The Hulk has Left the Building

“You won’t like me when I’m angry.”

I had only heard about him, this bad ass cook we had working at one of our sister restaurants.  A legend in his own time, he could run a busy saute station like no one else.  He owned that station – as he should, after working it for 8 years.  He also had a legendary temper.  So naturally, last July when the most recent chef de cuisine gave notice, and the company offered me the job, I was a little nervous.

Okay, a lot nervous.

After being given a sous chef position with only a year and a half of cooking experience, I already had enough on my plate.  Three months later the company wanted to me to take over as chef de cuisine at another restaurant?  Not only was it another kitchen with a totally different menu, but it was a kitchen that easily turned out double the food volume.  And did they forget that the kitchen was staffed completely with Latino men, all of whom had been cooking there for several years?  What business did I have coming in and taking charge of their kitchen?  Despite my reservations, both executive chef and owner assured me that the kitchen staff was all on board and that I would have all the support I needed.  Nothing could have been further than the truth.

After several weeks of hitting my head on all the low hanging pipes and low passages of my new kitchen, it became quite clear that my primary mission was to babysit – one that if not handled delicately could bring on a cold shower of resentment from my new staff.  During those first few weeks, I worked every day, getting to know the restaurant, the menu, the routine for every service…I came to rely on my receiver/ butcher for essential advice about inventory and how to manage food costs.  He was also my eyes and ears when it came to keeping an eye on the cooks, making sure they were prepping fresh ingredients every day, and keeping on top of food quality and consistency.  “Check the pickles,” he would say, pointing out that they were sometimes inconsistent in flavor and color (from the turmeric).  Then after a few months he quit, and so did one of my strongest cooks.  In the month of October I probably had only two days off. I took care of all the receiving and butchering while we looked for replacement cooks.  I took this as an opportunity to prove to my cooks that I could work just as hard if not harder than they did.  Some days I was at the restaurant for 16 hours at a time, and in the midst of it all there were a slew of private functions – weddings, engagement parties, birthdays, holiday parties, etc.  There were times I thought I was going to lose my mind.  At it’s worst, I found myself curled up in a ball in the corner of my office, very likely indistinguishable from a quivering ball of snot.  But every evening at 6pm I somehow managed to pull myself together, put on my game face, and face the next service.

Then there was the Hulk.

The Hulk was the biggest battle I was up against at the restaurant.  Everyone on the staff agreed he was like two people.  When he was in a good mood he was like David Banner – easygoing and cooperative.  Then there was his other identity – the spiteful and angry one that slammed pans around and alienated everyone around him.  His attitude toward me was one of constant intimidation.  During service he would either purposely ignore me when I asked him a question, or answer me as if it were so obvious only an idiot would have to ask.  Very rarely did it seem as if I weren’t inconveniencing him somehow.  He was like some territorial predator, and I was the trespasser on his hunting grounds.  Only when he needed something from the powers that be, did he treat me with any respect whatsoever.

Toward the end of our time together, I did see some glimpses of hope that things might work out.  One slow evening, I got to see Dr. Jekyll instead of Mr. Hyde, and got him talking about menu ideas.  The next week we worked on some of his ideas and sold them as specials and it seemed to put him in good spirits.  Then, after a particularly difficult weekend service, I got to have a little heart to heart conversation with him in which he seemed to open up and agreed to try to find better ways for us to work together.  But it was not to be.  A week later, in the middle of Friday dinner service, I was trying to resolve an issue a mis-printed order and he told me to shut up.  When I wouldn’t back down, he had a meltdown, yelling, “F*** this place!” and stormed out of the restaurant.  I’m sure he thought things would fall apart without him.  But you know what, the show must go on, and it did.  I had already been training one of my strongest grill cooks to work the saute station, so that evening I told him to do just that, and I would cover his end of the grill.  Suddenly everyone stepped up their game, including me.  The food runner was calling out orders and expediting, everyone was suddenly talking and communicating with each other.  This was no time for ego or grandstanding.  We were all in it together and we just had to get through the night’s service.  After it was all over, it was like a weight had been lifted.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, the Hulk has left the building.

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