Names have been changed. This is from a while ago, but I like it. The start of something.
|some of my totally nonprofessional pics of M's beautiful food|
M's cooks were all fiercely loyal to him, his apostles. Which is why they worked for us for terrible money, came in as the sun just came up to chiffonade and stayed deep into the darkest night to mop the floors, cryovac the kirsch-soaked cherries, leave the fragrant veal stock at a whisper of a simmer.
M and I had met, stayed up all night talking big dreams. We broke the chairs, making love. Four months later we were living together in Philadelphia, running a fancy restaurant in a historic Colonial hotel.
Each night, when the last plates were whisked away, M and his cooks Kevin and Zander and Zach opened their beers and left the hot kitchen for the cool garden, smoking cigarettes and bullshitting, gathering a second wind for the relentlessly thorough cleanup M mandated.
"Can't they clean without you?" I asked every so often, my eyes blurry after 12 and 14 and sometimes 16 hour days, the soles of my feet sore. After all, he was the Chef. But it was important to M to scrub beside them. At night, his soft skin smelled of bleach.
Only I could write the menus each day. They changed based on what was in season and M's whims. He was up all night reading about savory ice cream texture and airy macaroons and tofu so rich with unami it might grow balls. In the mornings, he and his cooks brought these things to exquisite, intricate life. They dehydrated parsnips and turned gazpacho into popsicles and meat-glued short ribs into glossy towers.
I tried to delegate the daily menu-making to our hostess, Jess, who was head-turning, red-haired, a student, and who M decided was horribly stupid. M is from Israel, his accent still syrup-thick after living here for nearly a decade, and when M said "fennel fronds," Jess heard "fennel (and) prawns."
After seeing this on the night's menu, whatever M told Jess left her pretty face ragged with tears. She called the next day, to quit. I asked her to reconsider.
I ran the front of the house, and M constantly terrified my staff. I apologized for him, smoothed things over, thanked my shaken waiters and busboys and bartenders for putting up with Chef's temper. Soon he'd be joking, cabbages stuffed under his Chef's coat like giant, misshapen breasts, and we’d all be a happy dysfunctional family.
|This is for real.|
"What did you say to her?"
Jess was a good hostess. The guests loved her, she always said the right things to the grumpy ladies, always came early and watered the plants. It had taken forever to find a good hostess.
"Don't you see? She doesn't care at all about the food. She's just a pretty girl."
"Who cares if she cares about the food? She's a good hostess."
I told her she didn't have to make the menus anymore, didn't have to interact with M at all, could steer clear of the kitchen.
"That's ok," she said, "I need to focus on school right now. And I can't be treated that way."
"M," I said, pissed, "Now you gotta find us a new hostess."
"You know I don't have time," he said, "but I'd like to meet them before you hire them."
I gave him my angriest look.
I posted all the Craigslist ads looking for M's cooks. They got better as cooks come and went, didn’t show up, threw plates across the garden and stormed out, leaving their knives behind. They said something like:
Looking for a cook with a have a shitton of energy and a sizable dose of crazy. Helps if you are an ambitious and young, obsessed with fine dining and serious technique, but willing to work for nearly nothing, peel fingerlings until your fingers go numb, scrub the fryer til it shines.
Things went missing and cooks neglected to show up. Our kickass, pimply intern went back to school. We interviewed so many people we forgot who was who. I handed out W4's like candy. Slowly, we got M’s crew together. They moved like dancers in the tiny, heart-stoppingly hot kitchen, they knew all the steps, they finished each other’s sentences, fought with their hearts flung open, drank together, would fuck someone up for each other.
I liked Zander the best, who just graduated from college and talked way too fast. He was always reading, plotting, growing tomatoes in his little ghetto Philly apartment which he shared with a million guys and was caked deep in filth. “It’s so disgusting,” M complained, “But he grows some good tomatoes.” We ate them like apples, made them into gel and strung them throughout ribbons of parpadelle.
Zach was tall, as if he had been stretched out, and tattooed and always high, sometimes out of his mind. His eyes were painted with a permanent film of far away. M had to pick him up from jail one day while I watched over his kitchen. We bought weed from Zach, and lent him money.
M wouldn’t hire women. He tried once—a blonde pastry chef with big biceps—and when she didn’t work out, he recommitted to his strict no-girl stance. So he had his boys.
|hamachi tartar with sesame clafouti and white soy gelee|
One day I found Zander in the walk-in, crying.
“Are you ok?” I wanted to give him a hug.
“Sort of,” he said “Chef is not happy.” And when Chef was not happy, nobody was happy.
“M,” I said, “Zander is really upset.”
“So am I,” M said, his eyes bloodshot.
So I stayed out of it. I had my own staff to watch over, to make sure they weren’t drinking all the beers in the basement and the new waiter didn’t forget what an espellete pepper was and Julie’s creepy admirer, who sat on table 49 with a grin and a whiskey, was as far as possible from Julie.
In summer, Zach came to work more fucked up than usual, and M told him to go.
M and I were talking about breaking up, my heart felt sour and heavy in my chest. I worried for Zach, who seemed unsteady with hotel pans stacked in his ropey arms.
Zach said, I’m fine, I’m working, I’m staying.
M needed him, and so he took him out back and told him this was the last time. M wasn’t talking to me much, but still we had to go over the menu for the night: stinging nettle risotto, salmon belly ceviche, braised lamb shank.
It was some time when I was explaining to my staff—the risotto is garnished with lovage, fried jasmine flowers, thyme confetti—when Zach, high on who knows what, was frying up delicate, lovely jasmine flowers in a big vat of oil, with a slotted spoon. He dropped the spoon into the hot oil, reached in with his left arm to retrieve it, and screamed so loud in pain we all went running to the kitchen.
M called 911, and left with Zach through the green garden in an ambulance, the skin missing, scorched, red from Zach’s elbow to his fingertips, fried like the jasmine flowers.
They were two men down. We took the risotto off the menu, and I jumped in to expedite, hitting up plates with tarragon oil and carrot chips and whisps of basil foam, my head spinning like the earth, my stomach churning and bowling-ball heavy.