The Almost Chef

February 16, 2016 • John Justice

It was the summer of 1967 when I first met Mr. Tetsarkis. At that time, I was working for the Sohmer Piano Company as a tuner. I had just learned that the company was going to close down for an entire month. No one told me about this when I joined them a few months before. What was I going to do for a month? How would I pay my bills or even eat for that matter?

So there I was, putting the finishing touches on Mr. Tetsarkis’s Sohmer console when he came in and introduced himself. He sat down to watch me and was impressed by the way I navigated around inside the instrument. I showed him how it was done and we began talking. This man was a chef but he was also one of those people who can draw your story out of you without even trying. I found myself telling him about the bad news I had just learned. He was quiet for a minute or two. Just about then, his two daughters came bustling in and he was busy with them. But he hadn’t forgotten me.

“If I show you how, can you run a dishwasher and sort silverware?” he asked. I replied that it wouldn’t be the first time, “I used to work in the kitchen at scout camp, doing exactly that and putting away the dishes. It was one way to earn a merit badge I wanted.” “Okay, Jack, that sounds good to me,” said the chef. “Meet me tomorrow at 6:00 a.m. at Shraff’s Restaurant. Do you know where that is?” I was familiar with the restaurant because I had stopped in there more than once to grab a sandwich.

Shraff’s was silent and empty when I walked through the front door the next morning. He must have been watching for me because Mr. Tetsarkis came and greeted me warmly. He showed me another entrance that led through a stock room and out to an alley.

“Here’s where you come in. I made a place for your dog right over here in the corner. Jack, you can’t bring her into the kitchen. I hope you understand that. We’d have all kinds of trouble with the Board of Health or whatever,” he explained. “Just hang up your jacket if you have one and put on one of these white coats. We always have plenty of them back here. They’re big enough to fit almost anyone.”

I knew that Star would stay right where I put her as long as I took her out regularly. As he was talking, I shrugged into the knee-length coat and buttoned it. The sleeves were long but he showed me how to fold them up and then came up with two sleeve garters. As he fitted them onto my wrists, he described what he was doing. “We all wear these, Jack, especially around the equipment in the kitchen. They hold your sleeves tight so they won’t end up anywhere they shouldn’t be.”

In my new white coat, I walked into the big noisy kitchen. Our first stop was a place where I washed my hands with special soap. The chef insisted that we all do this regularly. There was a sink and towels ready for anyone who needed them.

Then, Mr. Tetsarkis introduced me to the rest of the staff. There were a couple of women, some older men and a kid who couldn’t have been more than eighteen. My work area was straight along one wall, just past the area where the salads were prepared. I could feel the heat from several different kinds of cooking equipment and I was a bit scared at first. I shouldn’t have worried though. Everything had safety railings or was situated in such a way that you could walk right past without getting into trouble.

The chef showed me the big Kitchen Aid dish washers. There were two of them, side by side, and they were the biggest dish washers I had ever seen! Each one had three shelves with wire racks designed for different kinds of dishes and there was a huge tray with square compartments to hold the silverware. He explained that when the dishes came out of the machine, they were so hot that you couldn’t touch them right away. He showed me my work area, one section at a time.

“These big sinks are to rinse the dishes before you put them into the machine. The busboys are supposed to scrape them before they bring them back here but make sure that all of the food is off of the dishes before you load them. One of these machines can get clogged and if it does, we have half the cleaning capacity and that really slows things down. When you’re emptying the machines, you slide the racks out and put them over here on this railed stand. One of us will grab the dishes and put them up here in the storage area. But it’s your job to make sure that the flatware is sorted correctly. One of the busboys or the waitresses will come in here and grab enough silver to set an entire table. It slows them down if they have to sort things out.”

The breakfast shift had started and before I knew it, there were stacks of dirty dishes and bins filled with glasses and silverware piling up all around me. But soon enough, I got into the swing of things and was running both machines pretty well. Mr. Tetsarkis had some patience but it was limited. I heard him giving one of the prep cooks a tongue lashing because he didn’t arrange the salad properly. “It’s got to look good as well as taste good. Look at this mess! We’re not running an animal farm here, Sam. I don’t want to see a sloppy salad like that again. If I do, you’ll be helping Jack with the dishes!”

The busboys did try to scrape the dishes but as Mr. Tetsarkis had warned, not everything was removed from the plates. Without being told, I changed the rinse water before it became too greasy to do any good. There were extra tray baskets and flatware carriers for each machine. I would fill one and put it into the machine and, before I knew it, the next one was empty and ready for me.

The detergent was no problem at all. Instead of loose powder like the kind you can buy in a grocery store, there were premeasured cakes of Cascade, all ready to go. All you had to do was peel off the wrapper and put them into the compartment. With both machines going at full speed, we went through about 12 of those detergent cakes in one breakfast.

You don’t think about what goes on in a big commercial kitchen like that. You just sit down, order a meal and it comes out hot and ready to eat. Every person in that room had a job to do. One man was making eggs in every style you could imagine. Huge commercial toasters put out bread, English muffins, corn muffins and so on, twelve pieces at a time. At another work station, a lady was making home-fried potatoes, hash-browned potatoes, grilled tomato slices and so on.

Things quieted down a bit and I heard a sound I couldn’t explain. One of the staff members would close down a lid, and then you could hear a rumbling sound as if something was being thrown up against the plastic. After a few seconds, the machine would stop and then the whole process would start all over again. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and I asked Mr. Tetsarkis what I was hearing. He chuckled and explained. “That’s the potato peeler. We don’t use pre-cut potatoes here, Jack. Every single potato, no matter what kind it is, is prepared by hand. They taste better that way. You’re done for the moment so let me show you.”

He led me to a big machine that was about waste high. On the top was a big rounded plastic dome. He unlatched it and lifted it up so that I could feel the machinery inside. He warned me that the blades were sharp so I was very careful. There were several big cylinders stretching across the machine. Each one was fitted with blades that were designed to spiral around the shaft. Mr. Tetsarkis explained that the potatoes were washed and then placed inside this giant peeler. When the lid was latched down, a foot pedal was pressed and the rollers began to spin rapidly. The potatoes were rolled and tossed up against the dome. But each time they hit those blades, some of the skin was removed. Placed at strategic intervals throughout the machine were stationary cylinders which would bounce the potatoes right back onto the peelers again and again. I wondered where all of those peels were going and he showed me a deep tray which could be removed from beneath the cutting surface. He explained that the machine had to be disassembled and cleaned regularly. Everything could be removed and dipped in big utility sinks where all of the juice and fragments were removed.

By that time, lunch was beginning and I was back at my station, filling the dish washers and removing the trays when they were finished. As I worked, I heard bits of conversation all around me from the other staff members. Although each of us had a different task, we worked as a team. I realized that all of our work together was what made this kitchen operate successfully. Mr. Tetsarkis was everywhere, supervising one operation, jumping in when he was needed at one work station or the other. It felt good to be part of a work crew like that. Occasionally, I would hear Mr. Tetsarkis place a finished dish onto the slowly moving conveyer belt which carried the food out into the dining area. I would hear one waitress or another putting in her order and moving away to help the next customer. I found out later that each waitress or waiter had a number. When an order was ready, Mr. Tetsarkis would push buttons on a small control board and the corresponding numbers would come up on a screen just above the food conveyer. It was quite an operation.

I didn’t realize how hot it was in that kitchen until later when I stepped outside for a breath of air and to walk that wonderful dog of mine. The temperature in the alley was probably in the 80s but it felt cold to me for a minute or two. During the lull between lunch and dinner, we could have anything we wanted from the menu. Everyone got a chance to eat. I can’t remember what I asked for the first day but I think it was a BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato) sandwich. It tasted so good on whole wheat bread with a touch of mayonnaise.

Before I knew it, my first day was done. Mr. Tetsarkis gave me a word or two of encouragement as I took off my coat and got ready to leave. “You did very well, Jack. You’ll be just fine here. I could see you getting used to the job and learning better and faster ways to do things. You are good with your hands. Maybe I’ll show you a thing or two in the kitchen.”

The next day, the young kid Kenny was placed on the potato peeler. But he wasn’t really paying attention. He kept it going for too long and ended up with a dozen marble-sized potatoes. Mr. Tetsarkis yelled at him and decided to teach the boy a lesson. He made Kenny take the machine apart, clean all of the cutting rollers and empty the catch tray. Then he came over and asked me if I’d like to learn how to use that machine. “It’s perfectly safe, Jack. The machine won’t start until that dome is down and locked.”

He showed me how to place the big Idaho potatoes so that they would get the best results. But I had one question: “How will I know when they’re done?” “That takes practice, familiarity with the machine and common sense,” the chef replied.

I stopped the first batch too soon and they weren’t completely peeled yet. I put them back in for another couple of minutes and this time, I got them right. When the potatoes were peeled, I’d put them onto a deep sided tray right next to the machine. With all of that noise, I never heard anyone taking the finished product but somehow, they would disappear. The chef was pleased with my work and said so. After that, Kenny was doing the dishes and I was running the potato peeler. Soon the time came to clean that machine. I have seen some messes in my day but nothing could compare to that peeler. The catch tray was easy enough to empty but getting all of those cutting cylinders clean was a real challenge. At first, it took me a while to get that machine back together but I learned quickly enough.

One day, we had stuffed peppers on the menu. Everyone who could be spared was recruited to prepare the peppers. Mr. Tetsarkis showed me how to “crown” the peppers. With a sharp knife, you slice off the top where the stem is. Then, you reach inside, detach the seed ball and remove it. The idea was to do this without damaging the pepper. I did manage to ruin one or two before I got the technique right. At first, I did it exactly the way the chef had showed me. I would stand the pepper up and then slice the top off with the knife moving away from me. Mr. Tetsarkis insisted on that. “If that knife slips and it’s heading toward you, you’re going to get hurt.”

But then I discovered a different way of doing it and for me, it was quicker. I laid each pepper down on one side, facing from left to right. Then, I would quickly slice down through the crown and flick the end pieces and the seed ball into a nearby container. I had no idea that some of the other people were watching me. Then Mr. Tetsarkis started to laugh. “See that? You guys just learned a better way from the blind man.” After that, everyone was using my method and it was a lot faster, as long as the knife was sharp. I found out the hard way that it isn’t a good idea to press too hard on a green pepper. The sides are weakened if they don’t crack right away and when that happens, they’ll come apart when you try to stuff them.

Kenny was really mad at me. He never said much to begin with but I had made him look like a fool and for that reason, he stopped talking to me. Then, he started doing things to make it harder for me. He moved the foot pedal on the peeler so I had trouble finding it. He moved a waste bucket out from beneath a counter just enough for me to kick it. Fortunately, I wasn’t going too fast so the thing didn’t tip over. At first, I didn’t realize what was going on but it wasn’t long before I got the message. But I always seemed to find a solution to whatever stunt he pulled.

Then one day, he went back into the stock room and led Star outside. She was friendly and would go anywhere with anyone. He came and told me that she had run out the door when he opened it. That did it! I didn’t say a word. But I went back to the door with my heart in my mouth. My God! What if she just wandered away? Suppose somebody came along and found her out there. They might steal her just because the opportunity was right in front of them. I told Mr. Tetsarkis what had happened and went out the door like an express train. But that incredible dog was just sitting there, waiting for me to come and get her.

I picked up her leash and was turning to go back inside when the chef stopped me. “Wait a minute, Jack. Has that dog ever left a place where you put her before?” I shook my head. I thought quickly about the situation. The chef must have figured out what Kenny had done. He didn’t say anything more at that time. I brought Star back in, put her into her corner and went back to work.

At about 2:30 that afternoon, Mr. Tetsarkis called for a staff meeting. We all gathered at the first two tables, just inside the dining room. There were still a few patrons in the place but they were up near the front. The chef started asking questions of each person. At first, I wasn’t sure what he was driving at but I did begin to understand. It appeared that Kenny had done a lot more things to try to trip me up but some of the other staff members intervened and did what was necessary to keep me from falling or getting hurt. His worst trick was when he poured some cooking grease on the floor, right in my path. Sam, the salad man, saw him do it and grabbed some paper towels just before I arrived on the scene.

By the time Mr. Tetsarkis was finished, the kid was squirming in his chair and his face was red. Finally, the chef asked him straight out. “Kenny, were you doing all of this to try and hurt Jack?” The kid was quiet for a minute or two but he finally admitted that he was furious when I ran the peeler better than he had done it. He hated running the dish washers. To him, it was the lowest job in the place. He said that only dummies or blind people were fit to run dishwashers. After that remark, everyone went silent including the three or four customers at the counter.

Instead of blowing his top which was what I thought was going to happen, Mr. Tetsarkis asked Kenny how long he thought the restaurant would keep going without clean dishes. Kenny was really getting embarrassed by then, so he wouldn’t answer. The chef continued. “What is the one thing that is common to all restaurants, no matter what kind of food they sell?” When Kenny didn’t answer, Roberta, one of the ladies on the staff, chimed in. “I can think of a few things but what comes to mind first is the dish washers.” The chef nodded and continued with his comments. “That’s right. No restaurant could ever function without someone washing dishes.” I thought about that for a moment. Then, Mr. Tetsarkis made one more remark. “Okay, Kenny. I’m going to send you home for the rest of the day. I want you to take that time and think about what I’m going to tell you. I have given Jack all kinds of tasks since he started here. Not once has he complained or asked why. Not once has he done anything but his very best on whatever job I gave him. Frankly Kenny, I would rather have ten more Jacks than one more of you. Go home Kenny. Think about what has happened here. You can do one of two things. First, you can quit and never come back here again. Or you can give me your word that you won’t pull any more of these childish pranks. But if you do come back, let me tell you one thing. We’ll all be watching you. If you step out of line one time, you are finished here. That’s your decision, Kenny. If you can give me your word, then come here tomorrow and go back to whatever job I assign to you.” Kenny stood and left the restaurant. I couldn’t help wondering what he would do.

The next day, it was raining heavily. I brought along a big roll of paper towels because I was sure no one would want to smell wet dog all day long. I brought her inside the stock room, took off her harness and used quite a bit of the roll, drying her off. She thought it was a big joke and tried to take the roll of towels away from me. Finally, she was reasonably dry and I found a trash can close by to put the wet towels.

I went inside and headed toward the dish washers, thinking that was where I’d be working. But there was Kenny, already lining up the trays and filling the soap dispensers. Mr. Tetsarkis greeted me and brought me into the salad-preparation area. “I need someone to make fancy vegetables for a lunch we’re having today,” he said. “I’m going to teach you how to make fresh vegetables look really nice. For this, you’ll need a couple of tools.” He opened a drawer and produced some of the weirdest looking things I had ever seen.

The first one he showed me was a device that would turn carrots into fancy curled strips which were used for decorating plates of tuna or chicken salad. First, you pressed the carrot onto a vertical spike. Then, you cut off one end and make it flat. Finally, you used a tool which had a little drill bit on one end and a long sharp blade attached to it. The chef showed me how to insert the bit and then rotate the cutter, making neat spirals of the carrot. My first efforts made the cuttings too thin or too thick but it wasn’t long before I got the idea. After that, it was just using a constant pressure and not pushing too hard.

My next job was to make rosettes out of red radishes. We used a smaller spike to stabilize the radish, and then cut the top of it right across in an X pattern. Finally we would run additional cuts right through that X shape until there were six separate cuts in the radish, each one about a quarter-inch deep. With the tip of the knife, we would widen the cuts a little bit to form what looked like the top of a rose. Next we did the delicate work of what the chef called “leafing” the radish. Starting near the base of the radish, we would hold the knife at a slight angle and cut down just a little bit. Then we would rotate it on the spike so that the cut went all the way around. Just as before, we would widen the cut a little. On a good-sized radish, you could do this two or even three times. When it was finished, the radish actually looked like the bloom of a rose. Mr. Tetsarkis could turn out quite a few of these in a relatively short time. I was really slow at first but after a while, the process became comfortable. When the rosette was finished, I would put it into a stainless steel bowl and go to the next one.

Scalloping tomatoes was a messy job but I learned that technique as well. We would use tomatoes which weren’t too ripe. That was important. The fruit had to have a bit of firmness. I would remove the top quarter of a tomato. The next part of this process was tricky. You had to make two cuts right across the fruit which were angled in such a way that they met at the base of the cutting. If you did it right, you could remove the trimmed piece, leaving a neat scallop which ran right across the tomato. The chef told me about a procedure for removing some of the tomato to create a bowl which could be filled with salad. He used what looked like a spoon with sharpened edges. Starting about a quarter inch in from one side, he would press the sharp edge down into the tomato and then rotate it with a twist of the wrist. The result was a beautiful scooped section which would hold the salad nicely. I made several of those and Mr. Tetsarkis was very pleased. Before I was finished, he was really impressed by the work I turned out and told me so.

Sam and I worked side by side. He agreed with the chef about trying to watch precision work like that. “You have an advantage there, Jack. You’re used to using your hands and not looking at what is going on.” Mr. Tetsarkis told me that using touch in a situation like this was better than trying to look at the work. “After a while, concentrating your sight into a small area like that will give you a headache.”

I was really beginning to enjoy myself and to feel at home in that kitchen. My month was almost up and I was seriously thinking about staying on at this job. On the last day, I asked for a meeting with the chef and we sat down together. I had butterflies in my stomach for sure, but I had to give my idea a try. “Mr. Tetsarkis, I really enjoy working in the kitchen. I like preparing food and I think I’m pretty good at it. I can only get better with time. I was considering staying on if you’ll have me and continuing to learn from you. What do you think of that idea?” The chef was quiet for a minute or two and I wished I could see the expression on his face.

Finally, he broke his silence. “Jack, I could tell you that you are out of your mind. I gave you a chance because I like you and I have seen how well you use your hands. But no one else in this business is going to see past your blindness. All they’ll think about is the hundreds of ways a blind person could get hurt in a commercial kitchen. They would be right. My staff is good and I have had talks with them about making sure you get from place to place without trouble. But in another kitchen, they wouldn’t be nearly as considerate. Oven doors are left open while food is transferred from one process to another. Knives are left out because it takes too long to put them away and then take them out again. Food gets spilled on the floor and nobody has time to clean it up. Grease fires start and everyone jumps to put them out. I am proud of my crew, Jack. They accepted you and you have become a part of our staff. But one of these days, I’m going to want to retire. When I do, a new chef is going to start running things his way. Maybe he’d let you run the dish washers but that wouldn’t be the only problem. Restaurant kitchens are a dangerous place for people with perfect vision. Besides, you have talents these people wouldn’t dream of. You’d be wasting your time doing vegetable preparation or running the washers. No Jack. I think your future lies along a different path. I have enjoyed having you here but tomorrow, as we planned all along, should be your last day. Go back to work for Sohmer or do whatever you want to do with your life but don’t even think about working in a restaurant kitchen unless it’s the only choice you have.”

That was a hard pill to swallow. But I knew this man reasonably well by that time. Once he set his mind on something, there was no way to change his position. I went home that evening and spent half the night trying to cope with the chef’s rejection. I didn’t get much sleep. Finally, after going over things again and again, I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to do something else with my life. I had dreams of making my way in the restaurant business, managing my own place some day. But the longer I thought about it, the better I understood Mr. Tetsarkis’s remarks. He was right.

The next day, I went in and everything went fine. I was back on the dish washers and wasn’t thinking much about my last day. Time past quickly and 2:00 PM came incredibly fast. I was getting ready to take off my coat and just leave when Kenny stopped me. “Mr. T wants to see you out front, man. You can bring your dog with you this time.” So for the first and only time, I worked Star through the kitchen and out to our usual tables. As soon as I came through the swinging doors, everyone started clapping and cheering. Kenny guided me to a seat at the head of the table. Star looked at everyone and wagged her tail. She and I settled down and Mr. Tetsarkis made a speech.

“I don’t want to embarrass you, Jack, but I have something to say. In all my years, I have never known anyone to work harder or try harder than you have in this past month. We all feel that way. We are proud to have known you and we have a gift for you.” He gave me two packages. One of them contained a brand new white jacket. The other one had a set of tools like the ones I had been using. I found the little block where I used to put the radishes and tomatoes. In its own little case was the sharp vegetable knife and here was the spiral cutter I used for the carrots. I have to admit that I had tears in my eyes. Mr. Tetsarkis patted me on the shoulder and spoke to us again. “Wherever you go, whatever you do, Jack, you’ll have six people who will remember you for the rest of their lives.”

“Make that seven,” said Kenny. “I tried to hurt you or get you in trouble and all you did was to try harder. I have to respect that, and I do.”

Every one of those people came over and shook my hand. Roberta kissed me on the cheek and Anna, who had never said two words to me, gave me a hug. “I’ll never forget any of you. Thank you for taking such good care of me for the past month. If it weren’t for you guys, I probably would have ended up dead half a dozen times,” I said.

Normally, I would have taken the train up to the George Washington Bridge terminal and then switched to the bus for home. But this time, Mr. Tetsarkis drove me all the way home.

Story Categories: Employment and Featured.