I may be many things, but I am not a foodie. While all manner of specialty cook books, reality cooking shows, and celebrity chefs proliferate, my appetite is unstirred. The main reason for this lack of interest is my experience as a line cook many years ago, when I worked in the kitchen of an Ottawa establishment I’ll call Pop’s Roadhouse (though its real name was Zak’s Diner). What I saw as a restaurant employee was enough to put me off restaurants, and gastronomy generally, forever.
Zak’s, I mean Pop’s, was a favorite eatery for families, tourists, and teens, which sat about one hundred patrons. It was allegedly famous for its milkshakes and breakfast specials, designed to feel like something out of American Graffiti or Happy Days, until you got your bill: upscale burgers and fries. Today restaurants are portrayed on television as brutal hives of industry overseen by bullying perfectionists, but what I saw at Pop’s was more prosaic. During the rushes the pace could be absolutely punishing, the oxygen on the line sagged with humidity, and the forty-odd kitchen, floor, and managerial staff were enmeshed in a compendium of psychological pathologies, but the one thing I never saw much of was an appreciation of cooking for its own sake. Procedure, speed, and volume were emphasized, not palatability. Everything was made and served in industrial quantities, so I never got to savour any single tastes – the shelves were crammed with jugs and bins with scrawled labels like “Roast Beeves,” “Seize-her,” and “(I’m) Cumin.” I once tagged a barrel of apple pie mix as mushroom gravy; they looked the same to me. For all we cared the Soup of the Day was Cream of Some Young Guy. About the only flavoring advice I received was from another cook who told me, “Smells like chicken, keep on lickin’, smells like trout, get the fuck out,” but not in reference to anything on the Pop’s menu.
At the tables and the bar, Pop’s customers basked in sentimental fantasies of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe while the employees hurled unheard drunken profanities at them and each other just behind the swinging doors. Every restaurant has sanitary horror stories, and Pop’s was no exception. The familiar three-second rule – food can fall on the floor and still be served if it’s scooped up fast enough – was applied by us using a much slower chronometer. “Does this smell off to you?” my colleague Rob asked me once, holding a slab of liver to my nose. “Man, I can’t even tell any more.” “Fuck ‘em,” he said, proceeding to fry it up, “we don’t have to eat it.” I remember creating a Diner Dip, an appetizer plate of sour cream and salsa, one sweltering rush: I looked down at the concoction and saw my facial sweat raining into it in large salty drops but put it up for the waitress anyway. Delicioso. Juice the bartender returned a toasted bagel one morning, as his customer had requested another one, only this time hold the blue fur. Yum. Some exotic species of garden pests were occasionally discovered in our salads. Enjoy! I never saw anyone deliberately sabotage any meals, as my roommate Todd did at Pete ‘n’ Marty’s when he hocked a phlegm ball into a cream pie he saw was to be devoured by an adversary, but I can’t guarantee it never happened. I won’t even mention prep cook Andy Walker and the cole slaw. Little did Elvis and Marilyn know.
For years afterwards I suffered a sort of shell shock from working at Pop’s: I would hear the sound of a zipper or piece of tape being unpeeled and think it was the order printer’s recurring clickety-click, and I would reflexively turn my head to scan the chit in dismay. Not much knowledge of cookery have I retained. Making meals at home today I move in similar robotic haste to my juggling on the line, as if a dozen more orders are due any second, but there is no residual culinary expertise. Dining out with my family, even when the food is decent and the service friendly, I cannot help but recall the notice I taped up in Pop’s exhausting, anarchic, infernal kitchen: ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE. Bon appetit.