For We Are Cooks

“Inspiration comes to those that seek it.” Did I come up with this? It’s highly unlikely. It’s more probable that the “one thousand monkeys on one thousand typewriters” idea is at work here. The quote is probably contained, more or less in its entirety, in one of the hundreds of dustless tomes lying about my house, clogging up my memory banks, and left behind for some other traveler to ponder in my endless voyages in life.

I do seek it though. Every day, the cook in me is pondering moments, sifting through smells and thoughts, memories and tastes, contemplating, wondering – is this it? Is this good? I’m not interested in molecular gastronomy in its intransiences, in its bewildering combinations of the periodic table and divergent molecular bonds. I learned enough of chemistry during my ponderings of minerals and the building blocks of nature, the things that bind together our lives in our trip on this semi-rigid body of stone we occupy.

Instead, I am interested in sharing my life, my experiences, and my reason for being, if you will. Through the artistry of food, through the simple act of sharing nourishment with other humans, cooking becomes art, which becomes sustenance, which becomes memory – all of which is bound for some other destination in the years to come. Who is to say that a sandwich shared, or eaten alone on the shoulder of some blacktop ribbon will not become a valued prescient of memory in the future?

Food transcended the simple act of nourishment for me some time ago. Somewhere between the lip of dawn and the cave of a new dark sky, cooking became more to me than just food. I realized the potential in every single thing I prepared, and so it became more than just the act of transforming the inedible into something tangible, something treasured, if for but one moment.

That is the raw beauty of cooking. The end product, which can take days, months or even years to procure, develop, tease into existence, is, if you have performed the task correctly, gone within but a moment. Works of art, arranged just so, with the passion of a soul yearning to share something so precious that it cannot be put into words, or upon a wall for viewing, are lost to memories and shared bits of information that is passed along, through the human whisper stream of consciousness into the future for others to hear of, sometimes only in passing.

The touch of the ocean upon the shore, the fallible scent of a wildflower at dawn, in the moment it winks out of existence, it’s entire life culminating in that moment, oh so fleeting; to place those passing seconds upon a plate, to bare ones soul to those strangers who dine on the memories of life; such is the existence of the cook.

Just as the artist cannot live without his brush, the dancer without her music, the mathematician without her constructs, the warrior without her battlefield, so is a cook without a medium. Ours is the simplest of professions – we are but cooks, are we not? We simply prepare food for others to eat. Only in recent years has the paradigm shifted to allow us to do what we have always wished, to truly share something with another person, the delight in senses. The smell of fresh mozzarella, the sound of a sizzle of something transcending its garden state, the taste of another’s life, taken with love and respect, so that another may live – so another may do more than just live. So that another may enjoy the life that comes to all of us, so often, at the expense of others.

So we work tirelessly, frustrated sometimes, in our quest to share what we know, what we can do, and above all else, who we are.

For we are cooks.

Kitchens, Sex and Cher.

It was just another night in the kitchen. Dinner service was done, over, kaput. We had nearly finished prepping for breakfast the next morning, or rather, I had nearly finished prepping for breakfast the next morning while everyone else worked on the remnants of a bottle of cheap scotch. Nobody of any worth gives a shit about breakfast in a typical kitchen. Except for me, since I was in charge of it. I had volunteered for it, in fact. I enjoyed the silence of the early morning stations, dimly lit pilot lights, cold hearth and the 360 degree view of the early morning sky from the front steps of the hotel, perched as it was on the banks of a rapidly shrinking lake high in the Appalachian Mountains. There was nothing better than that view. Ever.

But that was still hours away. Half tore up, the cooks and tired ass front house staff were bonding over shared bong hits and snorts of cheap whiskey (Maiden’s Piss, my Scottish geology brethren had called it), both of which would work wonders for their complexion the following afternoon, as most of us were pulling doubles. It was summer and no one gave a shit. Not even me. At that point, I’d drank enough alcohol for three lifetimes and was lucky to be there, so my persona as the responsible one was hysterical, at least for me. But nights such as those were few and far between, as most everyone was usually too tired to even think of bonding after work, as celebrity chefs will lead you to believe. Honestly, most everyone in a kitchen drags their sorry ass home to bed, stopping along the way to fill up on their help me forget until morning drug of choice. Or the please let my leg stop cramping and my right hand from seizing while I sleep pills.

This night was different. A rather raucous game of “Who would you fuck if…insert scenario here” had broken out between the cooks and the front house staff, each group trying to outdo the other in different directions. The front house staff, mostly female, were picking fairer members of the male populace, with the actor Scott Speedman leading the charge. I had no idea who that was until someone informed me that it was the actor opposite Kate Beckinsale in Underworld, at which point I had to agree that yeah, if I were a woman, or gay, or in prison, or trapped on a desolate island, or if we were the last two men left on the planet, like, for real, then maybe I would hold his hand. This nearly got me out of the game, but not quite.

The cooks had, as usual, degenerated rapidly in their choices. Possible fuck mates went from the laughably implausible to downright disgusting, quickly. Kate Beckinsale held her own for a few moments, with the sole female chef holding out for Brad Pitt, if he and Anthony Bourdain had a baby and the baby were grown and legal. The male choice went downhill to a degenerate pornstar named Gauge, who most of us had to promptly use the Chef’s computer to identify. It turned out she was a tiny little brunette with braces on her teeth from Arkansas. Her sexual repertoire included unspeakable three ways and orgies while performing handstands. Admirable enough, but disturbing on many levels.

I was doing quite well in avoiding any questions until a waitress with long red hair, a penchant for weed, stiletto heels and other girls pinned me to the wall. “What about you, Ron?” She pointed her middle finger up at me nonchalantly. “Who would you fuck?”

Of course. This game had been played many times all around me, and I had adeptly dodged it. Until now. Now I couldn’t. Now, for the first time, as I chopped and blanched potatoes for home fries the next morning (It didn’t occur to me to ask if there was a fry cutter in the kitchen. It didn’t occur to anyone else to tell me.) “Yeah, Chef, what about it? Who?” The new speaker of the house was the sole person of color working in the restaurant, a very angry cook from Mexico City who had apparently made a very wrong turn on his way north and ended up in the south, in the mountains, in a snowy white redneck college town turned upside down and dumped into the mountains. It irritated him that I had been mistakenly referred to as the Chef one morning during breakfast service when it was actually he that should have been given credit. He carried a grudge.

I thought for a few moments, and the kitchen actually went quiet. I didn’t realize until then that I was a non-person in the kitchen. I had shared virtually nothing with anyone since I had started. Nobody knew my background, where I came from, who I was, if I was qualified (I wasn’t), had the experience (I didn’t) or the kitchen know-how to even be there. I didn’t drink, or do drugs, which baffled the other employees, as I bore all the signs of a hard boozer. They didn’t know that I was sick, had cirrhosis, was terminally ill, married, nothing. They knew I had a son, as I paraded him around every time I had a shift off. I was so happy to be working in a real, live kitchen that I felt it was akin to paradise. I wanted my infant son to see it. I wanted him to be proud of his dad. I wanted my wife to be proud of me.

The pay sucked, the hours were long, but I had started to fit in. Do you know what that means to a reject like me? I had a B.S., two M.S. a PhD dissertation, ten years of engineering and miles of mining experience. I had wandered everywhere, and had bored of everything almost immediately. I had been a professor, a technical advisor, a geotechnical engineer, a teacher, a coal miner, a construction worker, a fry cook, a dishwasher, a mechanic, an electrician, a research assistant, a writer and so many other things. My resume looked like Ben Franklin and Samuel Clemens had a son and he threw up on it. What I truly loved to do was right there, in that kitchen. Cook. That’s what I loved to do.

So, I considered my response for oh, about 0.00001 nanoseconds and responded straight from the gut. A disconcerting habit that I have which has consistently gotten me in serious trouble since I was six. (My Mom: “Who were you hiding from?” Me: “Ummm. You!”) It got me in even more trouble after I started dating (Angry Girlfriend: “Who the fuck do these slutty ass hoop earrings beside your bed belong too?” Me: “Ummm. You?”)

I had a throwback for a moment, circa 1990. I was driving a Ford Escort, one of the saddest date cars ever built. It wasn’t even a GT. That was for the cool kids. I had an Escort Wagon. L. Not even a GL, just an L. It didn’t have a radio. The passenger side window was down, as the driver’s side window didn’t work. I was going as fast as I could make the car go without getting out to push, which I thought would somehow make it look cooler. My girlfriend of the month had cheated on me with a friend of mine. Not unusual in a little town. The girl may have been of questionable ethical and moral standards, but she could sing. Damn, she could sing. With tears running down her face, she faced me and sang the entire “If I could Turn Back Time” song by Cher. Don’t act like you don’t know which song I’m talking about.

I don’t know what made me think of that song at that moment, except that maybe I was once again reminded that I didn’t fit in then, and I didn’t really fit in now. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Cher. 1990. Thong, lace and leather. On a fucking Navy Gunship.”

Everyone was staring at me like I had stepped out of a wormhole covered in goo. Me, not the wormhole. The silence was deafening (Yeah, I used that tired analogy). In the silence, without saying a word, the angry Mexican cook started to clap. A few seconds later, everyone was applauding. My ears were red. My boss, the sous chef, clapped me on the back. “Damn, son. (He was about 20 years younger than me.) You’re sick. That was totally fucked up, man. Let me show you where the fry cutter is.”

On my way home to my family I tried to get my CD player to play my one remaining Cher album. It was too scratched up from all the years of bounding around in glove compartments to do anything but skip and make puzzling warbled sounds. I was exhausted. My feet hurt. My back screamed in agony and my shoulders cramped. I was embarrassed by my outburst. But, still. I felt damn good, son.