Off the Couch and Into the Fire

Chapter 2: The Tour

As commutes go, this was a fine way to get to work. Never had to hop on a massive twelve lane highway or navigate through bottlenecks or narrow gridlocked streets typical of older cities. Drivers during Denver’s morning rush display a collective etiquette, using hand signals to wave you on at four-way stops, politely tap-tapping the horn if you snooze at a green light, and rarely block the intersection. Everyone has a common goal: get to work on time.

However, on this bright and shiny morning, everything is different. Today I drive east, not west, away from majesty, vitality, and urban renaissance, and head straight into the blinding glare of the punishing morning sun. For three hundred days a year, the sun is Colorado’s beloved mascot in the sky, gently ascending and falling over our shoulders and igniting our zest for the great outdoors…except for the one hellacious hour when it is a vicious retina-burning fireball launching over the eastern plains. Designer sunglasses, overhead visors, squinting through your hands — resistance is futile. Your only hope is to white-knuckle the steering wheel and keep the car between the poles.

I’m heading in the easterly direction to explore a new business location and jumpstart my work-life. I recently closed a restaurant after a (mostly) thriving decade-long run and spent a funk-filled summer mired in pity and soul searching. It was time to get off the couch, or as my father would say, get off my ass. But right out of the gate, I’m already flummoxed: how can I drive into this brutal sun every day? Seriously — I’ll go blind. On my side of town, people wake up and drive west, towards tall buildings, architectural landmarks, and mountain vistas. The only reason to go east is if you’re rushing to the hospital. After that, the next stop is Kansas — 500 flat miles away. So you’re either in an ambulance or on a road trip, but not heading to work.

Hmmph. On the cusp of a new chapter in life, I fixate on the minutia rather than the big picture. If I’m going against traffic, the reasoning goes, then my career must also be going against traffic, closely followed by what’s left of my hopes and dreams going down the tubes. I’ve seen this before, the slippery slide down the back side of the bell curve. My mother was a secretary for twenty-five years and with each advancing year her office got smaller and smaller and moved farther down the hall until finally (nearing retirement) she shared space with a jumbo copy machine in a room the size of a closet. She was loyal, hard-working, and dedicated — and she ends up in a broom closet with a Xerox machine larger than a Volkswagon.

Irrationality and self-doubt stirred and shaken with a jigger of high anxiety makes a toxic cocktail. My mid-life crisis was in the rearview mirror — hell, those were the good ‘ole days. I’m in the throes of post-life panic. I’ll take an old fashioned mid-life crisis over a late-life mental meltdown. Instead, I’m driving and squinting into the goddamn sun to work in a goddamn broom closet on the wrong side of —

“HONK, HOOOONK!”

A car horn blasts in my ear. What the hell? I look up at my rear view mirror. I’d been sitting at a red light that apparently turned green a nanosecond earlier.

“HOOOOONK! HOOOONK!”

“Really? It’s been two seconds!” I yell back at the rear view mirror. If I were on my regular commute, the driver might nudge me, like beep beep. They wouldn’t fist-punch the horn.

“HOOOOOOOONK!”

“What an asshole!” I blurt out, continuing my conversation with the rearview mirror and twirling my index finger around my ear, the universal sign for nut-job.

The driver flips me the bird and mouthes the two universal words associated with the middle finger.

I take my foot off the brake and slowly accelerate through the light. The street splits into two lanes and the driver steers his car around me. As he pulls by I enunciate the word LOSER. He violently throws his arm up in the air like he’s batting away a fly and speeds on.

My first day back to the real world: first I’m blinded by sunspots and now I’m about to get whacked in a road rage incident. Is it too late to turn around? How would that play out at home? My spot on the couch had been decommissioned by my wife. The pile of throw blankets in the corner had mysteriously disappeared. (They were being “decontaminated.”) Either I keep moving forward…or I move down to the basement’s couch. I continue driving, shielding my eyes from the solar inferno and from the uncertain future that lies ahead.

I navigate my way by five strip malls, three railroad tracks, two sketchy underpasses, and an abandoned warehouse vandalized by graffiti and finally arrive at the Commissary Kitchen. It’s located in a nondescript building down an unremarkable street on the outskirts of nowhere. The smell of marijuana permeates the air. PERFECT.

I get out of the car and ring the doorbell. Paulie O’Rourke, one of the Commissary managers, greets me. He is a seasoned man of modest height with ruddy cheeks, sandy hair, and a sea captain’s twinkle in his eye. We exchange pleasantries in the lobby and start down a long hallway. He carries a clipboard which he glances at as we talk.

“The kitchen’s open twenty-four hours, seven days a week. At any given time there can be a dozen or more cooks and kitchen helpers,” Paulie says, reading from a script on his clipboard. We walk by several commercial prep kitchens, each room filled with one or two workers quietly preparing meals. The pace seems tranquil, almost zen-like.

“There are nine private kitchens, four prep kitchens, seven walk-in coolers, ” Paulie rattles off the statistics.

“Seven walk-ins? Wow.” A walk-in is a very big, very expensive refrigerator. Most restaurants are lucky to have one walk-in; two would be a luxury.

“Three walk-in freezers, twelve mobile carts, and well over a hundred mobile storage racks,” Paulie motored on, sticking to his script. “Every kitchen is equipped with stainless steel prep tables, three-bay sinks, convection ovens, Hobart mixers, everything you need,” Paulie’s voice trails off. He’s probably given this tour five thousand times.

“You’d never know from the outside there are so many kitchens,” I say.

“It’s kind of like an office building, except instead of cubicles we’ve got commercial kitchens,” Paulie says.

We pause at the dish room. “This is the pit. The machine runs a cycle in ninety seconds. Fully automated, just shut the door and walk away.” He slid a half-full rack into the machine and pulled the door down. You could hear the whirl of jet sprayers inside the machine kicking into action.

“Not bad. My dish machine at home takes ninety minutes.”

“It’s like any commercial dish machine,” Paulie says, unphased. I catch him glancing down at his watch.

The trash bucket next to the pre-rinse sink was overflowing. “Is it always this messy?” I ask. I looked down at the floor — it’s splattered with water.

“It’s a busy place. The kitchen gets professionally cleaned every night.” Paulie seems a little miffed. “You ever work in a restaurant before?” he asks, going off script.

“ You askin’ me if I’ve ever worked in a restaurant?” I respond, with a side of snark. “Ha!”

“It’s a fair question.”

“Uh, yeah, you could say that. Twenty plus years. This is not my first rodeo.”

“You don’t look like a typical restaurant dude,” Paulie says.

“What's a typical restaurant dude look like?”

“Ya know, tattoos, slicked back hair, nose rings.”

“I think you're confusing a Starbucks barista with a chef. Huge difference.”

We turn the corner. “In this room”, Paulie says, pausing for effect, “is the Big Kitchen.”

Kitchen Four, otherwise known as the Big Kitchen. I step inside and clear my throat. “Now we’re talkin’!” I exhale. Holy cow. This is more like a cooking gymnasium. Head caterers and prep cooks move purposefully between rows of prep tables, stovetops, and storage racks, wielding knives like well-honed machetes. At one table a young cook demolishes a case of bell peppers into small cubes; across the table, another cook chops a small mountain of onions. In front of a double-wide grill, a stocky man with grizzled forearms methodically turns rows of barbecue chicken (oblivious to the raging flames). At a line of stovetops, a female cook wearing a bright chef’s cap and rimless glasses stirs a gigantic kettle of bubbling soup. Behind her, another cook wearing a denim chef’s jacket and red bandana trims about fifty heads of broccoli into florets. The beat of fifties rock-and-roll music blares from a portable speaker in the far corner of the room.

“Welcome to the shared kitchen,” Paulie says, emphasizing shared. “It’s hustle and bustle or get out of the way. Not a place for amateurs.” Paulie turns as if to leave.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” I say, not ready to move on yet. “This is some spectacle. All these cooks work for the same company?”

“No, no. There are one, two, three companies today. Over there, that’s Burrito Barista, they own a food truck. These front tables belong to Upper Crust, they’re a deli and pizza truck. By the grill, they must be Carnage BBQ.”

We move into the center of the kitchen; cooks swirl around us like whirling dervishes, moving from prep table to oven to stovetop and circle back. The room pulsates with male and female testosterone.

“So how does all this work,” I ask.

“How does what work?”

“This. All this. How do people keep from bumping into each other and using each other’s pots and pans and cutting boards and spatulas? Looks like you have to practically dodge people to get to the stove.”

“Everyone has their own cluster of stainless steel tables, their own storage racks, pots, and pans. You bring those in and store ‘em on your own mobile racks. All the major equipment is shared,” Paulie answers. “Like a workspace. Instead of chairs and desks, we provide prep tables and stack ovens.”

“What if everyone wants to grill at the same time?” I ask.

“You work it out, like adults,” Paulie replies.

The private kitchens down the hall —where cooks calmly applied their craft, deep in contemplation — were mellow stacks in a library compared to this. The Big Kitchen felt like choreographed chaos…part performance art, part culinary calisthenics, and part rugby scrimmage. Timers buzzed every few minutes, chefs shouted instructions to co-workers, carts rolled by filled with huge bags of carrots and potatoes and boxes of mushrooms, pungent aromas wafted through the room — teriyaki, garlic, Indian curry, broiled fish, all mingling together. For someone who had just spent the summer in seclusion, this was intoxicating, invigorating.

I had to jump in. I walk over to the bank of convection ovens along the right wall. The middle ovens were filled with salmon fillets — at least a dozen or more whole fillets baking at 450 degrees. Another oven was filled with large trays of cubed sweet potatoes or golden butternut squash, I couldn’t tell. Without thinking, I open one of the oven doors and peeked inside.

At that very moment, the entire kitchen came to a screeching halt. Everybody froze and looked in my direction. There was no more dicing, no stirring, no buzzers buzzing — even the music fell silent. I felt the wrath of twenty-four eyeballs burning through me.

I quickly shut the oven door. The workers resumed their culinary theatrics and the cacophony of chopping and chatter again filled the air. I resumed to being invisible.

“ Visitors don’t touch the merchandise,” Paulie says.

“Got it”, I say.

Along the left side of the kitchen, an older man stood out from the rest. He wasn’t dressed like a chef — more like a weekend golfer shazammed into the kitchen. His cooks dutifully nodded as he walked the line while sternly barking commands. “We need to be packed up and out the door in fifteen minutes,” I hear him yell.

“Who’s the alpha dog?” I ask.

“That’s George,” Paulie says in a low voice. “A caterer. He’s okay if you stay out of his lane. Someone to steer clear of.”

“Good to know.” I take one last survey of the room before moving on. “I kinda like this place,” I say, surprising myself. We step into the hallway.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Paulie says. “The private kitchens have more availability. You want to see them again?”

“No, I’ve seen enough. This one I like. Can you rent it by the hour?” I ask.

“The Big Kitchen?” Paulie asks. “You sure about that?”

“Yeah, the big one. Where the action is.”

“You pay for a seven-hour shift. Sign up for as many shifts as you want, assuming the spots are not filled up.”

“What’s a typical shift, like banker’s hours, nine-to-five?”

“Not exactly. The first shift goes from six in the morning to one in the afternoon. The middle shift starts at one and goes to eight at night. And the overnight goes ‘till five am. You get a discount if you take a graveyard shift.”

“I have to drop my kids at school at seven-thirty. How ‘bout eight am to two? That would work better for me.”

“Nope. Six to one. There’s no budging.”

“No exceptions?” I ask.

“I don't make up the rules,” Paulie defers.

“Is there an opening for the big kitchen?”

“I’ll double check, but most likely yes”, Paulie answered. “Supper Club just moved out. They’re a pain in the ass. You should ask Winter, he’ll tell you.”

“Winter? We haven’t met yet.”

“Douglas Winter. He’s the owner. He makes the rules,” Paulie says. “He’s not around much — everyone knows him but no one sees him.”

“Kinda like Snuffaluffagus?” I say.

“Who?”

“Nevermind. I’ve been reading too many children's books.”

“By the way — what do you plan to make?” Paulie asks.

“Make?”

“Ya’ know, what kind of business are you in? Paulie asks. “Tacos, cheesecake…pizza…jelly rolls. What do we call you?”

“Oh, what am I making. That’s a good question,” I say, pausing. “I’m going to make great food,” I reply.

“I’ve heard that one before,” Paulie says.

“I’ll be in touch,” I say, as we shake hands and part. Paulie heads off to his next tour.

As I drive home, the wheels in my head are turning. In my previous incarnations, I’d never had access to such a big beautiful kitchen. Like most independent operators, my kitchens were cramped and crowded affairs. To a recidivist restaurant owner, the culinary possibilities of a gigantic fully equipped kitchen seemed endless. Camping out on the couch the past few months gave me an opportunity to reflect and daydream — working with my nose to the grindstone for two decades rarely afforded me time for introspection. The germination of an idea, a nascent off-the-grid, thunderbolt-and-lightning idea, had taken root. Had my post-life meltdown crystalized into some sort of wide-eyed epiphany? I had a weird feeling in my stomach, a buzzy feeling I hadn't felt in years. Was it — dare I say — a feeling of excitement?

I glance up into the rearview mirror. The sun is moving higher in the sky, now at my back, and rising gently over my shoulders.

— Chapter Two from “Bliss and Vinegar, A Culinary Memoir” by Jay Solomon. Chapter 3 is coming soon. Like this story? Check out Chapter 1: Things Can Only Get Better From Here

Follow Jay Solomon on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JayJSolomon

Writer, satirist, youth sports coach, dad, and owner of www.JAYS2GO.com, a dinner delivery service in Denver, Colorado.

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