Now that I’ve re-entered the workforce, I’m having to deal with a few issues most 58-year-old guys don’t have to deal with. Given how the economy has been the past few years, there are a lot more dealing with such issues now than, say, a decade or so ago. But we’re still in the minority.
Commercial kitchen work is, largely, a younger person’s game. There is a lot of bending, stooping, carrying heavy objects, standing and other stuff that gives real meaning to the idea of comfortable shoes. Additionally, the service industry is not known for its hefty pay scales. I do not split a double with a pair of wannabe musicians in the Lower Garden District. I have a mortgage on a three-bedroom house, complete with property taxes, insurance and a utility bill that proves my air-conditioning unit does not fit in a window.
I am older than any of my supervisors (something I have not had for most of the past, oh, eight years or so). Of the staff I work with, more than half are easily younger than my own kids. I have a Track Record. Matter of fact, I have two — one in the culinary industry and the other in a 32-year career as a reporter. Over half of those I work with are still deciding what they want to be when they grow up. I am older than their parents and yet, as anyone who has done any kitchen work (at home or for pay) can tell you, it’s an activity that periodically reinforces one thing.
All of us, no matter how experienced we may be, have our weak spots: types of cooking or common kitchen skills we simply haven’t fully mastered and maybe never will. As confident as we might be in nearly all other aspects of kitchen work and in Life Itsowndamnself, we revert to being 12 years old and hoping for a phone call from our latest crush when it comes to dealing with the unfamiliar.
For example, I have virtually no experience with any type of Asian cooking. The first day on the new job, I was asked to make Kung Pao Chicken. What’s it supposed to taste like and look like? Maybe I’d had it at some point, but maybe not. No clue. I had a recipe to go by, but hell — here I am at fiddy-damn-eight years old, holding up measuring cups and feeling like a flour-covered child in Mama’s kitchen.
Y’know that thing chefs do with their skillets where they can shake them and make everything they’re sautéing flip upside down so it browns evenly? My attempts at such, despite years of practice, still send half the onions to the floor. Gimme a spoon, thank you.
And, God help me, I do not have the baking gene. My two boys somehow got it. In junior high, my oldest was making his own pizza dough and selling little pizzas to his buddies at school. I’d simply stand back and watch, eyes bugged out and my jaw clanking to the floor like in a Tex Avery cartoon. How does he DO that?
Not that I can’t put forth a good effort. My baguettes look tremendous, smell heavenly and the taste is straight off the Champs Elysees. But they are doorstops. Speed bumps. Each one weighs 42 pounds. Sigh.
We all have our skills and we all have our difficulties. I am slowly acquiring some new skills and comfort zones and that’s always good. I’d urge anyone to step outside their self-imposed areas of culinary creativity.
In the past, it has been said New Orleans is a city of many restaurants, but only one menu. That’s slowly changing. There are still plenty of tricks for this old dog to learn and I seem to find a new one nearly every day these days. It can be frustrating, but it’s never boring.
It’s only food, baby.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.