul, I would discover, was one of the Mafioso. His first question to me was whether or not I had joined the union and I explained that I was in the process of transferring my book from Cleveland, where I had also worked for Sheraton, and that I would be making a visit to the union hall as soon as I could. This was a satisfactory answer, but he made sure to tell me to let him know when I had my book and current stamp (they actually stamped the books in those days to show you’d paid your dues). Then one of his “vegetable men” came by with a bottle of scotch and some Dixie cups. He introduced the man as Tarzan and indeed he was built like Tarzan. I would later discover that he was the six-for-five man, a loan shark, and he also ran a numbers game and was really quite rich. Tarzan spread three cups on the bench and filled them with scotch.
I was never a morning drinker and never liked drinking early in the day unless I was by myself and had absolutely nothing to do. I tried to decline the cup handed me but Raul would have none of it. “Really,” I said, “I don’t drink in the morning and I’m not used to it.” Raul simply wasn’t hearing me and finally, as it was now nearing the time we were due on the kitchen floor, I drank the scotch down. “Salute,” he said with a big grin.
We walked together to the kitchen floor and Raul personally took me around to meet everyone who was working. I would discover that almost everyone was already drunk or seriously drinking and Raul’s job was to get me, the unknown quantity and a variable, to drink so I would have nothing on any of them. For him, my drinking down the scotch was a fait accompli. For me, it meant that my very first day on a very new job, I was drunk by the time I reached the kitchen floor.
Drunk at 7:00 AM.
I coached a Debate Team for eleven years when I taught in the Bronx. We were a poor school, in one of the poorest zip codes in America. Our population was 65% Latino and 35% African American; both groups could be further categorized, but that is not of import here. If you wanted to see segregation at its worst, this school would have been the one to look at since most times the only Caucasian in the room was me. They were kids from the projects and the different projects fought. They were gang kids and the gangs fought. Fight, fight, fight: you’d think that was all the kids knew. But it wasn’t. One thing street kids know very well is simple logic. One true pleasure with these kids was when you were telling the truth they listened and when you were giving BS they told you so straight to your face in no-holds-barred terms.
Over the years we produced some good teams and several times we made it into the quarter-finals of the Lincoln-Douglass Debates, a citywide competition in New York, where we came up against the top city schools, Stuyvesant High School and Bronx Science. We lost to those schools not because they were better or smarter or even because they actually beat us. We lost to those schools because of politics: it was not politically correct for a poor, ragamuffin school to outwit the best of the best. I’m not saying we always won, but surely we didn’t always lose, and sometimes the judging was downright outrageous and the score sheets so illogical it was humorous. I would ask the team members what they saw in the lopsided score sheets and they would point up the logical discrepancies. Then I’d ask them why we lost and they would tell me because of who they were. I’d ask for a clarification of that answer and they would tell me it wasn’t cool for a big name school to be beaten by a school from the South Bronx.
There wasn’t a single mind in my debate classes or any of my classes that I wouldn’t have put up against any similar grouping of kids from a different ethnic background. Or the only inferiority that was in my kids in that school was that which had been placed there by the disadvantage of their upbringing: the poverty, the uneducated parents, the breakdown of family structure, the gangs, drugs and exploitation they suffered on a daily basis from their own kind first since logically it was closer to them and by the society second since they were expendable and had no political voice and it could.
I did my Dissertation on these kids all grown up and why they didn’t graduate high school. My study group wasn’t the exact same kids but a similar group of them who had quickly come to the end of their short lives in one way or another by realizing they had squandered their youth and wasted their time since they could not go anywhere economically. Logic told them they had to do something to improve their economic lot. Logic told them they couldn’t make it as drug dealers (because even in that field only the best of the best make it and if you’re not one of those, they kill you, literally). Logic told them they weren’t going to the NBA or NFL or MLB. So they had to do something. Most of them were parents now, even the really young ones, and all of them were single parents. The guys wanted to support their kids and the ladies wanted to support their kids and welfare wasn’t doing it. Logic told them there was better out there and if they worked toward it they could get it. Logic told them they had been exploited. The girls recounted how they had been wooed by the older boys with flash-cash and cars and then lost their virginity or worse, gotten pregnant only to have to succumb to crooked caseworkers taking kickbacks and blow jobs for benefits. The boys told how many of their friends had died from drugs or bullets and how bosses didn’t pay them what they were supposed to get. If they were on probation or had a record (which was almost all of them) they had to grease the palms of their PO’s to get just the chance for an opportunity.
In the end, logic told them what they had been doing didn’t work and they had to do something that would work. Logic told them that no matter how messed up the system was—what the Debate teams had learned—you still had to work within in to get anywhere better than where they were at now.
My first father-in-law told me that by nature human beings were selfish and greedy. Logic told my kids and those kids in my dissertation group this same notion. But logic also told them they had to work around it within the system to get anywhere.
Maybe we should go back to listening to logic. Maybe our current leaders should take a good look at their logic and at the results of it, things like 22 trillion dollars has been spent on the war on poverty and the poverty rate hasn’t changed, and then reassess their logic. Maybe they should stop hurling statements like “You have to sign it to see what’s in it,” and start considering if they themselves would do that for a personal mortgage. I don’t think so. Isn’t it time we really look at logic and listen to it?