Into the Fryer
I decided at age 17 that I wanted to get into the cooking field. I was working at the time at my father’s grocery store, where Sanford Restaurant is now located. My dad spoke with his local Pabst salesman, Jerry, and asked him if he knew of any entry level jobs in a Milwaukee restaurant. About a week later, Jerry called and said that Kalt’s Restaurant on Oakland, near Locust, was looking for a kitchen helper.
I immediately got over there to interview with Howard Kalt, the owner. I was as nervous as could be as I entered the darkened alcove which led into the bar room. As I turned the corner, I was surrounded by framed, signed caricatures, drawn by Howard himself, of all the stars who had played at the J. Pellman Theatre, located next to the restaurant. This was Milwaukee’s version of Sardi’s, near Broadway, in New York City.
Howard was alone at the corner of the bar and motioned for me to come over. We sat and talked and just as I was ready to hear, “Thanks for coming by but we need someone with a bit of experience,” Howard said, “Can you start next Monday?” “Can I start next Monday? I can start right now!” I’m going to be a cook!
It was another Friday night and I felt like I was floating in a pool of grease. I was trying to man the massive bank of fryers lining the back of the kitchen. I’m not complaining, as this was what I was working my way up to.
I started out as the daytime lunch helper toasting bread, setting parsley on plates, and running the hand pump mini-steamer that reheated the corned and roast beef for sandwiches. Most of the later part of my week was spent getting ready for the big night: Friday Fish Fry. It started with huge heads of cabbage that had to be trimmed and sliced for slaw, then the grating of dried bread for bread crumbs and portioning the cases of Icelandic Cod.
For the first few months of working there, I would walk out at 3:30 after my shift and could only imagine the real-deal cooking that was going on there throughout the night. After pleading my case, I was promoted to the night breading station: three large bus tubs filled with, in order, flour, beaten eggs, and bread crumbs. Beyond a few orders of flaming breaded shrimp, my whole evening was taken up with onion rings. Kalt’s was known for them and nary a table came in that didn’t have a basket on the table. I felt I was fairly proficient at the flour-egg wash-bread crumb process and thought, this is a snap! So I had no fear of going into my first Friday night.
Well, I should have, as the night became a flurry of golden chunks of cod right from the 5:00pm opening. The cook who originally trained me had to jump in and replace me as the clock hit 6:30 and I was behind by a good 30 orders. I backed away from the breading line completely rattled, looked down at where my hands had once been and saw what looked like two large brown car wash mitts. My hands were so encrusted that they had become useless. I then looked over and could hardly focus on her hands, they moved so quickly and gracefully that they became a blur. Five minutes later, she was all caught up and looked over at me with a bit of a smirk while sipping her soda. “Not so simple is it, young blood! I told you the first night…one hand for dry, one hand for wet.”
This is how I ended up in front of the fryers as I was finished at the breading station for that night. I became a lot faster as the weeks progressed and I learned to never underestimate the difficulty of any job. Today’ recipe is a slightly spicy version of a Milwaukee favorite, and you don’t even need a fryer, as the fish is baked after breading. But just don’t forget: one dry, one wet.