silver lining cookbook
By Michael Thomas
The smell and sound of steaks that were far too expensive sizzling on the grill had long
since faded away, and there were no more orders to be filled, nor dirty dishes to be carried down
the stairs. By all visual accounts, the night was over, and it was quitting time for the motley
crew of men in the kitchen at Max Chophouse- my first and last place of employment in my high
school career. Despite the obvious cues that would’ve meant the night was over at nearly any
other restaurant in the city, or the fact that the clock had just struck one in the morning, the
cramped kitchen was still brimming with activity. This was the time of night that I worked for.
This was the time when stories of summers long since turned into falls and then winters and
springs and so on filled my young mind, and the time when I learned life lessons that, at the time,
I had no idea were lessons at all. This was the time that the intellectually unintellectual
community to which I belonged really began cooking with gas.
“Nah shitty Mikey, you’re not gettin’ it man. We don’t break into the abandoned
subway. If it weren’t abandoned, sure. That would be breaking in. But it is, so it doesn’t count.
We’re just using it to bring dangerous punk rock to the people man.” A young man who had
affectionately come to be known as Crazy Matt had just invited me to his band’s show that night
in a part of town I would never dream of walking to at noon on a Sunday, much less at three
A.M., their scheduled slot in the night’s subway show. I mumbled the best excuse that sixteen-
year old me could muster without sounding like a loser, for despite his rap sheet (which rivaled a
receipt from CVS in length) and coarse exterior, with more tattoos than one could count, I truly
did view him as one of my role models. The kid lived with a zeal for life the likes of which I had
never seen before, and I was honestly kind of jealous of it.
He went back to cleaning his station, and I went back to scrubbing some form of
unrecognizable gunk- was that lobster? out of the sink. Chef Rob, a true grizzly bear of a man
laughed out loud at the negative RSVP I had given to Matt, and made a remark along the lines of
“Shitty Mikey is a pussy, blah blah blah.” It wasn’t the first time I had heard that that night, and
it wasn’t the last either. He didn’t mean it of course, in fact, he viewed me as the son he had
never had. Crazy Matt and Sweet Lou, the other sous chef, saw me as their little brother, and
together, we became a sort of rough and tumble family, where anything was fair game- mom
jokes, bad ones at that, reigned supreme that particular summer.
Eventually the kitchen was sufficiently cleaned under Rob’s scrutinizing eye, and we all
went to the bar at the front of the restaurant, them for their customary end of shift drink, me for a
Coke, “to let me feel like one of the big boys,” something that actually served to make the gap in
age between them and I seem far larger. I stood behind the bar, finishing the work of the
bartender who had left his post early, hoping for a few extra bucks to be thrown my way, and
they sat across from me. I knew their favorite drinks, and was making them before they even
asked at this point in the summer. Jack and Coke for Rob, Gin and Tonic with a lime for Crazy
Matt, straight Hennesy for Sweet Lou. I was always content to simply wash and polish the
evening’s glassware, while I listened to them talk politics, cars, football, music, and play “Who
Would You Do”. We were the hoods that Graff portrayed, hidden intellectuals, overlooked by
societal norms. Lately however, things had felt a bit different. They began to include me more
in conversation, asking my opinion on things of the like.
“How about you Shitty Mikey?” they would ask.
“Hey ya little prick, Hillary Clinton, Miley Cyrus post-breakdown, or Lou’s mom?”
I had begun to feel like one of the guys, not just the little brother that I had been for a
year and a half. And so, on this particular night, once I had finished behind the bar, Rob asked
me for a Vodka Tonic. I made it, internally remarking at his apparent change in taste, and passed
it to him.
“It’s for you idiot.” He said without looking away from that night’s highlights on
My first shift drink. They had never allowed me participate in the late-night tradition,
saying I could when I didn’t “have to glue cat fur to my face to have a beard,” or other such
things denouncing the manhood I had thought I was growing into. That was all in the past now.
They had deemed me mature enough to talk over a drink at the end of the night like a man. They
had come to actually value my input in their favorite topics, and I loved it. For, after all, isn’t
that what part of being a man was? Getting off of work and having a drink with your coworkers,
discussing mature grown up things?
We got to talking deep into the night. I texted my mom some poorly crafted lie that a
customer was taking forever to leave and that I would be held up, and just like that, I was free to
stay as long as I wished.
There is something about one o’clock A.M. that nearly always lends to a deep
conversation. The topics that night were initially the same as always, sports, girls, bosses,
politics, but somehow, as the ice in everyone’s glasses slowly began to melt, and the sound of
tires on the road outside became less and less frequent, the subject of our discourse shifted to my
own life, and what I wanted to do with it. I was taken aback by the unusually personal nature of
their inquiry, and tried as best I could to formulate an answer that I believed would satiate their
“I don’t know, I’m young, I still have time to figure that out right? I definitely know I
don’t wanna be stuck behind a desk my whole life, that’s for sure.” I thought that would be
enough. I was only sixteen, I had barely taken my PSAT. Surely they wouldn’t be looking for a
I was wrong.
Sweet Lou, usually calm and rather reserved, instantly chimed in. “Cut the shit Shitty
Mikey, this is serious, man,” he insisted. Rob agreed, saying that they didn’t want me to end up
like them, working in a kitchen, taking orders for a living, working deep into the night, every
night, barely eking out a living. They encouraged me to go to college and get a “real job,”
warning me against the hardships of the life they lived.
I wasn’t surprised by this in the slightest. Every adult I had talked to in the last year had
asked the same question, and reacted in the same manner to my answer.
It was then, after all that, that a simple “Nah.” came from three seats down from me
where Crazy Matt was stirring his drink, gazing into its depths, seeing God knows what. He told
me that it wasn’t all bad, that in fact, he loved his life, and bet that I would excel on such a path
as his. He talked at length about the commonly held notion that life with a degree was the only
life worth living, and waxed intellectual on his time spent riding trains around the country after
being inspired by Hemmingway and Jack London. He described to me the freedom he had felt
living off the radar, and urged me to take a year or two off, experimenting with psychedelics and
roaming the country before heading to college.
To this day, it stands as the worst advice I have ever received.
As I considered it, and realized how ludicrous his advice was, I was able to find a silver
lining of sorts to what he had said. I realized that, while I admired the way Matt had lived his 26
years, I desired quite a different walk of life for myself.
I didn’t want the wild life roaming the outskirts of society like Matt. I didn’t want the
psychedelics or the rap sheet, and I sure as hell didn’t want the restaurant night job. Matt’s
advice, while not taken in any way, shape, or form, steered me in a new direction of thought,
shifting my paradigm on life. It got me to think about what I really wanted.
I no longer thought of cheesy cookie-cutter answers to throw adults’ way when they
asked what I wanted to do. I instead began thinking about what I truly wanted out of life, and,
for that, I have Matt to thank.
That night at the Chophouse was perhaps the most formative of my life. I was granted
my first drink from an adult, a universal rite of passage in a young man’s life, and, in a way, was
welcomed into the family we had in an entirely new light. However, what I cherish most about
that night is what Matt told me. While it was undoubtedly bad advice, bordering on downright
destructive, it taught me a lesson that I wouldn’t trade for the world. It taught me to search for
value in everything, for even ill-advised encouragement can open your eyes to a previously