My father served his four years in the Navy as a cook. Everything he used came in bulk, often poorly labeled. On one occasion, he inadvertently poured salt in the serving bowl for sugar, too distracted by the rush of incoming sailors to notice the fine difference in texture. Hundreds of sailors sprinkled salt onto their cereal at the end of the mess line, then sat down to indulge in the most unpalatable of breakfasts.
The salinity clenched their faces inward and hindered chewing; their displeasure visible from across the hall where my father stood behind the counter. An unfortunately immutable rule governed such a situation – clean plates. Sailors and officers alike moaned their continued consumption of salty cereal. The sweettooths prone to dumping sugar on their breakfasts took the brunt of the suffering, with no option to dispose of the adultered meal available.
The food was not tainted, it merely had a dissatisfying taste, and the Navy was insistent upon the completion of meals. Other than illness, there was little excuse for dumping food, and doing so was the quickest method of being sent to scrub the kitchen after mess time, or worse, the bathroom, depending on the amount of food dumped. At least this is the story my father told me in support of his imposition of such a rule at home. My mother’s cooking was not the height of culinary prowess, forcing us to choke down her burnt lasagna drenched in watery tomato sauce. Our plates were always white, there was no option to the contrary. The dishwasher had the easiest job in the house.
If only I could impose such a regulation on my diners. Food comes back to the kitchen on a regular basis; my cooks spend more time reheating, recooking and replacing it than cooking in the first place. Our restaurant is not supposed to be fine dining, and there is no pretense of such notion in any aspect of the place. Lamination covers the menus, tears in the plastic coating on the booths prods people in the rear, and sticky floors keep customers inside longer than they probably want to be.
Since the internet gave people a platform to express their disgust, customers have not exercised the least bit of restraint. Out of five stars, we hover between 2 and 3, thanks to the gracious efforts of the waitstaff in keeping it propped up with artificial reviews, an act of conspiratorial desperation to avoid losing their jobs.
A neon-lit sign towers above the highway running past the restaurant, its siren call bringing in starving motorists lacking the time to evaluate publicly-known perceptions of the cuisine on offer. Whether this is the reason for our continued operation is not in debate. Most restaurants have to offer something of value to their customers, while our fortuitous location keeps us chugging along, lacking incentives to improve the quality of our food or the cleanliness of our dining room floors.
We are the only place right along the highway, on which hundreds of cars pass each day. The closest exit to the north is fifteen miles, and to the south twenty-two, and neither has any such offerings. Whoever bought this land whatever time ago walked into luck. The highway arrived after the place was built, a fact I know not only due to the age of the kitchen equipment but the date stamp on the side of the building. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see hungry travelers pointing to the year as they enter the building, as if to note the country charm of this old spot. Those who do so give away the fact that they had never previously dined at our establishment.
I could not have envisioned that my cooking career would only be sustained by the happenstance placement of the terrible diner. Most other customer-facing businesses suffer from proximity to the roadway, but not ours; the continual whir of passing cars and trucks, and the exhaust in their wake, does little to deter our transitory customers.
My dreams were grander, but looking back seemed delusional. Sick of my mother’s lasagna, and the fact that I had no choice but to swallow it, along with my dignity, I tried to think of a way to bring more edible food to the table. Initially, under auspices of helping her with the housework, I offered to prepare dinner a few nights each week. After all, she had besieged us to give her a hand with the cooking and cleaning, which she mostly handled on her own while our father worked 12 hour day shifts as a police officer. He had little energy or patience to help when he got home, usually square on the mark of 6:30 every night.
My younger sister and I were lucky he elected such a demanding career. Our older brother, who grew up under the reign of a man whose routine was shaped by years in the Navy, suffered through a strict regime of action and discipline. At that time, he worked a less-demanding job in security at a local office building, where he sat most of the day keeping watch over video monitors. Keeping still for ten hours each day left him anxious and full of energy, which he took out on our brother, whipping him into submission at the slightest insubordination. By the time my sister and I reached the turbulent teenage years, the preoccupation and utter exhaustion entailed in police work left him without the energy to pursue our misdeeds. It also left him unwilling, and even unable, to help prepare dinner.
Oddly, initial attempts to assume some of the duties from my mother met surprising reticence. After years of imploring us to do so, she was more hesitant to relinquish control than I expected, relegating me to assume duties incrementally before working my way up to cooking full meals. I helped her chop, slice, peel and dice, while she cooked, boiled and sautéed. I gained a level of comfort and familiarity with prep work, and could taste a difference in the final results. Dishes once afflicted with the overpowering mismatch of insufficiently chopped vegetables gained a more pleasing texture with their constituent parts rightly sized to cook thoroughly and evenly.
Over time, my mother came to realize the benefit of my assistance, in particular the relief it afforded her from having to cook every meal from scratch. She promoted me to sides, and eventually, by the time I was sixteen, to main courses, ultimately gaining the right to prepare and cook entire dinners by seventeen. I gained the impression that our clean plate rule ceased its run as an imposition.
My mother may not have realized it, but she, inadvertently through her abysmal cooking, inspired me to pursue it as a career. A second generation Navy man himself, my father’s preference was that I at least give the service a chance before taking cooking classes after high school. My older brother had little choice but to follow this option, though he was able to withdraw after two years and transfer to a community college.
My brother’s two-year stint satisfied our father at the time, with the notion that I would make up for the other two years. He did not pursue me much after I revealed my plans, his increasing ambivalence a consequence of exhaustion and attending to more pressing matters. My father did require that I get a part-time job to pay the costs of cooking school, a charge I duly accepted by obtaining employment in the kitchen of a seafood shack near the beach.
I repeated the same process of advancement there that I followed at home, working my way up from chopping vegetables to preparing marinades for the steaks. In three years, I was ready for a real apprenticeship, taking a demotion back down to prep work, but in the kitchen of a fancy place, one with cloth napkins with steaks and lobster on offer. A year’s worth of prep in the galley of a kitchen for the well-heeled, and graduation from cooking school, released me onto the free market, set to tackle the culinary world.
With a degree in my hand, and a fine-dining pedigree gracing my resume, nothing could stop me. Except for one problem, a major one at that – nobody would hire me. I cooked samples for a number of places, and the reactions were consistent; consistently bad. They were maybe too kind to tell me directly, but the evidence of their dissatisfaction could not be contested – plates with food remaining – a jarring site, a reality for which I was unprepared.
Confined to the recesses of the kitchen in the years prior, I was not forced to bear the site of plates returning to the dishwashing station with food still obstructing the view of unblemished white ceramic. I lived blissfully in ignorance, until having reality stuffed in my face. My once robust anticipation for prestige shriveled with unsatisfied attempts at choking down my gastronomic disasters.
Only following several failed attempts to impress the chefs who had given me a single opportunity to prove myself did I realize that I inherited my parents’ clumsy cooking skills. In the lifespan of cooking career, the only ones I could impress were those who suffered through the comparatively worse cooking feats of my parents. Aside from the instructors I essentially paid to eat and praise my food in culinary school, anyone accustomed to properly cooked dinners sported an unflinching aversion. I had gone so long under the protective coating of a personal bubble that I lacked the criticism I would have needed to make a change, or to give up entirely and register for the Navy.
Ambitions of a life on the grill station shot, I was on my way to enlist at a recruiting office, the closest outpost of which required a drive on the highway. I spotted the neon-lit sign from nearly half a mile’s distance, sufficiently far away that by the time I approached the turn, I decided that I was hungry enough to stop for a bite. Affixed to the glass door, a large sign prominently displayed the need for a cook, one who could start “immediately!”
The “interview” consisted of three questions: (1) number of felonies – zero; (2) experience as a cook – give or take four years; (3) availability to start – as soon as I ate something. I should have known by the fact that felonious history was the first interview question what I was getting myself into; I may have been at a disadvantage in the absence of a gritty rap sheet. More than that, I should have recognized the quintessence of culinary desperation by the atrocious taste of the sandwich; a turkey and cheese sandwich, one that required active effort to taste quite so repulsive. The offensive taste had little excuse in rotten ingredients; instead attributable to burnt bread, clumsily sliced tomatoes and the slapdash application of mayo leaving an unpalatable glob in the center and the remainder dry.
Two hours later, I stood in the exact spot where someone had earlier assembled the culinary abomination. Perhaps I believed that I would be a step up from what I experienced, my classic, underappreciated training representing a leaps and bounds improvement for the regulars. A week’s passage confirmed that there were no “regulars” at this place. The only people unfortunate to return to this place were the employees, with the exception of a few people who did return on inconsistent yet multiple occasions.
There was a man named Joe, and his wife, Martha. Joe fought in the Vietnam War, and, I learned, though was not surprised to hear, that exposure to agent orange compromised his taste. Martha refused to eat anything, but our spot was Joe’s favorite restaurant. Aside from Joe, there was Irving. He lived in town and drove a truck cross country, starting out every trip with a meal before entering the highway. His taste buds functioned properly, leaving me at first perplexed as to why he came back, until I learned of his relationship of convenience with a waitress.
Joe and Irving, and a few others whose backstories I never got, mixed among the scores of diners drawn from the highway by the prospect of food. I never learned whether my own skills improved. Customers did not wait around long enough to complain, while the wait staff and other cooks brought their own meals. Neither my parents nor my siblings bothered to come by, benefitting from their foresight to read the online reviews.
This is how things were until about two months ago, a week or so after I celebrated my five-year anniversary at the diner, three as “executive” chef. Stumbling around the pantry prior to the dinner period – we were a twenty-four restaurant that did not close between the lunch and dinner – I happened upon several pounds of beef with an approaching expiration. When I say “stumbling,” I truly mean it; the hard partying of the night prior left me off-balance long into the following day.
The original destiny for the beef was hamburgers, but sales had been lower than expected in the preceding weeks due to foul weather keeping drivers off the highway. With such a quantity about to go to waste, destroying my food cost ratios, I decided that a special dish was the most expedient way to rid the stockpile of aging meat. As head chef, it was my charge to develop the recipes for any specials, though there was nothing special about shaping the same ingredients our diners already hated into a different form and pitching it otherwise.
Weighing how to dispense with fifty pounds of ground beef using other supplies in our pantry, meatloaf was the sole option I could conceive that fit with the roadside diner-esque theme of the menu. There was no culinary school lesson devoted to meatloaf, per se, it was one of those dishes that took a minimal base of kitchen competence to prepare, maybe intermediate for large scale restaurant preparation.
A strong odor, nearing but not quite rancid, permeated the prep kitchen as I freed the beef from its plastic encasement, dumping it into a large tub. Over it came the various spices, all of which were dried, the more economical source of flavoring than fresh herbs. As it was a special, not a recipe needing capability of replication, measuring cups were unnecessary; the right amount of seasoning required masking the age of the meat and nothing more. Paprika, chili powder, garlic, ketchup, breadcrumbs, eggs, salt, pepper, parsley, chipotle rub and a few others that looked appetizing made their way into the mixer. I served it with a mushroom gravy, making sure that slices of mushroom were visible on top of the loaf, along with mashed potatoes and topped with a sprig of parsley for an inviting, or distracting, flair of color.
Several weeks had gone by since I last created a special, the previous one a chicken dish concocted out of chicken that had expired the day before. As far as I was aware, there were no reports of sickness from the diced tomato-covered chicken breasts, which sold with little fanfare. I long ago learned to stop looking out of the kitchen at the diners as they ate, instead opting to remain within the confines of the kitchen bubble with my head facing down at the grill. Little would be gained by witnessing the reactions of the dissatisfied, often angry customers as they paid their bills and made off in haste.
My course shifted that night. One of the waitresses, Joan, came back into the kitchen to inform me that someone had complimented the meatloaf. I did a double take. We typically only used the other meaning of that word as in, “sorry about that, your meal will be complimentary.”
“Joe?” I asked her. To my surprise, she responded in the negative, advising that it was a random customer. It was not the first compliment I had received at the diner, but they were so few and far between that I was always curious when they came. For the first in some time, I raised my head enough to see out into the rows of customers at the counter and in the booths, only to notice the significant shift in facial expressions. These were not the sullen, resentful faces with which I was acquainted; these faces had a different look, one approaching satisfaction, even enjoyment.
The common sight among the place settings, below the inordinately happy faces, was the distinctive glistening of the mushroom sauce atop hunks of meatloaf. More compliments came back to the kitchen; the arrival of a third shattering the record for most in one night. “Spicy” and “Cajun flair” and “rustic” and “rounded” were various descriptions customers used, words that I had all but forgotten in my five years since starting my career at the place beside the highway.
Diners followed the clean plate rule voluntarily for the first time in memory. For years, I refused to torture myself by reading reviews of the restaurant, but inspired by the reactions in house that night, I crawled online to glance at a few. The word meatloaf was the star of the page.
I furiously tried to recall what I had put into the meatloaf in a frenetic attempt to record the ingredients for future recreation. In an alcohol stirred haze, I had earlier selected a number of powders off the shelf and injudiciously dumped them into the mixer, stumbling into a pleasant blend of compatible flavors. But I had not written it down, or even bothered to keep track in process.
A turning point in my culinary career had occurred, yet I was unable to recreate the circumstances that facilitated it. Old-ish meat, blends of spices, even preparing meatloaf with a hangover, failed to reproduce the uncharacteristically successful results. Customers arrived and specifically asked for the meatloaf. Once deterred by the negative reviews, the positive testimonials drew locals seeking a taste of what could possibly have garnered commendation in an otherwise well-known place to avoid.
Familiar faces of disappointment re-populated the restaurant in the subsequent weeks, the prevalent, recurring reaction to my cooking efforts returning to those unlucky victims of my culinary shortcomings. The word “meatloaf” continued to appear on the front page of the reviews, but the surrounding adjectives were none too positive. Shuttering in the prep kitchen offered the only solace I could find, having looked success in the eye and lost it due to careless planning. I was no chef; a proper chef would have documented his recipe, even a special, to consider including it on the menu if it proved successful. Little hope remained of being able to do so given that the only acclaimed dish I had ever made resulted from nothing more than dumb luck.
Walking in the kitchen with my face planted snuggly in my palms, I nearly tripped on a stray bottle on the floor. While I had often failed to please as a chef, I was meticulous in requiring that the kitchen remain clean and orderly, a trait inherited from my father, which he inherited from his father, in whom the Navy had instilled it. Normally cause for outage, one quick glance at the bottle brought me a sense of the joy that I left at the front door of the diner years earlier.
The bottle was a generic plastic container with a “5” written in marker that had come to the restaurant empty and was put to use in creating spice blends. It was my attempt, after elevation to executive chef, to address complaints of bland meat. I experimented with spice combinations, ten in total, trying to create a seasoning mix that we could incorporate into the burgers and chicken to give them a kick that had been lacking.
Number 5 included a special pepper by the name of “Grace arbol.” Its unassuming name should not give a sense of security – it is hot and potent, and expensive. In the midst of my grand scheme to reform the restaurant came the point at which I abandoned any conception of fulfillment in this job, the hostile glares of our patrons having shuttered the inspiration that I once embraced. Abandonment seemed a fitting response, but not before I cooked up the blends, scrupulously recording the details of each one’s constitution.
Number five found its way to the prep kitchen, and into my meatloaf recipe, the mystery ingredient I had grabbed and thrown into the meatloaf that day, after a sniff to confirm it had not rotted. It was my magic elixir, discovered entirely by accident, thrown in hastily and dismissed to the ground, hiding to mock me for weeks while its success escaped my grasp. Lacking any tinge of spoiling since being relegated to the floor, I tried it again, giving it a healthy pour along with the batch of meatloaf staples.
Plated beneath the simple mushroom glaze, the sensation of flavor whisked me back to that day in the kitchen several weeks earlier to the scarce sense of satisfaction. Confirmation by independent tasters – one waitress and one busser – neither of whom knew what I was doing, offered assurance that I hit the mark once more. Continued approval by customers, proffered by the rare gleaming of enjoyment in the dining room, lasted throughout the evening shift. I called our buyer halfway through the night, ordering a batch of Grace arbol for delivery in the morning. My food margins for the month nearly blown, I finally had something we could be proud to serve.
We had to raise the price for meatloaf after the owner scolded me for the expense of the chilis, but the increase had little effect on demand for the dish. Our stars began to rise, this time legitimately, in the restaurant reviews. Critics came and stayed through their entire meals, and their articles about the restaurant for the first time contained positive statements that were not immediately-countered, blatant sarcasm. Buzz around the diner reached such a stir that, finally, a foursome of guests walked through the door that I had long waited to see. My brother, my sister and my mother arrived in tow with my father, their first time walking through the door with the intention of requesting a table and eating.
In cooking school, I rarely had the time to cook dinner at home between classes during the day and shifts at the restaurant at night, which meant that the last time I cooked for them was right around graduation from high school. Predictably, all four ordered the meatloaf. I expected this, as there was no pretense that they just happened to come in five years after I started working there – no, for them, it was the aura now surrounding the diner. Though I wanted to greet them, my duties, now that the restaurant was booming, kept me in the kitchen as they ate. Yet before they could leave, I at least had to say hello and ask them about the meal, slipping out of the kitchen just as their plates were about to be cleared.
I walked out, through the opening in the counter, and approached their table, looking down to see three white plates, pristine but for dabs of remaining ketchup. On the fourth plate remained the entire piece of meatloaf, less only a single bite. The violator of the clean plate rule, my father, who looked back up at me, his face redder than usual. “Is this Grace arbol?” He stared up at me, his eyes watery. I shook my head yes, following which my sister blurted out that our father was allergic to this particular spice and could not eat the meatloaf. After so many years, he stumbled into the one loophole available to relieve himself of consuming my only signature dish.