Our Neighbor The Cook is an in-conversation article series featuring interviews with local kitchen managers across Hampton Roads, VA. This conversation is with James McGuffey (or Jamie, as he is affectionately referred to by friends, acquaintances and co-workers) , kitchen manager of Streats located at 915 W 21st St in Norfolk, VA. This interview was conducted by Gabriel Perry on Saturday, March 30th.
Gabriel Perry - Alright, let's go back to the beginning, because some people choose this life, and some of us don't. Without being too long-winded, what got you started in this industry?
James McGuffey - Like everyone else, I started front-of-house to get pocket money, waiting tables and moved up to bar-tending, and I believe after a while I developed a fever for it. Real jobs stop working out, so you get stuck doing whatever this is. As I got older I found myself more in the kitchen, and now it's more of a career than anything else.
G - Without naming any restaurant or staff names of places you've worked previously, what's the worst night you ever had on a line? Worst situation, ever, not just 90 tickets, but everything just falls apart.
JM - There's a few places, not naming names, that I've worked at that are such shit holes, man, that I remember working one night and having literal cockroaches dive-bombing me from the ceiling directly onto my head as I'm cooking entrees. I have a real high threshold for what most people consider gross, but that was a bit much.
G - Not just something gross like cleaning a grease trap, but...
JM - Yeah, I have no problem cleaning the grease trap, but when I have cockroaches dive bombing my head while I'm cooking, I'm done!
G - I worked this place that had, you know, the line to the left, the dish room in the middle and the walk-in on the right. So you had to walk through the dish-room for anything, dishes or food in the walk-in, you know. The room had one drain, so any time it got plugged, the whole room became this 4-6 inches of water really quick, without warning. You're busy and you're fucking wading in sludge water, just gross.
JM - [laughs]
G - It's funny, people that have never worked in the industry, they walk into the front of the place with the attitude, you know, "this place is so lovely" and have no idea how...
JM - The dark underbelly of the place.
G - [laughs] Right, right. Dark underbelly is a real thing. So, this is kind of a nerdy tech question, but. Some cats use whatever knives are in that kitchen, where as some guys are very specific about brands. What about you?
JM - Global knives are my go-to. They're by far the perfect kitchen knives. I don't mind using a knife off the wall, but you get accustomed to one knife and when it fits perfectly it becomes an extention of yourself, so it's important to have your own knife. Once you start changing that, you can really hurt yourself.
G - I was thinking about this Tuesday night, I was working [on the line at Norfolk Taphouse] in a massive rush, and the stereo was playing The Allman Brother's song "Whipping Post" and it felt like this perfect match to the chaos of the moment. It got me thinking, what's your ideal kitchen soundtrack to get you through the rush, or even the mundane prep work?
JM - The thing about this place [Streats] is that it's an open kitchen, so it's pretty limited. But, early hours when we're not open, just doing prep by myself, I love Husker-Du. In other places, I would go for high-energy stuff, also classical music in the middle of the rush, to keep it calm. I'm not so much into the lyrical end during a rush, but something to keep me pumped up. Lyrics just go in and out and I can't have the distraction of that. Anything that keeps you pumped up and moving, that's essential.
G - How do you feel about the quality of food now vs 15, 20 years ago, locally? Do you feel like the public consciousness of food has helped or hurt that?
JM - I think it's improved a lot. With the idea of Food Network and celebrity chefs, you've got people in the mindset of quality. 10, 20 years ago, you had more of, not, you know, in relation to local places and not big box...
G - Yeah, not bullshit like Applebees or Chili's or whatever.
JM - Right, I think the creativity on the local level has gone way, way up because of that. People expect a lot, especially now with locally sourced, organic stuff versus buying supply from Sysco, PFG, etc. I think that's vastly improved the way restaurants are operating. You don't have a lot of places anymore with these 7 page menus...
G - It's not stupid like the Cheesecake Factory novel, just obnoxious.
JM - Right, it's one page, a handful of entrees, and it's a better formula.
G - I went once, to Cheesecake Factory. What a shit show. It looks like the Bellagio in Vegas, just fucking gawdy and ugly, you've got this massive menu that's the size of a fucking brick. It took me something like 17 minutes to make a decision, but the food itself, you know, it was definitely okay.
JM - Yeah fuck that, it's unecessary. There's definitely a difference now, in kitchens, people take it really seriously. You meet a guy that works a line, and it's a badge of honor, whereas 20 years ago, the only person that mattered to customers was the bartender, and nobody even noticed the guy cooking your food.
G - You meet someone and you say "I work a line" and it's an admirable thing like a medal on your chest.
JM - Exactly.
G - On an semi related note, I mean, obviously fuck Yelp, it's mostly a terrible thing and can be a vehicle for self important people, but it's kind of created a transparency with food. It creates a responsibility, because now people will let it be known that your food sucks, that kind of shit. Back in the day, you know, you had to reach someone on a land line, but now you can text someone and tell them to stay away from kitchen X because it's awful.
JM - It's raised the bar.
JM - For me, for here, I hate it. But only because they never really bother to ask if you want your kitchen to be a part of it, they just started showing up. We change our menu semi often, and they show up asking for an old dish we don't have anymore. I also can't guarantee the quality of customer over an online order versus a person here at a table. But, as a consumer, I dig the convenience of it, so I understand the attraction to it. Really though, they definitely need to tighten the service up in terms of how they communicate with the restaurant.
GP - It's like someone trying to order foie gras from Cogan's, over GrubHub. Like when was that ever something they sold?
JM - [laughs]
G - The last thing I wanted to touch on. You'd posted this on your facebook a while back, talking about the elusive day off, which never really seems to actually be a thing in this business. You were saying your routine was close the blinds, draw the curtains, turn on Miles Davis...
Your proper day off, phone is off, nothing happening, what's your day off like?
JM - I hate to say a lot of it is sleeping, but ideally that's what's happening. It's nice to be able to hang out at home and just do nothing. I want to enjoy my home, somewhere I don't get to spend a lot of time at. I usually get in around 3am, so a day off involves a movie and [laughs] putting my feet up. Going thrift store shopping is good too, going to find a new shirt or two to get dirty on the line...