Aug. 12, 2009 – Chef Encounter
So I was taking the 10:30 p.m. Chicago Metra from Union Station to Grayslake, IL and one of the last passengers to get on was a man who sat in front of me. He swung a big black satchel onto the aisle portion of his seat and gave a heavy sigh as he sat next to the window. He was on the phone immediately, and I overheard him leave a message that his back was killing him and to please call him. He spoke with an accent, and I thought maybe he was Russian. Then he made two other calls and spoke in another language. Five minutes passed and no one called him back. Probably a mechanic, I thought. Maybe someone who works in a factory. He groaned and sighed several times and kept checking his phone.
I was sitting behind him with an unopened bottle of Motrin. (Thought I’d maybe need some, so Jen and I stopped by D & H Drugs on the way to the bus station in Columbia, MO where I was to board the Mega Bus.) My first instinct was to offer him some Motrin…but I was hesitant. He made a second round of calls…wanting someone to be at his destination to pick him up and again stating his back was killing him. Again, no one called him back.
I finally offered him some Motrin and he was completely taken by surprise. “What kind of an angel from Heaven are you?” he asked. We introduced ourselves, I helped him open the bottle, and I insisted that he take three. Can’t remember his name, but I learned that he was a chef at an Italian restaurant in downtown Chicago. Born in Venezuela; raised in southern Italy; formally trained as a chef—not a job he picked up once in the U.S., he stressed. Forty-seven years old.
Then I heard all about how his boss was trying to cheat him, but that he was asked to be the chef for a new restaurant opening next door. I think he said it was “Sprouts.” They’ll focus on using fresh, organic ingredients. He’ll also get a nice pay raise.
He claimed Hispanics were ruining the jobs for everyone else because a restaurant owner could pay an Hispanic chef (and not a real one, at that) $30,000/year instead of $65,000 for someone like him. But he preferred to have Hispanics in his kitchen doing the dishes. He said Whites and Blacks are too lazy, while Hispanics are humble, glad to have a job.
Wish I had had my video camera with me, and filmed him. He was so expressive when he spoke – huge hand and arm gestures, thick, bushy eyebrows leaping up and down, eyes shifting left and right…shoulders that moved with the eyebrows.
Too many mean people in Chicago, he claimed. Everybody was out to cheat everybody else. Nice people (“like you”) are rare. Told me about how drinks are always watered down after the first round….claimed that the personal habits of untrained chefs created health hazards…(“disgusting Mexicans”), knew of instances when pork was pounded and served as veal.
I told him I have a friend who would love to go to Tuscany. He dismissed Tuscany with a huge wave of his right arm. Big mistake. Everybody’s waiting there to over charge tourists. Best to go visit Naples and the surrounding areas. Nicer people; better food; more to do. I asked which was less expensive to visit and he said Naples. I also learned that Italians don’t go out to eat Italian food. They make the best at home…so when they typically go out, it’s for something special, like seafood—something the women of the house don’t fix or don’t want to fix.
I told him about my dad’s father who came from southern Italy, and how one time he made homemade ravioli at our home in Skokie. He mentioned how the pasta machines make that easier these days and I told him the ravioli was handmade – no pasta machines. “You mean, he rolled the dough out like this [huge arm motion gestures] and rolled it this thin [small index/thumb gesture] ??!!” “Yep.” He was impressed. Then we compared our ravioli recipe fillings—which I use mostly for lasagna or stuffed pasta shells. Was happy to know I was right on target with the chef.
He informed me that his satchel contained a huge lump of pizza dough because he’s making pizza for a friend’s party the next day. An easy hundred or so—cash. But it’s oh….so heavy to lug around.
We were both getting off at Greyslake. His wife was in N.Y. and he had been trying to reach his son to tell him he needed a ride. Then he asked if my mom and I would give him a ride if he needed it. I said sure. Of course, in the back of my mind I was trying to calculate how I would explain this person to my mom. He called home again and got through. His son promised to pick him up, so it turned out we didn’t need to give him a ride home.
It was after 11:30 p.m. when we arrived at Grayslake. One of the train’s personnel was standing at the bottom of the steps as I was trying to lug my suitcase off the train, and it’s a good thing. The first two steps were fine. The last step onto the pavement was a deeper step and I went flying into the arms of the train person. He was there to catch me. The chef was right behind me and started shouting, “Oh…Oh….Are you alright???!!!”
I got my bearings, assured him I was fine, and looked up to see my mom approaching.
She was there to witness me getting a grateful hung from the chef and and brief kiss on the right cheek. As we went our separate ways, I smiled and called out “Ciao!”
My mom greeted me with a big smile and a hug. Then she couldn’t resist commenting me about picking up a strange man on the train. “I saw him kiss you!” she joked.
“Just a stranger with back pain….so I offered him some Motrin.”
“Well, that was nice,” she said.
So maybe there are better deals to be had in Naples, Italy. Something to google.