Thursday, May 7, 2020

Humanist reflects on his path to a "respectable mastery" in culinary arts. 3 of 4

(continued from part twoBack in America.
Silverton’s Zhivago’s Restaurant on “Notorious” Blair Street

I can still remember driving down the “Champions” into Silverton at 9,300’ July ‘79.  First sight of that town way down there in the distance and I simply could not stop laughing, it was like a fairy town on a miniature train set.  Even had a smoking steam train on the tracks way down yonder.  How was I to know I was driving into Colorado’s last gold rush?  But, I digress again.
I met Falco’s friends and told them about my culinary experiences.  That night they took us to the best in Silverton, Zhivago’s Restaurant on “Notorious” Blair Street, under lease to a very nice, very hip L.A couple with lots of money and dreams of having the coolest mountain town restaurant ever.  With the help of friends within the L.A. music community, they succeeded.  Well, for a few glorious years.  But, giving away the profits playing the high roller will sink the best of establishments, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

That first July night in Silverton, I met the owners, Gene and Jenny, and they hired me right there and scheduled me to start working the next afternoon.  I remember after leaving the restaurant going off by myself and hiking up the road that had brought me into town a few hours earlier, overwhelmed with a feeling of 'having arrived' along with a deep sense of gratitude to that amazing night sky above.  I was ‘home’ and knew it.  
The next day I found a place to live just down the street.  The abandoned house I rented was referred to as the People House.  With a front room, pot belly stove, dusty short bar, a few stools.  It was sort of a narrow shotgun house, but beyond the main room and the long hallway that led past a number of bedrooms and a bathroom, it hooked right and past another couple rooms.  
Closer look at Silverton
It was really funny as it dawned on me that this really was once an honest to goodness brothel.  I admit to felling a weird pride in adding an ex-brothel to my list of cool places I’ve resided in, even if it was the most dilapidated one and I only stayed a month or two. 
Three summer seasons at Zhivago’s, the last two of them running the kitchen, including ordering, receiving and inventory.  Along with training an insecure dishwasher, she went on to Culinary School and a distinguished chef career.  Standard American fair, steaks, seafood, awesome pies by Gene’s mother.  I was also getting tired of the grind of cooking, too many hours, too much dedication and stress.  The job will eat you alive if you let it.  Plus Zhivago’s shooting star was fading, as was Silverton’s gold rush.  They never do last.  
The dream of having the best restaurant including first class entertainment, because they loved restaurants and entertaining and playing the grand party host was achieved.  But it could not last.  Because restaurants require tons of work and tight money management.  Being a big shot and loving to comp drinks and dinners for customers is a sure way to bankruptcy.  
It was not the last time I was to witness the sad story.  Fantastic happening establishment brought to ruin by spendthrift owners who took their eyes off the ball and got lost in having too good a time.  Well having a suddenly rich town returning back to scrapping by didn’t help either.
Although that said, I’ll bet there are a few hundred perhaps thousands out there, who occasionally still recall being at Zhivago’s on so and so a night when true magic unfolded on that tiny stage and within that establishment.  That’s worth something too.
Still, my advice, don’t ever open a restaurant because you love dining out and have acquired a little fortune to piss away playing the big shot.  On the other hand, if you are willing to be a slave to your restaurant, stay focused on the numbers, then you have a shot at success.  
Of course, thanks to trump’s virus and general vandalism of our government and nation, all bets are off.
Me, I was not into being that slave, that’s why I had already turned down John Klempa’s offer to go into partnership and open a restaurant in Placerville, California.  I’d run the kitchen, he’s be the money man and run the operation.  I was deeply flattered and we would have been a heck of a successful team.  But I had too much living to do and though it was difficult saying no, I had no other choice.  Never regretting it, grandma’s tears not withstanding.
Now done with restaurants I drifted towards construction and then, thanks to connections made at Zhivago’s, I wound up in the hardrock mining/milling industry for around a year and a half, to witness the ending of that era first hand, but all that belongs to a different story, as does this little place.

Actually many different stories.   ;-)
Silverton 9,300’ is tough on people, by and by, we moved down to the banana belt and non restaurant adventures. Though the 'we' wasn't Falco who'd moved on long ago.
With Chris George, installing copper flashing around Court House dormers.

Once a server, always a server.  Millwood Junction, Mancos, Colorado.
Mancos Valley with La Plata Mountains
It was a number of years before finances sucked me back into restaurants.  First moonlighting as a part time dinner waiter at the Millwood Junction in Mancos, a place of some local repute.  Classy enough to entice repeat performances from the likes of Peter Rowan, Patty Larkin and many others. 
These owners were slaves to their restaurant and it remained successful decades (until selling it a couple years ago) and I loved working there.  People came to have a good time, food was great, with a surprising number of German tourists heading to Mesa Verde National Park, and me and my serving charm and speaking German, good times and good tips.  Speaking of culinary arts, a part of that is performance art too, such as selling desserts with flair.  After I finished with my presentation few said no.
In fact, it was impressive enough that one customer, who regularly hosted group dinners, and who got to specifically ask for me to serve them, wound up hiring me to work at his Bounty Hunter, custom cowboy hats and boots, and “vintage" clothing for the rich and famous.  All very fine and expensive. 

Telluride, Colorado
They taught me how to make felt hats.  Start with a wood form that has a felt ‘blank’ slipped over it, then steam it, then we literally massaged the felt to shrink it down onto that particular block’s shape.  No fancy roller iron, or wood blocks there, hot felt and hands, no gloves, why I don’t know.  Still absolutely fascinating for a guy still into adventures and racking up interesting side jobs.  
The real reason I was hired was to sell.  They were such big fans of my style and entertaining dessert pitches, they figured they had discovered a killer salesperson.  The plan was for me to help them open and be salesman in their upcoming shop in Telluride, which did happen.  Learning to make the hats was simply to give me the background for selling them up in Telluride.  
Mancos and Telluride, Colorado, USA -  '90s
By and by we discovered that selling desserts I believed in to people who’d just finished a meal, is way different than this poor boy with his minimalist materialist streak, selling outrageously priced clothing, etc., that he did not believe in, to people that stunk of money - though the real killer was unsuspecting tourists with kids who didn’t really have as much as they pretended to.  
Instead of making the big sales, I’d help point wide eyed young girls with their scared looking parents, who apparently never learned to say no, away from the way expensive silver necklaces they had just fallen in love with, to the wonderfully colorful beaded genuine Indian necklaces at a fraction of the price.  I tell you, the look of relief and gratitude on their parents faces, when their girls forgot about the silver and fell in love with the colorful beads, was priceless for me.  Guess I could sell after all ;-)  Okay, so that only happened once - it was enough to realize I needed to quit and by mutual consent we parted on good terms.
Since my commissions were already lousy, I had previously found a moonlighting job at the main street restaurant Excelsior Cafe’ and was back to full-time selling expensive food and wine and desserts to people who were hungry and knew the price tag before they walked in - that I could do in good conscience and with style.

Denver, Colorado
That gave me a chance to save up some and get back to other dreams and before long I was off to Denver for three years of part-time college studying computer graphics and writing.  I didn’t find the top notch restaurant I was looking for, but the downtown Hyatt was busy and tips were okay.
But I needed more money so kept looking.  I found it at the most unlikely of places.
Casa Bonita, Denver, Colorado
If you have kids and are visiting Denver and a local tells you, “you gotta take them to Casa Bonita” - listen.  Don’t let the line you have to wait through irritate, it's simply evidence that it’s still worth going to.  Well I landed a job there and started the wildest waiting gig I was ever involved in.  Though I never did any cliff diving. ;-)  
Individual tips weren’t great, but volume baby, it adds up, if you can hustle and keep up.  Front of house seated a thousand over 52,000 square feet of an imaginary Mexican village during fiesta, with pool and cliff divers and short melodramas with bad guys always going over the cliff with a splash.  
Back of house is nearly as big, with beans being cooked in hug vats two people could take a bath in.  Basic food, but it’s all processed and cooked there.  Besides needing server skills you needed the fitness to run miles every shift.  
For the last six months, in addition to serving, I became their trainer and gave a three evening training course.  On the fourth, if they passed their test, we released them to follow a server.  Casa Bonita had a staff of perhaps three hundred and were always hiring.  They were also always firing servers.  I mean the place was like Russian, suddenly in the middle of a shift a pal disappears never to be seen again.  
Very weird business plan, they did not want you there for more than a year, because that’s when some temptingly nice benefits kicked in.  I think religion had something to do with it.  Only the “chosen” deserved their benefits.  Oklahoma Christians, ruthless cold blooded greedy people, but hey a job is a job - and it was one heck of an operation to behold and be a part of.
I learned some interesting things and loved pretty near every bit of my 364 days there.  I still love their operation itself, even though I have contempt for the reptilian white shirted management team.

The old guy moves uptown to 16th Avenue, Denver, Colorado.

Fortunately that got me back to pounding the pavement and I finally landed that fancy restaurant gig, downtown Denver, on Wazee, just off 16th Street.  What I was looking for in the first place.  High class dining, selling expensive food and wine, making good tips, it was a fun run, though by then it was clear that I was becoming one of the old guys.
Also while in Denver I got connected with a temp hiring service and through them, over the course of those three Denver years I worked in pretty near every country club in the greater Denver Area, many more than once, a few numerous times.  I was almost a regular at the stayed Denver Athletic Club for a while.  
The Marriott Tech Center Hotel added another whole new level to my experiences.  They could turn a room of a thousand auditorium or classroom style seats, into a room full of ten tops ready for guests in a hour.
I mean it nearly brings tears to my eye remembering how suddenly these suits and skirts would silently appear from within the bowels of their offices.  Everyone knowing what to do.  Chairs collected, narrow tables removed, rounds rolled out, lined up like a marching band, chairs, table cloths, bam, bam, bam, done.  Before you know these silent people disappeared without a word, leaving the banquet staff to finish setting and such, with the same orderly precision.  
I am still in awe when I think of their organized operation.  I was sent there a number of times.  I also worked the Denver Convention Center in a room that sat thousands.  Now that is a totally different animal.  Always watching and learning.

Back home and the Tamarron Resort, Durango, Colorado...

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