Chef to GM elite thought job was safe

February 23, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

DETROIT -- For a decade and a half, James Stephens cooked everything from hamburger to filet mignon for General Motors Corp.'s most powerful executives.

Only top decision-makers were allowed to eat in the exclusive dining room on the 14th floor of GM headquarters, with the muted gray carpet, the crystal chandeliers and the silver that was polished every Monday morning.

That's why Mr. Stephens never worried about his job, even when GM began shutting down dozens of factories and eliminating tens of thousands of jobs.

"I never thought it would happen to me, because I was cooking for the man who closed everything," he said. "I never thought they'd give up their luxuries."

But last month, the unthinkable happened to one of the company's most cherished symbols of rank and privilege. GM President John F. "Jack" Smith Jr. closed the dining room to save money and signal a more open, egalitarian way of doing business.

Mr. Stephens and five other cooks lost their jobs.

"There aren't going to be any good jobs like those GM jobs any more," he said.

Mr. Smith won't miss the dining room much. He's among the top GM executives who now spend most of their time at the company's technical center in Warren, Mich.

Those who still work in the New Center area aren't going hungry. The second-floor cafeteria where junior managers eat is just a short elevator ride away.

Mr. Stephens and other cooks recall with pride the breakfasts and lunches they used to serve as many as 200 executives in their dining room each day. The menu often included veal and chicken cordon bleu, served by black-uniformed waitresses. When some executives went on a diet, the cooks prepared Ultra Slim Fast for them.

Although New York strip wasn't on the menu, everyone knew that it was available every day, always fresh, never frozen.

Executives too busy to sit down and be served could have meals delivered to their offices, or they could stroll in after hours and have a meal specially prepared.

The tradition of executive dining rooms continues at Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp.

About 20 to 30 Ford executives are required to eat in Ford's penthouse dining room, according to a company spokesman, because they conduct business during the meals. Chrysler's executive dining room is on the fourth floor of the Keller Building at its Highland Park, Mich., headquarters.

But as GM discarded layers of management and moved more workers to Warren, Mich., Mr. Stephens watched the number of diners in the executive dining room dwindle to as few as 70 a day.

A cook at GM for 34 years, he had hoped to work three more years so he could pay off his car and his house. But he was given a choice: retire early, or wait to see if GM could find another job for him.

At 53, he wasn't interested in starting over somewhere else. He took the early retirement package, which lets him keep his medical benefits but cuts his annual income from about $38,000 to $26,500.

Life after GM is just as difficult for some of the other cooks Mr. Stephens used to work with.

Joan Myers, 58, took early retirement when the company began trimming the kitchen staff in July. She now receives $745 a month, or about $9,000 a year.

So far, she's found work cooking a month in the fall at a hunting lodge in northern Michigan. "It was the best-paying job I ever had," said Eloise Goodwin, another cook who took early retirement. "I'll never get anything else like it."

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