Relay: How Hard Could It Be?

My idea of prep work was what I did before cooking a meal at home — chopping vegetables, washing salad greens, peeling potatoes

    My first job after moving to Springs in 1985 was as a freelance copy editor, which made sense after years of writing. My second job, taken in 1986, was as prep cook at Bruce’s restaurant in Wainscott, which made sense only because I liked to cook. I had never worked in a restaurant or cooked professionally. Even in my home kitchen, performance anxiety was part of every undertaking. But my idea of prep work was what I did before cooking a meal at home — chopping vegetables, washing salad greens, peeling potatoes. How hard could it be?

    Bruce Weed seemed a straight-shooter. As he handed me an apron, he said previous experience was no guarantee of success in the kitchen. The fundamental tools of the job were the prep list and a loose-leaf notebook of recipes. The daily routine began around 7 a.m., when I would open the building and consult the prep list to see which tasks had to be completed before dinner service.

    When Christa would drop me off, she would wait in the parking lot for a declaration of how the day was shaping up. From the open kitchen door she was likely to hear, “Brunch potatoes again! Kill me!” or “Arrrgh! Another batch of clam chowder! I’ll be here till midnight!” As the day wore on and I crossed off item after item, my mood would lighten — unless I found myself sitting outside in the dark on an upturned five-gallon container, hoping to finish debearding 30 pounds of mussels before service was to begin.

    One Sunday morning the door was ajar and a pane of glass had been shattered. I stepped cautiously into the kitchen. Since I wasn’t cursing about cheesecake or garlic sausages, Christa drove away. I selected a 12-inch chef’s knife and began to creep through the kitchen and into the restaurant proper. Then I pictured getting hoisted on my own petard, and wisely reconsidered.

    There was nobody else in the building, so I returned with relief to the kitchen, where a man was reaching through the window pane. I picked up the phone, dialed 911, and told the intruder I was calling the police. He didn’t seem to care, but slowly, reluctantly almost, shuffled off. The police picked him up a few minutes later staggering down Town Line Road. He was drunk, having consumed a considerable amount of alcohol while inside but taken nothing.

     The thing about Bruce is that he was a locavore before the term existed. He grew his own tomatoes, lettuces, zucchini, eggplant, and herbs, and what he didn’t grow came, during the appropriate season, from Kenny Schwenk’s farm next door. I remember picking green beans, tomatoes, and lettuces during the summer, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts in the fall. During the winter, the eggs served at brunch came from Bruce’s chickens. His menu, hand-written each week, listed his suppliers. Moreover, almost everything was made from scratch — sausage, pasta, ice cream, chicken stock, sourdough rolls — the list went on and on. Bruce even made his own mozzarella.

    The restaurant was a big success. On weekend evenings and for Sunday brunch, the cars were lined up on Town Line Road halfway to the beach.

    In 1988, Nick and Toni’s opened on North Main in East Hampton where Ma Bergmann’s had been, and Pino Luongo’s Sapore di Mare appeared in Wainscott, and the East End restaurant scene began to evolve into something with a higher profile.

    I had to leave Bruce’s in 1989 in search of a 9-to-5 job with paid benefits. I would never again have to fill in for the missing dishwasher after a nine-hour day shift, or struggle with recalcitrant sausage casings, or work New Year’s Eve, or arrive home fragrant of chicken stock and cooking oil, perhaps garnished with a few wayward fish scales.

    But I learned enough about cooking that I became relaxed in my own kitchen, and enough about running a restaurant to know you have to be a little bit crazy and have a wicked sense of humor — which Bruce did — to do it. Bruce eventually sold the restaurant, which today, after several iterations, houses Town Line Barbecue, and today he owns Bruce Weed Computers. 

    Mark Segal is a writer at The East Hampton Star.