By BOB ZIMORINO
Big Louie’s dinner crew was a team.
It was obvious they each knew their jobs and were doing them, working both together and around each other. They barely spoke to each other.
(I found out later that neither Maria nor Little Louie spoke much English. She was fresh off of the boat from Italy and Little Louie was from Jersey.)
After my experience with Pineapple, it was refreshing to see that he actually had line cooks who did their jobs.
I was pretty impressed that Christopher, at age 12, (off for Christmas vacation) was as good or better at his job as others I had worked with that were twice his age. By 4:30 every afternoon, the line was totally set up and they were ready to rock. I had helped out with some of their set up stuff but truly knew enough to stay out of the way and observe.
They were, I thought, ready. But then I thought I was, too. Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
I can’t equate the evening to being in a war because I have never been to war. I can however equate it to a war movie. It had all of the clichés.
In the beginning of the movie, the soldiers are all tense because of the impending battle that awaits them. They have their weapons ready, their backup ammo on hand and are in a state of heightened awareness as they patiently, yet nervously, await the enemies’ attack. Sarge says “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Once all hell breaks loose there won’t be time.”
At Luigi’s, the crew was set up and ready. Drawers filled to maximum capacity with foods prepped ready for line service. The back coolers held reserve supplies in the event they used up everything on the line. Big Louie came in and told everyone to take a quick break and then be ready.
Little Louie took a smoke break, Maria went into the deli and started closing down the deli cases, wrapping the leftover ends of unsliced meats and cheeses with plastic wrap. Christopher’s mother came and picked him up to go home. JoAnn the salad man wiped down her area and gave it a final inspection.
Sarge asks the young private, “You nervous?”
The young private responds with false bravado, “No sir. I’m ready to fight.”
Sarge gets this faraway look in his eyes and says, “All the practice on earth can’t prepare you for this son. You keep your head down and listen to orders. Shoot when I say shoot and when all hell breaks loose, shoot and keep shootin’. Don’t do anything stupid and you may live to tell your grandkids stories.” With that he trudges off to report to the general in his tent.
“You haven’t been here at night yet, have you?” JoAnn asked me.
Even though she was a few years younger, I deferred to her experience.
“You guys must be planning a busy night?” I half-asked her. “I like busy.”
She looked not exactly at me, more like through me. “It isn’t at all like lunch,” she said. “You’ll see. Just listen to what I am telling you and regardless of how crazy it gets, don’t stop, and let it catch up to you. Don’t do anything stupid and I won’t have to kill you.”
She smiled humorlessly at me which gave me pause to measure this green-eyed, 115-pound cutie in a different light.
Smokes were out and the troops seemed fairly relaxed. Re-enforcements were should be coming. At any time they be here to help out and make sure they crush the opposition.
The crew was back. Little Louie seemed more relaxed. JoAnne the salad man kind of glared at him as he took his position at the appetizer and pasta line. Maria finished her job, and came into the line kitchen in her coat. She nodded a goodbye of sorts to everyone and then left. No Christopher, no Maria? Who was going to cook all that food?
The servers and bussers were there, prepping the dining room. Other than the dishwasher, the prep kitchen was empty. At any minute someone should surely be showing up to take control of the sauté line.
Sarge positions his guys and double checks that everyone is ready. He then takes his post along with the others, in position for the fight.
Big Louie came back in and asked if everything was set. He seemed nervous. He pulled his massive frame into a chef’s coat and walked down to the end of the sauté line. He was the other line cook? The sauté guy? I had worked for a lot of owners but never saw one work the hot line before.
The attack started off slowly, with the enemy trying to breech the perimeter. They were easily repelled and things were looking pretty good. Sarge kept everyone calm and focused.
Orders started coming into the kitchen a couple at a time. Big Louie had me working the set up station reading the tickets aloud so everyone would know what they had to do to complete the ticket and get the food out. He was telling me what went on each plate and how to arrange them.
The dishes he cooked were beautiful.
I didn’t even know what many of them were. Chicken Picatta, Veal Marsala, and Sausage Pizziola. Little Louie did the pastas. When Big Louie called out for fettucine, Little Louie would step over and empty the freshly-heated pasta from the strainer into the pan or hand the strainer to me to put the pasta as a side on the plate with some butter and parmesan cheese. Big Louie would then step in and finish filling out the plate with the entrée.
The battle intensifies and the wrath of the enemy is upon them. Regardless of planning, once the shooting starts it is nothing short of pandemonium. Things aren’t going well. Suddenly, Sarge is hit. One, two, three times and he goes down. The young soldier runs from the safety of cover to get him. Sarge growls “You can’t save me kid. Get out while you can.”
The kid says “I can’t do that Sarge.” He starts dragging Sarge back to the safety of cover.
As the evening wore, on the tickets came in so fast that they were starting to stack up. Lots of paper coming in but very little food going out. Big Louie was losing it. He weighed three hundred and seventy five pounds and, while he initially was able to keep up, he was quickly exhausting his energy. It was suddenly as though he could barely get through a ticket.
The waiters were milling around quietly complaining. Quietly, because they feared the wrath of Big Louie.
He looked lost. In restaurant terms, he was in the weeds. I had seen it many times before. I remembered Joanne the salad man saying, “Don’t stop,” so I said to Big Louie, “Switch with me.”
“You can’t do this. You don’t even know what most of this stuff is.”
“From here you can direct me.”
I literally pushed him to the set up line and jumped into the sauté station determined to see this through.
The private is dragging Sarge to the relative safety of cover with Sarge screaming at him the whole way. It was at best a temporary reprieve.
I guess I haven’t mentioned that the movie was about the Battle at Little Big Horn and in the end, they all got slaughtered.
With Louie screaming at me the whole way, I started cooking the meals on the tickets. I knew how a cooking line worked. My dishes didn’t look nearly as good as his but I was moving food out and starting to catch up.
And then it got busy…
Bob Zimorino is a full-time real estate agent with Lambros/ERA Real Estate, a retired Certified Executive Chef, a musician with the popular local band Mudfoot and the Dirty Soles, a dad, and a grandpa. He shares the experiences from his life that helped shape his careers and hobbies. His weekly “Taste It” blog is his take on the evolution of food in his lifetime.