We all know that I am the greatest Mexican chef in the world. As long as we can agree on that fact, then I can go on with my story.
Mama and Papa owned their fourth restaurant, La Posada, at that time. I did not appreciate what I had, I merely showed up to work every morning, bossed the staff around and made myself generally obnoxious.
I more or less ran the restaurant, Mama and Papa were semi-retired. During this time, they traveled a lot. When they were in town, Mama opened the restaurant and worked the lunch shift. I came in around four pm and worked the dinner shift and Mama went home. When they weren’t in town, I ran the restaurant for both shifts.
Mama and Papa had just returned from a trip to Mexico.
“How did things go while I was gone?” Mama asked.
“Just fine.” This was my first time running the restaurant all by myself. “I managed to get the morning set up down to a science.”
Each morning, I went in and made the soup of the day, then started a pot of beans, because they took at least an hour to cook. After the beans, I made fresh enchilada sauce, salsa, ranchera sauce, and guacamole.
I loved the set-up part of the day. The kitchen was filled with the aromas of roasted chiles, garlic, onion and spices. The rhythmic slap, slap, slap of my chef’s knife on the cutting board as I chopped onions or chiles was music for my soul. I had a cavalcade of tastes as I prepared chile verde, enchiladas, chile rellenos and guacamole. All morning long I had to taste what I was cooking to insure its continued high quality.
While the chile rellenos were cooking on the grill, I began the preparation of enchiladas. Our cooking station was set up with a deep fryer on one side of the aisle and the steam table on the other. I can still see the order of food in the steam table. On the left was a deep, half hotel pan full of refried beans. Beneath the beans, close to me, was a quarter pan of Mexican rice and a deep quarter pan of enchilada sauce. In the next opening were tamales and tamales sauce.
To make the enchiladas, I dropped the tortillas, two at a time, into the deep fryer. When they floated to the surface, I picked them out with tongs and placed them on a plate. After dipping a couple of dozen tortillas, I turned around to the steam table. There I dipped the tortillas, one at a time, in enchilada sauce, filled the middle with cheddar cheese and chopped onions and rolled them up to form enchiladas. When the enchilada was complete, I placed it on a plastic cafeteria tray. The full tray was covered with a damp kitchen towel and placed in the walk-in to hold for the lunch rush. I usually made four trays with eighteen enchiladas on them for lunch.
I got the morning setup down to a science. I knew what time I had to start everything in order for it to be ready for the next step. I knew how long it took me to grate cheese, cook chile rellenos and prepare enchiladas. I was becoming the next-generation restaurateur.
“So I allot fifteen minutes to making chile rellenos and enchiladas,” I told her. “I can make a tray of enchiladas in two minutes, that’s eight minutes for four trays, and seven minutes to make the chile rellenos at the same time.”
Mama laughed. “Two minutes? You can’t make a tray of enchiladas in two minutes.”
“Of course I can. I do it every morning.”
“OK, Mr. smarty-pants, show me.”
I hesitated. “Well, I’ve already made all the enchiladas for today. We don’t need to make anymore.”
“That’s OK, we can use them for dinner, they’ll keep. Show me.”
I withered under Mama’s glare. I was absolutely one hundred percent sure that it took me two minutes to make a tray of enchiladas, but I could not put myself to the test.
“I’ll bet you one hundred dollars that I can do it,” I weakly offered.
Mama reached for her purse. “Here’s a fifty-dollar traveler’s check left over from my trip. You make a tray of enchiladas in two minutes and you can have it.”
I was terrified. She was calling my bluff; my one hundred percent certainty shrank to seventy-five percent. I couldn’t attempt to make the enchiladas and fail, after all, I was the Kitchen God. My face felt hot, my pulse raced and my breathing got uneven.
“Go ahead, Mr. know-it-all, make a tray of enchiladas in two minutes.”
I dipped the first two tortillas in the deep fryer.
“Go,” Mama shouted.
“No wait, not yet,” I cried. “You can’t count dipping the tortillas. It doesn’t count yet, I meant two minutes to roll the enchiladas.”
“You said it took you two minutes to make a tray of enchiladas, that means start to finish. You have to dip the tortillas.” Mama said.
“Well, then I can’t do this. That’s not what I meant. If I have to dip the tortillas, it will take longer.”
“OK,” Mama said, taking off her coat and reaching for an apron. “I’ll show you. You time me. I think I can make a tray of enchiladas in two minutes.” By this time, every employee in the restaurant was watching the confrontation.
Mama counted off eighteen tortillas from the stack on the counter.
“You time me.”
The noise in the kitchen rose to the level usually associated with a prize fight. Everyone was cheering on Mama. She looked up at the big clock on the white kitchen wall and waited for the second hand to reach the twelve.
“Go,” I said.
Mama dropped two tortillas in the deep fryer, then two more, then two more. The first tortillas floated to the surface. She dropped two more tortillas and plucked out the first two with one swift motion. She quickly and rhythmically went about her business until she had eighteen piping hot tortillas on her plate.
Swiftly pivoting to the steam table, Mama grabbed up her spatula and dipped the first tortilla in enchilada sauce with her right hand. At the same time her left hand flew to the cheese bowl and returned in time to meet the tortilla emerging from the enchilada sauce. Her right hand darted to the onion bowl and dribbled chopped onions the length of the tortilla while her left hand rolled the left side of the tortilla. With her right hand she flipped the right side of the tortilla over the left side with the spatula and efficiently scooped up the enchilada and placed it on the tray.
She repeated her lightning movements over and over again. The second hand on the clock slowed down to a crawl. Her fingers flew. Enchilada after enchilada was stacked side by side on the tray.
“One minute,” cried Bill, our assistant cook.
Still Mama worked; her fingers and hands a blur.
“Thirty seconds,” Dorothy, the waitress yelled. The excitement was unbearable. It was the longest two minutes of my life.
“Ten, nine, eight. . .” the staff began to count down the remaining seconds. Mama desperately worked on the final enchiladas.
“Five, four, three, two, one.” A cheer rose from the staff, but Mama was not done. She still had several tortillas on her plate. She quickly finished the tray.
“Three minutes exactly,” Bill yelled.
“Time me,” I said as I counted off eighteen more tortillas.
There was a groan from the staff. The second hand moved around to the twelve.
“Go,” Bill shouted.
I dropped the first tortillas in the deep fryer. The adrenaline was flowing. I had never moved faster or with more precision. My hands flew. I moved so fast that I splattered hot oil all over the place, I got several burns on the back of my hand. Moving like a dancer, I pirouetted from the deep fryer to the steam table. I knew that I was going to ace it.
Into the enchilada sauce I dipped my first tortilla. The cheese and onions flew. I slopped enchilada sauce all over the counter, myself and the crowd of onlookers. I felt the roar of the crowd goading me on. As my fingers danced between the cheese and the onions, I sensed that something was wrong. Then it hit me, they weren’t rooting for me, they were rooting against me. They wanted Mama to win. How could this be? I was clearly the best Mexican cook in the world.
“One minute,” Bill shouted.
I had nine enchiladas on the tray. I was going to make it. I was half-way there. I kept up the frantic pace. Cheese, onions and enchilada sauce filled the air.
“Thirty seconds.” I quickly did the math in my head. It was taking me ten seconds per enchilada. I had four tortillas left on my plate, I had to speed up.
I deftly lifted a tortilla off the plate on my spatula and shot it towards the enchilada sauce. My wet hands lost their grip on the spatula and it dropped, tortilla and all into the enchilada sauce. Frantically, I dipped my hand into the one hundred sixty-degree enchilada sauce and fished out the spatula and tortilla.
“Ten, nine, eight . . .” I still had three enchiladas to make.
“Five, four, three, two, one.” A loud cheer filled the kitchen. Mighty Casey had struck out. I had two tortillas on my plate.
“It wasn’t fair. I dropped my spatula. . . I took me at least thirty seconds to dip the tortillas. If you don’t count dipping the tortillas I would have made it.”
A loud groan came from the staff.
“Let me have another chance. Give me eighteen more tortillas.”
The crowd quickly melted away, leaving me with a mess to clean up. As I wiped down the kitchen, I contemplated why everyone was cheering for Mama and against me. It didn’t make any sense.