Why care about such a transitory craft like cooking? Sometimes I feel like a professional sandcastle builder, my hard labor being erased each day. Why bother? I don’t believe in horoscopes or fear the number 13 and I wrestle with my spirituality as much as my profession. This is not a yarn about fate or coincidence, it’s my tale of finding grace via the kitchen.
Even though I should have quit the cooking biz a million times, my journey on the path to peek behind the curtain of this life began when I started washing dishes. Haughtily I ran the dish machine, crying "Philistines!" whenever a server put a little extra spin on the silverware splashing Sanisoak in my eye. I howled "Assholes!"’ when sent to unplug a tampon from an over-flowing toilet. I bided my time until I could leave for London to study English literature, tearfully chopping 20-pound bags of onions, reciting Thackeray. Soon I would be far clear of this one-trick pony town, among scholars in Europe not tending to chemical burns. I would cease to reek of fryer fat and would be rid of this kitchen life like a dog shaking off water.
Then a very curious thing happened to me. While unloading a food truck on a punishing Florida day, I sat in the back drinking in the cool air conditioning. Glancing over the boxes, I picked up a wheel of Roquefort, which gave me a spark of half déjà vu. I hadn’t known Roquefort, but had known it all along. Funny to think that in 18 months from that day, lost and careening my Fiat Uno through the French countryside, I would wind up in Roquefort the city. Like a flint on a rock, I was back in that truck, thinking how much, for a ragdoll like me, my life had changed wonderfully.
On a whim, a few of us from Bloomsbury took a cooking class. On an autumn day, the smell of fresh rosemary and robust venison quelled from the Queen’s reserve got me hooked. I quit literature, enrolled in the Cordon Bleu, and had the sass beat out of me on the brigade at the Grosvenor House Hotel. Broken down and built up nightly on the line by my chef, I was molded into a primed commis. The work was hard but I knew I was made for it, my cog in the whirling world. Working with food you have to have your ear close to earth, with one leg in the kitchen and one leg in the realm of creativity, in the natural world.
Sometimes the higher powers send you a little message to hold on tight, that you are exactly where you need to be, that there are lessons coming your way.
Later, when I hadn’t had a bite in two days, using what little energy I had left to not pass out, I wondered, "Is this the day I eat the mat?" My paychecks were bouncing and I was racked with anxiety over losing my job. Filleting a whole tuna, its iridescent and smooth skin a small comfort, I thought, "How did I end up like this?" I parted its belly opening it like a diary, revealing a small intact fish. A fish in a fish. It dawned on me that I was the swallowed Dory. I decided right then to stop punishing myself and stop working for people who didn’t pay me. The fish was my prompt and I just felt different in my bones. I was aware of myself in that moment and the universe seemed to be telling me everything would be okay. Telling me to go make my life better, and I did, and it was.
This time last year, the recession lowered its boom on the hospitality industry. I felt its impact and needed to take a corporate chef job. I knew I would be compromising, but my mortgage was not sympathetic. Every day I went to work, I campaigned for a new walk-in cooler, its average temp lulled at 45 degrees (warmer in the cooler than outside). I became a giant pain in the ass, lobbying to not make people sick because this multimillion-dollar company wouldn’t buy a new compressor. I was fired. On the day they told me, “I wasn't really a match” for them, I brought in my own dry ice to slow the curdling milk. While in the cooler, I heard a croak and tracked it to a bag of fresh spinach. I opened the cellophane and out jumped a lively frog from the processed, washed, and trimmed California spinach. Funny again, I held him in wonder and it just came to me that this job was an unending fight. I was the frog in spinach, plucked and dispatched from my place to survive the machine. I felt a hand on my shoulder and my GM asked if he could have a word. I freed the frog outside and knew it was my turn, time to get myself right again.
That’s the thing about cooking; it positions you in this work-a-day world to feel saving graces. It is not for the critic or owner; it is for us and us alone. Signing on to this gig will break you many times over, but you get front row seats to the greatest insights, the grace you find in a cook’s life.