… and the Onion Rings, Please

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… and the Onion Rings, Please.

Life Story and Video Biography.

“Absolument pas (certainly not)!” My chef, trained in French cuisine and knowledgable about food around the world, was adamant.  No, he was indignant!

“I will never dip onion rings in egg batter and fry them in oil!  Madame, this I will simply not do.  I have served the Americans now for many months and I have found myself preparing hamburgers and French fries, but this is ‘fou’ (crazy)!”

Tchiam’s thick arms, folded across his white jacket, substantiated his charge.  It was 11.30 am in Dakar, Senegal, and we were about to open the doors in the American Embassy cafeteria.  Earlier I had suggested we offer onion rings as an alternative to French fries on “Hamburger Days”.  I knew I had to tread lightly.  I was the manager, but without Tchiam I had nothing.  He was an incredible chef.  He managed his small kitchen with finesse and pride and put the kitchen staff in place when needed.  Looking at him with respect, I pondered how lucky I was.  He could have worked in any of the French restaurants dotting Dakar and the surrounding areas, but he was the uncle of one of my staff who had convinced him to come meet with me.  I had offered enough money to make him interested and he had promised me a ‘trial period’, under which he would try out the job and give me notice of whether he would stay or not.  Not your usual hiring rule, but I accepted it.  We immediately took a liking for each other.  Why he would trust a 23-year old running the American Club for expatriates and diplomats, I could not fathom.  I believe Tchiam took the job as a challenge to himself.  Maybe on a lark.  Or maybe, because more expatriates and diplomats were arriving in Dakar and he knew he would be catering to them further and wanted to study their preferences.

I put the subject to rest and it was not until the next morning when we were at the ‘Marché’ purchasing produce and poultry for his ‘Poulet Cordon Bleu’, to be served at the Club that night, that I broached the subject again.

“Monsieur Tchiam,” I began, while accepting a bunch of carrots from his sturdy grip.  Again, the tables were turned – he did the shopping, I carried the produce and paid.  “Let’s try it out just once.”  I caught myself pleading and changed tone.  Demonstrating inferiority did not work well with Tchiam.  As a woman in a Muslim society, with ancient African tribal customs still prevalent, I could only command respect when he saw me as an equal.  “We are absolutely going to serve the onion rings (I hadn’t been able to find a French translation so I used English),” I said over the din at the Marché.  “Mr. Corrigan asked for them the other day,” I added.  He turned towards me and I knew I got him.  He had tremendous respect for Adam Corrigan, who was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy, and who oversaw my operations.  Adam gave me a lot of leeway and I liked him.  When I needed leverage with anyone, I referred to Mr. Corrigan.  They may question me at times, but never his authority.

My staff at the Club also worked the lunch services at the Embassy on weekdays.  It worked out well because our weekend days were packed with activities.  Or at least I tried to have them packed with tennis tournaments, fashion shows, local dance troupes and kid’s swimming competitions in our rather small swimming pool.  I loved my job.  I was able to plan meals and events, make creative posters to attract my clientele, write a weekly newsletter, where I published the upcoming menu at the Embassy, as well as meals and affairs at the Club for the coming week.  Managing a crew of 8 Senegalese men, was easier than I had first thought.  We had fun together, and I had hired young men I liked and trusted.  We handled a lot of cash, managed an inventory of liquor and beer, and handled recently released movies, arriving to the Embassy on huge reels from Stateside, which we ran every Saturday night under the dark sky of West Africa.  During the movies I turned off all the lights, and I would look up into the inky sky, where a star or two twinkled.  At that age, in that place, in that role, I felt omnipotent.

“See, Madam.  They love it!”  A week later Tchiam stood in the opening of the kitchen at the Embassy Cafeteria, a sort of dignified smirk on his round face, arms across his chest.  He had surreptitiously tried out the recipe several times, until he perfected it, and the onion rings, lightly battered, were tender and not oily.  I was gratified.  He had agreed to prepare this ‘pedestrian’ American dish, and now had the pleasure of seeing our clientele coming up and congratulating us both, asking us to please make it a staple every day.  I didn’t think I’d get Tchiam to agree to that, but surely on Hamburger Days once week.  Just as a start.

Our clientele for lunch at the Embassy was, of course, the Embassy staff.  But the Club was different.  Any diplomat or other expatriate, that is, a person from another country living in Senegal, was welcome.  The annual membership fee was hefty, but members had access to four lit tennis courts, a bar serving American beer and Pepsi, which was impossible to find locally in 1984, and interesting events year round.  We served dinner each night, and usually about 5 tables were occupied.  I let Tchiam have loose reins in terms of what he wanted to serve.  Our members came to taste different types of cuisine, not the usual American fare.  We found a group of repeat customers who enjoyed the simple, outdoor setting, where Tchiam served the dishes himself, proud and substantial.  Occasionally I had a complaint.  It was very seldom about the food, rather about the service.  If it was related to the food, I just suggested new menu items to Tchiam, which he was usually willing to try.  Sometimes I ran into Tchiam’s stubborn negation of my often excited suggestions, but I usually bit my tongue and accepted his resistance.  As I said earlier, we had mutual respect.

Then the ‘Spaghetti Day’ arrived.

“Madam, you want me to serve ‘All you can Eat Spaghetti’?” Arms crossed, there it was again: “Absolument pas!”  Tchiam was partially responsible for the budget pertaining to our kitchen and he valued his bonuses.  Not only for the money, but as a badge of professionalism and honor.  Honor is important in Senegal, as in any Francophone country.

“They will love it!” I was exuberant.  This was not a menu I had seen in a magazine; this was my own invention.  Tchiam had already proven that he could produce a heavenly Spaghetti Bolognese, a formidable Spaghetti Alfredo, and his own ‘Spaghetti à la Tchiam’, where he peeled shrimp, simmered the shells into a delectable base, added heavy cream then stirred in the barely cooked shrimp and served it with a flourish.   We already knew how much our guests loved his pasta and he thought I had lost my mind suggesting an ‘All you can Eat Spaghetti’ night.

On regular pasta nights, I had noticed many guests would leave some pasta on their plates, gush about how great it was, while Tchiam and I worried, and then promptly return the next time it was offered.  And leave some on the plate again.  And gush again.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that most people just can’t eat more than 1 plate of pasta.  Especially Tchiam’s pasta, where the sauces were thick and satisfying.  I was pretty sure my plan would work.  I would charge twice as much as a regular pasta order, and allow my guests to eat as much as they wanted.  Wonderful scheme I thought.  I’d have a premium meal night for the Club, and I figured my wine sales would go up as well, since the guests would be spending more time at the table.

The night arrived and over 20 tables had been booked.  We were at capacity and Tchiam, standing at the serving table outside, gave me indignant and worried stares as I welcomed the guests.  Many different nationalities came.  Americans predominantly, but also the French and some Italians.  Most ordered house carafes of red wine and then, rapidly lined up.  It was summer, and the nights never really cooled down, and it was still warm.  After the first serving, I joined Tchiam and we stood side by side studying each table.  I caught us at it, quickly poked him in the arm, and we turned around.  We busied ourselves, ready for the next serving.  We prespired a little extra as the line rapidly formed again.  Tchiam made sure each plate received a modest portion of spaghetti, and most came three times to taste each of the three sauces.  Sure, there were some that appeared to be bottomless pits, but I only counted 3 individuals in that category.  The night was a great success.  Many are not aware of how small the cost of a meal can be attributed to ingredients.  Typically, it is no more than a quarter of it, and even less with pasta.  Most of the cost is in the service, and here we were selling meals at a premium price, with an abundance of wine, served by the same staff as any other day.

When our happy customers left, and we had cleaned up, we all sat down at the bar and laughed.  I was the only one having beer.  As Muslims, my staff did not join me, but gladly accepted cans of Pepsi.  This time, Tchiam raised his Pepsi can, and congratulated ‘Madam’.  A rare public display of respect.  We both knew, that after the ‘Onion Rings’ and the ‘All you can Eat Spaghetti’, he would trust me a little more, when I suggested these ‘crazy’ American dishes.  He didn’t know then, that I was already thinking about Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwiches for lunch!