Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Order of the Day

Image via Wikipedia

I just read a great article about steak on my favorite food blog, One Hungry Chef. The website is stuffed with nice writing paired with some great insights and mouth watering photos. 

When visiting the site today, I found myself salivating over the image of a picture perfect steak. I've  drooled over photos of food before but not in a long while. The last time was years ago. It was  about a week before  payday and  I was  running low on cash. After knocking off work one evening, I stopped at the local Amoco service station to top off my tanks, my car tank at the gas pump and my gastrointestinal tank at the attached "Gas 'n Go" mini mart. When I went to pay my gas bill, the attendant saw fit to seize and cut up my debt-burdened credit card. While I know he was just following orders, his actions made it impossible for me to purchase any "groceries" in the convenience store section. That week the Giant food store circular never looked so good. 

I eat plenty these days but I haven't had a steak in close to a decade. It was probably the few still-burning embers in my mind of some distant BBQ that triggered the secretion from my salivary glands when I spied that picture today. I guess it's true what they say, "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and hopefully in this case the absence of red meat from my diet has made it grow even stronger.

Beef once featured prominently in my diet. I used to wait tables at a crummy catering hall called Manny's that served mostly prime rib.  The pay was subsistence level but there were a few perks. One of those perks was free prime rib dinners, served to the point where some of the staff, too poor to be able to purchase such a choice cut of beef from their meager wages themselves,  were sick of it. "Oh no, not prime rib again!" was the whispered complaint du jour whenever the dining  room and kitchen staff sat down together for the "family meal" served just before the crushing wave of patrons broke through the main door. 

Once some brave soul asked Manny, "Can't we have something else for dinner?" He said "I'll see what I can do." It was a phrase straight from the yet-to-be-written Manny's handbook which states: "Never say 'yes' or 'no,' always say "I'll see what I can do." It was his way of saying no without actually saying no.

Despite the boredom from lack of menu variety, the primary issue with the prime rib was the fear it instilled during some of the most intense moments of the work shift. Typically Manny's guests were given a choice between chicken or beef and about eighty percent went with the latter. While it was all pretty straight forward, it wasn't without some trepidation that a server like myself would take a guest's order. Usually the "conversation" went something along the lines of: "May I take your order? We have a choice of prime rib or stuffed capon." Written all over my face was the desperate subtext,  "Don't say it. DON'T SAY IT. PLEASE DON'T SAY IT!!! PLEASE!!!!!"  But somebody always said it and always followed by an order for the prime rib. "End cut," was what they said. It was the most dreaded verbal pairing to ever echo through Manny's dining room.

"End cut," the phrase hit the eardrum like a knife blade. There was no telling how the chef  (who, rumor had, in a previous life was a guerrilla commando in some southern hot spot) would react to the order. I once got a taste of the terror he had no doubt dished out in the jungles of some tropical war zone for simply repeating a guest's request for a small, solitary end cut. I sympathized with his plight. I realized there were only two ends to any one side of beef, but I had my orders. So orders in hand I endured his verbal shellacking  and soldiered on. 

I thought if I could somehow  keep the end cut orders to a minimum, I would be able to take the occasional tongue lashing but I guess everybody has a limit. Mine was thirteen. Thirteen orders of prime rib end cuts from one huge table of  tattooed (when tattoos meant trouble) troublemakers that I was lucky enough to get saddled with for the night. End cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, end cut, by end cut order number eight I was immune to the fear it normally instilled deep within my core. I simply said, "I'll see what I can do," thirteen times. Then I put on my kamikaze demeanor, marched into the kitchen and barked out an order for 13 ends. I thought it would be the end of me for sure but something inside of me (maybe the thought of the table of 13 bikers waiting for their hunk of meat) made me stand my ground. Chef locked his piercing dark black eyes with my innocent baby blues and, while ever-so-slowly nodding his head up and, down uttered, “okay babe, I'll see what I can do.” 

In today's entry to his own Epicurean annals,  One Hungry Chef writes about how you can learn from even a bad chef. I don't know if Manny's chef was bad or not. He sure had a bad temper at times. I guess the one lesson I learned from him is that if you really try and see what you can do, you might just find out that there are enough end cuts to go around for everybody.

Note: Manny's is not the real name of the establishment. Despite the fact that it was torn down over a decade ago and replaced by a super drug emporium, I'm still a little fearful of angering Chef (who I call by the name he was known by to many at Manny's)so I've changed the name.

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