Showing Up, Sunny-Side Up: Trial From Frying Pan Into Fire as a Short-Order Cook

Published: Oct 23, 2022  |  

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“The world is run by those who show up.” —Benjamin Franklin.

I’m sitting at the Gold Rush Plaza Cafe counter in Auburn, California; it’s the middle of the afternoon, the lunch rush is over, and I can finally talk with my favorite waitress, Julie. I’ve been in town almost a week, on the road to someplace, and have decided I love this place and might be in love with this girl. 

Bob, the cook, comes out from around the kitchen to say hi and asks me, “Mark, you said you like to cook. I’ve seen you here all week, and I’m guessing you don’t have a job, so if you want, you can work here. Do you have some white pants and a white shirt?” Odd question, yet as it turns out, I had stuffed a pair someplace in the back of my ’57 Chevy wagon, which is also my home now. “Go get ’em.”. I’m back in a few minutes and excited. Wow. I’m 19, free as the wind, and I’ve been cooking at my mom’s side since I was very young. So being a real cook at the Gold Rush Plaza Cafe sounds excellent. I was excited and felt very confident.

Bob takes me into the kitchen and quickly points out the key things I need to know, it’s all a blur, and he’s talking pretty fast. He stops to teach me how to flip an egg. “Here, take this pan,” and he puts a piece of bread in it and then puts it on the burner. Hmm. He flips his wrist, and the piece of bread spins in the air and lands on the other side. He does this a few times and says, “Ok, your turn.” I try and fail and fail again until I finally flip and catch the toast without dropping it on the floor. He reaches into a drawer, scoops a handful of dry beans, and replaces the toast with them. He then proceeded to do the same wrist movement, flip the beans and catch them in one fell swoop. Deft and agile, as he’d probably done this a thousand times. “Ok, now it’s your turn.” The same effect, I flip the beans, half spill out on the floor, and after several more attempts and refilling the pan, I get pretty good at flipping and not losing a bean. This is how I learned to flip eggs; though we never put an egg in the pan, he wanted me to keep working with the toast and beans before I wrecked eggs and got them all over the floor. Looking back, it must have looked like that scene from Karate Kid when Mr. Miyagi was teaching Daniel-san to wax on and wax off.

Bob showed me how to cook a burger, prep the plate with lettuce, tomatoes, and a slice of pickle, then looked me in the eye and said, “I’ve got to go to the bank; I’ll be back in 30 minutes.”

Julie, the waitress, now my co-worker, stepped into the kitchen and helped a bit more with my orientation, showing me where everything was kept, the stockroom, the walk-in, and went back to wait on some customers who’d just walked in. So far, so good, then the first order came in, and it wasn’t eggs or a burger, and I was clueless. Thankfully, she’d been working there a long time, and I guess Bob had a habit of stretching his 30-minute chores into a more extended amount of time, and she’d had to step into the kitchen often. She talked me through everything on the wheel where she’d put the orders, and the two of us managed the afternoon nicely. Hours went by, and Bob was not back. Finally, around four, she came into the kitchen and said, “Looks like you’re going to have to get ready for the dinner crowd. They’ll be here for the show at eight. Dinner is at six.” “What?”

I’d only been in town for five days and learned that Friday night was the popular melodrama variety show for which the Gold Rush Plaza was famous. In the back of the restaurant complex was a dinner theater that sat 100 people. Uh oh. She told me what I needed to do (I should have started hours earlier). “Put in the baked potatoes, make the salads, and prep the steaks.” No eggs, burgers, or sandwiches were on the evening menu; they were the only things I’d learned to make. I was optimistic and not starting to panic, though that would happen soon enough. Everyone arrived within about 30 minutes of one another, and orders were flying. It was a set menu, Steak, potatoes, and salad, though that didn’t matter, as I had no idea how to broil a steak to rare, medium rare, or well done, which was the only thing I had any control over, and I messed up 80% of the orders. I was at least an hour behind on everything, and people started coming from the back theater to the kitchen to find out what was happening with their meals. I was a wet-behind-the-ears 19-year-old who’d been a professional cook for about 6 hours. Talk about a trial by fire.

Somehow I made it through the evening, even though quite a few people have a different memory of that evening than I do,

Yes, I love to cook. Yes, I know about leaning into an opportunity. And, yes, I slept in the storeroom until Monday when Bob finally came back, looking a bit hungover, and asked, “So, how’d it go?” Heh. While he was gone, I’d worked the breakfast rush on Saturday, lots of eggs, though not all at the same time, the lunch crowd, plenty of burgers, and another dinner show Saturday night, which I was prepared for and did marginally better.

That was my first cooking job. I was there for eight weeks when the wanderlust kicked in, and I went back to LA, leaving Julie as a lovely summer romantic memory. The morning after I arrived, I walked out to the main boulevard and had a choice—go right and get a box boy job at a market my mom had set up for me or turn left and find an adventure. I turned left.

I found my way to the Unemployment Office, which helped you find a job back then. A kind woman helped me by asking me about my favorite job—I told her the story of Bob and the Gold Rush Plaza. She was taken by my enthusiasm, spirit, and mantra about the world belonging to those that show up. She got me an interview at a coffee shop down the boulevard and wished me luck.

 I walked into the Red Balloon coffee shop an hour later, before the lunch rush. The manager greeted me at the door, walked me behind the line, introduced me to Felix, the head chef, and said, “Can you cook eggs?” “As a matter of fact, I can. How would you like them?” Within minutes I cooked them both a pair of over-easy eggs, two hands holding two pans, cracking the eggs with one hand, and looking at the amazement on their faces. I knew they didn’t expect a bit of a show as I took the challenge. I was hired on the spot and given an apron, and Felix began to show me around.

The lunch rush started at about 11:30, and he shouted orders such as two Beef dips, drop some fries, two BLTs, one spaghetti, and a Chef’s Salad. Uh oh. I knew how to cook eggs, a burger, a few sandwiches, and steak dinners. This extensive coffee shop menu was all new. Again. Felix said, “Stand over there and watch me. I’ll only show you once.” He was true to his word.

Eight weeks later, Felix had left. I was promoted to head cook and felt on top of the world. Nineteen years old and making a solid $1.65 an hour. I’d made it.

Fifty years later, those instincts I demonstrated at those first two jobs never left my side. Hundreds of times, I didn’t know what I was doing. Yet, I firmly believe that if I show up with a positive attitude, a willingness to admit what I don’t know, and am comfortable with my vulnerability, I will figure it out. It will always be because someone stepped in and validated my willingness to learn and began to show me the ropes. When you let down your guard and don’t pretend to know everything, people will recognize and offer to help. It’s been my experience that this leads to the best experiences you can have. Woody Allen paraphrased Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “The world belongs to those who show up.” I like to add, “…with a plan.”

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