Charley’s a man of many seasonings
Some readers might have been surprised to see my recipe for popovers appear in Features editor Betty Shimabukuro's "By Request" cooking column last week. It's kind of insulting that there are people who do not understand that my skills go much further than just churning out humor columns. I am an acknowledged expert in international finance, for instance, often asked by some of your more prominent Nigerian bankers to allow the families of dead dictators to move millions of dollars temporarily into my checking account.
And I used to be a professional cook, hence my inclusion into Betty's world- renowned recipe column.
I began my cooking career at Salishan Lodge, which at the time was the largest resort on the Oregon coast. On college summer break, I took a job as a busboy in one of Salishan's three restaurants but quickly realized that it wasn't for me. The restaurant manager removed me from the floor after I inadvertently dropped a half-eaten baked potato into the coat pocket of a diner while clearing the table. It was a 1-in-100 shot, but the manager was unimpressed.
My new job was as a "stacker," the guy who stacked outgoing dinner entrees on a tray in the order they appeared on the order ticket, so the waiter could look like he knew what he was doing when he served the table. To do this, I had to watch the steak and seafood chefs and anticipate which orders were coming up. When the seafood chef got mad one night and walked out, I told the manager I could fill in. He was surprised, but probably figured the farther away from the diners he kept me the better, so I stepped onto the "line" and began cooking the seafood orders.
It wasn't brain surgery. Fresh salmon filets were lightly buttered and baked for 20 minutes. Oysters were dredged in cracker meal and fried in clarified butter. "Captain Platters" were deep-fried. Benny, the steak cook, was in charge and kindly guided me when I was on the verge of poisoning the citizenry. By the end of the summer, I was cooking 100 dishes a night and was asked back the next summer as a full-time cook.
I worked my way up, taking over the steak station. Ours was one of the first restaurants to use an exotic new type of wood to barbecue: mesquite. I learned to cook 20 steaks at a time to specific degrees of doneness just by feel. I ran the coffee-shop line alone, whipping out omelets from six gas burners at a time. And I was invited to cook on the holy "gourmet line," the exclusive domain of the hotel's top chefs. These guys were stars before cooking got its own TV channel. As the lowliest cook in the hotel, to be allowed to work that line, even as a guest chef, was like an amateur golfer being asked to play a round with Tiger Woods.
Learning to handle the heat of the restaurant kitchen prepared me, I believe, for the pressure of newspaper deadlines. And while I likely couldn't cook 100 entrees in a night today, I get my kitchen "fix" by now and then whipping up some mean popovers and the occasional omelet.
Buy Charles Memminger's hilarious new book, "Hey, Waiter, There's An Umbrella In My Drink!" at island book stores or online
at any book retailer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org