I spent a good portion of my childhood living at a house my parents rented across the street from a small dairy in the tiny town of Sisquoc. There wasn’t much going on in life. Not much to do except drive excessively fast down the surrounding dirt roads in the middle of the night with my brother and friends in a 1970 Volkswagen Beetle. Which by the way didn’t handle that well on dirt roads; much to the dismay of local farmers and county maintenance personnel who had to pay the price for a seventeen year old kid driving a twenty five year old souped up German import.
At twenty I was a community college dropout working as a part-time cook at a retirement home in Santa Maria, California. This was it, my whole life, until one day an envelope came in the mail from a good friends parents that had moved to Colorado Springs a few years earlier. The contents of that envelope contained a single newspaper clipping that changed the course of my life.
The clipping was an advertisement for a culinary apprenticeship program ran by the American Culinary Federation at a world renowned hotel in Colorado Springs, Co. It was a three year program to become a certified culinarian. The best part is that the program was free. The hotel covered all of the costs but it required a three year commitment of work and schooling. It was perfect for someone like me who couldn’t raise the money to attend a traditional culinary school. They only took fifteen apprentices a year and in order to be accepted you had to be one of the fifteen winners of an essay contest.
“Why I Want To Be a Chef” was the subject of the essay. No less than 250 typed words were the requirement. I submitted my essay and never heard back. I had all but given up until one day, two weeks before the program was to start, my mom called my name and handed me the phone. It was the executive chef of the hotel. I was an extremely shy kid so at this point my hands were shaking. We had a brief discussion and that was it…I was in! A week and a half later my plane landed in Colorado Springs. It was the beginning of an eye-opening experience.
The family that sent me the newspaper clipping offered me a home in Peyton Co. The Woolsey family lived on ten acres of land about thirty miles East of the Springs. They had built a large barn on the property and inside of that barn was, well, a house. Upon moving in I noticed the house inside the barn was only partially built. No enclosed hallways yet, so my walk from the bedroom to the bathroom meant actually going outside to brave the chilly Colarado plains winter air. There was a wood burning stove that kept us warm at night. It got so hot that you couldn’t stand within eight feet of it for more than a few seconds. No dryer just a clothesline. Which meant on cold windy days you might come out to find your clothes frozen solid and spread out over two acres of the ten acre property. The weather there was exciting. I remember incredible, almost frightening lightning storms. A tornado ripped the roof off a barn two miles from our barn and a small plane crashed down the road, taking out the power lines right before Christmas. It was a pretty cool place to live.
The ACF apprenticeship program was divided up into segments. Apprentices moved around the hotel in two week to three month rotations. Doing everything from washing dishes to waiting tables. During the breakIast rotation I headed down Highway 24 into work one very early morning with a headlight out. After a small prayer to make it to work without getting pulled over, guess what? I got pulled over, and promptly received a ticket from an El Paso County sheriff’s deputy for driving without insurance. Let me give you some advice; don’t ever just plead guilty to anything. The sentence for that minor infraction was six months probation, four points off my license, $210.00 fine and forty hours community service, unbelievable.
It turns out my choice for a place to do community service was a tragic one. I picked the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo thinking there would be the opportunity to work with animals. Nope, sorry sucker. It was all toilets and trash cans for me. When the staff ran out of work to give me they had me sweep the road. Yeah, that’s right, sweep the road. You can actually drive a car through this zoo and see the animals from a road that wound its way through the property. Like a drive-thru zoo. I spent hours sweeping an asphalt road and putting dirt in a dumpster. On top of that my car had broken down so there was a forty five minute uphill ride on a mountain bike to the only mountain zoo in the continental United States. Being a major procrastinator I finished the entire forty hours of community service on the last week of the second extension they granted me. Throw in at least forty hours of work, nine hours of class time, five hours of commuting and two major parties. All in all it was a good week.
The bakery rotation was a killer. A graveyard shift went from 11:00 PM to 8:00 AM. A tough schedule for a young man away from his little home. Late night parties abound and one night things just got a little crazy. I tried to call in sick but as you can see from the paper below it just didn’t work out. Here is the disciplinary write-up handed to me over twenty years ago.
The scolding for this one was exceptional but I’m sure the executive chef and all the staff in his office had a good laugh. It was totally worth it.
Soon after this the culinary driver rotation started. A culinary driver takes food from a central kitchen and delivers it to a satellite kitchen on the property. My truck was a full-sized Chevrolet with a tall aluminum box on the back that held rolling sheet pan racks. Think of a metal camper shell but six feet tall. You back up to the loading dock, roll the racks into the box, secure them with a bar that goes across the width of the box, close the door and drive away, that’s it. Sounds simple right? Not so much. The mistake I’m responsible for during this rotation led to serious changes in hotel policy and the apprenticeship program curriculum.
Two weeks in and things were going well with me and my delivery truck. So well in fact that a new driver was placed with me for training. We’ll call him Larry. Larry is a super nice guy so I feel bad for sending him to the hospital in an ambulance his first day on the job. We had just picked up a load from the main kitchen for delivery to the South wing of the hotel. On the way over while giving Larry a run down of things, I missed our turn into the parking lot. Distracted, I took a quick left into the parking lot across the street that has the hotels’ elevated tennis courts. To my credit, I’m not a professional or even good driver by any means. Cruising along at about fifteen to twenty miles per hour, and without seatbelts on, Larry calmly says to me “Do we have clearance?”. The loud crash of metal on metal answered a resounding no. My foot wasn’t even off the gas pedal when the top of the metal box hit an enormous I-beam that made up the bottom of the elevated tennis court. Fifteen to twenty miles per hour doesn’t sound very fast but it is.
Larry went headlong into the windshield, spider-webbing the entire thing. The top of the steering wheel stopped my face from going any further. It impacted below my nose and above my upper lip. There was shock and confusion as Larry settled back into his seat. Slowly we exited the vehicle and surveyed the damage. Damn, the top of the box was peeled back like a half open can of sardines. I’m screwed, I selfishly thought to myself. Some employees from the stewarding department were unloading a truck across the street where we should have been. They just stood there staring at us with mouths open. Larry and I slowly made our way over to them and leaned up against their back bumper while they alerted hotel security. The hotel had its own ambulance so they arrived rather quickly. I was hoping for a low-key response from emergency services.
It was a total circus. There were lights, sirens, police cars, a fire truck, two ambulances and hotel security. Just about everything but a helicopter and park rangers. I sat in the back of an ambulance spitting up some blood but refused to go to the hospital. My heart sank as they rolled Larry by on a gurney completely immobilized from head to toe. A supervisor from the hotel put his hand on my shoulder and handed me a business card. The kiss of death.
A Colorado Springs Police Department officer was waiting for me at the mangled wreck. The truck was higher in the middle than it was at either bumper. There wasn’t much for him to investigate. The pickup truck wedged underneath the structure pretty much told the story. I handed him my license and mentioned that I would probably be fired for this. Not just fired but kicked out of school too. He let out a faint laugh and a smile and handed me my license and a traffic ticket for ten dollars for not wearing my seat belt. There was a brief interview with hotel security. They took my employee ID card and walked me over to the security office for a drug test. They told me I was clocked out and suspended until further notice. That was one of the toughest days I’ve had in life.
The next day Human Resources called me in for an interview. Much to the surprise of my coworkers I passed the drug test with flying colors. The interview at HR went well. I think the only reason they let me keep my job is because I was a student and a fairly good employee. I returned to work after three days of suspension. While walking to the employee entrance on my first day back I spotted the truck. They parked it right in the employee parking lot for all to see. Larry was back and looked good minus a small bump on his head. For the next two and a half years my co-workers never let me live that down. To the best of my knowledge no other apprentice has driven a truck for the hotel.
I’m back in Sisquoc now, living in the same house my great grandparents lived in. Baking bread in the same house I played in as a child. Walking the same streets with my wife and dog that my family has walked for many decades. Sisquoc is home, and I can’t imagine home being any other place.
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to John and Jean Woolsey. They took me into their home like I was family and never asked for anything in return. The Woolsey family gave me much more than a place to live. They gave me a new life. Without their help I wouldn’t have lived a life so rich in experiences. So thank you. Thank you for all your kindness and generosity towards me.