It was 2008. The recession had just hit and I was somehow working in the corporate strategy division of one of Canada’s largest banks on Bay Street. I had no real financial training to speak of and yet there I was, cranking out spreadsheets for various VPs to help prepare for Board presentations.
It all began many months earlier, when I had returned to Toronto to find work. After nearly a year of boozing and traveling post Ph.D., I thought it was time to buckle down and find some sort of employment. My good times fund was running low, and I wasn’t having any luck finding professional work in Vancouver outside of lumber mills.
Well, that’s actually not fully accurate. In fact, in the weeks prior to my departure, I was working as a line cook at Red Robin’s restaurant. I was the fryer cook to be precise. And I occasionally made wraps and heavily dressed Caesar salads. The key to my success there was understanding the importance of the breaded chicken breast. Oh yes, it was a central ingredient in approximately three of the top ten dishes that were ordered at the family-themed eatery.
Realizing this, I started to drop those bad boys into the fryer before any orders even came in. My wrists were flipping and chicken fingers and crispy chicken sandwiches were flying out left and right. The assistant manager was jacked up about the fast service times and even forgave my failure to abide by the two-pinch French fry seasoning policy. Now obviously, a bunch of extra chicken would get made when my demand-side projections (often) failed, and that’s when I would share the spoils with the mainly teen-aged kitchen staff.
I was working out constantly during this unusual period in my life, so between my swollen pipes, mid-20s age and thick goatee, I was apparently the only “new” kitchen employee that didn’t get hazed by the others. The hazing ranged from locking someone in a janitor’s closet to drinking milk shakes laced with Tabasco sauce—you get the picture. Anyhow, most of the characters there seemed to be a little intimidated. Popeye’s didn’t have shit on me and we were all happy to enjoy the surplus protein and do chin-ups in the back during downtime.
Overconsuming breaded chicken was strangely satisfying. It was an F U to the establishment, which refused to give staff free meals (only 50% off). The deal actually wasn’t too bad, and I did exercise that option on occasion to get the fairly solid pacific salmon burger but nevertheless, something felt off about having to cook for people all day and then having to buy lunch.
I discussed the woeful state of protein inventory with my boy Big D and he had grand plans of stealing dozens of boxes of frozen steaks from the restaurant. Thankfully, we were too unorganized and lazy to exercise such plans.
On the side, I was also working on creating as many labour relations headaches for Red Robin’s as I possibly could. I routinely clocked in early and late to begin and end my shifts, in order to get an extra 30mins of pay. I also documented the inequities in tipping revenues (the lion’s share went to servers) and started random attack campaigns against various employees. The kitchen morale was strong my friends. We were well fed and ready to fight I tell you.
But then, I woke up one day and said fuck this. I couldn’t find my work pants so I called my manager and fraudulently informed him that I had suffered a rib injury (something that would clearly be devastating for a fry cook). I also lied about coming back into return their black polo shirts, and made my way back to where good things grow (Ontario).
My buddy Eugene Wang was going back to Taiwan for the summer and offered me his room in an illegal subletting play. I agreed over the phone without asking too many questions, and in classic Wang fashion he failed to explain that he had a roommate. Craig was a short, chatty, Indian fellow that was adopted as a child into a wealthy Swedish family.
Craig didn’t know much about the Sedin twins. He was a stock trader for a big bank and would have Report on Business Television (ROBTV) on 24/7 at home. He didn’t know much about cooking either, and after I showed him how far a bowl of oatmeal, peanut butter, raisins and almonds could take you in the mornings, we came to a pretty solid understanding. In fact, I was loosely aware of the little guy from a few years ago, when we realized that we both lived at the Primrose Best Western Hotel as student residents. But that was neither here nor there.
One fateful Tuesday night, as usual, we were trapped in our basement by raccoons. We lived in the underground basement of a large, three story home that had been converted into an assortment of different rental units you see. And due to all the trash containers that were basically outside of our door from the building’s residents ahead of garbage day, all sorts of animals were frequenting our front porch area on evenings. Now getting back on track, that night an interesting guest came on ROBTV. It was the VP of Human Resources from the bank that Craig worked at. He made a number of reasonable points about how the Bank was interested in attracting candidates from diverse backgrounds and so forth.
While putting the final touches on our home-made fruit fly trap (a cut-up two-litre plastic coke bottle), I asked Craig what his email handle was, and he explained that it was “first name dot last name at bank name dot com.” And with that little nugget of information, I was set.
That same night, I emailed the gentleman that was on TV, with the subject line, “ROBTV Appearance.” The show was a replay from the live evening airing earlier in the day but I figured that emailing some bigwig executive very early in the morning (1am) was likely a high quality move. My second thought was that the guy’s wife probably didn’t even notice that he was on TV so he was probably looking for some sort of gratification from the appearance. Yes, it was all wild speculation and sneaky in that, the Chinese Year of the Rat.
My email recapped his comments about the bank seeking out candidates from different backgrounds and I noted my strong academic credentials (Ph.D. in Political Science) and very strong interest in banking (my enthusiasm was modeled on the “Newman” storyline from the Seinfeld parking tickets episode). I hit send and went to sleep.
The next morning, I was surprised to see half a dozen emails in my inbox from various bank executives. My CV had been making the rounds my friends and a meeting was being setup with the economics team. Shit was happening! Yeah bitches – from the back of house/basement to the penthouse (63rd floor baby)!
I had various interactions with folks from banking divisions I didn’t understand the week after and I felt that my pre-meeting strategy of pounding Red Bulls was paying off. I talked rapidly and made all sorts of key points about China-India relations. Somehow they thought I had valuable research chops and hired me as a research analyst. Now I didn’t disclose that my excel skills stunk. I actually couldn’t get much done the first few weeks until my brother (the Beast – also an accountant) started his work shift at 12pm EST or 9am PST (he was in Vancouver). He would walk me through some formulas and random file problems on the phone while having his morning coffee and I slowly got the hang of it.
My knowledge of luxury denim (575s to be exact) led to some high quality flirting with the library staff at the bank, and over time, I was even able to make sense of Swiss English and various international dialing codes. Most of everything else I did is likely still subject to the stiff disclosure agreements I signed but it was a great ride. Being the nightlife guide for executives after late work nights was probably the best part.
Maybe it was the excitement of being on Bay street but I invested heavily in pin-striped suits and nickel-tungsten mining stocks. I mean, I figured that someone still had to continue making high quality darts. The assays were solid. Tens of thousands may have been made (and lost). Lots of clubbing activities ensued and I moved into a swanky 45th floor apartment halfway through my contract.
It wasn’t to last though. Nearly 18 months after I had applied for the job, the Federal Government made me a job offer. Aaaah good ol’ government timelines. Strangely enough, the public sector was offering 25% more than what I was making at the Bank. So without over-analyzing too much, I packed my bags and made the move to the nation’s capital. Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak had just come out around that time. It was all very ominous and an un-Migos like turn of events. But as Young Jeezy noted in ‘The Recession,’ everybody was broke and the shit was unacceptable. The fish batter recipe would always hold a dear spot in my heart though. Always. Just like the black Red Robin’s polos I stole and frequently wore. Collars popped of course.