I'd been driving past the place for years, with its permanent "now hiring" sign, always thinking that I’d never get desperate enough to work there. There's a reason that a business is always looking for help—nobody wants to work there. In this case, it was an assisted living facility for the elderly, but not one of the posh ones. It was a low-end place that was little more than a holding facility for the final, sad years of about 85 people. It reeked of depression.
Eventually, I needed a job so badly that I did apply for a line cook position at this "beyond a last resort" place. When I showed up, the director greeted me with an eagerness that spoke of desperation. That's not a good sign, but it did allow me to extract a wage higher than anything I'd previously been paid.
I found out what I'd gotten into immediately upon reporting to work the next day. Lunch was served from a steam table. The main course was angel hair spaghetti with tomato sauce and melted American cheese on top. The thinness of the pasta meant that it would turn to mush after a few minutes, and the American cheese meant that whoever did that wouldn't even qualify to work in an elementary school kitchen. As I've written before, I'd previously worked as a line cook at Wolfgang Puck's Spago, so having descended this far down the culinary was something I tried to banish from my mind. My thoughts were, "This is just a job I need to do for a few weeks to make my rent." I have high culinary standards, but was forced to abandon them to preserve my sanity as I slopped disgusting spaghetti on the plates. These elderly people deserved much better in their sunset years, but I didn't have the ability to give it to them.
At the end of my first shift, the director told me that I'd be in the kitchen alone for the next three days—Saturday, Sunday, and Monday—serving three meals each day to 85 people. Breakfast was a set menu of bacon and eggs, but I'd have to come up with the other two meals for three days on my own. The other cook, Moe, assured me I'd be fine. He wanted the weekend off and would say whatever it took in front of the director.
Breakfast was served the following morning at seven, although my getting hired was based on an agreement that my shift would be 10:00-6:00. The oven was broken, so I had to cook the bacon on the flat top, which hadn't been cleaned the previous day, turning the bacon black. I threw a bunch of it out, so the only remaining option was to cook the rest of it in pans on the stove top, which is too time-consuming to feed a large group. I cooked the scrambled eggs, put them in an aluminum "hotel pan" in the steam table, and watched them turn green from a chemical reaction I didn't know anything about.
Breakfast was a disaster. I had no idea if lunch and dinner would be any better. I was used to preparing food as the orders came in, not preparing meals in advance, in bulk. I had no idea how much food to prepare for all these people, nor did I have any idea what to serve them. But I muddled through. One night I made up 80 ham and cheese subs for dinner. I kept thinking that this is what it felt like working in a prison kitchen. I started calculating the number of days I'd have to stay on the job in order to survive.
On my fourth day, Jerry, the new "kitchen director," joined me. He was a lifer in the institutional food service industry who'd worked 60-80 hour work weeks for several decades. The guy had a million food-service stories, but no stories about life in general. There was no point in asking him for a restaurant recommendation in the town he lived in, or a movie he'd seen. As I told Jerry a story, I could see him tuning me out at a certain point. He was teeing up his own corresponding story.
One of the many aspects of this awful job was that the residents would come into the kitchen to make requests or criticisms. This isn’t acceptable in any commercial kitchen, so when I'd see them coming in, I'd go outside. One woman entered the kitchen and asked me who made the soup. I told her the kitchen made it, even though I'd made it, and she told me the soup was the worst she'd ever had. Perhaps she then felt guilty, because later she came back and said the rolls were good. Another guy came in to tell me he just wanted to see the person who'd made such a horrible meal. I told him it was chicken and biscuits that came out of a can. I was starting to get worn down.
There were several waitresses working at what had to be the worst gig in the town. They made no tips, and had to deal with the ornery, disgruntled old residents who'd line up 30 minutes before meal times. They were so desperate for help in the front of the house that an abrasive, Brooklyn-raised 70-year-old woman named Susan became their main waitress/dishwasher. One day, an irate resident she had an ongoing feud with followed her into the kitchen, saying she smelled like a dead rat. Susan screamed at him, "Suck my dick!"
That's when I knew I knew I had to get out. When I looked out at the dining room, I'd see One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and that applied to some staff members as well. I watched one resident—a woman on meds—fall asleep into her dinner plate one evening. Moe would tell me I had to go out in the dining room and interact with the diners, but I always refused. "If they don't like you," he'd say, "they won't like your food."
I liked Jerry, so I gave him two weeks notice, but Susan, who I'd stopped talking to, would make that promise impossible to fulfill on the very next day. I was making 80 tuna sandwiches for dinner, and she told me I had to wear gloves while doing so. She'd told me this before, without any authority, and I'd ignored her. She then pulled out her phone and began filming me. I pointed out the fact that she wore blue plastic gloves while serving food in the dining room, even though there was a sign posted in the kitchen prohibiting this, per government regulations. But there's no reasoning with a crazy woman. I remember telling her she had serious mental health issues. While Susan went to show her video to the director, I soon got a call from Jerry, asking what was going on. I told him that if she filmed me again, I was walking out. When I went inside and told Susan that, she pulled out her phone to film me, so I left, never to return.