May it please the palate

Cooking experience can come from just about anywhere

By Nick Roumel

My predecessor in this space, the Hon. John Kirkendall, was a classically trained chef at Cordon Bleu and La Varenne in Paris, among others. My experience is a little more circuitous. 

My first restaurant job was as a 17-year-old college freshman, working at “Food,” the diner on South State Street in Ann Arbor with no other name. I washed dishes, scrubbed potatoes, and bussed tables; I even waited on a table once and earned a 15 cent tip! For my duty meal, the Greek owner would let me have a feta cheese omelet or a tin roof sundae (still two of my favorites). Unfortunately,

I didn’t last long. I only worked there long enough to earn money (all paid under the table) for my girlfriend’s pending visit from Pittsburgh. That relationship, by the way, was even shorter than my dishwashing gig at “Food.”

I went upscale in later years, working at the Campus Inn (that is “Victors” with no apostrophe, as in “Hail to the —”). At that time, it was a plush, red-velour setting with candles, harp music, and tuxedoed waitstaff, cooking French service tableside. I began as a member of the highly over-educated busboy staff, where we perfected the art of “synchronized bussing” (answering the question,

“How would the June Taylor Dancers have bussed tables?). I eventually graduated to waiter, where I learned that food is served from the left - except for soup which is considered a beverage and served from the right with other beverages, unless someone is sitting in a booth in which case you just hand the stuff over, hopefully without spilling. I also learned the intricacies of French wine, and wore a silver “tastevin” on a chain around my neck, in order to steal a sip from each patron under the guise of testing for suitability.

Unfortunately, I was fired from Victors, shortly after I helpfully provided to the general manager a long list of employee grievances, presented after I tried to organize the restaurant staff. (And so began my lifelong interest in plaintiff’s employment law.)

I went from Victors to a recently closed restaurant that shall remain nameless, where the uneaten vegetables and potatoes were recycled into the common serving trays, and the unused drawn butter was re-strained into the melting pot. From there I migrated to another unnamed restaurant, long-standing and still-thriving, where the general manager (since fired) asked waitress applicants to lift their skirts so he could see their legs.

I’ve tended bar for many years, at the now-closed and long lamented Maude’s, where the late and beloved co-owner Leo Angelos was also a licensed attorney, and he sponsored my bar admission. I also served drinks at the Earle, helping to pay the bills during my early years as a Legal Services attorney.

Now cooking is another matter entirely. I once tried out to be a cook at Moveable Feast, but was bumped down to waiter after flunking my knife test. They gave me a newly sharpened chef’s knife to show my skills, and urged me to keep chopping even after I bled all over the parsley. Probably so they could point and laugh. I did own a short-lived catering business that did a wedding and a few dinner parties, where I planned the menus and cooked, mostly classic French. And finally I taught a few classes in Greek cuisine for Ann Arbor Recreation and Education.

Teaching a cooking class seems so easy on TV. It is harrowing in real life, even worse than when you’re trying a case and your key witness turns against you, your client stops payment on his retainer check, and then files a grievance. Consider the following.

First, a cooking class has a deadline, no more than 2 or 2 1/2 hours. This is a foreign concept to me. As my family knows, I usually take my sweet time when I prepare a meal. “We’ll eat when it’s ready! Shaddup and drink some more wine!”

Second, in class, you can’t prepare anything in advance, because they want you to demonstrate every step. Dice the onion. Chop the parsley. Don’t bleed. It gets very complicated.

Third, you have to talk while you’re doing it, preferably without swear words. “Now I’m dicing the onion. Notice my suave knife skills. You should only do it so well.” I try to tell stories, too,  usually involving my YiaYia’s lamb.

Fourth, you’re supposed to let the class be “hands on.” “Here, now you try buttering and layering the phyllo dough. That’s right. You’re doing great. Keep going while I go get myself a …”

Whoa! What’s that? I can’t enjoy a glass of wine while I’m cooking? What kind of cooking class is this?

Anyway, after overcoming all these challenges, there is one final hurdle. Unlike a TV audience, the cooking class expects to be fed.

And it better taste good, ‘cause they think the teacher’s an expert.

And here’s the big secret: you don’t have to be an expert to make something that people will enjoy. Cooking is like everything else – do it enough times, and you’ll start to find a rhythm. Make one item five or ten times, and yes - you will learn to do it without a recipe - and even vary it a little.

Oh, and one last tip: make sure your ingredients haven’t been recycled from someone else’s plate.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard and Walker, P.C., a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor.

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