A teenager’s jaw clenches more firmly on the morning of his sixteenth birthday than any other day. The date’s importance aside, its celebration is indicative of only one very important milestone in his juvenile life, learning the fine art of driving. As the day passes into evening and the glow of candles on the cake is extinguished, his beckoning begins. When can he start? Will it be through a private tutor or (God forbid) with a parent? And will the lessons occur with the dreaded use of the family stick shift , or the easier “PRNDL” gearshift? Once all decisions are made and implemented in a timely way, the student tests enthusiastically for a temporary driving permit with the local Department of Motor Vehicles, and, with pending success, passes handily through the first green light of his young adult life. He signs his name upon the paper document, proceeds to his guardian’s car, opens the driver’s side door for the first time ever in a legal capacity, grasps the steering wheel with shaky fists, and fires the car up for an initial run, an adult seated to the right. The stars now aligned, he puts his foot to the gas pedal and applies his puerile skills to reversing the car and celebrating an inaugural vehicular lurch.
The appeal of independence matures long before one is in the driver’s seat, however. Seeking oneself while toiling through an oftentimes tumultuous adolescence, a teen may take interest in extramural sports or activities, choose to volunteer his talents, or join the workforce. Placed amongst adults, yet still secure amid his buddies, the drive of a minor to find a comfortable seat in the world can lead to an exciting chase of self-discovery, especially when fueled by the dream of car ownership.
“My first job in the restaurant business was as a dishwasher at Fritzel’s,” Grant Waspi began. “I was thirteen or fourteen, and the reason I got the job was because my future brother-in-law Patrick [worked] there as a busser. He was sixteen and had just bought a car. Me, I was getting so antsy to have a car by then that [it] became my main push to work.”
Fritzel’s, a classic Chicago eatery that opened in 1947 at the corner of State and Lake, was a welcoming haven for many of the city’s greatest columnists, actors, and business tycoons. According to illustrious Chicago Sun-Times contributor Irv Kupcinet, it was Chicago’s equivalent to Toots Shor’s, a Manhattan celebrity haunt. To drive a comparative wedge between the two, though, Fritzel’s was as much-loved for its German cuisine as for the comfort it provided its guests. By contrast, Toot Shor’s, although atmospherically relaxing, had a menu that even its owner described as “nuttin’ fancy.”
“There were three brothers who were managers there. Their names were Rob, Peter, and Gary,” Grant continued. “Their father, who owned The Black Forest as well, was a big part of the family and the son’s lives. In fact, he taught them all of the time before he passed away. Rob was the oldest, the anchor of the family, and the most professional. When he was in the restaurant, it had a very different feel, and people respected him very, very much. Peter was the middle child and the one that I bonded with the most. He was passionate, great with HR, the guests, and the staff. He was a great mentor to me, giving me all of the opportunities to move up within Fritzel’s and to eventually work with their chef as a line cook. The youngest son [was] Gary. He was the first to turn the football game on at the bar and to mingle with the bar guests, because the bar was his game and everyone came to see him [there]. But Peter was the face of the restaurant. Everybody loved Peter. Everybody always asked for Peter.”
Once hired on as the AM Dishwasher, thirteen-year old Grant Waspi observed a workaday phenomenon relatively unfamiliar to current restaurant operations.
“I would see food preparation all day long,” he commented.” I would see a full progression of the hours that the chefs and line cooks put in everyday. The food preparation cooks were the same as the line cooks at Fritzel’s. These guys were putting in some major hours, prepping all day long and cooking late into the night. Nowadays, prep cooks are in the morning and your line cooks come in at night. Still, starting as a dishwasher, I was a free set of hands. Now that I’m talking about it, I remember peeling potatoes all day long, all day long, because their potato pancakes were one of their most important items. So I would help to make potato pancakes, ‘cause peeling potatoes was so important. I felt like I was in the army, because I peeled so many!” Grant laughed, then continued. “But the hardest jobs there were making the rouladen (very traditional, with the pickle in the center) and pounding the schnitzels. Obviously, because I was the youngest one there, I would have to pound the schnitzels, for hours and hours and hours. It was in the basement, and they had a big butcher block down there. Wiener schnitzel being the most popular, you would have to go into a night with forty wiener schnitzels to prep yourself. Then, you would have to pound pork schnitzels, which would tear a little bit as you pounded them, so you had to be so gentle with [them]. After those were done, you knew you weren’t even close, because you still had to pound chicken schnitzels. It was a tough job. You were exhausted, and your right arm was ready to fall off!”
Nevertheless, the hard work instilled a good work ethic in the hardworking middle school student, informing him of the due diligence that was so necessary to family operations like Fritzel’s.
“It was a family owned restaurant with a team atmosphere. You were part of the family, and everyone was going to do their fair share that day.”
In accordance with the unwritten rules of a family run environment, a fortnight passed before Grant was asked to rinse the dishwater from his hands, run across the street, and purchase a work shirt. A fellow employee, a busser, had failed to show up for evening service, and his help was needed. That night, dedicating himself to the new position, Grant worked so thoroughly that he was asked to remain in the new post through another period of his three-year tenure at Fritzel’s. “Thus,” he remembered,” the hazing began at the age of thirteen with the other bussers. But that’s how I got my start at Fritzel’s, how I got my foot in the door.”
Eventually, Grant’s toe-hold on the door sash sill pushed it ajar, permitting him a cursory glance into Fritzel’s kitchen confines, where he began as the AM Dish. The stolen look-see did not escape the eyes of observant #2 Manager Peter Gearhart, who not only noted the depth of Grant’s gaze, but promoted him to a position straddling the precipice between the inner and outer confines. Grant’s new challenge was to serve the chef as a Food Runner.
“You get to know the chef very well when you’re a Food Runner. [He] worked behind the line at Fritzel’s, not in an expediting capacity, because, back then, there was no ‘Coordinator’ position. So every night, he would work the sauté station, and as the chef, he would call tickets from the line. I learned a lot in that food running position, watching the chef crank food out on a Saturday night. You would see the impossible happen in front of your eyes.”
Nevertheless, being Fritzel’s Food Runner did come with an unexpected duty, which the former employee humorously mentioned.
“Of course, I would be his set of hands. The prep kitchen and all of the coolers were in the basement, so when the chef ran out of something, you could safely bet that [he] wasn’t running downstairs,” my subject laughed.” It was the Food Runner! I think I worked some major calves up, running up and down those stairs!”
Soon, largely owing to Grant’s reliable nature and the congenial relationships he built with the hardworking men in the kitchen, the young man was promoted again to another, final position, this time among the highly regarded kitchen staff.
“To segue into becoming a cook at Fritzel’s: one of the sous-chefs was named Alex, and he was a very, very German chef. He would swear, yell, and run you all day long. But one of the things he always enjoyed talking about was his family and where he learned to cook.” Grant paused, taking a moment to reflect on his friend, adding,” Now, I had learned that the way to get on his good side was to ask about his family, because he liked to talk about them. I figured that the more he talked about them, the less he’d yell at me or harp on me for peeling a potato wrong. I got a lot of good stories from him.
“One of the things he was very passionate about and loved to talk about was his spaetzel recipe. I remember how he told me about how delicate and how long of a process it was. You had to get your batter just perfect, your water had to be the perfect temperature… Fritzel’s spaetzel was handmade and skimmed before it was fully cooked, too. And there was a paprika salt that they used, a flavor I will always love, that flat-top spaetzel with this paprika salt. It was the best thing in the world.”
Not only Grant believed Fritzel’s spaetzel to be the best thing in the world. Many Chicagoans still miss the German restaurant that used to operate at the corners of State and Lake, where so many imbibed a few offerings from the bustling hotspot’s thorough list of German beers or smoked cigarettes in its booth-lined bar. They pine for the famous Cherries Jubilee that was offered and the unique Fritzel’s salad that is offered now by neighboring Petterino’s. Each well-chosen ingredient set Fritzel’s as the exemplar of the Chicago dining experience. From its classic German specialties to the red leather booths, it compelled regular diners to drive back continuously throughout its forty-year duration.
And as for Grant Waspi, whose initial trips to the classic eatery were managed by his parents, he managed well himself. For the thirteen year-old AM Dishwasher who climbed in rank from Busboy to Food Runner to Line Cook accomplished to successfully maneuver his own life from gear to gear, eventually accumulating enough money to invest in that which many other newly licensed, yet less-driven teenagers can only wish to manage.
“I did get the car,” he remembered, smiling.” It was a Nissan Pathfinder.”
It was quite a well-chosen reward for such a driven young man.