Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
I was recently reflecting on my writing for EBS, and how, as well as writing about food and cooking, one of my goals was to give the reader a look behind the swinging doors of a restaurant: what goes on behind the scenes, how we operate daily, and just what goes on in a chef’s head.
Food TV has been, for better or worse, the key player in glamorizing chefs and the restaurant world. And yet, what we do is simply not that important when put into context.
Recently, after an evening of service at Buck’s T-4, I was approached by a gentleman while I was enjoying a glass of wine at the bar. He heard that I was the chef, and wanted to praise Buck’s for the “unbelievable” meal he and his friends had just had. I told him how much I appreciated the compliment and that I would pass it along to the staff, as they are the ones who generally do the heavy lifting.
But it didn’t end there, as these conversations are often just the beginning. He started to talk about wild game and how great it would be to have a restaurant like Buck’s where he lived in Brooklyn, New York.
Being fascinated by chefs in general, he started asking me about my life—what got me here and where I came from. He was fascinated by my military high school experience, and the fact that I didn’t go to culinary school; that I learned my work ethic from my grandfather, father and younger brother, simply by example; and at times what a difficult business this is.
I tell you this because the conversation then moved to him and his group of friends, who by this point were truly immersing themselves in the Buck’s après dinner experience at our bar. It turned out they were all retired New York City firemen. I discovered that all of them were on “the pile”—a term I had never heard before—of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
I don’t think that would have come out had I not pressed him about his past, the way he did me.
I told him how I had just visited the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and was moved by the 9/11 exhibit. He then spoke in detail about being on the scene in the minutes, days and hours after the attacks; how with each overturned piece of concrete and steel, they hoped to find someone, anyone, alive.
Sometimes they did find survivors, other times a glimpse of an arm or a leg was met with nothing more than a lifeless victim. In the 20 minutes that we talked, he became too emotional to speak three separate times. It was one of the most moving conversations I’ve had in a long time.
I couldn’t help thinking that here he was talking about his amazing time at Buck’s and how impressed he was with the hard work we put forth everyday, while this group of men were part of the team that worked for days at a time, doing everything they could to save lives.
“I never got your name,” he said finally. “Scott” I replied.
“Tommy, Tommy Burke,” he responded.
“Thank you for everything all of you did,” I said, still shaking his hand. He got a little teary one last time as we said goodbye.
All the stress and frustration that I feel at times in my profession seemed so unimportant and trivial in that moment. Honestly, I almost felt embarrassed.
“It’s only food,” I sometimes tell myself in times of pressure. Those words never rang louder in my head than as I turned to walk away.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.