Part 7: Chef de Casserole
This is the latest installment in a continuing series that documents my personal quest to become the host of my own cooking show. Since this is a relatively new “career,” there are no vocational programs or community college courses to prepare me for it. From what I have seen, the two most important elements in securing such a position are passion for food and plain old dumb luck. Born with a passion for food, I set out to make my own luck.
Chef de Casserole
I had been working as a sous chef for this national chain restaurant for about four months when I read the ad in the local newspaper. It went something like, “Sous chefs needed for new gourmet market and cafe.” The new market was being opened by Mobile’s top (i.e. only) celebrity chef. This was a fantastic opportunity. The concept of the new market was intriguing – locally grown organic produce, seasonings and spices from around the world, fine wines and imported beers, and the most creative thing was frozen dinners made in house.
The other side of the building was an amazing hot bar and deli. The menu featured Southern staples like ribs and fried catfish at the country bar, Panko encrusted halibut and bourbon braised beef tenderloin at the gourmet bar, and fantastic sandwiches like the Southern style BLT made with romaine, apple wood smoked bacon, and fried green tomatoes.
I began my career at the market working in the hot bar making whatever the executive chef or the owner decided we would make that day. I preferred working on the gourmet bar because its menu changed everyday while the country bar never changed. The gourmet bar was where all of the action was. Sometimes these recipes were written down and were followed without derivation. Sometimes they were improvised on the spot like a Myles Davis trumpet solo. A jazz musician in another life I am drawn to improvisatory cooking. The gourmet bar often featured specials from the produce guy or the fish monger therefore we kind of just looked at what we had and made something up from there. It was a blast. What made it better was that I was no longer poor.
There was a job that the executive chef and the owner had been looking to fill. This person would at first work in the cafe kitchen preparing casseroles and such for the freezer department at the market next door. Once the holiday party and Mardi Gras ball seasons ended this person would then move to an off campus kitchen that they would run with a team of people to mass produce the frozen dinners and casseroles. We jokingly called this person the chef de casserole. We thought it was clever. Before too long my experience as a manager came to my new employer’s attention. Within six weeks of being hired I was being promoted. I would be the chef de casserole.
I worked through the holidays cracking out as many casseroles and frozen dinners as I could. The problem is that I was usually lucky to have four square feet to work with. The cramped kitchen was simply too small to get any real production done. Finally I was moved to the spare kitchen that had been purchased to aide in Katrina relief meals. This kitchen was huge. A bank of convection ovens and three 100 gallon steam kettles. There were no stoves yet, so sauteing was out of the question but I did learn how to roast my mirepoix and Creole trinity.
Before long I was given two production cooks and a dishwasher. I began setting up schedules for casserole production and teaching recipes to the new staff. Things were going well or so it seemed.
One Friday afternoon the culinary manager for the company stopped by to let me know that the accountant had said that we could no longer afford to keep my kitchen open. The market was doing okay, but was not yet at a level to support the start up on my project. It had to be put on hold. Six weeks after having been promoted and just three months after being hired, my entire staff, myself included, were laid off.
To make matters worse I got laid off three days before my birthday. Happy birthday, huh? It was a bad time for the restaurant market in Mobile and I ended up taking a part time job as a line cook for a national BBQ chain. It paid little and was easily the worst restaurant job of my life. I spent my hours there thinking of how I could get out of the place. I went through the paper religiously looking for better jobs.
A few things looked interesting: oyster shucker down on the bayou, a temp job with a caterer making box lunches, and running the galley on an offshore oil rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico – during hurricane season. All of them sounded better than what I was doing but they were even worse paying.
It was at this lowly point in my career that I would once again have a newspaper ad dramatically change my life.