electronic Gourmet Guide

The Pre-Chef

by Norman Van Aken


When thinking of an egg one thinks of beginnings, homes, nests, havens and shells. Not only chickens lay eggs! I am down in here in my shell now because I was asked to be. (Not that I mind). "Find some time ago and tell us about it", she said. So I will not crack myself open like the chick's egg to emerge, blinking, staggering and unable to return, but crawl out, with my own curiosity as my guide, hold my shell up (to keep her pink and blazing sunset colors, her spined and spiral shape intact) and listen to time's murmurring, between the beats of a human's heaving chest, the roar of my "Mother, Mother" ocean's roll.

Before Lunch Chef, Sous Chef, Executive, Prep or Sous Chef I must have been the "Pre-Chef." I once lay back within my shell, coiled and coded with some DNA recipe, no doubt, embedded in my soul's center. I, pre-knowing, followed false trails out aplenty. I was a multitude; house painter, concrete sprayer, flower seller, carnival gypsy, sod layer, blues band struggler, black tar roofer and many others. But those are for other tales. We will begin and spiral around this life as a chef on this eGG... "It was twenty years ago, today...", so goes the song...but actually closer to 22. It was the year of 1975.

The Pre-Chef days were all but over and white clothing, tied back hair and two thousand pairs of sneakers ago I cooked in a town called Lake Forest, Illinois. Not my first chef job. That is even further within the catacombs of my spiral shelled cell. Perhaps another time we'll go there.

I arrived around 2 each day, (whenever my hitch-hike in concluded) in the high chaos and tidal roar of the lunch rush hour. In short, people were screaming in at least four languages. It was often like a bad day at the United Nations on that hot line. The Chinese Man would be jockeying the Scandanavian fish chef (Thor) aside to puff up his Florentine Omelettes under the broiler. Thor would peer over his glasses at the tickets and mutter to no one in particular, "I'm gonna stick a knife in this guy some day." Eddie was from Philadelphia and the only guy on the line I could not understand. He did teach me how to use a French knife, but it was all through gesture and pantomine in that his speech was some kind of crazy shorthand dialect only a few people could follow. Eddie worked in pantry and must have consumed 5 pounds of shrimp and crabmeat each day. The reining chef was a Frenchman named Gabriel, (his horn blown long ago), who retired in the mid-afternoons with his newspapers, cigars and red Burgundy to his private quarters upstairs.

The kitchen was built down into the ground with no windows. with all of the other chefs napping after the morning shift in the bunkhouse behind the restaurant, the hours between 3 and 5 were dark, dreamy and quiet. I spent many of those afternoons with a kind, funny and dying Japanese man named Tokio Suyehara. TokÚ, (as we called him), was the head chef of the restaurant for many years before I started there; but after the cancer hit him he had no strength for it. His body shrunk down to boy's size with only his head, feet and hands left large. TokÚ and I had some chores to do, (making the creamed spinach, slicing lemons and carefully putting paprika on one hemisphere and chopped parsley on the other), but we accomplished them quickly so we could sit in the chef's office and drink tea and talk, (he and his family were forced into the nisei camps in California during the Second World II) or TokÚ would raid the walk-in refrigerators and make me some incredible dishes he knew from his travels from the Orient. On doctor's orders he ate big bowls of ice cream or drank shakes to try and put weight back on, which frustrated him because he missed his own spicy, aromatic, textured cooking. I was learning why with these meals and felt bad for him. He shook it all off with a smile. I remember him out in the yard of the restaurant picking dandelion greens in the softening April sunlight one day shortly before I left that job, (never to see him again), bringing them in and making us a little soy dressed salad with them. Ah, my shell is darkening and I must move up!

By five in the afternoon the other chefs would be returning to work after their naps in the bunkhouse most of them lived in behind the restaurant, (for those who could sleep and ball games or letter writing back to old countries or old loves, for those who could not) to work the dinner hour. The restaurant changed her rhythms dramatically over the next two hours.

The dishwashers had lifted the mats, swept and mopped, cleaned about a thousand dishes and hundreds of pans, taken out the laundry and re-set the cutting boards by then. Usually the Italian would be back first, whistling and bragging about a mid-afternoon conquest, (imaginary) and readying his station which was the meat grill. His name was Michelangelo but asked us all to call him Mike.


The other chefs came in one by one and soon staff meal was coming together. The meal always seemed to make the cooks uncharacteristically pleasant. Maybe it was the wine they gulped in coffee mugs. (Everyone on the floor staff knew but they never ratted on one of the cooks or they'd have had one helluva time getting their food later.) In fact, one of my chief jobs back then was going to the little liquor store a few blocks down in the afternoon and pick up the beers and whisky and hide it behind cases of lettuces or cans of snails. The chefs took the wine from the restaurant's cellar openly which the owners allowed under the na´ve assumption that that would all they would drink. Crazy. More often than not some of them drank the chablis out of the shrimp de jonghe dishes from the reach-ins right in the middle of service leaving the shrimp only with the butter and parsley set up in the casserole dishes. I was learning so much.

Restaurant cooking was very different in the U.S. back then. It was as if the whole profession just went under after a bright period between the late 1940's and early 1960's. After Kennedy got shot through Vietnam and Watergate the whole rodeo show just seemed to get corrupt. Nixon sneaking the Margaux into his glass while his guests drank plonk would have been in perfect sync with the cynicism a waiter on a typical floor staff would manifest. Oh, you could still see the old pattern on the tapestry of French classical cookery in this restaurant. The names were still there, (Veal Oscar, Tournedoes Rossini, Sole Bercy et al.) and there was an occasional rivalry that flared up between the cooks, (the French vs. The Italians vs. The Asians....Americans were on the very bottom). But the life just killed you everyday, twice a day. I knew that I really had to get out before my ability to be the only thing I ever considered worthy of being died. I took my shell and rolled South...as far South as I could go on dry land. Key West.

My shell got brighter and warmer there. In fact it almost grew roots I stayed so long. I could tell you about it. Perhaps another time. It's time for a swim, shell and all.

Copyright © 1997 by Norman Van Aken. All Rights Reserved.

Norman Van Aken: A Chef In His Own Words



This Archived Page created between 1994 and 2001. Modified August 2007