poached filet of sole

Union and management clashed a lot in the hotels in the 1970s. There were many issues, some a lot more important than others and some which should not, perhaps, have been issues at all. I can’t speak about after 1979 since I haven’t been involved with hotels since then, but in the 1970s , major issues ranged from preservation of jobs to wages. Examples of non-issues might be things like the fireman’s job. In older times when the stoves were wood-burning, a fireman’s position was necessary because the fires had to be built ahead of time and then had to be maintained throughout the day. Since there were a lot of stoves and a lot of fires to be maintained, it was a vital position with lots of work, little glory, and a high risk of getting burned. With the advent of gas, that position became obsolete, and while management argued for the elimination of the position and the termination of the firemen, the union argued to preserve the title and find other work for the firemen to do. That was pretty much how it played out, so in the St. Regis, for example, the firemen came in at 6 AM and lit the gas stoves since they were all flat-top stoves and required some warm-up time, then did kitchen chores ranging from accompanying the floor chefs to get the requisitions filled, acting as runner (a go-for) for things needed, and cleaning and maintaining the stock pots, etc. Believe me, there was plenty of work for them!

In all, the fireman’s position was not a big deal except to management which saw it as an inroad into layoffs and cutting kitchen personnel; once management began to cut there, that was the lead-in for cutting whenever and wherever it chose.

One of the biggest issues in the hotel I worked in was combination jobs. Simultaneously, the major nationwide issue for the union was wage increases for the maids. Eventually the union leaders and the union people in the St. Regis would come into conflict with these, but that is a story for another time.

One evening when I came into work, I saw that the main kitchen had a small banquet to do at 6 PM, a wedding reception of about 20 people. I noted it had a fish-item appetizer and we had no fish cook that night. Yes, for each type of food there was a specific cook and the union held to not letting cooks do combination jobs, a matter of preventing drastic cuts in the kitchen personnel. What was on the menu was really no big deal: a simple poached fish in a simple white wine sauce with a simple  garnish. It had a fancy French name, but that was all it amounted to. Under any normal, ordinary circumstances, I would’ve knocked it out from my station. I was first cook and really it was no big deal. The problem was that I was Assistant Shop Chairman for the union; I couldn’t possibly perform a combination job, no matter how simple, since it would’ve set a precedent I could not/would not set.

The Executive Chef knew this. The Sous Chef knew this. They, especially the top banana, were counting on my not wanting to ruin a wedding reception for some happy but unsuspecting newly-married couple. And I didn’t want to do that; I didn’t want to do that very much. So at 4 PM, two hours after I started work but when both the Sous Chef and Executive Chef made their first appearances in the kitchen during my shift that day, I asked to speak to them and we met in the chef’s office. I told them that I couldn’t possibly put up that fish appetizer and wouldn’t do it only because of my union position. I told them that in respect for the newlyweds and for them and my job I would prepare everything and leave it ready. All they needed to do was to bring in a cook to serve. The chef didn’t say anything other than that he expected the banquet to go off without a hitch and for the fish appetizer to be plated at 6 PM when the banquet waiters came for it. He and his sous chef then disappeared and didn’t return to the kitchen until 6 PM on the dot when they both went into the office and purposefully stayed off the kitchen floor.

I didn’t waste my time. I spoke with Tony, the Floor Chef, Gomez, the Shop Chairman, and my friend Isidro, the night Garde Manger, and we all concurred that I would prepare everything as I had told the chef but not serve it, and that was that. Gomez was not working that night, so in effect I was the head union person, and I was surely in a bind.

At 6 PM sharp, the banquet waiters came for the fish appetizer. I wouldn’t plate it and stayed on my station, maybe 10 or 12 feet away. The waiters begged me and finally the headwaiter went for the banquet captain who went directly into the chef’s office. By this time it was nearly 6:15 PM and I had already held up the serving of the banquet by a quarter-hour.

The rest happened really fast. The Chef came storming out of the office followed by the banquet captain and ordered me to put up the fish appetizer. I told him I couldn’t and wouldn’t. He then came around the service counter, swooped up my knives in a hissy-fit and hurled them over the counter into the middle of the kitchen. Next, he fired me, ordered me off the kitchen floor and to go punch my time-card. Then he ordered the Floor Chef, Tony, to put up the fish.

I didn’t quite obey, but I didn’t quite disobey. My knives had scattered. Some had bounced on the floor and landed. Others had flown to the middle table and bounced off that to the floor. I took my time collecting them, long enough to see Tony serve up the fish appetizer and then slide over to my station, the saucier station, to start readying the main course for dishing up. I’d prepared everything for both courses and so the damage to the newlyweds was a mere fifteen-minute delay, one I had done my very best to avoid.

In the locker room, I locked up my knives and changed clothes then sat down on the bench in front of my locker, the same bench I’d sat on a few short years ago when Raul had handed me the cup of scotch I’d drunk at 7:15 in the morning before heading into the kitchen for my first day of work. I knew the chef could not fire me for doing union business, so I wasn’t all that worried. I was concerned, for sure, since I needed the paycheck, but I was more pissed than anything, not that the chef had fired me but because of how he had handled my knives.

Before I left for home, my friend Isidro found me in the locker room. He told me that they’d spoken to Gomez, the shop chairman, and Arturo and Raul, the kitchen delegates, and to the union. The union had said for me to report to work as usual the next day, to clock in and go to work no matter what the chef did and that Ernie Peters, our union field representative and business agent, would be in to see me sometime during my shift.

(to be continued)