Thanks to Jonathan Locke, This Lady Who Lunches Has the Best Job
Having a leisurely lunch with Columnist Jonathan Locke involves a glass of house wine for him and iced tea for me—he has the day off, I have to go back to work. And when he gets going on his days as a chef is San Francisco, work be damned, there’s time for another round. What’s a third glass of iced tea among friends?
I’ve often thought that if Anthony Bourdain hadn’t immortalized the back-of-the-house shenanigans in restaurants, Jonathan might have had his shot at a best seller. Except his version would have to be an audio book so the reader could hear the accents—some good, some not so stellar, all entertaining—as he tells his stories.
We met recently at the Birchwood Café in the Seward neighborhood, his neighborhood, and our conversation meandered from a French chef whose father told him he could choose from just two professions to make the family proud to how to strip the parsley leaves off the stems to the early days of Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale to his friend Hadj.
The story about the French chef having to pick between becoming a doctor or a chef was an example of how the French think of a chef or cook as a top-tier profession. The news of Minneapolis passing the $15 minimum wage had just come out and we talked about how far Americans are from the French kitchen philosophy. In 1980, he said, $3.57 was the top wages for a union cook in the Twin Cities. He had moved to San Francisco about that time, where he got a job as a line cook earning $65 a shift, plus paid vacation and paid dental and medical coverage with no deduction. “There was one guy whose sole job was to give you a break so you could (go out back to) smoke,” he said. “We felt like we were gods.”
He manned the fast-pace pasta station and it was the servers job to cut off the width of the noodle being ordered from a big rolled, slab of pasta so he would know what the order was. “You’d put a drop of sauce (on the plate) so you’d remember the sauce,” he explained. An egg shell served as the measuring cup for wine in a sauce.
While Jonathan never worked at Charlie’s Café Exceptionale—the namesake for the Charlie Awards—he remembers it fondly. Although on a cook’s salary, he was never a guest. “They had two butchers on staff, two bakers…and three recipes for sweetbreads,” he said, as a testament to its exceptional quality. “They sent a dishwasher to France so he could be polished enough to be the future chef.”
The fact that customers were eating enough sweetbreads to have three different kinds impressed me, so he gave me a brief history lesson on entrails. In olden times, the rich took the steaks and the animal's leftovers when to the poor, who had to learn to be creative with their bounty. When the rich got a whiff of what the poor were able to do with their unfair share, they would send their scouts into the village to find the best cook and bring her to the castle—and “cuisine is born.”
As a culinary student, he continued, you can’t be repulsed by any part of an animal. A restaurant featuring several organ items on its menu, he said, are referred to as a “spare-parts restaurant.” My favorite comment was when he referred to brains as a “sponge for sauces” because they taste like whatever sauce covers it.
There was also a quick briefing on the technique for stripping parsley so that a cook’s time at $10 an hour isn’t spent playing “she loves me, she loves me not” with the all-important parsley plant.
We finished our meal by him catching me up with what happened to his friend Hadj who had owned Barbary Fig in St. Paul, the spot where Jonathan and I used to always meet for our catch-up lunches. Brahim Hadj-Moussa closed the restaurant after 27 years, Jonathan said of his friend, not because he was tired of cooking, but because he wanted to cook more. Owning a restaurant became more about managing people’s schedules and less about being creative. So he quit to work for someone else. An unusual twist on the immigrant entrepreneurial story.
I'm thinking the next time Jonathan and I go out to lunch, we should revisit Hadj’s cooking wherever he is. I'm ready for more stories.