Who doesn’t love a good street festival? I grew up in the area, and had been coming to Taste of The Danforth for years when I got the opportunity that would find me in a new line of work, and in turn shape the next few years of my life. It wasn’t any kind of grand revelation on my part, in fact, I sort of fell backwards into it, and this neighbourhood’s favourite festival had a lot to do with that.
I was twenty when I took my first kitchen job. Younger Jamie knew he liked to write but didn’t know much else. I was home from school for the summer and I needed work. One afternoon I saw an old-fashioned help wanted sign hanging in the window at Patris Dining Lounge, which used to sit across the street from Square Boy.
I was greeted at the door by the formally dressed host and hostess. Peter and Sophie were their names. I should say that they were good at their jobs. Maybe a little too good. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. They started talking to me in rapid-fire Greek as they ushered me to a table and put a menu and a glass of water down in front of me. The first hurdle I had to overcome was convincing them that I wasn’t Greek, and that I didn’t understand a word they were saying to me. It was a conversation I repeated many times with staff and customers in the weeks that followed. It was no one’s fault. I have one of those ubiquitous Caucasian faces that could belong to just about any European origin. After a few minutes of them interrogating me about what my background actually was (Scottish, Irish, and a little bit of Chinese, in case you’re interested) I got around to mentioning the help wanted sign in the window, was moved to a table closer to the back and told to await the manager, Costas.
He didn’t take long to appear. He was a short, energetic man in a dark three-piece suit with a bright red tie, perhaps a little younger than Peter and Sophie, but not much. After repeating the disbelieving enquiries about my lack of Greek ancestry, he asked if I had any experience working in restaurants. I said no. He asked if I could start the next day. I said yes. I was hired.
When I arrived at noon the following day I was shown to the dish pit and introduced to Sharin, the senior dishwasher, a friendly, balding Tibetan man in his mid thirties with perpetual dark circles under his eyes. I learned quickly, working elbow to elbow with him, that he was a recent immigrant and a student of some sort, working three-part time kitchen jobs to pay his tuition and help support his wife and young daughter. I immediately resolved to match his pace, since I wished to prove that I wasn’t just some over-privileged kid looking for an easy couple bucks. When he remarked on my work ethic in the weeks to come, I told him as much, and we laughed together.
I soon began to appreciate the intensity of my new job. Washing dishes isn’t difficult, but it can be physically demanding, even for someone young and fit. Twelve hours on my feet at a time, scrubbing pots in scalding water, stacking hot plates on the line for service, and running up and down a rickety flight of stairs with buckets and trays of vegetables I’d prepped on the fly, as ordered by the chef, was something of a wakeup call to the ways of the working world for someone who’d always worked fairly comfortable, slow paced retail jobs, and who’d spent the rest of their time in the relatively languid (and halfhearted) pursuit of an undergraduate degree. I was exhausted, but it felt good. In fact, I would even say the experience was something I needed. It built character, and gave me my first real hard look into the working world. I’m a stronger person for it.
On my second shift I learned one more important thing. I’d been hired for my height. I’m six foot three inches, and have been since I was seventeen. It’s been a factor in my employment history. Once the restaurant had shut down and I’d helped Sharin tidy and sanitize the dish pit, I figured I was done for the day, and was set to get on my bike and ride home. Not so. Costas had fetched a mop and pail, hefted it onto the now cold flat top, and instructed me to stand up there, reach into the hood vents with the wet mop, and give them a good scrubbing.
The whole ordeal took about fifteen minutes, and at the end of it I was covered from face to waist in wet, black gunk—the congealed, greasy remnants of the fumes of however many meals had gone through the ventilation system since someone had last performed this task.
Costas continued this trend the entire time I worked there. No sooner would I be set to leave for the night than he would produce some unpleasant, time consuming task for me to accomplish before I could head out. I never complained. I had the feeling I was being tested, and responded accordingly, with enthusiasm, eager to prove myself to those older and more experienced than me. I also realized quickly that he basically lived at the restaurant, always the first to arrive and the last to leave, never changing his suit, and frequently doing shots of ouzo with us after a difficult service.
By the time Taste of the Danforth rolled around, I thought I had the measure of the place. That weekend was an education. Despite hiring a half-dozen extra hands we were slammed for four straight days. My twelve hour days became sixteen hour days, fuelled by black coffee and whatever scraps of food I could find time to scarf down standing at the dish pit, usually the garlic bread offered as an appetizer for each meal that often went untouched by customers. I learned that this was called dish pit diving, and was something of an industry staple.
In addition to regular meal service, the restaurant had set up a grill on the street selling skewers of souvlaki to passers-by. I ran trays of meat to the grill whenever they were getting low and prepped a hundred pounds of potatoes a night. The closest thing I got to a break for that whole weekend was when the ladies’ toilet broke, and I had to stand by the men’s letting people in one at a time. At the end of the weekend, Costas he pressed a wad of bills in my hand instead of a paycheque, and told me to take some time to rest. If I wanted to come back for a few shifts before school started again that was fine, if not, I was welcome back any time next summer.
If I’ve made this all sound a little agonizing, that’s because it was, but believe it or not it was fun too. There’s a certain camaraderie that exists in a well-run restaurant during peak season. We all do the same tough job together, so even though some of us could barely speak each other’s languages, we became friends. I learned to take a kind of perverse pride in doing a tough, dirty, badly paying job well and without complaint. More importantly, my experience set me down a career path that would help teach me discipline and organizational skills in a way nothing else in my life had been able to do. I may have decided that cooking isn’t for me, in the long run, but I’ll always look back fondly on the times I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and the lessons I’ve learned, and that all started at Patris Dining Lounge during Taste of the Danforth.