I got my first job in a formal, classically-run, restaurant kitchen after a successful trial by fire. In 1982, the Sweetie accepted an offer from our old, friend to work at Telos, a software development company, and we moved from Vashon to Los Angeles. Sweetie left in August and in September I packed up our stuff at the Cove Motel and unpacked it at the Strathmore Apartments in Westwood on UCLA’s fraternity row.
As our rent had jumped from $125 at the Cove to $650 a month at Strathmore and money was tight, I needed a job. I walked door-to-door in Westwood Village, resumé in hand, to the Moustache Cafe, Ships (with a toaster at each table), Hamburger Hamlet, the Bratskellar, Alice’s Restaurant and nameless others. It wasn’t until the second week of my search that I went to Stratton’s, a continental restaurant in an elegant brick building next to the Westwood Playhouse. I walked around the block twice before I got up enough nerve to approach the maitre d’ on his perch behind the ornate wrought-iron gates.
It does rain in Southern California (Man, it pours) and, in fact, it had been raining since we arrived in LA. Stratton’s was the fifth stop of the day and my dripping raincoat left a noticeable puddle on the waiting area inside the door. “I’d like to speak to the Chef, please.”
The maitre d’ gestured to a dark-haired man in whites, sprawled in a leather banquette, smoking a cigarette. Lunch service was over and I was standing in a beautiful, warmly lit dining room, with seating for sixty at elegantly set tables and a mirror-backed, marble-topped bar. Waiters snapped new white tablecloths in place for dinner, runners topped off coffee cups for the lingering regulars and bussers quietly cleared tables as I approached, resumé in hand. The Chef in the banquette, looked up at me, dismissed my resume and said, “What can you do?”
“Anything you need”, I said.
“I need soup for dinner. The maitre d’ will show you the kitchen.”
So I won Chef over with the fennel in my potato-leek soup, got the job, and started the next day. Tall, handsome, and wickedly charming, he had an impressive degree from the Culinary Institute of America with matching technical skills; the kitchen staff loved him, the dining room staff feared him—the maitre d’ was above it all. Chef could dice an onion in tiny, square cubes faster than any of the prep guys, clean a whole fish wasting nothing, bone and stuff ten poussin with ease, “French” a rack of lamb twice as fast as anyone else, and handle the crush of a busy dinner service with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
He had a volatile temper, especially when it concerned the wait staff. He became so enraged one night when a waiter put in two consecutive orders for a well-done filet mignon (sauce on the side) that he reached into the past-through, grabbed the waiter by his shirt, and tried to drag him through the opening into the tiny kitchen.
Born a Southie from Boston, Chef was proud of his Irish roots and waited for St. Patrick’s Day. One year, after celebrating the holiday a little too vigorously, he crawled into the kitchen on all fours sporting a black eye, said “You’ll have to get this one on your own”, and pulled himself up onto the stainless steel prep counter, where he curled up and stayed until after lunch.
Potato leek soup
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 leeks (white and light green parts only), cleaned and thinly sliced
- 1/2 fennel bulb (white part only), thinly sliced
- A sprinkle of salt
- 2 medium russet potatoes peeled and roughly chopped
- 5-6 cups chicken stock
- salt, to taste
- 1/2-1 cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- minced parsley or chives
Heat the butter in a stockpot over medium heat. Add leeks and fennel, sprinkling them with sal to bring out the juices. Sauté, stirring until softened—don’t let them to brown—about 8 to 12 minutes.
Add potatoes and the chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and can be mashed against the side of the pot.
Blend until smooth, using either an immersion blender or a regular blender.
Add the cream, bring to a simmer, and season to taste with salt and lemon juice. Thin with water or chicken stock if the mixture is too thick.
Ladle into bowls, and serve with a dollop of crème fraiche and minced parsley.