The Last of the Great Bear Men: Scott Schreiner
On June 21st 2009, Scott Schreiner lost his battle with brain cancer and passed away. He was a mentor to me and many other young chefs over the years. He was also a great friend and a great human being. I will miss him for the rest of my life.
You meet someone like Scott once in a lifetime. He was a kindred spirit, a true class act, teacher, student and caring human being. He was one of the best friends that a guy could ever hope to have. I only knew him for a short time, but it was a time that I won’t forget.
I met Scott in January 2008. I was a snot-nosed and arrogant cook just looking for the perfect job, something beyond banging out food on a hotline. I saw an ad for a salad guy at Shadow Ridge Country Club, and went there on my day off.
Before I finished filling out an application, Scott came out to see me, which I was not expecting. He was a round man in clean, bright chef whites. He was wearing glasses and had shoulder-length gray hair held back by a Kangol hat. I couldn’t help but think that Sam Kinison had came back to life as a chef!
I remember the smells emanating from the kitchen: garlic, stocks, herbs and wines being reduced. We soon went to his office to talk.
As he asked standard questions, I noticed the right side of his head where he had no hair. “I have brain cancer,” he said nonchalantly, “I just went through surgery so I have this new outlook that the kitchen isn’t the only place for me. I’m trying to take out a new lease on life.” He was optimistic about it, and it sounded he had the tumor beat. Two weeks later I had a second interview. It was with the food and beverage director of Shadow Ridge, John Barr. Scott told me to show up fifteen minutes before the scheduled interview so he could coach me through it.
“Okay, look,” he said sharply, “just remember to say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’ Keep yourself presentable and polite.” I became more nervous than I would’ve been without the advice, and he must’ve seen that because he lightened the tone of the conversation.
As I talked to John, Scott interjected on certain points: I would get paid the same as my old job, and that I still needed to put in two weeks’ notice at my current job because he would expect the same if I quit Shadow Ridge. After fifteen minutes, I had a job offer and Scott took me back to the kitchen for a tour. I was flabbergasted that I was finally going to be working in a professional kitchen with a professional chef. But I quickly came down from that high after Scott introduced me to the sous chef and the sauté cook. They both looked angry.
“Hey man,” the sous chef said, “we run a tight ship around here. So you better know your shit.” I thought clearly this guy was the hard-ass.
After my first few days I realized that it was the same there as everywhere else I had worked, except we had to wear chef coats. Scott and I would talk a little, mostly about training. After a month or two, Scott began to open up a little. He talked about culinary school in Florida and we shared our hated for cooking mahi-mahi. Soon after, Scott took me under his wing as his protégé. He showed me all about being a chef and cooking, the correct way to trim a tenderloin, and how to make soup from scratch. But the most important lesson he ever taught me was about mise en place and presentation.
Mise en Place
I started to work as the day chef and lunch was busy. I would show up at 9 a.m. and have a prep list about a mile long. For example, a typical list for me would say: slice chicken, corned beef and turkey (provided the turkey was roasted, and if not you had to do that, too); slice onion strings and cheese (gruyere, Swiss, cheddar, mozzarella); make coleslaw and chicken salad; cut tomatoes, red onions and pickles for burgers; come up with a special (which Scott usually shot down); make soup du jour; heat up French onion soup; make French onion croutons; start roasting bones for demi glace; fry homemade potato chips (gaufrette on a mandolin); and make burger patties. Not all of this had to be done every day but it was nearly everyday.
After a few days of watching me run around like a freshly decapitated chicken, Scott caught me early one day.
“Okay, look,” he said with focus, “I tell all the young chefs that come through here the same thing: before you pull a knife out of your bag or do anything else, get all your mise en place in place. Get all your bowls and containers you will need. Get all your tongs and spatulas. Turn on all the equipment and get your cutting boards. Get your bus tubs in place. Get the ingredients for your first project then pull out your knife. This is all common sense. You‘re a chef so start acting like it.” I was still in the weeds most mornings but his advice helped a lot.
One day Scott came up to me and asked if I would make a cheese tray for a party. “You enjoy doing those and you’re pretty good at them,” he said. I reveled in the compliment because those compliments were few and far between when Scott showed you his “preferential treatment.”
I got to work on the tray taking every precaution to make sure every detail was right. I positioned every slice of havarti, cheddar, Swiss, and brie perfectly. I positioned a wedge of gorgonzola in the middle and garnished it with a few sliced strawberries, blueberries and lettuce. Then Scott walked over to me. “What’s taking you so long?” he asked. I had just finished and stepped aside to show off my new artwork. He took one look and let me have it verbally, then ripped my tray apart throwing lettuce and berries about. He was furious that I had put lettuce and berries on a cheese tray. “What’s next, tomato roses and apple birds?” he asked.
He calmed down a bit after swearing at me, then showed me the right way. Scott grabbed a tier and a doily. He put the gorgonzola in the middle and fanned out the rest of the cheeses around it. He went to the walk-in cooler and grabbed a bunch of grapes and set those down as the garnish. “Now you see that,” he said, “that is country French cooking right there. Simple and straightforward.”
I couldn’t understand how I worked so hard on mine taking every detail into consideration, and not only was his done faster but it looked better. Food looks beautiful on its own, he said. “Why spend all this time trying to make something look good when it already does?” he asked. He then handed the tray to me told me I had to close that night. I guess that was payment for the lesson. Scott taught me a thousand lessons: how to make hollandaise with one hand while cooking eggs to order; the beauty of nasturtiums and chamomile; 100 degrees internal temperature on a prime rib is medium rare (I still don’t get that one).
But the most important lesson Scott showed me was in his death. You need to live life to the fullest. You need to love instead of hate, be happy instead of mad, and show up on time ready to work. I only regret that I never got a chance to know Scott for longer. But I know Scott would’ve told me not to let it eat me up and go on with my life, and that I would see him again one day in heaven.
Goodbye, man. We all love you.
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