Bite This

Birth of a Chef Part Two

Hey love bugs, hope you’ve been listening to “BIte This” Mondays at 12:45 and also the pod casts..
The awesome Matty at WOMR, WFMR has been putting up my series called “The Exodus” in segments on Bite This and also on Sunday specials, so do check the podcasts or write to the station to find out when you can hear them all.
As for moi, well I’m writing away of course, and in the last year, I discovered this new thing called, “WAXING YOUR LEGS” can I just take a moment to say
but honey it’s so nice afterwards..
was that TMI dears? did you forget I’m the queen of TMI anyway, here’s part two of Birth of a Chef..Part one was my first blog post so just scroll back my dears and enjoy!

Birth of a Chef Part Two
By Rossi

On one of my ill-fated attempts to learn the front-of-the-house part of the catering business I was sent out to be a waiter at a large sit-down dinner at the Museum of Naturual History. At a dinner for something between three and five thousand people (you really lose count after 1,000), I met a sweet little gay boy named Alex Alexander. He had red hair and freckles and a soft voice but could go full-scale fury at the sight of stupidity, or for that matter, bad hair. Alex was my “A waiter.” I thought I could not feel any smaller shoved into the old tuxedo I’d bought at a vintage clothing store for fifty bucks, but then I looked up at the giant blue whale hanging above me and felt like a goldfish in a school of dolphins. I was the “B waiter,” which meant I was a lower-rung waiter and Alex’s assistant. He took me under his wing, partially because he felt sorry for me and mostly because he was certain I would pour hot soup on somebody’s lap, possibly on purpose, and he wanted to watch.

A couple of weeks later, we met by chance again in an arena in which I was far more comfortable: the dive gym where I worked out. A few dirty jokes later, and we were fast friends.

Alex was the catering manager for Cynthia catering. Sounds big, but this was a two-person company run out of Cynthia’s apartment. Cynthia was 40-ish, but dressed like a 16-year-old girl, a rather horny 16-year-old girl with zero body fat. She had two missions in life: to lower the fat level of everyone she met and to marry a very rich man. She called everyone she met “sweetie” but it came out more like “sweeeeeeeeetiieeeeee” screeched like a high-pitched siren.

When I told Alex I was not really a waiter but a chef (really a chef in training), he got me in as Sally’s (Cynthia’s chef) number two on a party on a boat. Having become seasick on a porch swing, I took two Dramamine to survive the cruise. Turns out, one Dramamine is plenty of drama. Two can get an elephant stoned. I don’t remember much, except I threw out some gorgeous watercress leaves and put the stems in the salad. The next week, Sally quit, and with no head-chef experience whatsoever, I got the job.

Cynthia would call me each week with the menu for the week. She was all about New Orleans that year, which may not sound thrilling today, but it was rather avant garde in the late ’80s. “Sweetieeeeee, 100 people on Friday. … It’s a buffet. I need jambalaya, shrimp Creole and blackened redfish. Fat-free, of course. Thanks, sweetieeeee!”

With that, I would run out and buy cook-books with recipes for all the dishes and cook them two or 10 times in my apartment for all my guinea pig friends. Once my friends were satisfied that the food was sublime, I would show up to work like an expert. This was years before the Internet, so my apartment was quickly becoming a library of cook-books and my happy friends were stuffed.

I’d never even heard of jambalaya in 1988. The fat-free part, well, I just pretended I didn’t hear her most of the time. She had found a product called “Butter Buds,” a fat-free dry mix that she swore tasted just like butter when you mixed it with water.

Nothing you mix with water really tastes like butter. “Use the Butter Buds, Sweeeeeettiiiiie!”

“Yes, Cynthia,” I said, knowing I would instead drop a pound of sweet butter into the sauce.

“Are you comfortable with the menu, sweetieeee?”

“Sure I am, been cooking it for years!”

I made one of the smartest decicions of my life and hired Alex’s friend Adam as my sous chef. Adam had worked at Le Bernadin, and was a well-trained, talented chef with no pretension. He was gorgeous, kind, funny, Jewish and as gay as the day is long. We fell madly in love. I even thought about having his baby, well, for about two minutes. I had two cats, and that was quite enough commitment for me.

“Adam,” I’d say, “make me a beurre blanc.” And as he did, I’d watch his every move over his shoulder. “Hmmm, so that’s how you do it,” I thought.

I wound up chefing for Cynthia for three years, and you know what? After three years of looking up recipes and watching my sous chef Adam make sauces, I actually really did learn how to cook!

Two decades later, I ran into Cynthia at a spa in Mexico.

“Did you ever know I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when you hired me and had to look up every recipe for everything I made for you?” Cynthia, by this point ,was a 60-something woman, miraculously claiming to be a 40-something woman, dressing like a 16-year-old girl, and she still had no visible body fat. She’d been happily living in Boca Raton.

She smiled her ear-to-ear grin and said, “Who cares, sweeeeeeeeetie? The food was fabulous!”

My beloved Adam was lost to AIDS in the early ‘90s, and to this day, I credit him with having the kindness and the ego-less dignity to allow me to be his boss and learn from him at the same time. He would just smile when I looked over this shoulder at all those mother sauces he taught me how to make. I’d like to think I taught him a few things, too, but mostly in the art of having the biggest set of Chutzpah imaginable. After all, I did take over a head chef job with about enough cooking experience to work in a McDonald’s.

Using the safety of a steady check from Cynthia, I opened my own catering company and hired Alex as my front-of-house manager. It was extra money on the side for both of us, and Cynthia didn’t mind. I was snagging wacky parties for alternative clients on the Lower East Side or Brooklyn, and she was serving ambassadors and executives. We were hardly competition.

I was developing what would become my forte: outside-the-box weddings.

When the ‘80s excess collapsed into the ’90s recession, Cynthia’s mega-budget corporate cocktail parties disintegrated. She closed shop.

“So long, sweeettiieee!” she screamed into the phone, then packed her Butter Buds and her mini-skirt collection and flew south. Many times it’s occurred to me that Cynthia may just have been the smartest person I knew.

Alex started his own catering company and found his niche: gay men so wealthy they didn’t notice the economy had tanked. Alex and I kept each other afloat. He would captain my events, and I would be a chef for his.

I thought Alex’s food was super fussy and pretentious. He thought my food was too “Abundanza,” rough and free-flowing. In the end, I learned the art of food display from him, and he learned how to make sauces with soul from me. So I’d say we got the best of each other.

I lost Alex to AIDS in the mid-’90s. We didn’t know what dementia was back then, but thinking back to the day he announced he was quitting catering to become a stand-up comedian, I should have worried. A lot. Alex was many things, but he was not that funny. In the last year of his life, he maxed out his credit cards, rehearsed his horrific stand-up routines until his friends stopped answering his phone calls and ultimately went to a hospital in Virginia where his mom lived, and with his closest friends around him, quietly passed away.

I was by his bed a few days before he died. He had lost his voice and used a board to write his wishes.

“What can I do for you Alex?” I asked hoping for a deep final wish to be scrawled on the black board.

“I want strawberry yogurt,” he wrote and smiled.

“You got it,” I said and delivered a strawberry yogurt to the sad, sweet, lonely boy who showed me how to make food look beautiful. Alex Alexander, rest in peace.

There were down seasons in catering. January and February, you’d be lucky to make a dollar. July and August, you had to go to the Hamptons if you wanted to work.

I didn’t mind sleeping for January and February, I was to tired after the Christmas rush that it took two months to catch up. But the summer … that’s when a girl could really feel the financial pinch.

I went to work on a yacht for a couple of summers. The captain would meet me at the dock, and we’d go to the meat market, to a store called “Western Beef,” where you could walk inside a giant refrigerated room and buy racks of ribs, filet mignons, gallons of cole-slaw, all kinds of huge items for wholesale prices. Most of the shoppers were large, Hispanic families buying 50 pounds of chicken wings and similr items. This was years before places like “Costco” existed. For our “All American” cruise, on which 30 stockbrokers would be taken from the New York dock to the Stamford Connecticut dock, I bought all the items I needed to make barbecued ribs and chicken, potato salad, cole-slaw, iceberg lettuce salad, biscuits and apple pie.

Cooking in the boat’s galley was a horror. It was a tiny, dismal little kitchen, and by the time I had finished the buffet, the entire kitchen was covered in sauce, oil and sweat. Then I had to clean up after myself, and I’m talking, scrub the kitchen down to meet a white glove test.

I’m not kidding. The evil twenty-something woman who managed the boat actuallly came down, put on a white glove and wiped her finger along my oven.

“Clean it more,” she said, and it was all I could not to push her overboard. I think most of the crew felt the same way, but none of us wanted to go to jail.

But the money was sweet. I got paid about 20% of the total take, and that was often a good grand a day, so for that, I could suffer a little. I did start to worry that my steady diet of Dramamine, ginger ale and crackers was going to kill me, so when I got the boot in favor of a “cheaper” chef, I was happy to go.

My gal pal Anne Marie landed me a summer job at the Amazon club as the catering manager. The Amazon was a pier in Tribeca that a crazy Israeli guy named Shimone dumped sand on and turned into a Brazilian beach theme supper club. Nobody had expected anyone to eat there, just drink and party so when 1,000 folks started showing up to have dinner, the kitchen went nuts. The first chef quite literally had a nervous breakdown behind the line.

A lot of folks told me that I couldn’t call myself a chef if I had only done catering. I needed some restaurant experience to be seasoned. I needed to really get my street cred.

A month into my job at the Amazon, the chef and the sous chef quit. Shimone asked me if I wanted to be the chef, sous chef and catering chef. I figured it was a seasonal job, so I asked for triple my pay and went into battle mode. Definitely the worst three months of my life, but surviving it gave me brass set of, well, you got it, and my first press. Richard Johnson wrote in the Daily News, “Chef Rossi went to a lot of trouble to work the theme ‘Vanilla, Ice, Baby’ for Vanilla Ice and prepared vanilla swordfish, shrimp on snow ice and baby vegetables, but Vanilla ordered in from John’s pizza, which doesn’t deliver for mortals.”

OK, it was odd press, but it was press, my first press,. and I was hooked.

Life at the Amazon felt a bit like being at war. We had no real bathrooms, just porta-potties and a camper for a kitchen. The camper-itchen was appropriate for cooking for 12, but not 300 orders of calamari, 200 orders of buffalo wings, 150 burgers, 100 swordfish steaks, 100 orders of mussels and on and on. Just calling out the orders could make a person got nuts, let alone keeping track of them. I didn’t try to do a great job at the Amazon; I just tried to live through it.

Anne Marie, a perky, adorable former dancer, had the daunting task of entertaining hungry, angry yuppies who were waiting two hours for a table. She somehow managed to buy them drinks, tell them a joke or two and get them smiling, but no amount of Anne Marie’s charm could keep me smiling after a 14-hour shift cranking out food from an inferno of a camper and an entire crew that could only survive the shift by snorting coke, drinking or crying, often in that order.

I made it till October, when it got too cold to serve grilled swordfish outdoors, cashed my last check and never looked back.

“Will I see you next year?!” Shimone begged.

“I think I’d rather die!” I responded and never picked up a phone call of his again.

Being a chef at the Amazon had opened doors for me, gotten me press and certainly gotten me respect, but mostly what it had done was make me grateful, so grateful ever after to be in the catering biz and not the restaurant business.

“Don’t you want to open your own restaurant?” clients ask me all the time.

“Oh yes, two weeks after I die!” I answer, then turn to the bathtub of beef marinade I am working on with renewed gusto.

Two decades of catering later, and I still feel grateful every day I come to work to not be cooking in the Amazon hell.

I have my heroes by my side … Alex, when I build a cheese table that looks like a scene from Caligula, Adam when I add just the right amount of tarragon to a remoulade and even Cynthia, every time I add a little extra butter.


and now the Recipe

My first 80’s New Orleans recipes
Shrimp Creole
Saute a heaping plop of butter- a double plop in honor of cynthia, throw in the Creole mix from heaven, that seems to start just about everything; a handful of diced onion, handful of diced celry and good plop of minced garlic and saute until everything gets nice and soft but not brown. Throw in a coffee cup of tomato sauce, a shot of tabasco, a drizzle of worcestershire. Season with a good pinch of fresh or dry thyme, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper and chili powder then bring to a boil. Toss in with two heaping handfuls of peeled and deveined shrimp and cook still the shrimp turns pinky-orange, just a few minutes dears. Lotta folks like to thicken things up by mixing in a roux of flour and butter (more butter) in the first stage, but I’m not one of them. When you’re done top with a generous of amount of sliced scallions and you can serve over rice.