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153 Days

When the text came through I had only been laying in the dark a few minutes thinking about the dream I’d had.

Near 6:00 a.m. I fumbled in the dark to find my glasses.

It was a photo | A coat |  White  |  Double breasted.

On the left breast it reads Miss Shirley’s. 

On the right it reads Ben Stephens

And underneath his name it says, Chef.   

At Miss Shirley’s Chef is short for Kitchen Manager.


Exactly 153 days ago I wrote this post. 153 days that make the days, weeks, and years before it seem like a lie.

I’ll let him tell you his story between ages 13 and 23 because it isn’t my place to do so. I will tell you that it wasn’t pretty. A story no parent would hope to tell.

At 24, just three years ago, Chef Stephens began by washing dishes at Tutta Bella on Lake Union. Then he was allowed to do prep work and salads and finally one day pizzas. That was during the night, during the day he worked at Cheeky’s making breakfast and lunch. From there he went to P.F. Changs and then to Gordon Biersch where he learned to make everything on their menu.  One that was so long and cumbersome that it’s since been reduced.

These were not easy times. Managers high on something, walks home in the dark and the rain from South Lake Union to Capital Hill  because the buses had stopped running, sixteen hour days, six days a week, demanding work, cuts and burns. High turnover, broken promises, and aggressive kitchen help were cultural.

I could not have done it. I would have wound up up on the front of Page B in the Times. “Hostage Crisis Comes To An End”. A picture of two S.W.A.T. team members leading me away in handcuffs.

The move to Baltimore that concerned me saw him maintain his salary, but featured more of the same dysfunction, including an interview by a regional shirt from the restaurant. Ben spent a week preparing for what ended up being a five minute “atta boy” in the foyer as the man in the $800 suit and Cole Haan shoes was leaving for the airport. He called me the next day, dejected and insulted.

They’d observed his first 100 days with them, maybe read about the year before in some file online. But what they didn’t know and should have considered was the badly burned hand when he was sixteen, the nights sleeping in his car, substance abuse, arrests, the theft of his backpack, tools and computer. There were two hour trips across town for half hour appointments. School, work and mandatory meetings in three points of the city by bus and on foot weekly. There was the attempted car repair of six hundred dollars that sky rocketed to over two thousand. The girlfriend that ran hot and cold and a mother that wasn’t much better. The housemate that was an absolute pig.

That five minute non-interview reinvented itself as something he’d seen before and would not be a part of again. Chef Stephens is a “I’ll give you the shirt off my back” kind of guy, but he won’t abide making him watch while you step on his shoes.

The insult that caused him to bring his hard-fought four years to bear on it occurred just about six weeks ago.

The store manager never looked him in the eye when he gave his notice. The kitchen manager congratulated him but told him candidly that it was a job he wanted. Free parking, accommodations at The Westin Hotel paid for by his employer if they get snowed in (the restaurant is in their building), health insurance, twice the money. Breakfast, lunch, brunch. Done by 3 p.m.

The Baltimore Ravens eat there.

On my key chain I carry a plate that reads “Swift, Nimble, Relentless.” Weaponry of the entrepreneur.

Many a day I repeat the mantra “Just go to work.” It’s the only thing I can think to do.

And on my heart rests “153 days. A storied past. No formal training. And Chef.

 Chef Ben