Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Art of Improvisation

The only time I ever worked in a restaurant kitchen was in 1975.

I was a dishwasher.

As a fledgling theatre artist, I moved to New York City to try out the bustling theatre scene. I was crashing on the living room floor of a college friend who tended bar at a downtown comedy club. One fateful night, the club's porter failed to show and I got the desperate call: could I come and fill in?

The club was The Improvisation. The Improv, as it came to be known, was the grandaddy of the comedy showcases. Nestled in the heart of Hell's Kitchen, it was a small, brick, two-room dive with a small stage shoved into the corner of the dining room. Off of the dining room was a galley kitchen manned by George, the self-proclaimed chef de cuisine,, the reluctant porter, "porter" being a catch-all for dishwasher, janitor, stock boy, etc.

George was southern-born and a mostly self-taught chef. He had enormous pride and a fiery temper. He was eventually fired for assaulting the owner with a chef's knife.

It was a lively place.

The Improv was a breeding ground for upcoming comic talent. It had nurtured stars like Rodney Dangerfield and Robert Klein (both of whom stopped in for guest appearances while I was there; both were amazing.). Richard Lewis was the regular weeknight emcee. Larry David, already an established comedy writer, was developing his stage persona. Richard Belzer, a comic's comic, was a local legend.

And three years before appearing on TAXI, Andy Kaufman rolled out his Tony Clifton nightclub singer. Clifton was a vile character that directly antagonized the audience to such a degree that I once saw him threatened by a guy in the crowd with a broken beer bottle. I heard Andy tell a colleague:
"My goal isn't to be funny, it's to get a reaction. If I get a reaction, good or bad, then I'm getting what I want."
He got a reaction, all right. The audiences got so hostile that no other comics would follow him.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, George prepared his burgers served on English muffins, soups, honey fried chicken, barbecue ribs, and chili (!). Besides the standard bar fare, the menu stretched out a bit featuring a lot of chicken. There was Chicken Parmigiana, Coq Au Vin, and I would watch him bone chicken for his own Chicken a la George: boneless breasts sauteed in garlic butter with white wine and mushrooms. This was topped with swiss cheese and run through the salamander until brown and bubbly.

Although my focus was much more on my budding theatre career, he noticed and was flattered by my interest in his cooking. He started using me as a prep cook. I peeled and sliced onions for the onion soup and potatoes for the fries. I assembled and watched the chili (!!), and prepped the caesar salads. He taught me to make a roux, which was a base for all his soups, including his housemade peanut butter soup.

I left the Improv and New York after about 8 months, but not after grabbing the confidence to wield a kitchen knife, whisk a beurre blanc, and brew a wicked onion soup.

And as for Chicken a la George, I have been making that dish for the last 30 years, although it no longer bears any resemblance to George's original.

And I wish I had paid more attention to that wondrous sauce for the Coq Au Vin.

A lot of culinary seeds were planted during my time in that comedy club.

It also explains why my food frequently tastes funny.

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