Monday, April 26, 2010

Eating Out Sadness

I heard recently that my very first Chef passed away last week. Part of me was shocked at how much anguish I truly felt. One can get close with co-workers in just about any job. I have lost co-workers and acquaintances before. But this is very different. Even though it has been close to 4 years since we last saw each other, he’s always remained in my thoughts and I would check up on him via mutual friends still in the kitchen trenches.

There’s something different with the relationships that one develops in a kitchen. For good or for ill, there’s always much more passion in the feelings you have for your fellow kitchenite. And just as some could completely get my goat, shave it and put mascara on it. Or then you've got Frankie reaching out and trying to teach me how to not be a complete screw up and ruin everyone’s day. A kitchen is a hard place to learn without guidance. To put it plainly, people are dicks until you have earned their respect in some form. That pretty much means being a complete screw up for a month unless someone takes pity on you and explains how fryers work and the methods you need to practice to not burn food. Seems simple. But when you’re in an environment that can be more cliquish than jr. high, where EVERYONE is on their period, ALL THE TIME. Where you can find yourself in the most absurd pissing matches, over the most ridiculous shit. Frankie was my life preserver. “Send the servers to me, they shouldn’t even be talking to you.”, “Don’t even worry about that manager, they’re just like that on Tuesdays.”, “See? That’s how you don’t burn shit!”.

Take that and add a sprinkle of fuckitall humor and you’ve got the guy that you wanted to work with, no matter what shift. When you were in his kitchen, he had your back. And you had his. His kindness and his leadership style made it very easy to want to give him your loyalty. He really understood the meaning of the word. And honor. In a corporate kitchen, some astoundingly stupid things come down the pipe. From unreasonable prep requirements on the line to outright stupid uniform decisions, he’d be in the office giving them what-for. It’s hard to stop the moronic will of corporate, but at least we knew we had an advocate fighting on the side of common sense.

Kitchen families are weird dysfunctional messes. Much like regular families. And we all shared each other’s triumphs and tragedies. I remember the mutual happiness we all felt for Frank when we found out he was going to be a father. And how awful we all felt when he fell ill and found out it might be cancer. I was overjoyed for him when he got well and said he was planning to finally leave the trenches to finish his degree and get a job that involved things like sitting and air conditioning. It was around there that we lost contact as his life decision had inspired me to leave the drudgery of the kitchen-that-doth-not-teach-one-to-cook and continue on my own path to learn how make good stuff to eat.

Though paths diverged, I would still hear from pals about how things were going. Asking after him and his family, wondering if his dad was still the head Chef for the restaurant, if his sister had finally grown sick of the yearly Mother’s Day and all-you-can-eat holocausts in the dining room. But this week, the check-in held no joy. I found out that he had again fallen ill and rapidly deteriorated in the hospital. At that point, it really hit home how much of an impression he made on my life. And how disappointed I was that we’d never have the chance to get together and laugh about old times in the lobster mines.

I know how shallow that sounds in the face of what his family and close friends must be feeling. To me he was a great guy and a great teacher. But to these folks he was a husband, a father, a son, a brother and a close confidant. My heart goes out to all of you for your loss. I really can’t think of warm words of comfort that wouldn’t ring hollow in this moment of mourning.

Frank Peres, you were an awesome man. A big man with a heart bigger than the sky. I shall miss you keenly. And I will think fondly of you any time I’m in a kitchen, sweating, worried and in the weeds. I’ll remember your words of wisdom. "Dude, chill out. It's just food, bro." I'll miss you man.