Interview: who’s cooking?

whoscookingRecently I interviewed someone who had cooked in a 24-hour restaurant located on the outskirts of a small Midwestern town in 1970.

He worked there one summer. He was the sole night shift kitchen staff from 10 pm to 6 am. Previous experience? One week as cook at a children’s summer camp the previous year.

He was 16 years old.

Although he gave it little thought at the time, he now suspects the restaurant was designed, owned, and operated by the food processing company that supplied the food, the menus, the “recipes” – in short, everything. Follow-up research revealed that the company supplied 1,500 restaurants, schools, and institutions in four states.

DIchickenThe building was new and blandly modern. It was surrounded by a parking lot. Through a big plate glass front window was a view of an interior with booths, formica-topped tables and chairs, and a counter with stools. The decor, as he remembers it, contained multi-colored hanging lights, fake stone, and grill work in a coordinated style he calls “corporate.” About 60 people could be seated. At night, except right after the bars closed on weekends, there were rarely more than a dozen patrons at any one time.

Most of the night customers were working men, traveling salesmen, work crews, people passing through town. It wasn’t much of a local hangout, unlike the bowling alley restaurant at the other end of town. It served no alcohol.

Was there a chef at this restaurant? Answer: prolonged laughter. The manager had preprinted forms on which he checked off what supplies were needed.

DIshrimpA popular order, particularly with the barflies, was steak and eggs ($2.50 with toast and coffee). Eggs were one of the few items of fresh food in the kitchen other than lettuce and tomatoes. “Everything was frozen so once you knew how to deep fry it or put it in the Lytton [microwave] oven, you were set,” he said. This included pies (“Served Hot from Our Electronic Ovens”), Cordon Bleu, Breaded Pork Tenderloin, Golden Fried Chicken, and Fillet of Perch. Potato Salad came in a tub, Soup of the Day in giant cans. Hard boiled egg came in a long tube so that every slice was the same. Home Baked Bread? Well, I think you know.

DILogoThe food  images shown in this post are stickers applied to the restaurant’s menu before the entire thing was plasticized. I take them to be generic, as I do the meaningless logo from the menu’s cover which looks like it was intended for a “steak & ale” eatery.

With some orders he got to do what he considered “actual cooking”: “Liver and onions. You have to make the bacon and onions – that was actual cooking. Denver omelet, that was actual cooking.” He enjoyed making sandwiches at the deli counter. One of his personal favorites was the Denver Sandwich — chopped ham, pickle, and scrambled egg made in a patty and served on toasted bread. He also enjoyed cottage cheese and pineapple.

DIsteakDiners rarely sent food back to the kitchen. “It’s amazing how many different kinds of food that a 16-year old could cook and not ruin anything. I was feeding a lot of people with a lot of liability and it didn’t go wrong,” he said. The manager criticized him for one thing only: giving customers too many french fries. Limit them to a handful, insisted the manager. So he garnished the plates with parsley and “Never got in trouble for using too much parsley.”

DIFriedChicken

Despite all, he had surprising praise for his old workplace, saying, “I was impressed with the efficiency of the kitchen. It was easy to work in. I liked that there was a ready supply of clean linens.” He added, “There were not many dining establishments. Before Applebee’s this filled a niche. It was more ambitious food than people had access to before.”

Did he ever return there as a customer? “No,” he said, “I had no warm fuzzy feeling for the place.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

7 Comments

Filed under food, proprietors & careers

7 responses to “Interview: who’s cooking?

  1. Cat Clark

    Hi there,
    I have just stumbled upon your site and I think it is amazing. I am an undergraduate student from the UK and my thesis is called Retro: American Diner Cookbooks. I am struggling to find information on the publishing history of diner cookbooks and wondered if you had any information or places I could go in search of that information. Many thanks.
    Cat

    • Hi Cat, I can’t see why diners would use special cookbooks that were different than those used by other lunchroom type of restaurants. I think that may explain why you aren’t finding any. I suggest looking in the digitized catalog of the Library of Congress. Best of luck with your project.

  2. auntbook@auntbook.com

    I giggled about this:

    “Hard boiled egg came in a long tube so that every slice was the same.”

    At a flea market a few months ago, I found the oddest egg slicer. Instead of being the size of one egg, it was about 8 inches long. It had a brand name on it, and when I got home, I looked it up. It was the name of a patented process that made a long tube of egg yolk surrounded by a tube of egg white. This was the slicer for it. Naturally, I bought it, because I thought it was nifty. Just like the little box that originally came with an old refrigerator. You put a stick of butter in it and by pressing down on the top chopped off little pats of butter, all the same size. And the heavy, metal contraption that would slice a one-pound block of butter into little pats. Because I can’t resist fascinating, largely-useless old gadgets!

    Leslie

  3. Barbara Van Horne

    Where is he now? Is he with Applebee’s? Is he in any kind of food industry?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s