Saturday, July 9, 2011

Finale: Back on the Other Island

I wake up Tuesday morning, the day of travel, with barely four hours sleep, and my head throbbing from what I attribute half to beer, half to crying. The sense of loss, of departing generosity, sits on me like a heavy shawl through my entire day of travel. As my flight from Chicago to New York lingers on the runway, delayed due to an engine startup problem, a little French boy behind me babbling loudly and at a high pitch for nearly an hour straight, I grow more and more angry--not because of my throbbing too-little-sleep too-much-beer headache, but because I can already feel myself hardening, getting cranky, getting...well, more New York.
I know all of these is coated with a very romantic misperception--of course people on Orcas get cranky, get annoyed at screaming children, have hangovers. But I've gone nearly a month without feeling any of those emotions. I haven't once felt the need to passive-aggressively glare at someone, or to tell them that they were annoying me, or to curse the heavens for making me miserable. There were always simply better, more productive things to feel. And so to have these thoughts again, in full force, make me angry at myself. I start imagining that what is happening around me is happening to me. That the situation and all its irksome details are directed at me, meant to piss me and only me off.

I have to stop and take many slow, deep breaths to calm myself down, from I had to stop and take many deep breaths to keep myself from shooting dirty looks at the father, the son, anyone in eyesight. Finally, the plane took off, shaky on one side but enough to stay aloft, and carries me back to that other island, depositing me back in a landscape of long boulevards and crowded sidewalks. As the taxi drives through Harlem, I roll the window down and people-watch--even at 11:00 at night, women walk by with small children in plastic strollers. Old men drink from paper-covered bottles in front of closed banks with their security lights on. The last vendors of incense and ghee are just closing their umbrellas. Little pockets of noisy activity on an otherwise empty 125th street.

The cab deposited me at home--a wide-smiling boyfriend hugs me for almost 10 minutes straight, kissing me for even longer. Kittens circle my ankles, bigger than I remember, more noisy and less willing to be held. I fall into a deep, grateful sleep. The next morning, instead of crows and turkey vultures cawing me awake, it's the rumble of a dump truck, the clanging of recyclables, and the barking of walked dogs. I bury my face in my hot, sweaty pillow, and hit the snooze button once more.


The last two days have been very strange--back at work, people are definitely happy to see me. "Oh, you have to tell me all about it," they say. They seem especially happy to have me back in lieu of our intern, who though saving my butt this last month was far from what I'd call an understudy. I sat her down and gave her a quick exit interview, running her through pointers for the interviews she hopes to go on in the coming months. "The main thing," I say, "is that you shouldn't be afraid to say 'I don't know.' What you should make sure to say afterwards is, 'Would you please show me?' There's a really big difference between not knowing, and not knowing, but want to learn more. That's what makes an entry-level person good at their job--the humility to admit what they don't know, and the willingness to go find out." This advice, suddenly, throws me right back into the kitchen, your advice, how you got me to separate my shortcomings from my potentialities.

I tried to make a Ship Bay-inspired dinner a few nights ago...I sliced two long pieces of zucchini, the way Wally would for the crab salad, wrapping them together to make a cup, and filling it with chopped shrimp, radishes, snow peas, and fennel (sliced on a mandoline, yes, without incident), topping with arugula, a citrus vinaigrette, and a sprinkling of pecorino. I cursed constantly, as the cup refused to stay sealed, as the vinaigrette leaked out onto the bottom of the plate, as the arugula refused to stay put. My version of the restaurant's pork belly didn't fare much better--I overcooked the belly, leaving the meat dry and tough and the fat too chewy, and cooked the rhubarb down to a pinky-gray sludge. "Shit," I said. "How do they do it in the restaurant so perfectly every night?"

"Don't worry, love," Nick said, wrapping his arms around me and popping a strawberry into my mouth. "They do it all the time, for paying customers. You're just doing it here, for yourself, for the first time tonight. It's OK if it's not the way they did it. It only matters that you like it. And I think it tastes great."

Upon reflection, there were things in the meal that were great. The citrus dressing was bright and acidic against the shrimp; the pork belly had a nice seared crust on it, and the dots of balsamic on the fresh-cut strawberries set off their sweetness pretty beautifully. It couldn't be up to the level of the imaginary Ship Bay dinner I'd had in my head, but it was far from inedible, and definitely a step above what I'd made before in terms of presentation and ambition.

This will be the challenge every time I reenter the kitchen--remembering that I'm doing it only for myself, that whatever level of perfection I aim for is only as required as I make it. But I also remember that there were many times where dishes could've been rushed out of the kitchen, finished but imperfect, and instead were pulled it back, replated, made just a little bit better. And all of this was done it without self-flagellating or dissolving into a puddle of self-loathing. By watching the chefs, by watching the kitchen run on a busy night, I think I've discovered something about the nature of work...that once you know the steps, the expectations, what really takes it to the next level is your own sense of what works. Chris said something really interesting, as his piece of "kitchen wisdom": "When you learn how to cook, you learn what's right and what's wrong. And when I'm in the kitchen, I cook what I know is right." This sense of "what's right"--merging what the customer should be given with what you think works best--is how you take pride in your work without losing your mind. If I continue in my current profession, I'm the one who has to elevate what I do from "what's acceptable/popular/workable" to "what's right/good/extraordinary." I set the bar higher, no one else can set it for me, and I have to work at it slowly, deliberately, patiently all the time.

I haven't written much over the last few days. Even now, it's really hard for me to articulate exactly how much this experience has moved me--to consider other professions, other cities, etc. But more than that, it's moved me to consider other ways of living--to live more generously with myself, with others, to welcome questions and to ask questions. To build a community where I don't already have one, to invite people over without expecting them to entertain me. And to cast off those environments and situations where I find myself becoming petty, callous, and unintentionally cruel. This may mean that New York won't work for me anymore. Or that New York works, but a desk job doesn't. I've already put out a feeler or two for a weekly stagiaire opportunity, and had one of my favorite restaurants respond with great enthusiasm. I'm not sure that this means I'll ultimately become a chef, or that I'll just keep dabbling in any restaurant that is open to someone peeking in at their process. But it does mean that I now feel a compulsion to broaden my horizons...

I owe a lot of this to you, the chefs at Ship Bay. Geddes. Annie. Chris. Angela. Wally. More than you know.

A box of books are on their way to them, and soon to follow, a care package of New York treats. Many of these thoughts spun out of an email Annie sent me yesterday, closing with the line "take time for breathing if you can." This may have been the first moment where I can really, deeply, breathe and take stock of the last week's events. There are still many holes to be filled in on this blog, and as I go back and fill in the gaps, I will then be fleshing out the stories I didn't tell, the little anecdotes that couldn't be included day-of, due to sleep/sun/wine/conversation. I wish I'd had a video camera in the kitchen, to capture everything, every voice, every clanged pot or rush of hot water. But here, in the blitz of departure, is the best sign-off I can deliver, for now.

On another island far away, eagles are cresting high above the trees. Salmon are returning to their freshwater homes, ready to spawn and die all at once. Strawberries is being picked hot from the greenhouse and loaded into flats. The tomatoes are just starting to blush. Ripples in a lake make barely a sound. Tall spindly trees reach up into the sky. The clouds sit wide and soft like spun sugar. It's quiet and cool. The kitchen has just been unlocked, ready for the customers to come.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Independence Day: Goodbye to All That

Monday's July 4th celebration comes with much fanfare, and sorrow. I spend the morning packing up my clothes, including the ones that somehow never got worn--the button-up white shirt, the black pants, the high heels. Melissa and I drive around a bit, running last minute errands. I drop off my bike--o loathsome, uncooperative vehicle of non-transportation--at Wildlife, and they hand me a check for $25 in return. Too much, I think, but I use the check as an excuse to buy some pretty earrings at Orcas Island Arts & Gifts. The store owner's daughter, a jewelry designer who plays with sea glass and all kinds of precious stones, talks me into a gorgeous pair of quartz earrings, golden citrine and blue-green chalcedony, translucent and smooth in my hand.
I look through the gem book behind the desk for the meaning of these stones--chalcedony is considered a powerful cameo; Greeks in the 3rd-4th century used to wear it to prevent drowning. Citrine, meanwhile, gets its name from its lemony color, and is meant to increase self-confidence, desire, and creativity--generally known as the wealth or abundance stone. I've picked stones that put me at a crossroads, between what has happened and what might be coming around the bend.

Melissa and I get a text from Annie--she and Ken have loaded their kayaks onto the truck, and will meet us down at Cascade Lake for a bit of summer sun before the barbecue tonight. We drive down to the lake, crowded with fishermen and families by the swimming area, and pull the long heavy boats down from the rigging. Melissa and I slide them into the water, which is much warmer and softer than expected, and paddle out into the lake. It only takes a few minutes to move away from the shore, the sound of laughing kids and sizzling barbecues dying off, and soon all I can hear is the ripple of the water, the low vibration of a dragonfly skimming the surface, the zip of fishing lines as they fly into the air and plop down toward their targets. We steer into an inlet where the water is much stiller and deeper--I can see the roots of water lilies snaking yards down into the darkness, their roots imperceptible but unshakable. Whole tree trunks have crashed down into the water, forming underwater bridges and walkways. The air is warm and sweet and redolent with clover and fir and madrone trees.

I lay back and pull my feet out of the boat, letting them rest on the hot plastic. I want to keep my mind this quiet, this still and appreciative, forever. The peace of just floating here, letting the gentle current carry me away from shore, needs to stay even after I board the last ferry tonight. But my mind is racing with ideas: could I open a restaurant? what would it be? what could I cook? The fact is that a career in cooking wouldn't mean this peace--it wouldn't necessarily mean peace at all. There is just as strong a chance of neurosis, anxiety, and disappointment in a kitchen as there is in an office. What I'm thriving from is the contrast...and, perhaps, the distance. The sky here is wide, open; the trees are taller than office buildings, but not nearly as foreboding. Even when I'm in shadow, I can feel the warmth of the sunlight on my skin, radiated back from the rich brown soil. Wrapped in the Island's embrace, I start to tear up, knowing that tonight, I'll have to leave it behind me.

Melissa and I paddle back to shore, where Annie, Ken, and Amanda are hanging out as little Ava are paddling in the swimming area. Annie wades in up to her knees, the hem of her cotton dress darkening with water. "Blow bubbles, Ava!" she says. "No!" says Ava, paddling away like a puppy, her head bobbing above the surface so her face doesn't have to get wet. A few seconds later, though, she's dipping her face in the water, shaking it off and rubbing her eyes like a damp kitten. But she doesn't shed a tear, or run to get out and dry off. She stays in the water, content as she is to paddle around.

We load the kayaks back onto the truck and bid them farewell until the BBQ tonight. Melissa and I return to the Inn, and as I walk around, taking my last batch of pictures for posterity, Melissa carves out a chunk of a straggling chive plant for me to take home. I wrap the tender roots in a damp paper towel, cover them with plastic wrap, and wrap the long stems in tinfoil. This will insulate it over the next 48 hours of travel--whether it will flourish on my window grate, I'm still unsure. But it's a small consolation to bring even a small piece of the Island back with me.

Melissa and I get dolled up--the first time on the Island I've worn more than a light coating of mascara and sunscreen. My skin has darkened considerably since I arrived a month ago--where I once resembled the creamy interior of an almond, now I look like its toasted skin. It'd be a Kardashian-esque tan if my nose didn't bear a bit of a burn from the morning's boating, proof that the color is hard-earned rather than store-bought. Despite putting on a few pounds from family-meal, I look healthy, athletic, adapted to the outdoors. I look nothing like myself. Or maybe exactly like myself.

We load my suitcases into the car. I give Wally a last hug before departing, telling him to check his low-boy for a last-minute present from me. (Wrapping up after clean-up from pizza, I slipped a bucket with his two oyster knives into his low-boy, one less thing for his daily prep work, with a handy piece of advice written inside: "Don't drop the nuts!"). We pull away from the Inn, the windows now, the breeze blowing hard and cool in my face. Amanda's house is already crawling with visitors by the time we arrive, so we slip off our sandals and sip cold beers in lawn chairs.
Annie enlists us in a game of badminton--my dress is too long to play, so I tie it up with a hair elastic way above my gym shorts, and dive for the birdie each time it comes close. We are embarassingly bad, but the workout we get from laughing at our own missed shots is more than enough exercise. We cool off in the shadow, nibble on crackers and cheese, and tickle Ava as she comes close.
"Ava," I ask. "Do you know how to play the hand-slap game?"

"No," she grins, and I show her how to rest her hands on mine, pulling them quickly away before I can flip them over and catch her with a playful slap. When it's my turn to get slapped, she simply grabs my fingers rather than flipping her hands over--I don't want to get into the actual rules of the game with her. It's too much fun to watch her squeal with delight as she gets me over and over again...and she gets the same glee out of Foot War. We sit on the ground and put our feet up against each other, her pushing her little heels against my bigger, until my legs drop to the ground, defeated. She feels like a champion, and that's what counts.
Everyone makes her feel like a champion--even in the midst of open bottles and half-filled Dixie cups, no one is too busy to play with her, or to interact with each other. Even though the grill is churning out sausages and hot dogs, people are slow to leave their chairs, or to leave the badminton racket. Ava wants to play everyone, and most are up to the challenge.
Everyone seems in a state of half-play--Angela and her boyfriend show up, nuzzling each other sweetly on a blanket. Justine from Coffelt Farms cracks open a beer with some of the guys, laughing and throwing in her own jibes with gusto. The Scot, who compliments me on my dress but remains a gentlemen throughout the night, is all buddy-buddy with Jay and the other guests.
Amanda and Annie, sisters but with dramatically different appearances, are all hugs and smiles with anyone they can get within arm's reach.
Ken grabs the camera from me for a minute and snaps a few candid shots of Annie. They're all shots I've seen in the kitchen--bemused, skeptical, joyous--and clearly looks he loves.
I make a wish for Annie and Ken to work out, to keep their rhythm and appreciation of each other for many years. I make a wish, in general, for Annie to get everything she wants, to feel contented in her life on Orcas, and wherever else it might take her. It seems cheesy to issue such a mental benediction, but I don't have any real way to repay her for her generosity, except to hope it all comes back to her ten-fold. That, and a "New York care package" for Ken. "Bagels, black-and-white cookies, whatever you've got," he says, smirking good-naturedly.

The sun starts to fade, and before I know it, the guests are packing it in for the fireworks. Melissa moves my bags from her car to Justine's, who's heading to the ferry to pick up some friends just arriving from the mainland. As one departs, another few arrive...I give Melissa a bear hug, whispering "Keep in touch." She smiles sweetly--she's started blogging this week, and I couldn't be more excited to read about her adventures after I depart. It's just one more way of staying close even as I have to go far away. The cars pull out, Annie nowhere in sight. Even as I feel like I've just arrived on her level, she's departed, off to see something new, notice something exciting. I leave her a teary message from Melissa's phone: "I didn't get to say goodbye...but keep in touch. Let's talk soon. And thank you, for everything."

Justine races me to the ferry, crossing through Eastsound, driving out of town, off to a loading dock with blinking lights. She helps me unload my bags just as her two friends come running up, all excited and sweatshirted. They speed off for the fireworks, and I plant myself on a nearby bench. Somewhere in the chilly waterside wind, I start to cry. The ferry pulls up, lowering its driveway, and I lumber onto the deck. Instead of sitting outside to watch the fireworks, I find a bench in the main galley and chat with an Anacortes man, who spends time on Orcas every chance he get. I don't remember the details of the conversation, partly because of the beers, partly because of the weird departing haze. But I remember thinking the whole time we were talking, "I will not get to have a conversation this spontanenous again for quite a while."

Outside, lights are shooting up into the air, spreading like lake ripples across the sky. The slow pop and boom of each explosion seeps through my teary daze, and even after I've made it to Anacortes, to the Inn where I will spend a restless night, their shimmery trickle will remain with me. Even without seeing the fireworks, I know they were exquisite.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

How Do You Know When It's Done?

Every time I put a tray of muffins or crackers or sliced bacon into the convection oven, I turn to the person I'm helping and ask "How long should I leave it in for?" Inevitably the response, whether it's coming from Annie with a beleagured grin or from Wally with a mischevious simplicity, is "Until it's done." I roll my eyes. "Okay, that's helpful..." If you grow up on recipes, which are essentially formulas, you almost always anticipate a clear sign of completion to a dish. The bread puffs up, the pot of cream erupts with small bubbles, the butter's milk solids and fats separate. And recipes promise times to go with those indicators--10 minutes, 15 minutes, 2 hours. Those times enable you to walk away, do something else, forget about it for a bit.

But in this kitchen, you have to be present. You know that the crackers will be done when they're crisp and just turning golden on the edges, but how exactly long that will take, you can't say. If you don't wear a watch in the kitchen (and many people don't), you clock the duration of time by how much you manage to get done while waiting for something else to finish. It takes me exactly the time of fetching the oysters, Littleneck clams, ice and bucket of tools for the crackers to finish.

The scheduling of flights back to New York have structured the ending of this project, but what really tips me off to my departure is the light bulb going out. In the track lighting above our station, one of the lights has gone dark--a bulb Wally replaced the week I arrived. "It's a sign!" I moan with sadness as we look up at it tonight.

"Maybe it's just not meant for that socket," Annie says, as she pulls together her garnishes.

"Is that supposed to be a metaphor for something?" I ask her, half-teasing, half-truly wondering what she means.

", not a metaphor. But hey, if that's how you want to read it..." she laughs.

How something's done may have everything to do with how much you enjoy it--and how ready you are to move on when it stops becoming enjoyable. The challenge is useful in continuing to see what you do as "important," so when it stops becoming a learning experience, it stops becoming fun or valuable. I've got so much more I could be learning, and ultimately what I've gained by being here has a lot more to do with soaking up community and atmosphere than actual skills. The attitude of a kitchen, the values of a community where everyone has a connection to what they eat, this is what I'll take away and think about most. But the timing is everything--as I get ready to pack up, the season is finally arriving. For tonight, in essence our July 4th dinner, everything is coming to a head--packed tables, extra supplies. I'm preshucking oysters to lay out on ice, to minimize the waiting time (a good thing too, since the first order in is for 18 of them.) It will be a crowded night, one that necessitates a lot of focus and patience. (I will most likely be standing back as Annie and Wally tackle the rush.)

"Yeah, you kinda picked the wrong time to come," Geddes says, as he slices into a massive piece of just-caught salmon for tonight's service. "I mean, every night in July will be like this, just packed."

"Well, I'm far from done learning," I say. "And it was good to come in a slower month, if only to have more time to take it in."

"Oh sure. And you never really stop learning. I've taken time over the years to do lots of 'remedial things.' You know, chopping garlic and onions, nothing else. Just working on my skills."

Knowing that even someone as Zen-ly creative and efficient as Geddes would take time off just to whip himself back into shape is a huge consolation. And it's a consolation, in general, to know that my learning wasn't at the expense of the kitchen's running smoothly. I can't do everything, but the little things I can do felt important and necessary.

"Yeah, Tuesday's gonna be...hectic," says Wally, raising himself up on the cold station so he keeps his newly twisted ankle off the ground. "I mean, you think of all the little things I forget. The garnishes, the oysters..."

"Well, all the stuff I know how to do," I retort.

"Yeah, but I'll have to remember them all again."

"Hah, that'll be a rude awakening."

And yet, as I'm watching them go through service, a night with busy patches despite long periods for talking and laughing it up, I realize that this kitchen will absolutely go on functioning after my departure. Angela will watch each ticket and methodically assemble her dishes, moving smoothly and deliberately between each stage of plating. Chris will zoom from steak to chicken to pork in the same of a nanosecond, and sear each dish to perfection. Wally will plate up elegant salads that look more like works of art than edible dishes, and though he won't have met to race against, he'll do just fine. And Annie will look at a long ticket with multiple modifications and tackle it with the grace of a figure skater, moving from freezer to plate to window without a single stumble.  I'm barely making anything tonight, minus a few orders of blue greens and ice creams, but it's a chance to take in what Osa asserted last night: "I've never worked anywhere else where people are so excited about what they're making." I've been an asset, but I'm also barely a blip--the kitchen will definitely keep functioning without me. All they need are customers to keep serving.

And all of this comes from, and maybe in spite of, a continued assessment and pursuit of "what works." After a Friday night filled with meat orders--nothing but chicken and steak all night, despite the newly opened salmon fishing season--Angela and Geddes agree to tweak the side dishes for the salmon to maximize its popularity. Instead of offering it with lentils and chopped olives as we had yesterday, tonight we swap it out for tiny roasted new potatoes, a shaved fennel salad with hints of basil, and an orange aioli. It's still a sophisticated dish, but more traditional than before, and it sells like gangbusters. "Sometimes you just hit the sweet spot with the customers," Angela says as she wipes down her station after family meal. "I used to work at this restaurant in Seattle--little neighborhood place. And we had this chicken dish--roast chicken, potatoes, garlic jus, nothing too complicated. But we would always sell tons and tons of chicken. And eventually the chef was like 'Sorry, guys, we're keeping it on the menu.' I mean, it's predictable, but people would come in every night just to have the kitchen. So if that's what people wanted, and liked, then that's what we'd give them."

Giving someone what they want--satisfying an unnameable hunger or craving--is maybe the best way to know that you've done your job. If a steak comes back underdone, or a runner comes back with a request for more sauce, more dressing, a second helping of strawberry shortcake, you start to get the sense that you and you alone can meet that need and fix that oversight. And when a server comes back with good news--a customer rhapsodizing, saying "The black cod was extraordinary"--it's enormously gratifying. "It puts the wind back in my sails," says Angela, "when I know that they like what I'm doing." The preparation is much more than just another task to complete--it becomes a real gesture of generosity towards another hungry person. They walk out full, drunk, and happy--this may well be the highlight of their week, the thing that made everything better in retrospect.

And feeling that sense of purpose on the prep end makes all the difference. As we wrap up the night, and as Chris pours me a glass of Tempranillo, he tells me that he's always felt a pull to this profession. "In 10th grade, they brought a career counselor to our school and asked, "who knows what they want to do for a living?' I was the only one that raised my hand...because I knew I wanted to be a chef. And that sent me on my way, into vocational training. And I've worked lots of other jobs, man...I've been a mechanic, a carpenter, a store clerk, a chimney sweep, a stone mason..."

"...And you just keep coming back to this."

"Well, yeah. It's what I'm good at. It's my passion. And all through school, we were getting this emphasis on learning computers, knowing computers so that we could get good jobs. But I know that this is something a computer can never really do."

"It's a much more organic process." I sip on my wine, which carries just enough bitterness for me to wonder if it's coming from the wine or from my sadness in departing. I envy Chris for having so much certainty in his day-to-day work. I'm jealous of Angela's sense of validation from how customers respond. I wish I could soak up this proximity to useful work, this immersion in a life of service, and bring it back with me to mix into my office job. Would my emails then carry the same feeling of necessity, of urgency, as my completion of a order ticket?

I snatch up a paper copy of tonight's menu and pass it around to the servers, collecting little tokens of their farewells like signatures in a yearbook. Their notes are teasing and sweet--Darlene calls me her "Greek Goddess," for my newly sun-soaked nut-brown skin. Our host Christopher teases me for sneaking into the back of the first week's wedding. Wally reminds me not to drop the nuts. Chris gives me a bear hug so big and warm I almost tear up with appreciation. If this were a comedy about a misfit sports' team, there'd be a lot of winks and begrudging smiles and probably a nuggie or two. But this may be what I miss the most--the people, the jokes, the chatting in between moments of frenzied preparation. I will miss the people that make it happen every night, with focus and humor and joy. Those are the ingredients I most wish I could take back with me...

Friday, July 1, 2011

It's the Ingredients, Stupid

Looking over my earlier posts over the past month, I see that my writing style has become less and less descriptive. I've done less "filling-in" of detail vis-a-vis what's going on in the kitchen, less elaboration on looks and asides and moments of panic. That's partly because there've been less of them--less moments that feel like emotional crossroads. I've adapted to the rhythm of the kitchen, and each morning as I get dressed, it starts to feel more like a job than an adventure. This, of course, in the context of it being one of the more adventurous things I've done in a long time.

But my slightly sparer prose is also a product of how I've come to see the people and processes in the Wally rolls out the doughs for today's pizza lunch, I gather up ingredients, including the leftovers of this morning's fruit plate. I've always liked the flavor combination of strawberries and goat cheese, and see including it on a pizza as a way to show off my sense of flavor pairings. (Drizzled with a little balsamic vinegar, strawberries as a savory ingredient can't be beat.) But when Geddes sees me with the strawberries, he wrinkles his nose.

"You don't want to go doing that," he said.

"Why not?" I ask. "I mean, of course I'll go with what you think works, but..."

"Well, these strawberries are just so juicy and ripe," he says, picking one up and squeezing it between his fingers, juice dribbling out and down his thumb. "You don't need to do much else to them to make them taste good. Better off to just stick with regular pizzas."

For a moment I'm miffed--these pizza lunches have been one of my favorite ways of seeing what flavors work well together. Blue cheese, beets, and roasted onions = good. Chicken livers and cornichons = not so good. But the way he says that we shouldn't do much "to them" gives me pause. These strawberries came from Orcas Farm, where they were so drenched with sunlight that they were warm even as you ate them. They're rich, sweet, and as juicy as you could ever imagine--they don't need to be messed with to yield a better flavor.

Some cooking processes are all about doing things "with" ingredients--making sauces, salads, layers of complex flavor. The nectarine napoleon on our menu is all about this--a layer of puff pastry, a layer of sliced nectarines poached in vanilla and white wine, a scoop of honey-vanilla frozen yogurt, another layer of pastry, and a layer of fresh nectarines, sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar and bruleed with the blowtorch until just sizzling and aromatic. This creates a laying of flavor and texture experiences--the ingredients work with each other to produce the final effect. But what we do "to" the ingredients is fairly minimal--the pastry is basic, the yogurt is straightforward (sweet but tart, with conventional flavors), the fruit raw on one side to show its natural sweetness, and poached on the other to provide a contrast in texture. The cinnamon-sugar complementary, the brulee for a final touch of warmth. We haven't made foams or vapors with anything, and the cooking we've done is mostly for ease of plating and presentation.

When you're working with ingredients you respect and want to show off, messing with them is the last thing you want to do. As we're sliding the pizzas (all savory, none fruity) into the oven, one of our suppliers stops by with several pounds of spot prawns. These are big pink shrimp, with veiny antennaed heads and plump bodies. Geddes comes out and immediately pulls the head off of one of them to suck out its juices. "Oh they're so good, and they're even better raw. Try it," he says, handing one to me. I hesitate, and he laughs, "I'm not pulling a fast one on you, just try it." I break a prawn open at the neck and suck hard. It's unusually sweet and juicy, more like a peach than a piece of seafood, and almost buttery on the tongue. I wonder if he'll want to add these to the bouillebaisse, one of our most popular dishes, but instead he asks Wally to scrap our plans for a crab salad and use these instead. "What do you think, Jess, serve them whole or as tails?"

I'm on the spot, and pressed for a second. Which seems more appropriate for an Inn dish, something I'd have on a date in a fine restaurant, or something I'd devour with relish at a seaside shrimp shack? "I love them whole, but diners won't necessarily want to get their hands into a salad plate," I say. "Maybe a few peeled tails, and then one whole one?" It works...the plates of shaved vegetables, dressed with a light citrus mignonette, pair perfectly with the chilled shrimp tails, and the whole prawn resting its head on the top of the salad is all the visual flourish you could ever need.

I've cut back on the ornamental writing because these are my ingredients--the juicy exchange of conversation, the hilarious debates over flavor pairings and cooking techniques. I don't have to elaborate on Luke's explanation of why he may not need a haircut--"my sister just got a new job, and I think my hair was responsible"--to give him flavor, nor could I capture Chris's quick-draw response as I'm singing along with The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out." "No," he says. "No, we can't. I'm sorry, it's just not going to work," then smirking and returning to the walk-in. I don't understand the impulse of some nonfiction writers to embellish with untruths, because just being present gives me more material than I could ever need. Even on slow nights like this, where a 7-person reservation is made, then cancelled within a 15-minute period, I don't need to invent things to keep me satisfied--I can just wander over and watch Chris plate a burger with homemade aioli, or watch Angela dress a piece of black cod with a nectarine puree.

There's a reason people choose to eat oysters raw--why mess with something when you already know it's good?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rule #2: Don't Drop the Nuts--On Moving On from Your Mistakes

As I enter the kitchen this evening, tying my bandanna over my still-damp hair, it dawns on me that I only have five nights left in this kitchen. What makes this an even odder realization is that I can't immediately rattle off what I've learned: I know that it takes me less effort to wash a tub of greens, to scoop out a bowl of ice cream, to crush a tub of ice.  My knife skills are improved, my time-to-oyster-shucked ratio has dropped dramatically, and I'm starting to understand the idea of small, carefully utilized movements in the confined space of a kitchen. I call out "Corner" in a loud clear voice without near collisions, and cleaning my space has become an automatic part of the cooking process.

But I'm nowhere near as versed as I thought I'd be when I first set out on this adventure, and I'm certainly in no position to lead a kitchen. I lack the absolute certainty of where the basil flowers should go on a plate of lemon shaker tart, or how to keep that neat margin of white space on the plate. And I'm nowhere closer to making duck confit, portioning out a chicken, or searing a steak. My education has come more from the mistakes I've made than the new opportunities presented...

But that also seems to be the nature of a kitchen: that you only learn through errors, through the moments you failed to be completely present. While crushing a sheetpan worth of roasted hazelnuts, using a rolling pin to whack each one into submission, I skim through my emails and find a rejection from one of my favorite websites. I'd sent them my Saturday night post on "Where I'm Writing From," and they declined to run it on their site. It'd nothing so devastating or surprising--no literary site got a good reputation by being all-inclusive. But it leaves me unfocused enough that, when rounding a corner with the tub of crushed nuts, it slips out of my hands and pours all over the floor. Just like that, 3-4 cups of hazelnuts and 20 minutes of work, gone. Cursing under my breath, I slip on rubber gloves and salvage those nuts that haven't touched the floor, then sweep up the remains in a dustpan.

"That's nothing," Geddes says cheerfully, adjusting the sous vide machine. "We had a kitchen intern once who dropped an entire speed rack full of hors d'oeuvres for a part of 300 people."

"Oh then this is small potatoes compared to that! I mean," I say, trying not to look too casual about wasting a lot of expensive nuts, "at least me dropping nuts can be quickly fixed."

"Yeah, true. His mistake become everybody's problem," laughs Geddes.

In a kitchen, mistakes happen all the time. Ovens get turned too high when two people are sharing it, a sheet of croutons gets forgotten and overbrowned, a ticket gets misread and a dish goes out too early. Even if you've spent a lifetime in professional kitchens, the likelihood that you will be on the inciting end of a fuck-up is very, very high. When that happens, much like in an office environment, someone gets a talking-to. Tempers can run hot, and walk-in refrigerators becomes useful for post-rush cooldowns. But the crucial part is not to take it personally--your dropped pan of ingredients is not your loss of self-worth. You can only assess the problem, patch up for the remainder of service, and focus on the next dish to be made.

This ethos--of fucking up, acknowledging said fuck-up, and moving on--is useful in a career that is ultimately never about you, but about satisfying the person on the other side of the wall. As Annie shows me how to cleanly quenelle some frozen yogurt, she emphasizes not "overworking" the scoop. "It'll get too soft if you keep going back and trying to fix it, so just turn the tub around and try again," she says, turning our container of honeyed frozen yogurt around so I can dive my hot spoon into a fresh smooth ridge. By curling the tip of the spoon over the yogurt as I release it onto the dessert, I can leave it with a glossy point far better than before. Finishing with a flourish, ultimately, seems more important than self-flagellating over the scoop's shortcomings. There's no real moment of mastery, except the moment of moving on.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday retreat: Turtleback, Rosario, and the Reasons for a Life of Leisure

When Monday is your day off, you feel compelled to use it for anything but productivity. And when the sun is high, staying inside and catching up on backlogged blog posts just seems silly. So on our day off, Melissa and I start out with a morning hike up Turtleback Mountain. We drive out to Westsound and walk up the Southern route, clocking about 4 miles round-trip of sweaty, thigh-burning distance. But the vistas make it entirely worth it.

We return home sweaty but invigorated, then buy a day pass at the Rosario Resort & Spa to use their indoor and outdoor swimming pools, sauna and hot tubs. Rosario is probably the most mainstream form of indulgence this Island has to offer, minus the high-end yoga classes in Eastsound. It's an incredibly beautiful estate, with lots of design details still intact from the Arts and Crafts-era. When the shipbuilding tycoon Robert Moran was told, while living in Seattle in his early 40s, that he was suffering from "organic heart disease" and only had a few years left to live, he retreated to the San Juan Islands and began work on the massive estate that now serves as the Resort's main attraction. Moran owned over 7,000 acres of Orcas (much of which has now been given back to the state as Moran State Park), and when his mansion was converted into a resort in the 1960s, it became a major traveler destination in the region.
Every detail of this place is beautiful, from the dark wood furniture of the lounge to the vintage metal pipes in the tiled bathrooms. Details from Moran's shipbuilding career are everywhere, from the hinges on the doors, keeping them fluid and completely silent, to the thick windowpanes of porthole glass, easily covered with rolled fabric window shades. Stained glass appears in almost every room, in murals ornate and streamed through with golden light.
The highlight of our day (minus lounging by the pool, reading, and soaking up the overcast sun) is the organ performance at 4:00.
Local composer Christopher Peacock plays the piano as we walk in, then walks upstairs to the library where he sits down to play the organ while displaying slides of the Morans during their heyday at the estate.
Once Moran had built the property, he lived for another 40 years--possible evidence that all he needed was to get away from city life. What strikes me is how much this place holds remnants of his leisure time as valued time--old magazines and maps, hundreds of books, and slides from family evenings surround the organ hall in glass cases, evidence of a time where pursuing pleasure was actively sought out rather than simply a daily entitlement.
When I'm in the city, and especially annoyed at my limited budget, I get vocally resentful about how people spend their leisure time in spas, meditation studios, and high-end department stores. The level of indulgence seems to me unwarranted for what I assume are mostly untroubled, unburdened lives. (I also wonder how relaxing a massage can really be when you get to have one every day.) However, looking around at the structure of the Rosario estate, and considering Moran's mindset as he developed the place, I reevaluate what it really means to "live well." Is looking out a window onto a beautiful vista an elitist indulgence?
Does swimming in a pool constitute luxury if it's designed to restore your ailing health?

Moran came to Orcas believing that his life would soon be at an end, and lived to see his family grow and flourish in a beautiful setting. He wrote of the Island, "It is a wonderful place in which to forget one's troubles and worries and get back to Nature in her happiest moods; a delightful place in which to regain health--physical, mental and spiritual." He was sick in the city; he was well here. What was diagnosed as heart disease was most likely stress.

Several recent reports have investigated the effects of city life on mental health, and as I soak up the virtues of pseudo-country life, I can't help but peruse their findings. While debates are open as to its physical effects (does bad air cancel out the benefits of constant walking?), there seems to be clear evidence that city life tends to generate mental illness. The stress of social interaction--of hyper-vigilence at both work and play-seems to be as taxing as regular emotional trauma. It's no surprise to me that one's health could improve in the country, if only based in the reality that there are less people there. You have more time for the mind, more time to reflect and retreat. Your relationships, because there are less of them, may be more intense, but less overwhelming. If people retreat to the country to "take the waters," it also seems they do it to take the distance. Lying on the pool deck may only prove relaxing when it's quiet and nearly empty, as was the case for us today.
At the very top of the organ hall is a light fixture covered with stained glass designed by Tiffany & Co., depicting the muses. Inscribed on the front panel is a poem entitled "Opportunity," written by John James Ingalls, a former senator from Kansas.
Master of human destinies am I;
Fame, love and fortune on my footsteps wait.
Cities and fields I walk. I penetrate
Deserts and seas remote, and, passing by
Hovel and mart and palace, soon or late,
I knock unbidden once at every gate.
If sleeping, wake; if feasting, rise, before
I turn away. It is the hour of fate,
And they who follow me reach every state
Mortals desire, and conquer every foe
Save death; but those who hesitate
Condemned to failure, penury and woe,
Seek me in vain, and uselessly implore.
I answer not, and I return no more.

A poem about the fickle nature of opportunity, written by a senator probably procrastinating between reading bills, speaks volumes to me. It suggests that if the opportunity arises to treat yourself well--if it knocks in the form of a beckoning hike, a body of water, a chance to learn to cook--you have to seize it when it first arrives. To put it off, to hope it comes again later, is to resign oneself to a life of missed chances. What may look like leisure to some--my taking off from normal life, in the hopes of trying out another--may actually be the seizing of an opportunity that will never come again. The biggest struggle may be, if nothing else comes of it, looking back on this time and not merely seeing it as "time off." I'd much prefer to think of it as "time on."

Orcas Tour: Doe Bay, Salmon and Oysters, Becoming an Infovore

After last night's tumultuous realizations, it's a blessing to wake up and feel the freshness of morning, with the crows loudly cawing to each other from the distant trees. I'm squeezing in an expedition around the Doe Bay area of the island with Chris, who rolls in at 9:00am just as I'm finishing my coffee. Because Chris lives in the area, which requires a good 20 minute drive from the Inn, he's the ideal guide to this part of the island, which includes the Doe Bay resort, the town of Olga, and a handful of very special farmers who provide ingredients to the Inn.

On the drive out to Doe Bay, we turn down a tiny gravel road and stop at the salmon hatchery.
I've always been a salmon eater, but I assumed that catching it was a fairly straightforward matter: go out into deep waters in the early morning, bait a line, possess never-ending patience. But Chris tells me that a salmon's life cycle is in fact much more similar to that of a human being. They start out as chum in freshwater lakes and ponds, then make their way into salt water to grow to their full size, then as adults swim back toward freshwater sources (some say the same sources that they were born in) to reproduce. It's a little bit like growing up in a small town, living a wild adulthood out in the wide world, then going back to suburbia to raise kids and grow old. Of course, returning to freshwater after a lifetime in salt water is a suicide mission, and the full-grown salmon often die soon after reproducing and laying their eggs. What threatens a salmon's life even more is fishermen scooping them up out of the ocean before they have a chance to go home and reproduce. Overfishing of salmon in saltwaters means that the salmon population gets depleted rapidly; hence, the growth in popularity of farmed salmon, in which fish live their entire lives in pens, given genetically-modified feed that make them grow faster and fatter, and growing under very controlled conditions. It's sustainable, but hardly the most natural way to live life as a salmon, when your nature is to travel and to return home when you're ready. And the fish is more commercial--each filet has the same thickness and color, like a prepackaged McDonald's hamburger.

Hatchery is a step towards a sustainable middle ground for fisheries--instead of trapping the salmon in pens until ready for harvesting, a hatchery nurtures the salmon's natural lifecycle, making sure that the fish get a full period of growing fresh, swimming to sea, and coming home again before being fished. It's a little like being a free-range chicken: the salmon are watched and nurtured, but never contained. Using the techniques first developed by the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, hatcheries use man-made channels built into the natural landscape to easily funnel the fish to and from freshwater ponds. During the first part of their lives, in which they grow in freshwater, the hatchery workers clip the adipose fin (the little nubbin near the fish's tail, a vestigal fin that doesn't affect their swimming) to identify the future grown fish as wild hatchery fish.
When the fish are ready to go into saltwater, they swim down the manmade channels out into the sea, clearly marked so that fishermen know that they are not permissible for catching. Given a free pass from being fished, the salmon grow to full size, make their way back into the freshwater inlets...
And here's where things get really interesting. The hatchery workers pull the fish out of the water and lay them in long trays, where they scoop out the roe and semen. They put the fertilized eggs in trays and place them back in the freshwater pond (while keeping the caught fish they need to sell.)
This is not only a more humane way of catching and killing the fish (they die without being bruised by nets or mutilated by hooks), but it also guarantees that every fish that's caught still lives on with its eggs being hand-delivered back to freshwater. What you get in return is a sustainable salmon population, and a fish that looks, tastes, and behaves almost exactly like wild fish. The sign at the hatchery reads "Long Live the Kings,"--the hatchery is all about keeping the king (and sockeye) salmon alive and available for the future.

This is an INCREDIBLE amount of work, and it means a huge amount of dedication on the part of the people who work at the hatchery. They spend hours hunched over the chum with nail clippers cutting the adiposals, monitor their swimming paths and water and weather patterns, and sit poised ready to pull them in when they start to return home. Their channels make it possible for the salmon to grow up on top of the Island's naturally-occurring aquifers, layers of water-permeable rock, underground fountains whose water drips from melting glaciers, creating some of the purest and most mineral-rich water available anywhere.
"I've done some experiments with the aquifer water," Chris says," and used some of it in my garden. The plants that got aquifer water grew twice as big as the others." My mind is reeling at the potential in these hatcheries, where fish get the best water, the most nurturing, and the biggest chance at a sustainable future. If all restaurants were like the Inn at Ship Bay, all would carry this kind of protected, yet totally natural-tasting fish, and the flavor and dining experience would be exponentially richer.

Harvested but sustainable food is not an oxymoron--what it requires is a deliberate practice of living one's life in harmony with the natural rhythms of the world. As Chris explains to me over breakfast at Doe Bay, the resort on this end of the Island, living on Orcas often means being more in touch with your surroundings. I slurp up my breakfast (a ridiculously flavorful duck egg poached in olive oil, served over spicy greens, tomatoes, smoked mushrooms, and grits), and envy his early morning patterns: wake up, go for a walk, swim, sweat, eat a good breakfast, work on his garden and boat. All this before coming into work, where he crafts beautiful ingredients into gorgeous dishes for the community to enjoy. The last few years have been rough for Chris, with a series of personal setbacks, but he's actively pursuing a more balanced, happy life, and it shows in the way he carries himself in the kitchen. If someone has made something he loves, he'll bound over to them, eyes wide with glee, and say, "What's in this?" He brings energy and joy to his work, and it's not clear if that's a byproduct of the Island or just one of his natural traits.

It's something that's in full swing as we walk around the resort after breakfast--unlike the space at Rosario, replete with gorgeous architecture and luxurious amenities, Doe Bay is more like an adult summer camp (with more youth-friendly pricing). Cabins and yurts cover the property, which looks out over the gorgeous Otter Cove and a small private beach, and there are open-air hot tubs, saunas, and massage and yoga studios.
It's a lot more like a nature retreat than a hotel, but that makes it all the more appealing, especially once we get a look at the garden, which provides an enormous amount of the resort's produce and poultry. Young staffers are weeding and watering everywhere--many volunteers at Doe Bay, as well as at several other farms on the island, found these opportunities through the WWOOF program, which connects people to local farms for seasonal work. They receive a small stipend, room and board, and in return work in gardens and in the local community. It's a great educational experience, as well as great enthusiastic staff for the summer season.
Of course, Doe Bay's farm is designed to feed the Doe Bay community--it's a great farm, but fairly minimal compared to the sprawling fields of Orcas Farm, our major farm stop today.
Owned by George Orser, there are at least 50-60 beds of growing produce. If Jay-Z had a farm, this is basically what it would be. Chris basically wanders into the territory--when you've lived on the Island for over 15 years, you know your neighbors well enough to drop in unannounced. He points out the flowering arugula, growing in tall, spicy stalks.
He's growing things on this farm I've never seen before--on our right is a bed of what looks like four-leaf cloves, but will eventually grow into buckwheat.
On our left, beds of strawberries are nestled beneath white netting. A robin flaps wildly about underneath it, and eventually frees itself and flies away. When Chris picks off a few berries to taste, I can see why a bird would risk its life to get in: they're the sweetest, juiciest I've ever tasted.
But George, just like any other farmer on Orcas, is subject to the unpredictability of the season. When the rainy season lasted much longer than expected, he told Chris that he was sure his seedlings would be drowned. Looking at the cracked earth now, it's hard to believe that, but when Chris steps down on the still-slightly-squelchy ground, you start to wonder just how long it will take to see if George is correct.
Farming is quite different than cooking--when you're tasting a sauce, you can tell midway through its cooking process if it might need more salt, more spice, more butter. By contrast, farming is a lot more like baking--you can put all the required ingredients into the batter early on, but until you see it puffing up or lying flat in the oven, you can't know if it will turn out ok. The proof is in the final product.

George emerges from the trees and gives us a hearty hello on his way out to town. He points out his ducks as we make our way to the exit--it's a good thing he pointed, because otherwise I'd never have spotted them, perfectly camouflaged as they are against the tool shed...
We've got one more stop to make on our way back to the Inn: I've been craving a taste of fresh oysters for the last three weeks, but a 7-mile bike ride seems hardly the best way to get it. Chris makes up the difference, and we turn up the dusty road to Buck Bay, where we load up on oysters and manila clams, pulled fresh from the water...
The oysters are huge, as big as my hand--their rings can tell you how many years old they are (most are at least 3-4 years.) The manilas, Chris says, will be perfect for steamers, and we buy two pounds' worth. Surrounding our "catch" with ice will keep them fresh until we're ready to eat them. Chris hoists them high, a bounty of treats for our lunch.
Several other people are pulling into Buck Bay as we drive down to the shore. Chris shows me how to pick sea beans, which initially make me pucker up with saltiness but then turn crisp and flavorful. Foraging for ingredients seems, ultimately, about finding the right spots, and keeping your eyes open for that perfect patch of seaside vegetables.
When we get back to the Inn, Chris throws the sea beans and clams into a pot, dousing them with butter, white wine, and green garlic, and steaming them open. We slurp them up, with lots of bread to mop up the sauce. It's a true indulgence, a perfect treat in the hot afternoon sun.
As I'm wiping the plate with a hunk of bread, I start to wonder where my appreciation of this day comes from. I'm not a farmer. I'm not a fishermen. I have little to no success growing or catching my own ingredients. But visiting the hatchery, walking the rows of the farms I've visited, meeting the butchers and farmers as they deliver their goods to the Inn, has transformed the way I experience my food. Instead of solely tasting the butter and wine of the clams, I taste the limey acidity of the shore. When I slurp the oysters, they taste (as fresh fish should) exactly like the sea. The location of my food, and the people who brought it to me, have become as important as the food itself.

But I have my doubts: could this engagement with food's origin story continue to a more remote location? Would people really like to know where their food comes from, if they can't easily get to the farm, the fishery, the picked-over woods? Can you call yourself a locavore if your ingredients are local, but not your information? Surely thrilling at a flavorful seafood dish sits at one end of the foodie spectrum, and way at the other end is those who know all about the salmon's life cycle, from the freshwater krill to the saltwater growth to the suicidal mission towards reproduction. But I have to believe that being a foodie means, at least for a good chunk of those who would claim the title, having an investment in food's backstory, being interested in how dishes and culinary experiences come together over a long period of time. At tonight's pizza, which sold like crazy, a little boy was so fascinated by Annie's rolling out the dough and decorating the pizzas that he had to literally be dragged back to his parents' side to select his choice of soda. (He went with Jamaican Ginger Ale.) Another little girl said, when she approached the table with her parents, "I'm not hungry, so I don't want one," but came back with dustings of flour and tomato sauce on her face, saying "I'm still hungry--it was yummy!"

There are many stages to being a locavore: you can buy regionally, buy locally, buy neighborly. On an island like Orcas, much more so than an island like Manhattan, you can buy your greens from one farmer, your fruits from another, your eggs from your neighbor's coop, your fish from your local fishermen, and your oysters from the beach a mile away. If you go one step farther, where buying food is tantamount to buying information, you might as well be an "infovore" as well--someone whose experience of food comes from knowing it intimately. There's a reason New Englanders will pay $8 per person to go picking at the height of berry or apple season--they like the proximity to the experience of getting their food. They pay to know the heft of a bag of freshly picked apples, the finger pricks of a raspberry bush, the heatstroke of a day spent in fruit fields. They live vicariously through their food.

At your moment of deepest involvement and immersion, food transforms your state of mind--not just what you know, but how much you determine is worth knowing. There is a vast difference between picking over fillets of salmon at a good grocery store, and learning the science of how a fish should live and die. Knowing that tomatoes and strawberries withstand Bikram-level heat for months in a greenhouse makes you savor the ripe sweetness of the fruit even more. Munching on tonight's pizza--carrying the last seven oysters, a juicy, salty addition to the sweet tomato and herb crust--I know that my mind has been changed by what I've learned, what I've seen goes into the food I eat. A dish tastes richer because I know not only where its components have come from, but also what stories it contains.