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Climbing the Ladder is No Easy Task

Please help me welcome my great friend, adopted cousin and cooking mentor, Mark Singo. Along with my cousin Cindy, Mark has taught me so much about food, cooking, and being a great human being. Mark's one of those people who will drop what he's doing to help-- whether it's to fix something or make an at-home graduation barbecue for 200 go off without a hitch. Did I mention the guy can whip up a classic bearnaise sauce with the perfection of a classically trained French chef? Yep- he's that good. Thanks for letting him tell his story... I can't wait for his first blog-- a vegetarian classic-- Ratatouille. Coming soon to CarolOfMoon.


left to right: Carol, Cindy, Mark. Christmas Eve 2015

My good friend and adopted cousin, CarolOfMoon has asked me to be a contributing writer on her blog. I am honored and very humbled, since I have no writing ability whatsoever...LOL!! So, what do I write about? What do I have to share? Well, I guess since this is a post about food and cooking; Let's start there….

A bit about myself first. My earliest memories of food go back to my childhood, imagine that. Watching and trying to observe my mother and grandmother in the kitchen. Baking was always a big thing in our house, freshly made pies, cakes, bread, or rolls. Not at the same time though, unfortunately. Those smells and tastes you never forget, takes you back to a time that seemed to be so much easier, so much more happiness. Hey people, it’s the little things in life. The crust on a loaf of bread straight from the oven, dark brown, the earthiness of the smell…yeast and wheat. That first slice, slathered in butter or margarine…since that was widely used at the time. (sidenote) We used margarine all the time--lol…butter was used on special occasions and holidays; believe it or not.

Back in the early ‘60s, everything was different; we didn’t take so much for granted. Let me say this, I didn’t grow up poor. We were middle class at the time, but my mother grew up during the Great Depression; my grandmother lived it. They wasted nothing and knew how to stretch a dollar. I wanted for nothing when I was a little kid and those were the best times of my life.

I remember in late summer when they would be putting up homemade jams and jellies, Sweet Jesus! That was the best, homemade jelly on a piece of homemade bread. My Lord!! It really doesn’t get any better than that; except maybe, your first girlfriend. Memories are the best--good, bad, ugly, and indifferent. It's what shapes us and defines who we become!! I learned so many life lessons from my mother and my father, something that can never be taken away. Moving on, I started in the restaurant industry when I was 15yrs old. A friend turned me on to a local place, “Olde Southern Pancake House”. I got hired for the midnight shift, Fridays and Saturdays; 11pm to 7am. Which really at the time was illegal to have 15 year olds working that shift I didn’t care. I wanted the money and I liked working. That was November ’76. The good old days! Or so I’ve heard.

My official title was busboy, I know that’s probably politically incorrect but fuck it, that’s what we were called. I cleaned dishes and garbage from the dirty tables when the customers were done eating, along with a lot of other horrific duties. You know, cleaning the restrooms and dining rooms. Plus, putting up with intoxicated customers. It was hard work, but you know what? I loved it!!

My co-workers were the ones that made the job. It takes a special breed of person to work in a restaurant, in any type of foodservice establishment. It's very hard to describe, you almost have to live it to understand it. It's very high stress and very demanding; you are trying to please every single person that walks through your door. It's your co-workers that help you make it through a shift. Whether that’s true anymore, I'm not sure. 90% of the people I worked with through the years were some of the best people I ever met in my life!! They were all like me-- demented, deranged, with a sick sense of humor who would do anything for you. Give you their last meal or the shirt from their back. Characters one and all!! In the restaurant business you see it all. At 15 years old I was young and naïve as so many of us are. After being at my new job for about a month I got christened with my first nickname, “Hawkeye" by one of my co-workers, whose name was John. Much to my dismay it stuck, the reason for the nickname was because I always spotted the dirty tables first. I was very quiet and shy; but very tall-- 6’3” at the time, but very awkward… I didn’t fit in well. But you know it's funny how that job helped me break out of that shell.

After 6-8 months, I was promoted to dishwasher; if that’s really a promotion. But it was more money per hour, and I still got tips, plus the guys that worked in the kitchen were a lot cooler. A couple of them were kids that I grew up with on my street just a few years older.

The Cake House was busy. We would do 250-300 covers in a 3-hour period. (That's dishes for you non-back of house folks). We worked our asses off! I'm not complaining by any stretch, it builds character and a work ethic. Being in the trenches and coming out on the other end--that's how relationships between coworkers are built- by having each other's back. On a given Saturday night, we would have 6 servers, 4 busboys, 1 dishwasher, and 4 cooks. Not too bad in a 100-seat dining room. And, when the morning came, about 5am and you could take a break, smoke a cigarette, bullshit with your fellow workers about some of the asshole customers, it was all worth it. Within the year I worked my way up to prep cook and got a taste of something real. You can only be a dishwasher and busboy for so long. The “Cake House" (as we called it) was crazy busy at night, especially breakfast items. On a Friday night, I would crack 200 dozen eggs just for omelets and scrambled eggs, precook 120 pounds of bacon,100 pounds of link sausage, 8-10 -5gal buckets of pancake batter. Not to mention 100 pounds of sliced potatoes for home fries, plus everything else.

But you know what? The thing that sticks out the most were the people I worked with. Keep in my mind, most of us were high school kids in the ‘70s, so you know what we were doing and talking about-- Sex,drugs, and Rock n Roll Baby!! One server I recall working with, Francis Kemp-- good old Franny, she was a piece of work. We became friends because of our similar outlook and perspective. She was older when I met her, late ‘40s-early ‘50s maybe; she had worked in some of the finest restaurants in Pittsburgh. She was a waitress her whole life, one of the best servers I had ever worked with. Nothing ever phased her. She never lost her cool. Her sense of humor was just as great as her service. Wow, I miss that old girl! She could always bring some light into the darkness. I recall after a tough shift, an unfiltered Pall Mall hanging out of the corner of her mouth standing with her in the server's station catching our breath, looking like she just ran a marathon (which she did) and she’d let out a long sigh. Not looking at anybody in particular, she would say “Ah Mark--shit, piss, and corruption." It was just an exclamation of how screwed things were in the dining room that day. Fran is one of those people I'll never forget for the rest of my life. She was a true warrior, a true fighter, a true good human being. I still use that saying and always will. So many twisted souls I’ve come across in this journey; the stories are too many. Some day maybe I'll write a book. I cooked for a couple of more years and moved to the front of the house as a Bartender. Bad move. I didn't have the right personality to be a bartender. Truly, I was terrible. In retrospect, I could do it now, mainly because I've changed to some degree. Back in the day, DAMN, I was all about the party; being a bartender was the wrong place for me. I must admit I made good money, lol, spent it all but that’s a story for another time.

I did that job for 7yrs, then quit. It was 3 months before I found another job. That was the worst time of my life.

I had an acquaintance at the time who was a Sous Chef at Sheraton Hotel. I told Paul I hadn't cooked for a long time. He told me to stop by and apply for a line cooks position and that they would train me. Ok, I'll try it. Executive Chef took one look at my background- but I persisted--‘teach me everything you know; I want to be a chef someday’. So they did!

Bill Kurtz took a chance and hired me. I read every cookbook I could get my hands on, watched every cooking show on TV, even though there weren't many at the time. Most of the cooking shows were on PBS, this is before Food Network and the Cooking Channel.

The first few months at the Hotel were tough. You see there's a hierarchy in kitchens. And I was on the bottom rung. I had been a short order/ breakfast cook and I really didn’t know how to make anything from scratch. They were doing a lot of classic cuisine; it was a whole new world for me. I was so happy to get the opportunity to prove myself. I had to earn the respect of the kitchen staff, and myself. I asked many stupid questions, all the time. But I learned-- show me once and you’ll never have to show me again. I got laughed at many times by the cooks that knew more than I did. Learning was like a drug; the more you get it the more you want. I picked their brains daily. I had been at the hotel for a couple of months and had shown an affinity for banquet prep-- being able to get all the hot foods ready for a party on time. It could be a sit-down party for 25 guests or a buffet for 500 people. The Executive Chef was impressed with the work I was doing and wanted to promote me to Head Banquet Chef. Unfortunately, upper management wouldn’t go for it. They said I didn’t have enough experience. It's funny, I continued doing the same job for the same salary, but no promotion. I never gave up.

I kept plugging away and as things go in the hotel business, much to my surprise I was promoted to The Executive Sous Chef position. I was in shock! Then elation. The respect from my peers, even the ones that laughed at me a few months ago--they believed in me enough to give me that position. The hours were grueling, but that’s the business…wouldn’t trade it for anything!!

My hard work from 15 years old paid off-- it wasn't without strife. It wasn't without long hours. And it wasn't without the coworkers who make it all worthwhile.

Oh, the food industry has so many characters and stories-- my book would be long.

My blessings to CarolOfMoon for this opportunity! -Hawkeye

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