Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Chef Philosophy, 201

“The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.” 
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

When I learned Food Riot was shuttering the shop, I stopped wrestling with topics to write about, much less actually work on them. The piece about bok choy: Abandoned. The one about the Miracle on 46th Street? Nope. Pie Whimsy? Well, that one will live to see another day, once I get the recipe right. I can’t not write about my first successful lattice.

Rather than work on new pieces, I had a look at the work I did for that site. On the whole, I’m pretty pleased with it. Lord knows I could always use a good edit, but overall, not terrible. You have to break a few oeufs to make an oeuvre, right?

One of the pieces I reread with some pleasure was my first, written a year ago, back when I was so excited and happy to have the opportunity to write for another site. I like my blog, but it was fun to write for a larger audience, comprising more than my immediate family, some friends, and the odd cook who stumbled onto the site because she needs a new pair of clogs.

This particular piece was about Chef Philosophy, and it was a metaphor quiche – Sisyphus and the nature of restaurant work playing the part of ham, a hunter’s chase through the woods in search of a white stag in place of swissy custard. I hadn’t noticed the heady mixture, gazing as I was at my own navel. But after my dad called the mixed metaphor a “head-snapper,” I took another look and chatted with him about what may be my new favorite grammatical term. In spite of the head-snapper, his comments about the quiche-piece weren’t negative. Rather, he gave me another angle to consider.

Leaving the bounding hunt through the forest alone for just a moment, let’s look again at the idea that while work in general is Sisyphean, restaurant work epitomizes the nature of Sisyphus’s job to the nth degree. Every shift begins when you shoulder your boulder, every shift ends when you reach the top of the hill: The last pair of sliders during a late happy hour rush, SOLD; the final stack of pancakes, plated and windowed! The mats pulled, the floors swept and mopped, the till counted – all part of the restaurant’s daily cycle, a cycle which occurs during every dining period you provide. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The boulder reaches the top of the hill, and then it rolls back down.

For whatever it's worth, in my mind’s eye the boulder rolls down a hill a lot like the Ponderosa-dotted hills surrounding Boulder, my childhood home, which is, I understand, a somewhat  unuseful conflation of imagery. A boulder meets a Boulder, coming down the hill. Brains, man. Wacky stuff.

Anyway, even if we run down the hill because we are in the middle of a series of doubles, or clopening, or opening a new restaurant, we can’t beat the boulder. It has rolled, crashed, tumbled, bounced, and careened through the woods, back to the base of the hill faster than we can goat-hop down the slope. We shouldn’t even try to beat it. Instead of racing back down, let’s order a beer at Tantalus’s Table, a hot spot on the hill top (despite the owner’s extreme crankiness) and catch up with each other.

After all, the boulder isn't going anywhere; it came to rest at the bottom of the hill, after smashing through an abandoned barn, scattering a herd of mule deer, decapitating a fir, and crashing to a stop half-in and half-out of the creek. I will be wet to my thighs when I get behind that thing and shove. Possibly hypothermic.

When we've finished our beers, I'll start back down. But look there – a clearing, a fallen log where I can rest for a while, a moment, before getting my ass back down the hill and pushing again. A breeze whispers through the pine branches, subtle scents of vanilla play with the smell of mint and wet stone rising from a nearby rill. Maybe I’ll simply sit quietly and consider the elusive white stag, a chef’s sublime quarry, and the mysterious ways in which line cooks are (or are not) motivated. With no Food Riot to write for, no restaurant to cook for, and barring any unforeseen existential crises, I can sit for a good minute before I have to push again.

Except – the dog needs to go out, the dishes must be washed, agent letters must be written, and the bloody book must be rid of darlings. Perhaps this particular chapter in my career is not just a walk down a hill, but a chance to see, to fully apprehend, the sheer number and variety of rocks, boulders, stones, and pebbles we all push up hills, all the time, every day, as well as having the opportunity to see some folks I missed while I was occupied. I have momentarily abandoned my primary, half-submerged boulder to work on other things that will, no doubt, appear cyclical when they are at last completed, the next one begun. But seeing it as a cycle, with the big push followed by a pleasant jaunt, brings me closer still to understanding Camus. It’s not that Sisyphus is content because he has a job, maybe even one with benefits; he is content because he understands the nature of work, that, as with a latticed pie, effort brings reward, but pushing upwards is only half of the story. 

Next time on Chef Philosophy: Tantalus and the Benefits of Delaying Gratification (possibly until the end of time), or, Forget Fire: The Gods Offered Two Marshmallows to Humankind.

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