There have been a lot of cooks at the Frolic. It’s a stressful job. Some have what it takes. Some don’t. Some make a game out of it to lighten the intensity. Practical jokes like when Marla puts a little red rubber ball on Big John’s salad instead of a cherry tomato and Big John throws it back into the kitchen. Doug makes faces on various entrees that go out. He sends one to Bonnie Raitt—an Enchinada with alfalfa sprout hair, a cherry tomato nose, a half slice or orange for a mouth and shredded beets for a moustache—and she sends the leftovers back arranged in a funny face. It may be amateurish but the customers seem to love it.
When it’s slow the kitchen crew experiments with goofy conglomerations like the Mega Cholesterol Sandwich created by Skipper and Doug—four fried Farmer John sausages piled high with greasy onions and topped off with four slices of melted American cheese served on a grilled English muffin. Another novelty, Johnny Robbin’s Blasto Burger, is the result of competence, agility and short work breaks. He presses a 2-ounce chunk of hamburger on the bottom of a large soup pot, addresses the stove, holds the pot forward and then steps into a trot toward the grill much like a pole vaulter until he hits fill stride and slams the bottom of the soup pot and its unfortunate burger straight onto the sizzling grill. He holds the pot for ten seconds then flips the incinerated chunk of blastomeat off the bottom of the pan and onto a waiting bun. Serendipity contributes to some of the culinary innovations like when a careless waitress spills a can of garlic powder into Jeanne’s chocolate cream pie filling. Jeanne is on break and it is served before anyone knows. It’s probably best the boss doesn’t see these antics, thinks Mac. The boss says, “I don’t want to know about it as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.” And, it doesn’t. Well, maybe it does once. Doug and Weinie improvise a quick vegetable soup. They feign French accents and Weinie pours a gallon of burgundy wine into the pot without thinking. It takes a lot of explaining and a fair amount of chicken bouillon to cover up. Thus was born “Tres Burgundy Vegetable Soup.”
Sometimes the boss does get involved.
One day, a novice cook in full panic mode pounds on the door of the house next to the restaurant where the boss lives.
“We’re out of half the menu because there are no more Tomatoes Versatile!” says the cook.
“What?” says the boss.
“We can’t make the sauces for the calamari, the ground beef Italian, or the two veal dishes. We can’t make the Bouillabaise,” explains the cook.
“Whoa. Slow down,” says the boss. “You say we have no more Tomatoes Versatile?”
“Where do you think Tomatoes Versatile come from?” asks the boss.
“From Monarch Foods, and they don’t deliver for two more days,” says the cook impatiently.
“No. I mean where do they really come from?” asks the boss.
The cook gives the boss a puzzled look. “From Monarch, like I said. Maybe we could get some from Mendosas?”
Mendosas is the local family run market up the block. There are those who say the Frolic will close if Mendosas closes because whenever the restaurant runs short of something, and that is most of the time, someone is sent to fetch it from Mendosas. The boss looks at the cook and smiles.
“No. Tomatoes Versatile comes from tomatoes. You know that, right?” says the boss. “Don’t we have a few cases of tomatoes in the walk-in?”
“Yea, I guess,” says the cook.
“So, here’s what to do. Pull out a case of tomatoes, boil the skins off, crush them up and add a few spices and herbs. Now, go back to work. I want everything on the menu tonight. No excuses.”
“Huh. I never thought of that,” says the cook scratching his head. “It’ll work. Sure it will.” And off the cook goes.
Common sense is essential for the smooth operation of a restaurant kitchen. By the back door of the Frolic kitchen there is a cloth laundry sack held open by a metal stand. Above the rack sack there is a double light switch. One switch controls the kitchen lights and the other controls the power to the dishwasher. Every new dishwasher experiences a moment of panic when the dishwasher stops working. It’s usually a simple matter of a careless waitress or cook throwing a dirty towel into the rack sack and knocking off the power switch to the dishwasher. The boss waits to see if the rooky dishwasher can figure it out. They seldom do. This makes the boss look like a genius when he steps in to right the situation. Common sense is all it really is.
Some of the cooks are seasoned professionals. No such antics for them. They take the job seriously. Eventually they go on to start their own restaurants like Oscar or Jamie and they are successful. For others the job is a step along the way to something entirely different—teaching, art, or spiritual fulfillment.
Mac watches the cooks come and go. The early cooks—Mary Lou, Marla, Aimee, Lorna, Sandy, Linda, Sis—are not professional chefs, aspiring foodies like the folks the boss talks about from the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley. They are good cooks like grandmothers are good cooks. They cook comfort food from recipes handed down through generations. There is no Indian food at the Frolic but Mac remembers the chapatis with ghee, the vindaloo and the biryani his grandmother says came from Goa where his great great grandfather was born. When his mother dies, there is no one to keep those recipes alive. It’s sad.
Food brings people together. That’s what makes the Frolic work. It’s true for the customers and for the cooks. Mary Lou quits and the boss steps in to cook days. He hires Gary and Sharon, Vicki and Georgia. When Skipper takes over he brings in Claudia. Jeanne replaces Henrietta. Doug, Weinie and Bush handle dinner. Noyes, Robbin and Sheldon, technically dishwashers like Mac, transform into cooks helpers when needed. A lot of cooks pass through the Frolic, Peter and Jon, Gottsche, LaRoche, Rico.
The boss says he met Rico in San Francisco. He goes into a restaurant across from A.C.T. and Rico is there. He hears Rico talk about being a chef so he asks Rico if he would like a job in Mendocino. Just like that Rico is cooking days at the Frolic while he writes a book. He carries his manuscript around everywhere he goes but the boss says Rico doesn’t want to share it until it’s done. Things like this happen all the time at the Frolic.
“Norman is a very capable chef,” says the boss. “I learn every day from him. Like how to fillet fresh Petrale sole, how to make the pastry for Beef Wellington or how to roll out fresh pasta. Skipper is also incredible. His easy-going demeanor keeps things running smoothly even under the hectic circumstances when the Frolic gets busy.” Mac sees hectic nights at the Frolic when the kitchen serves over three hundred dinners. He cannot believe the Frolic turns over the dining room tables five or six times on a busy night.
Each cook creates some lasting item on the menu whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, a daily special, a technique or an atmosphere that pervades the kitchen like the frivolity of Doug and Weinie, the tension of Peter and Jon, the practical knowledge of Gary, the dependability of Sharon, Vicki and Georgia, the serious striving for perfection of Norman, or the steady hand of Skipper who keeps all the diverse elements together. Jeanne’s pies and desserts and coffee cake make everything better. The result is a smorgasbord as eclectic as the decor of the old Cellar Bar or as serendipitous as the breakfast scrambles or Yogi Bowls that Gary invents. The best results happen spontaneously when everyone can say we did it ourselves. Some favorite dinner items date to the Hawleys—Chicken Kiev, Sweetbreads, Calamari, Oysters. The boss adds new favorites—Lamb Persian, Large Shrimp sautéed with mushrooms, Bouillabaisse.
Evelyn and Vera—conservative locals—manage to get along with new hip arrivals like Taganashi and Carol. Carol is also a nurse. She is there when Captain Fathom passes out on the back stairs of the dining room. She is also there when B-Not cuts himself on a broken beer bottle. Seems like she’s always around when she’s needed. So many cooks, Mac gets dizzy just trying to remember.
One night after the Frolic closes the folks from The Restaurant in Fort Bragg come to teach the boss some tricks of the trade like how to wrap the handles of the sauté pans so you can pick them up without getting burned. The boss says what goes around comes around. It does seem to.
The customers, just like the employees, divide along insider outsider lines. Insiders—locals—are folks born on the coast who often have roots going back generations like Brin. Even if you’ve lived somewhere else most of your life, you’re still a local if you have roots. But, no matter how long you’ve lived on the coast, you’re not a local if you don’t have roots. Mendocino is very insular, thinks Mac. He is welcomed but the locals are wary. Like many small towns life goes on unperturbed by world events. People work hard, rest well, and come together to celebrate special occasions. Life is difficult but people seem happy.
Practical jokes keep the staff loose. Sexual innuendo keeps everyone coming back. The male customers ogle the waitresses, the female customers ogle the waiters, the employees ogle each other. At least that’s what Mac sees. He keeps his head down. He washes dishes, busses tables, runs errands but most of all he sees. He never tells what he sees but he always makes sure he sees what he sees. This is very important.