Fake it ’till you make it


Texas was hot that day. The kind of heat that you can see. And with a nine mile commute, poor Jess saw a lot of it.

With one car between the two of them, Jess and Bruce tried to be very fair about sharing the Pinto. But let’s face it. Bruce couldn’t deliver pizzas on a bicycle. On the days he was scheduled to work, Bruce’s needs for four wheels took priority, and Jess’ only mode of transportation became his trusty ’79 Schwinn. Setting out on said Schwinn, Jess headed out for his first day at his new job… Line Cook at Bonanza Steakhouse!

Now,  if you’re asking yourself if Jess had any experience as a line cook at a fast-paced low-priced chain steakhouse where the clientele serves themselves their own salads and limitless drinks, you’d be asking a question that is entirely irrelevant. Of course he checked YES on the ‘prior experience’ box on the job application, but who really needs experience when you’re just trying to bankroll enough money to get back out on the road to explore more of what America has to offer? So here he was. Bonanza’s freshest new hire, ready to start the day for a routine, mid week shift that was bound to be slow paced enough to thoroughly get the hang of things. Yeah right!

In the early eighties the “official uniform” of Bonanza Steakhouse was a white collared shirt, brown slacks, and sensible shoes. The fact that he didn’t own a single one of these items was of no concern to Jess. He just allowed ten extra minutes for a mad dash to K-Mart on his way in to work, and quickly outfitted himself for his new profession. There. White shirt. Sensible shoes. Brown slacks. Well… they looked brown at the time.

“What? What are those”? Manshur yelled  in his nearly discernible English. Manshur, by the way, was the man who had hired Jess in a haste just 24 hours earlier. Yep. A manager named Manshur. Don’t think for a second that that unfortunate coincidence didn’t lend a “who’s on first” type of confusion to the entire scenario.  The boss continued, “My friend! You can’t wear those my friend”! Manshur called everyone “my friend”, and everyone called him by his first name. Or was it his job title? It was really hard to tell. He continued ,”Brown slacks! Handbook distinctly call for browwwwnnn slacks”! It’s funny how brown and olive green look so much alike after sixty minutes of sweating and squinting on a two lane Texas highway. Still, being a stickler for company policy, Manshur  insisted that his new cook  change immediately, and offered up a pair of company-compliant polyester-blend beauties  from the kitchen’s lost and found bin. Clean? Questionable. Proper fit? That was even more questionable.

Once the wardrobe malfunction was rectified, Manshur the Manager mumbled something about being late for a meeting at the corporate office, and led Jess to the kitchen where he would receive sufficient on the job training from Carl. Carl was a seven year Bonanza veteran who had been there at least four years longer than any other employee. That tenure afforded Carl a certain amount of leeway when it came to company policy, but still, he was fairly dependable and usually showed up on time. Usually. This particular routine day just happened to follow an equally routine night of Lone Star consumption, one that required Carl to cash in one of his seemingly unlimited “sick days”. Unhappy but unfazed, Manshur had great faith in his young but “experienced” recruit, and just knew that after a brief tour of the kitchen, Jess would be A-OK on his own. Besides… How different could the Bonanza kitchen be from the last place Jess worked? What was the name of that place again?

In the 1960’s it was Candid Camera. Decades later it was Punk’d. In the summer of ’82, the patrons of a particular steakhouse on the outskirts of Dallas probably thought the latest hidden camera incarnation happened to be filming their pilot right then an there. First, their orders came out late. Then they came out wrong. And not just that well-done when you ordered medium-rare kind of wrong. We’re talkin’ full-on, not what you ordered at all  wrong. Meanwhile, our new cook was back in the kitchen looking over a laminated flip-chart in a desperate attempt to differentiate a  Strip Steak from a Sirloin, and frantically trying to figure out how to fry a vegetable he had never even heard of back in California. DING, “T-bone, well. Green beans. Steak fries”. DING DING, “New York, medium. Baked all the way”. The orders were starting to come in. DING. DING DING. DING. The more orders that came in, the more that bell sounded like a dental drill, and the more the waitresses lost that ‘be nice to the new guy’ tone of voice. Still, Jess was determined to get the hang of this and get through this unexpected rush (which later, he discovered, was the result of the accidental premature distribution of a BOGO coupon at the local bingo parlor). “You got this”, our new cook told himself. “Just make everything look like the pictures”. Jess steadied his nerves and started cooking. He even got into a bit of a rhythm. Scoop the sides. Sear the steak. Pop the toast. Scoop the sides. Sear the steak. Pop the toast. “Order up”, Jess began to answer back to the now nearly constant DINGS. In a moment of time saving brilliance, he made the logical and only slightly panicked decision to substitute tater tots for any and all baked potato orders. After all, a spud was a spud, and how was he supposed to know you have to put those things in the oven 45 minutes ahead of time? Just as he thought he might be getting th hang of it, orders started getting sent back. The tension escalated. Timers were going off. That damned bell kept ringing. And Manshur the manager was nowhere in sight. Fucking Carl!

As the orders and re-orders began to back up, the glances for hidden cameras in the dining area began to increase. Complete strangers when they arrived, now patrons were beginning to bond with their brethren in neighboring booths. “Did they get your order wrong too”? “I haven’t had tater tots since I was twelve”. And “I’m not sure, but I think this might be a pork chop” could be heard coming from the crowd. Hushed tones turned to out loud laughter when the cook came out of the kitchen to apologize for the mistaken orders and offer a complimentary dessert. Those correct-colored slacks that Jess was forced to change into just prior to starting his shift may have looked alright on the last guy, but not on Jess. Jess checks in at a medium build, 6’2″. These pants were quite possibly last worn by the athlete who rode Lucky Sevens to victory in the  30 furlong event at the Denton County Fair. Way too short. Waaaaayyyy too snug.

I’m not sure what your level of knowledge of the inner workings of a picture-menu steakhouse is, but I’ve learned that there is an unwritten code that states that no one, under any circumstance, perform any duty that is not clearly stated in their specific job description. Bussers bus, Waitresses wait, and Dishwashers wash. No matter what kind of fever-pitched chaos is going on the kitchen. Nobody steps in to help. NOBODY. Keeping to the code, the rest of the Bonanza staff watch in astonishment, while they themselves began glancing around for the hidden cameras. The laughter from the staff started to blend with the laughter from the patrons, while the helpless newbie continued to undercook, over sauce, and generally render unrecognizable every single dish served. Then suddenly, silence. In one synchronized moment, the chatter from the dining room and the clatter from the kitchen abruptly ceased. “Oh shit.” said Nadine, the waitress with the least amount of buttons on her blouse. “Manshur”!

We’ll never know what Manshur the manager thought when he walked in on that catastrophic kitchen calamity. And, other than a few very well pronounced English swear words, Jess will never know what he said. All Jess knew was, by the time he visited every single table with complimentary tapioca and jello, Manshur had all the orders caught up, and the kitchen back to a recognizable and partially clean state. Slowly, and somewhat shamefully, Jess took off his apron, hung it in the hallway, and grabbed his backpack . No words were needed. He knew his days as a line cook were done. Why make it worse with an apology? Jess thought to himself. I’ll just get on my bike and go. Jess was almost to the back door when the Manager finally decided to break the silence. “Hey” Manashur called out. “Same time tomorrow, my friend”.


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