Musings: Student and Short-Order Cook in the Sixties
In the summer of 1963, Kris Bedi was looking for a temporary job. An enterprising but financially strapped student from India, he’d come to the U.S. to study engineering. Hotel and restaurant jobs were easily available, Bedi was told, in the resort town of Wildwood, New Jersey. So that was where he headed after packing a suitcase. This excerpt from his memoir, Engineering a Life, is just one of the stories he shares from his life.
The day was warm with clouds overhead and a cool breeze carrying the scent of ocean waves. As I walked, drops of rain fell, turning into a thick downpour and soaking my suit and hair in no time. A few minutes later, I approached Dorsey Hotel, a four-story white house. After climbing the steps and knocking on the door, a tall, casually dressed man let me inside.
“My name is Kris Bedi, and the agency has sent me for the short-order cooking job,” I told him.
The man just looked at me, a foreigner dripping puddles of water on the lobby’s wooden floor. Later, I learned he was Mr. Whitesell, and apparently, the Whitesells were not prepared to consider a foreigner for the job. In the past, the employment agency sent only black people for the cooking position.
Mr. Whitesell went to get his wife, who handled the hotel staff and took care of management. She led me into a small room as her husband went away shaking his head.
Despite my soggy and disheveled appearance, Mrs. Whitesell spoke courteously, asking my name, where I was from, and what foods I could cook. Suddenly I couldn’t think of any names of food from McDonald’s or Andy’s. I was cold, wet, and nervous, but I had to answer something.
“You name it, I know it,” I said.
“Can you make scrambled eggs?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“How about meatloaf?”
I had never seen anyone cook meatloaf before, so I responded, “I can learn your way of cooking meatloaf, since each person has a little bit of a different recipe. If you show me, I will be able to do it.”
She nodded pleasantly. “Do you know succotash?”
I never heard of this word. To sound truthful, I said, “No, ma’am. I do not know how to cook that. But if you show me once, then I will cook it.”
“Oh, no problem,” she said. “I will show it to you.”
At the end of the interview, Mrs. Whitesell still wasn’t sure if she should hire me. “Wait here while I discuss it with my husband,” she said.
A few minutes later, she came back with a smile on her face. “Kris,” she said, looking at me standing there in my wrinkly, wet suit. “You have the job.”
(Left) A busy street in Wildwood, New Jersey, in the 1960s.
The Dorsey Hotel was open from mid-June through Labor Day weekend. Two weeks prior to the opening date, the hotel staff cleaned and repaired the hotel to prepare for guests. Before Mrs. Whitesell hired me, she had cooked most of the meals for the hotel staff, but now it was my job to cook breakfast for them every morning. When the chef arrived a few days before the opening date, I would help him cook for the guests.
(Right) Bedi, learning on the job, became good at making breakfast.
The Whitesells paid me $250 every month, including room and board. I slept in the basement quarters with the black employees, in my own small room, with one bed, no more than a thin mattress on top of a wooden frame. The white employees worked in the dining room as servers and slept upstairs in the comfortable beds.
The next three mornings, I fixed eggs for the hotel staff, while Mrs. Whitesell made sandwiches for lunch and prepared full meals in the evenings. I assisted her and watched how she prepared the meats and vegetables in case I would have to make the same foods.
On the fourth day, an employee came up to me while I cooked scrambled eggs in the kitchen. “Do you know how to make pancakes?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, even though I had no idea.
“Good, we are tired of eating eggs,” he said.
“Tomorrow could you make pancakes?”
“Of course,” I said.
Each afternoon for two to three hours, I strolled down to the boardwalk with the dining room help to play games and look at the sea. That afternoon, I said I did not feel well, and after everyone left, I hurried to the phone booth to make a collect call to Billo Cheema in Knoxville.
Thinking there was an emergency, Billo immediately accepted the charges. “Kris, what’s wrong?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
I only had three minutes to talk. At the end of three minutes, the operator would ask if Billo wanted to accept a further three minutes. Unsure if Billo would accept more time at two dollars for each additional minute, I spoke quickly.
“Never mind about that,” I said. “I have a job now.”
“Oh, Kris, I am very glad,” Billo said. “What kind of job did you get?”
“A cooking job.”
“Oh, my God, Kris. You don’t know how to cook!” Billo exclaimed.
“Don’t tell me whether I do or not. Now I have this job, so I’m calling you to find out how to make pancakes.”
Billo just about died laughing. “Kris! How could you do that? How did you get this job?”
“Never mind that,” I said. “Tomorrow morning I’m supposed to make pancakes. So quickly, tell me how!”
“The pancake mix usually comes in a box as some type of powder. You need to mix it with milk or water to make a paste. Read the directions on the box,” she said. “It will tell you how to do it. Once the batter is prepared you just pour it in the hot pan. When one side is done you must turn it over to the other side. It should look brown on both sides.” Billo laughed again. “Kris, I can’t believe you are a cook!”
The next morning, I woke up earlier than usual and hurried to the kitchen. Mrs. Whitesell was already unlocking the pantry and making sure we had everything for breakfast. While she started the bacon, I found the pancake mix. Turning my back to her to hide the fact this was my first attempt at making pancakes, I poured the powder into a big bowl and mixed it with water to form a thick paste. The hotel staff began lining up while I heated the grill and transferred the batter into a container with a long spout resembling a watering can. Once I poured the batter onto the hot grill, the white mixture spread quickly, forming a giant thin pancake. Hovering nervously over the grill, I tried to figure out how to flip the pancake with my small spatula. Finally, after looking around to make sure no one was watching, I scraped the pancake off the grill.
This time I stirred more pancake mix into the batter until it was thick. The pancakes formed small, thick circles, and in no time at all, the outsides of the pancakes turned dark brown. Flipping the pancakes onto plates, I proudly served them to the staff.
A moment later, an employee returned with his plate. “Kris, this pancake needs more cooking,” he said. “It’s done on the outside but gooey on the inside.” Realizing I made the batter too thick, I added more water and reduced the grill’s temperature. Finally, the pancakes were as they should be. Mrs. Whitesell smiled and nodded at me while I served everyone the properly cooked pancakes.
Krishan Bedi, who came to the U.S. from India in 1961, worked as a healthcare executive for many years. An alumnus of the University of Tennessee, where he earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering, Bedi lives with his family in the Memphis area. This article was excerpted from his memoir, Engineering a Life, with the permission of SparkPress.
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