Saturday, May 9, 2020

Humanist reflects on his path to a "respectable mastery" in culinary arts. 4 of 4

continued from part 3, the Denver years.

Back home and the Tamarron Resort, Durango, Colorado

On a visit home I stopped in at the Tamarron Resort north of Durango for a casual inquiry.  HR sent me to see the restaurant manager.  Turned out to be a French import, who was there for one year as part of his own career building.  He was also lonesome for someone with a bit of continental sensibilities and genuine appreciation for fine dining.  He practically wouldn’t let me leave his office without promising to take the job and come back and start working.  
Though I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with Denver, three years of the big city was getting to be enough and it was time to get back to home and my people, so I said sure.
When my French pal went back to his home, and to take up his next position with the French President’s culinary/service team for a year, I was promoted to replace him.  While manager I created a server training manual for the San Juan Mtn Cafe.
About a year later a Hilton corporate guy was imported and replaced me and I was moved to banquet setup and banquet bartender - duties included being holder of one of three keys to the big liquor and wine store room and being responsible for receiving and keeping inventory.  
During this time I also created a nifty spread sheet to track banquet bars, building formulas to process the opening inventory, re-stocking numbers, closing inventory and automatically produce the bill, including figuring in service charges, tax, etc.  I was gratified to see it worked like a charm and we adapted the practice.  But they were getting ever more corporate and I thought I had a better offer.
I was ready to get away from corporate overlords and guests and to get back into the kitchen and the fairly new Foxfire Grill beckoned.  With a new large meat smoker in back, and an incredible top shelf Tequila and Scotch selection in front, a smallish kitchen, lots of prep, cutting so many hot chilies that my hands literally burned for a week before getting acclimated.  Very weird, it wasn’t exactly painful, but the burning sensation was nonstop.  There was a time before gloves were common.  :-)  I prepped meat and loading and unloading their smoker and made a few difference ‘secret’ BBQ sauces following their recipes, along with other prep work.  I also helped on the line during dinners.
When their situation changed and they needed a new manager up front, they made me that someone.  The place seemed a sure bet, great food, lots of customers.  The owners seemingly knew what they were doing considering their very successful long running downtown sports bar with something like 40 beers on tap.  Surely they knew what they were doing.
Well, that’s what I thought until I got up front and saw that the owners were more into playing big shots -  like characters out of the movies.  This is where I first enunciated something I mentioned earlier.  
The main owner was mom, tough old gal who’d been around, partnering with two of her sons.  One night she was talking about her inspiration for opening the Foxfire.  She was frustrated with the limitation of their popular sports bar, with it’s tiny kitchen and tiny bar menu.  Here she had her chance to shine, because she always wanted her own a restaurant tailored to her tastes.  She achieved that.  It was successful so far as people coming in and spending their money, having a good time and returning for more.  
But here again they gave away so much that they couldn’t pay some bills and worst, overlooked their taxes.  One morning we arrived for work, instead we found a special meeting with mimosas, apologies and tears, and the tax man’s foreclosure notice on the table.  As happens pretty much every year to at least one, if not a few restaurants in this fair town of ours.
So that was my last culinary arts related paying job.  Oops, forgot to mention the couple years I worked part-time at Mama’s Boy, in Hermosa, where I learned how to make pizza dough and pizzas from a genuine Italian mama’s boy, which I’d never done before, so another one for the bucket list.
There was also a few weeks experiment as baker at Carver’s Bakery, but between 4am wake up time and a baker for whom nothing was ever good enough, it didn’t last.  Fortunately I discovered that was her MO, so I didn’t beat up myself too much over that one.  Still the upshot, I learned how to make bagels and donuts, having done it for a few weeks, another one for the bucket list.  
But wait, there’s more.
There was the short order cook disaster while up in Anacortez, Washington for a few months during my first winter back in the US.  It kicked my ass.  I was still all heady on “fine dining” and Zhivago’s, but this was rapid fire orders, needing serious coordination and timing.  Unforgiving eggs, irritated high pressure servers.  That job taught me some humility and a lot of respect for good short order cooks.  Getting fired came with a great sense of relief.  Besides, it opened up an entirely different adventure working out on the Puget Sound itself, but that's another story. 
Also back during those Denver years I worked at a private dining club. The Metropolitan Club, quite close to Fiddler’s Green.  White gloves, black jacket, silver domes on platers nestling exquisite dinner dishes.  Along with brushing crumbs off table tops between courses, of course with silver scraper and catch tray and a hint of flare.  Everything from the proper direction and at the proper time in the flow of service.  For larger groups we did centipede service, very popular and very cool when everyone is on.  Which we were most the time.  Making table side Caesar Salad was fun to perform and I was introduced to rich men's top shelf single malt scotch comparison tastings by virtue of "hosting" their small monthly gathering, after a few rounds they'd loosened up and had me tasting their very fine booze.
I liked it there but, economy was in a down turn and their corporate guests counts were down.  Big tips, but too little volume and it conflicted with other schedules so I had to quit, grateful for the experiences.
By 2000 I was pretty well finished with restaurants and focused on framing construction, related trades, and I got to taste few more unrelated ones over the years.

Still, once a server, always a server.

Durango Bluegrass Meltdown Greenroom at the historic Strater Hotel
This summary of my adventures in culinary artistry would be incomplete without mentioning the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown and a decade of being the coordinator of the festival’s Greenroom located in the Oak Room of the Strater Hotel.

First two years I was simply volunteering behind the buffet line, though it became clear to everyone they’d found an energetic banquet ringer in me.
As fate would have it the Greenroom Manager was moving out of town and there was no one to replace him.  Or was there?  Saturday after dinner, with the room still full of free beer drinkers, the DBM festival president of the board, in the presence of many supportive board members, come to me.  He knelt on one knee and implored me most eloquently to take up the helm.  What could I do?  I said I do.  He made an official toast, we drank and were merry.  The rest is history.  Did I mention they were/are a fun crowd?  
First years were touchy since the Strater management and their staff was getting irritated with the Bluegrass weekend.  The weird donated food buffet that the owner imposed on them, it’s unheard of, giving your facilities over to civilians for a weekend.  Also the Greenroom deal was getting too big, too chaotic, tad too boozy and volunteers were carelessly stepping on toes creating more tension.
25 Years of Thump and Twang
Through an awareness of what was happening and an understanding of why it was pissing off the kitchen staff and others, I proactively fixed issues that reduced the mess we left behind and showed them we appreciated them.
I also made a big deal of better explaining rules, procedures and expectations to our Greenroom volunteers.  The need to respect the Strater’s rules and expectations became a refrain.  The partiers were pissed at me and many stopped volunteering, but others were impressed.  Now we have a smooth running crew with over half repeat volunteers every year so newbies get trained correctly from the start.
It didn’t stop there, I made kitchen access only me or a designated stand in.  Since I understood how to move around in that busy crowded brigade kitchen without getting in the way.  I gained their respect, eventually their acceptance, now an enthusiastic welcome.  ‘Hey Pete’s here, summer season has officially started.’     
There was even the splendid coincidence of being friends with two Strater chefs whom I worked with some twenty earlier at the Tamarron Resort.  They gave me some bona fides in front of the others, no denying that it felt good to be reminded that I’m a part of the fabric of this community.  

Also sharing a little bounty to back up the Thank You’s goes a long way.
My ‘coordinating’ starts in Jan/Feb and by mid April it was show time.  All told a hundred-fifty plus musicians and volunteers, six meals, over three days, organizing food donations with some twenty businesses mainly restaurants, and nearly 30 volunteers doing shifts.  Most exciting for me was the interface with the hotel operation, being entrusted with the golden key to the place so to speak.  Back to 12 hour shifts and balls to the wall for one heroic weekend a year.  With a nice Strater Hotel room to sleep in for consolation, no temp service ever offered that.
It Takes a Community!  Durango's Bluegrass Meltdown
The fascinating joy of being allowed into someone else’s busy brigade kitchen during show time and blending in.  Running in and out of their kitchen, their walk-in to our Meltdown’s designated speed rack, and most everywhere else, downstairs to backup ice machine (since I know to leave plenty in the server station machine for their staff), laundry room and linen, or banquet coffee makers, like I belonged there.
Jamming at the Strater Hotel, the real Bluegrass Meltdown time
Three days at the center of music magic, I rarely had time for the shows going on at a number of venues.  Excepting the after-hours end of the rainbow gig in the lobby and hallways of the Strater Hotel where musicians from many different bands have a chance to socialize and play with each other surrounded by fans, including amateurs who brought their own instruments to play along.  Definitely unique, even the touring musicians tell us it’s like no other festival or concert. 

Durango Bluegrass Meltdown's Greenroom - 2019
We’re also told by musicians that our Greenroom has the best spread and hospitality on the Bluegrass festival circuit.
Couldn’t do it for a living any more, but one weekend a year, when everyone is cooperating and happy to be a part of such an incredible event, that was wonderful to be a part of.  
Why do I put it in the past?  Sadly I find it hard to believe it will ever come back after trump's virus and the venomous self-destructive Tea Partier Republicans finish tearing apart our country and its citizens this year. 

What does a "Respectable Mastery" of Culinary Arts mean?

Now back to the fundamental question, 
by what rights do I proclaim I have a “respectable mastery of culinary arts”?
It begins with my experience and my understanding of food and food handling, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, basic sauces, application of heat.  Understanding preparation techniques, also sanitation practices, food temp awareness, food safety standards, along with other aspects of food sciences, etc.
I also understand basic paperwork, ordering, receiving, inventory, scheduling, POS systems and such.
I understand mise en place and I understand how restaurants operate back of house and front of house.
In my active years I could be placed into any kitchen (where we speak the same language and everyone is on the same side.) and become a valuable asset during a rush.  Why?  Because I understand the basics that all restaurants have in common and I can be quiet and watch, listen, learn.
Besides knowing how to graciously take direction, one must observe and communicate.  Can I help you?  What should I do?  Is it okay to do such and such?  Simple clear communication and echo, that is, acknowledging when spoken to, to make certain we are all following the same plan.
Then I can follow through on my assignment - if it’s helping cook, or dish, or expedite, or go back to help the dishwasher get caught up and get that line restocked, or to do some emergency prep.  I know how to go and do it.  By that I mean, besides having the knowledge and skills, my ego doesn’t get in the way, I’m happy being a cog in an operation focused on a common goal.
My weakness was my taste buds and palate memory.  That coupled with a curious innate indifference toward food makes me mediocre when it comes to seasoning and judging flavors, or creating grand dishes and menus made to impress.  Don't get me wrong, it's not an indifference towards food itself - it's a matter of not being particularly opinionated about the nuances.  Possessing a wide range of tolerance.  
A nice meatloaf with garlic mashed potatoes and simple vegetables can be more satisfying and wholesome than the artsy fartsy food fashion of the day.  I also dare say, the meatloaf is a more honest food than the ever more contrived creations top chefs are forced to invent.
Just give me the product and I’ll process it the way you want and create a good wholesome meal, nicely plated and served with style.  In other words, I may not be a dedicated Rembrandt, but that doesn't preclude having achieved a respectable mastery of professional culinary arts, back and front of house.   :-)

This humanist's adventures in culinary arts: 

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