How the Chez Piggy Dish Pit Saved My Life

This story is dedicated to my wife, Heidi. Through all my quirks and eccentricities, you are what elevates my soul and makes me want to wake up every morning. I love you so much.

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In one of his final and most candid interviews, Anthony Bourdain said, that he had learned more about life (and people) while washing dishes and cooking, than anywhere else. Well, after just shy of two years working in the kitchen of one of Kingston’s most iconic and legendary culinary venues, I can say with absolute confidence that Mister Bourdain’s words were 100% accurate.

Introduction: My own Kitchen Confessional

At present, I am a dishwasher and prep cook at Chez Piggy. I hold two college diplomas – one in marketing communications (2006), the other in digital marketing (2014). After my father died in 2013, I used a portion of my inheritance to go back to school and obtain a post-graduate certification.

Because of that, I have also had some degree of “success” as a freelance writer – predominantly with travel and food & drink blogging. Within the past five years, well over fifty articles sporting my byline have been published online by various clients.

In the summer of 2016, my work as a writer seemed to hit an apex in demand and suddenly became more of a full-time gig.

I was able to work with my wife, Heidi Csernak, who is a phenomenal photographer, artist and planning guru. Collaborating with her, most certainly brought our partnership to an entirely new level.

I’m seldom the guy with a plan – but Heidi is an expert at winding me up, getting me inspired, aiming me at a story, and just letting me go.

If it weren’t for her, I probably would have never completed a single story in my life. And believe me, I have extensive archives of unfinished tales.

Our work allowed Heidi and I to travel throughout South Eastern Ontario on a range of story assignments.

We would stay in the most elegant accommodations and explored Ontario’s pristine natural landscapes by land, water and air. Best of all, we explored our province’s diverse agricultural and local food scenes, showcasing a host of Ontario’s world-class culinary experiences.

Vacationing and journaling for a living sound pretty sweet, huh? It seemed unreal then, and in some ways, it still does. For the first time in my life, I was taking myself seriously as a writer and truth be told; it was my first taste of real self-confidence.

But.

Self-confidence and megalomania, are often spotted at the same parties, which is a lesson often learned in retrospective terms. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Hence, the reason I’m writing this story. For what it’s worth.

I’ve never been able to acclimate to the incarcerating sensation of a cubicle or office culture. Take call centres, for example. Sitting in a tiny box, feeling the same way a dairy cow must feel while the incessant milking machine slurps the unfortunate thing for all it’s worth.

Even those super-trendy open office formats, where everyone is sitting at an L-shaped bar or in bloody beanbags, for me, are a waking nightmare.

I’m an outdoor cat.

Freelancing confirmed this for me. I need to be a free agent. In every previous job where I was in a cubicle, or one of those “office cells,” that are merely a slightly larger cubicle, I’m typically hissing and scratching at the windows within six months.

Being a freelancer can be downright scary.

Sometimes the opportunities, projects and contracts are ripe for the picking. Others, not so much. It’s best described as “hills and valleys.” From 2015 to 2018, I was climbing what felt like a consistently elevating hill of success.

As the years passed, the number of published stories kept piling up, combined with many flattering words of high praise from my editors, clients and readers. My skill as a writer was no longer something that became entangled in my sordid fits of self-doubt.

Where I was once reluctant to accept praise, I was now absolutely drunk on benign hubris.

As 2018 came to a close, so too did some significant freelance contracts. I had grown into a manically depressed, yet pretentious and rather prickish penman.

I would get over-defensive of my work, and push back at one poor editor in particular over minute creative criticism that at the time, I saw as a slight against my “literary prowess.” At one point, I was writing travel blogs the way I would compose the narrative for a damn novel.

After reviewing my latest lengthy and pretentious submission, this editor said: “Can we maybe tone the language down to something that a 5th grader could follow?”

To which, I took grave personal offence at the time. How dare you insult my spectacular vernacular?! I read the Lord of The Rings in its entirety during the 5th grade!

Looking back, this person was only trying to suggest that I simplify the narrative vocabulary, so that the story read more like a traditional travel blog and less like: “Charles Bloody Dickens Explores the 1000 Islands.”

In the end, I kept my cool (for the most part) and made the edits that they wanted. But likely, everybody within a six-block radius knew that I wasn’t happy about it.

It wasn’t long after that that I ruined a relationship with a major client over what I see now as a bitter and childish reaction to learning that I was being replaced.

I over-reacted to a minimal issue that, in retrospect, didn’t matter as much as I made it out to be, at the moment. I had grown too attached to my work and did not play nice in my blatantly non-sugar coated transition out.

Looking back, the apology I had sent them likely seemed like a complete load of shit. That’s a scar on my reputation with a beloved former client and partner that I’ll have to bear for the rest of my career. I still kick myself for how I must have made them all feel.

I didn’t just burn a bridge here; I pretty much decided to go out like Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove.

Emotionally and mentally, I was a complete and utter gong show. I was questioning just what the fuck I was doing or trying to accomplish. Let’s call it: “Fear and Self Loathing of the Failing Freelancer.”

It seemed that I was on a bizarre quest to self-sabotage what minuscule success I had as a writer. I knew that I was not well. I needed to hit the stop button before I ended up bringing Heidi’s career down with me.

I immediately stopped looking for new contracts, and as diplomatically as I could, parted ways with that very same editor, who is also the person who initially gave me my big break into blogging. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were already fed up with my shit by that point.

I decided that the only wise thing to do would be going into exile. I needed to step outside of myself – and either deal with my unresolved issues or become consumed by them.

Just Like my father was. Yeah, I think we’re going to have to go there.

INTERLUDE. This chapter is the hardest thing I’ve ever written.

All of that depression, erratic emotion and self-destructive behaviour were a parting gift from my dear old dad. He was by no means a bad father.  Bruce Hector was a good, generous and honest father, husband and entrepreneur who owned the Kingston and Belleville’s Rust Check centres.

In the 80s-00s If you ever saw the famous 1978 Plymouth Volare (always winter driven!) at the Cataraqui Town Centre in a mall show, or those crazy cars driving around town with fake rust, gremlin-like creatures and Rust Check logos airbrushed all over them, along with the “Beat the Rusties,” slogan – that was my old man

Throughout high school, I spent my Saturdays, March breaks, Christmas holidays, etc. “working” with my father at Rust Check.

Because of Rust Check, I was able to go to college and get that first diploma in Marketing. It seemed that Dad was grooming me to take the reins. My future seemed all but guaranteed. But it was in my father’s last years that things began to spiral out of control.

After a divorce from my mother and another failed relationship, my dad had become a problematic drinker. He always had a drink in his hand throughout my life, but in those last several years, it just kept getting worse as his psychology and mental well-being deteriorated.

I’ll gloss over some details – but shortly after his mother passed away, he hit an all-time low and mentally and emotionally destabilized.

Working with him became increasingly difficult. In the winter of 2012, he went missing while staying at his trailer in Florida. I can remember his girlfriend at the time calling me, frantic, saying she hadn’t heard from him in days. She also told me that some friends in the Florida Keys -who were expecting him to visit, never heard from him.

I asked her to call the County Sheriff’s office and have them go by his trailer and check-in on him.  I was sure that he had locked himself in there with enough booze to kill an elephant. I was so fed up that I just didn’t want to deal with it.

Sure enough, they found him in there, blackout drunk like a burnt-out rock star. He was so inebriated he could barely speak to the responding officers. Whatever he did say to them, gave them cause to transfer my dad to the hospital where he was put under suicide watch.

When he did finally return to Canada with a ridiculous medical bill – he had no interest in sobriety.  Working with him was a nightmare. He put his girlfriend and much of our family through hell with his incessant drinking.  He was caught driving impaired.  Shit got really, really ugly.

I was fighting with him daily. Cognitively, he was not himself. It was like some vile creature was wearing his flesh like a sick costume. His only goal was to destroy himself and everything around him in the process.

In the final few days of his life, I would arrive at the shop to open and find him camping out in the office, so drunk I could barely get him off the floor. I’d have to get some of the guys from the shop to help me peel him off the greasy carpet.

At one point, I had to have police and paramedics remove him from the premises, right in front of the day’s first customers. I had no idea what to do.

When the local rehab centre released him, he would just return to the shop, try to steal some car keys for a company vehicle, or simply drink himself into oblivion.

The last conversation I had with him is something that still haunts me today. I was asking him why he was doing this.

“Who the fuck are you. A fuckin’ shrink?” He said in a slurred stammering voice.

“What are you trying to accomplish with all of this?” I asked. “What is your goal here?”

He looked up from his desk. His eyes suddenly wild and lucid. A small amount of blood running from his mouth.

“Suicide by alcohol.” He said to me.

Two days later, I was at work and received a call from my Aunt, informing me that he had been found dead in a downtown motel room.

Ironically, he didn’t die from alcohol poisoning. He had fallen in his motel room and landed with his head and neck pinched between the bed and the nightstand. Too intoxicated to help himself, he choked to death while pinned there on the floor.

His body was discovered when the hotel staff became concerned. He wasn’t answering the door, and they called the police, who found him in that nightmarish situation.

Somewhere in his downward spiral, he took the time to write me out of his will, as far as the family business was concerned.

He did leave a decent inheritance to my sister and I by way of his life insurance policy. Because his death was ruled accidental, the funds were released.

In retrospect, I could have fought this. He was not within his faculties when he changed his last will. But I was too beside myself with grief and guilt to bother. It wasn’t long after this that I took the money and ran.

I completely distanced myself from everything associated with Rust Check and spent the remainder of the year at home in my pyjamas, spending inheritance money like a drunken sailor. I hated myself, and this new contorted and mutated version of reality that I found myself thrust into.

I was descending into my own pit of despair – dangerously demoralized and sickeningly depressed.

In the fall of 2014, I decided to use some of the money I inherited to go back to school. I always wanted to be a journalist. But, my dad would always say: “There are far more starving writers than there are starving rust proofers.”

The first time I went to college, he was paying the tuition by financing it through the business as a training expense. Journalism was out of the question, and I had two choices: Business Administration or Advertising and Marketing.

I chose door number two, and honestly – I barely passed by the skin of my teeth.  I had my own bouts with alcoholism, partying and binging during that time. I smartened up by the end of the second year, and in my third and final year, I pulled up my grades enough to graduate.

When I went back to school in 2014, I guess I chose digital marketing more for him than for myself. I wanted to make him proud – even if he was no longer on this earth.

I exponentially improved over my previous academic performance. I graduated with distinction in the spring of 2015 with a 3.98 GPA and absolutely crushed it.

While I can sit here today and say that I chose the digital and interactive marketing program for him, it’s because of that program that I was inspired to pursue a career in freelance writing. It is how I landed a gig with a content agency based out of New York City and got my first byline published.

After a fantastic number of contract gigs, I was fortunate enough to stumble into the tourism and travel blogging scene, which brings us back to where we left off.

Out of the frying pan – and into the fire.

Photo: Rachel Mathies

Shortly after the melodramatic self-implosion of my emerging career as a writer, I found myself in exile and in need of a new direction in life.  Something, ANYTHING to find a way to get back on track. It didn’t matter where, or how.  I couldn’t just sit around in my self-loathing. I had to get a job and earn a paycheque.

In November 2018. I was randomly scrolling through some job ads and saw that Chez Piggy Restaurant was hiring a dishwasher. I already had some kitchen experience from spending a summer working as a dishwasher while I was in college – so I applied for the job.

I sent a cover letter along with it. I’m foggy about what it actually said.  Something to the effect of – wanting to “work behind the scenes in one of Kingston’s most iconic dining venues so that I could better approach the topic of food and culinary terminology as a writer.”

In reality, I was a self-destructed hack who wanted to hide from the world and contemplate the complexities of the universe while scrubbing dishes. Perhaps even cleansing my very mind and soul with each dirty plate, bowl, greasy roasting pan and baking sheet.

Be that as it may, Lisa Winn, the General Manager of Chez Piggy, must have seen something in my hastily whipped up cover letter, and decided to take a chance on me for a part-time gig.

Blood, Sweat, Tears and Lessons in Humanity

Photo: Rachel Mathies

So there I was. A rookie dish piglet still wet behind the ears in one of Ontario’s most famous and legendary restaurant kitchens.

My day shifts begin by arriving at the restaurant at or before 8:00 a.m. to complete all of my tasks before the restaurant opening for service at 11:30.

On Sundays, I was assigned to the Brunch shift, which meant that I had to be to work before 7:00 in the morning.  Until that point in time, I had forgotten that “7 a.m.” was even a thing, but by some miracle, I was always early for my shifts.

Each opening routine involves:

  • Pulling the mats and mopping behind the bar area
  • Scrubbing, sanitizing and mopping the washrooms
  • Changing the trash bins and hauling it to the shed
  • Moving every table while vacuuming the dining areas on both floors. Then moving them back.
  • Shovel the walkways during winter – and sweep the sidewalks and unlock the patio during the warmer months

I never once turned my nose up at those responsibilities and was thankful for its structured and straightforward routine.  Yeah, cleaning a restaurant can be kind of nasty sometimes, but as far as I was concerned – after my brazen and cocky departure from my work as a writer, this was the exact kind of work that a guy like me deserved.

In retrospect, it is also precisely the kind of work and routines that I needed in my life. I needed to balance things out. Reintroduce a simple routine to my lifestyle instead of just coasting along.

My night shifts would start around 4 or 5 p.m. Some nights, I’d be there until damn near midnight or even later – up to my ears in dishes until eventually closing the restaurant.

In my first several weeks, it seemed that my body had forgotten what concepts like; “standing up” or “manual labour” were. Clearly, I had grown soft and squishy over the years of desk-riding decadence.  I’m not mincing words when I say that in the beginning – that the dish pit enjoyed kicking my ass regularly.

In those early days of my dishwashing escapades, I had no rhythm or flow to my work whatsoever.

I would just randomly wash whatever dishes showed up at the pit in order of appearance. One rack at a time. Like a rookie schmuck. Looking back, it’s no wonder that I would get overwhelmed.

But in those moments, where I was getting dummied by dishes, one of the cooks, or even Rich – our head chef himself would jump into the pit with me – and help get me caught up. They would teach me tricks that they had learned as dishwashers before climbing to the rank of prepper, line cook or even sous chef.

I can remember one night, in particular. We were super slammed. It felt like that battle scene in The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers only – Helms Deep was a restaurant – and instead of murderous orcs at the gates, it was a horde of hungry restaurant guests.

That night, I was so flustered I didn’t know where I began, and the eternally growing pile of dishes ended.

I think I was even crying as I fruitlessly tried to keep my head above water. I was running back and forth like a decapitated chicken. I heard Allison, the night head that evening, call over to me. “How’s it going over there, Mike?”

“Getting a bit overwhelmed!” I replied as the dirty dishes continued to pile up twice as fast as I could clean them.

Without hesitation, she came into the dish pit, bought me a beer, and helped me with the dishes until closing time. Another time it was Jeff, a cold-line manager.  More than once, Zach, a prep cook, would jump in. They all took turns pulling me out of the fire in those early days.

I’ll never forget the night that our sous chef Paige, bailed me out of yet another dish dilemma. It was like something out of a superhero movie how quickly and effortlessly she loaded and slammed trays through the dishwasher.

In this kitchen, we don’t let each other fail. Not alone, at least. We look out for one another. Pick each other up, dust one another off – and share a bond similar to that of a military unit or pro sports team. Win or lose; we do it together.  And more often than not, we’re winning thanks to this tightly knit atmosphere.

It wasn’t long before I started to get into the swing of things, and could hold my own in the dish pit. A trial by fire as I slew dirty dishes, pots, pans and their ilk with increasing efficiency and far fewer instances of defeat.

Photo: Rachel Mathies

One night during my first winter at The Pig, my car was smashed into and ransacked by some punk. Jokes on him, because the only things in there were my sweaty work clothes. Enjoy that, you vile bandit!

Word got around pretty quickly at the restaurant. A few nights later, Hilary, a veteran server at Chez Piggy, came up to me and held out a crisp $100 bill.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“For the damages to your car.”  She replied.

I started to argue. “Hil, I couldn’t possibly…”

“Michael.” She interjected, her voice stern. “This is what we do.

This was when I realized that I wasn’t just a staff member or only an employee. I was part of something far more significant. I had been welcomed into a family. Everyone from the owner, Zoe Yanovsky, to managers, supervisors and beyond have always treated me with the utmost dignity, generosity, honesty and respect.

This is also the moment I knew just how damn lucky I was to be here. To be part of this phenomenon that began 41 years ago on the day that Zoe’s dad, famed musician: Mister Zal Yanovsky, first opened his restaurant to the public.

There is still staff who have been here since opening day.

For example. Miss Reyna has been cooking phenomenal dishes in that kitchen for as long as I have been alive. Her tenure and unparalleled skill as a chef have reached mythical proportions. I have had the pleasure of working with her on several Saturday morning shifts. You can tell that she holds a passionate love of cooking – and if you have ever tasted her Chilaquiles or epic steak burritos with her signature guacamole – you will taste and feel that passion with each and every bite.

The overall feeling of community within the Pig and our sister restaurant Pan Chancho Bakery & Cafe – is synonymous with that of Kingston itself. Creativity, friendship, art and music are the cornerstones of this city’s culture and the very foundations upon which this establishment was built.

Suddenly, going to work was something that I looked forward to.  No matter how crazy-busy we got. No matter how bloody hot it would get during the summer when the patio and both floors of the restaurant were packed with rotating swaths of hungry guests.

From then on, it didn’t feel like going to work anymore. It felt like coming home.

A blast from the past, and new inspiration

Very early in my career at Chez Piggy, I was introduced to Serge Bedard, who is one of our line cooks. When I introduced myself as Mike Hector, he replied to me, “I knew a Bruce Hector, back in the day.”

“He was my father,” I replied.

“Oh wow, your father and I worked together at the mess kitchen on the army base! He was a WILDMAN!” He said with a chuckle.

Usually, the topic of my dad, as you likely understand at this point – is a pretty sensitive subject. I replied, “Oh, cool.” And went about my work.

As the weeks and months flew past, I ended up working with Serge quite often. Every Sunday for brunch service, and Monday for lunch. Sometimes he would be working at the back of the kitchen during my night shifts as well.

Every Sunday morning, we would meet at the Starbucks on the corner of Princess and Wellington and shoot the breeze while sipping overpriced coffee.  Sharing fishing stories, recipe ideas, telling dirty jokes, and learning what new things were growing in Serge’s garden.

This became a weekly ritual. Sometimes we would talk about my dad, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him exactly how it all went down in the end. We would just meet up for our coffee, shoot the shit before work, and time went on.

One Sunday morning, I had shaved my big burly beard off the day before work. When I met Serge for coffee, he saw my baby face for the first time.

“Well, now, there’s Bruce right there.” He said to me with a smile and clapped me on the shoulder.

This was the first time in a long, long while that someone compared me to my father, and I didn’t get upset or angry.

“Thanks,” I said.  Sort of weirded out, but also flattered in a way. I made nothing of it, and we went to work and prepared for the impending onslaught, otherwise known as brunch service.

Photo: Rachel Mathies

Eventually, I received a promotion of sorts and was scheduled for a prep shift each week. Sometimes, Serge would be on the cold line or working prep with me. We’d share friendly banter at work, tell jokes and talk the kind of shit that cooks speak about behind closed kitchen doors.

One night, I told him a particularly raunchy joke that my father used to say, and he cracked up big time. We kept laughing and working as the night went on. At one point during the shift, Serge looked over at me amid the laughter and said, “This is just like working with your old man back in the day.”

I looked up from the sink full of oysters that I was scrubbing, and had to fight back the tears. But it wasn’t sadness that I was feeling.

It was pride.

In his day, my father worked in several kitchens – among other jobs, and one consistent thing throughout his life was his undying love of food and cooking. He owned a library’s worth of cookbooks, and growing up, he would cook different dishes from around the world to expose my sister and me to a wealth of tastes and culinary wonders.

Being surrounded by the sounds, smells, tastes, and adrenaline-fueled energy of a busy restaurant kitchen, combined with years of writing culinary stories – helped me embrace my own love of food and cooking. Or, rather, rediscover it.

It gave me back a small fragment of my father’s best qualities.

Serge would often bring me frozen lasagna or pasta bakes that he made at home to take with me at the end of the day. In fact, he has wowed my family at the dinner table many times with his cooking as we enjoyed a re-heated delight from Serge’s kitchen.

His cooking reminds me of my dad’s. I’m quite sure that Serge had taught my father a thing or two in the kitchen – back in the day.

Suddenly, I just started cooking on each of my days off.  Planning menus at home and running my kitchen like a restaurant of sorts.  Studying YouTube videos and emulating the dishes of famous chefs.

We also own a copy of the Chez Piggy Cookbook at our house, so naturally, I started making classic piggy dishes at home. My family raves over my Linguine Aglio Olio.

Soon enough, my Instagram feed was now full of ingredient shots, food photos and culinary images. I had come to the stark realization that I am just as happy cooking and creating dishes – as when I am on a roll and hammering out a new story.

At this point, I need to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Serge. Without even intending to, he gave me back a long lost and nearly disregarded link to my father. Awakened me to something that I share in common with my dad, and a means to more or less follow in his footsteps – so to speak.

Honestly, I think if my dad stuck to cooking, became a chef or pursued a career in food service, he would have been a much happier person in the grand scheme of things. It’s not the life for everyone. But I know within the depths of my soul – and I am fortunate that the universe brought me to where I am now.

I am at peace with how things ended up. I know what I want to do with my life, and can see a massive opportunity to combine my love of writing and storytelling in ways that I never thought possible.

My trauma doesn’t rule over me anymore.  I have taken ownership of my own shortcomings, and no longer live in fear of ending up “like my father,” because – I can now be content in knowing that my father’s best qualities live on within me.

Taking this professional detour helped me understand and appreciate this.

A brighter future on the horizon.

Storytelling has always been a massive part of my life.  Whether it’s escaping into a pile of books, video games or movies – I am an escapist at heart. But I no longer feel compelled to escape, but rather to enjoy and create.

I’ve made my peace with reality.

Food is likely the most ancient and pure platform for storytelling known. Within every flavour, spice, ingredient and dish are the echoes of the human story. Cooking and sharing food is the most primitive and enduring social attribute that we can all share, regardless of gender, lifestyle, race or creed.

We can all share some delicious food, and say, “Wow, this is delicious.” Through food, the complexities and complications of the human race take a sideline. It’s the one thing that we all share, whether we’re sitting at the same table, or on the other side of the globe.

Everybody has to eat.

Food can teach us about our shared origins. It allows us to discover ourselves. It offers a direct pathway into the far-reaching saga of our species. It can open doors; it can propel the arcane chefs who wield its magic into stardom. It can comfort us during times of sadness, mend us when we are sick – and bring people together in surprising ways.

I must cook, in the same way, that I must write. If something that I cook, create or prepare – in some small way makes someone’s day – or brings them so much as an infinitesimal particle of momentary joy – I have succeeded in life.  If only for a fleeting moment.

I don’t want to simply feed people. I want my work to, in some way, help nourish souls.

Whether it’s with steak frites, seafood pasta, a hearty stew or Crème Brûlée. Whether it’s a blog, novel or full-blown, tell-all exposé like the one I just finished writing.

I would like to offer my humble gratitude to Zoe, Lisa and the entire Chez Piggy family. Thanks for taking a chance on a washed-up hack like me, welcoming me into this great house – and allowing me the opportunity to rediscover myself.

I love you all.

MH

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