As summer comes rolling in, I think of old Victor, the first boss I ever had.

I was a high school student and lucky enough to land a job dish-washing at Camp Modin on Lake George.

Camp Modin now is on Salmon Lake in Belgrade, but in the 1970s, it was in both Skowhegan and Canaan, with the girls section of the camp on the Skowhegan side of the lake and the boys part on the Canaan side.

I worked on the boys side my first summer at Modin, a traditional Jewish camp whose kitchens were kosher, so we had to wash the dishes used for dairy in one part of the kitchen and the meat dishes in another. The dishes were color-coded so we knew the difference.

Victor Bennett was a chef from Panama and he fed Modin campers and counselors who came to central Maine from all over the world. Victor worked at Modin summers and at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey during the school year. I don’t know how or when he managed to visit his wife and family in Panama because he worked all the time, but I know he saw them very little, yet sent his hard-earned money home to them.

Victor was the quintessential boss: He was strict, but had a heart of gold.

Those of us who were scared to death of him in the beginning loved him like a father once we got to know him. We learned through time that his big, booming voice was all about teaching us discipline, skill and the importance of doing everything in the kitchen by the book.

There was no room for error — no fooling around in Victor’s kitchen — and if we did, all hell would break loose.

“You monkeys!” he would shout if we misbehaved. “You’re gonna be out the door!”

When he got angry, his accent would get thicker and he’d glare at us with his dark brown eyes, effectively putting the fear of God into us. As young, inexperienced teenagers on our first jobs, we bucked up.

When we were good, Victor would reward us in subtle ways, like telling us a joke or slipping us an extra piece of cake.

He commanded respect and got it.

When Victor barked out directions, we literally stood at attention. We stood tall, never slouching, hands behind our backs or at our sides and never in our pockets. Doing so was a huge violation.

We were always to wear clean clothes and shoes, a long white apron that looped behind the neck, and if we had long hair, it was to be kept in a pony tail or hair net.

Dishwashing — which was done all by hand — was grueling. The kitchen was always sweltering hot and the piles of plates, cups, saucers, glasses and silverware seemed endless.

Fortunately, they were made of some type of heavy plastic, because we had to work fast and furious. Had they been made of glass, we would have destroyed them all by the end of the summer.

Three times a day we scraped, scrubbed and wiped those dishes. It seemed we would just finish and the next meal was upon us.

We worked in pairs, learning over time how to wash the dishes quickly. We developed a system whereby we literally threw the dishes from the washing to the rinsing part of the sink and then dried them, lickety-split.

I earned a whopping $32 a week for my travails that summer, but ultimately learned that working under Victor’s tutelage more than made up for the paucity of pay.

He taught us how to use a meat cleaver, whack a head of lettuce on a cutting board to break the leaves from the core, crack eggs into a bowl using both hands, chop up a whole chicken into parts and concoct cake batter using an enormous mixing machine.

We made huge salads in giant aluminum bowls with Victor instructing us to flex our elbows in a sweeping motion to toss them. We learned the correct way to slice a tomato, frost a cake and mix up bug juice, a special fruity drink that was a staple for years at Modin.

We worked long, hard hours with only short breaks and seemed to be exhausted all the time, dragging ourselves upstairs to our rooms at night to collapse on our beds. Sleep was a luxury and the alarm clock always seemed to ring too soon. We woke, tired and yawning, only to do it all over again.

But through it all, we had fun. Victor, who loosened up as the summer wore on, told us stories, gave good advice and mentored campers who were homesick or needed guidance. He was beloved by campers and kitchen staff alike.

I must have done something right, because Victor promoted me to assistant cook my second and third summers working at Modin. He treated me like an adult and I felt special, as if I had graduated to Victor’s upper class.

After I left Modin for the last time, I saw Victor only once, when I visited friends in New Jersey and surprised him in his kitchen at Fairleigh Dickinson.

I’ll never forget the look on his face when he saw me, by then a young college student in Connecticut, wandering into his kitchen just to say hello.

“You monkey!” he crooned, surprised and delighted to see me.

He gave me a big bear hug and, in typical Victor fashion, offered me a stool and a slice of his delectable cake.

I never saw Victor again, but I have not forgotten his directive to work hard and do the job right.

And to this day when I enter a kitchen, I never ever put my hands in my pockets.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]


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