“Art can be done by anyone doing almost anything if it is done well and with passion.” —THE IMAGINIST
One of the single greatest artistic influences in my young life was a short order cook. His name was Russell Espinosa. I was a 15 year-old dishwasher, busboy, and a wanna-be fry cook at Uncle John’s Pancake House on State Street in Santa Barbara, California when I met him.
I was also an up and coming artist.
People in this affluent vacation community (mostly locals) would form a queue down the street on weekends to partake of one of Russell’s extraordinary omelets. At a glance you’d think there was a rock concert going on, a special event; an art show perhaps. Maybe the latter was more accurate- it was for me- because I had the privilege of watching Russell perform his art. I was fascinated by him and studied him like I studied Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Leonardo.
He was a tall, lithely built, Latino man who wore a thin Don Ameche-style mustache, had a full head of dark, wavy hair, (when not covered by his chef’s hat) and a physical grace that evoked images of a matador, or perhaps a professional Tango dancer. He was fortyish and spoke English with a heavy, almost unidentifiable accent. Of course none of these attributes were wasted on the mainly female staff of the restaurant or by the clientele who viewed him mostly from the shoulders up as seen behind the copper counter-top. The waitresses swooned over Russell, but he seemed to pay little, or no attention to them except professionally. He was happily married, and though we never saw his wife, we expected that she must be beautiful. He spoke very little, (only as it applied to work and the weather) smiled cordially during conversations, and on the whole, would have been a man that you’d identify as pleasant and polite.
Russell (never Russ) wore white from head to toe with the exception of a black pair of very functional restaurant-type rubber-soled shoes that he still managed to make stylish. His chef hat was pinched and tucked to his liking as he stood bent-kneed (to accommodate his height) in the kitchen mirror before entering into the cooking area. It was not a vanity thing so much as a professional ethic; to look as good as possible before he entered his arena: the Kitchen. His white double-breasted cooking jacket was pulled and straightened accordingly prior to entering his space behind the grill. (Within the hour it would be miserably stained and spotted.)
His art was the grill; the Kitchen; the environment he worked in. The “Spanish Omelet,” the “Denver Omelet,” and even “The Breakfast Special,” were his masterpieces. His medium . . . eggs, toast, chopped ham, sausage, and pancakes; any food he touched became colors on his palette. His brushes were skillets, ladles, spatulas, and knives.
“Johnny,” he called to me. “I need more large plates pleazze.” (When he spoke his S’s became Z’s and he rolled his R’s slightly having most of the waitresses in envy that their name was not Roberta or Rosa.) The omelet slid from skillet to the hot plate; toast to the plate- placed just so; a garnish, and with a single, fluid motion he released the plate to spin slowly upon the copper counter-top under the heat lamp as he rang the small bell just loud enough, “Number six pleazze.”
He worked with such passion and perfection at his craft that he elevated the simple act of flipping an egg or turning an omelet into an art. It went like this: left hand on his hip, he raised the skillet with his right arm into the air at about eye level; as the eggs left the pan, his right foot lifted ever-so slightly and swung out gracefully behind him, (similar to a bowler’s back leg lifts as he releases the ball) but very subtle, almost imperceptible. And when the eggs turned and landed back into the pan, his foot touched back down. Voila! A subtle flourish, unconscious, never with the intent of drawing attention. Counterpoint and balance; not unlike Fred Astaire setting Ginger Rogers to the floor. He wasted no motion in the kitchen, one elegant gesture had connective tissue to the next, and the next, and the busier it got the more fluid he became. What Hemingway defined as Courage: grace under pressure, I came to see as a form of indescribable magic. When he caught me looking, a singular stern look had me scrambling back to my task. “Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
Of course I didn’t know it then; I was too young to understand what grace– and even art– really meant. Like most everyone, I just shook my head in awe and and amazement and smiled. I did know that I was witnessing something very special.
In several years I eventually achieved the status of Short Order Cook. Russell moved on and so did I. We never crossed paths again, but I will never forget him or the lessons he taught me about cooking and, more importantly, about art: that anything can be made beautiful, and that Fine Art is not just painting, drawing and sculpture. Artists are everywhere doing many incredibly, amazing, commonplace things right under our noses.
Things that they love, do well, and maybe take to another level just beyond the ordinary . . .
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