There are many things a chef needs to know that aren't taught in cooking school. How to survive the heat, how to write a menu that'll sell, how to speak Spanish. Spanish is a big one: When a newly minted chef goes out into the world, he'll find that a large portion of the crews he'll be working with speak Spanish as their first, and maybe only, language -- and a chef who can't speak it, at least a little, is like an orchestra conductor who's never heard a violin.
Cooking schools don't teach the fine art of negotiating good deals with suppliers, either. The best guy I ever had for running order sheets was someone I picked up off a prison work-release program. He was doing time for possession and sale of stolen goods and had spent his criminal career dealing with fences and pawnbrokers, fighting for that extra five bucks on the car stereo or cheap gold watch he was trying to turn into cash, which would then get turned into drugs, which would then get turned into more cash. He understood economics on a gut level, and the realities of supply and demand like no one I'd ever known. For him, the switch from pawning Grandma's wedding ring for money to buy weed to sell to college kids, to buying lamb quarters, tarragon and a case of summer squash to turn into dinner to sell to yuppies was not a big leap.
Various illicit activities make the food-service world go 'round. From kid stuff like eavesdropping and spying and petty thievery to such serious offenses as duping customs officials and grand larceny, a lot of restaurant work is just getting away with as much as you can until you get caught.
Por ejemplo, one of my proudest moments as a young chef came while I was working in Buffalo for an owner who knew dick about the running of a restaurant. It was a vanity project for him, and it showed in the ridiculous menu he'd put together (twice as many apps as entrees, most of them tortured fusion nightmares -- and this before small-plates menus became all the rage), how he wanted nothing to do with anything that happened in the kitchen, and how the very first thing he did with the very first profit he showed was buy a silver Jag to park out in front of the place every night. (Kudos to him for trying to write it off as a business expense, though.)
This guy didn't know that his restaurant was headed for a fall, but the suppliers certainly did. The joint had been on COD for weeks -- meaning he had no credit with any purveyors and had to pay, by cash or check, at the back door before the delivery guys would unload an ounce of product. And then his checks started bouncing. On a Friday morning, just as we were getting into the swing of weekend prep, the guy delivering produce announced that it was cash-only or the truck was turning around and selling our order somewhere else. I called the owner at home. He didn't want to be bothered with such details. So I paid for the produce (most of it, anyway) from the register. Then the meat guy showed up and gave me the same song and dance: Cash, or I could go fuck myself. I told him to give me an hour, went back into the kitchen, yanked the plugs on two small convection ovens and started making calls. Finally, a couple of my guys and I just wheeled the ovens down the street and sold them for cash to the first kitchen that made an offer. I paid the meat guy with the profits, split the difference evenly between my pocket and those of the guys who'd helped, and called the owner, figuring he was going to fire me immediately.
Instead, he thanked me for my quick thinking and innovative problem-solving skills. Simple, criminal mathematics had saved my job: the difference between the cost of two used convection ovens and how much money the restaurant would have lost if it were closed on a Friday night because there was no food to serve. What I should have done was stolen the motherfucker's Jag and sold that, but I just wasn't thinking clearly.
Lucky for the boys at Mezcal, they were a lot more clear-headed -- and just as criminally inventive -- when faced with a hostage situation involving their taco truck, El Mariachi. This spring, Jesse Morreale and Sean Yontz had the bright idea of shoehorning an entire Mexican restaurant kitchen into a converted panel truck, but they were having trouble finding anyone who could do the work. Yontz finally found someone (or several someones) with a yard and a shop way the hell out in Brighton. And if the deal seemed a little sketchy from the start -- if people kept changing names (their main contact was either Oscar, Manuel, Francisco or Luis, depending on what day they called), and if completion dates were always mañana -- as long as the job was done by Cinco de Mayo, they were okay with it. So Morreale paid four of the agreed-upon six grand in advance.
But the truck wasn't done by Cinco de Mayo. It wasn't done by middle de Mayo, either.
"Come the end of May, we were starting to get a little frustrated," Morreale says. "We went up there one time to try and get a look at the thing, and the whole front end was crushed. We asked Oscar or Manuel or whoever what'd happened, and he just said he didn't know -- that it was like that when he showed up that morning. I wouldn't doubt that the reason we didn't have it on Cinco de Mayo was because they had it out on Cinco de Mayo."
After that, Yontz and Morreale made a couple more visits to see El Mariachi. "And every time we go out there, we're trying to be cool," Morreale notes. Finally, about four weeks ago, they went up and delivered an ultimatum: Just give up the fucking truck. "But we were surrounded by like twenty guys," he says, "and this is just Yontz and me. So it was a little intimidating. Things were starting to look really shady at this point."
So they hatched a plan for a kind of food-service Entebbe Raid. On June 15, Yontz called Oscar/Manuel/Francisco/Luis and told the man of many names that he and Morreale would be at the yard at 1 p.m. to get the truck and talk about the work still to be done. Meanwhile, Morreale organized a posse of two pickups and five guys willing to get El Mariachi back by whatever means necessary: Morreale and Yontz in Yontz's truck, then Pablo Torres, Mezcal's tequila expert, and Brian Rossi, Mezcal's GM, and chef Roberto Diaz in Diaz's truck. "That's our army," Jesse says. One manager, one tequila expert, two chefs and an owner. Perfect.
When they got to Brighton, the place was deserted. Yontz got on the phone again with Oscar Etc., who said that he and his guys couldn't get there until maybe four. Oh, and they wanted another $2,500 on top of the two grand they were still owed on the original six, or no one was getting the truck back.
At this point, Team Mezcal did what any reasonable restaurant crew would do in such a situation: They stole the truck. Rossi managed to get El Mariachi's window down and took off the brake. Then they pushed the truck out of the lot and tied it to the back of Diaz's pickup with the only material available: a couple of nylon tie-downs. "It wasn't exactly well planned," Morreale admits.
Diaz towed El Mariachi out onto Brighton Boulevard, followed by Yontz's truck. And then Morreale spotted four Mexican guys in another pickup go blowing past, headed in the direction of the lot: Oscar and his posse. As Morreale watched in the rearview mirror, the pickup made a fast, Hollywood-style U-turn across four lanes and started following them. Thus began the most ridiculous low-speed chase since O.J. climbed behind the wheel of his white Bronco.
"We were going, like, fourteen miles an hour," Morreale explains. "Roberto and Brian and Pablo are ahead of us towing the taco truck. Yontz and I are behind them, trying to run interference. I'm calling Roberto to tell him what's happening and to not stop driving until he gets to Mezcal. And the Mexican guys are pulling up, running alongside us, and we're all shouting at each other. It was wild."
Yontz got on the phone with Oscar Etc. again, trying to negotiate a settlement while also trying to keep the pickup full of Mexicans away from Diaz's truck. Morreale was thinking about getting out his video camera when the tow straps broke.
Torres and Rossi jumped out and got the straps reattached, and the chase resumed -- "now at twelve miles an hour," Morreale says. The straps broke again on York Street near I-70, in the middle of a Mexican neighborhood full of markets and restaurants. "And this was the funniest part," he insists. "Those guys pull over to try and tie the taco truck up again. The Mexican guys in the Bronco pull into a parking lot behind us. And it's like a total time-out. Everyone is going into this little market to buy bottles of water. Guys are standing around calling their friends."
All the while, he kept the camera rolling.
"Then it becomes like West Side Story," Morreale says, recounting how after the snack break, the two sides lined up for a screaming match that almost became a rumble but didn't. "I stepped in. It was crazy. No one wanted to fight."
A brief truce was called, and both sides retired to Mezcal, the hip cantina at 3230 East Colfax Avenue, where they negotiated terms out on the sidewalk. "They said they were going to go get their stuff and finish the work on the truck right there," Morreale remembers. "They said they'd be back in an hour. But it gets to be six, then seven, and we know they're never coming back."
Morreale and company pushed El Mariachi into a spot behind Mezcal and blocked it in with employee cars -- and a good thing, too. Because around 10 p.m., one of the Mezcal bartenders went out and caught a bunch of the boys from Brighton crawling all over the taco truck, trying to figure a way to steal it back.
Currently, the taco truck -- which made a very successful debut appearance at the Westword Music Showcase on June 17 -- is being kept in an undisclosed location, under constant surveillance. The front quarter is still more Bondo than body panel and the finishing work isn't done, but the tale of El Mariachi is already one that will be recounted for generations by fry cooks everywhere. It's a classic. Like The Dirty Dozen, only without Nazis.
The moral of this story? Never discount a guy's criminal history when considering him for a cooking gig. Never think that cooking is all you'll be called on to do after getting that C-school diploma. And oh, yeah: Always keep a tow rope in your vehicle. Because you never know when something like that is going to come in handy.
Leftovers: While a recent visit to Frisco's proved disappointing (see Second Helping), there's lots more action at Belmar -- including a new Tacone Flavor Grill at 7007 West Alaska Drive, the first Colorado link in a 24-outlet chain out of California. It's kind of a Mexi-Caribbean/Asian-American/California Cuisine sandwich shop and gourmet wrap restaurant with smoothies and rotisserie chickens, Thai cucumber salad, smoked-gouda quesadillas, amazing sweet-potato fries and homemade tortilla chips, as well as a "Tacone's Signature Flavor Bar." Trademarked, of course.
Not far away, the Sullivan Restaurant Group -- a burgeoning empire in its own right -- just opened a second Emogene Patisserie et Cafe at 433 South Teller Street. Here you can not only get gourmet sandwiches and smoothies as well as pastries and coffee, but also Floot, thanks to a recent deal cut by Leigh Sullivan (chief flak for the kingdom ruled by her father, Jim Sullivan).
And what is Floot? Floot is champagne in a can. Actually, sparkling white wine in a can, but you get the idea. It's pretty decent -- for wine in a can, anyway -- and looks exactly like an energy drink, which means you can walk down the street carrying champagne in full violation of all Denver's open-container laws.
How do I know this? I tried it last week, along with two of Westword's less law-abiding editors. We popped our Floot tops in front of the office, then took them over to the vendor cart outside the Sports Authority Castle (formerly Gart's). We ate hot dogs and drank champagne in full view of at least two cruisers, and no one said boo.
Just down the street from Westword, at 846 Broadway, the Minturn Saloon has been taken over by the folks from the Giggling Grizzly and renamed the Moon Time Bar and Grill. Seriously.
A few blocks away, at 603 East Sixth Avenue, Emma's Restaurant has gone dark -- temporarily -- for a remodel. Emma's voice-mail message directs potential customers to Mona's, Emma's sister restaurant, at 2364 15th Street. Of course, Mona's only does breakfast and lunch, so if you're looking for a spot for a romantic dinner, you're out of luck.
The folks behind Magnolia and Sushi Mara in Lafayette ("All Things to All People," February 23) are getting ready to open their newest restaurant: Tahona Tequila Bistro, at 1035 Pearl Street in Boulder. The debut is scheduled for July 1, and as things now stand, it looks like they're going to make it. Tahona (not to be confused with Tacone) is an upscale-Mexican concept, focusing on the foods of the Yucatan peninsula -- where executive chef Chris Pierce was stranded while doing research last year, thanks to Hurricane Wilma -- and featuring not only weekly wine and tequila tastings, but a chef's table, as well.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Finally, since the smoking ban looks destined to go into effect July 1, I'm sharing an excerpt from the one and only letter -- and an anonymous one, at that -- I received in response to "Down But Not (Yet) Out," the June 8 Bite Me, describing last-minute attempts at anti-ban injunctions and ballot initiatives by the good people of Colorado:
"I typically LOVE reading Sheehan's columns every week, but this is one of the few times that I was very disappointed. I am so sick of hearing smokers bitch and moan about how their God-given right to smoke is being taken away. What about my right to breathe clean(ish) air? If I want to go to my favorite bar and drink a beer, I don't want other people's vices causing health problems for me. I can do that all on my own! Frankly, I can't wait for the day when I can wake up the morning after going out without having a scratchy sore throat and red, swollen eyes."
Gotcha. In fact, that seems to be the prevailing sentiment these days. But Anonymous, I just hope you're as pleased with yourself when the foie gras ban comes down (as it already has in Chicago), when unpasteurized cheeses are banned (as they have been in England), when junk food is criminalized and booze is outlawed (again), and all we're left with is soylent green and food pills and Kool-Aid to drink on Friday nights. So congratulations: The forces of protectionism and discrimination and nagging have triumphed over the big, bad smokers. I can't wait to see who's next.
In the meantime, if you need me, I'll be on the patio.