I think it’s common knowledge that I grew up in a foodie household. My mother is an excellent cook and she used to be a professional in her youth, before I was born. She also made the desserts for my wedding, which were perfectly amazing.
I spent a lot of time helping my mother in the kitchen while I was growing up. I learned the basics of a kitchen, as well as an appreciation for some of the finer aspects of the culinary arts. Of course, none of these reasons explain why I chose to work in restaurants instead of just throwing exemplary dinner parties like a sensible person.
In truth, the road to the back of the house was practical in some choices, desperate in others. Though a passion for good food drives me, skill and need drew me deeper into the well.
I never wanted to work in restaurants. Except maybe as the cool bartender or something, before I knew how much actual work was involved. I wanted to be a rockstar/famous actor-director. Or I was going to be a cult-of-personality writing sensation. I think I even seriously considered black magic as a means to instant wealth.
Through hindsight I can call it foreshadowing, but in reality my mother begged, cajoled, needled and threatened dire punishment until I dragged my heels into Edwardo’s Pizza and the owner was kind enough to take a chance on me. I worked there for most of my senior year of high school, waiting tables while doing homework and radiating teen angst.
I’ve really only got vague memories of that place. I barely cared about it and didn’t fully appreciate even a meager paycheck or cash in my pocket. I learned how to pour a glass of wine and fill a pitcher of beer without too much head. I had to relearn that later, when serving beer became a bigger part of my job.
I also had my first taste of how people treat service professionals, from kindness to blatant disregard. I got $10 tips on $10 checks and had $200 tables of ten walkout without leaving so much as a penny. I can and will write a whole chapter on dining etiquette in restaurants, be they fast food chains or three Michelin starred. But I don’t want to get distracted now.
I had a taste of life as a service professional and I hated it. On my feet for six to twelve hours, underpaid and underappreciated. That I was a self-involved teenage shithead with no plan and no solid ambition probably didn’t help.
I should add that, being a good Chicagoan, I love deep dish pizza. I wish that I had learned to make them while I was a that place. That beautiful chewy, flaky crust rising up over glorious pizza, covered in thick marinara and stuffed full of cheese and goodies. Spinach and pesto is my favorite from Edwardo’s. Chicago’s? Roast beef and garlic. Giordano’s? Sausage and spinach. Gino’s East doesn’t stuff their pizza, but their cornmeal crust is nice. I like their pizza with pepperoni.
Along with my disdain for making a living at the mercy of others, a foolish notion in its own right, I decided that rather than going to college I was going to move into Chicago proper. Oh the stories that could be told from the years that followed. Sex, drugs, booze and rock ’n’ roll, and a party that didn’t always end well. I could probably fill a book just from my years living in the apartment known as the House of the Lotus Eaters.
I worked in a now-closed SF/F bookstore in Evanston for a while. Then did some clerical work for a homeopathic clinic at the edge of Lincoln Park. Another place deserving of a book to itself, between the doctors and the clients. From there I went to a legit clerical position with a major non-profit, where I learned the hard way why I don’t do desk jobs.
Eventually, due to what amounted to a minor nervous breakdown, I left the non-profit and failed to find work.
I’m almost certain that I was a pretty unpleasant person to be around in those days. Broke, hungry and usually drunk or high. No savings and ever-growing debt on top of terrible credit. I still wasn’t very good about forethought and planning, so I couldn’t pay bills or rent and I was about to get kicked out of another apartment.
Fortunately one of my close friends had just returned from a vacation in Yosemite National Park. I was on the verge of full-blown panic when I called him. He told me he’d think about my situation and call me back.
He did, about ten minutes later, with a brilliant suggestion. Get a job at Yosemite. He had met some folks that worked there and I would fit in. He paid for the train ride and put me up at his place until I got hired.
I sold or stored my things, stripped myself down to the bare essentials. I was going to live in the mountains so I didn’t need much at all. I spent a couple weeks saying my goodbyes and I was off. For the first time, I was leaving Chicago without knowing when I’d see it or the people in it again.
Even in the thick of the chaos that was my life back then, I understood that I was at a precipice. Though I was running off half-cocked, I knew that whatever came next would change me. I was getting back to nature, to gain focus and perspective. More importantly, I was taking direct action, instead of just waiting for something awesome to just happen. And so off to California I went.
Next up (in no particular order)
– Lessons in Humility, the Road to Adulthood (or How I Stopped Worrying and Embraced the Mundane)
– Proper Etiquette For Dining Out
– Adventures at 10,000 Feet