"Oh my God!"
I was busted. Not an hour into a steady, but hardly busy, midweek dinner service, my nemesis had spotted me. I was taking it on the teeth, disheveled and on the verge of tears. All I wanted was anonymity, to fade into the background. No way was that going to happen now.
"Hold on, son," the chef said, glaring at me with white-hot intensity. "Time-out!" My heart sank. What was I in for this time? "Look atcha! Just look atcha, son!" I knew I looked bad. "You've got dirty spoons on your station, little specks of food all over, your jacket is atrocious, your apron is falling down, you've sweat through your toque, you've got béchamel on your shoes, the floor on your station is filthy, your lowboy door is open "
He spit out violations for what seemed like hours. "You can't work like this, son!"
It was as bad as it had ever gotten. He'd ridden me before, seemed to take some sort of perverse pleasure in it, but now he was unleashing a torrent of personal insult nuggets he'd stored for a special occasion: my breaking point.
"I'll tell you the problem. Step back, look at your station. That's what your brain looks like, unorganized, dirty [repeats list]! What's your name, son?" He knew my name. "No, sir. From now on, until you make a concerted effort to work clean, your name is Filthy McNasty!"
Every cook had a nickname. Other dirty cooks were called Pig Pen. Cooks prone to bouts of overseasoning were dubbed Salt Lick. Those who took shortcuts were christened Shoemaker (?). Cooks who complained about schedule or pay were known as Cancer, and perhaps most cruelly, slow cooks were referred to as Corky. Yes, like the young man with Down's syndrome on the early-'90s TV show Life Goes On.
Filthy McNasty wasn't all that bad, I thought. I even did some research to find how, exactly, my chef came up with it. It was a bar in Ohio frequented by one Jeffrey Dahmer, a song by deceased '50s jazz vocalist Eddy Jefferson, and the most disturbing Web site I'd ever had the misfortune of focusing my lazy gaze upon. Later, I was told, it was also a refrain used by James Brown while singing "Ain't It Funky Now" on his legendary 1962 live recording at the Apollo Theater. Yeah, my nickname was pretty cool.
Of course, it wasn't meant to be cool. It was intended to be an insult wrapped cozily in a motivator. Chef would make it a point to say goodnight to me at the end of each shift. If he used my real name I had made strides. "Sleep well, Filthy McNasty" was his way of saying "You are still the reigning King of Suck."
He was brilliant -- the special Zen magic of Phil Jackson mixed effectively with a potent dose of CIA interrogation. He knew that the hardest enemy to defeat was the one with outposts in my head. He planted troops in my mind, fed them and made sure their pillows were fluffed.
He quoted Sun Tzu, talked a good deal about self-respect and gave pre-service speeches that made Bobby Knight seem about as fiery as Ben Stein.
"You're going to serve that piece of fish?" he'd say. "If it was me, I wouldn't serve that fish," he'd continue. "It's overcooked and dry the edges are nearly burned. See, I think like this. I know you don't, but I do. Who's going to get that piece of overcooked fish? Is it the couple that doesn't have much money, that saved up all year to come eat at our restaurant for their 20th wedding anniversary? Husband's got on his nicest Pierre Cardin suit, wife is dressed up, makeup done all pretty, they're excited to come see us and then they get this lousy piece of fish? Will it be them?" He wasn't done. "Or will it be one of our regulars that expect excellence from us, which is why they spend thousands and thousands of dollars in our place every year? Which one of those folks will get this piece of fish? Maybe neither. Maybe it will be a little girl that's decided to try fish for the first time. She'll get this piece of leather and decide she doesn't like seafood. You have that much power in your hands right now, son. So if you want to serve that piece of fish, go right on ahead."
When he focused on you, it couldn't be good. You never quite knew what would make him happy. Do you, in an attempt at honesty, admit defeat or trudge on, ever stoic? It depended on his mood.
He would make book suggestions he swore would give special insight into his tactics. "Filthy, have you read that book I told you about, Flight of the Buffalo by James Belasco?"
I had. It was an exhaustive ode to personal leadership and responsibility. Dr. Phil seems to have based his entire tired career on it. Admitting I'd read it just informed the chef how much deeper in his pocket I'd become.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.