Kitchen Magician

Someone's in the cocina with Jason.

If you're going to suffer through an undergraduate business degree, work a demeaning restaurant job in order to pay tuition, sell out for the sake of money -- well, you might want to apply the life lessons of Jason Holben -- line cook, Hawaiian-shirt enthusiast, master of discretion, entrepreneur.

"I wasn't a happy student," Holben admits. "The slow pace drove me crazy, and I didn't want a real job, anyway. Business degrees set you up for life in a cubicle. You're supposed to feel like you can't wait to pick up the company flag and wave it around. You learn to fear the bogeyman lawsuit. You learn multicultural appreciation: Don't grab ass, don't say 'nigger.' It was insulting. It was like pawing through mud."

So why did he enroll at Metro State in the first place? He was driven to it by a decade in food service, starting as a Village Inn busboy at fourteen and working his way up through various Denver restaurants, each a little fancier than the next, until he surfaced at Ruth's Chris Steak House. "I worked in, oh, management," he recalls. "Everyone who ever ordered anything in a kitchen calls themselves a manager." Money was medium to lousy. How do you make more money? You get a business degree.

"I was at Ruth's Chris for eight months," Holben says. "I quit one night after I heard a waiter bitching about a twenty-top that had left him only $600. I was back there being a scrub, and he was bitching about $600! It was sick. He didn't even have to work for it, as far as I was concerned. That was it for me."

But he missed the intensity of kitchens. He belonged in a restaurant, "juggling a thousand things at once," he says. "It gets in your brain that you have to click, click, click. It's a good life. If only there were money in it."

Since there wasn't, he let his brain go click, click, click to come up with a product to sell to restaurants. He thought back on his years in kitchens, pictured the hundreds of people he'd worked with, imagined the various tensions that arose. Eventually, his persistence was rewarded with an elegant little brainstorm: He would write a Spanish-English phrase book for specific use in restaurants, where kitchen staffs often speak only Spanish.

"I got the idea from thinking about José, this guy I knew when I worked at Pasta Jay's in Boulder," Holben says. "He was this total badass guy -- elegant, salt-and pepper hair -- and he ran the dish crews and prep crews with a constant supply of his family and friends. He was invaluable. He was the patriarch. You knew everyone he brought over had papers, and if one guy didn't show up for work, so what? He'd immediately find someone else.

"But José asked for a raise, the manager balked, and José walked."

Without José, the restaurant went to hell with dizzying speed. Dishes backed up. Food failed to materialize. A replacement dishwasher got drunk, went out onto the patio to chat up customers on parents' weekend, then passed out for eight hours.

"José's absence lasted three weeks," Holben remembers, "but he knew he'd be begged to come back, and when he did, he was fresh. He came back rested, with creases in his white jeans, looking like a Mexican Sean Connery. The whole thing was a confirmation of who he was. And all we had to say was, 'José, necesitamos amigos,' and there they were the next day, ready to work."

It occurred to Holben that any restaurateur in his right mind would have a vested interest in communicating with a guy like José -- not just in "kitchen Spanish," but in more sophisticated sentences that might not just keep José on the job, but keep him content. So Holben began to outline, using typical restaurant life as inspiration. His chapters moved from "Hiring" through "Meats," "Vegetables" and "Beverages," on to "Front of the House," "The Way Things Are," "Doing Dishes and Cleaning Up," and ended with "Lists and Questions for Injuries," with stops along the way for No se permite tatuajes visibles (no visible tattoos), con permiso! (coming through!) and necesitas las cosidas? (do you need stitches?).

"Here's the stereotype I'm working with," Holben says. "A white guy owns the restaurant; a Mexican guy works there. I won't cushion that; it's the way it is. A Mexican guy has a better work ethic, and all the white guys want that. So I wrote these phrases for the white guy, and most of them can get yes or no answers. There's not much What is your opinion on the depth of the deep blue sky? in this book."

Working with a paid translator and then running the translations past several kitchens, Holben produced what he describes as "a happy marriage between academic Spanish and amigo Spanish." He printed the first thousand copies by maxing out his Visa card and went directly into marketing action.

"Which means I walked downtown to all the restaurants I knew and said, 'Hey, bastard, I'm a famous writer now. You're gonna have to give me $25.' After the first day, I knew I could make my money back," he says, with pride.

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