And So It Begins

By Brien Seay in A Chef's Tale
And So It Begins

It was a Wednesday night, not the busiest night of the week, and having arrived at 3pm, I had just spent the last three hours being trained as a prep cook at Don Giovanni’s in Aspen, Colorado. I’d never worked at a restaurant before, in fact, this was my first real job. The paper route at 12, the summer jobs mowing lawns, even coaching football for grade school kids couldn’t compare to being on my own and having to earn money to pay rent. I was eighteen years old and 1200 miles away from home. Things were different now.

I was officially a prep cook, which is a bit of a misnomer because I never really ‘cooked’ anything. I was the guy that prepared and assembled food. Tonight I was learning how to make the filling for, and stuff, a handmade cannoli shell. I also made a vinaigrette and learned how to toss and ‘plate’ a salad. Next, I was taught how to use a chef’s knife. Then I proceeded to dice onions and slice an awful lot of zucchini. Finally, the job I would come to dislike the most: I learned how to pound veal cutlets.

Giuseppe Giacinto (Gio), the twenty-something, twinkly-eyed, energetic, dark, curly-haired, moustached, very Italian guy I was replacing, made it all seem so effortless. Watching him, the line cooks, and even the waiters, was like watching a finely choreographed but frenetic broadway dance routine. Each person knew where to go and what to do at just the right time. I was in awe of the fluidity and efficiency of motion. This stage was teeming with such a cacophony of sounds; pans hitting burners, plates sliding on stainless shelves, mugs and glasses clinking, knives cutting, doors opening, hot oil spatting, people shouting. This production seemed both impossibly chaotic and yet so precise. Black and white dressed waiters hustled up to the serving counter, handed the ‘expeditor’ (in this case the chef) their ticket, then those tickets were tucked into a holder and within a few seconds he started calling out what was needed to the other cooks. Although the chef clearly was the director, shouting at waiters, cooks and prep cooks alike, all these people were obviously a team. In the middle of this intensity, there was respect and camaraderie. And then there was me, a wide-eyed awkward newbie, in charge of my very specific tasks but still not really knowing my cues or where on this stage I was supposed to fit in.

Around 7:30pm Gio had determined that business was slow enough and I knew enough, that he could leave a little early. It turns out there was this movie that he and his friends wanted to catch. He said he would come back to show me how to close up. The cannoli filling and salad dressing were made, veggies were prepped and all I had to do was pound some veal and then keep up with the demand of plating salads and stuffing the cannoli. I was excited and yet terrified of being abandoned but logically, it all sounded straight forward enough.

While I’m sure Aspen still has a reputation as a playground--both for the locals and the rich tourists--back in 1976, it had a R-E-P-U-T-A-T-I-O-N! Just out of high school, I didn’t have much life experience but that night I realized just how much different this little town was. As Gio was leaving, he calmly, and matter-of-factly, let me know that he wasn’t sure what shape he would be in when he returned, as he had just taken some acid a few minutes ago. Oh, and the movie he was going to see was the Exorcist! I tried to make that seem like it was no big deal on the outside. On the inside though, I was dumbfounded. Really, acid + the Exorcist!! My psyche shuddered at the thought.

The night sped by, with over 200 meals, or ‘covers,’ as they say in the business. By the end of the night I was a mess--literally. My apron was stained with splotches of what I believe was vinaigrette, sticky from powered sugar and there were even bits of veal (yes, bits of veal) attached, all combining like some textured impasto painting. Did I mention that, as exciting as this new task was, I really didn’t care for pounding veal?

Gio did come back but I have to say, he really wasn’t much help. It didn’t matter though as I was so pumped up from excess adrenaline that clean up went pretty quickly. Over the course of my time at Don Giovanni’s, I would come to find out that Gio was life-fully-lived kind of guy. His tales were endless, as were his skills. Among other things, he could literally throw a frisbee the length of a football field. And, as a bonafide ski bum, his skiing ability was extraordinary. Skiing on some classic Rossignol skis that were 220cm (over seven feet!) he could ski moguls and the icy backside of the mountain effortlessly. And he looked forward to full moon night skiing, not the pampered chair lift or snow cat kind of night skiing but the hard-earned, hiking up Aspen Mountain (Ajax to the locals) in your ski boots with skis strapped to your back kind of night skiing.

My adrenaline rush over, I walked out of the back door of Don Giovanni’s into a crisp dark night. I looked up at Ajax Mountain, towering over the town. Snowflakes gently drifted down like tiny feathers and melted on my face. I felt good, satisfied in a way I hadn’t really experienced before. I had no idea at the time that this ‘job’ was the beginning of a profession for me and within a couple of years I would myself become a chef.