You Can’t Make Chicken Salad From Chicken Shit

This blog is supposed to be about food, or at least my relationships with food and people who like food, or don’t like food. Right now it’s about people who I don’t like and people who don’t like my food. That’s pretty much where my head is right now and I’m fed up with the bastards.

Now I don’t pretend to be perfect (that’s a lie too), but some people are just damned hard to please.

Some days the best way I can describe the relationship I have with my career is summed up by an old live Frank Zappa recording. In an impromptu backstage snippet drummer Terry Bozzio exclaims, “I can’t take it anymore…my hands ache…I feel like I’ve been pounding nails, I feel like I’ve been hitting my goddamned hands with a hammer”

I manage a small catering company. It’s a new job for me. I very much like what we do conceptually, and I believe in our mission. We help people, we employ people, we feed people, and we teach people to feed themselves and others.

We’ve have an account with a coffee counter in the lobby a busy uptown building. Three days a week we fill their display case with sandwiches and salads. One of my first days on the job I had the opportunity to make the delivery of lunch items to the espresso “kiosk” and meet its manager. The owner is a hands-off type and only exists by telephone.

Ms. Manager, who I will call Suzie Creamcheese, is a frumpy little woman in her late forties, seemingly of Native American descent. She is quick to let anyone know who’ll listen that she’s been in the food business for 35 years, though nowadays she whiles her days away on a tiny stool, telling war stories to her underaged coworker and stepping out for a smoke whenever she can. Her assistant is a culinary student at the revered Johnson & Wales University, which pretty much makes him about the most knowledgable culinarian in town.

I have nothing against JWU. I certainly have nothing against formal culinary education—I have one myself. But since arguably the nation’s largest culinary educator opened a flagship campus in Charlotte, our fair city is overrun with overeducated, under experienced, smart-assed, knife wielding, snot-nosed kids that will do good enough work for half the price of some of the seasoned and talented chefs in town that need jobs. Our culinary scene has gotten much larger, but not much better. And now I’ve got this kid, who I shall refer to simply as Paul, to brighten my day with his perfunctory wisdom thrice weekly!

So I ask these folks how things have been going for them. I want to get a feel for what our clients think of our services. Suzie, who seems nice enough at first meeting, says that we have been experiencing a great deal of inconsistency. I assured her that we’d get a handle on it. Not to worry. To myself I’m thinking that this woman is going to be blown away by what we’re going to turn these utilitarian products in to.

The next day I brought in a digital camera and a notepad to methodically document each and every item as a gastronomical delight that could easily be reproduced. I made pictures, wrote specifications, and mounted them all in a nice, neat booklet for our staff and students to use. The next day I returned to the shop with a big box of refined goodies looking forward to the ooh’s and ah’s.

What I got was pronounced skepticism and more complaints of inconsistency. Rather than show pleasure at the improvements, Suzie assured me that these items would never look like this again, and that they were very different than what they were used to. Paul just looked on with a silent expression confused between “finally” and “you guys suck”.

The next delivery a couple days later saw complaints that the salads were not what Suzie thought they should look like. She didn’t like the non-traditional arrangements. Lettuce was cut too small. Sandwiches had tomatoes when they never had before.

Our next delivery I got complaints that the lettuce we used on salads was brown. We use a mixture of fresh cut Romaine and Green Leaf lettuces with a base of pre-chopped Iceberg. The precut stuff is usually pretty good, but if it is a bit old it can look great in the bag but turn reddish brown on the edges within a few hours of oxygen hitting it. Oops.

The next delivery brought dismay over wet lettuce. It seems that the romaine we used in the Caesar salads was not properly dried prior to packaging. We have this tiny little POS (piece of shit) salad spinner that would maybe be good for temporary storage of your sister’s hamster, but not worth spit for drying cut and washed lettuce. We’ll do better next time.

The next time I barely got in the door when Suzie handed me the remaining halves of two chicken salad sandwiches that supposedly had been returned by two different customers on the same day. I suspect that Suzie and Paul had attempted to eat them for lunch and thought we could do better. Our signature chicken salad, it turns out, has been a concoction derived from Robot Coupe chopped chicken breast, mayonnaise, dried tarragon, and toasted pecans. Yum! A generous portion of this delightful poultry paste is then heaped up between two pieces of whole wheat bread with a half-a-piece of lettuce adorning one side. I had added two slices of tomatoes which pissed her right off.

We happened to have a couple different kinds of whole wheat bread lying around and I apparently chose poorly—she complained about the bread. She complained about the chicken salad. Said it was mushy and flavorless. My response was, “I know it is. That’s why I changed it to a nice hand-chopped chicken salad with fresh vegetables and herbs, but you didn’t like that one either so we went back to the original recipe [you stupid whore].” I didn’t say the “stupid whore” part. I took the chicken salad sammies off of the bill for that day.

The next delivery—oh my God—as soon as I got in the door I heard, “Paul found a hair in his Caesar salad.” To which I responded while stifling a belly laugh, “I’m sure he did”. “I don’t know what could have happened. We all wear hats in the kitchen. I don’t know what else we can do.”
“Would you like to see the hair?” she asked.

“Nope, that won’t be necessary. I’ve seen hair before.” I wished them both a good afternoon and started for the door.

Just outside it occurred to me to go back and view the offending strand. Paul had placed it ever so carefully into a two ounce plastic soufflé cup and put a lid on it to await my inspection. No telling how long he’d waited for this moment.

I pulled out the hair, a strand about two inches long and decidedly reddish-brown in hue. “Paul, what color would you say this hair is? I think it’s light brown. Would you agree?”

“Yes, I would say that it is brown,” remarked the impetuous little shit.

“Well, this presents a problem,” I added. “Our staff is black. They don’t have straight brown hair.”

“So, are you saying that this is my hair?” asked Paul, his face swollen and red as if he was about to attack.

“No Paul, I don’t know whose hair it is. I just know that it didn’t come from us. Ya’ll have a nice afternoon now.”

Thank God we won this one!

Two more deliveries in a row were perfect. Not a word said.

This whole thing reminded me of a summer I spent as the Executive Chef of a private golf club in the North Carolina Mountains. About half or better of our membership were retired Jews from Florida that came up for 3 months out of the year to beat the South Florida heat, play golf everyday for less than half-price, and taunt the townspeople with their stereotypical “chosen people” rig amoral. Their behavior was really more akin to inciting riots.

Among other relentless issues with these people I fielded questions and complaints about our menus daily. I could write an entire blog about these people, and may one day. I was particularly perplexed about frequent complaints that I got about our scallop dishes.

We got beautiful silver-dollar sized dry-pack scallops, and we changed the preparation almost daily. When you have a captive audience you have to change things up frequently. Now we’re hundreds of miles west and thousands of feet above the nearest scallop bearing seas, and the product we brought in was exemplary—the point being they weren’t cheap. However, I was committed to a 40% food cost across the board, so our mark-up was fair and consistent.
Every night someone complained that the scallops were underdone, overdone, too cheap, too expensive, don’t like the sauce, the sauce is great but not enough of it, ad infinitum. For awhile we couldn’t even give them away so I prepared to run out and drop them from the menu. That’s the day they started selling and we ran out. Complaints galore. Then it occurred to me that Jews aren’t even supposed to eat scallops. Oye Vay.

After a run-in with a particularly difficult club member, the whole scallop fiasco prompted me to scribe the following addition to our weekly newsletter. It was never actually published, but it did make its way around the company email with magnificent reception. It became a club mantra for the rest of that summer.

From the Chef,

Hi Folks. Just a quick word about scallops. Here’s what we’ve heard from you about scallops here at the club.
“Why are you out of scallops?”
“I came here just for the scallops and you’re out of them. Now what am I supposed to do?”
“The scallops are underdone!”
“Why do the scallops cost so much?”
“The scallops are overcooked.”
“I had scallops last night at Stonewall’s and they were outstanding. You don’t know how to cook scallops.”
Apparently Stonewall’s does a fair job with scallops. Go get your goddamned scallops at Stonewall’s.

So, this past week the owner of the uptown kiosk called to tell us that she has sold her business and that the new owners make their own sandwiches and salads. So guess what!