I am so hungry. I am staring at my computer screen, wrought with the overwhelming task of trying to whittle down a lifetime of ideas to an appropriate point to start a blog, and all I can think is that I’m hungry. Very. I give up, and open my fridge.
I love the rhythm of cooking. Efficiency of movement guaranteeing not a bit of energy is wasted. Room temperature eggs sit, waiting to be whipped. Tea kettle full and warming, quick careful consistent knife strokes slice through red onion and zucchini. I heat the pan not bothering to wipe out the truffle oil from last nights popcorn snack, pour the hot water into my favorite mug and flick the tip of my knife through the tiny string of my tea bag- cutting the lifeline and letting the bag sink and steep, admiring how at home I feel with 8in of sharp steel in my hand. It makes me feel bad ass. I am grateful for the ease of it all.
There was a time I wasn’t so graceful cooking. In the beginning, I bumbled and fumbled through the kitchen blissfully unaware of how amateur I looked, hacking apart vegetables and boiling over unsalted water. It took time, and many patient teachers gently sliding my grip from the knife handle to the knife blade, curling my fingers until my knuckles were flush with scary steel.
I watched chefs with awe. I had only my palate, which was untrained yet naturally knew how to put together food that tasted delicious. That was the end of my talent. My technical skills in a kitchen were non-existent. I had been hired by someone to cook professionally who thought my food was delicious, and had no idea I was holding my knife the wrong way. Eager for a new opportunity, and fueled by the fact that someone had eaten my food and was willing to pay me to cook, I threw myself into a professional arena I knew nothing about. I was a Chef on a yacht!
I learned on the job. I absorbed everything I could. I was determined to be great at what I was doing, but lacked the confidence that only experience can bring. Long after I proved I had chops, I was still secretly terrified that someone would come and whip back the curtain one day and point their finger at me while yelling “She’s not really a Chef!!”.
For a long time, I cooked by myself. I was in an industry where people would hire you based on reputation, job duration, and salary requirements and you’d be on a plane heading to a yacht somewhere without anyone ever tasting your food.I figured out things on my own and tried to learn all I could, but I was no Chef. I am who I am in the kitchen now thanks to the people I got to work with. Now, I am reminded of them in most everything I do; the way I slice an onion, the way I plate food, I learned from someone who took the time to show me.
Food has a universal language, there is a collective brotherhood amongst Chefs. My mentors came from everywhere in the world, and from every culinary background. There is precision in way they move; the way they hook their fingers over bottle openings measuring a pour, the way their hands are held high above the food as the sprinkle grainy kosher salt. The phrase itself, “salt to taste” meaning, add enough salt to make it taste good. How does one hone that instinct? I was in awe. I wanted to look like that. It was a dance, it was art. It was professional, and commanded immediate respect. Cooking takes pride, and love, and skill, and I wanted into that club badly.
“I don know how you cook, but you cook!” Tony would say in his indescribable accent mashed from living half his life in Spain, and half his life in France. “Zees food!” he would say, with large sweeping hand gestures. “Your food eez delicious my darling”. I would glow from his compliments, and worked really hard to justify them. He cooked like a maniac. He was best when he’d had a few beers, even if it was 10AM and we were floating on a mega yacht off the coast of Mexico, far from a proper bar. He’d blast the Gypsy kings and scratch prep lists in thick black sharpie. He would spend his nights, sometimes well into the morning hours, in thick jackets and a hat, shivering in the freezer carving ornate sculptures from ice. Tony made me feel like I could do anything, and I worshiped him.
He took me one incredibly rare evening that neither of us was cooking to a Parisian bakery, hidden, it seemed amongst rocky streets of Puerto Vallarta. The fact that there was even a bakery there at all made no sense to me, much less a proper Parisian bakery with pastel pillow arrangements of macaroons and impossibly buttery, light, crisp croissants that immediately melted onto your tongue. He was friends with the owner, and they spoke with affection for each other in rapid, dramatic French. I will never forget that meal, in the Frenchman’s little apartment upstairs from his bakery. We ate intestines, and snails, and goat one bite at a time from the outdoor charcoal grill- incredibly exotic for me at the time, yet every last bite was consumed. I was surrounded with international guests, the 5 of us without a common language. Everyone spoke either French, Spanish or English, everyone nodding and laughing at the appropriate times even if they didn’t understand. Somehow as wave after wave of food came from the grill, and the kitchen and bottles of wine emptied, we all laughed and drank and understood each other perfectly. I felt the magic of a perfect meal. I felt like I belonged.
It is a beautiful thing, to learn to cook. It comes from an instinct to nourish, and create. There is a music to food, it requires all of your senses. Pressing your finger into a steak, feeling for firmness to tell the temp. Listening to the way food sounds as its cooking, pops and snaps and gurgles telling you where it’s at. The moment intuition kicks, and you inexplicably, know to pull something from the oven. The smells, their progression, the tiny tastes taken along the way with a dip of your finger, the back of a spoon. The visual art of presentation- watching a chef place food on the plate, the sheer intensity of it, the concentration and precision demands silence. No one chatters while the Chef is plating. The moment, that it is perfect- the look at the server, the words, “Ok, go”.
“Dress your greens,” David told me as I was assembling a sandwich. It was from him I learned the most. “Clean as you go.” He was an amazing teacher, but I was an unreceptive student. Unfortunately, it was because we were dating. Living and working together on a yacht meant that in the event that you needed space, there wasn’t any.
He was way more qualified to be the Chef than I was. I was a cocky asshole by that time, overestimating my experience. I would deflate when he would correct me. I felt like he was the one I’d been dreading. He was the guy who pulled back the curtain, exposing my shortcomings.
“Don’t be a shoemaker” he scolded, catching me in the middle of a shortcut. “A what?” I’d asked, immediately defensive.“A shoemaker.” He explained. “Someone who half asses what they’re doing. Do it the right way, follow through. You can taste it in the food.”
I thought back to the day he walked into the galley one morning and commanded “Open”, popping a piece of pineapple into my mouth. I chewed and pulled out the tiny pock mark of brown I’d left on the outside edge. “Do you want to eat that?” he asked me. “No” I replied, feeling small. “Let me show you how to cut a pineapple,” he offered and showed me exactly how to take this bumpy football of a fruit and cut it into perfect tiny slices that fanned across the plate.
Looking back, I wish that I’d had the maturity to be receptive to his constructive criticism. He is amazing in the kitchen. He taught me how to move. I loved to watch him cook, each of his movements ninja like, quick, efficient. He had such flair- tossing food by flipping pans with swooping arcs, everything flying through the air and landing back into itself. Chop chop chopping his knife across the cutting board with such ease and speed.
He was culinary trained, and subsequently spent years in the kitchen learning painfully the way the game is played in a restaurant. The scrutiny, the tiers of respect, the intense pressure, the comradery. There is a constant measure of your worth, judged and re judged every time you put food on a plate. He learned in the kitchens of award-winning Chefs, and it showed in his every movement.
I take my favorite plate out and set it down, thinking the china blue will be the perfect back round for the gentle yellow and green and purple of my meal. The plate was a gift, a throw back, really, from a photo shoot for a cook book a favorite Chef had produced. Chef Michael Schwartz was a James Beard award-winning Chef, and yet managed to stay completely unaffected by all the glitz and glam that had seized the food world, launching Chefs to celebrity rock star status. I glowed, thinking of my admiration, my total food crush I had for this man. I had waited tables in his restaurant for a year, just to be close to his food. Though he was rarely in the kitchen, having been ushered instead into the famous Chef arena still in his Chuck Taylors and T-shirts that said things like “coleslaw”, his presence was there in every detail. It was his Chef de Cuisine, Brad that ran the kitchen.
It was from Brad and Michael I learned to respect food in it’s simplicity. They sourced things locally, seasonally, and did everything in-house. If they couldn’t get tomatoes from Florida, they simply took them off the menu. The creativity there was palpable. Everyone in the kitchen had a bit of ownership, and contributed ideas.
I always stood a little taller and smiled a little bigger when Brad would beckon me into the kitchen and ask me to help come up with something. The menu changed daily, and standards were high. The things they came up with were incredible. They once hunted and served local wild boar, creatively utilizing every last bit that didn’t get broken down and shoved into the wood fire oven. He made porchetta, letting it cook for hours until the skin puffed up and you could crack it in your teeth like hard candy. Huge local fish came down the pass in the mornings to be portioned off and served that evening.
He served things you never see on menus, cheeks, tongue, necks and feet, eyeballing us at pre-shift saying, “don’t be scared”, meaning; make sure your guests order this because they’ll love it. I was constantly excited by the things they came up with, it was easy to engage the guests. I had a genuinely good time acting as a server, guiding people through amazing dining experiences night after night.
Brad’s respect for food, the industry, and how a kitchen should be run are far more mature than his 20 something years let on. He is respected. He is hard-core, and just enough of an asshole to keep everyone in line. I invited him to dinner at my house once, laughing at the look of shock on the line cook’s faces when I said I’d be cooking for Brad. He and his beautiful wife and their almost human dog came over on a rare Monday evening off. I was more excited to have them over just to hang out than I was about the food. I’m pretty sure I overcooked the pork and didn’t let the sauce reduce enough- but it was more about sharing a meal with friends than it was cooking for a mentor. He finished everything on his plate. The only compliment you could hope for from Bradley was, “This doesn’t suck”, but late that night, after everything had been eaten and we were topping off wine glasses, he thanked me and said everything was great. I floated for days.
My meal is almost ready…I pour olive oil from the long slender glass bottle, finger hooked over the opening, drizzling the perfect amount over fresh peppery arugula. I fold smoked motz into fluffy eggs, pulling them from the heat and letting them cook into themselves for the last moments. I glance at the 5 different kinds of salt I have in my kitchen, settling on the salt I picked up in Ibiza. It’s crunchy, and glitters the way sand does in the sun.
Hand held high above the plate, I salt to taste.