The Captain Linnell House in Orleans on Cape Cod. Photo: John Tunney

Dreams and nightmares of a former restaurant chef

One of the first things I noticed was a large desiccated chicken skin stuck to the wall above the dishwasher. It looked as if it could have been there for weeks. I was already thinking I may have jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

I moved with my family to Chatham, New York, in May 1989 after selling the Captain Linnell House, my family’s restaurant of 10 years on Cape Cod. My wife and I were looking for someplace, especially for our 13-year-old daughter, with more of a sense of community than the itinerant and tourist life we’d been experiencing on Cape Cod. The Cape was going through a transformation during the Greed-Is-Good 1980s. Cape Cod was becoming an increasingly desirable place to build and purchase second homes with an eye toward eventual retirement and was a major cause of skyrocketing real estate prices. This new reality left so many of the next generation of Cape Codders unable to afford to live where they grew up. Everyone seemed to be either coming or going, causing communities to change dramatically in a few short years. Besides, I was never much of a beach person, primarily due to the susceptibility of my freckled German/Irish skin to scorching sunburns. There’s no middle ground for me and my skin: I’m either white or red.

Traffic was becoming unbearable. We had sold the restaurant in May 1988 and remained on the Cape for another year. Immediately after selling the restaurant, I had taken a job as the executive chef for the summer season in a small inn situated in the middle of Brewster on Route 6A while I was living in Orleans 5 miles away. I can distinctly remember taking 45 minutes to drive that 5 miles on a rainy Saturday that caused everyone to abandon the beaches due to the steady rain. Consequently, the hordes of tourists in the area, typically seated blanket-to-blanket on the beaches, turned to inching bumper-to-bumper down narrow, shop-lined Route 6A searching for some fanciful Old Cape Cod. In their search, they would find instead rows of lighthouse chachka with “Cape Cod” printed on it or their equivalent. Meanwhile, I had to get to work.

It was a nice old inn run by a husband and wife who were a little quirky but genuinely nice. “A little quirky” is far down on the personality disorder scale in the hospitality industry, which tops out at “lying, back-stabbing, drug addicted, criminally sociopathic, possible mass murderer,” so I wasn’t concerned. One of their quirks was a fear of using gas for the ranges in their kitchen, which left me to work with two electric home kitchen ranges, one of which was a JennAir range with a small grill. There were only 22 seats in the dining room, though, and I had spent the previous 10 years serving dinner to over 200 guests on any given summer Saturday at our family restaurant. I figured I could cook for the 25-30 guests they expected as a maximum with a hot plate and a toaster oven. I learned that this toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance would work against me in a new and unusual kitchen environment.

Without going into the minutia of the difficulties of serving a sauté-heavy prix fixe menu with this setup, I also found that the attempted use of six of the eight burners available to me meant the circuit breaker controlling both ranges would trip. Continuing to cook required rousing one of the owners to come down from their apartment upstairs to reset the circuit breaker in the basement of the old inn with it’s out-of-date wiring. By the end of the summer, I was awfully close to throwing the electric ranges out the kitchen window.

We had no desire to open a restaurant again, so I took a low-stress position in an Italian grocery/café for the winter with the understanding that I would remain there only temporarily as I began sending my resume all over New England. We had lived and worked in a small town about two-thirds up the state in Vermont for three and a half years previously and mostly enjoyed it. We loved the mountains, the people and the laidback lifestyle of Vermont. But it was remote and having winter begin at the end of September and end sometime in mid-May with weeklong stretches of the temperature hitting 20 below got to be a bit wearing. I tried to forget what I didn’t like about living in Vermont as there’s so much to like, but I only halfheartedly answered a couple of inquiries from the Green Mountain State, and nothing came of them.

I had an interview with the people at Bread & Circus in Cambridge before the organization was absorbed by Whole Foods. It was one of the spookiest interviews I’ve ever been through. I called it my sotto voce interview as everyone I spoke with in the corporate headquarters, with its darkly painted walls and overly diffused lighting, barely spoke above a whisper while looking at me earnestly. I wasn’t sure if I was being considered as an initiate into their cult or as their executive chef as they silently guided me from room to room to meet the next high priest or priestess. I received a standard thank-you-for-applying-it-was-a-pleasure-to-meet-you-but-we-are-moving-forward-with-another-candidate letter. It was just as well as, having spent my formative years in New Jersey, sotto voce has never been one of my strengths.

The Blue Plate in Chatham, N.Y. Photo: Steve Minor via Flickr

My family and I eventually landed in Chatham, New York, where I accepted the position of executive chef at newish upscale restaurant Hail! Columbia. It was located in the building now occupied by the Blue Plate restaurant at the end of Kinderhook Street in the Village of Chatham. I’d been wined and dined by owners hoping to recruit me to take over from their present chef, who they felt was impossible to work with. I had history with them, as they had been in the same loose circle of friends as my parents when I was growing up in New Jersey. I’d also worked for them as a busboy for a couple of months almost 20 years previously in their restaurant in Del Mar, California, after hitchhiking across the country with a friend. I felt confident they could be trusted given our previous connections.

The owners, Don and Diane, had moved back to the East and decided to open another restaurant after inheriting a sizeable sum from her mother. They met my salary and benefit requirements and it looked as if it could be a dream situation for my family. We liked Chatham, New York, and felt it would be a nice community for my daughter to continue her schooling through high school. As I’ve said, community was something we found lacking in the transient world of Cape Cod, so this was a top priority. With the tenuous nature of the restaurant business in mind, we considered that Chatham was close enough to Albany and Berkshire counties, providing options should the job not work out down the road. All in all, we felt good about where we were landing.

Once I started, I did have some concerns about the financial stability of the restaurant, as almost all food deliveries were COD due to the owners’ difficulty paying their bills, which, they assured me, was a temporary situation, as they were awaiting additional financing. I could understand, as I was coming from Cape Cod where my family’s restaurant did two-thirds of its business from June through September. I knew from experience spring was the most difficult time financially for restaurants in a summer seasonal area such as Cape Cod or the Berkshires. I remained positive, as I felt the owners and I had put together a good plan for a successful restaurant, and accepted their explanation for a tight financial situation. My antennae were up, though.

As the busy summer season wore on, I realized the owners, coming from the New York metropolitan area, were doing their best to cozy up to the New York metropolitan crowd, which is certainly not a bad thing. However, I kept hearing reports of them being not-so-subtly contemptuous of the local population. As I settled into my job, I began to realize their primary motivation for starting the restaurant was to show off for their city friends and to show the local population, whom they considered in need of sophistication training, how to run a “real” restaurant. This was obviously not a good thing for a restaurant to thrive in a rural area with little tourist or part-time resident traffic seven months of the year.

I also learned they had spent their sizeable inheritance and then some extensively renovating the place from the foundation up, breaking a cardinal rule of restaurant financing. That cardinal rule is “put it on the table before you put it on the wall.” Beyond spending an ungodly amount of money on the foundation in order to create downstairs seating with a bar along with a complete kitchen renovation requiring all new duct work, they literally covered the dining room walls with gilded mirrors and turn-of-the-century prints. The decor was faux Gilded Age and, I would come to learn, completely out of place in Chatham. Consequently, they opened with no backup funds and with what would turn out to be insurmountable debt.

After everything I’d observed, what sealed it for me as the season moved into the fall and business began to slow was an ad they placed in the local newspaper that headlined, “Before heading home to New York, enjoy our elegant brunch at Hail! Columbia.” If that didn’t turn off the local population enough, they added in small print at the bottom of the page: “Locals welcome.” As anyone who has lived year-round in a tourist area knows, there’s always a certain tension, shall we say, between the two interdependent groups of locals and tourists. On top of not paying some local businesses for services, they were doing everything they could to alienate the area’s small-town population. None of this helped business, as the city crowd left after weekending in the fall. It was at this point I felt I needed to think about finding another job.

The final straw came the night when the gas suddenly went out on the kitchen range in the middle of a busy Saturday night toward the end of September as the season was winding down. I sat dejectedly on the step outside the back door wondering if ranges suddenly becoming inoperable in the middle of service was a sign to consider a new career when an emergency gas delivery arrived, allowing me to finish cooking for the customers who remained.

The job lasted a couple more weeks, during which my last two paychecks bounced, causing my first mortgage payment to be returned for insufficient funds. Missing that first payment resulted in a late-evening phone call from an extremely aggressive bill collector who may have been a former KGB interrogator. I could feel the veins in his neck popping out over the phone as he screamed at me, demanding to know when I intended to make good on my mortgage payment.

I confronted Don with the same intensity as the bill collector for my unpaid wages to no avail. During our confrontation, I learned they had never set up my medical insurance benefit. He explained they didn’t have medical insurance and they hadn’t been able to afford my insurance, either, as an explanation.

I went to see the lawyer who handled our home closing. She was a wonderful country lawyer in the best sense and was happy to help me at no charge. It turned out, in her 40 years of practice, she had only been stiffed once and it happened to be handling the divorce of the restaurant owners’ daughter. She confided she wanted to warn us about the owners, but with our buying our new home, she felt we were committed. I could hear the satisfaction in her voice while I stood in her office as she called the owner and calmly reminded him that nonpayment of wages was a felony and she would call the sheriff to bring him to jail if I wasn’t paid that week. Her method worked.

I was left, though, in an unfamiliar area less than six months after I moved with no job, a mortgage, a 13-year-old daughter and no money to speak of, having exhausted almost all our savings purchasing our home. Desperate for a job immediately, I found one, kitchen unseen, in Albany at a French restaurant in a beautiful historic building with sumptuous, albeit noticeably worn, dining rooms where I was told I would be “co-chef,” whatever that meant. However, as I said, I was desperate and signed on.

When I walked into the kitchen on my first day, I found out why the owner had kept me out of the kitchen during the interview. It wasn’t because she didn’t want the person I was supposedly replacing to see me as she had indicated, it was because the kitchen was absolutely filthy and on the precipice of being shut down by the board of health after the most recent inspection. One of the first things I noticed was a large desiccated chicken skin stuck to the wall above the dishwasher. It looked as if it could have been there for weeks. I was already thinking I may have jumped from the frying pan into the fire; however, I didn’t have a lot of options at that point.

The kitchen staff — or, I should say, the understaffed kitchen — consisted of one dishwasher; my “co-chef” Christophe, a young Frenchman still learning English; and me serving lunch and dinner five days a week and a Sunday brunch. One of the reasons I was hired was to help English-challenged Christophe with ordering. I had to rely on my academic French from almost 20 years previous and what French I had picked up in restaurant kitchens, which involved culinary terminology, swearing and hurling insults.

Christophe possessed serious culinary skills, having apprenticed at Taillevent, a perennial highest-rated, three-star Michelin-rated restaurant in Paris at the time. I was a reasonably well-regarded chef with a collection of highly rated reviews but had virtually no formal training. However, there’s more to being a chef than culinary skills, and 20-something Christophe was more interested in sneaking away to have sex with the owner’s married daughter, smoking weed and listening to rap music in the kitchen at excruciatingly high volume. Nonetheless, I did my best to learn any new culinary skills he could teach me.

At one point Christophe was to learn from one of our purveyors’ salesmen that his company stocked fresh pheasants. When Christophe excitedly told me he had ordered a case of pheasants for our next delivery, I tried to explain to him with my pidgin English/French that I wasn’t sure he would be happy with them, as they were farm-raised and resembled chicken more than the wild pheasants he was accustomed to.

He either refused to understand or I was incapable of explaining, so I was left repeating: “Christophe! Non Sauvage! I did know Christophe was familiar with one type of pheasant in France: the wild delicious type. I’m sure he couldn’t have conceived there would be any other type of pheasant. A faisan was a faisan, so to speak, at least in pidgin French/English. However, a comparatively inferior cage-raised pheasant did exist here due to our overprotective, wacky American FDA regulations not allowing wild game to be served in restaurants. When the delivery arrived containing the case of pheasants, Christophe practically leapt onto the case marked “pheasant,” cut it open, reached in and held up one of the butchered and bagged birds. “Bahb (his pronunciation of my name), what is dees?!” he asked quizzically, sure there must be a mistake.

I shook my head, shrugged my shoulders and assured him it was indeed the pheasant he ordered: “Christophe, c’est faisan, oui.”

He looked at me with the horror only a French chef could exhibit when confronted with a poor substitute for his dream of creating a dish with pheasant such as he’d prepared in France. “Non faisan! Non!” he exclaimed plaintively while pointing at the deficient bird.

There were two nightmarish events that stood out in the first few days I was there. The first occurred when, hearing a commotion behind me, I witnessed Christophe wildly waving a chef’s knife while chasing a rat the size of a cat through the kitchen. The restaurant was not far from the banks of the Hudson River, which is apparently an excellent breeding ground for hugely impressive rats. No, the rat wasn’t wearing a chef’s hat and didn’t look anything like the animated rodent in the movie “Ratatouille”; I wish it had.

The second event also involved Christophe and a knife. This time, I turned to witness Christophe bearhugging our middle-aged, obviously alcoholic waiter from behind as the waiter was threatening the dishwasher with a knife. The incident was the result of a dispute over the waiter not covering the dishwasher’s shift the night before, which the waiter had agreed to do.

I could surmise, from my years of experience in the business, the unfortunate waiter only worked lunch while he was still semi-functional before he drank himself into a stupor every evening. I’m sure washing dishes was the last thing on the poor soul’s mind that evening. The waiter had undoubtedly agreed to cover the shift as it was easier to say yes than no, as saying no would have required some sort of explanation he wasn’t prepared to give.

An argument ensued and the dishwasher punched the poor waiter in the face, which led to the hapless waiter picking up a knife with a mind to do serious damage, only to be thwarted by Christophe’s bearhug from behind. No one was ever actually in danger as there was no question that what the waiter had in his mind to do and what he was actually capable of doing were two decidedly different things. He had a difficult enough time carrying food out to the tables, much less brawling with a young streetwise dishwasher. No lasting harm, no foul and everyone went back to work as was common practice on pirate ships and in so many restaurant kitchens then.

I lasted six weeks in this nightmarish job before taking the position of executive chef for the semi-completed Kimball Farms Continuing Care Retirement Community in Lenox in the second week of November, my fourth job that year. Having left the Cape after 10 years as executive chef of my family restaurant, which should have been calculated in dog years, and barely surviving my two previous jobs, I must have been able to sufficiently hide the fact I felt like a cornered animal doing all I could to survive in order to get the job.

I did have one last responsibility with Christophe, though. The owner asked me if I could help explain the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner to him. He’d experienced Thanksgiving as a guest at the owner’s home the previous year, probably playing footsie with her daughter under the dining room table as they ate, but that was the extent of his experience. The owner was very concerned he wouldn’t have a clue how to prepare a quintessential American meal such as Thanksgiving. Of course, it took less than 10 minutes of explanation, as all it really involved was going over what were traditional vegetable dishes and accompaniment options.

Christophe’s biggest concern was the stuffing. The conversation began with a question something like this in his pidgin French/English, “Bahb, zee stuffing de pain avec huîtres?”

As so often happens with foreign language, my comprehension was better than my conveyance of French, so it took me just a few moments to understand, or so I thought, what he was asking. I understood he was asking about oyster stuffing for turkey, which is probably what was served in his only experience with a Thanksgiving meal the previous year. Given that he’d had Thanksgiving with the owners and his mistress, I diplomatically tried to explain to him this was a traditional accompaniment for some families on Thanksgiving.

What I didn’t tell him was I felt oyster stuffing for turkey was a culinary crime of the highest order and should be illegal, as I can’t for the life of me to this day understand why anyone would combine oysters with turkey. Oyster stuffing was usually prepared by those under the mistaken impression it somehow made their stuffing “gourmet” and traditional. If it was traditional, it was probably an attempt by some deranged Scotsman who had somehow slipped onto the Mayflower and attempted to replicate haggis with what he had on hand for that first Thanksgiving.

Christophe looked at me quizzically after I finished my explanation and demanded, “Non, Bahb, WHY?!” as he looked at me wondering if I had any explanation for what would be for him just another incomprehensible American approach to food.

I told Christophe I had no explanation and I was perplexed by the combination myself. I went on to tell him a simple bread stuffing with sage was what most people preferred anyway. He seemed much relieved that he wouldn’t have to defile his plates with oyster stuffing.

Creamy ginger dressing

This story is from “back in the day,” as is this recipe, but I think the recipe is still relevant today as a salad dressing or dip for ginger fans. I learned to make a version of this dressing when I was working as a sous chef at Mary’s Restaurant in Bristol, Vermont, during the 1970s. The owners, David and Mary Bolton, were making a version of the dressing they had learned from a restaurant in Provincetown where David had been working toward the end of the 1960s.

It’s also where the story begins with my move to Chatham as Diane of Hail! Columbia called out of the blue wondering if I had a recipe for this dressing, as it was one of their house dressings in their restaurant in Del Mar, California. I believe they pried it from the same restaurant David had worked for in Provincetown, but I’m a little fuzzy on that detail. Nonetheless, having tasted three of the iterations, I knew they were all similar. As we talked, they said they were looking to change direction, as they weren’t happy with their executive chef. I told them I was looking to leave the Cape after selling the restaurant and one thing led to another.

I developed my version of this dressing, which was published in Gourmet magazine at a reader’s request in 1986, during my time at the Captain Linnell House. So it goes in the restaurant world.

Here’s my home version of the recipe, which we made in the restaurant with three and a half gallons of mayonnaise at a time.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups mayonnaise
  • 1 1/2 ounces fresh unpeeled ginger
  • 1 medium clove peeled garlic
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 2 teaspoons celery seed
  • Approximately 1/4 cup water
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Method:

Place the mayonnaise, ginger, garlic and red wine vinegar into the bowl of a food processor and repeatedly pulse until the ginger and garlic are mostly pureed. Pour this mixture into the container in which you’ve chosen to store the dressing and add the additional ingredients with the exception of the water. Add water until desired consistency is achieved. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper.