While at University of Delaware main campus for a year, I worked a bit in a couple of the campus food areas. One was really just a glorified cafeteria, but the other was probably the most interesting place to get food on campus, a small grill. The biggest specialty was cheese steaks, which would start out as a huge frozen ball of beef that had to be chopped up and cooked ahead of the shift. We also did a lot of grill sandwiches, pita sandwiches and that sort of thing on the hot grill. Can't say I learned a lot there, but it was nice to use my cooking skills to make a bit of money. In retrospect, I probably should've tried to get a job in one of the restaurants in town and could've made a bit more money.
In the fall of '91, I moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University. For some dumb reason in desperately trying to find enough money to pay for school, I indicated I would do work-study. I know now this is a dumb thing to do because it takes away from your eligibility for other financial aid, plus it only paid minimum wage. By the spring semester I figured out I could make way more going back to the restaurants. I interviewed at a few places nearby and ended up getting a job at Ruth's Chris steakhouse.
Ruth's Chris was an interesting place, both in the food and in the people that worked there. It was a mix of college students, lifetime waiters and lower income cooks of various ethnicity. Often I was the only white guy in the kitchen, which was actually a great experience for me in retrospect. There had not been a lot of diversity in my life in a lot of ways and it was good for me to work with people who were nothing like me in background or experience. The steaks were quite excellent, but a lot of the rest of the food was overpriced and uninspired. People came for the steaks and sometimes the wine list, but that's about it. It was your typical potatoes au gratin, microwaved peas and that sort of thing for sides. Bread pudding for dessert. Your basic steakhouse fare.
For some of the steaks, we had a butcher come in a couple times a week and cut the steaks to order from a full loin or rib or whatever. Other steaks came vacuum packed and ready to use, like the huge porterhouses. The best thing about the butcher is that he would leave the "scraps" tucked away somewhere in the cooler and there was always a scavenger hunt at the beginning of the night to see if there was anything available. We could saute them up with some onions and peppers or just throw the pieces on the grill and it was delicious. The only problem was I got completely sick of red meat after about a year of that and ended up not eating hardly any red meat at all for over a year.
I also got a bit of a sense of some of the management tasks. I would do the end of night meat inventory for the assistant manager, check in the produce order, that sort of thing. I think they were interested in me moving up to management, but at that point I didn't want a restaurant career and I really enjoyed the cooking part the most.
Eventually, I grew tired of the management and how slow they were to give raises, even for good performance and I started looking elsewhere. An Outback steakhouse was opening up down in Brentwood south of Nashville, so I went down to interview there. I got hired for slightly more than what I was currently making and I was ready for a change, so I took the job. At that point since I was in school and working for an hourly wage, the money was probably the most important consideration.
While Outback is obviously much more laid-back than Ruth's Chris and the menu is at a cheaper price point, to be honest I still like their steaks pretty well, particularly the top sirloin. The seasoning mix they use is pretty good. I will still eat at Outback occasionally today. Since I had steak experience, I immediately was assigned to the grill station and didn't really cross-train a whole lot. Outback cooks most steaks on a large flat grill and the steaks are then covered with an iron weight that locks in heat and helps the steak cook faster. You would expect this would dry out the steak and it could on some cuts or if you pressed on the steak, but otherwise it worked pretty well. The interesting part was on a busy night, you would have the whole grill full and covered with the iron weights, so you really had to get a feel for the speed things were cooking and judging meat by time and feel rather than appearance. Outback was still fairly new at that point and due to our store's proximity to a large mall and lots of the southern outlying counties around Nashville, it quickly become very popular. For the first few years, a wait of at least an hour and a half on Saturday night would be considered slow. A few times we briefly went on 3 hour waits. I would literally cook close to thousand steaks some nights and I was one of the few guys who could hang with the rush, sometimes by myself. Typically on a weekend night they would assign 2 people to the grill just to keep up, but I generally worked better doing everything myself until things got really nuts. At Outback, when you got "in the weeds", you were really in the weeds. 20-30 tickets sitting in the inbox waiting just to be put on the grill. It was pretty crazy at times. Still, some nights everything would be clicking at all stations and we would just be flying food out of the kitchen, in a zone, working smart but not frantically. There is nothing quite like that feeling. I still have dreams occasionally about being back in a restaurant and being completely in the weeds, usually during times in my life when I'm really stressed.
During my senior year, most weeks I was working full-time (40 hours or more) plus taking a full load of classes. In retrospect it wasn't ideal and I missed out on a lot of the college experience, but it did allow me to leave school with a degree and less than $15K of debt. If I ever have kids in college, I wouldn't want them to have quite the same expectation or experience, but I do think working while in college is beneficial and it certainly makes you take it more seriously when you are plopping down hard-earned money.
That was pretty much the last full-time restaurant job I had. I graduated from college and moved on to other things. But I actually look back on my times in restaurants with mostly fondness and at one point a few years back I seriously looked into culinary school as an option for a change in career. I think I would've needed to stay in the restaurant world and work my way up to better restaurants while I was younger. It takes quite awhile to get to the point where being a chef actually makes even any money at all and sometimes people never get there. But there are certainly aspects of that that still fascinate me.