the superlative soup boy

Non-fiction, 11/18/10

Not too long ago I worked at a restaurant in Bellingham, making ends meet while I contemplated what to do with my post-undergraduate life. The restaurant was a diner of sorts, with greasy American-style eggs and hash for breakfast and deli sandwiches, soups, and salads for lunch. The food was all quite tasty, might I add. When I began, I was working in the prep kitchen in the back. I was the low man on the totem pole, slicing meats, cheeses, and vegetables for hours, standing all the while, zoning out to the metronomic rhythm of the blade biting through various foodstuffs: Shunk, Shunk, Shunk, Shunk. It was in this banal milieu that I met, and eventually came to admire, the man known as Soup Boy.

Soup Boy was not a boy, nor did anything about him suggest boyishness, or youth in the slightest. He was sixty years old, tall and slender, with tiny eyes that blinked furiously behind his thick eyeglasses. His skin was pale, almost sallow, revealing bluish veins around his fingers and knuckles. He was an old man in a chef’s coat. Nobody actually called him Soup Boy but himself, when he would speak in the third person (more on this later). Sometimes we kitchen serfs would take up Soup Boy’s name in vain, or in jest, but only when he wasn’t around.

While I slaved away at the slicer, Soup Boy was busy preparing his soups. He came in twice a week to whip up enormous cauldrons of soup that lasted us for days. He brought his own knives and cooking utensils from home, carefully wrapped up in a band of black cloth held together with Velcro. We would set up our respective work stations across the kitchen from one another and while away the hours. For the first few weeks, we didn’t say much to each other. Soup Boy was sizing me up, trying to decide what kind of worker I was; I was simply concentrating on keeping all of my fingers intact. His responses to all my “new guy” inquiries were usually terse and not entirely helpful. I would have to earn his respect. Occasionally he would walk over while I was slicing ham, grab a piece, pop it in his mouth, and invariably say something like, “Wow! It’s like a salt lick.” I would nod in solemn agreement, not wanting to actually taste the ham myself. Not matter how salty he claimed the ham was, he still came back for more. After a month or so, Soup Boy began asking me about my life, my interests, hobbies, that sort of thing. I guess he decided I was all right. He had been an aspiring food critic back in the day, he told me, so we bantered on about the joys of writing for a good long time. Soup Boy, I soon discovered, had spent most of his adult life in kitchens working various capacities. The guy knew a lot about food. When I mentioned that I too enjoyed cooking and other gastronomic pursuits, he seemed keen to share his knowledge and expertise with me.

Of course, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Soup Boy just loved to hear himself talk. Some days, Soup Boy would blithely hold forth on a wide range of topics, jumping from one to the next, expounding theories and ideas to all who cared to listen. Even if we clearly didn’t care, he still jabbered on. The most illustrative example of this curious solipsism was his habit of referring to himself in the third person. “Soup Boy has arrived!” was a common utterance upon his entering the kitchen. At first I laughed; then I realized he was serious. “Soup Boy saves the day!” was reserved for times in which the soup du jour was finished just as the lunch rush began—a clearly heroic feat. And throughout the day, jubilant cries of “Soup Boy goes home early!” would raise our spirits palpably, though sometimes we wished he would just leave already and eschew the announcement.

Soup Boy had a knack for the bon mot. In his witty, antediluvian way, I found him hilarious. He took to calling me “Pyotr” (Russian for “Peter”, though why I will never know) and loved making fun of my hair, which, once it became too long to be kitchen-appropriate, I had to restrain by way of headbands. “Hey Pyotr, Andre Agassiz wants his hairstyle back,” or, “You look like you just stepped out of a hurricane.” He was fond of simile and sometimes said the most baffling things: “Don’t turn the mixer any higher than that, otherwise you’ll be shellacking the walls with cream cheese.” “That’ll fall apart faster than a Kmart shirt.” “We have to control the portions, guys—I’m seeing salads go out that look like Conestoga wagons.” Once, after peering into a heavily backlogged dish pit, he remarked to us, “The dishes in there are ass-high on a ten-foot Indian.” Then, without lifting a finger to help, he went home. These are but a paltry sampling; the list of Soup Boy-isms goes on and on. There were days when it was like a sitcom back in the kitchen, complete with cheesy one-liners and the obligate laugh track sounding again and again.

I genuinely liked Soup Boy, which made me an anomaly. Most of the staff thought he was imperious, brash, atavistic—a mean old windbag who lorded over us. But I never found him a bother, and he taught me some great stuff along the way. How to debone a chicken, for instance. Or how to make a Béchamel sauce. I could always count on Soup Boy to deliver the goods, too: His soups were incredible, without fail. Whenever he deemed a soup complete, he’d grab a cup full of spoons and hoist it up, rattling them together. This, we came to recognize, was supposed to be our Pavlovian bell; he wanted us to try his latest creation. “Like vultures to a kill,” he’d say as we gathered round, “vultures to a kill.”

One day Soup Boy was fired for butting heads with the owners, and it was widely regarded among the staff as a cause for celebration. I wouldn’t say that I felt sad, exactly, but I certainly wasn’t elated by the news. For my indifference, I was labeled a Soup Boy sympathizer. His ousting proved beneficent in a way, however: I was given the opportunity to make soups of my own in his stead, which was a lot of fun. Thanks for the memories, Soup Boy.

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