Nachos with Flair
There’s something embarrassing about my food past, a skeleton in my pantry if you will, that I’m going to confess to you: I was a waitress at T.G.I. Friday’s.
I didn’t set out to work there, it just happened. I had a hard time finding a job when I was in college and I needed a job to pay the rent. After lots of no thank-yous, I answered a classified ad. I went into the interview. The manager was not impressed with my waitressing experience (serving at weddings in Ukrainian church halls not impressive?). He begrudgingly hired me. I agreed, begrudgingly (not outwardly, though). We were off to a great start.
I got two red and white striped shirts. I was told to wear black pants or a skirt, black shoes and a hat. I worried about the hat but I saw other servers wearing baseball caps so I relaxed a bit that I didn’t have to wear some ridiculous thing. I was given a name tag and I wrote my name in the blank spot. I was advised that the flair minimum is ten pieces and I have to supply my own but they do have an emergency flair box in the office if for some reason I’m short. I asked if my name tag could count as one of the 10 pieces of flair. My manager was not impressed.
The flair would become my cross to bear, that is until the hat guidelines got a lot more strict – more on that later. I’m small and ten pieces of flair on my shirt was a lot, there simply wasn’t enough room, especially since my flair was larger, culled from a harried and desperate visit to the thrift store to outfit me for my first day of work. I wore a few flair on my collar and tried to fit the rest on my front. The weight of them dragged down my shirt, making my buttons pop open and they clanged when I walked. I tried to get away with less than 10 pieces, but in every shift meeting before service, the manager counted and I came up short. Even when I did have the 10 minimum, I still came up short, figuratively. I was pulled aside and given the ‘don’t you want to do more than the minimum’ motivational speech. I’m a waitress at a suburban, in the middle of Ohio Friday’s, it’s quite obvious that my aspirations aren’t what you would call above the minimum.
And if this scene sounds awfully familiar to a certain scene in Office Space, it is. I commend the screenwriter on the 100%, absolute authenticity of Jennifer Aniston’s flair travails.
Then things got worse. The manager instituted a tougher ‘fun hat’ policy. Baseball caps were expressly outlawed. The staff was getting away with not looking ridiculous enough. We were advised to wear hats that were “fun”, i.e. something you would not see on a normal person in a normal situation. A Wisconsin cheese wedge hat and a Cat in the Hat striped tall felt hat were thrown out as great examples of what management wanted to see. They even tried to sell us on the idea that the more “fun” your hat was, the bigger the tips you would earn. No data was offered to back up this theory.
Look at these fun hats, can’t you just smell the extra tip money?
After this distressing news, we were given a few days to find said fun hats before we had to start wearing them. A friend mentioned she had a hat I could borrow for work (I wasn’t going to pay for one). It was a Kangol-style cap in bright red. The fashion was to wear it backwards. And I remembered that Samuel L. Jackson wore it backwards. And that was what I did. I did not look as cool as him.
Yes, I suffered a lot of humiliation but to every tchochkey laden rain cloud is a silver lining. I met one of my dearest friends Meghan while working at Friday’s. I always admired how cool she still looked while wearing her flair and fun hat. She also rescued me from Friday’s. After a few months of working there, she realized how absolute crap it was and we both got jobs at a New Mexican restaurant where mercifully our uniform was a black t-shirt with a primitive wolf drawing on the back and a pair of chinos. No buttons, not even a name tag was required.
Aside from forging an inseparable bond with Meghan, T.G.I. Friday’s gave me my favourite way to make nachos. The key is not using melted cheese but cheese sauce. There’s more consistency and generous coverage with cheese sauce. The toppings are aggressively kept to the savoury basics – these are not kitchen sink nachos. You have chips, covered in oozey cheese sauce, topped with spiced and savoury ground beef, and then on top of all that, a bright, juicy tomato, onion-sharp, fresh cilantro pico de gallo. No beans, or guacamole, or sour cream or whatever else folks pile on top. These four elements are the perfect savoury nacho combination for me.
On the T.G.I. Friday’s menu these were called Friday’s Nachos but Nachos with Flair sound more fun, right?
Nachos with Flair
Inspired by T.G.I. Friday’s circa 1996.
One bag of your favourite restaurant-style tortilla chips (preferably triangles, not circles)
Pico de Gallo
1 white onion, finely chopped (about a cup when chopped)
2 good sized tomatoes, finely chopped
½ jalapeno, minced
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
juice of 1 lime
First up, make the pico de gallo. Chop everything and mix together. Add the lime juice and season with salt. Cover and pop in the fridge while you make everything else.
Spiced Ground Beef (from America’s Test Kitchen)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound ground beef
½ cup canned tomato sauce or passata
½ cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
Heat the oil until it shimmers in a medium sized skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it softens up, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and all of the spices and the salt. Cook until you can smell the fragrant spices. This will take about 30 seconds. Add the ground beef. While it cooks, break it up with a wooden spoon. When it’s no longer pink (less than 10 minutes), add the tomato sauce, broth, vinegar and brown sugar. Simmer until the liquid evaporates and the mixture thickens a bit, about 15 minutes. Check for salt and add a bit more if needed. Set aside and keep warm.
3 tablespoons butter
½ jalapeno, minced
2 ½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 cup grated sharp cheddar
1 cup grated Monterey jack
Warm the milk first (microwave is fine).
Melt the butter over medium high heat in a medium sized saucepan. Add the minced jalapeno and stir for about a minute or two. Add the flour and stir constantly for a couple of minutes until the roux mixture is pale and frothy. Don’t let it brown. Whisk in the warm milk and keep whisking until all lumps have dissipated. Keep stirring constantly while the mixture gathers heat and begins to bubble. It will then begin to thicken. Once it’s thick enough – it should thickly coat the back of your spoon – add the grated cheese and keep stirring until it’s thoroughly melted and the cheese sauce is hot. Taste for salt. You probably won’t need any but just in case. Set aside and keep warm.
Assembling your Nachos with Flair:
I like the tortilla chips to be warmed up. Preheat the oven to around 300 or 350.
On a large baking sheet, spread out your chips. Pop them into the hot oven and let them warm up for about five minutes. Meanwhile, if your cheese sauce and ground beef aren’t hot anymore, take this time to warm them up. Once the chips are ready, pull them out of the oven, and either using the baking sheet the chips are already on (lazy like me) or moving the chips to a plate (fancy), you’re now going to layer on your toppings. First comes the cheese sauce. Drizzle, drop, spoon it on. Be thorough. Then spread out the ground beef. Again, be thorough. Layer on some more chips and repeat the beef and cheese toppings. Once you’re to the top, finish off with the pico de gallo. Do not wait. Eat them right away.