Thursday, May 13, 2010

Escoffier, Stanley & Me (& Danny, Tiger of the Balkans)

My cooking has direct lineage to Escoffier. I wish I could say that was true from my initial professional experience in the kitchen, but that would be fudging the facts around a bit. And Stanley's Cafe — the sign outside still said Swede's Cafe but now Stanley owned it, and he'd had the the front window repainted to say so; besides, the neon on the sign only lit up on one side, and even then it didn't say Swede's Cafe, because only the part that said Swede's still lit up — anyway, Stanley's Cafe, a wino diner directly across from the post office next door to the Westward Ho in downtown Phoenix, Arizona in 1974 was not my direct connection to Escoffier. Unless, perhaps — and while I can't prove this, I guess I also can't prove it wasn't maybe possibly so — there was a Escoffier hook-up through Danny, the regular cook. Danny whose professional name had been "Danny, the Tiger of the Balkans."

Danny Unpronounceablelastname (and thus, in the Arizona of 1974, known forever and ever as merely "Danny") had been an Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler representing Yugoslavia. He was five and a half feet tall, and four and a half feet wide, and made up of mainly muscle, and neckbone.. He didn't speak much English, just enough. The first actual words he ever spoke to me — he had grunted at me previously a lot; actually, a whole lot, actually, as in "Get out of my way" or "Go home" — were when Stanley appointed me the new night cook since Danny wanted the last couple hours before downtown Phoenix deflated like over-used condom, and since I was always hanging around drinking free Sprite while waiting for my girlfriend the waitress to get off work because we only had the one car. (Imagine, Americans, Arizonans, Phoenicians — only just one single car! What were we thinking? Gas cost somewhere between 19 cents and 29 cents and 36 cents; gas stations pretty much didn't need any of the other numbers — and it was our duty and responsibility to burn it up — but anyway, the first actual ungrunted Move Your Boots words Danny ever spoke to me was when Stanley took me back into the kitchen to make formal introductions.
"Danny, this is Bart. He's going to take that last shift."
I'm guessing that Stanley would have liked it if we'd shook hands and all, but it would have probably put me out of commission. So I kind of nodded and smiled and grinned and tried not to wet my pants and all.
Danny, perhaps the most exotic chef in all of downtown Phoenix at that stage, stayed focused on the cuisine. He gave me my very first professional cooking lesson. It's one that rings in my ears, that resonates in my spirit, that inspires my soul, that clenches my testicles to this very day. "Don't Touch The Soup." Then he turned his back on me.

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