It’s all fun and games for chefs on TV — Mario Batali’s chubby ponytail and metro Crocs, Guy Fieri and Anne Burrell competing for most ridiculous hair, and Gordon Ramsay screaming bloody insults, knowing that the cameras are protecting him from a reciprocal punch in the nose! In real kitchens — the sharp, hot, greasy ones — there’s no studio audience or quiet, practiced choreography. ( Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine. )
In the wake of my last column, dedicated to our original chef at Cobblestones, I began contemplating the fate of the others who suffer our stress, and the never-ending toll it takes. Ed is now deceased at age 51, after years of sore feet, poor health and heavy drinking,
Don’t get me wrong, we don’t dodge bullets, or tightrope across bridges, or tunnel under tons of coal, risking the next CNN report of “trapped for days.”
But tell that to chef Brian B. and he just might flip you the (partial) bird. While chopping heads of innocuous iceberg for someone’s eventual “salad with no croutons and dressing on the side,” Brian became distracted. In that split second, he struck his chef’s knife down precisely where the first third of his middle finger once met the other two-thirds. In this real-life episode of “Chopped,” Brian and cookmate Mike hustled calmly out the door and toward the emergency room, finger packed in ice, in salad plastic wrap. Brian actually called “shotgun,” bloodied hand held above his head in that symbolic one finger salute.
Talk to Alan A, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, grill stalwart who snickers about the day he was leaning over the fry-o-lator, his lighter sliding from his breast pocket. The ensuing explosion of 350-degree oil created a howl matched only by Phyllis the bartender — wife of Finn the fireman — who screamed on cue, “TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES,” as she rushed to rip the oil-drenched coat from his body. Alan’s smile favors one side these days, the unrelated result of a later stroke, suffered at work.
In the 12 years between Ed’s departure from Cobblestones, then Earth, many chefs tried to fill his mighty big shoes, the first arriving in actual size 13s. “Big Man” brought an impassioned, nasty kind of charm — until a year later, when he hit his knees in the office, sobbing a “no mas” mantra, an emotional diatribe for a new career, through streams of tears and snot. He then dabbled in real estate for a spell before returning to school.
Queue “Old Phil.” After claiming at the interview to be a nondrinker, he would leave between lunch and dinner daily and return with a purple-lipped appetite for busgirls. Exit stage left. (Last I heard, he visited the reception after serving a wedding banquet and stumbled drunkenly into the band, taking out the drum set!) Bada-bum. (I don’t make this shit up.)
Old Phil was replaced by a cocky “boy wonder” — in hindsight, too young and too cocky. This one found relaxation between lunch and dinner by “baking” … with the wrong type of “herb.” He “moved on” to open his own restaurant, got “weeded,” closed shop and changed careers.
Then there was the never-to-be Fat Jerry, who actually showed up for his interview wearing chef whites — with all the right answers. We found out from our own “private eye” — moments before we handed over $5,000 in relocation expenses — that he’d just been released from prison after serving three years on a fraud charge! Apparently, being a real chef is harder than doing time.
Five years after chef Ed, we hired a talented, calm, dependable and “clean living” chef for the next six years. That is, until we opened Moonstones, our second property, and the GM found him one day curled on the floor, muttering over and over: “I can’t do it anymore.” (This, months before the same GM was found by paramedics on the same floor, clutching the phone, in the midst of a panic attack.) Both have since opted for alternative careers.
The next chef kept a bottle of vodka hidden inside the walk-in refrigerator. ’Nuff said.
Clearly we were thrilled nearly two years ago when we landed chef Rob Jean — a most brilliant culinarian with professionalism and great integrity — from Mistral and Sorellina in Boston. His menu development and training acumen has been remarkable since.
And not so thrilled when he recently complained of sore hips and aching feet — exclaiming: “I’m getting too old for this.” We all do, chef, we all do.
Ya know … maybe mining’s not that bad an option …
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which are available throughout our website.