"...the firelight of their party was a pocket torch held under the blanket of the universe." July's People, by Nadine Gordimer
When we meet Buck for the first time, he is a dog drawn in spare strokes: Large, handsome, protective…all the things a rich Judge with a passel of grandchildren would want in a country-house dog. As the story progresses, however, and Buck becomes the hero of his own story, we see his transformation. We cringe when he’s beaten again and again, and worry, after 3,000 words about dogfights, whips, clubs, human-stupidity, and really bad weather, that he might not make it to the end of the book. But then, just as Buck decides to give up the ghost, he is rescued by John Thornton, a prospector with a heart of gold. Thornton rehabilitates Buck’s body and soul, and Buck responds to such ministrations as any thinking creature would. He falls in love with the man, and when Buck isn’t studying Thornton’s face or romping about the camp with him, he lies next to him, watching the campfire. As Buck’s eyes grow heavy, he sees visions of a primordial self, walking next to an equally-early version of human, visions of the deal struck so many years ago between these two species, flickering in the flames.
The fire, and the visions in the dancing flames, mesmerize Buck ever so slightly, just enough for him to ignore the call he hears ringing from the mountains, echoing among the black-barked trees in the dense dark forests, singing through the icy rivers running through the Alaska backcountry. As you know if you’ve read the story, the call becomes too strong to be ignored and Buck, who leaves and returns, leaves and returns, really only because he loves this man, finally leaves camp for days, harries a bull moose to a sad end, and then returns to John Thornton’s camp to find death and disaster. Not a dry eye in the house. But now Buck is truly free, unencumbered by any ties to humans, and off he goes, into the wild.
The Call of the Wild is, admittedly, an imperfect analogy for my career as it stands right now. Really, pretty flimsy. First of all, I don’t expect this current job to end with the sacking of the restaurant by invaders. I don’t expect to come back from a weekend to find overturned coffee urns, cutting boards on the floor, broken glassware, and slit-necked servers. That would be weird. I could, perhaps, make the case that I have pulled sleds with the best of them, over terrain that would have broken a weaker team’s collective heart, a case made in hyperbolic Londonian prose. I guess I could compare sled-drivers to head chefs, but I think that would make for really awkward reading, not to mention writing. But there are enough points of contact here that I’m going to make a loose effort, if only for the opportunity to talk about the infierno within the parameters of a story about returning from the forest.
This fire, the one I now cook on four nights a week, is mesmerizing in the way all fires are. Buck’s campfire, the warehouse fire in Backdraft, the yearly torching of Christmas trees at Golden Gardens. Fire holds us transfixed. This fire is the centerpiece of an expensive, popular, Downtown Seattle restaurant; in a profession that prides itself on its fire and knives, this is a one to be proud of. And, in the age of knobs and propane tanks, working with live fire is a throw-back skill almost as cool as mastering scrimshaw, or thatch. (Francis Mallmann's cookbooks are a great inspiration in this direction; his food eloquently illustrates the ways in which fire can consume, transform, destroy, and make delicious.)
The infierno was custom-built for the restaurant. There are two grills on either side of a three-foot wide coal-rack and chimney. Periodically, when the bed of coals becomes too ashy, one of the cooks throws about twenty pounds of charcoal into the grate, or sometimes, depending on who I’m working with, he’ll throw the entire forty-pound bag atop the grate, a bag twice as wide and long than the ones I buy filled with dog food. After a few moments of dwindling returns in the coal department, the bag ruptures, spills out a belly of fire, and whooshes into a hot lavender and white-gold phoenix. And then we’re back in business.
As it grows, the fire devours the oxygen in a twelve-foot radius. I notice a slight headache as the area around the grill, my cutting board, the rack where I hang my tongs, my neatly stacked pile of kitchen towels, becomes as inhospitable as the interior of an active volcano. The familiar quick dance-steps of professional cookery become sluggish as I struggle to breathe, fighting with the beautiful monster for a mouthful of air. Reaching into the fire to set a cast-iron pan on a pillow of salmon-colored coals is like reaching into a kiln; the heat smacking into my forearms and face is a physical force, a wall I must reach through, and I’ve learned that exhaling as I step close and reach in to the fire seems to help, as though my tiny tithe of air was found a sufficient token, and I’m allowed to pass. My towel, on the other hand, comes away from the fire burning, as though tiny orange insects are eating holes into it. I smudge the insects out on the brick wall next to my station, and reach back into the fire to flip over the scallops searing in their cast-iron hell.
Sound doesn’t carry across such a short distance, as though the fire is consuming our very voices; thinking about it now, I can’t remember whether the blaze makes its own noise, or if it just eats our words along with our air. When a new ticket comes in, I cross the space between us with one hand flung in front of my face to call steaks and temps to the other cook. My silver necklace heats up and leaves a red line around my throat. The pen clip sticking out of my apron pocket burns me when I cross my arms across my chest, and I let out a startled noise. My t-shirt is soaking wet within seconds, which means that if I leave the grill area, and its 900 degree environment, I will immediately be beset with violent shivers, as though I’ve been wrapped in a wet sheet and set on a mountain top.
Fresh charcoal spits sparks in every direction as if protesting its transformation from inert object into fuel. As we rake the pile of coals into heaps beneath our grills, the sparks are like bees spilling from a kicked hive, but I learned almost immediately to ignore their tiny stings and to continue working through the swarm.
When the fire rages from the grate in flames three-feet high, the coals drop from the grate like newborn fire-salamanders, a species skinned in coral and rose. Eventually, the sparks simmer down. Eventually, the heat settles down to a bearable 500 degrees. If we don’t have any tickets working, I stare into the face of the beast and again, think about Buck watching a version of a world in which he is tame, struggling with the call he hears from the Wilds beyond the small ring of firelight.
Like being a doctor or a lawyer, being a chef can supplant other identifiers. When people ask what you do, the question heard is, What are you? This is a question I’ve struggled with for years. I’m a chef. No, I’m a writer. No, I’m a chef and a writer. No, I’ll never cook again. I’ll starve before I go back into that world. I will write and illustrate children’s books and medical manuals. No wait, I’ll open my own restaurant, with sage colored walls and vermillion curtains, west-facing views over the water, wood-fired oven, a menu that speaks to the glacial moraine of the Riviera, the culinary intersection of Sea and Alps. And on, and on, for years, the answers changing depending on the audience, the mood, and the amount of vodka percolating through the system.
When the last chef job ended with the suddenness of being thrown off a moving bus, and I went into seven months of unemployment, I was free to run around and howl at the moon. I wasn’t making decisions based on paychecks or other people’s expectations, or my visions of food on plates, or my crippling case of carcass fatigue. Management style and the politics of restaurant hierarchy ceased to mean anything. These months graphed the geometry of freedom versus security, and, to a lesser extent, proved ol’ Janis Joplin right.
But there came a time when the freedom of having nothing left to lose made me take stock. I should have something to lose, right? I have a career, a resume, a future, all of which require returning to the traces and pulling again. And this doesn’t have to be a bad sled pulled over pitted snow. So I waited by the edge of the forest until I saw a fire I wanted to be next to. And now, having found it, I will pull.