As I sit in one of my favorite coffee houses, somewhere in a small town in Kansas, my mind drifts to the last year in which I performed my services as Chef Stan, The Iron Chef, of Montebello’s Eastside Chippery. Of all the roles I have played, master criminal, art dealer, visual artist, night club owner, clothing designer, movie producer and all the variations there of, I can honestly say that Chef Stan and the Eastside Chippery may have been the most challenging. And perhaps the most rewarding.
Usually at this point I would recap some of my thoughts from the blogs Eastside Chippery Part I and Part II, but frankly I’m not much in the mood to look back—I’ll save that for the book. Suffice it to say that a little over a year ago I wound up taking over a really bad Mexican food restaurant in my hometown of Montebello. And this restaurant, against all odds, turned out to be both an incredible fiasco and success simultaneously during the same year. This being said, I’d like to share some of the deeper thoughts and emotions that I experienced during the course of being Chef Stan of the Eastside Chippery.
In many ways I am the ultimate of ordinary and yet there is a very unusual spark here and there that has for all of my life made me different. I say this now because it’s always had an effect and or influence on how things I’ve been involved in have turned out. It’s also the reason that people throughout my life have had such strong reactions toward me. In short, I’ve been blessed to have been the recipient of kindness and teaching by people of much greater accomplishment than myself and I have also been hated by people who have perceived insult or mistreatment, which in fact may have occurred, but certainly to no degree that merited, in some cases, unadulterated malice.
For 45 years or so, there was a part of me that just wanted to be normal. However, in my heart there was an even greater desire to be special. And over the last year at the Eastside Chippery I came to realize that both were vanity and the source of much of what had become frustrating and emotionally painful to me. One might ask, hadn’t you heard the words of King Solomon? And the answer is, yes, I had heard the words “Vanity of vanities…” but hearing and understanding do not necessarily equate to harkening. As I stood in the kitchen cooking and washing dishes sometimes for 32 hour stretches at a time, my heart, for lack of better words, began to soften and the vanity to dissipate.
Throughout this process I was almost constantly challenged both physically and emotionally. Physically, in the beginning I would come home and get a few hours sleep, during the course of which, it would feel like long spikes were being hammered into the bottoms of my feet, the sharpest of pain exploding mid calf. Often, I would fall asleep so tired that I wondered if it was literally possible to work one’s self to death. And I smiled at the thought that this might actually “be it”. I smiled because there was some strange irony in that after a lifetime of pursuing fortune and fame I had wound up back in my childhood bed, a cook /dishwasher in what was, in its best days, a Taco Bell. Emotionally, I struggled with too many things to even attempt to fit into a blog, but in general I was so angry with myself for not being a better more humble person.
When my high school classmate Joe Lopez proposed the idea of doing a restaurant in Montebello to me, I truly did not know what I was signing up for, even though I took to saying “this is what I signed up for.” Understand this, I’m not talking about the workings of running a restaurant, the Eastside Chippery was my fourth restaurant, so I was well aware of the fact that restaurants are hard work and every restaurant concept has its own unique set of challenges. What I did not realize was that I was signing up for was my own unique penitence.
So as the Eastside Chippery became more and more successful, with respect to the number of customers it was serving, I took it as a well deserved insult to both my writing career and my aristocratic image of myself. And on one particularly busy night I sat with my sister, who looked around and said, “It’s really amazing what you’ve done.”
I looked around and said, “ Every meal is like a dagger in my heart. Don’t get me wrong I’m not complaining, I have it coming.”
She gestured with her hand. “Why, look how happy you make people.”
And with this one gesture of her hand and a few plainly spoken words my life changed.
I looked around at the happy people eating their food and replied, “It’s not so bad being Chef Stan.”
You see, I’d spent the majority of my life giving people quality products and or service, but always for my own sake. As a writer I wanted to be the best in the world, but I also wanted people to walk into a room and point me out to their friends and say, “you know who that is?” And I enjoyed the special treatment that I received from the money and status I had had for most of my life. But as King Solomon had promised, 45 years later it had all come to not. So a new seed was planted that not only took root, it began to permeate my being, I found a new kind of happiness in making other people happy.
As for the world around me I began to see it differently. I had always had a passion for right over wrong and justice over injustice and anyone who knows my story knows that doesn’t mean what is right or just according to social norms. So sometimes I could be perceived as doing something wrong, which years later, society could come to conclude was not wrong at all. But as I dedicate myself to the happiness of others I became somewhat disassociated from the larger issues. The United States, which I care so much about, really became my kitchen and no matter how misguided the world beyond it was, at least there I knew that things were being done as they should be. I should note here that the vast majority of the people who worked at the Eastside Chippery did not subscribe to this view.
The outside world of entitlement crept into the Eastside Chippery at every chance. I was absolutely amazed to see the lack of both work ethic and integrity in almost every individual I encountered. Get paid for doing as little work as possible and bring as much personal drama as one can, is the impression that I was left with. Don’t get me wrong, people did work, but nobody really cared about building something, they just wanted to get paid. For the first half of the year this enraged me, but my own personal growth demanded that I not react. During the second half of the year I had come to the conclusion that I loved making people happy, but it was most likely not going to be viable to work with those that didn’t share my outlook. Here I should add that this also included a landlord who although handicapped himself refused to make the Eastside Chippery bathrooms ADA compliant even though this had been agreed upon in the lease. Really?
So as the second half of the year went on I enjoyed my work more than ever by disconnecting myself from so much of what I found disagreeable. And I decided that I would continue on for as long as possible, hoping that there would be a sign. Perhaps the landlord would do the right thing. Maybe the numerous employees who had gone to the labor board with ridiculous claims such as being denied 53 lunches in a row would desist from their state sponsored thievery. Or maybe I would wake up in a state and or city, which had actually balanced its budget.
To state the obvious, I did not see a clear sign and while I could have tried to carry on against the rising tide, I began to think that there might be a place, which was more representative of the America and Americans I grew up believing in. Why should the concept of America be limited to a ten-foot area around my workspace? So I began to venture out at every opportunity. To be sure I did not find the perfect America, I did however find a place that is much closer to it.
The Eastside Chippery made a lot of great tasting, healthy food, I’m happy about that. And much thanks to our customers. California, Los Angeles, and my hometown of Montebello are in my prayers, the Golden State is so beautiful, but for now the Eastside Chippery and Chef Stan will be cooking somewhere else…