The author at home

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Face First, Straight into My Own Limitations--PT. 1

Despite all the glamour and romance of its flash and adrenaline and motion, I knew all along that my career would never unfold in a restaurant kitchen. This set me apart from my peers at the Culinary Institute of America, most of whom took it as a given that their path would lead straight to the line and go from there. It wasn’t that I was immune to the glamour and romance. During those moments in class when everything was in full swing, I really dug the camaraderie of cooking as part of a team. I dug the physical push of it all. I liked the sweat. I liked the heat. I liked the heft of a sauté pan in the hand. The levels of testosterone in my blood seemed to double when I was cooking against a deadline. I could understand that Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential was really a grease-streaked “Ode to Joy” and not just a nicely lurid expose.

But at the same time, there was another thing that set me apart from my peers: I was pretty old. Not ancient: I’ve got all my teeth. I know where my car keys are right now. Retirement is still several decades off. But I was a lot older than the other students. Sometimes, during class, I’d find myself pressing my hands into the small of my back, where the muscles were becoming antagonistic. Sometimes my feet, on which I’d been moving for hours, would plead for mercy. And one day, I went to lift a mammoth pot sloshing with many gallons of stock, felt tensions and weaknesses in my body where I hadn’t felt them before, and decided to ask someone nearby to give me a hand. I don’t know: maybe anyone would have needed assistance with a pot that heavy; I was still holding my own, still pretty fit and strong, but the evitable was starting to become in-.

And I was old in another way, too. Being yelled at made my hackles twitch. Being ordered around stoked some pretty dark impulses. Being a codger meant I’d been on my own and independent for a long time, and I’d put a premium on precisely not having to answer to anyone. Yeah, yeah, yeah: I know we all answer to someone. But I’d done my best to minimize it when I could, even if that effort was frequently unsuccessful. Still, I don’t think it takes an analyst to see a common theme among some of the people I idolize: Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, John Cassavetes, Bob Dylan. No one told Miles Davis anything, especially not that he could only wear jeans to work on Casual Fridays, or that he had just 30 minutes for a lunch break.

Somehow, before culinary school, through a weird leap of logic, I began understanding that cooking could be freedom and emancipation. Freedom and emancipation from a desk, from a fluorescent-lit sepulcher built around a pulsing computer screen, from (sorry, Joseph McCarthy) an alienation from my own labor. Cooking was the best manual job there was.

But my feet hurt and I was stubborn. Seventy-five, 90 hour weeks: that emancipation ultimately doubles back on itself. One night during my school externship at Tabla, when everything that could go wrong went wrong, and one of the sous chefs stood over me, cursing at me, physically pushing me, screaming out my incompetence for minute after minute after minute without letting up, a stretch of time so bad I had tears of frustration and rage in my eyes, I vowed this would never happen again.

A love for the act of cooking, and an anti-authoritarian streak; these were tough inclinations to marry.

1 comment:

  1. Love, love, love the book. I finished it today and was telling my husband about it. It brought up a story that speaks to what you said about your hackles being raised by all the yelling.

    He went into the West German army for his 16 months of mandatory military service when he was 18-19. He said, "they screamed at us all the time, it was how they talked to us," and that the young soldiers didn't really even care. It was what it was. Then he had to do some Reserves training five years later, and that time, the screaming got on his nerves a lot. Even at age 24 he felt somehow demeaned by someone red-faced, spittle flying, screaming at him.