It was the last day of Grade Ten. I was the only guy in my circle who had his own wheels and my friend Dean asked me to give him a ride. I said sure and we motored out of Lynn Valley and over to Lonsdale. Dean was applying for a summer job at the Keg N Cleaver where his older brother worked as a bar-tender. I decided on the ride down the hill that I would also apply.
We filled up the required papers and were hired on the spot due to the connection to Dean's brother. It was my first brush with nepotism, something I hadn't encountered in my job searches in Texas prior to moving to Canada. I thought it was pretty cool at the time but I remember feeling that it wasn't quite fair. Then it occurred to me that they could always fire you if they didn't like you.
We both started as what was called at that time, dish-goats. The pay was around two dollars an hour. It was the most money I had ever made to that time and I was feeling good about that. After four horrible shifts of being slathered in sweat, grease, blue cheese dressing, teriyaki sauce, coagulated butter and crab juice; I was promoted to assistant broilerman. It was going to be a good summer.
My mentor at the grill was a French Canadian young man who was wise beyond his years due to the earlier than usual death of his father. He was four or five years older than me but this gap could have easily been ten years due to his fatherly bearing and life experience. His name was Dan and he was the man. We called him Bodine.
Bodine quickly taught me how to set up the big grill, to clean and scour it each night with vinegar and holy stones and soon had me warming the vats of onion soup and baking fifty pounds of potatoes at a time. He showed me how to broil steaks of all different thicknesses to perfection and have them all ready at the same time by exploiting the temperature difference on the slanted grill. Counter-intuitively, it is hotter the farther away from the fire you go.
I have an anomaly on the thumbnails. It is a concave depression and ridging which makes my thumbs look like I have endured repeated applications of the thumbscrews. I was very self conscious of this all my youth and the first thing I noticed about Bodine was that he had the exact same thumbs. He seemed relieved when I showed them off and really took me under his wing after that. Forty years later, after never having seen another human other than one of my sisters with this condition, I was riding the Main St. bus in Vancouver on my way to the Post Office, when a young carpenter called out to me across the aisle.
“Hey, Bud. I couldn't help but notice your thumbs.”
He held his own out with a grin. “Maybe we're related.”
I told him he was only the second person I had met with this distinguishing mark and he told me I was the first he had met except for his grandma. We discussed the topic and left our speculations at a draw between genetics and spiritual scars before arriving at the train station and parting ways.
Bodine had been saddled with the responsibilities of a man while yet a boy and subsequently set about trying to balance this with wine, women and song. The original Keg in those days of the early seventies was a rocking joint. The thick oak doors vibrated visibly from the booming sound system. The bar was as popular as the restaurant and was where parties sat awaiting their tables while quaffing drinks and yelling over the music.
Bodine liked to abide in the bar and I soon realized that he was teaching me so he could free up some time to go sit yonder and engage in some courting. Indeed, after a month or so I was cooking solo on many of his shifts. I still had to do the foul clean-up which took several hours at the end of the night but I was glad to have gained some practical experience.
There was another Dan, a cook whom I also worked as assistant to. He was a contemporary of the Frenchman and they were like ham and eggs. They planned and took an epic cross Canada road trip in my mentor's tricked out van. It was rigged with the best sound system I have heard thus far in my life and usually was wailing rare Jimi Hendrix recordings.
The broiler bar was set out in the open where the diners could watch the action as they shuffled down the forty item salad bar getting their greens. An old brass ship's bell was mounted at the broiler bar and was used to call the waiters when an order was ready. Each of the half dozen waiters had a unique call sign consisting of a pattern of clangs on the bell.
One night while Bodine was in the bar bird hunting, I decided to try something. I had been taught some blues harmonica down in Texas and at this time in my life I always carried an A harp in my pocket to vent on. I devised a set of unique blues licks and taught them to the waiters. It was an instant hit and after that I kept the harmonica in the cook's drawer. One night when I was working as an assistant to Dan the second, he found it and asked me to show him some licks.
After that first summer both Dans moved on down their personal roads and I was cooking forty hours a week. Harmonica Dan told me he was going down to Seattle to go to Bell helicopter school. I thought that sounded cool and I wrote for their brochure. When I saw what the tuition cost, I wondered why anyone who could afford to learn would bother troubling themselves. I wished him luck and never saw him again for fifteen years or so.
Later, when I was a postman I saw a full page local boy makes good story in the business section of the Province paper. It was about Dan and it turned out that he was the founder and owner of Helijet airways which plies between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. I phoned him that afternoon and we caught each other up on our lives. After flying logs to get his hours in he had had the great idea to get some Sikorskys and start his own business. He still remembered my old Hohner blues harmonica I had hand engraved with the epithet “Ain't life a bitch.”
I kept my job when school started and began a life of coming home at two to three AM five nights a week. My grades for the first time ever started to erode somewhat in that year. One Saturday night my manager was grumbling and cursing up a storm after we had closed on a very busy shift. It had been a five hundred steak night, the tips were fat and I couldn't imagine what he was upset about. He was a tall white guy who wore a massive fro and a perpetual grin. He had been with some friends and dignitaries all evening and really seemed to be having a great evening. I asked him what was amiss when he passed by my broiler bar.
He told me that a friend of his had just flown in from Bogata and had gifted him with a big dollop of the best cocaine then to be had on the planet and he had lost it. I knew that cocaine was for horses not for men and I only knew that because of a Taj Mahal song I had once heard. I also knew that it was expensive. I asked what it was packaged in. I was told that it was in a paper sugar packet and about twice the size. I told him I had uncanny scout abilities and not to worry. He muttered that it was hopeless.
He pointed out that the garbage cans had already been emptied. That is what I was counting on. My new cook's assistant was an incredibly efficient and motivated individual who would have polished the moon with a wet rag if he could have reached that high. I sent my boss back to his friends and went for a little walk. In the third pristine garbage can I reviewed, there in the bottom of a clean green bag was a small white sugar packet.
I scooped it out and brought it into the office. My manager looked like a man who has just been told that his baby is a healthy boy, his wife is fine and ready to go home and that he has just won the 649. I was clapped on the back and introduced to the other young squires. One fellow was introduced to me as the manager of ZZ Top, who were in town for their second gig since bursting onto the charts with La Grange. I was a fan and told him I was from Houston just like Billy Gibbons.
A wine glass was upturned and I was told to stick a rolled up twenty dollar bill in my nostril, cover the other one, not to sneeze and to snort two of the lines of powder that had been deftly prepared with a razor. I was seventeen and I did it. There was a long staircase running from the office to the street level out the back towards the waterfront of Burrard Inlet. I let out a James Brown whoop and bounded up those stairs like a scalded cat. I rounded the building to Esplanade Street and sprinted up Lonsdale's steep slope all the way to the Upper Levels Highway and all the way back down to my original spot in the office.
“Lawd have mercy,” I said.
It was one of the most curious things I had ever experienced. I felt absolutely no fatigue and was not aware that any time had passed. All hands had a good laugh and I remember being glad that this was a rich man's drug and thus out of my reach. A working man could get used to feeling that fresh.
The waiting staff were all university students and most were the sons and daughters of rich men. This is where I learned that it is in the best neighborhoods where the people have the most cash to spend that you will find the most drugs. On top of that it was only the beginning of the Seventies and much of the Sixties culture stubbornly refused to give way to double-knits and disco.
We had a rival restaurant several hundred yards to the west called the Hobbit House and our two establishments were constantly pranking each other. It started one Friday night in the middle of the dinner hour. The front doors burst asunder and a troop of a dozen stark naked Hobbit House employees made an impromptu conga line through the bar and dining area. They took their time, such was the shock factor on the diners and on our staff. When they calmly capered down the back stairs which led to the safety of the waterfront, we knew that they had cased the joint prior to undertaking the operation. A week later twenty of us retaliated with a similar raid.
Once when I had a rare night off, my mother's Danish boyfriend had come in with his drinking buddies from the St. Alice Pub. He had apparently arrived in a shopping cart with a red napkin tied to this head like a pirate. His entourage was singing a ribald Scandinavian song in which the only discernable word was “vaselina.” Informing the greeter that they were friends of Tex, they had been cordially invited into the bar to drop some coin. After a very wet wait, they had been shown to a table right up front by the broiler bar and had ordered their baseball steaks and lobster tails. A young fellow whom I had recently taught to cook was on shift.
Their unlucky waiter recounted to me on my next shift how the lad had been lifted bodily out of his station and threatened with his life in Swedish, Danish, German, French and English because of an overdone steak. Before the police arrived, the perpetrator told all those assembled who's step-father he was soon to be and was escorted out by three other Vikings, one of whom had ducked outside for the shopping cart during the commotion. He was told at the door that the meals were on the house and that he was barred for life.
The Keg didn't hold it against me and the staff became my family for a difficult period in my young life. I did my homework in the bar to avoid being in the maelstrom of chaos that was my parents' rental suite on Kilmer Road up Mountain Highway. I had all my hair then and wore it elbow length, perfectly combed and cleaner than a German dinner table. The restaurant's owner, George Tidball, took on one slick investor from California. By the time this new management came on board, I was a well established and deservedly famous cook.
The new fellow had a background of psychology from no less than Stanford University and a pretty pill-popping girlfriend. The way we met was him telling me I had to wear a woman's hairnet while I broiled. I told him that I would not dignify his order with compliance but that I would step down and hit the road if ever once a stray hair was found in any food I served. Cherokees are proud of their hair. After that he took to calling me Chief. I could tell he was going to Californicate the restaurant.
First up he decided to clamp down on the portions. Prior to him, all the cooking staff ate for free. I chowed on teriyaki baseball steaks, king crab and lobster tails on a daily basis. Now, we had to pay for our food. We used to throw a little extra on the plates of friends and relatives. Now this was forbidden and punishable. Tiny scales were purchased and even the mushrooms were to be carefully measured before gracing a steak. The bacon bits were metered in little ketchup cups. The spirit that had made the restaurant a North Vancouver legend was now in the hands of a man who seemed bent on tying a rope around its neck and milking it. What was worse, they put sour cream on their tacos out there in California.
After awhile, I had held every post except bartender, waiter and prep-cook. The first two positions didn't interest me and one day I was approached by California to see if I was interested to learn the prep cooking and take on that salaried position. The original man was heading to Lahaina to work in another steak joint. I said yes and was given training by our outgoing man and also had two weeks with a Japanese fellow at the Granville Island Keg who was a master of efficiency and cleanliness.
One of my first post graduate duties was to train another man for my replacement on my days off. I was told to pick him up one morning on my way to work. I drove in the pre-dawn fog to the address I had been given and a young man big enough to punch out a horse was waiting on the curb like a young Moses just before he started to smite things. I motioned him into my Beaumont Acadian and off we sped, tilted over like a fallen cake.
“They call me Mountain,” he said.
“I'm Mike, they call me Tex.”
When we got to the parking area behind the restaurant, I discovered that the PhD. had caused a telephone pole to be placed right across where I had always parked since the beginning. I swore and started to back up and look for some more inconvenient location. Mountain asked me to stop. I applied the brakes and he hefted his grizzly bear frame out of my toy car and squatted down by the barrier. He clasped it like a Highlander preparing to toss the caber and hoisted the twenty foot pole to chest height, walked over a few yards and let her drop. I smiled and parked in my old spot while Mountain dusted off his hands on his jeans. It was going to be a good day.
When we got inside the kitchen, we set to work straight away. Everything was prepared in gargantuan proportions. Five gallons each of Roquefort, Italian and French salad dressings. Five gallons of home-brewed teriyaki sauce. Forty quarts of onion soup. A dozen cheesecakes, baked in spring-form pans. Forty pounds each of lobster tails and King Crab legs thawed and split with shears. Twenty pounds of mushrooms sauteed in red wine and butter. Thirty quarts of gravy. All the vegetables for a forty item salad bar washed, chopped and arranged in crocks. Cases of lemons, limes and pineapples prepared for the bartender.
If one began at six AM sharp, one was lucky to be hauling the thirty gallons of ice just as the first customers were being shown to the bar at five PM. Mountain was a very fast learner, an agreeable fellow and particularly helpful in taking in the meat order from the back door to the walk-in cooler. When we grabbed a few moments to do an inventory for the next days deliveries, he lit a smoke. I had given mine to Jesus only a week prior and I was surprised how easily He gave them back.
Next day as I was showing Mountain the pantry for dry goods, one of the shelves broke free and spilled its contents on the floor. While I was returning to the scene with a screwdriver and hammer, it struck me that the place was an absolute pigsty. I looked up and down from the massive double sinks to the Hobart dishwasher to the mega-mixing machine and along the tiled floor. I decided that I might as well use the helping hands to get everything Navy clean. Mountain was obliging and we spent that day with one of us scrubbing, disinfecting, organizing and fixing while the other did the cooking. As the restaurant was empty, we could crank the expensive sound system up and play what we wanted.
It was bliss. We both got caught up in the spirit of the moment and to the strains of Jethro Tull, Rolling Stones and ZZ Top we went Catholic on that kitchen. By three you could have made a sandwich on the floor and used the wall for a plate. Everything broken was fixed and she gleamed white from ceiling to floor like an ice floe. The stainless surfaces were without blemish, the food was prepared and we were chatting with a Fijian delivery man by the door when the music faded to a whisper.
California came up the back stairs with an oily little man in a blue windbreaker in tow. Stanford looked like Chevy Chase in a cowboy shirt. He had that slightly pidgeon-toed walk of a man from El Cerritos who gets a flat tire in Bakersfield at night. The stranger looked like Colombo and had a small clipboard in his hand. I kept waiting for him to pull a boiled egg out of his pocket. Boss looked at Mountain then at me then at the dazzling kitchen. He turned red and laughed nervously like a man who had farted in church. The other man shrugged his rounded shoulders and rolled his eyes. They walked without a word back to the cooler and opened the door. Another nervous burst of laughter.
Presently, the boss said, “Dude, seen enough?”
“Yessir,” said Colombo.
They departed and we heard the music being turned back up. Ravi, the Fijian had just been explaining to me how a proper old time kava-kava ceremony was to be conducted and had promised to bring a bag of the best from Viti Levu next day when he delivered the lobster. I was eighteen and very interested in anthropology and psychotropic botanicals. It was set and we told him to pass by around two. He grinned and hurried off. While we packed away the delivery, the boss reappeared.
“How did you know?” he asked me accusingly.
“Know what?” I replied.
“That the freaking health inspector was coming. I didn't even know. These guys are random. I had to send the poor bastard off without any swag. It was intense.”
His eyes bugged out like grapes trying to give birth to riddles.
“It's a Cherokee thing,” I said, smoothing my pony tail and smiling up at Mountain who stood by beaming like Little John at a banquet in Nottingham Forest.
“Hey, do you want to come to a real Fijian kava-kava ceremony tomorrow with me and Mountain?” I asked.
“Uh, sure I'd be into that. Where and when?”
“Here at two. Ravi, the lobster guy is bringing some shit his grandma carried from Suva and he knows how to mix it and which gods to call on.”
“Bitchin. I'll be there.”
The next day went as smooth as a glass Cadillac on a Teflon turnpike. Mountain and me whistled while we worked and had everything set for Ravi's arrival. He showed a few minutes late and the boss a few minutes later. I introduced all hands and then Ravi set to work. He took a large plastic bag full of fine pepper colored powder and asked me for a large bowl. I brought one and he next asked for a clean cloth napkin. Mountain was sent for a large stainless steel bucket of clean cold water. California asked questions about how much it was worth and such like. We tried to ignore his calculator brain waves.
Soon the four of us were cross-legged on the floor of the kitchen and encircling the bowl. The cloth was stretched across the bowl and some powder was poured in. This was mixed with water and the mash was stirred by hand and allowed to percolate through the cloth into the bowl. This was repeated many times while Ravi spoke in his own language softly. From time to time he would look up at us and flash his impossibly white teeth in a friendly smile.
The only sound was the big overflow sink where a case of lobster tails was thawing prior to being scissored and butterflied. The water made a soft sound not unlike a mountain stream flowing down a volcanic slope on its way to a lagoon and the frozen lumps banging on the resonant sides of the huge sink sounded like a priest drumming on the bottom of his dugout calling sharks into the reef.
Presently, the bag was empty and the bowl was full of a liquid that looked like the water in a mud-puddle at a gas station in a town that God forgot. Ravi produced a half coconut shell from his gear and dipped it into the funky fluid. He filled it and solemnly walked over to a drain on the floor.
“You must offer the first one to Toki. This is highly critical. If men don't, you are not to drink grog with them.”
He poured it down the steel drain and returned to the circle. He filled it again and reached it across to me. Before I took it he instructed me to clap my hands three times and say Toki's name. I raised it to my lips and poured it down. It smelled earthy and as I realized that my lips were numb, it struck me that brand new blue jeans used to smell just like that before the pre-washed days. I refilled the shell and offered it to Mountain.
He clapped, said Toki's name and quaffed it.
“Oh, Momma!,” he said.
He refilled it and offered it to Stanford.
Boss clapped, Tokied and drank it down.
He offered it to Ravi and we went on in this manner until the bowl was drained. Our lips, tongues and innards were numb but our minds were crystal clear. We sat a while and California asked Ravi about what to expect. Ravi gently told him to be patient and he would see. He said it was different for different people and depended on Toki more than anything else. He politely rose to go after an appropriate time and gathered his bag of goodies and walked out the back door like a cat you thought you saw from the corner of your eye. California rose next and told us he was going to catch up on some paperwork downstairs in his office.
Mountain and I put on our music and set about finishing our work. I was to prepare the lobster and he was to fix up the salad bar. When I came to the sink to begin cutting the shells and pulling the meat out, I laughed like a child who has squished mud between his toes. My job was going to be interesting. The lobsters had left the bounds of the sink and were gently swimming to and fro through the air above the sink. I plucked one out of the air about a foot over my head as it swam toward the mixing machine.
Another rose from the cool water and started for the Hobart. I snatched it easily and put it back in the sink. Several more had become airborne in this time and I decided that I would have to take them from the air to be sure none managed to escape. It was like catching butterflies under water. I managed to snatch and cut them all without spooking the herd. Once lined up in their stainless steel trays they behaved and stayed put. While I worked I could hear Mountain chopping vegetables and giggling like a man with his hands tied getting his ears licked by a half dozen St. Bernard pups.
Next day California came into the kitchen just as me and Mountain were chucking our aprons into the Keefer Laundry bag and heading for the door. He asked if he could speak to me for a minute. Mountain stepped out and made way down the stairs. I pulled back into the kitchen.
“That was absolutely over the top yesterday. I had to phone Carmen to drive me home.”
“My lobsters tried to fly away and I had to chase them down one by one. Mountain said every time he cut a lettuce in half it grew back.”
“How much am I paying you?”
“Six hundred a month.”
“Well, you're making eight now, Chief. Come over tonight, Carmen's making Chili Colorado.”
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.