Chef Dan breathed heavily after walking up the stairs, almost losing the intimidating smirk that seemed to be frozen on his Fred Flintstone-like face. I couldn’t help but stare at him waddling like a penguin across the dining area toward our breakfast meeting. The custom-made white chef’s uniform he wore was soiled with pig guts and smeared with reddish-brown barbeque sauce. He reeked of burnt ribs and Old Spice aftershave.
When I’d interviewed to be a waiter at Virgil’s Barbeque in Times Square, the general manager told me that Chef Dan scheduled his vacations around the dates that Southern states had their annual “smoke out” competitions. This was supposed to be the ultimate reinforcement that Virgil’s was a cut above the competition of other barbeque restaurants in the city.
As I finished my hearty pre-shift breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages, ribs and French fries, Chef Dan went over the lunch specials with us. His “Yabba Dabba Doo” loudmouth routine suddenly disappeared as he became uncharacteristically soft and serious.
“I need to address the graffiti that was written on the door to the handicapped bathroom late last night. I was sickened this morning to see, in big black magic marker, the words ‘PORK SUCKS’ on there.” He glared over the room, hoping one of the wait-staff would own up to the desecration.
It was a moment where the big man was looking for empathy, but he received none.
Chef Dan was not a nice man. I grew up in rural New Hampshire, and Chef Dan was everything that frightened me about the big city. Whenever he saw me, he made fun of me: the way I talked, the way I looked (he said I resembled a bespectacled Rick Moranis from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), even how I unevenly put a piece of cornbread onto a plate. It wasn’t just me; everybody on his radar was fair game.
I finally moved that summer to Manhattan, at age 22, and my biggest fear was I wouldn’t meet nice people. To my surprise, the people at Virgil’s were great. They became family. We pooled tips, and whenever I needed help, someone was always there. The Spanish-speaking busboys would greet me enthusiastically by snapping their fingers and singing The Addams Family theme song—their personal ode to my first name.
The only person who wasn’t nice was Chef Dan. I always hoped I’d see another side of him, one with a caring heart. I never did.
It was only a matter of time before someone was going to take a shot at him. Now the shot had been taken, and they’d hit a bull’s eye. Writing “PORK SUCKS” on a bathroom door seemed so simple;, but on the other hand, it was brilliant. The employees collectively experienced a brief moment of euphoria and admiration for the mystery graffiti artist, though we knew there’d be massive repercussions. Sitting at the morning meeting, Chef Dan continued the barrage of venom.
“Now look at you, Michelle. You wannabe a painter. And David, you wannabe a dancer. Of course, Patrick, you wannabe an actor. These are professions you aspire to have.” Then there was dead silence. Everybody was puzzled.
The chef raised his voice, “But for now, let’s get something straight. You’re all waiters at Virgil’s, which Zagat’s described as ‘the barbeque capitol of New York City.’ As long as you work here, pork…doesn’t suck.”
He stopped again, and I thought he’d explode right there, as he started screaming and pounding his fat hairy fist onto a two-top. “BECAUSE PORK PAYS YOUR BILLS. PORK PUTS FOOD IN YOUR MOUTH! AND DON’T YOU WANNABES EVER FORGET IT!”
There he stood, calling out everybody in the meeting. I loathed this man, but I also knew he was correct. It hadn’t been Chef Dan’s intention, but his unforgettable tirade was extremely motivational to me. A year and a half later, when I landed a job as an NBC page, I realized I was moving on to better things because I no longer needed “pork” to help me survive.
I’ve continued to have a soft spot for Virgil’s and still visit often, especially after Chef Dan got canned: Karma finally caught up to him. I’m always grateful for the unexpected free appetizer or dessert that happens to show up with my meals, and I can’t help but smile when the busboys notice me and, as if on cue, start singing that familiar tune from The Addams Family.
Adam Wade is a New York-based writer who still knows the whole Virgil’s menu by heart. You can find more of his work at adamwade.com.