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Memoirs Of A Chef & Restaurant Critic: Onion Man

Selfie Across From New York Delicatessen, photo by lee kleinCountermen Phil Fite and Bob Cataliotti at New York Delicatessen, photo by lee kleinPlastic Wrap Portrait, charcoal by scott hutchison

I had just arrived in Boulder, Colorado, and needed a job. My move to the then-hip and laid back town was predicated by my then-girlfriend going to the University there. I headed to Pearl Street, the main pedestrian mall, which was the only area I was familiar with (newcomers and tourists are always drawn to the pedestrian mall of any city). A “Counterman Wanted” sign hung in the front window of a bright, shiny, kosher-style deli called the New York Delicatessen, so I strolled right in.

(The New York Delicatessen would, in the coming year, be featured prominently in the background during the opening credits to the television show Mork & Mindy, which was supposed to take place in Boulder. Every year or two thereafter, Robin Williams, with cast and crew, would descend upon the deli to shoot new exterior shots for the show; in later seasons, Mork would become a counterman at a fictional New York Delicatessen in the series. To exploit this “fame,” the yellow tee shirts worn by waiters at the real New York Delicatessen had the words “Mork Meets Mindy Here” emblazoned on the back. Not to be outdone, The Chicago Pizzeria, located right across from the deli, came up with their own tee shirt slogan: “Mork Eats Mindy Here.”  This was especially surprising in that The Chicago Pizzeria was very much a family restaurant. Then again, Boulder was a loose city in those days.)

Selfie Across From New York Delicatessen, photo by lee klein

I filled out a job application form in apparently so impressive a manner that within seconds of handing it to a waiter, who handed it to a manager, the latter came hustling over to where I was seated. “You were a counterman at Katz’ Delicatessen in New York?” he asked with gleeful incredulity. Actually, it was more than gleeful incredulity; it was as though he was in charge of organizing a small, local music event and the Beatles had just walked in to volunteer a performance (remember: this story occurred some time ago).

“Yes,” I replied, “though it was awhile back. I may be a bit rusty.”

Apparently an experienced New York City delicatessen counterman was quite the rarity in Boulder, Colorado. “It’s like riding a bike,” the manager replied, and hired me on the spot.

Somehow I believed that this claim of potential rustiness might cover for whatever ineptitude I would no doubt display if hired. After all, I’d never worked at Katz’ Delicatessen or any other restaurant other than as a dishwasher some years earlier. Worse, I knew little about food, didn’t know how to hold a knife, or cut ingredients…my older brother used to make fun of me for lacking the capacity to assemble a sandwich when my parents were away. Now I was about to become a professional sandwich maker.

Countermen Phil Fite and Bob Cataliotti at New York Delicatessen, photo by lee klein

The interview was on a Friday, but the job was to start Monday morning, leaving me two days to learn the trade. I called a friend I'd just met who worked as a part-time prep cook.

“Help!” I said. And she did. That Friday night she taught me how to hold a knife and how to properly cut onions, celery and carrots. I wasn’t sure why I’d need to know how to cut vegetables in order to put together pastrami sandwiches, but I instinctively knew that handling a chef knife properly would be crucial in making it look like this wasn’t my first time handling a chef knife. I took her advice and bought more vegetables to practice on at home. All in all I believe I performed quite admirably that first week on the job, other than two minor, regrettable incidents that left me with both of my index fingers stitched up.

The first stitching happened when slicing onions on a slicing machine. This slicing of onions was not as simple as it may sound, but entailed a large bus tub of onions, two slicing machines (one automatic, which means you just had to keep reloading the onions), and transforming the person doing the slicing into “Onion Man.” The whole process, needed to be done daily, took place in an enclosed closet of a space with no ventilation – so unpleasant an ordeal that the counterpersons took turns doing it.

It requires extreme measures to prevent crying your eyes out when cutting massive amounts of onions in so small an area, so before entering the slicing machine closet, the unlucky counterperson that day would have their head wrapped very tightly in plastic wrap – four or five times around, with an opening punched out at the mouth for breathing. The eyes and nose would be squashed grotesquely under the clear plastic wrap, making the person look like the fearsome villain in a slasher flick.

photo by Scott Hutchison

Onion Man!” we would shout once the head-wrap was complete, and Onion Man (sometimes a female counterperson named Pam) would go do the tiresome (but tearless!) work. My first time doing so, I exited the closet with blood gushing from my right index finger and pouring down my forearm.

“My hand slipped off the onion,” Onion Man calmly explained to his horrified co-workers. They unwrapped my head and sent me off to Dr. Ingraham at the Boulder Hospital, who stitched me up. I returned to action the next morning, though I think some at the New York Delicatessen might have started to suspect I wasn’t a deli superstar from Katz’.

In fairness, the second injury was at least partly a consequence of the first: It is difficult grabbing a knife firmly with your right index finger stitched, so when the knockwurst held with the left hand started to slither away from my grasp, it is almost to be expected that the blade would slice into my left index finger. Once again I was shipped off for stitches, and by now I could only imagine the extent to which my co-workers were mocking me: the big-time New York City deli man.

When I arrived at the hospital, Dr. Ingraham welcomed me back. “We’ve got a regular!” he exclaimed with perhaps a little too much cheer.

And speaking of cheer, a happy footnote to the tale: I really did become an ace counterman, and never again in my lengthy culinary career did I require stitches.