Originally I was going to call this where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But I have never had nor started a kitchen fire in my life. Burned some cookies maybe, but thats about the extent of it. Although I do have a few friends that when the smoke alarm goes off we joke, dinners ready. All kidding aside this is about when I landed my first kitchen.
Yup, mine. In control. Me! The big cheese, top toque. Well okay, so it was kitchen of one, but who cared! It was all mine. To set up as I saw fit, do with as I pleased. It was the summer before college and I needed a job. One to stave off boredom (and get me out of the house), secondly get me cooking again and lastly to earn money for my ever burgeoning music appetite. Having spent 3 years under a very talented and very strict European chef, I had more than mastered the basic rudimentary kitchen skills. I figured finding a job would be a snap. Wrong! Wilton was (and still is) an incredibly small town and back in the days of yore, there was not much going on. Anywhere. Taking into consideration I had no car also threw a wrench into my plans.
But luck was on my side, for on the way out-of-town there was a funky little place, and given that my father had to drive by it every day on his way to and from work, was an added bonus. It was a small compact “upscale” deli with a few tables for eat in and some foot traffic. So I sauntered in, gave the owner, an affable fellow named Howard, my CC story ( with some bull shitting thrown in about management skills) and lo & behold had a job. Howard had originally bought the “Nibbler” as everyone called, it for his wife, who wanted her very own mini Dean & Deluca. Six months in to the venture she lost interest.
So there was Howard with a business that had potential, just no one w/ the skills to run it. A ship without a captain, a boat with no oars. There was a meager staff for the morning commuters since the train station was within walking distance. Coffee, bagels w/ a smear, the NYTimes, not much else. My job was to increase business by offering breakfast goodies, luncheon items, some sweet treats and so-forth. No problem! Piece of cake. I cobbled together a menu of quiches, sandwiches, soups, salads all “on the go” foods. Easily eaten on the train or at the office.
It was an instant hit. For there was nothing else like it around. In New York you had D&D, Zabars, Fairway. But for the Wilton commuter, with precious little time we offered something better than greasy diner food. Which by the way was our only other competition in town. Orems Diner. Still there. Still crappy. That & the local Market, and they were always trying to steal my ideas.
In essence I was my own boss. I learned a lot about managing my time, ordering food, menu creation, sanitation, and how to deal with delinquent staff. The 2 counter people we did have, who became friends of mine, far preferred to spend their time smoking weed in the basement. I would be lying to say I never partook. I did. Just usually at the end of the day, while waiting for my Dad to pick me up.
I had to learn how to put together a catering menu, figure out food costing, how to recycle product so not to have waste (think soup!). It was total creative freedom and I thrived on it. Being alone, with no one telling me what to do, was a dream come true. I loved it. It also set the tone for all my future culinary employment that was to follow.
Being able to experiment with new ideas & recipes was incredible. I was limited only by time & my budget! Chilled Champagne melon soup ~ crisp spicy gazpacho ~ silky smooth lobster vichyssoise, so refreshing on a hot summer day. Cheesy 4 onion ~ white bean, sausage & escarole ~ hearty chunky chili, which was never complete w/ out a side of jalapeno-cheddar corn bread. We always ran out. Pasta salads, BLT bow tie, greek orzo w/feta, chickpeas & kalamata olives. The Bounty~a sandwich composed of turkey (oven rst of course), cool cucumber, cream cheese & red onion on 7 grain bread freshly baked by me. Chicken salad w/ apricots, grapes, red pepper, scallion, almonds & curried mayonnaise, in a whole wheat pita or over greens.
On the weekends the place was insane. Whole & mini quiches, soups by the quart, the deli case full of salads, warm fresh breads, Danish, mini gleaming jewels of tiny fruit tarts, cheesecake, old- fashioned 3 layer cakes by the slice, jumbo cookies, decadent double chocolate brownies. Eventually I added a line of imported cheeses & had a few select breads & good bagels brought in from New York. I was like a kid in a candy shop, only it was my candy shop!
Granted, not everything I made was successful. I had my fair share of mistakes. My first attempt to make Sushi was, to say the least, priceless. I don’t think even the crows were interested. I knew nothing about seasoning the rice, bamboo mats, etc..rolling it up, was of course, no problem! Japanese food was still pretty avant-guard. I tried. I failed, but I tried.
The summer came to and end. I tried valiantly to pass on some favoured recipes, but the young woman hired to replace me had no passion, no love, no desire. It was just another job to her. She did not share in my enthusiasm, and this girl was to head off to school in a year ( the CIA) what became of her I have no idea. I was headed in a different direction. College. Cornell. One of the ancient eight. Time to get serious.
“The Nibbler” closed, though the building is still there on Route 7, housing a succession of convenience stores. But I can’t help thinking when I drive by what valuable lessons I learned & what fun I had doing so.