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August 9, 2021

Flame & Ms. Fortune: what it’s like to Love a Chef.

 

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Author’s note: This is the second course. When you’re done reading, find the first course here.

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My relationship with my chef was much like a busy Saturday night on the line.

Dizzying. Fast. Hot.

When we started dating, he turned my world upside down. He showed me a side of life I had never seen. He brought the color into my life in a way that I had never imagined—beautifully crosshatched.

I devoured every morsel of it like a new menu item in spring when everyone was tired of the heavy winter specials of roasted meats and garlic mash. It was whimsical and carefree but finessed. It was fresh and light with a subtle richness to it. It was satisfying. It left you wanting one more bite. There was a comfort derived from an unexplainable familiarity as if we had known each other in some other world, in some other time.

It was, as I imagined, a Salade Lyonnaise to be.

We would spend all night together talking and snacking on some sort of cured meat and cheese varietal. The hours that I had to sleep were spent mostly awake with him and they flew by faster than either of us could believe. The nights smelled of mezcal, whatever was on the grill station that night, Palo Santo, and sweat. I was enthralled by his stories and he knew how to quip back at my anecdotes. We volleyed back and forth with witty, sometimes cheesy banter only known to those with tongs and kitchen towels.

Mornings always came too soon. I hated having to leave him, but there was some consolation knowing he was safe in my bed, recovering from the previous long night at work. I’d kiss him softly on his head and breathe in his scent, savoring it the way you do when you slowly tongue the curve of a spoon baring the last bite of cheesecake. Thick, rich, and satisfying. I’d whisper, “I love you,” because I hadn’t quite gotten up the nerve to say it during waking hours. I would start my day on fewer hours of sleep than it takes to make a proper lobster bisque.

But that morning sky. The softness of the blues against the bright oranges. Like his eyes. The most beautiful blue eyes that if you were lucky enough to get close to, if he let you, would reveal the fire in his soul. You could understand why he was drawn to the fire. Within him were magical, hypnotic flames that you would not only surrender to but would wish for them to consume you. That morning sky was perhaps the most beautifully depressing thing I had ever witnessed. I dreaded that first light of daybreak because it meant our night was over.

I hadn’t felt so much happiness in such a very long time. I had felt empty and hollow. Unloveable, undeserving, neglected. And angry. I was in the middle of a divorce and even though I had asked for it twice, I still hadn’t truly mourned or had the time to process the loss of a 13-year marriage and the only adult life I knew as a stay-at-home mom. I was also feeling the door close on my chance to have more children with a new partner. The pain of aging out made me resentful of the life I’d dedicated to and sacrificed for my ex. And, the fear of losing this wonderful man whom I had become smitten with was terrifying at times. In relationships and cooking, timing is everything. It’s a dance of all the components coming together in perfect unison. But sometimes your entrée comes out when you’re not done with your appetizer.

I had begun to feel worthy of love again. I had an eagerness and hunger for life again. Chef made me feel seen and I began to respond to phrases like “heard” and “behind.” I loved the way I felt so understood. I was happy. And he made me laugh. Oh, how he made me laugh! My sides would hurt and my cheeks would ache the following day as I daydreamed of the night before, replaying the moments we spent together. I would catch myself giggling out loud like a child with a secret stash of candy, much like my own children who would sneak into my bedroom and steal the leftover snacks from the previous night. It became a game they would play with Chef. He’d pretend to sleep, and they’d pretend to be stealthy. How had I gotten so lucky to have such an accepting man in my life? I’d often shake my head and gasp out loud because it felt like it was all a dream. “How is this my life?” became a catchphrase I’d use all too often. I’d continue moving through my day in a hazy state. Peace, bliss, and satisfaction were things I’d forgotten existed. Coincidentally, I was often woken from my daytime slumber around 1 p.m. as he was headed in for dinner service. Systematically, I’d begin my count down until close.

My nightly ritual began around 9 p.m. after putting the kids to bed. I had worked from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then took care of two small children all day. I was still cohabitating with my soon-to-be (but not soon enough) ex-husband. I was fortunate that our separation agreement allowed me to stay home to take care of the kiddos. It felt like a smart move at the time. A buffer, a transition period, a time to prepare and adjust, similar to the short bit of downtime between lunch and dinner service. I came to realize that time was an illusion; you are never truly prepared and something is almost always going to f*ck up your station. All you can do is try your hardest to stay ahead of the ticket printer.

As I prepared to meet my chef downtown for drinks with his friends, I would begin my transit from my suburban greige walls to the city lights and my chef’s intoxicating, blue eyes. At times, it felt like I was living a double life. PTA mom by day, fun loving girlfriend by night. I often thought that I no longer belonged with the moms at the bake sale, and well, pushing 40, I didn’t quite fit in with Chef’s friends either. The 30-something crowd—never been married, no kids, no mortgage, and still working the kinks out in their careers.

Even referring to myself as “girlfriend” felt strange. I had already been a wife. I had already experienced so much. Getting engaged, planning a wedding, supporting a husband. I made it through the pregnancy and birth of my son after losing his twin. I even had the experience of the beautiful home birth of my daughter. “Girlfriend” felt like a demotion. I resented the reminder of my failure at marriage and how it would affect my children. In my mind, there I was, the miscellaneous quart container that on occasion someone would walk by, take a sniff to see if it had expired yet, and put back on the shelf because they didn’t want to throw it out, but didn’t quite know what to do with it. Destined to die in the walk-in.

Chef was quick to squash any further discussion of my age or whether or not I fit in. You see, as luck would have it, he was well-equipped and experienced in dealing with mystery ingredients, as he had been offered a spot on a cooking competition style TV show. You know the kind—where they take random ingredients and make beautiful dishes in less time than it takes me to forget about the rolls I put in the broiler to toast. He assured me that our age difference was minor and barely entertained even a thought of it any further. How lucky I was to have someone so accepting.

As things often do in new relationships, our family circle merged. I began to feel just comfortable enough to accidentally slip one night and jokingly reveal to one of his friends that I had already picked out salt and pepper shakers as wedding favors because our initials were S and P.  She squealed with delight and hugged me.

I had secretly started to dream of tin cans tied to a bumper and rice thrown at our feet. I laughed at the thought of basing our vows on the definition of the Maillard reaction because he was the protein and I was the sugar. Again with the S and P. Oddly enough, the initials given to me at birth. One night, when he noticed that I had begun to use my maiden name again, he remarked that I had always wanted to be SP. I was nauseous. Had my cover been blown? Did he really, truly understand me so well that he knew my secret? I tried to put it out of my mind but the thoughts of herbs instead of floral arrangements, tarragon and lavender and chive blossoms to be precise, still popped into my head time and again.

I still remember standing by the stove the first time I saw him in action. We laughed and talked in our friend’s kitchen as he had me taste this and that as he cooked the first of many meals that we would share. I was in awe of this man. He served me a microgreen salad with spring peas and a perfectly poached egg, topped with a Béarnaise and garnished with chive blossoms. He also snuck some pork belly in there for good measure. I thought it was to ensure that he got lucky that night, but I soon discovered that he would find a way to incorporate pork into any dish he could. He filled my belly and my heart that night. He fed my soul. And yes, the pork belly trick worked.

Life was amazing. I hadn’t dreamed in color the way I did with him. The seasons changed. The menus changed. Soon we were living with each other and finding our footing when the worst thing to hit restaurants since rimming a dish with dried parsley.

Covid. Lockdown. Quarantine.

Chefs are used to living a life teetering somewhere between the fringe and normal life. They need space and freedom to create and explore. They need time to sleep and recover and figure out how to take care of themselves. They need to be among their kind. They feed off one another and the pressure of dinner rush. They exist in a world of just controlled enough chaos and miraculously find a rhythm and beat to the exhaust hoods, clinking plates, and ticket printer. Covid came in one night, left the veal stock with the burners on high, and walked out. The restaurant industry was burning.

But as I said before, chefs are the dreamers and the innovators. They thrive in situations that would leave even the most hopeful souls devastated. Their survival depends upon it. Whether it’s a New York Times food critic or a very particular six-year-old telling you that your omelets are garbage or your water is too spicy, chefs have a way of dusting off their aprons and trying again. Motivated by criticism and fueled by adversity, chefs will always find a way to re-fire a table to ensure their guest is satisfied.

Covid has served us an opportunity to change how we view the restaurant industry. It gives us a chance to reconsider how we treat our essential workers. Food is a necessity of life; pleasure is an option. And without our kitchen staff, without our chefs, there would be a gaping hole in our society and our culture. They are the key ingredient. They are the spice of life. With their leadership and direction, we must find a way to serve them better. Of the frontline workers, most impacted by Covid was the back of house who topped the list of occupations at risk of death from Covid. Like many government bailout programs, the money rarely trickles down far enough to support the people it was intended for: the workers. While many restaurant owners were able to stay afloat, those in the kitchen were sadly eighty-sixed. Some by choice, some by necessity. Can you really fault them? Working in already grueling conditions, at unfair wages and no health benefits, can you blame them for finally saying that they had enough?

We must do better if we have any chance of recovering and finding our humanity once again.

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I learned from dating a chef was their acceptance of those who didn’t belong anywhere else in society.  They can connect with people on the most basic level no matter what culture or socioeconomic status you come from: food. They are able to build from that and create a cohesive menu that offers something for everyone. Surely, we can do the same for them. Surely, we can find an answer that is equitable.

For the chefs out there who are still feeling lost as we, as a society, navigate our way through what I pray is the end of this pandemic, please, forge on. Do not lose your sense of belonging. The truth is you don’t find a spot in the kitchen. The right kitchen finds a spot for you.

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