Wednesday, August 20, 2014

COOKING SCHOOL: No Experience Necessary #foodie @NormanVanAken

Lucy with Chef Norman
LUCY BURDETTE: Last winter at an artisan market at The Restaurant Store, where I was signing books, I met Chef Norman Van Aken. It was great timing, as I was writing about a chef for DEATH WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS, and he lent me some “telling” details about his career. As often happens at these events, he bought my book and I bought his--a new memoir called NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. It went onto my TBR pile and only last week made its way to the top. He had quite a wild life, hurtling across the country to work furious stints at different restaurants, including many in Key West. Unlike many of today’s young chefs, he never went to culinary school. He learned from the chefs above him and he studied cookbooks to stretch his recipes and his techniques. The book was very entertaining reading, and would especially appeal to lovers of Key West or foodies or people who’ve wondered about what the cooking life might be like. 

Reading Chef Norman’s memoir got me thinking about one of my early jobs. During and after college, I worked in a restaurant called the Alchemist and Barrister in Princeton, New Jersey. A bunch of us college kids waited on the tables in the front of the house, while two big black men from Trenton, named Moses and Joe, worked the stoves in the back. We waitresses were young and cute (or so we thought) and we learned that the tips were better if we wore stacked heels and clingy black dresses. In the kitchen, the cooks slaved at the stove and the grill, finishing fifths of hard liquor across the evening, pretty much toasting themselves by the end of each night. 

Lucy with Chef Joe
There were three specialties of the house--a blue cheese burger with red relish, a prime rib, and seafood Newburg in a gloppy orange sauce. If we servers had to return a prime rib to the kitchen because it wasn’t done to the diner’s satisfaction, the chefs became enraged. I can remember Chef Joe (though we never called him anything but Joe) turning a rejected slab of too-rare meat over on the plate, dosing it with a scoop of au jus and yelling: “You’ve got to cook it at the table, baby, cook it at the table.”

 The whole restaurant staff drank like proverbial fish, including the owners. One night, after a fight between the cooks and one of the bosses--I’m guessing it had to do with a raise--both the chefs walked out. Either we had to close the business, or someone else had to cook. It certainly never occurred to me (or probably any of the other waitstaff) that the cooks had a reasonable beef and we should back them up and walk out too. Instead, I volunteered to take over at the stove--we stuck with burgers and salads, none of the fancier dishes the restaurant was known for. I’ve never been so hot and tired in my life. And I wasn’t paid very well for the rescue either. And that unglamorous evening was the closest I came to professional cooking. But strangely enough, I write about it now...

Did you ever have a road not taken wind around and end up in your life anyway?


  1. I enjoyed your story about working in the restaurant. I worked summers in a seaside cafeteria-type restaurant when I was in college and served dinner in the college cafeteria during the school year . . . I hadn't really thought about any of that in a long time.
    Somehow many roads not taken seem to end up in front of us again and again . . . .

  2. I never had worked in food service, although I did spend a summer working at a water slide park.

    I really can't think of any road not taken that has come around back to me, but there's still time, right?

  3. Great story, Lucy/Roberta.

    As an undergrad in linguistics, with essentially no science under my belt since high school, I took an Anatomy for Non Majors class and I loved it. I considered either switching to premed or becoming a massage therapist. I am fascinated by the body and how it works, and loved peeling back the layers of the pre-dissected body we had in that class.

    Well, I stuck it out with linguistics, getting a PhD eventually, but some years later I trained as a childbirth educator, taught pregnant couples in my living room all about pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, and worked as a doula helping couples through the actual birth as a lay person. Loved that life.

    And now I'm writing about a midwife in 1888. So that love of the physical and deep interest in the miracle and work of birth continues.

  4. Thanks Joan! did you like the restaurant work?

    Mark, absolutely--still time for lots of things!

    Edith--can't wait to read about your historical midwife. It sounds like you had a million choices. Did you love linguistics as much, or feel you'd gone too far to turn around?

  5. I did love linguistics, and still do. Such a wide fascinating field. (And my second Quaker linguistics professor mystery will be out November 11!)

  6. "All roads lead to Rome"?

    I had always intended to major in journalism but then I went to a college that had no journalism classes whatsoever, and only one "writing" class (taught by an essayist who thought my science fiction stories beneath bothering to read). So I majored in British Civilization (it was the Sixties) and went to law school by default (Didn't have enough credits in any one area to take a GRE). Eventually I wound up in media law because that is the only area of law that really interests me (well, now the Constitution, too, but that was by accident, because someone paid me to write a book about it and I became fascinated).

    It wasn't until much later that I realized that if I'd gone into journalism, I'd have gotten bored and probably would have gone to law school to learn about copyrights, media law, etc. And maybe the Constitution (via the First Amendment).

    Sometimes you wind up where you're supposed to be.

  7. What an insightful comment, Lucy--did Edith feel she'd gone too far to turn around with her linguistics PhD. That was the case with me--up to my neck in a PhD program when I finally realized that I loved the subject, but not the teaching/career part of being an archaeologist. Finished the PhD, but sidetracked into cultural resource management--very informal offices, short stays in the field, learning new stuff by the seat of my pants--analyses, preservation law, etc. Lots of report writing. All of that made me more resilient, a better writer and editor, and showed me that I could succeed at anything if I was willing to work hard.

  8. That's a great motto Ellen: sometimes you end up where you're supposed to be.

    I considered applying to law school after college too, but got discouraged by an adviser. I think it would have been a bad fit!

  9. FChurch, what a great lesson! But don't you think that happens a lot? People make choices and follow the path and then, whoops, decide they've made a mistake but can't get off?

    getting married because you've got the wedding all planned is one big example:)

  10. I also intended to be a journalist, Ellen. I edited the college newspaper, which was fun. Then I saw a woman being interviewed after her family was murdered by her crazy husband and I thought "I can never do that". So I went into BBC drama instead. Loved it. Started writing plays.
    But during college I worked as a waitress and behind the counter of a deli. Both let me appreciate blue collar skills I didn't have. A humbling experience

  11. Lucy - The imagery in your descriptions makes it so clear why you became a novelist - I love this story, and I could feel you in the kitchen roasting as you saved the day. Not sure which of my roads have wound back around, since I've wanted to a writer since I was 10. But a lot of random paths (living in Vietnam, studying broadcast journalism, etc.) have definitely found their way into my fiction.

  12. Rhys, when I was a stringer for USA Today they sent me to interview the family of a guy who had died in a CIA plane crash. This was in the days before cell phones, and I stopped at every payphone I passed, called the editor, and tried to beg off. I sat in front of their house for about half an hour until a bunch of what turned out to be his siblings came out to walk their dog. Then I did what I do best-- made friends with the dog, then apologized for the intrusion, and let them talk about their brother (whatever they wanted to say-- I was NOT asking questions). One of them said, "He was the best of us." I went with that quote.

    And I never took a news assignment again. I'm a feature writer, not a news writer-- which is why, as I said, had I ever actually been a news writer for any length of time, I'd have left and gone to law school.

    Lucy, when I was 12, the kitchen staff at the camp I was attending quit, and we, the oldest cabin, were "volunteered" to rinse the dishes and run the (big, commercial) dishwasher. I learned what the inside of a commercial kitchen looks like, learned that the rinse sink recirculated its water (coffee grounds should NOT be rinsed in it!), and only after the fact realized that my parents had not paid out all that money so their kid could be the (unpaid) kitchen staff. However, that was the most interesting thing that happened at camp. I totally hated the camp experience and still do-- I won't voluntarily go on a cruise because cruises remind me too much of camp.

  13. Lucy, it always seemed as if there were moments of frustration when dealing with the public but I did enjoy both jobs. Serving from a steam table is not difficult work which I appreciated because I was serving dinner after being in classes all day. The summer job was occasionally more daunting, but I spent a lot of time making salads and I enjoyed the opportunity to be creative in the kitchen.
    Of course, there was the "don't complain; you need the job" aspect to it . . . I wouldn't have been able to stay in college without the work.

  14. Fascinating question. There are two things I said I would NEVER do -- teach (did not take the teacher training my college offered) or type. So, what have I worked as? An educator. What do I do with my time? Type.

  15. You've done so many interesting things in your life Rhys--and all roads have led to mystery writing:).

    Actually, I was a pretty good waitress (she said modestly.) I remembered a lot of details and worked fast. Only cried in the kitchen:). But it's really hard work and I admire the folks who do it for a living--the cooks too@

  16. Thank you Kim! I love hearing about folks who've known as kids that they wanted to write. I came to it so late--not sure why it never occurred to me--but better late than never!

  17. Ellen, what a heart-breaking moment. You handled it in the best way though...

    Denise, isn't it amazing what we don't know when we're young? LOL

  18. Definitely, Lucy - what's most important is that we find our true passion at some point along our way. And you're definitely making up for lost time with your terrific series!

  19. I didn't write anything earlier today as I was in a rush to go see daughter and little bit granddaughter to shop, and I wanted to think about the choices I've made or circumstances that have made a decision for me. I think the most important crossroads came when I was in college and starting into my major of English. For some reason I got cold feet and thought that it would be too hard, even though I'd always done well in English and enjoyed reading and writing and talking about it all. So, I thought the best course of action was to play it safe and change to elementary education where the program was pretty much laid out, and I wouldn't have to worry so much. Of course, little did I know how hard elementary teachers work and that any direction you take in college or life requires some risk and faith in yourself. Also, my mother had been an elementary teacher, so it seemed familiar ground. To my surprise and blessing, the elementary education classes were all closed, and I couldn't change my schedule. So, I went on to love majoring in English, met some great friends and teachers, and was walking with one of these friends when my future husband saw me with her (she was a friend of his, too) and asked for an introduction. And, then we proceed to dating, marrying, having children, and now the grandchildren. Yes, things do have a way of working out. Ellen, I like the way you put it, that "sometimes you wind up where you're supposed to be."

    Lucy, you were very brave to take over the cooking in the restaurant. I think I would have balked at that. You all have led such interesting lives, and I'm certainly glad that you authors found your way to writing, as I enjoy reading what you write. Denise, so funny that you ended up doing what you were adamant about not doing.

  20. thank you Kim!!

    Kathy, you are so right about how hard elementary school teachers work. I've taught some time-limited classes (mystery writing for 5th graders) and come out from those experiences in awe...

    The universe was looking out for you in your college career LOL