Lyle's Blog

Chili

Thursday, January 29, 2009

This January has put a few things on my personal plate and I must admit finding it hard to be inspired to write the past few weeks. Tonight, Casey weighs heavy on my mind. Yesterday, his outpatient hernia surgery ended up taking a couple of hours and with his last call yesterday from his house, he was in a bit of pain so I can only lay there in the middle of the night wondering how he is doing but not able to call because of the hour.

A business does not allow for personal distractions, however, and so those challenges must continue to be addressed and so this is one that I am presently working on.

One of my first culinary decisions that I had to make years ago when I first started managing the restaurant was chili. Now, first of all, let me remind you that I came into this business with absolutely no prior food service experience but when I walked into the kitchen that day and watched the cook, I knew that this was a problem that I must immediately address.

The cook was standing over a pot of grey matter. He was pouring ketchup from out of a can into it. "What are you doing?", I asked. The cook looked up at me with a smile and said, "Fixing the chili.". I watched in shock as the ketchup added the color and additional flavor to the seemingly tasteless thick broth. Without another thought, I knew what I must do. I drove to United Grocers and paced down the isle that held the various canned chili. I picked what I felt looked good and was reasonably priced and thus we started the era of canned chili.

Over the next few years, I actually tried a few different brands looking for that one that we could use as our signature but none seemed to really stand out.

Then, in the late 80's, Duke made the choice for me. Now, Duke was a story on his own. He was as tough as his named sounds. I had actually kicked him out of the diner once. He had taken a liking to one of the waitresses. His jealous temper had found him sitting at the counter glaring at any fellow who even gave her a smile. I had had enough when he sat there for six hours one day after being warned. I must admit because of his size and temper, I told his girlfriend to tell him and he obviously did not have much respect for me from that.

After she left the business, he came back in one day and without her there, I figured there was no reason not to allow that. Instinctively knowing that I was somewhat afraid of him, he often teased and prodded me as I walked by. One day, I had had enough and was walking across the floor. I guess I must have been gazing at him and he chided, "Hey, what are you looking at?". I stopped and stared into his mean eyes. "Nothing", I returned and continued on into the kitchen. The guys around him erupted in laughter and with that one confrontation, I had regained Duke's respect and we actually began to be friends.

One day, Duke stopped me as I walked by. "Hey, Lyle, I came in for chili and the waitress tells me that you are out. What is up with that?", he teased. Now, just the day before, a local food rep had dropped off some chili samples. I remember him telling me that I must try this new chili. I looked at the label that read Campbells and chuckled as I put the cans up on the shelf with no intentions of even opening it with that label.

I stopped and told Duke about this new chili without admitting the name on the label and asked him if he would like to be a guinea pig. I offered the chili up to him for free. I then went back into the kitchen, opened up the number five can, poured part of it's contents into a bowl and heated it up for him in a microwave. Delivering him the steaming bowl, I then went on with my rounds.

Duke yelled for me across the floor. Showing me his empty bowl, he asked if I had any more. "I will pay for this", he stated, "This stuff is great!". I made him and myself a bowl and sat down at the table with him. He was right. The consistency seemed perfect and the meat and bean mixture had just the right seasonings that I liked and thus began a new era of Campbells chili.

Over the years, I have had a bit of fun with it but have always been honest when asked or complimented on about it. The best time was when I was invited to a chili cook off from the referral of one of our chili eaters. I laughed as I asked the man on the phone if I could bring my can opener with me. To this day, I have served this chili.

Three years ago, we were asked if we wanted to join a local vets chili cook off. Jim really wanted to so I paid the fee and drove down to the VFW hall with him and watched him put together two different types of chili, red and green. I was happy when he won awards for both and gladly gave him the honor and the monetary prize as reward for his work.

For the past three years, he has won awards for both but I have remained reluctant to turn over the reigns in the diner away from this canned chili that has been so consistent and well liked. I have often thought about it but am not one that likes change especially when I have something so well accepted.

This week, Carrie called me up and asked for some chili for a weekly snack that various people in her office put together. This week, if was her turn. She really likes our chili so she decided on chili and chips. As we talked on the phone about it, it just came to me. "Would you like to try some of Jimmy's award winning chili?", I asked. We agreed and Jim put a batch together. He let me know the only problem, however, was the fact that he had never gone by a recipe so he said that he would keep tabs of what he put in it. His finished product tasted very good and I took a pot down to her office.

With this first step behind me, I have asked Jimmy to perfect his recipe and I am going to just take the step out hoping for the acceptance of our customers. I believe his flavor to be superior but one small problem will be in the beef. The Campbells has a fine diced beef and we have not been able to find a grind of that sort that works. Dicing up our own is far to labor intensive so for now we will use our ground beef while we look for that just right chili grind. To compensate for the difference and stay with our consistency in other soups and dishes, we have added more beef to the blend.

It all falls in line with our conversions to more home made. In the last year, we have moved our Pot Roast, Roast Beef, and Turkey all to a home roasted product made right here in our kitchen. This has all been done to give our customers a fresher better tasting product with a signature of our very own. Bottom line is that if it doesn't work, I still have my can opener.

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