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Tales of the Blue Plate Special: Stories From New York's Short Order Cooks
There's plenty to love about a classic diner: the familiar and cheap menu of course, but also the cast of characters you'll find around you. A diner puts its clientele on even footing, and there's always someone to talk to, customer and employee alike.
But all too often we don't get the chance to interact with one of the diner's most essential players: the short order cook who watches over the griddle, getting our eggs just right, crisping our hash browns and sizzling up our onion rings.
Who are these cooks, and what stories do they have to tell? To find out, we stopped by four well-loved diners to hear tales from the other side of the counter.
Konstantinos Ieromonahos, Tom's Restaurant
The Diner: Tom's is best known as "the Seinfeld diner," and its celebrity status and giant Greek-influenced menu keeps it busy with tourists and locals alike.
The Cook: Konstantinos, 31, has been at Tom's since 1999.
What's your story? I was born in the Bronx but spent most of my childhood in Greece on an island called Kassos in the southeast part of the country. I came back to New York 15 years ago, and ever since then I've been working at Tom's. This place is owned by my family; my father's first cousin is the owner. And my uncle, back then, was the chef. After I had been been waiting tables for a few years, my uncle said to me, "Come in the kitchen and learn my recipes before I retire." I shadowed him until I learned. Now, I cook during the morning shift, from 6 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
What's your specialty? I love all my cooking! We make a lot of Greek food here, and everything is made completely from scratch. My stuffed peppers and stuffed cabbage in lemon sauce are pretty special: they're filled with beef and rice. Our stuffed mushrooms are also great. I learned the recipe for the crab filling from my uncle, and I make it even better than him now!
What's the strangest thing you've seen here? One weekend, about eight or nine years ago, a gentleman walks in, orders coffee, and goes to the back to use the restroom. He didn't come out. We found him dead in there. He was a young guy, maybe in his 40s; this was during a time when a lot of people around here were using drugs. The guy overdosed.
That's pretty sobering. Don't get me wrong; funny stuff happens here too. We're open 24 hours on the weekend, and of course we get a lot of drunk kids in the early morning hours. One time, a group of three young guys came in, sat down at a table that hadn't been cleared yet, and started eating all the leftovers still on the plates. I couldn't believe it. I was shouting, "What's going on here? Did you order?"
Victor Vera, Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop
The Diner: Home to one of the city's best tuna melts, Eisenberg's is an old-school icon of Jewish lunch counters.
The Cook: Victor, 54, has worked at Eisenberg's since 1996.
What's your story? I'm from Trujillo, in Peru, where I used to work at a brewery. After 12 years it shut down and I decided to move to New York. That was in March of 1996. I found the job here through a listing with an agency, and I've been here ever since. I started out washing dishes, and I now I do a little bit of everything behind the counter here.
What's your specialty? I don't really have one. Cold sandwiches, hot sandwiches, making the egg and chicken salads—I'm used to everything.
What's the strangest thing you've seen here? About two years ago, in the early morning hours, this guy came in to try to rob the register, and he had a big knife. I went out in the street with him and we fought as I waited for the police to get there. Luckily I wasn't hurt! They caught him, and months later I had to go to court to testify against him and everything.
Giannis Kamitsus, Daisey's Diner
The Diner: This 24/7 diner keeps it low-key on Park Slope's increasingly fancified Fifth Avenue.
The Cook: Giannis, 53, has been at Daisey's since 2000, but his diner career started in 1975.
What's your story? I'm the owner here, but there isn't a day that goes by that I don't go in the kitchen and work the line. I may be the owner, but I'm not the boss: the boss is your customers. If you're gonna work in a diner, you gotta be flexible. I've been working in diners since I was 14, just a few years after my family moved to Astoria from Fourni, in Greece. My dad got a job working as the chef at the Neptune Diner in Queens, and I would go in after school to work.
For three months I trained on the line with no pay, learning how to cook eggs and getting my technique just right: you have to be able to slide your spatula under an egg and flip it without cracking the yolk. Then, when I was older, I worked at the Seville Diner in Douglaston. It was huge, the first 300-seat diner, and at the busy times—back then, lunch was at 11 and dinner was at 5—there'd be up to 70 waitresses working the floor.
Back then, everything about diners was different. The menu was limited: it wasn't the "department store" eating you get today, where the menu is ten pages long and you can eat anything you want. There were burgers, sandwiches, and four egg dishes: eggs any style, or a Spanish, ham and cheese, or Western omelet. That was it. And diners were patronized by working-class people who came out to get a cheap meal with their families. There would be grandma, there would be the parents, and the kids. Today people mostly order in: most of our business comes from deliveries.
What's your specialty? I'm not sure I have one now, but back in the '70s and '80s, I used to love making the dinner specials. Dinner is where you can be creative. The key is you always use the words, "à la." "À la Giannis" or whatever. And then you can do anything you want: add more sauces,or different flavors. A "Greek" salad is just a regular salad that some Greek guy sprinkled feta cheese on. That's how plates start.
What's the strangest thing you've seen in a diner? There was one very unfortunate incident that happened in the Seville Diner in, oh, '92 or '93. There was a murder there. This Salvadorean guy was working in the kitchen, and he brought his nephew from El Salvador to come work in the diner. But I guess the nephew, he ended up stealing from the uncle, or at least that's what the uncle said. The uncle killed the nephew in the basement of and he put him into garbage bags. I was there that night. I went downstairs to change and saw the guy carrying these heavy garbage bags, but he did that every day, he was strong as an ox. I had no idea what was really inside.
Carmine Morales, Classic Coffee Shop
The Diner: Classic Coffee Shop is one of the Lower East Side's last lunch counters, with a tiny footprint and a portable burner that serves humble but well-made deli sandwiches.
The Cook: Carmine, 62, has worked at Classic Coffee Shop since 1976.
What's your story? I've always lived on the Lower East Side and I always will. When I was a kid I went to school right across the street here. My dad, Mike Morales, took over this place in 1976, back when it was called Helen's Coffee Shop and it was run by my dad's friend and drinking buddy, Benny Steinberg. We lived up the block, my dad ate lunch here all the time. Benny used to tell his son, "If anything ever happens to me, the business goes to Mike." And then he had a heart attack and died. At the time I was working at the Educational Alliance nearby, but when I got laid off, I came and worked for my dad.
My dad was a wheeler-dealer. Half this store was full of used junk he would sell. When I came, he spent most of his time sitting outside drinking and playing dominoes with his friends. To him, this was a retirement place. When he passed away in '88, I took over and I've worked here by myself, Monday through Friday, ever since.
What's your specialty? The menu here is pretty simple: you can get a cold sandwich or you can get a hot sandwich and I make them all. People love the tuna melt and the egg cream. These are things you don't see all the time anymore, you know? It's retro for people. But back in the day everyone drank egg creams. The old guys, they used to sit around and argue about the provenance of the egg cream: was it from Brooklyn or the Lower East Side? Back then we didn't even sell them because all the corner stores and even little carts out in the street sold egg creams. But a few years ago, when I realized how scarce they became, I added them to the menu. People come here just for the egg creams.
What's the strangest thing you've seen here? Every day something bizarre happens here! But let me think. You see this window? This window here is like my screen to the outside world: all day long I can see the people passing by. And there's a fire hydrant right across the street here. In the summer people are always jacking it open. When they pass by they'll wash their hands in the water, or wet a kerchief, standard stuff. But one time a few years ago, this Chinese lady comes over to the hydrant and she lays down some newspaper. She dumps out all these fish from a plastic bag. And then, I swear to god, she starts cleaning them and gutting them in the running water. And then she very cleanly packed up her fish and walked away.