A Taste of Labor: Cooking in Hy-Vee’s kitchen

A Post By: Michael Gallo

In the spirit of Labor Day I thought I would write a piece about one of my first jobs.  As an innocent sophomore in high school I decided I needed spending money for whatever I was spending money on at the time. Perhaps beef jerky. Perhaps new Yankees shirts (around sophomore year of high school my mother decided some of the Yankees shirts I had had since I was 8 were starting to look a little ratty. She would wait until I was at school and throw these shirts out, bypassing the can in the kitchen and throwing them straight into the can in the garage).  Regardless, I applied to three places and only got one call back.

In the interview with Hy-Vee my future boss told me they needed help in the kitchen.  I told him I was deathly allergic to dairy and didn’t feel comfortable handling food all day. He didn’t care.  A week later I started work in Hy-Vee’s kitchen.  Here are some of my memories from what I refer to as the “Salad Days”.

-My responsibilities included: Frying mass amounts of food, changing out scorched food from beneath heat lamps, completing easy recipes for catered meals, and doing dishes until my hands became red and raw.  It was all worth it though. At exactly 5pm every adult in the store left leaving only high school age kids in various departments having to stay until closing time around 9:30pm.  This was a terrible idea on Hy-Vee’s part. Without supervision I discovered a dangerous amount of enormous kitchen knives and a steady supply of flammable materials.  With my job’s duties done, I usually found various ways to get chicken legs stuck in lights, discovered how many times you could put a potato through a dishwasher, and how many things you could slice completely through with a kitchen knife about the size of a samurai sword. During these hours I noticed a significant drop off of things like: customer service, efficiency, safety, logic, and overall intelligence.  One time, after having put an entire watermelon into the deep fryer I heard a voice in my head say “You without adult supervision is a disaster waiting to happen”. I didn’t disagree.

– The kitchen was connected to the Chinese department by the pizza department.  At the time, the pizza department was run by a skin head who used to side arm wads of heavy pizza dough at people’s heads. Often times, he would come to work and describe how he gotten so drunk the night before that he had pissed his pants. One time, while he was swinging around a large machete meant for cutting pizza into slices, an elderly female customer grunted at him. He stepped towards her and asked if he scared her. I don’t remember his name. I bet he’s dead now.

-The Chinese department was run by an Asian man named Andrew. Andrew had a bad temper and a wicked accent. He replaced his L’s with R’s. I’d frequently ask him what he did with the pan of meatloaf I had just put down, so I could hear him say meatloaf. One time, a fellow employee who I went to school with was low on cash so I gave him some Chinese food for a discounted price (the only cash register was in the kitchen). Andrew saw this from a distance and came running towards my friend. The conversation went as follows:

Andrew: Did you pay for dat foo??

My Friend: Yeah! Calm down!

Andrew: Ret me see the receipt!

My Friend: I don’t have it, I threw it out.

Andrew: I shoot you in the god damn head!

My Friend: What did you just say!?

Andrew: Huh?…nothing.

Andrew backed off but claimed if I ever dealt out discounted Chinese food again, he’d have me fired. The threat kept me up at night.

-Andrew immigrated to the United States and brought with him a man by the name of Shing. Shing was Andrew’s father. But not his biological father. Shing wasn’t from where Andrew was from. Andrew spoke Mandarin. Shing did not. Shing also didn’t speak English. Shing spoke Shing. A series of grunts and high pitched giggles that he’d answer any and all questions with.  On breaks he would eat a whole fish and a single orange. Then he would sit with his arms crossed and sleep for exactly 20 minutes. On the dot. There was no give or take, he woke up on the dot every break he took. He must have had a biological clock equal in accuracy to a digital clock.  One time, while Shing slept, we crept into the dining area next to the kitchen.  We carefully and quietly took down the clock on the wall.  We spun the hands until it was almost an hour ahead.  We quietly crept back into the kitchen and waited another 30 seconds.  Then we burst into the dining room screaming and telling Shing that the Chinese food was all gone and angry customers were lined up demanding food. Shing looked up at the clock then made a sound similar to a seven year old who has never seen fireworks before. He jumped up squealing and ran to the Chinese counter. When he saw that all the food was still there and no one was waiting he giggled and acted like he was going to slap all of us in the face.  I was curious how he had known what we were saying…

-At one point the Chinese department got a new employee. His name was….no one really knew his name.  He was an old Asian man who claimed he had been a General in the Taiwanese military. We started calling him General Tso. General Tso had bad back problems and also couldn’t read English very well.  One time, while gathering various necessities (probably 10 pound jugs of soy sauce and wok oil) General Tso climbed the wooden ladder to the top of the produce fridge.  This was where all the food departments kept their extra materials.  For 12 feet you were safely above the produce fridge.  But if you crossed a black and yellow striped line, you were now walking on the ceiling tiles of the Meat Department.  In big block letters was a warning message that went something like this

DO NOT CROSS THIS LINE

General Tso couldn’t read English very well. General Tso, holding a vat of soy sauce crossed the black and yellow striped line and went crashing through the Meat Department’s ceiling.  During business hours people at the Meat counter were treated to a high pitched scream accompanied by an elderly Asian man coming through the ceiling.  He landed about two feet from an operating meat slicer.  Having hurt his back even worse General Tso hung up his apron and disappeared. I bet he’s dead now.

-People in the kitchen had a close and complicated relationship with the guys who worked in the Produce Department.  We shared good times together. Like when we would soak knives in rubber cement and then light them on fire.  As you stood there holding two flaming cleavers you would have a friend take your picture while the flames licked your wrist and burnt off the hair in patches that would never grow back. Sometimes you would drop the knives and flaming droplets of rubber cement would spray off and land on things, burning them or catching them on fire. Safety was our main concern.

-One time, a worker in the Produce Department (this guy had once played golf and drank a beer per hole) put two M-80s (a pretty decent sized explosive) into a whole watermelon.  During business hours he placed this watermelon into a trash compactor and set it off. The boom rattled through the entire store, scaring people going through the cashier lines at the opposite end of the store. That guy was cool. He isn’t dead.

-At the time, Hy-Vee wanted all employees to be clean shaven every day. EVERY GOD DAMN DAY! Hy-Vee was pretty similar to the Marine Corps so I can see why they carried this out with a do-it-or-die mentality. I never shaved. At the time I grew about 19 hairs on my face (I’m up to 119 now). A girl in the Meat Department had more facial hair than I did. But it didn’t matter. One time a fascist manager named Jeff (did I mention he was a fascist?) noticed the light reflecting off my 19 hairs. He made me shave. I complained. He still wanted me to shave.  I went into the employee bathroom and found a single blade disposable razor and 20 cent shaving cream (Hy-Vee brand, wouldn’t you know!) It was like shaving with a cheese grater. I left with 6 deep gashes in my neck and face.  To teach Jeff a lesson I didn’t wipe off the blood and let it drip down my neck and soak into my collar. This lasted for about 40 seconds before Jeff came back and made me go home and change.  Apparently, people get really weird about blood near food.

-Since it was my first job, I had a hard time grasping the concept of customer service. This was in Johnson County mind you, not all the moms are what you’d call “pleasant”. At the time I also had what most doctors would call an “attitude problem”. It was a real condition. One time a female, middle aged customer approached the food case. The conversation went as follows:

Woman: Is there any fried chicken?

I look at her, then down to the empty fried chicken pan. Then back up to her.

Me: No.

Woman: Seriously?

Me: Yeah.

Woman: How long will it take to make more? (You could sense a trifle bit of agitation in her voice)

Me: About 30 minutes.

Woman: Jesus Christ!

Me: Yeah something like that.

The woman made a weird scoffing noise and then wheeled her cart off in a run. I went back to what I was doing. Which was actually working, I distinctly remember, I was wiping down a rotisserie oven with one napkin at a time. I thought about the encounter with the woman. She had said “Jesus Christ” not “well, could you make some for me please?” so I didn’t make any. Who’s fault is that!? Mine. Half an hour later she came back and looked at the empty pan.

Woman: Where’s the fried chicken!?

Me: Still in the freezer

The woman laughed in a really weird way and then ran off again. Moments later Jeff the Fascist came back to the kitchen. It was at that moment that I discovered the customer comes first. Where would the world be without fascists grocery store managers.

Eventually I worked my way up. That’s not true at all. When I took time off work for high school wrestling I got demoted and upon my return had to work as a cashier for some time before I could rejoin the forces in the kitchen. This would be like A-Rod coming back to the Yankees off the DL but having to clean toilets in Yankee Stadium first. But I did my time. Upon my glorious return I was able to start driving the catering van. Two months later after having accidentally driven the van onto the front yard of a large Lutheran Church spilling their entire taco bar lunch in the process, I decided Hy-Vee and I should go our separate ways.

I learned a lot of important things at Hy-Vee. Like, if you’re not careful you could end up working for an incompetent, fascist grocery store manager who checks out young women at the bank across from the kitchen while making noises like “Unh” and “Huuuuufff”. One time he saw a young girl in a short skirt and said “If only I knew then, what I know now”. My response was something like “Yeah Jeff, then what?”

He never responded. Some things are better left a mystery.

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