Welcome back to Behind Closed Ovens, where we take a look at the best and strangest stories from inside the food industry. We’re back to an old standby this week: people eating—in many cases gleefully—things that stretch the bounds of edibility. As always, these are real e-mails from real readers.
I’m a pastry cook in a very high-end steakhouse in Chicago. One of the desserts we’re known for is our “cake in a can,” which is an entire red velvet cake, baked to order, frosted and cut table-side. Since the cake takes 45 minutes to bake, the diners have to order it at the beginning of the meal.
When they’re ready for dessert, we first send out steel measuring cups with egg beaters dipped in a bit of the batter. I think it’s a gross gimmick since the batter contains raw eggs and is often several days old, but people seem to love it. After they’ve licked their beaters clean, we send out the cake, a bowl of cream cheese frosting, and several scoops of roasted vanilla bean ice cream.
Last night, two big spenders who are apparently regulars at the restaurant sat down and asked for just the batter and the cream cheese frosting, no cake. After the server explained the request to me, I sent out several egg beaters drenched in the batter, and a bowl of frosting.
A minute later, the server returned and said “This just got really weird. They want the whole cake, unbaked.” So I put almost three cups of raw, several day old, red velvet batter in a large bowl and sent it out.
They ate the whole thing.
As I completed my bachelor’s degree and began job hunting while my (now ex-) wife finished her own degree, I took a job at a now-defunct middling family restaurant in Troy, Alabama—at the time, it was probably the best non-chain, non-BBQ eatery in what was then a sleepy college town (i.e., a nondescript rural municipality that happened to have a college, though you could drive through town and never realize it). I had held a number of restaurant jobs in my life, so I was hired to be a cook immediately and train to be a manager. Well, in reality, I was hired to cook, as the management possibility never materialized once I proved capable in the understaffed kitchen. This was a surprise to me, since despite my restaurant experience, the one thing I’d never done was cook.
We were a pretty stereotypical Southern family joint—po’ boys, all manner of fried foods (even “steak fingers”), big steaks, salads, pasta, you get the idea. My first night on the grill, we get an order for a rare New York strip. OK, no problem. Get some nice grill marks on the outside, keep a cool, red center. It takes less than 10 minutes, then rests, and then I send it to the plating station, where the waitress picks it up along with several other plates.
I’ve moved on to a couple of T-bones when I hear my name in a sweet south Alabama drawl and turn around to see the waitress with the rare steak, cut in half, not a bite out of it. “He says it’s too cooked.” Too cooked? I look at the kitchen manager, worried about wasting pricier products on my first day at the grill. He takes a peek and says, “Well, looks rare. Cook it less than that, I guess.”
Grateful not to be blamed, I pull out another strip, deciding to grill just two minutes on each side, thinking it might be a bit light but it’s easier to cook it more than to pull out another steak and waste more food. In no time, it’s back at the plating station, and almost as quickly as it left the kitchen, it returned.
“Mike—he says it’s still too cooked. And he’s pissed, since everyone else is eating already and he isn’t.”
At this point, I’m stunned and wondering if the Chicago idea of rare is that different from the South Alabama version. I also don’t want to cause problems for the waitresses, since they worked really hard for generally mediocre tips, and they were generally close to the owner, since his daughter was among them. My manager looks at the steak and then at me, then goes to talk to the customer. He returns and says, “Well, I guess Mr. Ten Gallon Hat wants it blue.” Despite my comparatively urban upbringing, I had never heard the term, so I asked, “Blue?” and was told, “Basically raw.”
Obviously, that’s not the best description of a blue steak, but I don’t know any better. I figure I couldn’t just take the steak out of the cooler and put it on the plate, so I hesitated a moment to figure out how to proceed before I lost griller status for good. We had a slightly slanted grill, so I take the steak and plopped it on the top edge of the grill, pressing it down with my tongs, and slide it slowly down to the bottom of the grill. I flip it to the other side and did the same. Total cooking time: maybe 40 seconds. The vertical sides are clearly not even starting to cook. The surfaces that had touched the grill basically has light sear marks with red visible between them. I bring it to the plating station to raised eyebrows from my co-workers. The manager seems unsure what to do when the waitress comes to pick it up with a silent, Southern belle version of a “This better fucking work” sort of look.
The waitress returns a minute later with a smile on her face and shrugs, saying, “Well, he’s eating it and shutting up, so that’s all I could ask for.” He doesn’t complain a bit more and leaves a generous tip. The same guy came in one more time later that summer and requested that I cook his steak, although I was on the salad prep area that night. I cooked it the same way, sliding it down the grill on both sides, and sent it out, getting a “my compliments to the chef” response for the first and only time in my brief cooking career. Happily, I found a full-time job in my degree field before I got to “cook” a third hunk of raw cow for the same guy.
I work at a great indie pet supply store. We sell NO human food. On the counter we keep a small dish of dog treat samples, which are clearly labeled as such. This is kind of a hippie place, so we’re not talking dog biscuits; the treat of choice is lamb lung. If you’ve ever seen waffled lamb lung for dogs, it definitely doesn’t look like what most people consider to be human food.
About a week ago, I was ringing up another customer when a young man walking by the counter reached over and snagged a hunk of lamb lung. Before I could register what was happening, he’d popped it in his mouth. I choked out something like “oh um...that’s for dogs...it’s not safe for people!” while trying not to gag. The guy stops dead and I can HEAR him crunch into it. He then bolted out the door, trying hard not to make eye contact with anyone on his way out. I told my coworker what happened later, and I guess it’s not terribly uncommon—people see food on a counter and they eat it.
Rae La Plata:
In college, I worked as a back waiter (a glorified busser) for a tiny, high-end restaurant that catered to the Kennedy Center theater crowd. When I say tiny, I mean 42 seats tiny. We didn’t take parties larger than five, and Friday and Saturday nights were always completely booked, usually weeks in advance.
While I learned many important things about the reality of the food services industry while working at this particular establishment, two things stand out in my memory.
(1) When you order the special (particularly on a Sunday), it’s usually the oldest thing they have in the refrigerator that they need to get rid of to make room for the next shipment on Monday. If that “fresh” fish you ordered tastes a little off, now you know why.
(2) People will rave about anything if you plate it nicely enough.
One Saturday afternoon as we were preparing for the dinner service, the head chef (who now works for a very nice restaurant in NYC) decided to add a beet salad to the evening’s menu. Lacking in beets (or the time to cook them), he sent me to the local Safeway a few blocks away with the instruction to buy a few cans of cheapest canned beets available. When I looked at him incredulously, he waived me off and said that no one would know the difference.
20 minutes later, I returned with several cans of Safeway-brand beets. The chef promptly popped them open, drained them and cut them up into lovely little chunks.
Dinner service began at 5pm with a beet and frisee salad with goat cheese as a first-course option. In no time, orders for this salad were pouring in and the kitchen was merrily plating them up, drizzling some of canned juice that they’d reduced to a syrup around the white salad plates for effect. I’m pretty sure this salad accounted for about half of all appetizer orders that night.
And everyone, without exception, LOVED it. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten so many comments about the deliciousness of anything, and I’ve waited a lot of tables in my day. One woman, in full evening attire on her way to the opera, commented that she’d never tasted such delicious, perfectly cooked beets in her life. It was with great effort that I maintained a straight face as I told these customers that I would convey their compliments to the chef. To this day, I regret not sending a letter to Safeway.
Back in my college days I worked at a pretty nice restaurant in the Kierland Commons shopping center up in North Scottsdale, Arizona. Generally, the job wasn’t bad. The restaurant was a new concept restaurant by a guy who had opened a bunch of other wildly-successful new concept restaurants in the area, and I was part of the debut opening crew. We’d get lots of business folk, tons of plastic surgery-ed trophy wives, booming Sunday brunches, and I made pretty dang good money for a 20-year-old.
So being pretty nice, this place had premium seasonal dishes that would come in from time to time. For a few weeks, we had some awesome venison, which our chef prepped with some kind of delicious berry glaze, a potato puree (fancy way of saying mashed freaking potatoes) and eeny-teeny micro veggies. Was like forty or fifty bucks for the entree, and it was extremely popular when we had it.
One fairly busy night I had a couple come in for dinner, and the guy ordered the venison after my glowing recommendation. I asked him how he’d like it cooked, to which he, of course, responded “Well Done.” Shit. I politely informed the guy that it was on the utmost recommendation of our chef (a very angry Mr. Clean-y looking guy) that it be served medium-rare, as to enjoy all the flavor and tenderness of such a great cut of meat. Guy wouldn’t budge. Wouldn’t even go down to medium-well. I tried, I really did. So I put in the order as asked for.
Two minutes later, Mr. Angry Chef comes barreling out of the back and demands to know why the fuck I’ve put in a well-done venison order. I go through the story, and chef actually takes off his apron and goes out to the table to talk to the guy. I was impressed by this on its own, because it was pretty busy and usually Chef wouldn’t even step out on to the floor if the President was eating there. I figure what the hell, just maybe he can convince Ignant McHockeyPuckEater to change his mind. They go back and forth for a few minutes, chef comes back a beat later and says he managed to get the guy to go down to medium. I was happy with this, glad someone could talk some sense into the guy.
Food comes out a bit later, and Chef hand-delivers the plate to the guy (again, holy shit he’s out of the back), with me alongside with the rest of the dinner. You can tell Chef is very interested in seeing the guy’s reaction. Well I shit you not, Chef puts the plate down, thanks the guy for allowing him to present the dish close to how he says it should be enjoyed, and then before even taking a bite the guy puts what looks like the entire shaker of salt and pepper ALL OVER the venison. I look at Chef and he has turned about the same color as that purple berry glaze and there’s this earthworm-sized vein popping out on his forehead. I’m afraid he might actually lunge at the guy. The guy finishes his pepper onslaught, takes a bite and says “It’s ok.” Then he puts more pepper on it.
I’m just standing there, I don’t even know what to do. I applaud Chef for having the wherewithal to force a smile and walk away at this point, but he didn’t shut up about it in the back for the rest of the night. The couple still tipped me 20%, so I was good. Being a chef sounds stressful.
A friend of mine used to run a small record label here in Chicago and I’d go support some of his artists at hole-in-the-wall places they’d get booked in. A lot of these places didn’t serve food and were just bars, and when that was the case you could usually count on one or more “tamale guys” coming by late at night with containers of homemade tamales for sale. Certainly not up to Chicago’s overly strict food service code, but usually delicious.
One night I was at a bar that was half authentic dive bar, half hipster bar, depending on the night. That night it was apparently a hipster night and I watched this harmlessly stereotypical hipster couple sitting in the back. The girl looked bored, the guy looked like he was trying *way* too hard, and a tamale guy opens the bar door. He gets a few takers, and then the hipster boy saunters over and, trying to fit in, gets a couple tamales. Hipster girl wasn’t having any of it, so hipster boy had to eat both tamales.
Two tamale-guy tamales are filling but not an obscene amount of food by any stretch of the imagination. But hipster boy has apparently never seen a real tamale before and proceeds to eat every bit of organic matter inside the foil wrapper of both of them. Yes, including the very, very chewy corn husk that you’re not supposed to eat.
Many eons ago (1996) I worked at a Hardee’s in Michigan (my employment there was actually ended by Wendy’s/Tim Horton’s buying all the Hardee’s in the state). One evening, we get an order from the drive thru for a Big Fish Sandwich with “extra extra extra extra extra” tartar sauce. Being 16, and thinking this was funny, I proceeded to construct what amounted to a water balloon of tartar sauce with the rest of the sandwich floating in the mass. I had to carry it around to the counter, if I’d put it in the sandwich chute, it would have ruptured. It weighed well over a pound.
Ten minutes goes by, and the drive-thru guy says the “extra extra extra extra extra” tartar sauce guy is back. I start evaluating other job options, then the same order shows up again on the screen. It was perfect; he wanted another.
Way back in the 90’s, I was a server at a large slightly upscale restaurant called “CHOW” in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood of Atlanta. We had awesome food but a sort of wacky kitchen and floor staff. You never knew what would happen in there between the oddballs in back and wide array of customers from out front. On Sundays, the place had an amazing brunch and it would get packed, making us all have to scramble and sometimes totally lose our minds. This particular Sunday, we were filled with huge family tables and tossing out turkey hash, omelets, pancakes with whipped butter, and really huge and sweet desserts.
I had a 10 top of after-churchers who stuffed themselves, then after got one dessert to split between them: a huge, beautiful slice of pie that was about 6 inches tall totally covered in homemade whipped cream. I brought it to the table with a bunch of forks, refilled coffees, and dropped their checks.
When I got back to the station the chef had a frightened look on his face and said “did you deliver that pie already?” I assured him I had, and he told me to go RUN and get it back. That look on his face told me all I needed to know and I ran out to the table where the pie was HISTORY. There was an empty plate and they were packing up to leave. I asked them how everything was and they said it was the BEST pie they ever had. They said it was so rich they were glad they only ordered one.
Relieved, I went back to the kitchen where I was told by the chef that that piece of pie was covered in whipped BUTTER, not whipped cream. He had used the wrong pastry bag. Whoops.
Do you have a crazy restaurant story you’d like to see appear in Behind Closed Ovens (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please e-mail WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with “Behind Closed Ovens” in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!
Note: I do not want poop/vomit stories. Please stop sending me poop/vomit stories. Seriously, how many times do I have to ask this before you stop sending me poop/vomit stories?
Image via HLPhoto/Shutterstock.
Contact the author at WilyUbertrout@gmail.com.