Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Whatever: Valentine's Day At A Semi-Dysfunctional Restaurant

This blogpost was originally written on Tuesday, February 20th, 2007. It was deleted, revised, and then reposted due to popular demand and lots of whining from On Food And Eating fans. Enjoy.

It is well documented that every line cook in every slightly dysfunctional restaurant has a "whatever" stage. It usually arrives at the tail-end of a disastrous dinner service, around the third or fourth hour, and may or may not be accompanied by the phrases, "Fuck this place," "I'm finished," or, on rare occasions, a walk out the back door.

Many things can trigger early onset of the "whatever" stage. Too many orders coming into the kitchen at once, repeatedly being ignored by either clueless servers or disinterested kitchen staff, and so on. It's different for everyone.

My recent trip to the "whatever" stage came on Valentines Day of 2007. Valentine's Day is the busiest day of the year for the restaurant industry after Mother's Day. Our executive chef decided to leave at 8:00. Orders were piling up on both hot and cold sides of the line. Everyone was yelling for everyone else to "shut the fuck up, for fucks sake." I think we all got to "whatever" at the same time.

Isaiah, our appropriately-named, indescribably-quirky grill guy usually gets there first, bemoaning the inevitability of there not being enough filet mignons cut for the night. Tonight is no exception. Being Valentine's Day, there is the clich├ęd Surf & Turf on the menu, comprised of (you guessed it) a lobster tail and a filet mignon. However, many patrons decide (for whatever reason) that they prefer to order Surf & Surf (two lobster tails) or Turf & Turf (two fillets). In a really hot, really noisy kitchen, this could be a problem when yelling out orders. "Surf" sounds a whole lot like "Turf." Some would say that they even rhyme. Isaiah was unable to handle this. After a 25 minute argument during the busiest dinner service of the year about the nuances of the word "surf" as opposed to the word "turf," and incessant bitching about what the servers could write on their order ticket, Isaiah uttered the first "whatever" of the night. He then went back to making all of his steaks medium-to-mid-rare, regardless of the specification on the order. Isaiah's "whatever"s are generally followed by two or three "don't talk to me"s in rapid succession.

Jim, our diminutive-but-capable sous chef, got there next. Working the saute/fish station, Jim often has the pleasure of dealing diplomatically with questions about vegetarian preparations, monosodium glutamate, replacing side dishes with other ones (usually ones we don't have), and inventing child's plates. On a normal day, when the entree menu is mostly static, this is tolerable. But not on Valentine’s Day. After the 6th can-we-replace-the-Jerusalem-artichokes-for-fried-green-tomatoes question, Jim throws his hands up, tongs in the right hand, towel in the left, shakes his head and says loudly (but not yelling, Jim is not a screamer), "Whatever, man. Whatever." He says this defeatedly to ex-acting-student-turned-possibly-career-server Will, who saunters away, inevitably feeling guilty. Jim takes a sip of his "Pepsi" and begins the dish: rosemary-scented lamb rack with cranberry Israeli couscous and, now, fried green tomatoes. Jim's "whatever"s are usually followed by hearty, "I hate this fucking restaurant," and then "but you know -," then a half-furtive-half-impish glance over at me across the food window at the pantry station, "whatever," he finishes.

I hardly ever get to the "whatever" stage of the evening. This is due to several things. 1.) The ease of the pantry station. Three salads, maybe two appetizers, and then the desserts. Boring. 2.) My high tolerance for the stress, the yelling, and the bitching. But not on Valentine's Day 2007. Tonight, I am getting sick. I have been feeling it coming for weeks now, and I can't fight it any longer. I have to listen to Dan, our expediter (he's the one who calls the orders as they come in from the dining room), a testosterone-laden, chain-smoking, 19-year-old Italian, flirt with the new hostesses that Chris, our general manager, hired because they're hot - not because they can read, which, it's obvious by this time, they can't. I also have to listen to Isaiah continuously bitch about the Surf vs. Turf ordeal, and listen to Jim tell Isaiah to "shut the fuck up, for fucks sake." Yes, it's ten o'clock and we're still taking appetizer orders when we're supposed to be closed at nine. Shut up. Make food.

I am about to lose it. I have been quiet all night. I have been telling myself silently for the past 4 hours that if I have to fucking work this fucking station one more fucking time, I'll fucking kill myself. Salads are piling up on the food runner's table next to me, impeding my progress on the next order. None of them are being acknowledged but any food runners/hostesses/servers/anyone with arms, when I finally yell (I AM a screamer), "Is ANYONE with ears working in this restaurant, or am I just -- god DAMMIT. WHATEVER. I don't give a fuck anymore." And that's what my "whatever" is always followed by - a very loud, very sincere, "I don't give a fuck."

"Whatever-stage reached!" Isaiah announces to the kitchen. We are all ready to give up and walk out - except for Dan. He will futilely keep hitting on hostesses (who are all, inevitably, named Leslie) until they finally realize that he's serious and will avoid him for the rest of the night.

Isaiah is really the only one with a stage past "whatever." After that, he goes into hysterics. Everything makes him laugh. The laughing is mixed with something that's supposed to be "hell yeah" but just ends up sounding like "Eleagh." Listening to Isaiah laugh makes me even more angry. I have to go into the walk-in freezer and consort with the vegetables to calm myself down.

At 11:30pm on Valentines Day 2007 , there are still people in the dining room. A girl server comes in and tells me that her table wants a creme brulee and a cheesecake. I take off my apron and say, "tell someone who cares." I walk out the back door.

"Goodnight, sweetheart," Dan says as he puffs on the evening's last cigarette.

"Fuck off," I mutter in his general direction.

"Whatever," he replies.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Frog Legs and Fine Fare: Catfish Johnny's

Under a few hundred live oaks, their mosses dragging the ground under a cool October sky, is the town of Lake Panasoffkee, Florida. Only 900 residents populate the town. It is not even a dot on the map compared to its neighbors – Orlando to the south, Tampa to the east. But while diminutive in size, it holds the secret of a regional style of cooking found from Biloxi to Nashville to Charleston. Traditionally, the line of Southern cooking has been drawn at the Florida/Georgia Parkway. However, the breadth of Southern lifestyle, ingredients, method of preparation, and culinary personality crosses the border and extends as far south as Gainesville, 200 miles into the state of Florida.

While commercial chains like Cracker Barrel attempt to hone in on this down-home, rustic style of food preparation, no restaurant I have found comes close to the level of mastery, the cornucopia of ingredients, and the comfortable ambiance of Catfish Johnny’s in “Lake Pan.” Catfish Johnny’s is a low-key, casual dining restaurant, boasting indoor seating for 50, outdoor patio seating for 25, and a dance hall with a bluegrass band every Saturday night. It preaches the gospel of Southern cuisine – fry everything.

A typical Southern meal includes generous portions – no one is to leave the table hungry. At the end of the meal, third or fourth glasses of sweet tea are poured into Styrofoam cups, topped with lids, and sent home with each guest – a typical gesture of Southern hospitality.

An assortment of fried seafood is always available in the South, especially freshwater fish and reptiles. Catfish Johnny’s is no exception. A typical combination plate includes piles of gator nuggets, fried oysters and clams, fried catfish fingerlings, and, yes, fried frog legs, which I love. For the less adventurous Southern connoisseur, fried chicken, grouper filets, and butterflied fried shrimp are also available.

Vegetables get simple treatments, the preferred method of cooking being frying. A hot plate of fried okra is always on hand, ready to be smothered in Crystal Hot Sauce, straight from the plant in New Orleans, Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina, the plant was utterly destroyed, sending lovers of the hot sauce scrambling to buy water, batteries, and cases of Crystal. But, I digress. Another time, perhaps.

Johnny is there, too. He’s always occupying the table in the corner of the restaurant. There’s only one corner, really. His table is guarded by at least five of his close friends and a petrified alligator head from a 12-footer that Johnny ‘wrassled’ in his yesteryear. His white beard, silver hair, and rosy, bespectacled cheeks make him the jocular personality you would expect from a man bearing a nickname like, “Catfish.”

Dine indoors or out under the live oaks, and Catfish Johnny’s will be an authentic Florida experience. All it really needs is a swamp. But you wouldn’t want 6-inch dragonflies as dining partners.