Tyler sat across from the granite-crowned bar top, sipping Sprite from a paper cup and poking at the screen on his phone. His bright white chef coat was yet to be blazoned with a single marinara stain. The gleaming blades of his machine sharpened knife set rested next to his arm on the lacquered table, and on top of that, waited his folded kitchen beanie, ready to get its first shot at the hot world outside of its plastic wrapping. Tyler anticipated the arrival of the general manager, trying to relax in the plush bench of the booth. On the wall above his head full of pomade-smeared hair, was an autographed team photo of the local minor league baseball team.
Various black and white pictures of what the building had been in its early 1900s past life lined the opposite wall in a stair stepping pattern — glancing ghosts that refused to find the light. The lunch rush ended an hour prior, and not a single customer slid a noisy fork across a porcelain dish. Tyler touched his fresh tattoo on his wrist. Tiny dots of blood lined the healing moniker. A tall, square shouldered man sauntered up to the booth and sat down across from him.
"You must be Tyler." The man straddled the backwards chair, stretching the crotch of his black, white striped chef pants.
"Yes sir. Nice to meet you."
"Likewise. They call me Uncle Mike around here, or Unc if you’re a lazy ass short cutter like most of the clowns here." He extended his paw for a firm shake. His thick fingers engulfed Tyler’s hand as they firmly squeezed. Chalky, calloused knuckles aimed at the frosty drink on the table. "You’re a culinary school kid I see. We don’t usually get many of those around here."
Unc tapped his fingernails against a clipboard. On it was Tyler’s application. He lifted the top piece of paper, the generic looking job form. "You even went as far as building a resume´. Tell me a bit about yourself. You’re decorated. 4.0 all the way through, magna cum laude," Unc smiled, looking up from the professional looking piece of off-white letterhead. "First place, Golden Chef at Clay Chester Community College. What brings you to Millennium’s?"
"Well, I eventually want…"
"Let me guess. You want to eventually own your own restaurant?"
"That’s the plan."
"The man with the plan," Uncle Mike said. "But first, you want to get some worldly experience in a bigger market, like New York or L.A. or even Vegas?"
"You’ve heard it all before?"
"I’m not finished."
"Sorry to interrupt." Tyler took a sip from his straw.
"But you need some small town exposure before you hit the big city. The lights and the camera and the action."
"Sort of like that."
"You from around here?" Uncle Mike asked.
"Right outside of town."
"Small town kid, dreaming of the big bucks, the big tits, the money, the pussy. All of the above."
"I’m about to graduate," Tyler told him. "I need to carve a foothold somewhere."
"But why here? That’s what I’m curious about."
"I need a place to showcase my skills I guess. To spread my wings. Isn’t this where Brad Pitt usually eats when he comes home to see his parents and his brother?"
"Maybe if he ever actually came to town to see his family," Uncle Mike said. "Brad Pitt’s never set foot in this building, at least not as long as I’ve been the GM."
Uncle Mike took off his stripped beanie that matched his pants, revealing his salt and pepper hair, the early morning gel demolished and re-molded. He lit a Marlboro red and sucked the smoke past his nicotine stained teeth. "I’ll get to the skin and bones of it all. Do you know why people put covers on books?"
Tyler hesitated and looked at the dust covered bottles of the bar’s top shelf. "To give you a look at what’s inside I guess."
"So you can judge what’s inside. Key word, judge. And judging by the looks of you, I don’t quite know if you’ll fit in here. I know people with 4.0s aren’t accustomed to hearing these kinds of things," Unc said. "But this ain’t culinary school. I’ve got a select bunch of guys who work in this kitchen." He leaned back in his chair, one arm behind his head and the other pointing to the stainless steel island that pumped out lunches and dinners at ridiculous volumes. "You see, we do $8,000 dinner shifts. My crew, they’re like soldiers on the front lines. This shit gets to be like downright war at times."
Tyler hunched forward with his elbows on the table, trying his hardest, but failing at times, to keep his eyes locked with Uncle Mike’s.
"My boys trust each other when they’re in that foxhole," Unc told him. "Not to knock chef school or anything, but I think it’s a big fucking waste of time and money. You don’t build that kind of rapport with guys by sniffing the spine of an cooking textbook." Unc thumbed through Tyler’s application and resume´ once more. There were tax forms under his clipboard. "My cooks probably couldn’t tell you what temp to hold heavy cream based soup at, or what color mold has the potential to be lethal to humans. But they can bust out 250 reservations in three hours without a single steak coming back under cooked."
"Sounds like a hell of a place." Tyler said.
"You think your chef coat could handle standing behind that broiler, sweating it out?"
"Are you asking if I can cook a rib eye or a filet mignon?"
"No, I’m asking if you can cook 100 steaks and 50 filets," Uncle Mike grinned. "In two hours."
"It’s what I’ve been working towards doing for the last two and a half years."
"Is that a yes?"
"Yes. I’d think so."
"That’s the attitude I can work with."
"So do I have the job?"
"Sort of," Unc said. "I’m going to start you on a trial basis and we’ll see from there."
Uncle Mike peered at the fresh tattoo that was stamped across Tyler’s left wrist, freshly filled in with exuberant color. "What’s up with that gaudy red tattoo? It looks like it hurt like hell."
"It’s the Henkels knife logo," He said. "It stung a little."
"I know what it is dumbass," Unc said with a chuckle. "Why the hell would you get a Henkels tattoo?"
"I guess I’m a chef through and through." Tyler said. "It’s in my blood now. Literally.
"By the end of your shift, you’ll want to take a Henkels knife across that red wrist of yours." Uncle Mike assured him. "When people get tattoos that represent careers, it’s just the same as getting a girl’s name tattooed that they banged twice and moved in with."
"You think so?"
"I know so. But that’s neither here nor there at the moment," Unc bent and twisted his half smoked Marlboro into the glass ashtray. "I’ve got a job for you Tyler."
"I brought my knife set if you need me to carve out those steaks and filets you speak of."
"No,no. None of that. Not yet," Unc said. He looked toward a hallway that was tucked back by the corner server station. "I need you to hit our back bathroom. We had a frat formal last night. Some piss-drunk, 18 year old frat clown shit his Cole Haans and passed out on the throne. He got it everywhere. Truth of the matter, we haven’t had time to clean it up."
"Clean the restroom?"
"Yeah. You should’ve seen this kid," Unc laughed with a straw between his teeth. "Booze poisoning, lily white. I had to hold him against the wall while his freaked out girlfriend pulled his pants up. Took everything in me not to tell her how much bigger my package was compared to his." He pointed to the back kitchen gangway that could be seen from their booth. "There’s a mop and some sani-water back there. Use gloves too."
Tyler locked the bathroom door to the one-toilet men’s room and doused the crusty bowl with bleach water. The stubborn odor of day-and-a-half old beer feces climbed into his nose like a sharp nailed index finger. Tyler gagged and became a mouth breather for a minute. He snapped on a set of rubber gloves and side stepped around puddles of what appeared to be crap-spattered water. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, snapped a shot of the throne and texted it with a message that read, "Some work for a future chef. Cleaning the leftovers of some frat boy’s pants shitting? BS!"
Two minutes later he received a reply, "Just stick with it. Maybe you’ll get some extra credit points in class."
"It smells like the John at the baseball stadium," Tyler typed. "I want to walk out already."
"Don’t. Bathrooms are part of the territory." His phone read.
Uncle Mike, built like an NFL tight end, lorded at the helm of the square shaped kitchen area. He precision sharpened a chef’s knife with a hand held knuckle sharpener, drawing the blade over the tiny sharpening stones, rendering it unforgiving. He watched the front door as customers poured in, some with reservations, some walk-ins. Like the captain of a pirate ship, Unc glowered over the bow at the patrons as if they were waves crashing against the hull.
"It’s a beautiful thing. The first Saturday of the month. The Arts Fest crowd is upon us," Unc said. "They’ve had their fill of artsy-fartsy, Indians on horseback, bears catching fish in freezing streams, hick paintings. They’ve filled their eyeballs, now it’s time to eat."
Uncle Mike noticed a gaggle of servers in the wait-station, dressed in black polos and khakis, most of them playing on their phones and chatting.
"Hey shit heads! Look at the door. There’s a line," He belted, towering over all of them with his six-foot, seven-inch frame. "Seat them, greet them. You know the biz. Sell some dinner features, bottles of wine, desserts. Go, go, go!.
Unc grabbed one of the female servers by the arm, turning her around, "Go to the back bathroom and summon the newbie. Time to see what kind of grits are in his pot." He slapped her khaki bubble butt as she jetted off.
Tyler stepped onto the tarnished concrete floor of the cooking line, dressed in his bright white coat, black beanie and hound’s tooth chef pants. A short, wiry man wearing a black t-shirt and an identical pair of pants, stepped up and handed Tyler an apron.
"Here you go pretty boy," He wore a porn star mustache, the thickest of his facial hair. He had on a Guinness trucker cap that seemed to sprout scraggly locks of black mess. He looked like a pint sized Steven Tyler with a cigarette tucked behind his ear. "The name’s Dirt." He extended his bony fingers.
"Tyler. Nice to meet you."
"He’s the dirtiest little kitchen bastard you’d ever stand next to," A baritone voiced cook with tattoo spangled arms was standing next to him, pressing his knife into a 20 pound tube of ground beef, portioning off burger patties. "After he sautés for an hour or two, it’ll look like someone loaded a 12 gauge full of food and let it blow all over the wall and floor."
"This is Mac," Dirt said. "But you can call him maniac, or sometimes the chainsaw. Depends on how much of a dickhead he feels like being."
Mac made a noise with his lips like someone pulling a rip cord and staring a chainsaw.
"You’re gonna be glued to my sack all night Tyler," Mac boomed as his pointed to the broiler. "This thing’s gonna be full of steaks and burgers in about 20 minutes and you won’t be able to move from this spot till about ten o’clock."
Tyler looked at his phone. It was 6:24 p.m. Uncle Mike took his position at the front of the kitchen; abound to rattle in orders like a sergeant commanding his men behind enemy lines.
"Battle stations gentlemen. Let’s get this Death Star fully operational."
Mac twisted the eight nobs on the broiler and Dirt cranked up his sauté stove top. He set steel pans on the burners, upside down, letting them absorb the heat as quickly as possible. Several customers were passing by the open kitchen area, en route to a party on the restaurant’s patio. Mac eyeballed a duo of older, well-to-do looking women, dressed to thrill, kill and everything in between. " How are you ladies?" He asked. They nodded, smiled and continued on their way. "How old you think they are Dirty?"
"45 or so."
"I’d crawl into their asses and eat my way out."
"Dude, that one looked like this milf I saw on this porno I watched this morning before work. The guy was like 18 inches, just hollowing her out."
"Why do you watch that extreme porn?" Uncle Mike asked, needling at his smiling teeth with a toothpick.
"Why would you look at a nasty car wreck?"
"Touché brother," Unc said. "But enough of this clowning around, double check your stations. We don’t have time to be ducking off the line every five seconds to get stuff from the back."
The ticket printer began to churn out paper, its tiny, screeching wheel chirping over and over could be heard in the deepest nightmares of any seasoned line cook.
"All right boys. Here it comes. We got a full house," Unc said as he uncurled four tickets and hung them on the rail. "Little Dirt bag, I’m hitting you up first."
"Give it to me boss."
"You got a chicken marsala pasta, a pasagne, a Thai chicken and shrimp and a black and blue quesadilla," Unc belted out. "Echo back."
Dirt quickly repeated everything back to him in order.
"See, that’s how we do it," Mac told Tyler. "When the man calls out tickets to you, you gotta echo back to him. Got it?"
"Okay Bobby Flay, it’s flying at you hardcore. Just like I said it would. Don’t swallow your beanie," Unc said with a handful of order tickets, each one curling over his fingers. He straightened them out by creasing them down the middle. Uncle Mike hung seven tickets and analyzed each one top to bottom; processing their modifications and special instructions. "Alright broiler, you need eight rib eyes, two no peppercorns. Three mid-rare, two rare, one well, one medium and one mid-well. Four filets, six big daddy burgers, a combo, and three uptown chicken sandwiches. With me?"
Tyler scrambled, hands shaking as he pulled meat out of stainless steel cooler pans, tossing steaks on the grill, buttering ciabatta buns and filling his fryer baskets with fries.
"Echo back Mario Batali," Unc demanded. "Come on, act like you should be wearing that chef coat."
Tyler’s grill was engulfed in flames. One tall, ever hungry spear of dancing fire was feeding off the dripping fat of the marbled steaks and filets. Its triangular tip shifted toward the extinguisher pipes that ran along the hood vents. "Um, six rib eyes, two medium…"
"No! Eight rib eyes! Eight! Start with that. It’s double your 4.0 Poindexter. Even a dumb fuck like Dirt can add that. Can’t you Dirt?"
"Had to think about it for a second, but yeah big Unc, I think you’re right."
"I may not have my GED yet, but I know what’s up on that grill over there." Dirt said. He was in a shallow knee bend, back stiff with his wrists out, flip-flopping pasta and alfredo sauce in a red hot sauté skillet. Blots of white sauce exploded onto his nearby wall as he tossed the pan back on the flame.
"Bail that sissy out Maniac. He needs it already. I’m about to burry that fucking grill," Uncle Mike warned as he mixed a Caesar salad in a metal mixing bowl.
Mac started quarter turning meat and tossing empty plates onto a cutting board. Tyler had sweat cascading down his face, seeping under his beanie. The back of his head was soaked, slick black hairs bunched and gleaming in the lights of the stainless steel terror dome. A set of tongs vibrated in his hands as he slowly wiped his face on his sleeve. Tyler glanced at a wall thermometer that read 143 degrees. Mac, unaffected by the torrential heat, handed Tyler a scoop for mashed potatoes.
"Start mashing those plates," He said. His tall, spiked bangs came to a tight point on his head, looking similar to the dominant flame on the broiler. The wide bodied Mac shuffled around the tiny, kitchen line with fleet-footed ease. Tyler examined Mac’s tattooed arms as he tonged fresh vegetables and mashed potatoes onto the plates. Blue flames climbed up his forearms, inching into a design bearing the name Heather. "Hey! Middle of the plate. Not side," Mac snapped. "Mash sits in the center, veg on the side."
"Get with it Cat Cora. Let me know when your vagina stops hurting. I need to talk to you. You got tickets piling up on my rail," Uncle Mike announced. He heard no response. He pulled plates from the rack and clinked them into the server window while examining ticket times. "Hey broiler! Are you with me?"
Tyler jumped a bit when Uncle Mike turned and blasted at him.
"He’s talking to you." Mac said.
"I’m with you."
"I sure hope so," Unc replied. "The wheels don’t need to come off this bus yet. Not this early. So start filling your grill with chicken and burgers. I’ll give you temps if you ever catch up."
Tyler tossed chicken breast cuts onto his flaming grill. He threw ten and went for the beef patties.
"What the hell are you doing?" Mac asked.
"What he said to do."
"Who is this he?" Unc said. "I’ve got a name thank you very much. I’m the uncle you never had."
"He said to throw on lots of chicken. Lots! You know what lots is?" Mac said. His lower teeth crisscrossed behind his bottom lip, a devilish goatee hung from his chin, reaching for his collar like a hairy stalactite.
"I know what lots is."
"It’s like 30 pieces. See all those people at the door? We’re busy as shit and you’re back here fucking around with a measly 10 pieces," Mac raised his voice, still never ceasing his comfortably rapid cadence. He tonged meat and tossed filets on plates. "You’re gonna throw Old McDonald’s whole fucking farm on this grill, got it? All the moo-moos and all the balk-balks and all that shit! Now start filling it! You said you knew what you were doing with kitchen work."
Tyler threw more burgers on the grill as he looked at the line of customers that was snaking out the door and around the building. They stood like zombies, poised to perform craniotomies with their incisors, seeming to sway in unison, impatient and agitated. Tyler stepped to the side of the kitchen to wash his hands in the sink that sat between the stand-up cooler and prime rib oven.
"What the hell?" Mac pulled a basket of fries from the fryer, tapping it against the hanger to let the excess oil drain.
"I’ve got to wash my hands."
"The hell you do. Get back on that grill and butter some buns."
"I’ve got chicken guts all over my bare hands," Tyler said as he fiercely scrubbed. "That’s cross-contamination. Someone’s gonna get sick."
"Horseshit! You ever talk to me with some kind of classroom Einstein word like that again and I’ll press your face to that broiler!" Mac snatched Tyler by his sleeve. "Get back over there!"
"Don’t you just love to hear that booming voice Dirty?" Unc said about Mac’s rich, penetrating baritone.
"I love it when he karaoke’s House of the Rising Sun."
With his fingers dripping with chicken blood, Mac began tossing sandwich bread onto the buttery flat grill. "We don’t have time to wash our hands when it gets like this," He said. "All these people out there, half of them are going out tonight to get shit-faced. They’ll be puking in the morning and they’ll think drinking caused it. And in most cases, they’ll be right."
"In most cases," Dirt added. Beef blood from steak strips was caked beneath his fingernails. He dug his hand into a pan of red onions, tossed them into a sauté pan and pulled a melting tray out of the oven with his other bare hand. "Wooooooo mama," He shook his fingers. "No time for oven mitts neither."
"Come on piss boy. Start veg-ing these plates." Mac pointed to the square China with his tongs.
Tyler wiped his hands on his apron, grabbed a plate and brought it to a full skillet of mushrooms, peppers and asparagus.
"No, no man," Mac said. "You got eight plates on the rack. Take the skillet and bring it to ‘em. Bring Muhammad to the mountain. It’s that simple."
Tyler did as he was told.
"Tyler, this train is being held up in the station because of you," Uncle Mike said. "We got some serious ticket times going. If so much as one customer jets on us, it’s coming out of your pay."
Tyler angrily tossed vegetables onto the plates. A wine-garlic juice mixture spackled the mashed potato mounds in splatter patterns. "Here’s your eight rib eyes Unc. I hope they choke on ‘em," He pushed the rear plates forward, causing them the clink against the front row, smashing their tips into the food. "Take this job and choke on it too. I’m done!" Tyler whipped his hands around his back and forcefully untied his apron.
"You’re not going nowhere. Put that thing back on." Mac demanded.
"Screw you Chainsaw, or whatever the hell they call you. Out of my way."
"Calm down Tyler," Dirt chimed. "Step back from that hot ass grill and help your boy over here. I’m a little nicer. Cut theses peppers for this sandwich." Dirt handed Tyler a green and a red bell pepper.
"You’re the one who wanted this gig Tyler. You came in here with your 4.0 and your pretty little resume´ and your chef coat," Unc said. "I tried to warn you didn’t I? I said you wouldn’t be able to hang. You’ll never cut it in Vegas or LA or anywhere for that matter. The Swedish Chef would laugh you out of his kitchen."
"Fuck you! Fuck this bullshit restaurant!" Tyler slammed his fist on the cutting board. "You jack offs kill people with your nasty ass chicken gut hands. All in the name of quick ticket times. I don’t want anything to do with this."
"What we kill is chumps that run their mouths like you pal," Mac snarled and pressed a butcher’s knife at Tyler’s chest, point blank. "Now cut those motherfucking peppers before I skew this into your ribcage. This kitchen pays my child support payments asshole. You better respect it."
Tyler tried to go the other direction, sidling around the sautéing Dirt. "You get out of my way college boy. Now you’re pissing everybody off," Dirt grabbed a 14 inch slicer used to cutting prime rib and ran its blade along a sharpening stone. "Step on my foot again and I’ll carve you up like some roast beef at Old Country Buffet. Now slice my peppers fool."
Tyler grabbed a green bell pepper and sliced off its top, yanked out the guts and halved it, slamming it into a puddle of beef blood on the cutting board.
"Come on, Julienne that bad boy up," Mac said as he flipped six burgers, pressing his middle finger into each one to test its temperature. "I know they at least learned you that in chef school."
Tyler popped the blade through the pepper, slicing it in thin strips. "Today man," Dirt snapped his fingers. "If I needed ‘em last week I’d a said so."
Tyler slapped the freshly sharpened blade down on the pepper half and doubled back holding his hand. He looked at his index and middle fingers and saw that the tips had been rendered to red gushing stumps.
"Listen up," Unc said. "I seriously need that cheese steak. It’s been hanging for almost 20."
"It’s got cheese melting on it now boss." Dirt replied.
"Now’s not good enough. How about right now?"
Dirt plated the sandwich with the melted cheese and julienned peppers. Uncle Mike set it in the server’s window.
"My fingers," Tyler mumbled. Blood was soaking through one towel and into another. "Where are the tips of my fingers?"
"Unc we got a serious situation brewing back here." Mac said.
"Forget it. I have tickets to sell."
Tyler stood up from a deep knee bend, still clutching his bloody hand. Woozy, he swayed backwards and Mac had to catch him before he tumbled arms first into the fryer.
"I need a server with nothing to do!" Mac yelled into the wait station. "Take this chump to the urgent care center."
Mac shoved Tyler out of the kitchen, his hand wrapped in a crimson towel polluted with a cocktail combination of beef blood, chicken blood and his own flowing blood.
"Where’s the tips?" He yelled. "I want the tips to my damn fingers!" He was rushed out the back door with his arm above his head, his chef coat dotted with fresh droplets.
"Did you see the finger tips?" Uncle Mike asked Dirt.
"I don’t know. I scooped the whole pile of peppers on the top of that sandwich."
"It’s on its way to some impatient table." Mac said.
"Hey!" Unc yelled to a server. "Find that cheese steak that went to C10 and bring it back! Now! Go, go, go!"
The server returned with the sandwich two minutes later. "Here. He’s pissed. I told him it was someone else’s order."
Unc peeled the bread off the cheesy piece of thin steak and revealed the two finger tips, nails still half intact. "Grody." Mac said.
A different server came to the line with a phone in her hand. "Unc, it’s the guy who cut himself. He says he wants the tips of his fingers or he’s going to sue you for however much they’re worth."
"He says he can find out how much they’re worth in a lawsuit."
"I’ll tell you what they’re worth," He brushed the finger tips into the overflowing trashcan by the salad station. They topped a mountain of chopped up bread, pineapple rinds, onion peels and crushed product boxes. "He stood around with his fingers up his ass the whole time but they aren’t worth the shit crusted under his nails. Take his sandwich back to C10 and apologize. Offer them free dessert."
Uncle Mike looked out into the crowded dining room and noticed a man with a cardboard box approaching the kitchen. "Here comes Clifton," He said. "Did you call that schmuck?"
"Yeah we’re out of a few things." Mac replied.
Clifton set his box on the main cutting board and undid the foldable top. "Here’s your prosciutto and your basil pesto," He handed them to Mac. "Here’s the grill bricks."
"Most important tool in the kitchen." Mac set them on top of the convection oven. "Come on where’s my butt plugs fool?"
"What?" Unc laughed.
Clifton grinned sheepishly and handed Mac a small box of jalapeno peppers. Mac opened the box, held one up and examined it’s shape — short, rounded and triangular, similar to a dark green dreidel with a bending stem. "Look at ‘em," He said. "What else would they look like?" The kitchen exploded with laughter.
"So where’s my protégé?" Clifton said.
"Just cut the tips of his damn fingers off," Dirt said, pulling a Newport cigarette box out of his chef pants. "He’s probably at the urgent care center by now."
"I’m not too surprised about that. He was never good with knives in class," Clifton added. "All book smarts. He was texting me earlier, bitching about having to clean the bathroom."
"It’s all part of the initiation." Unc said.
"What was the pool up to on Tyler?" Clifton asked.
"Speaking of which, give me that big 5-0 spot chainsaw," Dirt said, moving his hand in a come- hither motion. "Cut into your wallet and hook your boy up. I said he’d slice himself before eight o’clock. You said 9:30."
Mac reluctantly pulled out two twenties and a ten and handed it to Dirt. "Looks like you’re cleaning the kitchen yourself tonight pal. Spic n’ Span."
"No way man," Dirt looked as if he had just been suspended without pay. "This place is ransacked."
"So is my beer fund." Mac said.
"You guys are some animals," Clifton said. "I can’t believe some of the stuff you pull."
"This is what we do to all the newbies," Uncle Mike reminded him. "We bash ‘em, trash ‘em, make them cut the shit out of themselves and bet on the results."
"This is from my first day," Dirt held out his palm, revealing a large scar that ran the length of his hand. A lump of a line tore from the direction of his hand’s striations. "I couldn’t wipe my ass for a week."
"We didn’t think you ever did to begin with," Mac chuckled. "But you actually came to work the next day and look at you now. Best sauté beast in the east."
"Gosh you guys make me miss this biz." Clifton said.
"Come back. We’ll initiate you." Unc smiled. "Restaurant work is like a bad ex. She’ll always take you back."
"No thanks. I’m happy teaching culinary school and doing part time vending. I’m glad I could send you Tyler though."
"Tyler Two-Fingers," Dirt said. "A legend already."