I stealthily slid, tiptoeing in my dilapidated New Balance sneakers, towards the restaurant’s dining room. I passed the gleaming prep table, the plastic rumbling ice box. I maneuvered around the fresh faced backwaiter carefully polishing wine glasses. I bypassed the stack of dirty dishes calling out to me in the small room sharing space with the walk in refrigerator. I could hear the clink of glasses, the burst of muddled laughter, the soft hum of chatter and the lilting tones of background jazz rifts. I was invading an alien territory; I certainly didn't belong in the dining room. I don’t fit in; my overly stained chef’s shirt screams out ‘kitchen’. Only The Chef goes into that land of the diner. The rest of us are left only with our imagination and the server’s reports. I paused at the silverware station, a mere two feet away from the happily eating customers. I watched, unnoticed for a moment, as the servers bustled in and out, carting bottles of red wine, aromatic plates of bluefish and hanger steak. They looked clean, cool and collected; a slight difference from the sweaty kitchen interior. I inched my way closer to the divide and slowly, carefully, craned my neck around the door frame. It was there, at a crisply linened table closest to me, that I found what I was looking for.
Christopher Kimball.A skinny middle-aged man with rounded glasses perched on his nose, arms folded over his chest, grinning at the words of his companions. He was perched delicately on a wooden chair, holding a partially emptied wine glass. His light blue shirt was perfectly pressed; his signature bow tie was bright yellow. His receding hairline shimmered in the elegant candlelit room.
Christopher Kimball is founder, editor, and publisher of Cook’s Illustrated, an elegantly scientific culinary magazine. He writes cookbooks and has a TV show, America’s Test Kitchen. He is a well known gastronomical figure whose work I deeply respect. In fact, purely and simply, I love him.
In one magical moment, I watched Mr. Kimball take a bite of The Chef’s specialty pork belly, smile, and look around contentedly. Strange as it sounds, the scene sent a tingle down my spine.
The world quickly came back into focus, however, with a disgruntled shout from The Chef. I quickly withdrew from my secret viewing point and made my way back to the steaming, hectic kitchen.
It was a difficult night. We were behind on prep work, overwhelmed and ‘in the weeds’ for the larger portion of service. J. was kicked off the line again due to extremely shoddy salad presentation; when I left at 2am he and The Chef were still in the midst of a dangerously serious talk. I dropped two bread plates in close succession, and received a harsh rebuke from The Chef. The dough for the sweet fried beignets wouldn’t come together and the sorbets were frozen into an inedible solid.
In the midst of the mishaps and crazy tension of the kitchen, Christopher Kimball provided a moment of beautiful calm. A glimpse into the dining room gave me the much needed proof that we serve people (many people, real people, famous people) and don’t exist solely in the drama and grime of the kitchen. And I even almost enjoyed washing the dishes that came from his table. Almost.
It was a deliciously secret observation. And, I will now admit, not my only secret.
The Chef is not yet aware that I am going to culinary school. My days with him and his little bistro are numbered. After winning a small scholarship last spring to the Culinary Institute of America, culinary school has been constantly hovering in the back of my mind. This summer of work has solidified my love of food and my desire to cook. While an incredibly interesting (and intense) experience, I am not content with the painfully slow learning curve dishwashing provides (not very surprising, I suppose). I itch to wield my own chef’s knife, throw a sauté pan on the stove, create a sauce and a plate with artistry and flavor. I am garnering the courage to tell The Chef that I will soon be leaving. But until then, my unrevealed, soon-to-be culinary student status as well as hidden dining room observations are warmly motivating me through mountains of dishes to wash and buckets of mushrooms to clean.