Characters of the Kitchen

Characters of the Kitchen

In this industry you meet a varied and broad range of personalities. They are servers, line cooks, chefs, dishwashers, bussers, backwaiters, and any other amalgamation of people that make up a functioning kitchen. Each personality you encounter is unique in a way you can’t possibly fathom.
Our industry is full of artists, actors, dreamers. People who are passionate about a great many things, some are passionate about only a few things, fewer still but not uncommon are those passionate about only one thing. There are lazy people, industrious people, the studious, the serendipitous, the sensuous. There are liars, cheats, and swindlers. There are preachers, zealots, and martyrs. And yes, all these people exist in all walks of life but you’ll find more of them in the restaurant industry than you will in, say…a bank board room, or an accounting firm.

Why? You may ask; do you find so many characters in the restaurant industry? It’s because we can all afford to be characters. Your interaction with us is always brief and intense. You expect more from us than you expect from your accountant. We’re part of a show. We’re what you chose to do for an evening, not something you had to do for a day. And having chosen to interact with our ilk, we damn well better be entertaining.

Kitchens allow for the quiet loners to be outstanding within their field. They allow the people who don’t interact well with the general populous at large to hide behind a closed door, be intensely creative, and never have to speak a word to another soul other than your brothers and sisters in arms. If you are a social outcast, we welcome you with open arms in our world. Because in no other world would you be able to do an honest day’s work.

Dining room floors allow for the dramatist to put on a show. The servers who are too busy to be actors or writers or poets, they all perform for you nightly at their favorite venue. They took up a profession that allows them to be a unique individual, noticed above the masses, and they don’t have to vie for how many lines they’ll get or how much stage time is allowed. The stage is theirs all night every night, and they run the show.
I have been tremendously fortunate to work with some of the most interesting characters one could ever encounter during my time in this industry.

One of the characters I’d like to talk about in this piece is a gentleman named Gary, who was never called by that name. In fact, when someone came in asking for Gary one day I told them no such person worked for us by that name. When they insisted that he had worked for us for over a decade at that point, I was certain it was time to phone the authorities and tell them they lost one at the loony bin. Gary answered, rarely, to a single letter; G. G was more commonly called Hambone and that’s how everyone in this industry in Billings that knew him still refers to him.
Where that nickname came from is one of those kitchen secrets that will never be told. Lots of people have a nickname; many of them acquired it not because they wanted it but more because they didn’t. Hambone was proud of his moniker though and because of that he generally referred to himself in the third person.

Hambone was one of that fastest line cooks I’d ever worked with. His ability to remember a thirty ticket rail was astounding, and a feat unmatched by any I’ve since met. (A thirty ticket rail means that you have thirty tickets hanging in the pass window in front of you and each ticket has the order of every guest in the restaurant on it)

He was, without doubt, the messiest cook I’ve ever worked with. At the end of the night his station would be nearly knee deep with spilled greens, dropped pasta, egg shells, zucchini bits, and just a general accumulation of everything that made up a dinner service. It was not the responsibility of a chef to sweep his line at that point in my career and what most chefs would then generally do after the restaurant reached its close was go out for a smoke while some poor backwaiter or expeditor had to sweep the lines. I am not joking when I say it took a scoop shovel, filled two times, to clean up after Hambone.

If you picture the Swedish Chef from the muppets, you can get an idea of the way Hambone cooked, food was everywhere. One of my favorite Hambone bits was when he’d grab two handfuls of spaghetti pasta, place his hands at about breast level, start swirling the pasta and then exclaim, “Woohoo!!! It’s pasta time boys!” while humming some brotherl-esque tune. He would then throw the pasta up in the air and return to cooking at his station.

He’d sing classic rock all day long and change all the words in the songs to his nickname or to drug references. My two favorites were the Scorpions “Rock you like a hurricane” transposed to “Rock you like a Ham-ba-bone.” The extra syllable imprinted to make the name fit the song. And U2’s “In the name of love” sung as “In the name of drugs”. “In the name of drugs, one came in the name of drugs” The tune is still stuck in my head, and really, it’s catchy as hell. If you were tired of his song, just walk by and hum another classic tune and he’d switch, just as easily as changing the radio station. Sharon, an expeditor of unmatched skill, would request songs during a lull in service and Hambone would happily belt them out. Her favorite was, “A white sports coat, and a pink…gorilla.” The best part of it all was that he really did have a lovely singing voice and was more than capable of carrying a tune. The song that always made me duck though was the one he’d sing when the heat was really up and we were buried eyeball deep in the weeds. If he was singing “Whoa-oh here she comes, watch out boys she’s got the crabs.” You knew things were rocky. I heard that song so often that I’ve honestly forgotten the actual lyrics, and to be honest, I don’t mind that.

I’ll edit this portion heavily but it was always one of my favorite Hambone tellings. Lots of people in our industry, Hambone allegedly included, have a certain affinity towards narcotics. Hambone said that once, in his younger days, he was attending an after work party when a friend approached and handed him something and told him to try it. Hambone downed it with a swallow of whiskey and said to his buddy, “I’ll try anything once except [pick a narcotic name of your choice].” To which is friend replied, “That was [name of the narcotic you chose in the previous sentence]!” Hambone looked at his glass, looked back at his friend and responded by saying, “Guess I’ll try anything once.”

Hambone was a perfectionist, in his own way. Ask any executive chef who ever tried to rein him in and I’m certain you’ll hear a very different story. But in Hambone’s mind, there was one way to do things, and that’s the way he did them. Because of his perfectionist approach he would often fly into violent fits of rage. This is not uncommon among line chefs but it is always absolutely terrifying to behold. I was just a pantry chef during this incident. I had run out of mixed greens on my station and so I went into the cooler to retrieve more so that I could continue making salads for the night. Our greens were buried in a corner and you had to move two speed racks to get to them as well as climb over boxes of ribs. I had finally crested Mount Pork Rack when the walk in door was thrown open and in charged Hambone. He burst forth with, God forgive me for what I’m about to partially repeat here, “G*d m@#$%rf&*$@g damn sons of b$#@es! Isn’t there a single f&*$@g soul in this city that knows how to cook? I’m surrounded by m@#$%rf&*$@g morons and numbskulls. Give me one g*ddamned f&*$@g cook that knows has to plate a steak and I’d sh#t myself in astonishment. Lazy g*ddamned brothers to whores, every single f&*$@g one of them.” He punched a box of New York strip loins, shouted “F%CK!” at the top of his lungs, and charged back out to the line. Whether he never saw me or simply didn’t care if I existed; to this day I do not know. I can tell you that I’ve never been more terrified though. When I got back on the line the expeditor asked me, “Where were you?” I responded, “Trying not to cry.”

Hambone was the last of a dying breed. Men who started when our industry was very young and restaurant food was changing almost every five years. The classic French styles that had been observed for decades were falling from fashion and suddenly everyone had their own approach and technique. Food was becoming quality art instead of quantity sustenance. He watched as parsley went from something you used to cover every single white spot on a plate to something you dusted a line down a steak with. He watched as the steam table made way for the sous vide machine. He saw our industry change on a constant basis. And still, he held to his principles and his way of cooking. And that was never a bad thing. Your steak temperature was always dead on when you ordered from Hambone. Your pasta was always perfectly al dente. Your greens were always expertly sautéed and never over wilted. He was a stand-up guy, who’d always stand up for you if he believed in you.

Hambone is retired now, so I’ve been told. Which is unique because I thought we never retired in this industry, we simply got pushed under the stove with all the other spaghetti noodles and zucchini rounds at the end of a service. But regardless, I hope that he’s happy. I hope that the fire was able to die down in his veins enough that he didn’t need the adrenaline in him all the time to live his life. And I hope that now, when he walks home at night, taking long drags from his cigarette; he looks back, not with pity, but with fondness, on all the f%ck#ng morons and numbskulls who stood by his side all these years.

And in homage to my comrade, if you ever see my lips silently, wordlessly moving while I work the line and we’re in the weeds, I’m probably singing a variation on Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” that goes, “I love rocky road, so have another triple scoop with Hambone!”