Partially obscured in his corner of the kitchen, my fry guy stood with his back to the rest of us, head and hands down and forward, striking the now-too-familiar covert text-messaging pose. I admonished him with a quasi-serious tone that weakens by the day: “Dude, keep that damned thing in your pants.”
With well-honed charm and an angel’s innocence he replied: “I was just setting an alarm for the prime rib, boss.” Perhaps he was telling the truth. It’s all too easy to miscalculate roasted perfection over the course of three to four hours. Then again, standard-issue kitchen timers don’t allow one to simultaneously check a girlfriend’s text or the score of the Sox game.
In similar restaurant scenarios, responses range from, “I was checking the time,” to the ultrasavvy, “I was taking a picture for Instagram to drive more business, boss.” All worthy explanations,
BS or not. I identify with such creativity.
The prime rib exchange inspired a rush of emotional response, from annoyance to humor, then reverie and sadness, as I was unexpectedly and affectionately reminded of the passing of chef Anthony Bourdain, my “kin,” who once griped about emerging technology and its potential menace to restaurant mojo. Bourdain partially built his gastronomic, astronomic career on kitchen gruff and edgy opinions in a best-selling, tell-all restaurant book.
More than 10 years and 50 columns have passed since I dedicated my very first to this bad-boy chef after reading his “Kitchen Confidential.” Dude went on to live my dream career, becoming a globe-trotting, culture- and cuisine-celebrating television icon. Bourdain rattled my world by taking his own life this year, clearly evidencing that fame and fortune cannot free one’s soul.
It further occurred to me that he had joined two former chef friends I’ve also written about here — all of them after punching out way too early to that grand, glowing kitchen in the sky.
I imagine the three of them — chef Ed Z, chef Rob Jean and Bourdain — in their whitest of whites, exchanging stories of the restaurant grind, pursuing their “masochistic” passion while partying like pirates. They’d likely be swirling a heavenly Barolo paired with gnocchi “light as a cloud,” no schedules, no disruptive technology, no employees, no stress. Heaven!
When Bourdain spoke at Boston’s Symphony Hall a few years back, I repeatedly laughed out loud at his “boatload of pet peeves,” so many so familiar. I, too, have a boat. And cellphones at work are (way) high on my (substantial) list.
Bourdain mused, “If I could, I would punch Yelp in the face.” (Hell-o!) And that, “Beer notes are bullshit—it’s fu*+kn’ beer, people .” (Seriously, people!) Bourdain and Jean likewise flinched at the mention of Guy Fieri and the irony of vegans in restaurants. I’m almost ashamed of the laugh we shared after I asked chef Rob one night what I could offer the demanding guest who disliked the only vegan entree offered on our menu. “Thirty bucks for an Uber and send her to fu*+kn’ Cambridge,” he replied with perfect pirate-alter-ego affectation before grabbing a saute pan and creating an incredible dinner that absolutely thrilled her. For all of his own coarseness, Bourdain regularly evidenced great sensitivity in deference to the various cultures and locations he shared with us all.
Grumbling aside, the whole cellphone conundrum is indeed formidable. An actual miracle of modern science resides in our pocket. What was originally, miraculously, just a phone, is now mind-blowing. We conceal staff schedules and phone books complete with a planet’s worth of yellow pages. We calculate, dictate, and translate (in any language), access infinite food-beer-wine reference, transistor radio/boom box/Walkman/iPod, remote thermostat control. We manage payroll and vendors, utilize ingredient conversion tables, build food photo albums, and even tolerate a snarky administrative assistant!
In a previous life, on a near-daily basis, I pleaded with staff, friends and strangers for a pen before scribbling notes on a cocktail napkin — thoughts that ran through my mind that would otherwise be lost. Now? My newfound “memory” is personally card-cataloged by titles such as: “Menu-recipe ideas,” “Don’t forget, you dope,” and “Is it me?” — the latter a chronicle of my own most prominent pet peeves. (For my own future celebrity appearance perhaps … never !)
During that memorable show, as I tried to record many of Bourdain’s most humorous gripes, I sat twisted in my chair, head and hands down, typing “secretly” into the poorly blocked upward glow. An elbow to the ribs signaled my wife’s proper objection to my bad manners. “What, babe, I’m typing you a love poem …”
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 on this website.