“Ridiculous as it may be that I should expect so much for myself from roulette, yet I consider even more ridiculous the conventional opinion accepted by all that it is stupid and absurd to expect anything from gambling.”
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Gambler
In the closing remarks left pinned to the kitchen bulletin board at my last job, I declared my long-held belief that cooks are among the luckiest people in the world. This was an assertion unexpectedly supported by recent events on I-95 – among the survivors of the horrific March 12th casino-bus accident were two gentlemen, both in their fifties, who both listed their profession as “cook.” These guys were practically still wearing hospital gowns and blood-soaked socks when they climbed onto the next available casino bus, ready to escort Lady Luck back to the tables, back to the one-armed bandits. I’m not sure there is anything lucky about line cooking into your fifties, I’m afraid, or being on that particular bus in the first place, but these guys told the papers they were feeling lucky.
This is not the “opportunity meets preparation” sort of luck, the predictable outcome of diligent networking and having your answers ready when you are called upon. The group practicing this variety of luck usually has their retirement accounts set up, they wear slacks and/or blouses. They have expensive hobbies. They tend to be seen as lucky by the less organized and more covetous among us, but this isn’t the kind of luck that spares: this is simply good analytics, and chance has very little to do with their success.
The more you tease at the meaning of luck, the more slippery the strands become – there is a striking difference between the luck of preparedness and the luck the draw, there are those who are “lucky to be alive” and those who are “lucky to have never stepped foot on a casino bus,” there is chance, risk, gambling, odds-playing and the occasional stroke of luck that looks like benediction. You see this in kitchens all the time: there are cooks who are always prepared, their lists are completed, their mise is set up, their back-ups are filled and easily reached. The other cook, the one who was mostly ready before service, will play the odds throughout the evening – he might have only eight orders of mussels, but he knows the house hasn’t sold more than seven in one night since the dish went on the menu; a big part of his set-up is leaving several things to Chance, an unreliable employee at best, and, the occasional sauce notwithstanding, a really terrible line cook.
When the twelve top comes in at five minutes to close, both line cooks are already wiped down and ready to head out the door. Both line cooks see the twelve top, both experience a frisson of dread, followed by feelings of joyful good fortune when the seated group reveals they are only in for drinks and desserts (the bartender and pantry cooks might not feel so lucky). Chance and Preparedness head to the bar for their shift drink, making fun of the pantry cook on their way off the line. As their careers unfold, Chance will probably stay in the rank and file. Preparedness will probably go into management. Both will probably become alcoholics.
Luck manifests itself in odd places in kitchens. There are a million anomalies: weather, newspaper write-ups, a cook’s plantar wart acting up, and each anomaly acts as its own set of butterfly wings flapping in the walk-in.
But what happens when relying on luck – on chance – becomes a way of life? What happens when a good cook decides to become a professional gambler?
Let’s visit 1987 for a moment and take a quick look at a cautionary tale. And, no, this is not a way of steering the reader clear of the Chicken Cordon Bleu. For a frozen brick of chicken, ham and cheese, smothered in a Knorr’s powder-based white sauce, it really wasn’t too bad.
Back then, Boulder’s Dinner Theater's kitchen was staffed by four guys in their mid-to-late twenties, a couple of recent high school graduates, and one 17-year old girl with close cropped hair and a pretty long “tail” that she sported in honor of Rupert Greenall, the keyboard player for the Fixx. This girl caught the fancy of one of the cooks, a young man who happened to be working on his poker career. Every girls’ father’s dream. Over the course of the next few years, she learned one or two things about gambling, and graduated from college with some clear ideas about risk versus reward, luck versus winningness, and truth versus consequences. So maybe there was a little bit of imprinting, thinking that gambling and kitchens go together like a suited A-4 and an A-A-4 flop.
A good Chef is able to sift through disparate factors and come up with the number of specials you should run, the poundage of root vegetables necessary on any given evening, the projected busy-ness on a week by week basis. Restaurants, like any business built upon sales of a product and the vagaries of the public, are usually staffed by decent gamblers, a lot like the professional handicappers you see at the dog track, the older guy poring through the program with a yellow highlighter. A good Chef, like a good gambler, is a numbers player, a non-risk-averse adrenalin junky, who will only occasionally look to Chance to get the job done.
I was talking to my friend Guy about the relationship between gambling and restaurants the other day over a game of Seattle Six Dice, a game in which numbers players and riverboat gamblers can harmlessly splash around in a wellspring of luck; it’s a haven for us. He pointed out that Vegas rules apply to successful restaurants, too: The House always wins. A great Happy Hour is like a casino with loose slots – folks will come back and spend more.
In a recent Esquire magazine interview, Las Vegas Iron Chef Michael Seymon had this to say in response to the question, “Do you think part of being a good chef is being a good gambler?”
MS: Being a chef, you can't let yourself get stuck in waves of emotion, which makes you a good gambler. Any chef or restaurateur — when you're getting into a business where 70 percent of them fail — I would say is pretty good at risk-taking.
I wonder if he also feels lucky.
Luck may be no more than a matter of perception, which means you get to have as much as you can perceive around you. I believe that cooks are lucky, not because they are gamblers, but because there is something gorgeous about the impermanence of food, something about the disruption and subsequent consumption of a composed plate, that calls to mind the good fortune of glancing out of a car window to see a double rainbow -- transient beauty. I believe cooks are lucky – that I am lucky – because there is in what we do the occasional glimpse of the sublime.
And then a server bears it away.