Sauced Kitchens Or When A Pistol Appears

08:56 October 03, 2019
By: Phil LaMancusa

"Welcome to Green Gables Country Club-your home away from home for the summer season. We've seen to every detail regarding your comfort and convenience: The swimming pool is out to your left, tennis courts to the right; our golf pro will handle all your tee times, and there are card rooms and private dining suites just up the grand staircase. The cigar bar is toward the rear, past the conference rooms. Breakfast buffet, lunch, and dinner will be served in the main dining room. Our menu will apprise you that should you wish anything that's not listed; our culinary staff will happily prepare anything that you wish. Please refrain from entering the kitchen. The Chef is 'a maniac and might kill you just for kicks and grins.' His words, not mine."

When I was youngish, a mere 30, I cooked in this kitchen of culinary cutthroats, pyrotechnical pirates, and mainstream misfits. We fed privileged, pampered, perfumed and pomaded persons. We didn't hate them; they were our charges, the people that we played like marionettes who strut and fret their hour upon our stage. We were the inner workings. What did they know?

They knew nothing.

John Borg Jr. was the chef in the kitchen. His genre was controlled chaos; his crew were his accomplices. He was the gang leader. We were his gang.

We were forced to listen to his favorite music at all times. It was either the Rolling Stones or Beethoven-all on an old record player. We worked 12-14 hours a day, ate on the run, and drank from a keg of beer (PBR) in the walk-in. The universe revolved around us. Rarely were we given days off. It was worth it. We served at the behest of a gourmet god; Borg and our kitchen were our world. We were defined by our work-we would've done this for nothing.

Mom (aka Wayne Dunstin) worked the cold station. He was responsible for getting us to and from work in whatever condition we happened to be in. Andy, the son of a well-to-do family and an alcoholic misfit, was my wing-man. We had (female) dishwashers with loose morals and a pearl diver (pot sink) named Domino Floater who came to work in his pajamas and a silk baseball cap-his favorite thing to do was to tell the waitresses that passed by his station what great breasts they had.

I was the sauté spider monkey. My woman and child had left me, and I spent a lot of time sleeping in my car with my Chesapeake Bay retriever Saffron. I didn't care; I worked in the presence of genius. I was totally wet-brained, running on impulse, and learning.

We worked and drank until we were tired, and then we worked and drank some more. When we got off work, we would go out to bars and drink some more. It was not unusual for Borg to challenge an entire bar's customers to a brawl-he was that kind of guy.

Borg smoked pot from a corn cob pipe in the kitchen. Sometimes he used the trashcan as a urinal. He packed his nose in the office (although we didn't learn about that until later). He had a library of 10,000 cookbooks. He knew everything, and he force-fed us information that we sponged up like dehydrated desert rats.

One week, we tunnel-boned 200 Rock Cornish hens for a Jewish wedding. We made a Périgueux sauce from the bones, and Borg threw me a copy of Escoffier and commanded me to read the section on clarifying stocks.

The day arrived, and the kitchen stood at attention, waiting for commands. Borg jumped up on a prep table and put on an LP of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, directing the kitchen as though it was an orchestra, and that's how we performed. After the meal, the entire kitchen marched out into the dining room, to a standing ovation. I decided to become a chef that day. Borg stood with his arms outstretched, head bent, as if on a crucifix, and we saw him as our messiah.

That was forty-five years ago.

To this day, after recalling my actions and attitudes, I can't help but wonder why I thought that was a normal working environment, but I did. A lot of places still have a similar environment. I'm amazed that I went through that tunnel and managed to come out the other side as sane as I am.

Sometimes, we would catch an afternoon break, pile into Mom's station wagon (he had dubbed it The American Dream), buzz to his house with beers and po-boys, watch Star Trek, and see if we could guess who was gonna get laid in that episode.

I fell in love with a little redheaded girl who worked in a hospital pharmacy and would sometimes bring her work home with her. She and her friends had come to town from Martha's Vineyard just for a lark. They were friends of Carly Simon, James Taylor, and them folk.

I had a summer adventure that I still haven't recovered from: Andy went back to his family, Mom died of cirrhosis, and Borg forged ahead of us all and got clean and sober-but never sane. One September morning, I discovered snow on the ground and promptly put in my notice and drove back to New Orleans.

As much as I cherish Anthony Bourdain, I must say, when I picked up Kitchen Confidential, I only got to page 14. My thought was "been there, done that." Anyone that worked in the old kitchens knows that that's the way things were-normally. There was not a shred more sanity in the front of the house either. To paraphrase the Hatter, "Alice, we're all mad here."

That was then, and this is now. We wouldn't get away with that sort of stuff today-or want to. Thank goodness.

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