Let’s back up to the year 2002. I am just graduating college with a BA in Who the Hell Knows What, I have no idea what’s next for me, I’m going through yet another drawn-out break-up, listening to metal and drum ‘n bass, trying to be a frickin’ raw, sugar-free, vegan, jogging five miles a day, sleeping until whenever, making weird beats with my MPC, and generally feeling lost and mediocre. But guess what else I’ve begun doing with most of my time?
I scored my first cooking job after a chain of lame front-of-house jobs. I had always respected the cooks in the restos where I worked because they were tough. They were sweaty, they got dirty, they always had stained gauze stuck to their skin. And they had to stay super focused for very concentrated periods of time when things got busy. During mellow moments, a cook could be the funniest most engaging dude at the pass, and ten minutes later he’d be so wrapped up in orders that to whisper even a soft word at him would invoke violence.
I always figured I would burn everything if I tried to be a line cook–the pressure would be too high. Yet when I got my first job behind the line it felt like an accomplishment, a big deal. Maybe it would be something I’d enjoy… If I could handle it. The chef knew I wanted to cook yet he made me work the cash register for a couple of months until he felt good about me. I was stoked to finally side step the ugliness that transactions involving food tend to bring out in hungry people.
I was at a pad thai joint run by a hippy Hungarian Jew who had been inspired while traveling through Asia. The big sellers on the menu were the pad thai (which was bangin by the way), the peanut noodles, and the spring rolls. But underneath those obvious winners was the really interesting stuff. Crispy, slightly sour dosa shells made to order and stuffed with curried potatoes and peas. Indonesian Nasi Goreng with fried yellow rice, tangy tamarind, sweet soy sauce, and a funky shrimp paste. Happy pancakes–also known as Banh Xeo–those crispy rice flour crepes made in a sizzling hot pan and stuffed with fresh sprouts and herbs. Gado Gado salad. Badass red curry with rice noodles and fish sauce. Korean sweet potato starch noodles stir fried with veggies, beef, and a fiery sweet sauce in the classic dish Jap Chae.
On my first night, a week night, we had a line to the door. I was just beginning to get some training when the dinner rush came.
Check this: I was definitely a beginner of the highest order. I mean I couldn’t even cook for myself yet. At home it was matzoh with Earth Balance, pasta with canned sauce, boxed mac ‘n cheese, apples, carrots, and peanut butter. I was a wiry, hungry, unhealthy vagrant who could barely take care of himself let alone hold down a relationship with a decent woman or have a clear enough head to steer my life in any particular direction. But you know what happened that first evening on the line? I held my own. I didn’t falter. I made it through. It was awesome. And I didn’t burn anything.
Tony, a skinny, tatooed, foul mouthed dude in an extra large tee with the sleeves ripped out, led me through the dinner rush that night. At the end of the shift he showed me how to clean the kitchen, gave a nod of respect, and I was officially on my way, unwittingly and happily, into the world of cooking.
Back then, cooking wasn’t a thing. Cooking wasn’t glamorous yet. Where I came from cooking still sucked. All I knew was that there was some cool stuff going on with food in the Bay Area, New York was a food mecca, and Southeast Asia was the tastiest place on earth. I realize now how much broader the food world was then, and that American cuisine had been developing an identity for quite some time. But looking back at it, my adoration for the craft was more genuine because it had no big hype around it yet. It was the underdog path.
Back to the action.
I looked forward to my cooking shifts. I practiced all the dishes on the menu while I was at home; brought them to potlucks, let them fester in the fridge, ate them for breakfast. I knew how to do something useful all of a sudden. And I wanted to get better at it. There was a chef who lived below me who told me one day, “Hell, I’d hire ya. You’re smart, and I watch you leave your house everyday at the same time to work your shifts. You’re responsible and I bet you f^*&ing like the work don’t ya?” I guess I did.
What’s more is that the work was exhilarating. It was busy and intense. It came with responsibility, “Don’t f%$^ up my food!” said my chef once… A quote I’ve used a few times in my day too. It was a craft, and though most of the time I was following the menu to a T, it felt creative to me.
It was a challenge. It was hard work. I was up to it. I actually liked it… A lot more than I liked putting my pittly resume on Monster.com hoping to get a call about some stuffy and menial office internship in the city. Yuck.
And the most important thing is that I liked what I was cooking. It was f^*&ing delicious. And interesting. And healthy. And weird. Girls dug it. My buddies came in and I’d make them Simmy Specials with curry and tempeh.
It wasn’t easy to get right. It was a challenge. It took patience. It took grace. Getting a perfectly round, paper-thin, crispy dosa shell on the flattop was no easy feat for me. The happy pancake wouldn’t be so happy if I added too much oil to the pan. It took about 1/3 of a second to burn the garlic in a blazing hot wok. And try to make a dosa, Banh Xeo, and a pad thai at the same time and see what happens. This was serious business, and I took it seriously.
The prep work was awesome. Giant pots of chicken stock needed to be dumped and strained. Gigantic batches of noodles needed to be cooked and cooled “until there is no trace of warm anywhere in them,” as chef said. Stinky daikon radish to pickle. Curry pastes to cook down. Dashi! Peanuts to grind. Eggplant to slowly grill until it was goopy and smokey. Tofu to press overnight. And who knows what magic the prep guy in the basement was casting… Fermented batters, special sauces, weird smells (or maybe that was just him?).
Hell, I even loved cleaning up. Give me a ginger beer, System of a Down on the box, some soap and in record time I would scrub the living life out of the walls, the crevices, the grease trap, the dishes.
I know this sounds kind of affected, but there was a monster inside me that I didn’t really know about until I started cooking. It had been feeding off of my confusion about life, my self-indulgent feelings about myself, my righteous stance on veganism, my failed attempts at socializing myself to the work-a-day world. It was stuck inside me, pissed off that it had no room to breathe. At the restaurant, it was channeled out and exhausted by the end of the night. The best feeling for me was standing at the back door, peering into the quiet kitchen at the end of the night, feeling the clean, recalling it’s prior chaotic mess, making sure I cleaned everything and shut everything down, flicking off the light, throwing up my hoodie and walking peacefully off into the dark.
I thought I was doing this job just to make some money before I became some kind of well adjusted, well oiled cog in the wheel. But I was wrong. I fell in love with it. I totally dug the people I worked with. We were instantly brothers who shared and helped each other through some intense moments on the line. Ethan, if you’re reading this… What up homey! I fell in love with the contrast of hard work and finesse.
The world and all of my problems melted away when I threw on an apron. When I punched that time clock I had nothing else, and wanted nothing else but to throw myself into the work. I loved trying to master the subtleties of a dish: the pad thai perfectly balanced in flavor, the salmon perfectly poached in dashi, the broccoli blanched to a bright vibrant green and perfectly cooked. Unless there was some bit of prep I realized in the middle of the night that I had forgotten to do, or if there was something I messed up in the heat of the meal’s rush, I was always completely satisfied at the end of a shift, needing nothing more than a beer and a shower.
My memory of that time has shifted colors over the years. For years I grappled with my decision to be a cook. I thought I was waxing magic about my love for the work in order to disguise the fact I had actually copped out of my studies in undergraduate school to take a low-level, difficult line of work that paid in feces. I thought I had picked the job just because it was fun, and that choosing work purely for entertainment does not make money unless you’re lucky enough to fall into something amazing like playing cowbell for a famous rock band, being a professional mountain biker, or being one of those guys who just loves to sell stuff. I hate to sell stuff. And at the time I kinda hated people in general. I just wanted to toil away in the kitchen, exhaust myself, get away from people, and try to get good. I thought I was making a mistake.
Maybe I did make a mistake. Screw it. Who cares? It doesn’t matter anymore. Now I am an executive chef. I get paid what I need. I have a great life in a beautiful part of the world. I’ve got kick ass friends and a loving family. All is well. And I still love cooking. So there.
The feature picture of this post is me and fellow cook Dan on my graduation day, at the beginning of my cooking life.