Never in a million years would any business owner imagine that they would have to let their entire staff go due to an invisible enemy. No one can stop it, or escape it. Nevermind trying to plan for something like this. Now all we can do is attempt to prepare for the fight of our lives. We as grunts in the kitchen often are faced with many types of hindrances in our lives, but nothing can compare to unforeseen disaster. How do you do prep for no asses in seats? No dining room to look out to through the expo window and complain about overly entitled customers? What do we do now with our angst towards a certain table that rang in a ton of mods on their ticket? What kind of life is it to live without being able to complain about customers and coworkers? If only we would have known that there would come a time when we would miss the same people that we have learned to despise over the years. How do you tell those people that you need them, and that no matter what, we are always here for you even after the lights shut off? But here we are now worrying about what happens next. A single tear is shed for the loss of those past relationships. This is the most dreaded situation that anyone with a fear of rejection is faced with now. How do you explain to the rest of the world that it wasn’t your fault? All while trying to convince them that you’ll always be here waiting for them to come back. We all hope that we are not forgotten when the dust settles amongst all chaos created by the fear of something uncontrollable and inevitable.
As we see the death counts rack up around the world, revealed to an indifferent and impatient public, we can’t help but notice that there is no more time for procrastination. Once seen as a weakness, that very trait has become the number one reason that we dissenters have made the impulsive decision to lay our lives on the line once again.The enemy here being the always cunning procrastination. Little does it know that in the industry, come more than prepared. Sometimes coming from questionable backgrounds full of memories that we drink to forget,we have frozen our emotions and have the ability to harness and nurture the tenacity in our passion for what we do. And that chutzpah can only be demonstrated by actions, not words.
This is a time of need for most, and want for many. What happens when you can’t live your life the way you have become accustomed to? A new direction has to be taken and utilized. Consider all of these trials and tribulations laced with the fermented stench of misfortune as a practice run for what is to come. But how do you choose who survives and who succumbs to this below-the-belt blow? How can an enemy that no one can see dictate to us who’s essential and who isn’t? We all have come to find out that life isn’t fair in this sub-culture of black sheep and misfits. Fueled with either a newfound passion or something passed down, we can come all agree on one thing: All kitchen lives matter. Whether you like it or not, we are all a family. Never did you expect that this was a lifestyle that you would punch into and never really punch out of.
Amid the horrific fallout of COVID-19 I’ve read about and witnessed first-hand, I find myself scrambling to try to find a sliver of hope. Unfortunately it was rapidly leaving me, banishing me into a dark black corner well hidden and forgotten about by the world around me. Then all of a sudden, these beacons started popping up among the atmosphere of this devilishly dark time. A beacon here being a symbol of hope. With the addition of each one of these brightly lit pyres, we now are filled with passion again. All of a sudden we are flooded with a rush of emotions, none of them making sense at first. But one this is certain- we are worth fighting for. This is a state of mind, which we all share as we hold the knives that we use to carve our path for others to follow, now and in future generations to come. So shake off that eerie feeling of uncertainty and let me tell you about those precious bastions of hope we have left.
If you drive down highway 90 long enough you will reach a town called Sutton, Mass. This is where we have a band of misfits battling the constant clamor of this culinary limbo. In this town, you will find a family in the staff of Brickstone Kitchen. This family knew exactly what to do during this time of upheaval and uncertainty: keep the doors open. Do what they do best and whatever else they could to remain consistent during this paradigm shift in the culinary world. After seeing their blaze raging from distance, I have come to see that family’s choice to continue to serve their community has become something that we all can deem essential to our way of life. All standing around the back prep table, they came to a decision to keep doing the only that they knew. They decided to keep the fires lit and keep cooking. So they shifted their focuses from plating to performing a carryout operation in order to conform to the newly adapted health restrictions and overcome the adversities to prove that we will have something to come back to when the crisis has passed. And being backed by a massive lineage of self-made cooks and chefs, this pack of lone wolves knows what it’s like to fight for this passion. While knowing that this is something that they are willing to die for, this restaurant quickly sprung into action to help those in the community around them. With hands callused and burnt from years behind the line, Brickstone knew that they were in for a fight for their lives.
After dipping their toes in the waters of uncertainty for the first week or so, they soon came to realize that the water was more welcoming and inviting than they could have ever imagined. When the community demonstrated the eagerness they had for a service such as this, Brickstone took on the challenge without question or hesitation. With this came an influx in demand for the mise en place they had set in motion to handle these strange after-effects. Knowing that the shift from a full-service kitchen to a solely take out is one is a very different beast. This back-roots kitchen knows that the social landscape may have changed but the need for a good lobster grinder (properly pronounced “grind-ah”) and chicken parm will always be strong. Presented with admiration paired with a healthy side of adoration from the public, the whole staff came together as a family and found a way to satisfy the demand for their service during this bleak time. Preparing their lives for the worst to happen, and then being asked to heed the call of service with their best has caused an off-set, unconventional feeling in this kitchen. But that doesn’t scare them. Being faced with a reality where a cook has to fight to stay alive while simultaneously being asked to feed others without hesitation is something that we in the industry know all too well. Remaining filled with the desire to nourish others has silently become the backbone for our self-sacrifice to the cause. All while keeping in mind that we can always find our way back to the line to refrain from ever losing our way. Kitchens have become homes for most of us over the years, a home that we cannot allow to become moribund.
Remaining vigilant through these desperate times is the only way to ensure the prosperity of our way of life. They say to know your enemy, and you'll have an advantage in battle.
"I was worried through the whole process that I wouldn't have a job," Line Cook Joe Dube said when asked how he felt about the announcement that Governor Baker made. "The announced shelter-in-place wasn't clear at first whether or not we would be deemed essential. As soon as he clarified, the chef decided to keep plugging away," Dube continued. Being located on a rather busy highway only to see it become deserted like something out of Mad Max was a sight that no one could have predicted. Though it would seem like many zombie apocalypse-themed pop culture stories would have seen it coming, no one took it seriously. Shit, if we would have paid more attention to the walking dead, we would have a better idea of how to handle this. "After seeing the highway dry, not seeing any business coming in definitely became a huge concern for us. From my time in the military where I was grabbed by the seat of my pants and somehow served an army with a bare-bones kitchen, I knew my duty to my passion, so I had to do my part. Staying open in my mind wasn't ever a question of for how long are we gonna be able to, but more so along the lines of making it happen for those who needed it. And we needed it as well," Affirmed Co-Owner Justin Bonner.I had a chance to speak with Executive Chef Anthony briefly on the phone. Much was said without a word being spoken in the silences in between us during our conversation. When I asked him why he made the call to stay open, he said, " The answer is simple: the community. We are staying open to the community for their generosity, that's a kindness you can't repay or express."
Chef's words reflected the emotions felt by many at this moment in time. We were both in agreement that this type of consideration will soon be endangered, if not outright extinct as our world becomes ever more self-involved and egocentric. This only goes to prove that pure greed cannot kill our passion for what we do to serve those who are hungry. Who cares if we spiral into chaos from the lack of no one in the dining room? We cook food for a living and if someone is hungry, we will take the recipe for chaos and turn it into the most mouth-watering thing you've ever tasted. After our talk, I do not doubt in my mind that Brickstone is a place where the seemingly impossible is becoming possible once more. And this fills the rest of the culinary world with hope once more. The great figures of history were resolutely tenacious, and so we derelicts became even more determined to survive. We who cook know that one day there will be a time where the world will seem like it's on fire. We can handle the heat, we know how to properly cook with it. So how did you want your steak cooked again, medium?
So how is any of this possible? How is it that a group of people can come together during this worldwide mishap to create something beautiful and self-sacrificing? It's the smell of love in a kitchen, or rather in this case the fear of losing that. Don't you agree that a smell can lead you to amazing people? Name one time that good smelling food hasn't brought everyone together. Exactly. It's the metaphysical vibes interlaced within the piquant aromas that piques a person's interest in tasting the unexpected. Once sampled, there are always so many questions to ask and answer. And everyone has a story about a flavor and the smells tied to it. The smell is what draws you to those people time and time again. Not to mention the fact that smiles and appreciation for a good home cooked meal are always priceless in the eyes of those who do the cooking. If you feed someone when they are hungry, you become closer to that person. It's an interaction that I feel is becoming a lost art. We used to always use the concept of food and meals to come together and bond.
These days, we spend too much time worrying about eating bullshit on the go and not enough time on the experiences or moments to reflect on our lives over a hearty bowl of homemade minestrone. It could be said that industry folk do what they do in the hopes that we can resurrect that concept and cause it to flourish once again. Maybe this is why you see a good number of people taking notice of this old school way of life, and asking for it more and more. I say we give it to them. Then maybe we could briefly find a moment for a mental balance, or better yet a goddamn nap on a couch and not the crates in the back alleyway.
After talking with the guys in the Brickstone kitchen, I found myself thinking back to the picture that I was sent of this place. The picture shows this kitchen's juggernaut tenacity. Hey boys, that's a badass band name! Quick, all of you learn how to play instruments and make it happen! I jest, but that is the best way to describe this cavalcade of boondock saints. Even though the photo remains still, you can feel the energy and compassion in the picture, and you can get a feel for how each person moves on the line. You can tell how interchangeable and fluid their kitchen is. A place so welcoming that even the younger generations traded a classroom for a kitchen. Having a family vibe and drive, it only makes sense that everyone has their place here to work and learn how to cook to the best of their abilities. These are the same moments that I recall the most while I was growing up. Cooking is where I had the time to breathe. My temporary mental zen. No worries, no problems, just flavors, and fire. I felt elated to hear that this was happening somewhere else in the world. And even though the hours are condensed, there isn't any pressure from ticket times. Which makes it a great environment for passion-driven individuals to learn. With all of the learning happening in front of their eyes, I can only imagine them on the line a few years from now just killing it.
This is how line monsters are made. Consumed by passion, forged by the word fuck being said much louder and more frequently than anyone ever thought possible. But from these times, we can see all generations of cooks and chefs coming together for a cause. A cause that cannot be matched by anything else in the world, yet only lost in the sauce. But as a true passion would be in nature we always seem to find our ways back to the line that leads us to a place that we can have a family and call home. This feeling is like winning a lottery that is better than any dollar amount available. For these moments and emotions are priceless.
"It just feels good," The guys at Brickstone all agreed in unison.
"The prep life sucks though, we have to prep every day now!" I heard someone shout into the phone. And as we all chuckled and smiled at that, we all silently agreed that having to do that was a good sign of things to come. They continued to tell me that almost daily they have to make more runs to the store to pick up additional groceries to fulfill the orders coming. I could only imagine how difficult it is to make a prep list without knowing when and what people will eat. All you know is that you're still being crushed by call in and to-go orders. And with the numbers from an entire Friday's sales condensed into just 4 hours or so, you become overjoyed instead of annoyed by the situation. This influx in orders would normally drive anyone in the kitchen insane due to the lack of consistency. However, one thing does remain consistent. And that's the love coming from the community that they feed. If you get mad at that, then I would suggest self quarantining yourself from everyone else, all the time. Nobody wants that type of ba JuJuaround. The Brickstone crew will let you know what it's like to have to separate themselves from their own families inside of their own homes. If there was ever a hell in which you had to become a ghost while alive and watch your family from a distance, this would be that hell. This kitchen didn't ask for the cards they have been dealt with. But they knew that if they worked together, they made a full house. And that's a run you can't compete with.
So with this proof that warriors of our craft still exist, we can make certain that they will continue to hold down the fort for us. Eagerly awaiting our return, the Brickstone made it abundantly clear that every ticket that comes in, is done in honor of every other industry brethren affected by this. Though with the persistent worry that it could end the next day never really goes away, our warriors continue to let us know that they are there and confirm that we need to remain hopeful. There will be something for us to come back to. But for now, we need to rally together and light a beacon in support to show our brothers and sisters of the blade that we are still here waiting to join the ranks. I agree that many of us will feel envious or even jealous of Brickstone's ability to remain open and continue working, but we must realize that given the chance, we all would have done the same. For the same reasons no doubt. So join with me in commemorating these Bay Staters on a damn fine job being done. Without them, I fear our craft would lose passion. And many wouldn't be able to find their way home after feeling lost in these uncertain times. Keep the porchlight on fellas, we are coming home.
Rodney Lienhart is a Chef formerly of McKenzie, TN but is now working and residing in the Lansing, MI area. Starting at the young age of 7 years old. He worked his way through the ranks in his mom's kitchen in the hills of Tennessee. With a background in southern, Italian, French, and Nouvelle cuisines, he uses what he knows to learn more about what he doesn't. When he isn't putting a flame on a saute pan, he can be found reading and researching about what makes people tick. A massive overindulgence in psychology has led him here to share what he has witnessed in his experiences. Make sure to keep a close eye one his videos coming out soon. In these videos, he will be closely working with Wayhot sauce and Krystilion CBD on future recipes and concepts. You can follow his story and insight into the world of cooking food and adding the health benefits of CBD to his dishes on Facebook also on Instagram @ chef_rodney_117.