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.

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