Hey Chief

The Death of a Mentor

 

Mr Renggli’s obituary was in the Herald yesterday. After hearing the news, my sister and I were going down memory lane and I started into my long list of the Hamilton Restaurant stories…kindda made me smile. This was my first real job in life. And quite the learning experience that it was. The dreaded “Walk of Doom”… was taking a gentleman’s steak back to the kitchen because it ‘ain’t well-done enough’. I’d shiver from the fear of repercussions as I put the NY Strip, slathered in ketchup, back under the heat lamp and calmly explain “Uh, he’d like this cooked a little more.”

“Goddamn peasants!!!!!!!!!!!” When food orders were complete in the window, he’d slam his 10-inch chef knife on the little ‘come get it’ metal bell and holler “Dammit Betsy, Pick Up, Pick Up!!!” There was a Betsy, but sometimes that’s what he’d call little teenage me just to keep me in my place.
Health inspectors had never worked around the world as he had and he saw them as an inferior form of life. Yet with amazing charm and grace, he’d walk, talk and listen to them during inspections, and then, as expected, curse them after they had departed, a 1/2 inch ash hanging from his Benson & Hedges cigarette.
One Friday evening, I was working alongside fellow servers Betsy and Anna Mae. Forty-five year old twin sisters, whose combined height was about nine feet, seven inches tall. They probably got aggravated at amusement parks. During the heat of the work chaos, Betsy asked me to reach an upper shelf in the storage room. The ancient stainless steel hot table wasn’t exactly smooth. A jagged edge caught the seam of my khaki slacks and they tore from belt loop to knee. I’m standing in the middle of the kitchen, showing bloomers and bare leg to everyone. Chaos came to a temporary halt and everyone laughed. Everyone except Mr. Renggli. His step-son had stopped by on his way home from the dry cleaners. He and I were the same size and miraculously he had a matching pair of khakis in his car. Into the walk-in refrigerator I went. As I lowered my pants to my ankles, I came face to leaf with a large container of freshly prepped salad mix. I’ll never look at lettuce the same way again, guaranteed. I returned to my seven tables without missing a single step. “And how’s your dinner…enjoy the rest of your meal”
And there were the mornings after a long night of partying at the Edinburg Mill; I’d be on my way to work, thinking that it would obviously be much easier to drive my car into the ditch as compared to working eight stressed-filled hours waiting tables. I’d get there at 6:15 AM and find him in the back kitchen area. Coffee and cigarette in hand, calmly reading the morning newspaper, he’d already have made a batch of buttermilk biscuits. Between 6:30 and 9:30, he and I would serve up to 150 people for breakfast…he cooked, I served. By 9:30, my BAC would be down to around .17 and I was starting to feel better about the day. I think that I’ll take a break and finish my 6:15 AM cup of coffee. I’d looked around and he’d already have homemade bread going into the oven, the steam-table set up for lunch and would be prepping the two noon specials (i.e. 2 pieces of hand breaded fried chicken, 2 vegetables and a homemade roll, $2.65 not including a beverage or tax. The regulars squawked when it went up to $2.75). Lessons in organization that I learned from him, which years later, would make me stop occasionally and think “Mr. Renggli”. I always took pride in the fact that he’d leave me alone in the restaurant some afternoons in order to ‘go to the bank’. This meant he’d go to the bank and then head home to walk his dogs. A privilege he never entrusted in the waitresses, not even Dot, the restaurant’s living artifact. When I first came home from college for Christmas vacation, I called him to see if he needed any help over the holidays. He responded matter of factly, in his blunt Swiss/German accent, “Yes, put on a nice shirt and pants. You can wait tables”. I had only cooked up until this point. During that first week of waiting tables, there was a fairly significant snow storm. One afternoon, he instructed me to take a to-go order over to room 33 of the motel. With a big to-go order and my little bow tie, I trudged on over and knocked on the door. The door was opened by a 300 pound barefoot woman in a silky nightgown. Ms. Woolhiser (as I later learned) says “Come On In, Honey!!” As I crossed the threshold, my knees buckled and my confidence retracted back up inside of me. I returned to the restaurant through the kitchen back door. There was Mr. Renggli, cigarette dangling from his mouth, reading the newspaper at the back prep table. He never looked up. But he had the biggest grin on his face and was chuckling to himself.
Mr. Renggli worked in his restaurant every day, 6 in the morning till 10 at night. He cooked every meal himself, with a little help on Friday and Saturday evenings. The food served was consistently very good. Not the norm among the small list of restaurants in our area. Traveling guests of the motel would never believe me when I said that the fresh flounder was really fresh (I had cleaned it out back of the restaurant that afternoon). People drove from DC just to get a pint of his homemade Bleu cheese dressing, and then of course, stay for dinner. I’d work five days in a week’s time and would start my day off at the Hamilton with a cup of peanut soup and a club sandwich (four slices of bread not three).
During my last Christmas at the Hamilton, all of the employees (all 7 or 8) received presents. The very long term employees, Dot, Betsy and Anna Mae, received some very nice things…clothes, gift certificates and the like. I called Mr Renggli “Chief”, coincidentally the same moniker that I used with my own father. In a strange arrangement which I never fully understood, Chief and his ex-wife had ‘a joint custody’ of the restaurant. She was always around. The ex-wife and her new husband gave me some beer and blocks of cheese as a Christmas gift. Mr. Renggli gave me a beautiful electric blanket. He’d scream at me, curse at me and he knew that I lived in an overly ventilated, wood stove-heated cabin. While we opened presents in the dining room, he never came out of the kitchen. But he knew that I knew what he knew.

Dammit heaven, HOT STUFF, COMING OVER!!!

Joseph Renggli

Joseph Andreas Renggli, 79, of Woodstock, died suddenly at his home on July 22, 2005.

Mr. Renggli was born and raised in Lucerne, Switzerland. After graduating from school he attended Palace Hotel School. He had traveled to many countries in his early career as a culinary chef, always learning to speak their language. He spoke seven languages. He came to the United States from Jamaica, where he was chef at Tower Isle. Later, he owned and operated the Hamilton Restaurant in Woodstock for many years.

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