You meet the most extraordinary people working in the restaurant industry. There's a whole lot that goes on behind that swinging kitchen door, some, best left unsaid but in the best of situations there are moments of culinary inspiration, camaraderie, and choreographed teamwork that, when set into motion could put a night at the Bolshoi ballet to shame.
I suppose it’s no surprise that many a great relationship has been forged in restaurants. Working long hours in the sweltering heat, among the din of banging pots and pans, in the tightest of cramped spaces (I worked in one kitchen so small that I worried I'd get pregnant by the end of my shift) you are left with no choice but to either emerge loving your colleagues or knife fighting them out by the dumpster during pre-meal. Sometimes you meet and make a connection with a fellow restaurant person with whom you've never even worked but there is still a bond between you. You’re driven by the same perverse energy. You speak the same language, you know the same secrets, and share the same pain. Same pirates, different ships.
Many years ago I met a chef who worked in a restaurant that was in close proximity to my own. He was an oversized mountain of a man so it made sense that people called him "Fridge" (it would take several years for me to even learn what his real name was). Our friendship started plainly enough, I would sit at the bar at his restaurant, he'd make an acknowledgement from the pass of the open kitchen, no words, just non-verbal secret restaurant signals (and a complimentary plate of oysters or calamari). We developed a "Mi pantry es su pantry" code, helping each other out whenever some random ingredient was needed. There were countless times where we saved each other's ass with a bag of Vidalia onions, a fresh bunch of tarragon, coffee filters and even demitasse spoons.
It didn't take long for Fridge to become a constant in my circle of friends. He would lead a parade of battle scarred cooks, servers and any other restaurant misfit he could find across the street to my bar after his kitchen had closed. The cold beer flowed and wine was drunk in large quantities til the wee hours of the morning. There would be beer bottles and potato sticks everywhere. (if you were a regular at Christopher's Table, you likely remember the small ramekins filled with old school potato sticks we served as bar snacks)
Behind the line, Fridge was a beast. His size, gruff voice, and no bullshit attitude made him a feared and respected expeditor. There were many a server reduced to tears during a dinner rush for not running their food fast enough. The smart ones only made this mistake once. But outside of the kitchen, Fridge was a teddy bear, always making sure that any unfortunate server who happened to catch his wrath was apologized to and never paid for their own drinks at the bar that night.
I can remember the time, after some late-night debauchery, stumbling home and taking off my pants to find crumpled dollar bills fall out onto my bedroom floor. (please don't ask) Giggling at my own expense, I called Fridge to tell him. Fridge laughed hard and then added glumly, "yeah, well when I took off my pants the only thing that fell out were potato sticks".
There were so many nights like that. Good laughs, good friends, and lots of booze. My restaurant brethren will understand, it were nights like that, that sustained us. Fueled us to get up and do it all over again the next day. There were so many fuzzy heads, queasy stomach, mornings but they were always made a lot more bearable with one of Fridge's famous breakfast gyros. His first order of business in the morning after a long night of excess was to make the restaurant staff breakfast. This consisted of over-easy eggs, placed atop a small bed of french fries, cheese, and homemade tzatziki sauce, lovingly wrapped in a fresh pita. And while I was hungover in my own respective kitchen, throwing back coffee, frosting cupcakes and wondering why I didn't get an accounting degree, Fridge would always make sure that I was taken care of. There would come a knock at my kitchen door and there I would find a wide-eyed hunky server holding my to-go breakfast gyro.
Remember, the "Buy A Friend A Drink Program" at Christopher's Table? The wildly popular, warm and fuzzy, social media marketing; revenue-driving concept that landed us on television? Well, guess who's great idea that was, it was Fridge’s. It took some convincing but over the course of many beers, he convinced me of this crazy idea that he had seen at some small bar somewhere. It was all his idea - and it worked!
Fridge was was so happy to know that he had helped me in some way. He was like that, never needing credit, never demanding the spotlight, just content to be a great chef, drink cold beer, lend a hand, and see a friend succeed. With a personality as extra large as he was, you couldn't help but love Fridge. He was the guy you always wanted in your corner, the one you'd call in the middle of the night, the guy who'd help you bury a body without question.
Several years ago, Fridge passed away, way too soon, from cancer. It has left a gaping hole in the local restaurant industry, one likely never to be filled again. He was wild and funny, he was kind and I was lucky enough to call him my friend. I woke up today, unable to stop thinking about him and while I miss him, I can't stop smiling and giggling to myself at all the fun we had together.
I’m keeping a glass chilled for you buddy.