Let’s turn on the wayback machine and you can meet one of my greatest teachers.
Back before Psychic G was Psychic G, I was a young, inexperienced, rash, creative, work-like-a-dog chef. Way, way, back before the many culinary schools and degrees and classes and Food Network and Food Porn on the Internet. We made stuff up or riffed on recipes in Gourmet magazine. We walked uphill to the kitchen both ways in snow. Both ways!
I graduated from Old School. You washed dishes until someone thought you had enough brains to handle a knife. Then you did prep. My first big break was in college at a country club making salads. Thousands of salads. On good days I got to make croutons. I moved to the line and grill and although I was shorter and less experienced than anyone else on the line, I could crank out food faster than most of the guys. It’s all about organization and attitude, kids.
A few years later I landed my first gig as Top Dog. Pretty close to Top Dog. It was a small place and there was a manager over me who made final decisions, but for the most part I controlled the menu and the food. I loved it.
The restaurant was housed inside an antique shop and served lunch every day to those who could afford exquisite antique furniture that was hand selected by the owner and mostly imported from France. We booked private parties into the various themed rooms of the shop and deal was that we could use anything in the shop for catering. Antique cups & saucers that I couldn’t afford to break, huge silver platters that I could barely lift, and all the one-of-a-kind furniture was up for grabs. For those that couldn’t get enough of eating in the shop, there was catering, and I spent a lot of time in huge houses doing what I do best…putting out mad amazing food and keeping my trap shut when people weren’t nice.
The owner of the shop, Arlene, was one of my greatest teachers.
In the way of “If you can’t be an example, be a warning.” But still a teacher.
At the time I was broke, my husband was also a chef. He was fresh from culinary school and we were struggling to pay off his school bills. I lived paycheck to paycheck and worked at his restaurant at night as an expediter and sometimes cook. We worked nonstop and weren’t getting anywhere.
Arlene seemed to have it all. She was wealthy and I mean old money. Huge house, husband was a partner in a huge law firm, 3 smiling kids, nice car, and owned a beautiful shop filled with people who worked tirelessly and were grateful to have jobs.
Meanest. Person. Ever.
Arlene walked in every morning looking for a fight and left every evening with the ingredients of the next day’s rantings. I was one of her top targets.
I came in each day around 4:30 AM and cooked my little heart out until the restaurant opened at 11:00 AM. The rest of the staff came in at 8:30. The kitchen was in a circle and I would work my way around the circle until every burner was full, the oven was cranking, and the countertops were invisible. We had one employee who loved to clean and it was her job to come in and start the circle with the intent that I would follow behind her and just continue cooking. Soups, stews, breads, desserts, salads…you name it, I was turning it out from 4:30 to 11 every weekday.
Arlene appeared in the doorway on about my 5th day of work. It was my first living, breathing, raging definition of the word “irate”. For a 5’9″ woman with red hair and a walk that was more of a stomp, she was quite the Ninja.
“What the hell is this?”
I have a BA in education and I considered myself smarter than the average bear, but even I was not confident in my answer.
“A Coffee Pot?”
“This is a DECAF coffee pot. You are an employee here, correct? It is your job to make me decaf every single morning. When I get here, fresh Decaf should be ready for me. It doesn’t matter when I get here, the Decaf is here. Understand? If you cannot handle this small task, then I will fire you right now.”
Holy crap. At the time my psychic skills would have come in handy. No one ever heard Arlene coming or going. She was just suddenly there. Having the Decaf ready kept me up nights and on point every second until she walked in the door. Imagine losing my job over not making coffee?
On the bright side, I met some great people there. For those who were inclined and had lots of decorating money to spare, Arlene would choose a tastefully arranged raggle-taggle bunch of chairs from 16th Century Europe, bring them to the good old US of A, refurbish them, and custom build a matching table. Or have her people do it. The people in the basement, or Those Not Allowed Upstairs During Business Hours.
The only person who could incur more wrath from Arlene than me was Paul, the amazingly cool furniture guy and head of the downstairs crew. He refurbished the chairs and hand built the tables. If you believe in atonement for past life issues, Paul working for Arlene was the equivalent of sitting somewhere between the third and fourth circle of hell. That basement was the model for Dante’s Inferno. Clock in, and abandon hope, all who enter the basement.
Paul also liked to come in at 4:30 and we would often try to either beat the other person into the shop, or hide out and scare each other. Pretty fun at 4:30 in the AM with a roomful of priceless antiques, but I have always been a risk taker and Paul breathed in so many chemicals stripping furniture that he was kind of up for anything.
Paul and his crew also lived in mortal fear that Arlene’s wrath would rain down upon them. And it did. I think there was a bit of group Stockholm Syndrome going on. We all needed the money, we all loved what we did, and we all had taken more than one verbal beating from her almost every day. Paul was an incredibly nice guy and taught me all about wood grains and how to bring out the best in every piece of wood he handled. He brought out a lot of my great grains and certainly the best in me at 4:30 in the morning.
To offset life in PTSD land, I often would throw a batch of biscuits into the oven, whip up some sausage gravy, and host the whole furniture crew for a 5:15 breakfast. Way before Arlene showed up for her Decaf but we all kept an eye on the door just in case. No one talked about these 5 AM feasts, but if the boys smelled biscuits and I had a little extra spring in my step – it was on! A bit of gluttonous joy and a sprinkling of “F –you I made everyone you are going to torture today BREAKFAST and you paid for it!” in the AM can’t be all bad.
The stove was ancient and unpredictable and I often burned things. Huge batches of things. Focaccia was just becoming popular and bakeries didn’t even sell it. I made it fresh every day, but some days it was black 2 seconds before I ascertained the source of the burning odor.
BANG! The kitchen had a swinging door and when Arlene smelled that oven she would fly into the kitchen like the love child of The Terminator and a rabid velociraptor. As soon as I heard her hand hit that door I would cringe.
Her record was 20 full minutes of berating me. The burn smell and the bread continuing to burn made the whole thing more humiliating. Every single employee was afraid to move or her attention might turn to them. I believe her main goal was to make me cry and I just wouldn’t give it up. Even though I knew that it would make her stop, I just couldn’t cave. Paul would hear her from all the way downstairs and on one hand feel sorry for me, but on the other hand be grateful that I would likely exhaust her for the day and keep her away from his cowering crew. Once her throat got raw from yelling, she generally gave up.
Arlene was a champion martyr. Really, if there was an Olympic event for acting like a martyr, she would have dominated the podium. The High Holy Holiday of her martyrdom was Thanksgiving. Foregoing all turkey, cranberry, and holiday festivities…Arlene would spend the entire day decking the halls and walls of the priceless item filled rooms of the shop. She refused help, meals, even liquids. No breaks were allowed when devoting herself fully to the Holiday Decoration Experience. She erected amazing Christmas tree after Christmas tree, each with its own theme. Precious and expensive ornaments (for sale, of course) layered every grand branch. Topping each tree was once spectacular bow, with perfectly proportioned loops and sways, plus multiple tails that cascaded down the tree. The tree in the front of the shop was truly a work of art, with a gold loopy bow that must have used a 100 yards of expensive ribbon.
I was in awe. Even at Macy’s or Saks or Neiman-Marcus I had never seen such a magnificent tree.
I took a risk and said to Arlene, “That’s a beautiful tree. The bow is magnificent.”
No reply would have been nice. “Thank you!” would have been nicer.
“Too bad you will never have a tree like this.”
I stood there in my chef coat, covered with food, my legs aching from hours of cooking, and felt small and defeated. I was sad for me, but I was even sadder for Arlene. I stood perfectly still, like I was out of my body, watching her celebrate finally delivering the death blow. She had conquered me. The maker of cheesecake. The burner of Focaccia. The girl who once made a simple bean soup so good that the table called me into the dining room. Little me called to the table, just to meet me. The maker of Decaf. The girl who caught the dumpster on fire and the staff laughed so hard watching me put it out that one girl wet her pants and had to go home. The object of her wrath on so many occasions had finally been vanquished.
I learned a lot that in that minute, standing there. I learned what I will do to keep a roof over my head and food on the table. I learned that money doesn’t buy happiness. I learned that people in pain will do anything to feel better, even if it makes everyone else feel like shit. I learned that being mean takes ten times more energy than being nice. I learned that great people can get caught in terrible working conditions and still manage to laugh and make friends. And great biscuits.
I’d like to say I took the high road on this one. But I didn’t.
At that time I was a master of cheesecake. I experimented with different flavors and combos and if that darn Cheesecake Factory hadn’t copied my idea I would be writing this from my own tasteful antique dining room table with matching antique chairs from Europe while dining on my amazing lunch prepared by my chef that I treated like a goddess every day. We can’t change history or take back that Cheesecake idea and run with it, we can only bless the Cheesecake Factory’s success and all the paychecks they’ve cut for employees over the years.
Again, I’d like to say I stayed on the high road with Arlene. I didn’t exactly take the low road either.
Sometimes the middle road is good enough.
Arlene loved my white chocolate-fresh raspberry-almond cheesecake almost as much as she loved torturing me. It was a special request item and the Ladies Who Lunch requested it often. We booked a million private parties and the hostess often said “I don’t care what the lunch is, as long as we can have that cheesecake.” I had to make each cake individually, so if you ever wonder why cheesecake is so expensive – that’s one of the reasons. If you’ve got a crowd, you just can’t double it and make two. Top it off with the classic 80s “spiderweb” design of a Chambord infused sauce that I still keep as a secret recipe and you’ve got yourself a classic.
Week after week I made that cheesecake and Arlene, being the owner and having keys, plus living only a few blocks from the shop, would often having cravings. Cheesecake cravings. Many days I would come in at 4 AM, see only a few bites left on the plate and a fork in the sink, and have to go into a frenzy making another cheesecake that had been promised by lunch. Over and over I rushed through rebaking it and pretending nothing had happened. No “Sorry I ate that!” No “Hey, any private parties that have requested this or can I take it?” Just the mangled remains and a fork in the sink. My baggage grew but I kept baking that cheesecake.
A few days into the holiday season, Arlene booked a big table for her friends to enjoy a holiday lunch and admire her Christmas decorating genius. What’s the point of owning a shop if you can’t invite your friends in, have a little wine, and have them witness you berating the staff? And have cheesecake for dessert.
That cheesecake sat baked and ready, in all its white chocolate-raspberry-almond goodness. I tucked it carefully into the fridge to rest until the AM. It was perfect, uncut, and ready for Arlene’s special lunch with her very rich and very demanding friends who just happened to love my cheesecake.
When I came in the next day, there was the fork in the sink. The cheesecake had taken a heavy overnight hit, including collateral damage to the crust. Panic and my usual rush to the cooler to start tempering the cream cheese to start over. Only this time, I stopped and paused. I discovered the most important lesson I would ever learn working with Arlene.
She wasn’t making me remake the cheesecake, I was choosing to remake it.
So, I chose not to make the cheesecake. I said nothing. Did nothing. And I even detached. When the big moment came for dessert, she came flying into the kitchen and asked me why it was late. I gestured to the empty plate and went back to cooking. For one second I had a small smile. Not the smile of Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold. A smile of…I have my life back.
I didn’t last much longer at the restaurant. The spring fell out of my step and even the 5 AM super-secret breakfast parties could not stop the bleeding on that immortal blow. But I wasn’t dead. I was reborn. I had choices and I chose to leave.
When the lesson is learned, close the book.
The next Christmas, I made myself a huge gold bow that spilled over the top of my Christmas tree in grand style. It reminded me of the greatest teaching. I made and lost tons of bows over the years, but I’ve kept that lesson in my heart.
You make the choices. The only person who can tell you what you can and cannot do is YOU. The only person who can make you do anything is YOU.
Peace on earth, a big gold bow on the top of your tree, and plenty of cheesecake, delivered with a hug and a smile and a secret Chambord sauce.
I bless and release you, Arlene. And I release me too. Thank you for the lesson.