Let's Do Some Crimes

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan