Monday, March 28, 2011

Holding Fast

"It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it.
It takes off a lot of anxiety."

- George Orwell,
Down and Out in Paris and London

Of all the vegetables in all the kitchens in all the world, why green peppers and celery? 22 quarts of each? I have a throbbing, quarter-sized blister where my knife callous used to be, the fingers on my left hand are a little bit numb and tingly, and my feet feel as though they’ve been bound and gagged, thrown into a basement, held for ransom, and forgotten. But you know what? Even surrounded by copious quantities of the only two vegetables in the world I don’t like, I am suffused with a peculiar joy. I got a job!

Just in the nick of time, too….I was running out of books to sell. In fact, the epigraph I wanted to use for this clog blog was in a book sold to buy three eggs, an onion and a pound of spaghetti. My cupboard was bare. Really, really bare, which meant I was using the fun, cheffy stuff in place of staples: Instead of crushed red pepper, kosher salt, olive oil or sugar, I was using imported pimenton picante from Madrid, Hawaiian red sea salt, Meyer-Lemon infused olive oil, and Tasmanian leatherwood honey. I had long since used the two remaining potatoes and the can of corn to make a thin, but edible chowder. I was wearing pants that hadn’t fit me for years.

I must confess that my efforts to find a job, while consistent and generally optimistic, did not represent a truly whole-hearted Job Search. Because really, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I was willing to become penniless in order to find out. Nothing really motivated me to work, neither fear nor food, and I didn't really expect anything to unless I were really and truly against a wall. And even then, I figured I’d probably be okay – we no longer have a Debtors' Prison, and my friends and family are known for their generosity. Anyway, I wasn't retiring. I was restarting.

One of the ancillary effects of taking six months off from any sort of regular paid work is that you start to question the value of doing anything you don’t want to do. Ever again. If most of those six months was spent on a boat, and most of that time was spent staring at the vast openness of the South Pacific, you can really wrap yourself around an existential axle. So when it came time to return to the land of the employed I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about all the options: I could become a farrier, or a trapeze painter, or a world-renowned entomologist…. The job I should have been seeking with vim, vigor and artisanal vinegar was the job I was most reluctant to land: Chef.

There are chefs in the world who believe there is no better job. They are chefs through and through, with all that that implies, chefs who grew up wanting to be nothing else, the way other children grow up wanting to be dancers, professional athletes, or doctors – they are consumed by WANTING it enough to get it. I am not one of them.

I liked being a chef because I am bossy, creative, hard working, and I derive a real pleasure from feeding people. (There was also that set of pans Santa brought me when I was four and which I played with on dead stump stoves on our lower lot. That could be a smoking gun.) But, for a while now, the fear of being exposed as a fraud has had its own ill side-effects, most often manifested through teeth gnashing, a short fuse and the occasional public outburst. The day-to-day realities of being a head chef are exhausting: Charred flakes of adrenalin spinning through the blood because a customer got wheat instead of white toast, a pretty good appetite for nicotine and rye but little else, except for maybe a sandwich eaten quickly while hiding in the mop closet. The fact remains, however, that I have a decent career and a solid restaurant resume' -- it would be foolish to throw away my professional momentum.

I've worked in kitchens since I was 17. I love being a part of this enormous family, and, however tempting it might seem to quietly stock toiletries on the shelves of "Bed, Bath and Beyond", future restaurant hiring managers might see the decision as the professional equivalent of a facial tattoo. What I needed was a job that kept me in the family, taught me some new stuff while leaving time for taking long walks, reading copiously, experimenting with the Oxford comma, and writing. I wanted a life.

In the meantime, there was the not-insignificant problem of how to pay rent. I applied for Unemployment in the spirit of, "Well, it never really hurts to ask." Vestigial loyalty to the company I’d spent my thirties working for prevented me from describing the real reasons people quit being chefs in restaurants that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and change menus every three months (mostly just a profound awareness that your life is being shortened by unfavorable Yelp reviews). So, when the letter arrived that explained why benefits were denied (according to my case officer, quitting a job to go sailing isn’t a good enough reason) I was disappointed, obviously, but a little relieved, too, because maybe NOW I’d be scared enough to get a job, any job, just get a job, girl. Also a little embarrassed – I couldn’t help but picture the good people at the Washington State Unemployment Office laughing their heads off when they heard about my claim, because they couldn’t see the whole picture – I didn’t quit to go lounge on a yacht in my bikini (I usually wore shorts, and there wasn’t a whole lot of lounging), I quit because I needed to step off the side of my known world. Because you know what, Unemployment Office people? I do know a good reason to quit when I see one and when I left that job, I know I couldn’t have made a better decision.

And that, plus $2.50, will get me a bus ride. So, I’ll walk, thank you very much. And keep mulling over what I want to do.

I continued baiting my little hooks and throwing lines into the water, thinking about the different kitchens I’ve worked in, all the different cuisines, the chef mentors I’ve known, the crews who have worked their asses off with/next to/for me -- a connection somewhere would ultimately emerge. After trying out in a couple different houses around town, my resolve to continue cooking was further weakened ("You want me to do what with the frog legs? All of them?"), and I went so far as to send out resumes to a few Development Departments.

Then one day the phone rang and I spent an evening working with the Prep Lead in the kitchen of a crazily busy new restaurant. He had been a chef for years and, as the night clipped along and we split up the list of stocks to make, vegetables to chop, gnocchi to roll, caul fat to temper, he said, "Make a little less, live a little longer." Occasionally I ran to get fries for the line, enjoying the reversal of roles (I spent years yelling, "Fries to the line!" the way other Professionals yell: "Oxygen!", "Suction!", or "Ammunition!"). At the end of the evening, I gladly accepted the Chef's offer.

Suddenly, I had a job, in a high-end Cajun-Creole house…what’s especially funny and wonderful to me is that when I moved to Seattle from D.C. in ’98, I worked in a Cajun-Creole house under the tutelage of Hilary “Hilbo” Craig, a grizzled Vet not two inches taller than I who ceaselessly encouraged me to stay in the culinary world instead of retaking the MCAT. He was a mentor and a friend. So when I slipped my clogs off that first night, tired but employed, I felt as though Hilbo had thrown in a good word for me during one of his smoke breaks in the alley behind the big restaurant in the sky. I felt grateful.

But green peppers and celery…really? Cajun-Creole is so easy to roux-in.

1 comment:

  1. what a nice blog, just such relaxed reading and smiling from time to time, keep it up with your the way, who reads the new york times anyway?, lol keep it coming, gread reading