To understand my passion for food, I feel like it’s necessary to understand my childhood. You see, my passion for food began before I was even born, really. It started with my father, when he was a young man. You see, my father has been in the food service since he was a young man as well, and that was tremendously influential in my decision to enter the food service.
Not long after mom and dad got married in September of 1970, dad got a job working for a little pizza joint in Provo, Utah, called Heaps of pizza. That pizza place is still open today, although they’ve changed ownership a few times, and they changed their name to Brick Oven Pizza. It wasn’t an awesome job, but he enjoyed it, and it paid the bills.
Now, just before mom and dad had met, the selective service lottery for the Vietnam War had started. Rather than wait to be drafted, dad decided it’d be a better choice to simply enlist. At least that way, he’d have some say in what he did and how his service career would play out. When he enlisted, he chose to be a cook. To this day, just about everything dad knows about food is rooted in serving thousands of meals as quickly as possible.
By the time I was six years old, which is about as early as I have any memories at all, dad was working at the LDS Church Office Building in downtown Salt Lake City. His kitchen was responsible for serving between three and five thousand meals each day. That’s food on a truly massive scale, and for a small boy, a kitchen capable of producing food on that scale could have been tremendously frightening and easily overwhelming.
Not for me, though. I loved it. Dad’s kitchen was a magical place, full of wonder and delight – gigantic 300-gallon stock pots of soup, steam tables with hundreds and hundreds of baked potatoes, wagon-sized trays of rice, and thousands of pounds of vegetables, ovens so big that you could walk inside them… it was like being a tiny little person in a giant’s world, and it was intoxicating to me, even at that young age.
One of my most enduring memories is of the candy room. As part of his responsibilities, dad stocked the vending machines on all 26 floors of the building. That mean that he needed a lot of candy, and somewhere to store it. The candy rooms was nothing more than a large tiled room in the basement, lined with shelves full of cases of every kind of candy you could imagine. The smells all blended together into this sugary, chocolate, fruity, tangy-sweet smell that is still embedded in my memory. To this day, walking down the candy aisle at Costco, I’ll sometimes catch the faintest whiff of that smell, and I’m instantly transported back to that room, a tiny lad dwarfed by the shelves of candy and snacks.
So, to say that food has been in my blood since before I was born is an understatement. I’ve always loved food, and I’ve always been proud of my dad and the work he did. In fact, for my fifth-grade career day, when all the other students were showing up dressed like doctors, firemen, police officers, and all the pother predictable careers they aspired to at that young age, I came dressed in a shirt and tie with a clipboard under my arm, presenting myself as a food service manager. Even the teachers weren’t quite sure what to do about that, or how to support and encourage me in my chosen path.
But the truth is, I didn’t need their support or encouragement. I knew what I wanted. By the time I was 14, I’d found the restaurant I wanted to work in for my first job. Some kids take a shotgun approach to their first job, filling out dozens of applications and spreading them around town. Not me. I knew where I wanted to work – Flakey Jakes, a little burger joint not far from my house. Following dad’s advice, I put money a freshly-ironed shirt and tie, marched in the front door like I already owned the place, and asked to speak to the manager.
When the manager came around the corner, I firmly shook his hand, introduced myself, and told him in no uncertain terms that I was coming to work for him. I then asked for an application so that we could get the paperwork started. He grinned at me, uncertain what to make of this brash, skinny, redhead kid with coke-bottle glasses and buck teeth. He said they didn’t have any openings right then, but that he’d get in touch with me as soon as they did. I told him I’d be back to check in. He shook my hand again, and I left.
Two days later, I marched back through his doors, shirt and tie, firm handshake, and asked him if he had any openings. He didn’t smile quite as wide this time, but thanked me for coming in, and told me he’d let me know as soon as he had a position available. I thanked him, and left. Three days after that, I walked back in his doors. He didn’t smile at all this time, and said he’d call me. This continued for almost three months, until one evening the phone rang, and he said he had a dishwasher position available, and asked if I could start later that week.
You see, from my perspective, I’d chosen the place I was going to work, and all that remained was doing the work to make it happen. I was crystal clear on what that work was – iron my shirt each week so it’d be ready. Show up at the restaurant between 2;00 and 4;00pm (the slowest time of day for a restaurant. One more thing I learned from dad), speak to the manager, and ask for exactly what I wanted. Repeat as necessary, until the desired outcome was reached.
And it worked.
Now, anyone that’s worked in the food service knows precisely and unequivocally what a shit job dishwasher is. It’s hot, it’s dirty, you go home every night smelling of a vile combination of every single item on the menu, and so thoroughly drenched in sweat and overspray from the sink that you can actually wring your socks out (pro-tip: DON’T). Add to that the fact that you’re the low man on the totem pole, so every other shit job that nobody else wants to do falls on you, and the fact that you’re pretty much the last one to leave at night, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of why being a dishwasher sucks.
Only for me, it didn’t. I loved it. Like, I didn’t just love it, I took so much pride in my job and was so passionate about it that you’d have thought that I owned the place. One of my first shifts was spent crawling under the dish pit and scrubbing and polishing all of the copper pipes below, on my own accord. The manager was caught so completely off guard that all he could figure to do was shake my hand and say thanks. Over the next two years, I advanced pretty quickly, working my way up through the ranks to a position as line cook. I loved what I did, I loved who I worked with, and I was really good at my job. I was in heaven!
And then it ended.
You see, sometimes the universe forces us in directions we ought to have found for ourselves. This was absolutely one of those times. I’d become comfortable in my job. I was good at it, and it wasn’t challenging any more. I wasn’t learning. I wasn’t growing or progressing. I was stagnating.
I showed up to work one afternoon to find the doors padlocked and a sign taped there indicating the property was being foreclosed. As I look back on it now, its pretty clear that management had made several poor choices that ultimately led to this situation. Regardless, I was crushed. My dream had been taken from me, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. I moped around for a week or so, and then decided to get back to work. I knew how to get a job, so all I really needed to do was decide WHERE I wanted to work, and then start doing what I knew would get me there. So I put on a shirt and tie, marched across the street to the Sizzler, asked for the manager, and got a job there.
Rather than start me as a line cook, which was what I’d been planning on, they offered me a position as dishwasher. I knew I could quickly prove myself, so I took the position. Within a very short time frame, I’d moved up to line/prep cook. I worked for Sizzler for about a year, but I knew early on that it wasn’t what I really wanted, so I began to look for my next “home”.
I settled on The Lion House in downtown Salt Lake City. It’s a historic home that’s been converted into a restaurant and reception center, and I was really excited about the possibilities. I employed my same tactics in getting this job asa I had my previous two, and set about getting the job I wanted. This time, it didn’t take nearly as long. Within a few weeks, I was working at The Lion House.
As per usual, I applied myself, worked hard, learned every day, set goals, achieved them, and then set bigger goals. Before long, I was managing the prime rib and seafood buffet that we offered every Friday and Saturday evening, in addition to working the lunch shift all week long. Lots of hours, long days, showers nights, and not much compensation. I mean, the food service industry isn’t exactly renowned for it’s high-paying positions, but I wasn’t even making enough to support myself, and it’s not like I was living an extravagant lifestyle.
I noticed that many of my friends from high school were doing quite well – getting married, buying houses and cars and toys and stuff. I still loved the actual work that I did, but I wanted MORE. I wanted to be PAID for the long hours i was working, and my unrelenting loyalty to the company. I wanted MONEY, and I knew that there was no way that I was going to get it in the food service industry.
So I left my passion, and dove into corporate America.