The End of 1976

By BOB ZIMORINO

I rolled into the Arizona desert three days after Christmas of 1976 in a cold winter rain. Leave it to me to go to the desert and have it rain. Before I go there I have a couple of things to clear up.

While I call this blog “The Evolution of Food in My Lifetime” it has more to do with my views from the cook’s perspective. It is about my education on the path to my chef’s certification and beyond. I took a non-traditional path. I wanted to take jobs that would teach me something new and work them until I mastered them, at which point I would move on to another.

I had about seven different jobs during my time in Colorado. All of them taught me something new. None of them prepared me for what happened next. I realized that if you were a good cook you could get work pretty much anywhere. I sought to be the best in the house regardless of the job.

“But what about ‘the evolution of food’ Bob?” You ask. Well, here is how I saw it. There was a static quality level that seemed to be acceptable for corporate restaurants that opened the door for smaller independents to succeed by virtue of the quality of what they did.

The transition to a fast food culture was well under way. The first lambs led to slaughter were the restaurants like the one I worked at in high school. It was a burger joint that would have directly competed against the fast food chains except your food would be cooked to order. As a society we weren’t into waiting. We turned to fast food.

Part of the cultural shift that was going on included more women entering the work force. Fewer women were doing the June Cleaver, where they had a good chunk of the day to prepare a sit down dinner for Ward, Wally and the Beaver. More and more dining out after work became an acceptable option.

Franchise restaurants started with A&W Root Beer in 1924. By the 1970’s all kinds of franchises were popping up everywhere. Part of the effect of becoming a fast food culture was that we compromised our own quality standards to accommodate speed of service. The power of television became readily apparent as the chain restaurants started plastering the airwaves with advertisements.

Because often times regulation happens after abuse and there was no current standard for truth in advertising, you would see the large chains showing a gigundo beef patty hanging over the edges of a plate size bun. How enticing. The problem was that the gigundo burger patty actually weighed in at 1.6 ounces and that, was their precooked weight. Still we went in droves.

The big three emerged, the clown, the crown and a little girl with red pigtails. It wasn’t just the fact that because corporations are faceless, we were given a choice of cartoon like characters to represent them but for the first time children were being directly marketed to. Give the kiddies what they want and Mom and Dad will succumb.

Chain restaurants were quick to follow suit. Even the famous Colonel Harland Sanders became a caricature of himself. Chain “family” restaurants popped up everywhere further glutting the airwaves with advertisements of families falling over themselves in ecstasy over their dining experience. Lots of lip smacking, big smiles devouring mammoth bites of visually incredible food. In truth, the food was adequate but mediocre. The atmosphere bright, comfortable, washable and bulletproof to accommodate children.

A little later in my career and before I opened my first restaurant, I met some guys that worked for Saga Foods out of Seattle. The told me that their job was to create menus for middle America, simple American food. Nothing spicy, nothing adventurous, just plain old stuff you could slather with ketchup, butter and gravy.

They told me that guys like me were on their way out. They said what they were doing was the future of restaurants. What they were actually doing was insuring that guys and gals like me would always have work because there was a void that they could never fill.

Regardless of the rise of chain restaurants there were still those folks that weren’t ready to sacrifice quality for faster service. They saw the ads, tried the product and were disappointed. They sought out the smaller, independent restaurants that offered them the standards of quality the chains didn’t. They liked their spice.

They wanted variety and they liked the idea of the owner being on the premises overseeing the operation. In Phoenix I found an independent chef/restaurateur that would give me the education of a lifetime. He was a brilliant chef and an abusive prick. He gave me a master’s degree in Italian food all the while working in the most dysfunctional environment I had ever been subjected to.

The next few blogs are from that time and are more often than not stories, some heartbreaking and some hysterical but all of them true. I couldn’t make up the stuff that happened while I worked there any more than I could make up the cast of characters involved. I will be using first names only to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

See the “Taste It” archive.  Back to “Taste It” homepage.  Check out Bob’s recipes.

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Bio:  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 Hellgate Rodeo, 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 hislifetime.