Tom Douley's was exactly what you'd expect a bad country roadhouse to be. Dark, with the smell of stale beer wafting about, bad country music, questionable patrons and inedible food, but I loved it. I don't know what that says about me but what can I say? Each experience is a learning experience right? Right. My job was pretty simple, I washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen. It was my first real introduction to restaurant kitchen life. I'd fight with the "chef" - and I use quotes because he was an awful, awful cook, not to mention a complete asshole personality wise and I'm insulting real chefs the world over who are truly masters of their game by even referring to that guy casually as a 'chef' - but I digress.
Oh, I knew I bugged the hell out of him because we would always fight. I'd needle him about his cooking methods and ask him what he wasn't cooking well that resulted in half the food coming back on the plates. During one heated moment I even dragged the garbage bins over to him and said "You see what's taking me so long to give you clean plates? Scraping all that shit you make off of the plates!" I was pretty mouthy but c'mon, it was shit food, we both knew it and I was only 14, a 'somewhat' surly teen with a crappy home life - I needed a release!
Honestly, I'll repeat myself when voicing how I actually did love that job because it was the education more than anything else that made me appreciate what it means to work in a restaurant. I left the job after a year because the roadhouse moved to a new location, but no one ever forgets their first time. Ah Tom Douley's, forever in my food heart - well, maybe just my memory.
When we talk about our teenage years - and when I say 'we' I'm referring to us older over 40 folks, it's usually recollected with a mixture of memories that invoke smiles as much as shudders. I am of the camp who never wants to be 16 years old ever again. Once was enough. But at the time, I didn't think it was so bad - who would? You're young, dumb and, well you know the rest.
I was relatively popular, and trust me, as a gay (but so far in the closet at the time I had a bed AND a bathroom in it) black kid growing up in a small mostly white, conservative town, that's saying a LOT! So one day at school the subject of looking for after-school work came up, and a friend told me a local caterer was hiring and were looking for waitstaff. The owners were Al and Liz Lavia, a couple who had just moved to Barrie from Mississauga - a Toronto suburb, to start their own catering company, A&L Catering.
I barely even remember applying, but I got the gig and pretty much started right away. I started out as a waiter, but also helped out in the kitchen with prep work (with yet another temperamental - but thankfully likeable Chef). Plus all the duties you would usually do when working in a catering hall. Clean-up, set-up, serve, clean-up, tear-down, rinse and repeat. Great AND awful experience, incredibly long hours, it was tough, backbreaking work which I both loved and hated, but had the best time.
What started out as a simple weekend gig became a full time, fifteen year job for me while juggling school at the same time. I moved from a server to become a manager. I made a lot of friends there, and we were all very, very close. We would complain about the hours and of course the bosses (until I became one), but no one left the company. The people who started with me at 16, pretty much stayed as long as I did. We were crazily devoted. Even when I left to go to university, I would still came back to work in the summer. I recruited my friends and became an honourary member of the Lavia family.
See that's the thing about the world of food. It is not easy and you have to have a love for it. It is not for everyone, or everyone would do it. I knew this was something I could do because I loved it. I believed in it. Working from 6am until 1:30am the next day was not an issue. Ok, it was an issue, but not enough for me to ever say I quit.
There were moments when I seriously did want to call it a day. One time in particular, we were catering a wedding at this hockey arena in the middle of nowhere, and we forgot to bring the cutlery. Now this was 1989, no personal cell phones or IPhones or any of that instant connection stuff. It would have been an hour trip back to the catering hall to retrieve the missing cutlery. I can see myself so clearly reacting to that moment. It was chaos, everyone was panicking, I was in charge trying to maintain control, but so deep in the weeds. I just remember stopping and crouching in the middle of the kitchen, head down between my legs, and almost losing it. Was about 5 seconds, felt like 5 hours. But then you get it together and start to think. There was a McDonalds close by, I got one of my staff to drive over and they gave us all their cutlery which believe me was incredibly generous. I went to talk to the bride and groom who were amazing about the whole thing (plus a promised discount helped cut the tension quite a bit too). I know, plastic cutlery at a wedding, but it wasn't the Royal wedding by any stretch so trust me, the guests were happy.
Moments like that, and the ability to handle it just cemented something I already knew from the minute I started my first food gig at Tom Douley's: I was in a business that was going to be kind to me because I worked my ass off in it. The passion to be a part of this world was there - Douley's got me started, the A&L Catering years confirmed it. Plus one other thing - there is a camaraderie you have in the food world, particularly when you're working in the service industry that is second to none. It is something that binds you together. When you're working you're going nuts trying to do your work. Tempers flare, you feel like quitting, throwing in the towel, but the passion keeps you there. You make friends with the people you work with and they become a second family, particularly the ones who stay in it through the good and bad times.
It was heartbreaking having to leave that job at A&L Catering. Not only were Al and Liz as close as you could get without being actual family members, but I knew they were grooming me to take over the business. At the time I didn't want to do that because I was just too young. I really wanted to get out of Barrie and see the world. Plus, I was still not out of the closet during that time, and if I didn't leave small town life I would have exploded! So I moved to Toronto, and then to London UK. I slowly started to come out of the closet, got out of the cooking/culinary game completely and started to focus on writing and communications. For the next five years it was like a job wilderness, working various communication jobs but still secretly nursing a culinary itch that had yet to be scratched!
Coming next: The future of a food freak.