Where do I start? It all kind of happened by luck – or did it? I was already a big fan and loved and lived for their music, traveling across the United States either driving or flying mostly driving – a lot of driving – actually an insane amount of driving when I think back on it. They were my everything, my community, my entertainment, my source of employment, the center of my universe. It all started in 1982 in Long Island, NY on an Easter Sunday of all days to go see this band from California, The Grateful Dead. Needless to say my mother wasn’t too happy with me.
Playing in the band for me has been like a culinary jam session
Fast forward 8 years later I find myself working in the San Francisco Bay Area, the very home of the Grateful Dead. Was this an accident? I think not! This was a deliberate and strategic move on my part after I graduated from college in Providence, RI. I wanted to be closer to the band and the community I desired. All the way up until the day I got the phone call from my buddy I had only been as close to the band as the concert stage and security would allow me.
Sure I had cooked at plenty of Dead shows by this time, but it was only what I cooked in the parking lot for the DeadHeads attending the show, or just there for the party with zero intention of going inside for the show. I remember the day well. I was winding my day down at the restaurant I was chef of in San Ramon, California. I was planning on leaving early to join my friends already tailgating in the parking lot of the Oakland arena. Just as I was about to leave the hostess tells me there is a phone call for me. I asked her to tell whomever it was that I had left for the day. She replied it’s your friend Robbie. I picked up the phone only for my dear friend to tell me what I had only fantasized about secretly inside forever.
You see Robbie worked with the chef team that catered for the band at all their west coast shows. Robbie proceeded to tell me how he had an emergency and was unable to be at the show this evening and asked if I could help out in his place. I was torn. One part of me wanted to just go to the show and party with my buds while the other part of me was kicking myself in the ass thinking “Are you crazy? This is what you’ve wanted all your life!” I wrote down the instructions from Robbie over the phone where to go to the back loading dock of the arena, whom to ask for, and where to go from there. I was nervous as shit, like I was going in for a job interview. What if they didn’t like my work or how I looked? What then? Wait! What was I thinking? They called me, I’m totally in. I walked down what seemed like the longest hallway I’d ever walked down before with as much activity you’d imagine going on backstage before a Grateful Dead show. It was all I could do to keep myself from exploding with excitement. I finally found the backstage dining area with the kitchen just past the massive buffet line where the road crew and different sound crew and security were all very busy eating and laughing before the show. I walk through the room like a deer in the headlights trying not to smile like I didn’t belong back there. Then it happened. I walked right past a table with Jerry Garcia eating a cheeseburger with a cigarette going in the ashtray near his plate while sipping a Dr. Pepper. I’ll never forget the polite nod he gave me as I walked by staring at him, gently peering over the top of his glasses with this grin like fresh meat for the catering team to eat up and spit out. I’m sure he knew I was about to be the fucking new guy with the catering team.
That was the last time I was that close to Jerry ever again. I made my way into the kitchen and worked with the team all the way up until show time. I asked how we were paid. The response I got was filled with laughter. Mind you this was the rowdiest and raunchiest group of degenerate pirate types I’d ever been around at this point in my career but oddly enough I was ok with it. Paid? You get paid very little but you get to see the shows for free and the more you work the more show credits you earn. The head chef they called Ray, he added the moniker Chez in front of his name. He was a spent old burnt out hippie leftover from the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test type of character, he was like a combination of WC Fields and Edward G. Robinson and Bozo the Clown high on God only knows. Lucky for me, they loved my work and attitude, asked me back for the show the next two nights and took my information. Security escorted me right to the lip of the stage just as the lights went down. Mind you to get to the front row of a general admission Dead show you had to be in line hours before the show just like my friends were who I never met up with in the parking lot before the show. I found my friends right up front where I knew they would be. Traditionally they were used to me meeting up with them at set break as I was always making it to the show just before showtime, but not this time. I was inside the arena before they were, backstage cooking for the band, road crew, and the traveling circus that traveled in the inner circle of the Grateful Dead.
My friends never believed that I was backstage working until they saw the working laminate they had me wear while backstage.
It all changed for me from that night on. I was no longer just a loyal DeadHead supporting the band across the country – I was cooking for them. Only in California and a couple of shows in Oregon, Washington, and Nevada. They never did call Robbie back to help out. I don’t think he minded all that much or at least he never told me he did. I continued to work with them all the way up until Jerry’s passing in August of 1995.
After Jerry passed I continued to get work through various surviving and remaining band members, catering for Bob Weir’s band Ratdog and the band they formed after Jerry called The Other Ones. I have stayed in the community cooking for various other musicians and other Bay Area Jam bands over the years. Cooking for the Grateful Dead opened many doors for me I would never have imagined going though in life. Even until this day I cook for the band members, but no longer on the road. Only at Bob Weir’s studio in San Rafael for what is now known as Dead & Company featuring John Mayer on lead guitar (quite the other side of the coin from dear old Jerry) and Oteil Burgridge on bass replacing Phil Lesh.
When I look back at all the amazing times I shared with the band on the west coast taking care of the their basic daily needs to the most extravagant I think to myself What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been!
Chef Charlie Ayers first made a name for himself by catering for the Grateful Dead and other bands around San Francisco. In 1999, he was hired by Google to feed their employees (only 40 at the time). The Google canteen, known as Charlie's Cafe, quickly became an institution. By the time he left Google in 2005 he was feeding 1,500 people. He opened a healthy fast food restaurant, Calafia, in Palo Alto, California in 2008. Visit Charlie's home on the web at www.chefcharlieayers.com.