Chef Joe Scully tells a captivating personal story about the ritual of food, the experiential learning that comes only from regular family meals, and the importance of deliberation to excess in this Bitter Southerner personal essay.
From the article:
My first gig in a restaurant was to protect it. Standing by the door of the Houlihan’s Old Place in Hackensack, New Jersey, my whole job was to prevent people from slipping out with the restaurant’s etched glassware in their hands. I was a skinny, 19-year-old college kid, not one to be offering any real protection for anyone.
That was where my love of food and cooking began, leading me during the next 40 years all over the country, in and out of kitchens and eventually settling down in Asheville, North Carolina, as the co-owner of a pair of local restaurants.
It was nice glassware, okay?
To back up a bit, I was, like many people, an “accidental” restaurant worker — I didn’t grow up thinking I needed to be in that world at all, much less for a career, but when the owner of the Taylor Rental Center I was helping to manage, which rented everything from machinery to party goods, walked in and said, “We’re closing tomorrow,” I needed a job. I was full-time at school in New Jersey, a communications major learning about radio and TV, and suddenly I had no way to pay for it.
Fortunately, my brother Vinny had been in the restaurant business for 10 years at that point, and could get me an interview with the boss at Houlihan’s. I remember telling him, “I don’t care what I would have to do, I just need the job,” which is how I ended up on guard duty, watchful for various stemware walking out the door.
The moment I stepped foot into the place, I knew it was where I wanted to be. There was an electricity in the air as servers zipped back and forth across the floor and hosts directed guests and employees like conductors in an orchestra. When the kitchen door swung open, I could hear pans sizzling and chefs shouting and laughing. The place was hopping busy, and that’s saying something, since it was a 200-plus-seat restaurant. Houlihan’s Old Place was one of the original American bistro-style joints, and people couldn’t get enough. This was 1977. Disco was hitting the clubs in New York really hard. Everybody wore Jordache jeans and nylon shirts, and a party atmosphere permeated the whole country. A big part of that carried over to the restaurant business. It was a thrill to be part of something that was this big — it was 1977 and these restaurants would take in $10,000 in a day, which today would be like having a $30,000 day.
I wanted to be a part of this world, so I played along as security guard for glassware for all of … three nights. I realized it was a silly job, standing there in my preppy attire — sports jacket and tie with a pair of khaki slacks — so I went to the manager and said, “Look, man. I can do the glassware thing while I do something a little more productive at the same time.”
They hired me as a host. I had the clothes, the acting experience (thanks, college!), and they valued my boldness, so they let me on and I fit right in with the crew.
Eventually, they asked if I was interested in management training, and so I dove headfirst into the restaurant business. So long, college!
And this is where I first learned to cook.