I took some zany jobs in my younger years. I was a barker at an amusement pier in Long Branch, New Jersey. I got on the microphone and called folks to throw down quarters, spin the wheel of chance and try to win A CARTON OF CIGARETTES! “Grab your girl, and give it a whirl! There’s nothing to it; you can do it!” I was 15. I thought the job was pretty darn glamorous. What I really wanted was my boss’s job. While I was sweltering with the gambling smokers, he was sitting in an air-conditioned office counting money.
After I moved to NYC, I landed a job selling cosmetics at an outdoor market in SoHo. In the winter, when I was stamping my feet in the cold, trying to sell frozen lipstick as frostbite crept into my fingers and toes, I would look over at my boss, sitting in the van with the heat blasting and the windows fogged up and feel even colder.
“One day I’m gonna be the boss!” I told the four-pairs-of-socks-for-five-dollars guy at the stall next to mine.
“I’m too cold to talk,” he answered.
When I decided that I wanted to be a chef, I took lots of jobs to learn while I earned. One outdoor supper club had me and seven guys sweltering in a trailer-turned-kitchen with no indoor plumbing, no sharp knives, not even a fan, while we cranked out food for a thousand yuppies a day.
“Can we have sharp knives and a fan?” I asked the boss while his secretary counted what must have been a hundred grand on the table next to him.
“You think you are suffering!” he shouted. “I was wounded in the war and had to stitch up my own wound! That’s suffering!”
We sharpened our knives on a concrete block, wrapped ice in dish towels and put them around our necks and growled while the boss sipped iced coffee in his Jaguar.
One summer, I allowed myself to be bused out to the Hamptons by a catering company that needed staff for its busy season of lux parties for the elite.
“Ohhh, how swank!” a pal cooed into the phone when I told her I was being put up in a house in the Hamptons for a week.
When I arrived at the house, which was also the kitchen, office and storage facility, I was led up the stairs and shown a ten-by-twelve-foot room filled with sleeping bags and mattresses.
“Two knapsacks from the corner is your spot!” said the sous chef, a very tired-looking Chinese man.
I was then herded downstairs and spent the next 10 hours cooking in a stifling-hot, cramped kitchen with a slew of cooks who looked as though they were ready to collapse.
At the end of the day, too tired to do anything but eat our communal dinner and crawl up the stairs, we took turns (12 of us for one bathroom) showering, and then collapsed onto our spots on the floor.
I was the first to break the ice: “This sucks!”
“Really sucks!” came a voice from a sleeping bag in the corner.
“I thought all homes in the Hamptons had swimming pools.” a young redheaded woman called out.
“One day, I’ll be the boss,” I chanted in my head as I drifted off to sleep.
It took me a few years to start my own business, but every time I did an event, they told people, who told people, and thankfully, the word did get around.
It’s been 26 years since I became “the boss,” and I have learned a whole lot about the price you pay for being the owner.
After a day of cooking in my air-conditioned kitchen with knives that are professionally sharpened every week, having had a proper lunch break, after which staffers returned to their ample workspaces with a lot of appreciation and all the cold water, coffee or soda they want, my employees leave for the day.
That’s when I take off my apron and put on my reading glasses and go into the office to start my other job: owner. Between answering emails, paying bills, returning calls, writing proposals, scheduling meetings and contending with the endless, ENDLESS, barrage of legal requirements to running a business, I’ll be lucky to get out for a late dinner.
It’s a solitary feeling, looking over that mountain of paperwork at the hipsters running to the bar, the kids running to the park and the moms running after their kids.
When I am finally ready to leave for the night, my stomach growling and my eyes red and blurry, it occurs to me that I work longer hours more days of the week, than I ever did working for a “boss.”
So what’s the reward?
Top of the list is having the power to be nice to the staff. It makes me happy to give them proper meals, a comfortable workplace, very decent pay and respect. All except for the executive chef. She can never do enough to please me. That job, of course is mine.
I get to hang my own art in the office (monoprints of Provincetown Bay right now), take all the personal calls I want (when I have time, which is rarely), play the music I like (rock ’n’ roll, of course), eat when I want to eat (if I’m lucky), and I decide when I am done for the day.
But my biggest motivation to plow through the endless haze of stress, is that I am completely and absolutely unemployable by anyone other than myself.
My proper corporate meeting attire may well include a vintage T-shirt on which is scrawled “RAW.” While I insist that every bit of food I plate up is exquisite, I serve my clients the truth, regardless of whether it’s palatable. Once I asked a bridezilla to get laid so she could stop stressing everyone out. Thankfully, she did, and we all lived happily ever after, especially the groom!
I also need a LOT of personal space. My kitchen is constructed so that the front table with the wall of spices separating it from all the other worktables is my spot, you could say it’s my emotional throne. From there, I make the sauces, marinades, and dips while my chef does the sea salt and caramel whoopie pies, my prep cooks grill the shrimp and fry the mac and cheese fritters as Led Zeppelin plays in the background.
The Queen is making killer satay sauce from her throne!
So yeah, being the boss is not for the faint of heart, but at least I get to make my own fun.
Now I gotta go, I have a very important meeting. I have to dress up! Hmm, the hunter green T-shirt stamped “Rebel” with Levi’s shorts and a pair of biker boots will do just fine.