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Foreign Desk
Death Valley Kitchen
by Ric Reichert

For a year I was the Executive Chef at Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, which is located in the middle of Death Valley National Park. The Park is three million acres of spectacular desert scenery... populated by coyotes, rattlesnakes, scorpions and these teensy little brown spiders--called Brown Recluse--that can, with a single bite, cause instantaneous death. The Valley is rich with history. It was originally famous for the mining of Borax, which eventually went on to sponsor a TV show whose announcer became the 40th President of the United States who exchanged weapons for hostages, defeated Communism and made America safer for Democracy, and--thanks to Borax--cleaner.

The drive onto the Valley floor is absolutely breath-taking--you descend from 3,000 feet to 240 feet below sea level in about twenty minutes. Jagged and eerie mountains that were created million of years ago by volcanic explosions and violent earthquakes surround you like wicked, abstract sculptures. You turn a corner and see smooth red and green rock formations and think you are on Mars. You turn another corner and see what looks like a giant elephant's foot, complete with white toenails. Carved into the side of another mountain ridge is what appears to be a rundown tenement complex. Another corner and you see two huge silicone peaks (they are a bit too perfectly round and shaped to be real). You turn another corner and suddenly see a Hotel, encircled by tall palm trees, in the middle of nowhere and you think--"Damn, I bet those rooms are expensive."

The Resort sits on the California/Nevada border, a two-hour drive from Las Vegas and a five-hour drive from Los Angeles. The closest town used for shopping, doctors and entertainment is sixty miles away, in Pharump, Nevada. The Park is open year round. During the winter and spring months the resort's primary visitors are American tourists, but during the scorching summer months the population is overwhelmingly European.

The Resort consists of the sixty-six rooms at a four-diamond, historic Inn and two hundred and forty rooms down at the Ranch. There are two large, spring water-fed swimming pools, tennis courts, horseback riding, and the world's lowest golf course. The dining facilities include a fine dining restaurant at the Inn, and at the Ranch there is a coffee shop, a steak house, a breakfast and lunch buffet, and an employee dining room. There are also satellite stations, one at the golf course and somewhere there is an ice cream parlor, although I have never actually seen it. Additionally, at the Date Grove, we prepared authentic cookouts under the big desert sky. It's something of a frontier Southwest Wrangler experience--complete with horses, a chuck wagon, dirt and stars--all staged beside a lush green 18-hole golf course. You can almost hear those early 49ers...
     "Damn, Gabby," complains a cowboy, "we had these vittles yesterday."
     "Well, gaul-nab-it!" Gabby spits out a drenched wad of tobacco from the corner of his whiskered mouth. "If you a-holes would quit playing golf all day and wrestle me up some beef we wouldn't have to eat tofu stew every night!"

The Resort is owned and operated by a national hotel management company. I worked at one of their Ohio Resorts for two years when I was approached about the job in Furnace Creek, as their kitchens in Death Valley had undergone some turbulence... 9 chefs in the previous three years. Then, factoring in the remote location of the property and an average summer temperature of 124 degrees, man, I knew it was going to be one hellava of a voyage. I was going to work in the hottest kitchen on the entire planet! Okay, so the Sahara Desert is hotter, but no one was silly enough to open a four-diamond hotel in the middle of the Sahara.

Oh, and that part where they tell you, "but it's dry heat, not like back East with all of that humidity," Well, that's a slick piece of Madison Avenue propaganda. So what's your preference? "Your head stuck in a convection oven or in a convection steamer?"

My wife says the Desert is sexy, the warm and dry evening-breezes caressing her skin, an horizon of jutting, majestic mountains, the odd splashes of vivid colors, and the positively amazing canvas of brilliant sky and stars. As for the sexiness, the desert is too bloody hot and dusty. My lips blister and I have incessant bad-hair days. The mountains are just too damn big and steep to drive over in cruise control, and how many friggin' different variations of brown do we really need in life--and yeah, all right... so the stars are kinda cool.

The Staff
(Note: As a defense to any potential lawsuits (or a rounding sock to my nose), I have named all of the people in this story either Bob or Beatrice... because I only knew one Bob and one Beatrice in Death Valley, and neither of them is in this narrative. Any other similarities are purely coincidental and unintentional.)

During my tenure as Executive Chef, I only had three cooks who sought kitchen-work as their career. (I was one.) The remaining forty-three employees simply needed a job. Improving their skills or learning new techniques was considered too stressful, and so if the work became too difficult for them they would simply seek a transfer to another department: housekeeping, the gas station or retail, anything they believed would be easier.

My kitchen staff was comprised of typically down-and-outers; cooks with minimal skills but possessing egos that would rival most certified Master Chefs. The majority of my staff had fled the jungles of urban cities--okay, so many of them had additional prodding by a local Sheriff. By and large they were people frightened of living in any sort of a structured society, of having to respect authority, of having to accept the responsibilities of a job, or having to endure the daily arduous grind of personal grooming. They believed in the absolute eventuality of hitting the 'Big Score' at a Las Vegas slot machine; their next paycheck would be the one to win them instant retirement.

They resembled characters straight out of Franz Kafka novel, social misfits with an over-inflated sense of value and importance. And their metamorphosis from homeless transients to paid line cooks occurred during the two-hour van ride from a Vegas shelter out to Furnace Creek. These miraculous evolutions had more to do with desperation--from both sides--rather than from any kind of mysticism.
     Bob Thompson, the person in charge of coordinating the employee housing, often made "a recruiting run" into Vegas. He would pick up four to six people from the Scared Five Hearts Shelter, and during the drive to Death Valley he would conduct the interviews. "Okay, we're looking for three kitchen people and two for housekeeping. Any of you guys have cooking experience?"
     One of them asked, "In housekeeping do you have to clean toilets?"
     "Yeah-. You also make beds and vacuum. You know, clean."
     The fellow made a face. "I ain't cleaning toilets. I worked in the kitchen the year I was in L.A. County jail."
     "Cooking?" asked Bob.
     "Mostly cleaned dishes. Peeled potatoes, carrots, stuff like that."
     "All right, you'll start out as a kitchen utility. The pay's $6.20 an hour. And if you're any good they'll move you up. Anybody else?"
     Another individual, with bushy, wild hair and mustache, piped up: "I worked as a cook at a truck-stop for about six months a couple of years ago. I cooked steaks, chicken, liver and onions, and they had sandwiches, too."
     A third passenger, who had been napping for the first thirty minutes, asked: "When's pay day?"
     And so, by the time Bob and the van pulled onto property, I had two line cooks, a dishwasher and a pantry/prep cook.

Another segment of my crew consisted of seasonal vagabonds, people who would work two to three months and then move on to another National Park. Some had cars, most didn't. They carried their belongings around in duffel bags and remained unattached--both from people and any sort of a professional life. Their motivation, listening to them express it, was a romantic adventure: it was to travel the country unencumbered by any restricting obligations. I suspect the true reason for their hobo existence was to avoid life and all of the little, nagging responsibilities that come packaged in the undertaking.

And then finally: The Resort, operating under the assumption that it was impossible to recruit quality and skilled people from large cities to work and live in a desert, also focused their attention and resources on dusty, little mid-sized communities with high unemployment.
     Imagine if you will, a person living in Bakersfield [a dusty, economically poor community in Central California], down on his luck, scratching out a living as a breakfast cook at some "roach" motel coffee shop. He awakens one Sunday morning on a park bench, snuggled beneath a crumbled copy of the Bakersfield Gazette. By pure chance, as he is scraping the roof of his mouth with a dirty fingernail, he reads the Help Wanted Ads and finds our advertisement.
     Now... if that person had been Georges Auguste Escoffier, we would have struck a jackpot--a royal flush on a dollar machine!
     Well, that never happened.

And so it was at our first meeting, the kitchen staff was suspicious of me--yet another chef--and they scared the bejesus out of me. After all, I was living in the middle of a vast, isolated desert! I could have easily wound up as a pile of bleached bones, discovered by some rich, snotty European kid, while on a hike, mistakes my skull as belonging to one of the original 49ers. He hightails it down to the General Store for verification and I get a frigging Furnace Creek Resort price tag slapped on my bony forehead. Price: $294.

"I'm Okay, You're Prejudiced"
Bad employees only diminish and frustrate the efforts of good employees, and California is a state that continuously brings "employee rights" to new dazzling and complex heights.

In the old days (and still true in some states), if management wanted an employee gone--that person simply disappeared. Of course in Vegas there is the added burden of disposal: someone has to dig the hole. If an employee proved to be lazy, a troublemaker, a thief, or just a shoddy worker--they were quickly replaced. Back then, the effort of being a good employee was actually the obligation of the employee. Now, there are mitigating circumstances.

I think the pendulum has swung too far. The sole responsibility of success has now shifted to management. People are no longer incompetent workers. A state judicial board might claim that they were poorly trained. Now I can warn you that a knife will cut your finger if you are not careful, but today an employer can be sued for not offering adequate training classes or providing safety gloves.
A lawyer cross-examining a kitchen manager in a disability claim: "Do you have regular training seminars regarding the safe operation of kitchen equipment?'
     "Yeah, sure we do."
     "And they are?"
     The kitchen manager sits up straight in the chair. "I tell 'em the story about old Lefty."
     "Old Lefty-?"
     "Yeah. He was using one of those automatic slicers, back when they first come out. He was slicing a chunk of ham and needed to balance the ham because it wasn't cutting straight. That damn machine took three slices off the palm of his hand before we got to him. So I tell people to be careful. Same thing could happen to them."

In the past few years, an employee's common sense has been replaced with colorful, cartoon posters warning them about the dangers of harsh chemicals, hazardous equipment, and the most menacing risk of them all--employee rights violations. They get a junior lawyer's synopsis of the law. Hey, here's a possibility: maybe you're not a crappy employee, maybe management is discriminating against you and thus, violating your civil rights. That's the ticket. "You're okay, they're prejudice." A perfect defense!

A true story:
     Beatrice, an older, female employee was having difficulty adjusting to the operational changes I was initiating. She had been working in the kitchen nearly three years without any significant supervision; she had created her own daily routines and operational systems.
     "You're always on my ass," she countered one afternoon after I had corrected her on some food-safety issue. She was cleaning chicken over the sink she was using to wash lettuce.
     "Beatrice, that's not true," I said, fully aware of where she was going. "I get on everybody's-" (needed to be politically correct, here) "case about poor job performance."
     "Yeah, but you don't like me because I'm a woman. You're nastier to me"
     "Beatrice, I have several women on my staff and we get along just fine."
     She was not giving up. "You have trouble with older women."
     "What about the other Beatrice? She's ten, fifteen years older than you."
     Beatrice was determined. There was a discrimination case here and she just knew it. She let the accusation fly: "You hate old women without teeth!"
     She had me there. She was completely toothless, and I did have trouble taking her seriously, not because she was toothless, but because she believed her false teeth were a transmitter to alien space ships and so she refused to wear them.

Cooks and Servers: Polar Opposites
Working sixteen years in professional kitchens has taught me several truths: never hold onto a hot pot with a wet towel--or at least don't plan on carrying it for very long; a burn can hurt worse than a cut; never use the restroom immediately after cutting a pile of chile peppers; and restaurant people are remarkably strange.

In any kitchen, the combative relationship between cooks and wait staff is as traditional and entrenched as the partisan rhetoric between Democrats and Republicans. Such was the case at Death Valley. Both parties need each other, but the only thing they see eye-to-eye on is that the people on either side of the pass-through window--a kind of demilitarization zone--suck and are almost, always invariably at fault.

The dynamics of our working relationship is a delicate balance of grudging respect and disdain. Chefs and cooks are seen as temperamental, sarcastic and nasty bullies. Servers are regarded as annoying, self-interested order takers, and things only get worse from here. This inherent conflict arises because each side approaches the final objective, preparing and serving a plate of food, with vastly dissimilar motivations. Servers work for tips, and cooks work in the back-of-the-house because they enjoy... well--cooking. Okay, and also, maybe, because most cooks don't posses the temperament and sophistication needed to interact with the public.

The kitchen spends the afternoon preparing soups, stocks, desserts, and the other mise en place needed for that evening's service--while always having to be mindful of the time-pressure. The wait staff arrives to work forty minutes before the restaurant opens, where they proceed to get caught up on their gossip, maybe inquire about the soups and specials, determine their station and busser, and then decide whether to spend the $2 for an employee meal.

Put two or more cooks together and they'll exchange battle stories about their severest burns and knife scars. Two servers together will bitch about which tables were lousy tippers. Can this struggle between the kitchen and the front-of-the-house be modified? Ahhhh--No. But why would you want to? The relationship has proven to be successful.
     Here's a scenario:
     Bob Jones is very unhappy with his meal. He thinks the steak is undercooked and the mashed potatoes are cold. Now that he has complained, his wife (Beatrice) is also unhappy with her entrée. Bob carries both plates back into the kitchen, which is extremely active with other customers ordering and picking up their meals. He sets the plates up in the pass-through window and announces: "These meals are unacceptable."
     The grill cook turns to the customer and says, "Excuse me, Bob. You got a problem?"
     "Yes. My wife and I are unhappy with these meals. My steak is undercooked."
     "And how did you order your steak, Bob?"
     "Medium Rare."
     The cook pokes the steak with his finger and declares, "It is medium rare."
     "No, it's not. It's rare, not medium rare."
     "Bob, you're pissing me off. I'm busy. It's not my fault you can't tell the difference between rare and medium rare."
     Bob asserts himself: "I want the steak cooked more."
     "Fine, Bob!" The cook grabs the steak off the plate and throws it on the char-grill.
     "And," Bob continues timidly, " you'll need to replace the potatoes. They're cold."
     "Of course they're cold," screams the busy grill cook. "They've been up in the window dying for fifteen minutes! You should have picked up your dinners sooner."
     The sauté cook finally looks over and asks, "And what's wrong with your wife's meal?"
     Bob is a little embarrassed. "I'm not sure. She just said she didn't like it."
     "Damn it, Bob! Don't you think you better go and ask her?"
     There are several customers standing behind Bob, impatiently waiting their turn. One of them pipes up: "Yeah, Bob, can't you get your order straight?"
     Bob leaves the kitchen in a huff.
     Then that same loudmouth notices his own family's order being plated up in the window. "Hey, man. I had ordered the oysters without the creamed spinach."
     "That's stupid," points out the sauté cook sarcastically. "How can you have Oysters Rockefeller without spinach?"
     "My cousin hates spinach," the customer affirms.
     "Then your idiot cousin should not have ordered the Oysters Rockefeller."
     "But he loves oysters."
     Bob returns to the kitchen a few minutes later and the sauté cook catches sight of him from the corner of his eye. "Yes, Bob?"
     "My wife says her meal tasted funny."
     "What does that mean, Bob?"
     "I don't know."
     The sauté cook is becoming exhausted with Bob. "What does she want us to do?"
     "I'm not sure."

And so it is, one of the many jobs of a server is to act as an interpreter between the finicky paying guest and the obnoxious cook. It's a tightrope circus act, but if performed successfully, it pays well.

The Smiths
Bob and Beatrice Smith came to the Valley three years ago. Prior to becoming the General Manager of the Resort, Bob had been in charge of an exclusive country club in Carmel, California. He was a likable enough fellow, low key, although he was much more interested in his golf handicap and the property's bottom line than he was in the day-to-day struggle that went into generating a bottom line. The corporation was very happy with Bob. Furnace Creek Resort had made the highest profit-percentage of all of their units during the past two years.

Beatrice (his wife) had the luck in life to afford luxury, but she did not possess the sensitivity to appreciate it...or the respect to be thankful.

The Inn and Ranch Hotel Rooms Division was originally under the jurisdiction of a single Rooms Director, but Beatrice needed something to do. There weren't enough shopping, antique-ing or late-afternoon luncheons in Death Valley. A new position was created and Beatrice became the General Manager of the Inn, reporting to the Rooms Director, whose office was moved from the prestigious, four-diamond Inn to a cubicle in the back corner of the Ranch registration building. (In the corporate-world, office space is a symbol of your importance and power.)

Although Beatrice was technically only a mid-level manager, and had no real authority over any of the other departments, it was still politically wise to seek and achieve her approval. Her criterion was simple: Would you submit to being her toady? (Bootlicking was optional, but saying no was never tolerated.) She would manipulate professional disagreements into personal assaults, both those she imagined were being directed at her and those opportunities when she would lash out at others. Our relationship deteriorated quickly, almost from the beginning. Beatrice approached me one Friday afternoon, early on in my year. I was ass-deep in work, chaos and aggravation. "You know," she began, interrupting my concentration, "I'm having a small dinner party for all of the resort Directors tomorrow evening."
     I continued cutting the soup vegetables.
     "I think it would be absolutely marvelous if you were there. You could cook the dinner at my house. It would be a great way to introduce yourself-and your talent-to the other Managers." Apparently it had been a common practice for the other Executive Chefs (all nine in the last three years) to cook at Beatrice's house.
     "Tomorrow is Saturday," I reminded her. (Shit! I had nicked myself!) I dabbed the cut against a towel and continued chopping. "We're full house and I have a banquet for 80 people here. I'll have to send Bob."
     She contorted her face into a disagreeable frown. "He's such a slob," she snorted.
     "Maybe, but he's all I've got."
     "That's not acceptable."
     "Sorry. I'm extremely busy and short staffed."
     Beatrice spun around on her heels, and without another word said, she left the kitchen.
     I wrapped my nicked finger with several layers of masking tape, a latex glove, and finished making the soup.

The Smiths had successfully condensed the three million acres of barren terrain into their own little, "Private Idaho." They ran and managed the corporate-owned property like their personal plantation in the wilderness, complete with domesticated house attendants--okay, so they only had one but he was black.
     "Bob?" began Beatrice in a soft voice. (Bob was the Smith's black houseboy.)
     "Yes, ma'am?"
     "You know, there are some people who say-." She held up a cigarette and Bob dutifully hurried over and offered a light. He noticed her empty glass.
     "Another martini?" he asked.
     "Yes, thank you. Two olives this time." As Bob was preparing her martini, Beatrice completed her thought: "Some people are saying that you're nothing but my houseboy and that I show you favoritism."
     Bob brought Beatrice her drink. "Ah, the chef's an asshole." (He guessed it was me.) "He doesn't know shit."
     Beatrice took an appreciative sip of her martini. "You're probably right." She took another drink. "Oh, Bob, when you do the shopping tomorrow, will you have the oil changed in the Lexus?"
     "Yes, ma'am."

To Beatrice Smith, the rest of us were mostly ordinary field hands.

The Smiths held court almost nightly at the Corkscrew Bar, located at the Ranch complex. It was a kind of a dipsomaniac roundtable, which always included an assortment of merry jesters-employees who would hang around the bar waiting for the members of the roundtable to begin buying them drinks. Rallied by his usual drinking mates, the Directors of Rooms, Engineering and Sales, Bob would belt down Budweisers and Beatrice would drink red wine... on some evenings up to three bottles. As the roundtable became steadily more and more intoxicated, they would begin discussing business... and gossip about employees.
     Bob Smith slammed down the last of his beer and thumped the empty bottle against the tabletop, his signal for another Budweiser. It was quickly replaced.
     "Hey, Bob. Take a look," pointed out a smiling Director of Engineering. "Beatrice is dirty dancing with Catman."
     Catman was a five-year employee, in his forties, something of a desert old-timer. If he had been filthy rich, he might have been regarded simply as an eccentric character, another piece in the mosaic of Death Valley folklore; but he wasn't. He was a dishwasher, who rarely bathed, and had twelve cats living with him in his small, broken down trailer. The rumor on Catman was that he was college educated and fluently spoke three languages. (Some believed he was a genius.) Well, that had to be long before alcohol and drug use destroyed all his brain's registry paths and emaciated his body. Now, he was only a filthy, little liquid-drunk who raged against the world in cryptic babble... but he remained a favorite among the roundtable.
     And there he was, gyrating on the dance floor with Beatrice. Bumping and grinding his skinny hips to the beat of the rock song blaring from the jukebox. Beatrice was having a great time. She enjoyed the attention. She was laughing and dancing, occasionally thrusting her pelvis out towards her partner in some sort of sex simulation, all within the cadence of the music. Catman raised both of his hands, curling his fingertips, mimicking a cat about ready to scratch its prey. He screeched a high-pitched, drawn out meowing noise. Beatrice laughed; Catman's rendition of a hissing feline always amused her, no matter how many times she heard it. (The parody had become something of his trademark.)
     Bob Smith watched his wife a moment and then commented: "It's good to see her having fun. The stress of living out here and the job causes her to be--well, a little cranky with the staff sometimes."
     The Rooms Director quickly agreed. He was clever enough not to reveal what-exactly-he agreed with, that living in Death Valley was a severe undertaking or that Beatrice was a bitch.

There were two prevailing theories explaining Beatrice's "Dr. Jekel/Mr. Hyde" personality duality. One was that the wretched "Day-Beatrice" was the real Beatrice and the happy and friendly "Night-Beatrice" was alcohol concocted. The other theory was that the "Day-Beatrice" was always thoroughly pained by an outrageous hangover.

The Housing
Bob Smith had established and perpetuated a class system, and our entitled privileges and comfort of housing were decided on by our importance to the operation. The Smiths lived in the big, White House on the golf course, which sat secluded by a row of palm trees and overlooked the 16th hole. Their lawns, which were maintained daily by the golf maintenance employees, were always green and manicured, even during the long, scorching months of summer. Tall and mature trees provided them with generous shade. The remaining employee housing sat on--and was surrounded by--desert dirt, which was very finely grained and so felt much more like dust. There were a few trees but watering was left to the mercy of Mother Nature, so many of the trees were stunted, oddly shaped and barren.

The department Directors, or "department overlords," was the next grade of favored hierarchy. Similar to the Smiths, their two-bedroom housing--including a washer and dryer--and utilities were provided for by the Company. The size of the house dictated the number of air conditioners you were granted, anywhere from two to three. (Okay, the Smiths had four air conditioners.) The next link on the food chain was the mid-level, or working manager. We, too, were provided free housing and utilities. We were also given a washer, dryer and air conditioning. All salaried employees were issued white cards that allowed each of us, with one guest, to dine free at any of the Resort's restaurants, food only. The Directors had gold cards, which included unlimited guests and alcoholic beverages. In short, the Company funded the nightly gathering of the Corkscrew roundtable.

Now, the hourly-paid employees were billeted in small, one-room wooden "cabins." (Two rooms and you were assigned a roommate.) They may have been rustic cabins twenty years ago, but constant exposure to an unrelenting sun, grueling temperatures of 110-plus degrees and corporate-neglect had turned them into dingy hotboxes, strung together like some dusty shantytown. There was even a small section named, Mexico Town, because of an insolvable cockroach problem that existed in that little subdivision. It was felt that no one would tolerate living under those conditions if they had options of where they could work and reside, and so the Mexicans were housed there. (I hope it had nothing to do with their music. Now that would have been discriminatory.) The employees were charged eighty dollars a month rent, which included access to a community shower and laundry facility and a tiny swamp cooler. "Lead" hourly employees were granted single-status, free rent, a kitchenette and a shower.

The Kitchens
The principal problem with the kitchens: they were old. Constructed in the Fifties, they were not designed to handle the current volume of business. The Company spent millions over the years to refurbish and upgrade the hotel rooms, the lobbies, the dining rooms, the golf course and the retail outlets, but the kitchens and employee housing had only received a meager portion of the remodeling. "The customers don't see or play in the kitchens." Consequently, there was inadequate refrigeration, storage and preparation space. Most of the equipment was battered from use and neglect, and there were few pieces of modern kitchen equipment. Hell, it had been four years since the company had purchased new kitchen uniforms.

Every single office and every single hotel room had air conditioning, except for the kitchens. They had swamp coolers, which quickly became ineffective once the outside temperature hit a hundred degrees. Then, all they could do was blow around hot air, and once the banks of ovens and steam kettles were fired up, the inside temperature could reach 140 degrees by late afternoon. As a cook I can tolerate heat--but damn! Admittedly, I was surprised that OSHA had never made a fuss over the lack of air conditioning in the kitchens, but, then again, they probably never made an inspection in the summer: too bloody hot to be driving around in a desert. OSHA stands for Occupational Safety and Heath Administration, and they're the Government agency that oversees and guarantees the "average working stiff" a safe work-environment.
     One OSHA inspector says to his partner during a visit in January (It is seventy-four degrees outside with a perfect blue sky), "Hey, this isn't so bad."
     "Not at all."
     "Let's go golfing."

(Nor were we ever visited by anyone from Corporate during the summer months.)

Not following sanitary guidelines was another big issue when I first arrived to the property. Even simple, common sense practices... like: not storing raw meat and chicken directly over produce, not thawing a forty pound case of whole chicken on the back dock under direct sunlight. "But it's in a sink with running water," the Kitchen Manager pointed out. "Yes, but it's the mop water sink. And in the desert the coolest the water gets from the cold tap is ninety degrees. Which leaves the whole damn thing sitting, uncovered, in the blazing hot sun."

I got a lot of "Ohs" in my time at Furnace Creek.

Sometimes I think it's a colossal pain in the ass not living in a vacuum, where things can happen to you without it being your fault, without your having to assume any personal responsibility, nothing to reflect on, nothing to examine. Oh well.

I have been accused of not being very sensitive or empathetic, not having good people skills. Mind you, I never threw things, screamed or publicly berated anyone, as was common in many kitchens I had worked. I always honored special requests for days off, vacations, and I did my best to schedule everyone two days off consequently, including my managers, but I am an Executive Chef. To me, it's all about the work. In restaurants we often work short-staffed, which means that we are faced with an incredible amount of work to accomplish in an unreasonably short period. We work with strict deadlines. The customers--and by extension, myself--can't always afford to be sympathetic to personal problems that caused a cook to drink himself blind the night before so that his attention span in the morning was for shit. (Oops, there I go again... not being very sensitive.) The work absolutely, positively has to be done on time. Sorry.

I surmise I wasn't always very gentle about the process. I often pushed people to work beyond their abilities or interest, creating an unpleasant and stressful environment. (It can't be easy to go to work knowing that you will probably always be behind, or worse, possibly fail completely.) I struggled with an unskilled and apathetic labor force, and often not very kindly. In my defense, I worked 60-70 hours a week, 12 to 14 hour-days and sometimes up to three weeks without a day off; so a repeated misstep, a lapse of concentration, by a cook could make me irritable, causing my tone of voice to lose its fuzziness and nurturing calmness.

In my relationship with Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, I suppose I would label myself the vocal, disagreeable outsider. I had worked tirelessly to change the system, but I had trouble accepting that changes sometimes happen cautiously, and in increments. Progress, even if steady, was slower than I was willing to tolerate. I had little patience for what I perceived as incompetence in other people and managers, and I never hesitated in articulating my frustration and disapproval. I had alienated rather than rallied. Many of my personal working associations had been transformed into little tug-of-wars; fights about blame rather than finding solutions to problems. In short, I had become the hated stereotype of my own profession: the grumpy, hotheaded and obnoxious chef. By the time I left Death Valley, few people were disappointed. I had succeeded in improving the quality of the kitchens and food, but it was still time for me to leave. My effectiveness was beginning to diminish. I had begun wearing thin on nerves.
     Besides, it was unbearably hot.

Adios, Au revoir, auf Wiedersehen Furnace Creek


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