Light My Fire, The Doors
It was late and I was tired. The dining room was empty, the servers were tipping out at the bar, the floor manager had been fed, the bussers were piling dirty dishes into plastic tubs, the boombox above the pass was blasting salsa music, and the kitchen was clean. I lifted the fifteen gallon stock pot off the ceiling rack, took the roasted chicken bones out of the oven, added ten pounds of frozen backs and necks, some onion ends, carrots, and celery butts, a splash of dried thyme, bay leaves, and pepper corns, set the pot on the hot top, filled it with water and turned the burner to high.
I changed into my street clothes, washed one layer of night grease off my face, dropped my smelly chef’s pants and jacket into the laundry bin, and yelled, ”No olvides bajar la olla!” (Don’t forget to turn down the stock pot) as I walked up the kitchen steps into the night. Melrose was quiet all the way through West Hollywood to Wilshire and even onto Westwood Blvd. where the last of the frat boys were struggling up the hill to Fraternity Row. The Sweetie was sound asleep, so I showered and slipped into bed, setting my alarm for 5:00 a.m.
Mary Sue and Susan were in Tokyo on a public relations boondoggle, leaving me in charge, answering to Barbara, the major investor, strict task manager, and co-owner of l.a. Eyeworks, located next to the Border Grill. I was determined to get an early start and leave no flaw that might attract her eagle eye and sharp tongue.
The sun rose was rising over UCLA as I drove to work down quiet West LA streets, back onto Melrose—early enough to find a parking spot only two blocks from the restaurant. I could smell burning bones a half block away and could see wisps of smoke coming from under the back door by the time I got to the alley.
La olla had not been bajared. The stock pot had boiled dry—bones burning, scorching, and sending a black cloud of acrid smoke throughout the building. I couldn’t see the stove as I groped my way through the kitchen to turn off the hot top. Now what? The dining room was a dark haze, lunch service was in five hours, and Tom, the manager, was due to arrive any minute. I could run, I could hide—but I couldn’t let Barbara find out. Thanks to the 911 call from our neighbor, Ben’s Vacuum Repair, the fire engines were already sirening up La Brea. There would be no running or hiding, and Barbara would most certainly find out.
Ben and I were well acquainted. He lived above his shop and complained to me daily about the noise, the smell of food, the smell of grease, the smell of garbage, the cigarette smoke that drifted up into his bedroom, the cars that parked behind his shop, the bussers that sat on his back stoop, and our illegal prep area in the alley. He had been on Melrose Avenue since the 1950s and fumed as his friends and their small businesses were pushed out by the hip and the gritty: Wacko, Aardvark’s, Cowboys and Poodles, Retail Slut, l.a. Eyeworks, Johnny Rocket’s, and the Border Grill, to name a few.
Tom, Barbara, Ben, and three firemen walked through the front door of the Border Grill at the same time. Tom groaned and headed for the phones, the firemen put their axes down, Barbara gave me a quick hug, and Ben struggled into the kitchen with two floor fans.
It took a village: the wait staff unleashed Ozium bombs in the dining room; Barbara’s “smell guy” set up a ozone diffuser in the kitchen and one in l.a.Eyeworks’ storefront window; Tom placed pots of simmering vinegar-water on three electric burners borrowed from Flip, the thrift store across the street; Ben plugged in industrial fans that roared at the front and back door; and Cuco, the dishwasher, and a waiter from Tommy Tang’s bundled the offending bones into garbage bags, then dragged them into the alley.
And what was I doing? I had brownies in the oven, cinnamon/vanilla/milk syrup simmering on the stove, tortilla chips bubbling in the fryer, peppers roasting under the salamander, and chicken parts browning on the hot top. If we weren’t ready for lunch at 11:30, at least we could smell ready.
So I guess the takeaway is, when disaster strikes, face the music, then get help. I wasn’t fired, I fed the fireman, sent Ben home with a to-go container full of fresh corn tamales, we opened on time for lunch, and served hickory-smoked black bean soup with avocado cilantro crema.
Hickory-smoked Black Bean Soup
- 2 cups cooked black beans
- 2 Roma tomatoes
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 tsp, salt
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1-2 diced canned chipotle in sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/2 tsp. Liquid Smoke
- Avocado cream: 1 avocado blended with 1/2 bunch cilantro, 3 Tbs. Mexican crema, sour cream, or yogurt, 1/2 tsp. salt, and a squeeze of lime juice
- Garnish with tortilla strips, avocado cream, and shredded queso fresco
Roast the tomatoes under broiler until blackened. Chop coarsely.
Sauté onions, garlic, chipotle, cumin, oregano, and coriander. Add salt, sauté 10 minutes.
Add the cooked beans, roasted tomatoes, and 2 cups chicken stock.
Simmer one hour.
Blend soup with wand blender or countertop blender. Thin with more chicken stock if necessary.
Stir in 1 cup heavy cream, simmer 10 more minutes
Salt to taste. Garnish with tortilla strips, avocado cream, shredded queso fresco, and a squeeze of lime.