A Thursday afternoon in the beginning of May, I strode purposefully down Beacon Street. A month away from graduating with a degree in Art History from Brown University, I am not going to law school, med school, or into the consulting world like so many of my classmates. Thoughts on entering the ‘real world’ leave me with a sensation of a free fall - an ungrounded floundering. I am thoroughly sick of academics; there is no career path I am sure I want to pursue. I had contemplated traveling through Italy after finishing Brown, volunteering or teaching somewhere in America. But I think I was just putting off making a more pertinent decision.
I discovered cooking after my sophomore year in college. I spent the summer volunteer teaching in a small village in Namibia, Africa. With my host-family there, I lived for months on shima, small patties of maize meal mush and the occasional meat gristle. While I strongly cared for the people I worked with, life in the poverty and disease stricken town was a frightening glimpse into a monotone, unhappy world. After my time in Namibia, I went straight to Florence, Italy, for a semester of studying art and cooking. The extravagant culture of food and the care and pure delight injected into the culinary there took me by surprise. It was like the world went from black and white into color – and I was in love. And since then, food and cooking have been my passion. They were the entry way into a world of taste, sensation, and gustatory art. I have been on the cusp of decision: between hobby and career. But now I have decided and on that brisk afternoon I was going to put that into action.
I walked into the small, comfortable little dining room, booths and table scattered about in a rustic, dimly lit interior, warm reds and browns. It smelled like a crisply roasted chicken; I wanted to lick the air. A young, dark haired woman was arranging big bouquets of yellow and orange tulips as I entered. She smiled; I smiled.
“I’m here to apply for a job,” I said, a slight waver in my voice, anxious in this step towards the rest of my life.
“Which job is that?” Dubious.
“Dishwasher and prep chef – advertised on craigslist.com.”
She hesitated, looking me over. I could see the doubt, the hesitant scrutiny in her sweeping gaze as she looked me up and down. I don’t blame her – I don’t look like I am made for manual kitchen labor. I’m not large, as a person. I have flamboyantly curly red-brown hair and a pair of dark hipster glasses always perched on my smallish nose. I was wearing a crispy ironed white button down shirt and pinstriped black pants, bright red shoes. I was balancing my purse on one shoulder, clutching my resume and cover letter in my hand.
A guy I once dated dubbed me “Delicate Molly” in order to explain to his friends who he had been going out with, and to differentiate from the numerous other Molly’s walking around on Brown’s campus. (He and I didn’t work out; difference of opinions). My friends (used to see me flexing my ‘guns’ in an intimidating show of raw strength) know that ‘delicate’ is not an apt description – perhaps ‘scrappy’ is better. But in any case, I don’t on first impression exude any sense of burly manpower.
I smiled at the woman again, trying to appear more confident, and handed her my resume and cover letter. She glanced them over and then went to the back to give them to the Chef. I could only chuckle to myself, knowing full well how ridiculous I seemed to them – bringing a cover letter and nicely printed resume, dressed to kill, nervous with excited anticipation – and all to wash their dishes.
The Chef came out, a man in his mid thirties. He was tired looking, but with a funky flair, there is a spark behind a somewhat frazzled exterior. He has long hair tied tightly back into a knot, rimless glasses, a few days of scruff on his chin. He wears his chef whites like they are a part of him, a comfortably baggy second skin. I shook his hand – half of me impulsively wanted to kiss him, he was recently named one of 2005's best new chefs by a notable magazine, after all.
In our ensuing conversation, he tried to paint a picture of sweat and tears, manual labor that he didn’t think I could possibly have any interest in. He mentioned repeatedly that the reality of the food world is not like it is on TV. It is a tiny kitchen, hot and sweaty. It is intense. There are only three chefs working every night. It’s hard work.
“I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone I love,” he said, ominously.
But I told him about my passion – my all consuming love of food and cooking and eating – my desire to learn – my respect for the organic, for the small non-corporate atmosphere that his restaurant seems to embody. I don’t have any real experience, it’s true, but I have passion and will make up for what I lack in technique or know-how with enthusiasm. He didn’t quite believe my pluck, I think, raising his eyebrow at me. “You’re graduating from Brown and want a fulltime dishwashing job… if you love food so much why don’t you go to culinary school, become a food writer, anything – do you have any idea what you’re getting into?”
“I am obsessed with food,” I said, “And I want to have every experience possible, learn everything I possibly can, start from the bottom, and do it in a place that I respect and love.” Do I have any idea what I’m getting myself into? (The second guessing begins already. But trepidation is easily pushed under the rug of culinary passion, I tell myself).
He asked me if I was free the next night – probably chuckling on the inside, thinking I fancied myself the next Rachel Ray, that this little girl wouldn’t make it two hours as a dishwasher in a real kitchen. I agreed to come in and work a shift as a trial – “Finish the night, Molly, and then we’ll talk.”
I arrived at the restaurant wearing comfortable shoes and no idea what was to come. Possibly I expected a welcome, introductions, training of some sort. But this was the Real World, not an on-campus café. Somehow I acquired a white cooking shirt, a hurried shot at some of the ‘staff meal’ and then an introduction to Santo, the 40-something Hispanic man from El Salvador who does not speak a word of English and was to be my mentor for the evening. He grinned at my playfully. “Communication will be…what it will be,” said the Chef with a shrug.
And I was shown to the bags of spring greens – a miming gesture from Santo showed me how to clean the leaves. Thus it began – a world whirling around me, its intensity stifling yet exhilarating. I cleaned lettuce, peeled shallots, garlic, shelled peas, opened blanched fava beans, buttered ramekins, plucked the tiny aromatic heads off of thyme, sage, parsley. And above all, I washed dishes. I hauled dirty ones from where the waiters plunked them down in the room near the walk in freezer and brought them over the wet slippery floor to the kitchen. I rinsed and then sanitized them. I brought the clean ones to the various places they go – small coffee saucers to the front - large plates to the shelves above the chefs, careful to dance around their wide gesticulations and not to disrupt their wild rhythm - dessert plates, cheese plates to various fridges. It was difficult, moving that entire time – working so manually, so intensely.
That night there were definitely moments of boredom in the monotony of dishwashing. But, more importantly, there were moments of beauty that the sequencing around me inspired. A perfect pea pod, crunchingly green and filled with bumpily round peas. The smell of fresh crushed garlic; the slippery fava bean gliding out of its lighter, slimier shell. A warm knife gliding effortlessly through a hunk of sweet butter.
The intensity and focus in that small kitchen is vivid and intoxicating. Even washing dishes felt important, an integral part of the dance that is dinner service. The Chef and his two sous chefs are so intent on their product, on beautiful food that explodes with taste, that it is infectious. They are creating art in that kitchen – an active, physical, fleeting art. It is all about timing and speed; it is all about creativity and plating. It is about the aesthetic value of what they bring out into that dining room, and also about the value of sustenance.
They fed me wonderfully, too. Staff meal was a blur of overwhelming arrival. But around 11 the Chef plated a tender beef in a rich sauce, fava beans, fern fronds, peas, crispy fried onions on top for me. The meat melted in my mouth; there was a satisfying crunch of the beans and frizzled saltiness of the onions. The pastry chef gave me a slice of rich chocolate tart with an almond crust, made with chocolate from Venezuela that had a thrumming undertone of tobacco. It was topped with a frothy scoop of homemade white chocolate ice cream. I would do pro bono dishwashing if I could eat like that every night. When I finally stumbled out of there at 2am, I was dazed, happily full, and more tired than I have ever been before.
And on Tuesday afternoon while I was at work, (my last day of work for the Brown Alumni Magazine, fittingly), the Chef called me. He told me that he had a proposal: Since I can’t start work until mid June, he would hire me part time to begin with, two nights a week. He would be taking a risk with me. He would need to be patient; I would need to be patient. But as soon as things opened up I would have first dibs on full time positions in the kitchen. I will learn from the best and I will be welcomed into the small, passionate family of the little, successful restaurant. I accepted, gleefully.
And so I begin my leap into the restaurant world in June, after graduation and a short trip to Israel. I know that there will probably be moments that I look back on the hopeful, excited self that is writing now and say “what an innocent, naïve fool.” But also, I know what I want. I want to spend my life up to my elbows in food and its culture. And I want to write. And I can’t think of a more fitting way to start this blog: with my inexperienced, blind leap into the culinary.