Jun 23, 2023, 05:57AM

Assault and Battery, Geriatric Waitresses, And Praying For the Children At The Moose Club

How I got turned into a kitchen hack.

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My first week on the job at the Moose Club, Steve arrived in the kitchen late Sunday morning, tardy by 15 minutes, and intent on getting something to eat (our white-on-white biscuits with canned sausage gravy) before beginning his prep duties as a line cook. Steve then repaired to the outdoor smoking section, whereupon Josh—the Hulk-like "head cook"—began growling, then snarling. An explosion was brewing. When Steve deigned to return to the kitchen, Josh dragged him out the back door and punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground. Steve then called the police.

Josh, a former star football player who'd done time for felony assault, got fired for workplace violence, right? No. Heroin-addicted Steve, who wore a black band on one arm to conceal all the tracks (he told me he wore it for "support") got the axe. Upon hearing that outcome, I realized I'd entered a bizarre, dysfunctional work culture where anything goes.

The Loyal Order of Moose—the fraternal organization's official name—was founded in 1888 in Mooseheart, Illinois, an unincorporated community. "Mooseheart" is the name of the orphanage the Moose Club runs there, 38 miles west of Chicago. The club's stated mission revolves around charities such as this one, and community service, but from my perspective it was mainly a place where $60 in annual dues gets a white (there was only one black member), working-class crowd a place where they can eat and drink on the cheap, plus bingo on Wednesday nights. The Moose Club's a country club for plumbers and welders. Bingo night always depressed me.

Compounding my dissatisfaction with the dump I'd ended up in was the fact that I'd once worked as a line cook at Wolfgang Puck's Spago. It was like getting demoted from MLB down to sandlot baseball. This is what can happen when you need a job fast to make next month's rent. Dave, the "kitchen manager" (no chefs in this kitchen) whose previous culinary experience was working at Wendy's, even tried pressuring me into coughing up $60 to become a member, in order to show my "commitment." I declined, explaining that I demonstrated sufficient commitment by showing up for work on time every day, and adding that I wouldn't ever come to the Moose on my days off, meaning it would amount to a $60 donation. Dave told me I couldn't buy a drink at the bar after my shift because only members could do that, an order I ignored.

The Moose’s kitchen was a dump with dirty rags scattered all over the floor and jerry-rigged shelves that could drop a heavy cutting board on your head. Like the dark, uninviting dining room, it looked like not a cent had been put into it since the 1950s. The Moose Club kitchen had no culinary standards because its members had no culinary standards. Minimizing costs was the primary concern. That point was driven home on my first day there, when I learned  how  to make their popular—yet abominable—Cobb salad, which lacked the main ingredient, grilled chicken, as well as avocado slices, because these are the only two ingredients that cost anything. The soggy, disgusting bacon we used came out of a refrigerated bag. It was ground fine, like hamburger meat, and looked raw and unpalatable. While I'd immediately leave a restaurant serving me such slop, the club members ate it up, with no valid complaints that this wasn't even a Cobb salad, and that it was gross to boot. But my self-loathing soon yielded to apathy. If the customers and management didn't care, then why should I? I'd become a hack.

As Robert, a fellow cook and cynic, explained it, most of the customers were too drunk to discern the poor quality of their meals. I nicknamed Robert "Bobby Angles'' because he knew all the angles on how to cook food for himself during the shift without paying (not allowed), and how to procure food to take home later on. Bobby Angles told me he and his girlfriend's weekly grocery bill was around zero.

Mike, another cook from Chicago, would brag about the high standards of the junior college cafeteria he'd once worked in. I never told him I'd worked at Spago, which he'd probably never heard of. Mike, who’d lived in Mooseheart as a teenager after both his parents died, was an avid, old-school football fan whose pet peeve was NFL players who wouldn't play when injured, even seriously. When I'd explain the severity of the injury in question, Mike always responded, "I don't give a shit. If I was the owner, I'd tell him to get his fuckin' ass back on the field or he's not getting paid a dime!" These rants amused me, so every Monday I'd wind Mike up by bringing up the latest NFL injuries in order to prompt another outburst. He always came through.

Cooks generally enjoy the fact that they get to interact with young waitresses, but this was far from the case at the Moose, where a waitress was considered young if she was 75. All of the servers (woman only) were called "volunteers," because the Moose Club refused to pay them, even though they also had to work as dishwashers during their waitressing shift because the club was too cheap to hire a dishwasher. As compensation, they were elevated to boss-level workers who management treated with great deference.

There was nothing these ladies enjoyed more than ratting out kitchen workers. One day, one of them told a manager that two cooks were smoking weed in the kitchen, which never happened. When cooks want a toke, they duck out back. One day I complained to one of the more daft of these old ladies that the members, with their many demands (e.g. "extra crispy fries"), act like they're VIPs. "They're members, so they're all VIPs," she informed me. VIP status comes cheap at the Moose Club.

Soon enough, dealing with a subpar kitchen, privileged members, and narc-like, geriatric waitresses became too much to bear. On my last night, as I walked through the dining room, I witnessed the Moose Club's 9:00 ritual. The lights were dimmed, and the Moose "governor" told all the members to stand for this bedtime prayer for the children of Mooseheart:

Governor: It’s now 9 o'clock, and the little children at Mooseheart kneel by their beds to say their evening prayers. Let us face towards Mooseheart, bow our heads, and join them in silent prayer.

[Chimes ring nine times]

Governor: Repeat after me... Let the little children come to me.

Members: (repeat)

Governor: Do not keep them away.

Members: (repeat)

Governor: For they are like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Members: (repeat)

Governor: God bless Mooseheart.

Members: (repeat)


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