We were working in the town of Libertyville. We had been hired to repair the roof on the high school. It was August, the hottest month of the year. We were early into the ten-day job when one afternoon the sky turned black. From up there you could really see. Big clouds began to push and rumble, and the searing heat of an Illinois summer day suddenly fell away. All of us worker dogs leaned on our brooms and shovels and stared as Mother Nature began to roll out her wonder. The drops of rain came very fat and slow at first. Our eyes widened and we tilted our faces to the world above us—and then it ripped! It was as if God had taken out a giant sword and slashed through a vast zeppelin filled with rain. It was a moving world of water. We threw our tools aside and nearly slid down the ladders. Everyone sprinted to their cars and trucks to get out of it—everyone except me. I rolled. I rolled and rolled around on the deep green grass of the high school football field. I laughed and rolled and rubbed the gathering mud on my arms. I didn’t smell the tar anymore. I smelled the earth and it smelled like heaven.
When the rain stopped, I was still lying on the ground. I had been pretending to make snow angels by swooshing the water in arcs with my arms and legs, when my arms hit his boots. I squinted up to see Dark Eyes. His body hovered above mine, upside down, blocking the sky. He said these words: “Van Aken, around here we don’t need your kind.” And that was it. Fired. I ran to my car and peeled out of the high school driveway. “Yippee! School’s out!”
But when I got back to the Hainesville House all I could think about was my next visit to Mrs. Volé and paying her the rent. I picked up an Advertiser from one of the neighbors’ mailboxes and threw it on my bed, pulled off my soaking clothes, and took a hot shower.
When I got back to the paper, I scanned the choices my future might hold. “Short-order cook. No experience necessary, $3.50 an hour.” That’s what it said. I reread it and realized that I might be going for it. “No experience necessary.” That cleared me.
To be frank, I was ready for something else. The dope, beer, and tequila days and nights had me frazzled. Years earlier I had been a bit of a jock and a good student, but lately I was looking like crap and hadn’t read much at all. I bought a car for a hundred bucks. The previous owner had painted it white with a paintbrush. It was slow and loud, and the steering was sloppy, but it ran, and it did have a good radio. My father was a used car dealer and growing up with him meant that I had lost any enthusiasm for cars, except the part about beating walking and a good sound system. For some reason I named the car “Babycakes.”
I showed up for my interview wearing a V-neck sweater from high school. My hair was so long by then that it was easy to make a tight ponytail and conceal it behind my shirt collar down inside the sweater. I filled out the application sitting at the diner counter. The owner was a crew-cut gent named Jerry White. He and his dyspeptic wife had bought out Jerry’s former partner, Tom. It was a family affair of sorts with the son working in the kitchen, too. Some said Jerry was a stone drunk, but I didn’t know it. He came out from the kitchen to read my application and wash his hands there by the soda fountain. He wiped them on his white apron very thoroughly. He had large muscular hands and a smile that caused his eyes to squint shut when he laughed. He laughed more to hide his terrible shyness, I learned over time. He hired me and told me to start the next day. I drove Babycakes home and then, after a bit of thinking, went back out to a hardware store and got an alarm clock. I was starting as the breakfast cook at the Fireside.
When I showed up the next day, I couldn’t wear the sweater and they realized they’d hired a longhair. Back in 1971 that was a big deal, and not in a good way. But these folks struck a deal and they were going to live by it and see if I was a good worker.
Here’s where my real working life began. I mean the cook’s side of my working life. And it is a world unto itself, a world that conned me first with the smell of food. It is hunger that makes you crazy, whether it’s one appetite or another. I was hungry for a lot of things. Later in my life people would often ask me how I came up with so many crazy-delicious dishes. I told them the truth. “I was hungry.” They almost always think I’m just being facetious. But I’m not.
Henry Miller, Thomas Wolfe, and Jack Kerouac were great wanderers and who got awfully hungry on the roads they traveled. When I read their words, I found a kinship when they described the meals they ate. While all of them were great eaters, none of them were cooks. I hadn’t read a page of what it meant to be one, of what it meant to be going where I was going.
When you begin to work a line you have to get into the craziness or it beats you down. It is not a normal job. It’s a brutal contest that takes place in a dangerous atmosphere. There is a whole language that must be learned. The men and women who commit to playing this game will not tolerate much in the way of mistakes. It means too much money to them. It is likely their only money. If you make the wrong plate on a party of four and have to start over, you have to face the wrath of the owner, your fellow line cooks, and, perhaps worst of all, the waitresses. The owner wants to turn the tables, the cooks want to turn the tickets, and the waitresses want to turn the guests, because that’s where the money comes in. From the first set of cracked eggs at six o’clock in the morning to the last hamburger at midnight, the Fireside was one turning, cranking machine.
There were rhythms that became intelligible over the months. But in that first week it seemed like there was only one speed and it was breakneck. As soon as I got to work, I joined the owner’s son and another kid just out of high school named Jimmy. Jimmy looked like English guitar player, band leader Pete Townshend of ‘The Who’. He stuttered pretty badly. (My g-g-ggeneration, baby!) Jimmy’s speech problem was real. And what else was real was how fucking fast this kid could cook! That’s why he was there first thing in the morning. Jerry needed Jimmy to get the jump on the day. Whatever speed you think you could find Jimmy could find two beyond you. It kind of pissed me off that this younger kid could do so much more than me and in so much less time. But for some reason he liked me enough to help me learn.
There was no training manual and there was no cooking school. I just had to get in there and try to help out those who were more experienced than me. I would be grateful when anyone asked me to do a job that I could actually do. The fact that I got all the shit jobs was not lost on me, but it sure beat being useless.
I had found something I wanted to do. Desperately. I hated the factory jobs that preceded the roofing nightmare so bad that this one had to be the one. The work was hot and greasy and I was getting burned and cut every day and my nerves were assaulted by the waitresses’ constant demands: “Ordering! Ordering! Ordering!”
But each day I was getting better while fighting off many insane impulses. There were times I had to stop myself from just reaching down with my hands into a fryer’s gurgling incendiary fat to get the fries next to the burger, bun, onion, and pickle, all arranged as Jerry decreed. I eventually learned to never trust that a pot handle hadn’t possibly spent an hour in the oven before I reached for it. I learned never to clutch anything metal without wrapping a doubled-up rag around it first. I learned which waitresses were fair and which were really pushy broads that even the other gals couldn’t stand. I learned how to cadence the pace of my work. I learned how to flip two egg pans at once and do a million other short-order miracles that saved my ass from going down in flames.
Excerpted from, “No Experience Necessary, the Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken”. All rights reserved, 2012.
Note: Photo taken 15 or so years after that first cooking job. Hence the fancy jacket.