Simple intentions: slurp some noodles, then cross the street to the late-ish open coffee shop and write about week two of #vanlife. But the circumstances behind the photo above left me spinning.
In planning my night I looked for and found the aforementioned one-two combo, in a neighborhood near where I decided I’d live for the weekend. Jonesing for ramen, a Google search brought up BlankBlank Ramen first (tagline: “Ramen with ❤️️”) and was highly rated by several hundred visitors. (I’m not sure I or anyone else should call the vegetarian version the same name, in my limited vegetarianism it seems more like jacked-up miso soup.) “iPad ordering” didn’t necessarily appeal to me but “highly customizable” did. I wanted a greens-filled chili-hot bowl of toothsome noodles.
When I got there, people were waiting around outside. Went in to put my name on the list and was directed back out to the bank of mounted iPads where I placed my order for “Hippie Ramen,” paid, and received a receipt with a number. Fine fine, I’m open to new user experiences, especially when the stakes are as low as a bowl of soup. Took my number and waited, got called early for an odd seat at the counter, though I’m not sure getting seated early necessarily translated to my order being prepared sooner. Just noting that fact, I wasn’t in a rush and as a former longtime service industry professional I’m always entertained in restaurants. And seated as I was – looking down the cooking line – I was front row center to a restaurant version of the Keystone Kops.
Given my vantage point it was more like I was backstage, and it was hard to be there. Directly in front of me was wok/fried rice station and the first guy stationed there was interested in action. Of the female variety. It was 7:30 on a Friday night but my man didn’t seem all that busy. He moved deliberately, opening the reach-in, grabbing a six-pan,
putting it on the counter, scoping the scene. Eyes following the couple being led through the narrow space between the ramen counter seats and the wall. Not following the couple though, if you know what I mean.
I was a bartender and I get it, seeing what’s going on is part of the job, sometimes it’s one of the perquisites, and yes, of course men check out women. If you observe people at all you know that women also tend to check out women. But the way this guy did it was a little much for me, he seemed borderline obsessed. (Maybe I check out women the same way – you spot it you got it, right?)
Anyway, Mr. Deliberate would pull out an ingredient, scope the scene, portion the ingredient into his wok, repeat, repeat. Scoop the fried rice into a small bowl, pull out garnishes in no particular hurry, scope the scene, scope the scene, scope the scene. While holding the completely finished dish in his hand he engaged in a full minute conversation with one of the other cooks. I hate that shit so much, finished food just hanging out in someone’s hand like it’s a fucking prop. Finally passes his food off, turns his attention back to his wok, then with a paper towel flicks some straggling rice grains out of his wok onto the small wok table, wipes them deliberately into a small pile, and then deliberately onto the floor.
Turns out that the guy he was chatting up was his replacement, there was a shift change happening behind the line right at the beginning of the busiest part of the night. New guy comes in and begins his intense prep work for the night.
In the mid-nineties and I worked in the kitchen at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans for a spell. The line cooks started their prep at 1pm even though they weren’t allowed to clock in until 1:30. They had so much to do and they cared so much, they were working at a restaurant that was over 100 years old and was still relevant, a successful stint at which would not only give them a lifelong foundation in classic French cooking, but would also open doors anywhere they would ever want to work. These guys totally crushed it, arriving during lunch service and finding any two foot square spot they could fit a cutting board so they could slice mushrooms so fast their knives were invisible.
Twenty years later I was watching the fried rice station closing “chef” slice open two bags of Sysco frozen corn and dump them into the wok. Sysco = ❤️️.
He and my first guy took (deliberate) turns breaking up the giant mound of frozen-together kernels, grabbing them with (gloved) hands, pouring water on them, hacking at them with a ladle. Even though I hadn’t eaten yet I probably this moment as a cue that it was time to leave. I’ve walked out of movies before; same thing, right?
One more anecdote before I absolve these guys.
Deliberate guy left, the line clears out to a manageable number (but not before one guy carefully handed a stack of six or eight stacked empty bowls to another guy who wasn’t really paying attention because he was chatting with yet another guy, and who fumbled the stack and dropped and broke half of them). Order ticket came in, he puts on top of his rice cooker three steamed buns with the BlankBlank logo dyed into the top, then pulled out ingredients one by one and sloppily assembled an order of steamed pork buns. At one point he scooped a pile of pulled pork and dropped the measuring cup-scoop onto the rice cooker table. Though he saved the utensil, he lost the pork, and he pushed the unseen-to-me mess aside with his foot. Finished the buns, called over the bar to a server and put the plated pork buns one-by-one on the counter in front of the unoccupied seats next to me, unoccupied because the two diners had just left. Their dishes hadn’t been cleared yet, which meant that our friend was placing this finished food among dirty dishes.
The mess he made on top of the rice cooker stayed there at least until I left; it might still be there as you read this.
My “ramen” arrived, I asked for hot sauce and it came right away, and the food was fine. The real ramen was probably good too, I’m not a ramen expert but I’m a competent cook. If you simmer enough pork bones and add okay ingredients, you’ll get okay ramen.
Not their fault
Unfortunately my discomfort and discontent was focused on these cooks because they were right in front of me. They’re just guys who needed a job and found one, or maybe they’re even passionate cooks or chefs in a bad situation, which is really where the problem lies – the situation. Organizations are top-down. If they have leaders who care about food and cleanliness they don’t have Sysco in a wok and slop on a rice cooker. We live in a world where clever marketing can easily trump quality and I got suckered. Waiting patrons don’t tell the whole story; neither do online ratings. My bad for not trusting my instincts when I got there.
Mothers’ Day, 2006 (or thereabouts). Three-star restaurant, New York City. Mom, Aunt Camille and Uncle George eating dinner at seats 1, 2, and 3 of the bar I was tending. Restaurant door opens, I look up and into the crowded bar area walks Sam Shepard. Our eyes lock and I welcome him with a nod and a hello, which is probably one more word than either Chuck Yeager or The Farmer would have used in the same situation. One more word, as it turns out, than Sam Shepard, who smiled and nodded back before finding the maître d’.
My mom, not knowing him, witnessed the exchange. “You know him?”
I tempered my sarcasm due to the day. “Um, yeah.” But I hadn’t seen him in person until then, or been given the chance to unobtrusively say hello to the lead of movies that were favorites at different times in my life. It pays to scope the scene.
Since we’re off on a tangent anyway…