Gino and Julian. If you run across these two guys hide your virgins and jewels, gird your loins, and run like hell. You will be gavaged (is that a verb?) a steady stream of bullshit and have your pockets picked. Buy one of those club things for your steering wheel, too.
Naturally, I went to work for them.
My house was in escrow; I had determined to leave California and move to Memphis, Tennessee. Work to be done on my hundred-year old farmhouse meant that I'd be in escrow for a while. I saw that a restaurant was opening in Lafayette, an upscale bedroom community between Walnut Creek and Oakland, just a few miles from home. Never being one to learn from experience, I decided to give another restaurant a go before I fled the state. Besides, I had to uphold my culinary masochistic manhood.
So, I dropped by and introduced myself to a young man named Gino. Also present was his younger brother, Julian. As you will see later, these may not have been their real names.
I did not ask the name of Gino's tailor. His clothes looked expensive, but awful: tight pants and a shirt with a couple of buttons unbuttoned that most resembled remnants from a disco awning. He was short. Julian was tall; he seemed to be a nice kid.
I asked what kind of operation he intended and if he needed an executive chef. He said yes, he wanted to have the best restaurant in California. Well, yeah, you'll probably need a chef for that.
Inside, there was room for maybe twenty guests at most, so the majority of the seating was outside in a -- hastily constructed, obviously -- Plexiglas-enclosed patio. Three space heaters stood tall.
He seemed to be impressed with my CV and said he'd call me.
Fasten your seatbelts.
Gino hired me as executive chef. He had no idea how to run a restaurant. (He later made me general manager, too, akin to curing a migraine by driving a railroad spike into your forehead).
Lafayette is as suburbia as suburbia gets -- the suburbiest. While I'm sure there were dope dealers and other nefarious types hiding somewhere, they were under deep cover. Soccer moms, investment bankers, attorneys, stock brokers: these would be our clientele.
I told him I could start in a week. I had a date in Southern California.
+ + +I was to be on a quiz show called Sale of the Century. My old friend Jim Miller had agreed to put me up for a few days. I had last seen him it was in New York; he had put me up for a few days then, too. He was a pretty clean-cut kinda guy, just back from some kind of gig teaching in Turkey.
Now he had a Volkswagen repair shop in an alley in LA. His hair was down to his ass and he lived with several dogs. The night before I was to be on the quiz show we headed down to -- hell, I have no clue where we went -- but he picked up a hooker and took her back with us to his place in Echo Park. There is actually a park in Echo Park and it has a lake. The hooker pointed out that this was where they had filmed Gilligan's Island.
We rapped a while, but I had to get some sleep. I lay down on the couch and turned my back. A few minutes passed -- I may have dozed -- when I was awakened by an eerie creaking sound. You got the picture? Good, take it away from me!
In the morning, I went down to Burbank with my five changes of clothes -- in case I won five times. Turned out I only needed one change, but I did win that first day and came away with a bunch of booty:
- Washer and dryer
- A portable, battery operated mini television set
- A week-long trip to Hawaii, including airfare.
- A sewing machine.
- A small amount of cash.
And a case of Dinty Moore Beef Stew.
+ + +Gino, like every other restaurateur wannabe in Northern California, wanted to recreate Chez Panisse. He asked if I could do that. I showed him what I had done at Mudd's and allowed as how I could.
Gino had run across an Argentinean baker, Alex, whose specialty was croissants. So, now we were going to have a bakery/bistro. And the place now had a name, too -- Le Croissant. Gino was maybe 25 and Julian about 21. I had also figured out by now that although Gino claimed to be Italian the native language he spoke with Julian was Turkish. They claimed their father was Italian.
I had only known a couple of Turks in my life. One was the wife of a friend. The other worked for me as a lead line cook and was quite good and very responsible. I liked them both. I could not associate them with anything like Midnight Express. Gino, on the other hand . . .
To go along with our Argentinean baker, we hired an Italian waiter who spoke fractured French and said "oo-la-la" about ten thousand times a day. A nice middle-aged Italian woman ran the bakery counter. Alex hired his son to help him in the bakery. Gino's "assistant" was a Chinese woman of about 45. We hired two young French waiters. We hired a Croatian waiter. We hired a Belgian waiter. We hired a Brazilian waitress. I hired an American pastry chef and a half-dozen line cooks, some of whom had worked with me before. I hired several Mexican dishwashers. I should have hired a linguist.
I came up with a constantly changing menu. It consisted of a half-dozen appetizers/salads, a soup or two, a half-dozen main courses, and a half-dozen desserts daily. I bought fresh food every day and typed the menu myself. We made all our own fresh pasta, pizza doughs, and, of course, croissants.
The food was very good.
The main décor was the large professional baker's oven in the middle rear of the restaurant and a reversible full-size sheeter just behind the counter. (Big mother)
My cooks were good -- they were pros. The pastry chef was good; Alex could make some dough. The dishwashers could wash. But I truly believe all the waiters had been mercenaries in some African war before they came to the Golden State. Maybe they were acquainted with Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. I sometimes wished I had his gun. The word venality does not do them justice.
The Italian waiter got his job by showing Gino a bogus letter of recommendation from Maxim's in Paris. I'd seen them before -- it was a kind of boilerplate. I checked out some of his references. He had none.
All the others claimed they had waited tables before. I doubt it. But Gino was very into anything "Euro" and that was enough for him.
All the waiters wore tuxes, by the way, and carried napkins over their arms. No socks or underwear, but they had tuxes.
Since the Italian had appropriated "oo-la-la," the French waiters had nothing to say. Oh, they slung around copious "Madames" and "Monsieurs," but they hated the Italian for taking their best phrase. (They would use it when he wasn't working.)
I don't know what to say about the language we spoke. I knew menu French and a little Spanish. I could lumber along in German, but that was one nationality we had somehow neglected to include. I would say we spoke Anglo-Franco-Italo-Turkic-Porto-Serbo-Hispanish. The Chinese woman didn't speak very good English and nobody could talk to her. But everyone knew how to smile and say "yes." We would have meetings where I would discuss the menu items. I got lots of nods when I asked if everyone understood.
But brooking the babel was not the hardest part. This joint was like a garden where paranoia was cultivated.
The French guys and the Belgian didn't like each other. Nobody liked the Italian. Alex didn't trust Gino. Gino didn't trust Alex. Alex and his son, as is the wont of bakers, worked at night while the restaurant was closed. Gino and Julian used to park across the street and watch. I don't know that they ever learned anything. The only people I trusted were my cooks -- to put out good food, though the Croat was actually very affable and I liked him. We sold a lot of pizzas. He would always order it pronouncing it "peach-ka" -- which he said was Serbo-Croatian for pussy, then laugh. And though all was not well in the land of Babel, we did have international relations going on. Several of the cooks, waiters et al were banging each other and switching beds willy-nilly, sometimes before Willy was finished with Nilly. Strife.
We were doing a quite brisk business, but it was soon apparent that we were falling behind on things like, for instance, paying bills. It seemed to me that there was ample money coming in the doors.
Gino and his Chinese concubine were handling the loot. The Chinese woman was assigned to clean out the registers every night.
Gino was nothing if not a party animal, out at the bars every night trying to pick up broads. It turned out that Gino was also coming in every night just before closing and picking up something else -- handfuls of cash out of the register to fund his nightly bacchanals.
First I talked to the Chinese woman -- no easy task -- and told her this had to stop. She said she'd talk to him. She looked up from the money she was counting and also asked me to prepare her some "big meat." (It took me about a week to figure out what she meant when she ordered "big meat." I led her in the kitchen and she pointed to the steak.)
The unrecorded withdrawals didn't stop. And the Chinese woman had come in looking a little the worse for wear: she was adorned with several bruises. I suspected Gino of boxing her around and hoped it wasn't because she had confronted him about the cash.
I decided I had to go to Gino. I told him he was killing the restaurant. I told him I was going to walk out. He said let's go over to my apartment and talk. We got in his black Mercedes convertible and headed over there.
He should have called Julian and told him to hide the crack pipe before we arrived.
About this time the city of Lafayette decided to take exception to Gino’s having thrown up this Plexiglas shield without getting a building permit -- and in fact the joint was not licensed to serve folks outside. Hearings ensued. I went along and tried to help.
During this period I learned some Turkish. Well, one word to be precise. Baksana. I must have heard it a thousand times as Gino and Julian yelled it at each other. As the creditors circled and closed in they each would hide and if one of them was nabbed he would say that particular area fell within the other's purview. As I understand it, baksana means "look" or "see" or "pay attention." At Le Croissant it meant red alert.
In the meantime one of the French waiters decided he wanted to be joint general manager along with me. So he threatened to quit unless that was implemented. Gino said sure.
Then came the inevitable time when Gino stopped paying employees.
You may not believe this, but very few people in this modern era will work for nothing. I started losing cooks and dishwashers. Then I didn't get paid. "Chef, you know I will pay you." I heard that a bunch of times. Gino would then insist that I take a ride with him in his Mercedes -- with the top down. He seemed to believe the fresh air was going to clear my head and reveal to me why I should work for no money.
I did for a while -- a little over a month. That will come as no surprise to those of you who have read some of my other stuff. You already know I'm dumb.
Now we're ready to enter another chapter -- the one titled Chapter 11. I'm not an attorney but at least I've yet to shoot one, either. I do know that when a business enters Chapter 11 all payments cease, all debts are held in abeyance. They are "stayed" as it were. Unfortunately, this includes all past wages.
All the sane rats had already deserted this sinking ship; only us loonies were left.
Gino assured us that now we would all be paid weekly and the business would make up the owed wages over time. I didn't see an alternative. If I were to have any hope of collecting the 7K he owed me, I'd have to hang on a while longer.
Shut up. I got one week's pay.
Gino and his attorney had to file a plan indicating how they were going to pay all the debts. Gino had a plan all right: he displayed heretofore unknown -- and considerable -- talents as a magician. Poof. He and Julian and the Chinese woman disappeared with all the cash on hand. Not only that, but he made his uncle's Porsche disappear too! Poof.
I doubt that being a polyglot would have helped me much.
What did I learn from all this?
Just before I left for Memphis I sold all the quiz show appliances at a yard sale. And, in a pinch, you can eat Dinty Moore's. A whole case of it.
Joseph Carey, aka ChefCarey, is the author of Creole Nouvelle: Contemporary Creole Cookery and Chef on Fire: The Five Techniques for Using Heat Like a Pro. He cooks, teaches and writes in Memphis, Tennessee.