The first chef I worked for in LA was a tall, handsome, Irish lad with a wicked tongue, a quick wit, and a hot temper. In the 80s, when the Sweetie and I moved to Los Angeles, we kept to our neighborhood and seldom ventured east of Vermont Ave. When I started looking for a job, I canvassed block-to-block in Westwood, knocking on restaurant doors within walking distance of our apartment.
One rainy October afternoon, I dripped into Stratton’s, an imposing, formal, European-style restaurant on Broxton Ave, and asked to see the chef. Dennis—tall, dark (think Sex in the City’s Mr. Big), and languid with a cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth—walked lazily into the empty dining room from behind the swinging kitchen door and sat down at a linen-draped table. “What can you do?” “Well,” I stammered, “I can do anything you want.” “Make a soup for dinner service,” he said. I made potato leek soup, passed the test, and started work the next day.
Dennis, a lifelong baseball fan who bled Dodger blue, was an unrepentant flirt, an enthusiastic gambler, and a hardcore partier. He was also a CIA (food not spies) graduate with an amazing bank of culinary knowledge, knew at any moment what his food cost was, and had the respect and affection of his volatile Mexican prep staff. Not so much the wait staff—they were just plain afraid of him. His temper was legendary—new, young, servers were especially vulnerable and short-lived. He was always sweet to me, though, and became a good friend. Through him, I met Bea and through Bea—Karen, Laurie, Bill, Sandy, Nana, Fred, Ricky, MoMo, Nancy, Ruby, Anabel, Kyle, Stella, Rusty and Jack.
Dennis’s kitchen was like a closet—crowded and narrow, with room for two people at most. The hot line consisted of six burners, two ovens, a salamander (overhead broiler-type oven), a two-row cold table, and three under-counter reach-ins. A stainless steel prep counter, three feet behind the hot line, ran the length of the kitchen. The pass-through, where the runners picked up the food, was directly above the cold table.
Not many executive chefs work the line, but Dennis did and was an excellent sauté cook—focused, foul-mouthed, and surprisingly fast for someone so tall. Special requests from the maitre’de received an immediate, explosive refusal. “Tell them to bleepin’ eat somewhere else if they want their bleepin’ steak well-done!” I served as his counterpart during the lunch rush from Tuesday through Friday, plating dishes, saucing entrees, wiping plates, and expediting the tickets as they came in from the dining room.
Dennis loved to party and no party was more important to him than St. Patrick’s Day. Los Angeles’ pubs and bars celebrated with vigor—green beer, green hair, green food. Dennis began talking about the upcoming holiday long before, so when Thursday, St. Patrick’s Day, finally arrived, he was stoked. Friday, the day after, I came to work at 7:00 am as usual, filled the steam table, and set up the mise en place necessary for a big lunch rush. Fridays were huge—the orders started at noon and we were slammed until 2:00 or 2:30.
10:00, no Dennis—not too unusual. 10:30, still within the limits of his world. 11:00, now the waiters are worried. 11:30, now I’m worried. At 11:45, the door to the small kitchen opened and Dennis crawled in on his hands and knees. “Marla, you’re going to have to get it alone today,” he moaned. His right eye was swollen shut. His lip was split, and his hair flattened to one side. He climbed up onto the stainless steel table, stretched out as far as he could, made a pillow of the kitchen towels, and went to sleep. Raoul, the dishwasher, came in to help me, Dennis roused around 2:00, and we all survived to have an elegant staff lunch of Glazed Corn Beef, mashers, and Irish soda bread.
“May you have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night, and a smooth road all the way to your door.” Happy St. Patrick’s Day
Glazed Corned Beef and Cabbage
- 4 to 5 lb. corned beef
- 1 Tbs. pickling spice
- 1 Tbs. salt
- 10 peeled cloves of garlic
- 1 head cabbage, cut in wedges
- 6-8 carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
- 4 red potatoes, peeled and cut into large pieces
- 4 Tbs. brown sugar
- 2 Tbs. vinegar
- 2 Tbs. cup mustard
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C)
Place the brisket in the center of a roasting pan. Place the onion and garlic on top of the roast, and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the seasoning mix over the roast, and pour enough water into the pan to almost cover the meat. Cover with a lid or heavy aluminum foil.
Roast for 5 to 6 hours in the preheated oven, until the roast is fork tender.
Mix glaze ingredients.
Remove beef from juices. Add vegetables and simmer until tender—15-20 minutes.
Place drained beef in roasting pan and pour glaze over roast. Bake at 350 degrees, basting occasionally, for 30 minutes. Let rest for 15 minutes, slice to serve on the diagonal. Serve with horseradish mayonnaise.