Monday, May 4, 2020

Humanist reflects on his path to a "respectable mastery" in culinary arts. 1 of 4

It is indescribably frustrating trying to have a constructive dialogue with Republican trumpster types. Diversions, distractions, derision, topped off with dripping belligerent and grotesque Willful Ignorance, seems all they are capable of delivering.  
Ask for a little substance and it's crickets, or worse.  Most recently, at my virtual corner pub, the Center For Inquiry Forum, rather than keeping on point of the thread I started, looking at the contemptible Dorr Bro's fraud:"The Dorr Brother Scams Exposed – denying physical reality in action" and their descent into Fascist behavior.  It's been the usual disingenuous diversion, one after another.  From attacking the right of the medical staff to stand up to those malicious protesters who are intent on increasing the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus, to dismissing the news stories because the reporter has a bias.  When I try to discuss bias, Sree comes back with another diversion, this one with slander in his heart.  All in order to pretend away the facts and the harm the Dorr's are causing for personal financial enrichment.
Long story short, though the following was motivated by getting irritated by a clown attempting derision, it's actually a project I've often dreamed of doing and it is written for my kids and family and friends, some of whom are curious about my travels and confused about how all those experiences were achieved.  This is concentrated on my culinary experiences, but can't help but drift into occasional glimpses into other aspects of my adventures.
Thanks for showing me your blog
Master of culinary arts?  
How about a throw down with me? 
Which cuisine are you masterful at? 
I don’t mean rib tips and stuff. I am talking international.
For the sake of accuracy what I wrote is that I have a "respectable mastery of culinary arts and framing construction."  ;-)  When I accepted his offer and tried engaging, by asking about his own experiences, the joker goes crickets on me, the way they always do.  That's because he's down to vapors while I have substance. 
What get's me is that liberal progressive rational types keep rolling over for those same juvenile tactics a thousand times over, which is why we're in this downward spiral, but enough of that. 
This is about me and a young man's path to a respectable mastery in culinary arts.
In the beginning.
During our senior year in high school, we were expected to decide on this or that career.  I hadn’t a clue beyond knowing I was going to get a job in Yosemite Valley and live there, then travel.  When pressed, the best I could  come up with was that I'd like to know how food is made and buildings built.  Not much, in fact embarrassing at the time, but in hindsight, spot on.

Camp Curry and Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California
It all began in Yosemite Valley at the Curry Cafeteria,
where I got hired fresh out of high school as a busboy.  Within a week I was promoted to “Plate Supply”, within another couple weeks I was again promoted to “Cold Supply,” putting me in a position of having to run throughout the entire back end of the operation in order to supply everything that didn’t come out of the kitchen to the front lines of our cafeteria.  

I had to constantly deal with the shipping/receiving manager, storeroom clerk.  A man who’d been their forever.  He liked me because I knew how to shut up and listen.  He liked explaining things and telling stories, I wanted to learn and do a good job.  One hand washes the other.  The upshot was that in one summer at 18 I became familiar with the complexities and interdependences of that entire, always busy Curry Cafeteria operation, including basic requisition and inventory paperwork. 
When Curry Cafeteria and Village closed for the season, I was destined for the ski rental shop at Badger Pass YNP, but in the intervening months I was transferred to one of the most magnificent restaurants in America at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley.  I became a busboy in this first class coat and tie required dining establishment, mind you it is still 1973.  

The Ahwahnee, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California

I got paired with an old waitress who had the reputation for being a terror for her busboys.  Turns out we got along splendidly.  She was a fascinating lady, if strict and old fashioned, she had worked there for decades and was actually friends with Mary Curry Tresidder last of the pioneer family who created and owned the park’s concessions and died just a few years earlier.
The Ahwahnee Hotel and restaurant was the Curry family flagship, expenses and profits were secondary, this hotel was the family’s labor of love for the National Park that made them wealthy.  Lots of silver and etched crystal glasses and monogrammed plates, as it was still hanging on to its first class service.  It had a huge full brigade kitchen, I’d never seen such a thing before.
Me, I was this neat bilingual nice guy who knew how to shut up and listen.  I listened and she taught me service and we became a tight team and scheduled together regularly.  Always in the better stations, thanks to her excellence.  Also considering the frequent German guests, speaking the language fluently turned into a money making asset.  Not to mention the kudos from occasionally having a guest requesting to be sat in my section, me a freak’n busboy.
Culinary Service Arts
To this day when I discuss guest service my back straightens and my hands and arms become animated because I appreciate that good restaurant service is an art, a performance, a skill.  A good server/host appreciates that two-thirds of what guests taste is the experience.  
Personal enthusiastic service, knowledge of the menu and wines, attentiveness, when to step up or step back.  Be observant, scans faces and table tops, we aware of the pace, tempo of individual tables  -  the server is host and responsible for the logistics of a successful dinner, which includes successfully ordering and communicating with the folks in the back of the house.  
In the kitchen, cooperation and “echo!” - speak, listen, acknowledge, respond - following the rules of the house is just as important as schmoozing your guests.
Working with her for only a few months gave me a real leg up.  It helped reinforce the lessons my parents taught us during trips to Chicago symphony concerts and museums, etc, where we were expected to behave with respect and manners, not just towards people but also institutions and grand spaces, or else. 
It came natural to me in a way it didn’t to others, I could serve without feeling denigrated.  It helped that I liked people and liked seeing them smile and found myself in places I could never have inhabited otherwise.  Side tips helped reinforce such behavior and awareness.  It was enlighten self-interest.  That was a fun few months, but I was 18 with dreams of skiing and working at Badger Pass.  

Badger Pass, California's old operating ski area, Yosemite National Park
So, I moved on to Badger Pass Ski Area rental shop.  A month into that and the ski repair man up and quit and I was promoted to ski repairman.  That opened up entirely new vistas, training, a couple industry ski shows and such.  I was living the dream, girls schmoozing me, rather than me schmoozing old dinner guests.  When Badger Pass closed, I transferred to the Wawona Hotel as front desk clerk and bellmen, having fallen in love with that area of the park, but I digress.  
By and by, I’d had enough of “Mother Curry” which was being increasingly neglected by the blood sucking corporate heads at MCA who’d bought up the Yosemite National Park concession and had nothing but lining their own pockets in minds.  After Wawona Hotel I got a job up the north side of the South Fork of the Merced River at Moore’s Redwoods, hired as dishwasher, I made breakfast waiter in a couple weeks, but wanted something better.  
Swiss Melody Inn, Fish Camp, California.

John Klempa - Swiss Melody Inn

Looking for better, I applied at the well known Swiss Melody Inn restaurant near Fish Camp, south of the YNP, run by John Klempa.  John saw German speaking on my application and told me to talk to his mother and business partner who spoke hardly any English.  We interviewed in German while peeling potatoes.  That is, after first having a good laugh at me for my “housewife method” and teaching me the proper way of peeling them suckers.  
Then we were off on a quatsch fest.  I was hired and besides kitchen prep, I was given shifts as a busser in the dining room with it’s huge picture windows staring at Mount Raymond. 
Then I drifted into limited serving because I was still underage.  Here again, I got lucky in that his main waitress and I clicked like a mom and son who get along.  Seems I was the rare busser who ‘got it’ and who understood what his job was.  Besides taking direction well, I could read a room and tables for myself and recognize what was needed, then get it done.  We became a heck of team.  
Did I mention that liking good teamwork is a requirement for success within Culinary “Arts”?
Klempa’s was a small operation with a first class regional reputation with many regulars who’d drive up from Fresno and the big valley making a point to stop in for John's famous goulash or sauerbraten or schnitzel and grandma’s apple strudel.  
When it was Sauerbraten or Goulash cooking time, it started with two fifty gallon plastic barrels, filled with entire rounds of beef, marinating in wine and whatnot for days.  Then the cooking and processing.  Cooking the meat, making the sauce.  Portioning out and bagging, heat sealing, dating, carefully laying out on trays for fast freezing, after which they’d be packed tight in an industrial sub-zero freezer.  
During dinner service a huge pot of boiling water was on the stove for dropping the portioned bags into.  It was a very successful operation and a joy to work at.
But I was young and wanderlust had the better of me, working for John reawaken a life long desire to get back to Germany to see what it was like and working for John helped me save up the bankroll to do it.  By now I realized resorts and restaurants were the key for a poor boy living in beautiful places and making some good money and the dream of getting a European apprenticeship blossomed.
So I went off searching for a “chef’s” apprenticeship with the promise of knowing I had some good family connections, two maternal uncles in Frankfurt, Germany and a paternal uncle in Mogelberg, Switzerland along with my Dad’s mom in Radolfzell am Bodensee, at the mouth* of the Rhine River - none of whom I knew.  (*sort of - Rhine actually starts higher up in the Alps but then gets collected in this large lake complex with it’s outflow being the famous Rhine River.)
I worked in Frankfurt for a while as a graveyard-shift desk clerk at my uncle’s motel/gas station, at the time about the only 24 hour gas available in that entire city, and that only because the motel was open all night.  The American military base was nearby, so my English came in handy.
My Swiss culinary training. 

Mogelberg, Switzerland 

It began with six weeks in a Metzgerei Schafli, in the Neckertal near Mogelsberg, Switzerland - where I learned basic butchering skills along with mammalian anatomy.  I learned how sausages and hams were produced and meat smoked.  Oh and also how to clean out intestines for sausage casing.  Fun job, ask me about it sometime.  I can even describe the difference between cattle killing day and pig killing day - it is dramatic, guarandamnteed.  In truth, I was an illegal worker (no work permit) there and was hired as a favor to my uncle while I was waiting for Susten Pass to open since we’d secured me a legal summer job up there.

Susten Pass, southside (big bldg is military caserne), northside
I got my permits for working the summer of ‘76 under a young chef who was fanatical about precision slicing and dicing - a freak’n Swiss watchmaker in another life he must have been.  This newly minted chef challenged me to meet his standards.  Thanks to him, among other knowledge gained, I learned to mince millimeter size onions, slice translucent lemons, tomatoes, fancy cuts of radishes and such and more, along with teaching me how to nicely decorate platters and such.  

My wife said, how thin?  Show me.
No trophies, but than I am long retired :-)

Susten Kulm and the Mountain side that almost ate me.  Instead it taught me some respect. 

I could never have held a candle to any modern knife wizard, but I attained a solid professional level of knife skills and an attache’ case full of an assortment of Swiss Victorinox chef’s knives.

This is where I roomed during summer of '79 - top of the pass.  The original way-station.
Swiss are protective of their woman, the "Ami" was kept apart from the girls rooming in the Kulm.

My uncle really went to bat for me.  The metzgari, Susten Kulm, and then finding me a potential apprentice position overlooking the stunning Walensee
Herr Rüedi impressed me and it seemed like he enjoyed me as we toured his impressive Hotel Restaurant Arvenbüel, the sparkling kitchen and dining room and their astounding vista.  He even took the time to tell me about his hobby and then took me over to show me his impressive metal workshop and the wrought iron projects he created on the side.  

Hotel Arvenbüel, Canton St.Gallen, Switzerland, 1970s
I could see myself helping him in there.  I’d taken basic shop in high school and enjoyed shaping red hot metal the few times I had a chance.  This was awesome, not only cooking but learning about metal working too!  I was jazzed and he agreed to hire me.  I was in.  All we needed was a Canton St.Gallen apprenticeship permit and a guest work permit like I received for Susten Pass.  
With a Swiss uncle also from Canton St.Gallen pushing it and a restaurant that explicitly contracted me pending my permit approvals, what could go wrong?  Well, seems there was a St.Gallen kid looking for an apprenticeship and not finding it for lack of positions that year - so he got my apprenticeship permit instead.  Big heart breaker than one.  
I doubt I’ve thought about them in decades.  But reflecting back on those days I’m digging up all sorts of buried memories.
In any event, I couldn’t resist checking the internet, couldn't find the metzgerie,  but, there it is Hotel Arvenbüel in all it's glory and the third generation Rüedi owning and operating the family jewel.  That apprenticeship would have been a sea change to the course of my life, that’s for sure.  
Although in hindsight not sure that path would have been the best for me and once I got over the initial disappointment I never lost any sleep over it.  Hell never had the time to think about it.

Oh but what a rush seeing those images on the internet after all these decades.  Arvenbüel really is as amazing as my recollection.  I was so close to being a part of that.  

But that was not be and the days march on and it was back to Germany with me.

The adventure has just begun, continued in part two of four.

I've found some more postcards of Susten Pass that I can't resist sharing, these show the Berghotel Steingletscher which belonged to the same family.  The Kulm closed relatively early, and many nights found a few of us hiking down to the Berghotel where there always seemed to be a party.  With the citizen soldiers that were doing training up there regularly providing some conversation and lots of good old time singing like I never experienced, except for watching movies.  It was worth the hike and fueled by a few beers the way up wasn't so bad either.  Ahhh, to be young and vigorous and not waste one's precious days.

From my little room at the top of the pass down to the Steingletscher Hotel, where the good times were.

Top of the trail (in 2017).  Back in '76 that glacier would have filled the bottom right corner of this image.  I remember having lively debates with a college student who simply couldn't believe global warming was going to impact those glacier in our life time.  I've often wondered if she recalls of our debates.

What can I say, yes I am proud of the time spent there and love the little reminders that have survived.  I really was there.  Awesome!  :-)

May 4, 2020

May 5, 2020
May 7, 2020

May 9, 2020

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