Traveling across country, I search for waffle houses to eat a meal.  I’m not big on the menu, but I love the show.  Watching a talented short-order cook work the rush is a deep pleasure.

I first started working in restaurants when I was 17.  My last cook job was in 1981 when I was 29.  Over the course of ten jobs starting as bus boy and car parker, ending up as a cook, I developed an appreciation for the skills of a talented short-order cook.

Five of those ten restaurant jobs were as a cook, three as a specialist in vegetarian cuisine.  I also worked making pizza in a Pizza Hut and Barnabe’s, but pizza preparation doesn’t count as cooking.

I was a waiter at the Happy Dolphin, a resort on the beach at St. Petersburg Beach in Florida.  It was during a two-year break from school between my junior and senior years.  What I really wanted to do was to be the short-order cook.  I had only worked as bus boy, car parker, waiter and pizza maker at that point in my career.  I looked at cooking as the pinnacle of restaurant work.

At the Happy Dolphin, there was the full service fancy restaurant offering supper to vacationers.  Then there was the Happy Dolphin diner serving mostly locals with hangovers when the bars closed.  I wanted to be briskly cooking eggs and burgers, serving seamlessly a dozen late night nibblers.  Cooking, for me, was where it was at.

I felt less drawn toward preparing food in the fancy kitchen.  I had worked closely with line cooks when I’d been their dishwasher two years before, in the summer in between my freshman and sophomore years when I was still in college.  Bob, the head cook, yelled a sizable percentage of the time.  Bob’s wife was a waitress.  Bob and Susan would lambast each other in the middle of rushes.  Lots of yelling.  Still, there was also good-natured sexual harassment.  I wasn’t one that knew how to engage in the playful sexual innuendos.  The environment, though stimulating, was confusing.  I had a hard time differentiating the play from anger.

In the diner, the short-order cook, Mac, was a deeply mottled and pocked, purple-faced, middle-aged man, scarred by a severe skin condition.  On breaks from my job I would linger and watch him work.  I was scared to talk to him.  He glared at me, suggesting I should go, but he never asked me to go.  His talent for the lightning fast production of a meal, never fazed by multiple demands, was a skill I longed to master.  I watched him closely with respect.

For nine months I was a waiter in the fancy restaurant.  Nine months I’d stop in on Mac and watch him work.  We never talked.  Turnover was so brisk in the restaurant that by the end, I was the second-most senior employee on the floor.  I’d saved enough money to take several months off to read, draw and spend time with friends.  On my last day, I stopped to say bye to Mac, mentioning that I had always wanted to learn to do short order.  When I said good bye his side was turned toward me as he worked the grill.  He stopped cooking.

Turning toward me, face on, he screamed, “Why the fuck didn’t you say you wanted to learn to cook?  You think I can read your fucking mind?”

I felt horrible, like I had committed an act of inhumanity.  I resolved to pay attention to situations where I could ask for something from someone that would also make the other person feel good.  I was unaware that Mac sought relationship.  I let his infirmity and demeanor get in the way.

I spent the Florida spring and summer reading and drawing.  That fall I got hired as the sole paid employee of a Florida commune that also ran a restaurant, The Bo Tree.  They needed someone that would show up on time and take responsibility for the kitchen.  I was hired to cook.


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