Gracious Little Bastard: The Story of a Chef by Sandy Ebner

Chef Louis
Chef Louis

In July of 1963, Louis Cleveland is standing in the kitchen of the Hotel Miramar, next to the door leading to the main dining room. Through the small window he watches as the last few diners finish their meals before walking out into the warm Southern California evening, back to their cars or their seaside bungalows behind the hotel. It’s been a slow night. He’s anxious to finish up and head home to his wife, Sara, needing only to set his stocks to simmer and wait for the dishwasher to clean up.

He watches as Marshall, his head busman, clears the tables before setting them for tomorrow. He sees that the man at Table 13 hadn’t finished his steak, had taken only one or two bites before pushing it to the side. The steak, Louis knew, had been cooked perfectly.

As Marshall comes through the door on his way to the cleaning station he nods in deference to his chef. Louis stands just over five feet tall, not counting his chef’s hat that rises ten inches above his head. Despite his small stature, he is a commanding presence in the kitchen, so much so that he might be intimidating were he not so beloved by his staff.

Another busboy passes with a tray full of empty plates. Louis allows himself a small smile when he sees this, but it is the rib eye that will occupy his thoughts as he thinks back on tonight’s dinner service. Like chefs the world over, he isn’t as concerned with what people eat as much as what they don’t. What matters, always, is what’s left behind.

Before there were celebrity chefs and six-figure cookbook deals, long before cooking schools began churning out culinary hopefuls by the thousands, there were people like my grandfather. He was a chef at a time when there were no culinary schools to speak of, no classes that taught you knife skills or how to bone a chicken. To be a chef meant that you learned your skills by watching somebody else or you learned them from a book.

The cult of personality surrounding chefs today is something my grandfather would probably find appalling, or, at the very least, confusing. There were famous chefs in his day, to be sure, but they weren’t celebrities, at least not as we think of them now. Celebrities were people you saw in the movies. Famous chefs were mostly French, men like Auguste Escoffier and Paul Bocuse, whose cookbooks were treasured, their recipes memorized, their methods learned and relearned until they were second nature.

The restaurant industry is still notoriously difficult. Chefs, line and prep cooks, and dishwashers work long hours with low pay. Most want the same things my grandfather did: to cook good food and to provide for their families. Most of them work their way up the restaurant food chain one grueling step at a time. But what must it be like to spend decades of hard work to reach the top of a profession that isn’t even recognized as one?

*

My grandfather’s life was largely defined by his two great loves: the love of cooking and his love for his wife, Sara. These two things would sustain him every day of his adult life. For over forty years he perfected his craft, and she was there with him every step of the way.

Born in Mississippi in 1907, Louis was raised by his father, a steel worker, and his mother, a woman so difficult that she has been described by her descendants as emotionally ill, psychotic, or simply, in Southern parlance, “meaner than a wet panther.” She eventually made Louis’ life so miserable that he left home. He was fourteen years old.

He made his way to the docks in New Orleans and got hired as a cook’s apprentice by convincing a ship captain that he could cook. Once the ship sailed someone told him to cook up a pot of rice, which he did, not realizing that rice expands to several times its size. Consequently, he made enough rice for the entire voyage. He spent the next two weeks washing dishes. Determined to learn from his mistakes, he watched the cook as he stirred the huge pots in the ship’s galley, cooking three meals a day for the men onboard. Over the next few years he sailed all over the world, working on tankers and tramp steamers, helping the cooks and learning as much as he could. After four years at sea he had the skills to cook almost anywhere. In San Francisco, in 1925, he stepped off the boat for the last time.

From Louis Cleveland’s unfinished cookbook:

How to Cook Rice

When cooking rice, always use a heavy pot with a tight fitting lid. Do not rinse rice before cooking. Bring twice the volume of water to rice to boiling. Add rice. Shake pot by the handle to level. Do not stir. Cook until water is absorbed. Remove from heat. Allow rice to sit, covered, for 5-10 minutes. Fluff with fork and serve.

San Francisco was unlike any place Louis had ever seen, despite his travels around the globe. Cosmopolitan, diverse, and stunningly beautiful, it was a city filled with opportunity. He found a job as a kitchen helper at the St. Francis Hotel, one of the few places in the country serving haute cuisine, French for “high cooking,” or, simply, preparing food in the traditional French style. He was exposed to the realities of life in the hotel and restaurant business for the first time, watching as chefs in white hats, or ‘toques,’ chiseled swans out of ice, stuffed chicken breasts with tarragon and butter, and made row after row of perfect strawberry tarts. He passed waiters in starched uniforms, carrying trays laden with food, bound for the massive hotel dining room or to hungry guests ten floors above. Oyster bisque in porcelain bowls, roast pheasant drizzled with bread sauce, shirred eggs with baked apples. It was here, in one of the finest hotel kitchens in the world, that Louis began to understand what it might mean to be a chef.

In the spring of 1927, Louis is standing with his cousin, Miner Buell, at the house of a mutual friend. He has only been in Washington, D.C. for a few weeks, having moved east to take a job at one of the large hotels in the capital city. A small band is playing and the furniture has been pushed back to open up a makeshift dance floor. He feels out of place, and after spending ten hours peeling potatoes and getting barked at by a line cook, all he wants to do is go to bed. Miner slips him a gin and tonic to try and get him to stay. Prohibition has been in effect for years, and it has been a long time since he’s had a drink. Plus, the music isn’t bad and there are several girls at the party. One in particular has caught his attention.

 “Who’s that?” Louis asks, pointing to a dark-haired girl across the room. She appears to be fending off the advances of a boy who, long after they were married, Louis still referred to as, “that wet blanket.”

 “Oh, that’s Sara Jones,” Miner replies, no doubt thinking he’d never seen two people less suited to one another.

 “Hold this,” Louis says, and handed Miner his drink.

 “You’re nuts,” his cousin said. “She’s way out of your league.”

 Louis walks over to Sara and introduces himself. He has seen his share of women in his young life, but this girl seems different. For one thing, she isn’t dressed in a frilly monstrosity like the other girls in the room. She seems curious rather than shy, and meets his eyes as he approaches. He senses an intelligence that other girls he’s known have lacked or, for what reason Louis couldn’t fathom, kept hidden. She isn’t tall (which, for Louis, is a good thing), and her long dark hair, held back with a lavender ribbon, hangs to the middle of her back. She is standing next to a woman he assumes is her mother, whom he later learns is her chaperone, a concept that leaves him completely baffled. He ignores the woman and holds out his hand to Sara. (Upon hearing news of this appalling lack of good taste, Sara’s mother is instantly predisposed against her future son-in-law, even had she not discovered that he spends his days cutting vegetables and washing stock pots.)

“Feel like dancing?” he says. Something about this boy makes Sara feel dizzy. As strange as it seems, it’s as if she’s been waiting for this moment for a very long time. As her chaperone sputters in protest, Sara takes Louis’ hand and follows him out onto the dance floor.

It’s doubtful that Sara had ever met anyone remotely like Louis Cleveland, especially when compared to the boys she had grown up with. Even at nineteen, Louis was more of a man than a boy, after all the things he’d seen and done. Unfortunately, she was just seventeen and a blue blood to the core. Raised in northwestern Washington, a wealthy enclave of government and embassy officials, Sara was the daughter of a Department of Agriculture official whose wife was, as my mother would later admit in a rare moment of understatement, “a bit of a snob.” At that time, cooks were laborers. It’s unlikely Sam and Ada Jones would even allow Louis into their home, much less marry their daughter. When they started dating, not long after Sara turned eighteen, her parents were not overjoyed.

Despite her parents’ protests, Louis and Sara were married in 1929, just as the Depression plunged the country into economic chaos. By the end of 1930 Sara was pregnant. The following summer their first child, Sissy, my mother, was born, followed by another daughter, Ann, two years later, and Clint, a son, in 1936. Louis worked at any job he could find to support his growing family. Cooking was a useful skill and he never wanted for work, but still, the family moved constantly. Louis was undeniably a gifted cook, but he could also be difficult to work with. He often clashed with chefs who tried to micro-manage him, so jobs were often short-lived. Sara tried to keep her husband’s spirits up each time he came home after storming out of one kitchen or another, or having been fired, as he often was. Once, after he told a particularly odious restaurant owner to take a long walk on a short pier, Sara calmly told Louis that he was his own worst enemy.

Sara Cleveland, journal entry, April 1948:

The word is out!”

Sara used this phrase each time Louis began another job search. She used it sardonically because she was confident that he would always find another job, which proved to be the case throughout his entire career. He may have been a difficult employee, but the one thing he was never fired for was the quality of his food. That, as always, was spot on. Despite all the moves, Louis loved what he did, and with each new job, he continued to learn. He watched as sauciers made béchamel and hollandaise, garde mangers creating elaborate hors d’oeuvres and terrines, pastry chefs icing cakes. He was particularly good at baking, and more than once he was hired on as a pastry chef. My mother told stories about visiting him at work, walking into restaurant kitchens, everything covered in flour, her father standing in his white pants and apron baking pies. “We got to eat anything the restaurant didn’t sell,” she said. “All the kids in town wanted to be our friends because we always had leftover doughnuts and éclairs. When we walked home from school they followed us everywhere.”

For the children, having a chef for a father wasn’t unusual. It was all they’d ever known. He just carried knives rolled up in newspaper instead of a briefcase. For their parents, however, it was a constant struggle, particularly during the years Louis was baking. He went to work at four in the morning, and worked until late afternoon. He came home, fixed dinner, slept for a while, and went right back to work. Eventually, the stress began to wear him down. Sara often woke to her husband shouting, which she had long ago become accustomed to.

“Damn it to hell, Sara!” he would yell. “WHERE ARE MY SOCKS?” Socks, clean pants, his coffee mug, or whatever he needed that wasn’t where he thought it should be. Sara knew that he was just blowing off steam, but she was as stubborn as he was and yelled right back, at least when the children weren’t in the room.

Although they were often fighting, Louis and Sara shared a deep love for one another. They knew it and the children knew it. But that wasn’t the only reason they stayed together. Louis brought home the paychecks, but it was Sara who kept him going. She cleaned house. She watched the kids. She washed and ironed his hats, a job she took great pride in, starching them, drying them, never allowing the children to touch them. One thing she didn’t do was cook. It was not a skill she’d learned growing up. Her clumsy attempts were met with groans from her family, and one night Louis said, “Sara, we need to teach these kids to cook.”

Many years later, when my sisters and I complained about something our mother had served for dinner, she often started telling stories about her father to distract us, which we loved. “We learned how to cook when we were very young,” she would say. “Daddy taught us how to cook simple things, like omelets or pancakes. He would tell us if we undercooked or overcooked the food or if there was anything that was just yucky. He’d say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll just throw this in the backyard and start over.’ We were never afraid of screwing up. It was like, ‘Okay, we’re learning.’”

From Lois Cleveland’s unfinished cookbook:

Omelet with fresh herbs

 6 large eggs

salt and pepper

1 tbsp. each chives, tarragon, parsley and fresh thyme

1 tbsp. chopped shallots

2 teaspoons butter

Melt butter in cast-iron pan until foamy. Crack eggs into small bowl and add salt, pepper and herbs. Beat with fork and add to pan. Stir, and shake pan lightly until eggs are set. Fold omelet over to edge of pan and turn out onto warm plate. (Feeds two adults or three hungry children.)

Business contacts often served as an informal job referral service
Business contacts often served as an informal job referral service

In 1942, after a particularly extended period of unemployment, Louis enlisted in the Navy. At 35, he was too old to see combat butwas sent to train as a cook for the Navy’s Construction Battalion, or ‘Seabees.’ Sara and the kids moved back in with her parents, who now lived in Bethesda, Maryland. When he returned from the war, he briefly worked as a sous chef for the Statler Hotel, then, in a stroke of blazing good luck, was hired as a chef at the Congressional Country Club. The club catered to Washington’s elite, and although he was one of several chefs working in the club kitchens, it was a prestigious position. Many years after he died, my mother still talked about what that job meant to her father. “Daddy hit the big time when he got that job,” she said. “It was the classiest position he ever had. He was so proud of himself, and finally my mother was even proud of him. And he’d gone to war. My parents admired and respected him for that.”

While it may have been a boost to his career, his job at the country club was like any other, just with more responsibility. He was bussed to work with the rest of the staff, walked in through the back alley, as all restaurant employees did (and still do), and was still working a job with no autonomy, which became more difficult with each job he took. In 1951, he learned about an executive chef position opening up at the New Orleans Country Club. When he was offered the job, he became one of the very few professional chefs working in the United States.

*

Incredibly, Louis and other chefs like him weren’t technically considered professionals by the U.S. Department of Labor until over twenty years later. In 1951, an executive chef, or chef de cuisine, was still considered a service position. None of that mattered to Louis at the time, although it certainly would later, when chefs began to lobby for the change in designation. What was more important was that he had finally achieved a small measure of job security in a profession notorious for its insecurity, not to mention a tremendous sense of personal satisfaction.

Louis Cleveland, newspaper profile, Amarillo, Texas: 1958.

“This is a beautiful business. Its creativeness and perfection is a daily challenge. If I see something wrong with food I get cold chills and goose bumps. Errors in food disturb a chef’s metabolism!”

During most of the 1950s, Louis and Sara lived in Amarillo, Texas, where they had moved after Louis, for whatever reason, left his job in New Orleans. Presumably, the owners of the Amarillo Country Club left him alone to do what he did best, and so, finally, he was happy. In addition to his duties as chef­, he wrote a column for the club’s newsletter, and had been profiled in one of the local newspapers. He was enjoying his time in the spotlight after so many years of hard work, but Sara was miserable.

Chef Louis and King, Louis' longtime sous chef at Amarillo Country Club
Chef Louis and King, Louis’ longtime sous chef at Amarillo Country Club

Looking back on their childhood, Sara’s children said many times that their mother always expected the “bluebird of happiness” to land on her shoulder, that she was always upbeat, always optimistic. The years in Amarillo, however, were the unhappiest of her life. She was lonely and she missed her husband. Louis knew how miserable she was, so when he heard about a position at the Miramar Hotel in Montecito, California, a small seaside town near Santa Barbara, he accepted the job when it was offered.

Louis writes about Sara's cooking skills
Louis writes about Sara’s cooking skills

Sara quickly fell in love with California, but Louis was working all day and into the night, just as he always had. She felt less out of sorts than she had in Amarillo, but now that the children were grown all she really wanted was to be with her husband. When she received a small inheritance after her mother’s death, she talked Louis into buying a restaurant so that they could finally work together.

In 1966, Louis and Sara moved one last time, to North Hollywood, and bought a small diner. It wasn’t fancy, just basic diner food: eggs and pancakes, burgers, good coffee. They worked the restaurant six days a week, exhausted but happy. They closed on Sundays and went for long drives up and down the coast. It was the one day each week that they could spend time alone.

Sara Cleveland, journal entry, Sunday, May 14th, 1968:

“Louis got up at 6am so I did, too. Had coffee, then into the car and up to the beach near Oxnard, and our special place. The sun was warm, but water too cold to get in. Warm sand, broiled chicken, fresh pineapple pickles, black olives, and iced tea. What a feast. Home to rest, then up again at midnight. Drove to Brown Derby for poached eggs, corned beef hash, and Singapore Slings. What fun! Back home to bed at 2am.”

My mother often said, “Once we all got married we couldn’t even find our parents. They’d call us on one of our birthdays and say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve moved to California.’ We knew they loved us so we didn’t take it personally. They were happiest when they were with each other. It was always that way with them. They lived in their own little world.”

In the spring of 1969, Sara came down with the flu. She contracted meningitis, and, one week later, died of a stroke at the age of fifty-nine. Louis was suddenly left without the one person who, aside from his children, loved him unconditionally. Grief-stricken, he immediately stopped functioning. His daughter, Ann, flew out from New Orleans to help with the diner, but Louis was inconsolable. He simply went to bed and wouldn’t get up.

Louis and Sara on their 38th wedding anniversary, 1967, North Hollywood, CA
Louis and Sara on their 38th wedding anniversary, 1967, North Hollywood, CA

Louis closed the diner and moved to New Orleans to live with his daughter until he could begin to function again. Eventually he began to travel, unable, or unwilling, to stay in one place for long. He found a dog at a local shelter that became his constant companion. He panned for gold in the Sierra Nevada. He visited San Francisco again. He cooked in rundown hotels in out of the way towns, serving food he didn’t care about and wasn’t proud of. Statler briefly hired him as a troubleshooter, sending him into hotel kitchens around the country that needed work. He painted, or worked on the cookbook he hoped to publish. But whatever he did to fill his time, without Sara there to share it with, his heart just wasn’t in it.

Louis is sitting on a stool, in the shade of the St. Louis Cathedral, setting up his easel and oil paints. It is 1971, and late summer in New Orleans. He lights a cigar and adjusts his beret, scant protection against the Louisiana heat. His dog, Pretty Boy, sits underneath the stool next to a bowl of water. Unlike the other artists, Louis isn’t painting portraits of tourists. Instead, he paints the oak trees surrounding Jackson Square, or the flowers inside the wrought iron fence lining Pirate’s Alley. He watches the river for a long time, the ships going out to sea, much like the ones he’d sailed on years before. He is a man adrift, doing whatever he can to stay busy, to try and forget what he’s lost.

Later that year I received a letter from him. I was fourteen, dealing with typical teenage struggles: rebelling against my parents, trying to find my way in the world. Even at the lowest point of his life, he took the time to try and comfort me, to tell me that all would be well. He started the letter by saying, “this is life, little girl, and you’re living it,” probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given. He wrote, “I know some days life just doesn’t seem worthwhile, but I assure you that it is. You will acquire more knowledge in the graces of living, the love of classical music, the enjoyment of good books, the appreciation of dining. There are two things I would like to impress upon you: when drinking tea, always hold out your little pinky and when dining, for health’s sake always chew on both sides!” He signed the letter the same as he always did: “love, your gracious little granddaddy.”

Louis always called himself a gracious little bastard. For some reason he loved the word, ‘gracious,’ perhaps because it was a word he felt best described his wife. He loved art, music, and books, but never would have known about any of those things if it weren’t for Sara. His children often said that he taught her how to live a life, but she taught him how to live one graciously. And that meant everything to him.

He died of a heart attack in 1982, at the age of seventy-five. Over the course of his life he had cooked for seamen, soldiers, and senators. He had cooked for his family, and for the joy of the work itself. He was in his tiny apartment kitchen, standing at the stove, when he died.


Sandy Ebner, Reviewer and Contributor
Sandy Ebner, Reviewer and Contributor

Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, the HerStories/ My Other Ex anthology, and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She previously served as the creative nonfiction editor at MadHat Lit and MadHat Annual (Mad Hatter’s Review), and is working on her first novel.

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