Friday, September 12, 2008

Quality Control

In 1979, I was sixteen and working at A&W as a cook in the arid Columbia Basin of Washington state. I had worked there since the day after I turned 14, and my wage went from $1.50 per hour to $2.65. Until my brother,John,worked there that summer, I was the highest paid high school employee.

I had regarded my job as mostly systematic. It was a matter of method and timing, but I hardly thought of what I did in terms of actually cooking. I prided myself mostly over the cleanliness and order of the kitchen, not the skill in preparing the food. But one day that all changed.

It was a cold winter's day, and very few customers were in the cafe. The orders were the usual chili dogs and burgers. Then I got a ticket for two grilled ham and cheese, and a word from my boss to make it good, it was for two out-of-towners from "the coast", east Washingtonian talk for people from Seattle. From his tone, the people sounded like they were rich and had to stop but there was nothing else in our little town open. Okie dokie.

So, I cleaned a spot on the grill and sprayed a little grease to make it non stick. I put on a few slices of ham and used tongs to move them around as they fried. I wanted to see the edges get crispy and curl and a little sizzle before I drained them on paper towels and put them back in a warming area of the cooktop. Meanwhile, I sliced a small red onion as thin as possible and put that on the heat. I liked to see them get soft and get slightly browned. The bread was the thick texas toast kind and I brushed one side of each with melted butter and placed them on the grill with two slices of American cheese. And this was the hard part, being patient, monitoring the heat and checking to make sure the bread and cheese were at the right stage of browning and melting. I loaded the ham and onion and then placed the uncooked bread on top also brushed with butter and flipped the sandwiches over for the final meltdown. I had fried up some fries, and they were going to be ready at the same time as the grilled cheese were. I resisted pressing down on the sandwiches, I wanted them thick as possible. I trusted that the cheese would melt into the onion and ham without my help.

At this point, Elvin, my boss came back to check on me and get a status report. I told him it would be two minutes and started on the final touches. I drained the fried under the heat lamp and dusted them lightly with seasoned salt and mounded them on paper lined plastic baskets. I took the sandwiches off the grill and sliced them diagonally and put a toothpick through the triangles. I added a few sliced pickles on the side and hit the bell. Elvin came back to take the sizzling hot food to the customers himself, he looked kind of nervous. Perhaps it took longer than expected, but I didn't care. I knew this order was perfectly cooked.

Fifteen minutes later, Elvin came back with a big smile on his face, and an expression of awe. He handed me a five dollar bill, and said it was my tip from the out-of-towners. He said that they loved the sandwiches, and had grilled ham and cheese everywhere the United States but mine was the best they ever had. Right then, a middle aged lady in a big fluffy coat and a gentleman in a dress coat passed by and waved to me as they exited out the cafe door. I was too shocked to wave back or say "thanks". Elvin slapped me on the back, and told me "Congratulations, you're now a real cook!". I should have asked for a raise right then and there.

After that, all the food I made got special attention. It was simple stuff, nothing fancy, but I did the best I could. And I kept to the original recipes, but somehow everything came out better. I trained my brother and I would like to think that he was great--he got several raises quickly--because of me. But he never got a five dollar tip.

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