I was not built to last in the food service industry. It was fun during college, and I made tons of friends, but I am not programmed to spend long hours worrying about whether other people ordered 1000 Island or Ranch salad dressing. But that doesn’t mean I look down on the industry, and I actually think every citizen should have to spend some time doing something in a restaurant just to make us more empathetic as a nation. Call it my own National Service plan for niceness. I never send my food back to the kitchen, and I very rarely, if ever, take out my day’s frustrations on my food server. Until you’ve simultaneously dealt with temperamental customers while you pacified egocentric chefs then you don’t have a clue how much a simple smile means to a person making less than minimum wage. Like a war veteran, I’ve lived through my experience but I don’t want to go back. Ever. But, also like a combat veteran, I have story after story about my time on the front lines, and honestly, rarely a day passes without me thinking of that experience. I might have only worked from 1992–1996, but my time at the Cleveland Country Club is so seared into my consciousness that I still feel like I should be working at the place whenever I walk in there now. Maybe it was all the brain cells that I killed when I was young, but it feels like it was only yesterday that I was clocking in and walking down the hall with my friends.
While there are many stories that I can’t share in this medium (or probably any medium for that matter), I will share one of my favorites. In this pandemic and our nation being encouraged to support our local restaurants by using delivery and take-out systems, the story is quite appropriate and shows that just about anything can happen in a restaurant kitchen. Plus, it sums up what it was like working four years for the best boss in the world, the late great Don Bouler. I will never have another boss like Don, and he was the creator and founder of our our very own Island of Misfit Toys aka the Country Club staff. The film “Caddyshack” pales in comparison to the events of just another Tuesday evening during my time working at our Club. You just never knew what wisdom would come forth when our staff got together. We were almost all college kids waiting tables alongside grizzled veterans in the kitchen. Our chef was a former hippie who walked to work every day because of one too many drunk driving convictions, and he and one of the cooks spent an hour every day playing with toy action figures on the back buffet serving table before settling in the kitchen for the night. A great example of a normal day — our chef was prone to yelling “86 the special” whenever we had run out of the night’s special. As waiters, we were expected to know what those words meant when he barked at us. During one staff meeting, Don explained in no uncertain terms that we needed to know our “kitchen lingo.” “Know what 68 means,” Don commanded. Our laughter could only be stifled so long before our head waiter raised his hand. “Man, Don, where I come from, “68” means you do me and I owe you one.” It is amazing that we all still had jobs at the end of that meeting.
One summer, the Club added a Taco Salad to the menu as the “summer special.” This salad was delicious, filled to its tortilla rim with damn near everything in the kitchen, and was understandably a huge hit among the members. However, this salad was also a massive serving, and I can honestly say in four months, I never saw one person finish it. We used to joke that it was the “Ol’ 96’er” of taco salads, a la the film The Great Outdoors, and the Club would give it away free if someone could eat it all. No one ever did. Close, but never the entire thing.
Summer came and went, and so did the taco salad special. Life went on like normal around our club which is to say that it was anything but normal. The only constant thing about having college kids working is that the cast of characters is always changing, and the Club was no different. So many waiters and waitresses came and went every year, and we usually had a different crew depending on the season. I had forgotten all about the taco salad until one of our waiters took a takeout phone order without mentioning to the member that we no longer have taco salads on the menu. In defense of that waiter, he had left for college in Starkville in early August, and was only working December as a way to make some extra money between the semesters. He did not know that the salad had been taken off the menu but honestly, he probably wouldn’t have remembered even if we had told him. Regardless, he took the takeout order, and walked the ticket to the kitchen and placed it on the kitchen spin wheel in front of our three line cooks. The cooks combined age was probably 190 years old, and their experience was just about the same number.
I was in the kitchen dealing with my own order when I noticed all three line cooks staring at the taco salad order. Our chef came around from his usual perch near the back freezer in the kitchen and squinted at the ticket. After about fifteen seconds or so, another waiter and I walked around the food line so I could see what had stopped the presses so abruptly. Right about that time, Don walked through the swinging kitchen doors to find six of us on one side of the counter looking at a single ticket while another waiter stood on the other side. I’m sure that both Don and the waiter were wondering why in the hell everyone on our side of the counter had dumb looks on our faces. No words were being spoken.
Don came over to where we were, and looked at the ticket. He assumed the same position as the six of us — bewildered doesn’t come close to describing the feeling on our side of the counter. I’m sure we looked like the Harvard students on Good Will Hunting after the professor’s supposedly unsolvable proof was solved.
10 more seconds of silence.
“We ain’t got no taco salad,” one of the cooks finally said.
“Hell, we ain’t got half the ingredients,” said one of the others.
10 more seconds of silence.
“Man, I didn’t know. I just took the order,” the poor waiter stammered. He looked at all of us like he had just thrown away his only set of car keys.
10 more seconds of silence.
Finally, Don reached in his pocket for his wallet. He sighed loudly and handed me a $20 dollar bill.
“Coxy, go to Taco Bell, and bring back a taco salad and some change.”
He turned to the cooks.
“Box that sumbitch up, and sell it for $9.” They all nodded.
So we did. Absofrickinlutely. Pure genius.
Enjoy your take-out food and support your local restaurants. Be nice to everyone, and don’t ask what is happening inside the kitchen. You don’t want to know.