I've been wanting to talk about Tony's death since it happened just a couple of weeks ago, but I haven't been able to speak about it without my voice breaking. I don't want to be one of those people who visibly mourns a celebrity that they didn't even know, so I've clammed up, kept my head down and focused on opening a café (yes! that's another story in itself!). But today I am ready. I am raw and open and tired and I want to talk about Tony.
I read the news at an ungodly hour in the morning, audibly gasped and threw my phone down on the bed. I immediately felt 3 things: very, very sad, a little sick to my stomach, and slightly concerned that I would now have to face this horrible day having been awake since 5:15. For those of you who haven't spent a lot of time in kitchens surrounded by chefs and waiters and dishwashers and all the other weirdos who haunt restaurants and catering companies, his story may not be as compelling as it is for those of us in the industry. But for those of us who for whatever reason are sadistically drawn to this career, he was a beacon. He wrote his first book, Kitchen Confidential, and he did what a lot of us are secretly pining for: To escape the day to day physical hardship that is kitchen work. To be smart and clever enough to rise up and out of an economically challenged job. To be our own true selves without selling out. To be Tony. It looked like the life of Riley. And I suppose that's the most heartbreaking part for me in this whole story. That in the end, no matter how great it all looks, we have no idea. Maybe staying in the grind that is kitchen work is okay. Perhaps traveling the world on CNN's dime while eating and drinking all of the things with all of the people is just as, if not more, trying than making some scones and burning yourself and laughing and cursing in a kitchen.
I didn't know you Anthony Bourdain, but I admired the shit out of your writing and humor and honesty and style. I hope you're resting in power and peace.
What to not say to a chef
First off, just to clarify, there are a lot of people in the food industry who cook food for a living but are not chefs. They call themselves chefs because it sounds better than saying “I’m a cooker of foods” or “I do food cookery”. I myself have always identified more with being a cook than a chef – but that’s probably a discussion best had with my therapist.
So the first thing people ask when they find out that you’re a chef is….oh gods it even hurts to type it…..”So what’s your favorite thing to cook?”
Oh. My. God. No.
A lot of chefs can be quite scary and rude and ill mannered, so if you make the mistake of asking this question to one of them, it won’t be pretty. Those chefs usually aren’t out in public, so don’t worry too much about them. But for those us who know how to behave outside of a kitchen, we have to politely smile and give you some canned response. But you know what the real answer is? My favorite thing to cook is nothing, because I’ve been cooking for 5 thousand years and I’m very tired and I’m just standing here trying to be polite and keep standing even though I’ve been on my feet for the past 14 hours. When I’m finished with work, I don’t go home and cook (sorry husband) and I certainly don’t want to talk about it (unless you’re also a chef and then that’s all we’ll talk about).
So my advice is, the next time you meet a chef and you feel the need to ask them a question, ask them what their LEAST favorite thing to cook is. We can be very honest with you about that.
Our dear friend Kirk Saunders
13 years ago I was helping to open a small restaurant in Berkeley in what was then a brand spanking new food court in the gourmet ghetto. There were 5 other restaurants all undertaking the painful process of starting up at the same time. I was chatting with one of the executive chefs and I casually said "your new line cook is so cute". Not thinking he would tell the guy what I said, I went back to making broths and organizing our new pantry. About an hour later, the cute line cook comes over with a tiny crème brulee made in an egg shell for me. And for the next few months, like little birds, we would walk over small, perfect treats that we concocted for each other.
A shot glass with lobster bisque and fresh truffles. Wild mushroom pate. Rosemary roasted almonds with piment d'splette. It gave me something to look forward to at work and this cute line cook soon became one of my best friends. I've watched him become a husband and a father, switch careers multiple times (including being a goat farmer). I've also watched him struggle with cancer, one too many times for his beautiful heart to handle. I just found out that he will be transitioning in the next few days, and I ask that you all hold this lovely human and his family in love and light. It was an honor to be your friend, Mr. Cute Line Cook, and I will continue to honor your amazing spirit by offering up perfect little bites of food made with love. Rest in power my friend.
A Brief Story About Working in Our Kitchen
I was driving home from work the other night and it occurred to me how lucky I am to be in a position where I have some control over who I get to spend my working life with. What a gift that is! Now that's not to say that I can control what mood they will arrive in, or, for that matter, what mood they will leave in. But I get to hire people that interest me.
That are kind.
That have a great work ethic.
And most importantly, people that are funny. If I'm going to spend 10 hours a day working hard and putting out fires (not literally, thank god) and feeling overwhelmed, I sure as hell need to make sure that we're laughing as we get through it.
For those of you who've never done it, working in a kitchen is not a normal workplace. It's another world with its own language, often written in Sharpies on masking tape and intentionally misspelled to make your coworkers laugh when they find it. Often so subtle that it takes weeks to figure out the joke. Sometimes the joke was only funny to the person who wrote, it really doesn't matter. This is what a small section of our pantry looks like right now...
So we usually begin planning for our pop-ups about 3 weeks in advance. It takes a lot of consideration, arguing over who's menu ideas are going to be the sexiest while also being the easiest to execute. It's a task that I've done with lots and lots of different chefs and it's one of my favorite activities. I have a chef (who to protect their identity will remain nameless) who has decided that when they're stone cold sober, they write the most difficult menus. But if written after a couple of beers, the menus are things of absolute perfection. I totally agreed but questioned why they thought this was so, and their response was, "After a couple beers, I begin to doubt if I'm really actually good enough to pull anything off, so the menu becomes more approachable". I laughed so hard that I cried. That is some real kitchen truth.
We have to balance pride in our work, our egos about our food, the expectations of our guests, all while somehow cranking out delicious food that people will have hopefully enjoyed deeply. And if they didn't deeply enjoy it, you have to pray to god that they will be kind enough to not leave you a shitty review on some social media site and ruin your life forever. Deep sigh. This job is difficult. So I surround myself with people I care about, who also care about me, and we create a really dysfunctional and incredibly fun little family.