Wednesday, December 28, 2005

the unexpected scent of chocolate

I spent much of the week before Christmas at the UConn Health Center. A daily four hour commute of dry heat shooting up from the floorboard vents of my car, the constant sound of NPR swirling through the back of my mind, half-formed thoughts circling around my nose, and the muted color palette of leafless trees flitting past the frozen windows. Each morning, as I took exit 39 off of that bleak Interstate 84, a gnawing claw began in the pit of my stomach, growing in sensation as my car slowly wound its way up to the gigantic hospital perched on a hill. The UConn Health Center Hospital is a forbidding mass of gray, high up and alone, lording over the landscape. It reminded me of the Emerald City, far in the distance on my journey to Oz.

Inside that concrete castle is the small lair of the UConn Taste and Smell Center (cheerfully decorated with a battalion of cardboard Santas). There are only a few of these specialized centers concentrating on things such as loss of smell due to head trauma in the US; I’m lucky one exists close by. In my days there I was tested by neurologists, dentists, ENTs, surgeons and internists. I spent hours swishing clear liquids from miniature plastic cups around my mouth, each one a different strength of ‘bitter’ ‘salty’ ‘sweet’ or ‘sour’, to test my taste buds. I rated each of the seventy flavors on a scale of 1 (weak, a hint of salt lurking in the back of my mouth) to 10 (strong, almost gagging on the overpowering bitter of quinine). I breathed in deeply while puffing air from mystery bottles up my nose, trying to decipher which had the aroma of strong chemical and which was odorless (virtually impossible for me to tell). I sniffed mystery jars of familiar food smells, touched my finger to my nose, walked a straight line, said ahhh as they peered down my throat, grimaced as they inspected my teeth and tongue. They looked at my cranial MRI and sinus CT scans from last week, the multitude of head x-rays from the accident. They drizzled blue drops into my nostrils, causing me to lose feeling in my nose and mouth, while they stuck a long devise practically up to my brain, looking for unknown obstructions.

And in the end, after a bleary 5am drive in the darkness of Friday morning and long final inspection, they gave me their final report. The head doctor, an elderly man with soft wrinkles and a piercingly sharp gaze, looked at me for a moment, silent and sincere. Just when I began to feel uncomfortable he gave me a gentle smile and said Work is therapy, Molly. Stay busy.

I was confused by his response. Confused and a bit deflated. But it soon became clear that the solution to this problem is nothing but time.

The olfactory nerve, they explained with the help of colorfully simplified medical diagrams, is studded with small neurons that curl off to connect the nose and transfer the smell sensations to the brain. When I was hit by the car and fractured my skull, my brain bounced roughly in my head. Those small smell neurons were most likely severed in the trauma. Optimistic, however, was a word often used. They are optimistic my smell will return; my olfactory neurons will re-grow. The fact that I can smell a bit, greatly improved from the time of the accident, is a wonderful sign. The fact that I sometimes smell things that aren’t there (phantom smells, they call them) means that my nerve is already beginning to rebound. But this is a long process. Two to five years, they said. Perhaps even as many as seven.

A younger doctor bouncing energetically around the office smiled at me with confidence. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the bright red and green tie emblazoned with a cartoon Grinch in a red santa hat, nestled behind the stethoscope on his chest. If you had to damage a nerve, this was the best one to choose, he said softly as I tore my eyes away from his holiday get-up. Of all the nerves in your body, this one tries the hardest to regenerate.

And so I left Connecticut, driving directly to Vermont for the holidays, the official medical opinion about my smell ringing in my ears. Wait and see. Seven years from now. Optimism. Time. Olfactory regeneration.

And truthfully, I feel wonderful. As much as I would have loved to hear that my smell would be back in a few months without problem, I now feel buoyed up with hope. The official diagnosis of experts in the field of taste and smell has taken a huge weight off my shoulders. I know, now, what to expect. I understand what has happened and what needs to happen. I no longer feel in the dark. I am filled with possibility. The last of my large medical events is over and now all that’s left is the time to make a new plan.

It has been hard for me to write in the last few months, not sure of where my body, smell and general future stood. But things have cleared since the culmination of my smell evaluation, a fog evaporated from my mind. I spent the holidays in Vermont with my family and for the first time in months I felt that familiar passion to write, no longer needing to force myself to type. I curled up for hours in an armchair next to the constantly crackling fire and finally was able to write without painful effort.

The timeframe of olfactory regrowth forces me to look at the future with a new mindset. My plans are slowly moving away from the CIA and restaurant work. I am no longer going to work in the Bakery. I am thinking about other options, other things that I am passionate about. This certainly does not mean I am giving up my love of food and all that is culinary. But my body has changed; smell, taste and the subsequent ability to work in the food world are hovering somewhere in the distance. Instead of fighting the inevitable, feeling lost and unavoidably depressed in a kitchen where I cannot fully operate, I will be morphing my plans to cooperate with my body. How exactly? I’m not sure. It will be interesting and a bit confusing, certainly. Always accompanied here with writing and food, of course. It looks to involve a one-way ticket to New York City in the near future. And it will without a doubt be different than I expected.


One morning in the UConn Taste and Smell Center, I sat perched on a stool in the office of a lanky, bearded doctor. He was twisting open white plastic jars, their mystery contents covered in thick cheesecloth, and sticking them under my nose. I held one nostril closed at a time, testing each side of my nose in measured sniffs. Each jar held an invisible but familiar scent – woodchips, coffee, cinnamon, rubber, soap and jam to name just a few. The majority of jars whisked under my nose contained no odor for me. It was a large procession of scentless containers. But just when I was beginning to feel overly frustrated (and a bit short of breath with all the deep breathing), an unmistakable smell came bursting out of a jar through my right nostril with unabashed aggression. That’s CHOCOLATE, I practically screamed at the doctor, jumping to my feet in excitement. He looked at me, obviously shocked.

Chocolate? he asked, incredulously. You can smell that?

Yes, I said gleefully. He had me sniff again with the right side of my nose. Yup. That’s chocolate. He smiled and then had me sniff with my left nostril. My shoulders sunk, momentarily defeated. No, I can’t smell anything on that side.

The doctor looked off into space, thinking. He looked perplexed, yet the sides of his mouth were curved in a small but unmistakable smile.

This is unexpected, he said. Generally chocolate is not an odor that those who cannot smell first pick-up on. Very unexpected. But no matter what, even if only through your right nostril, this is wonderful.

And I felt like doing a little dance right there in that pristinely scrubbed doctor’s office. The taste of chocolate, the doctor told me, is almost entirely dependent on smell. Without the ability of my right nostril, chocolate would be nothing but a texture. And so, in the largely decimated field of my olfactory neurons, the one for chocolate stands strong. It’s a fighter, hanging in there despite its loneliness. Joined by the rosemary neuron and occasionally the soap and wine crew, this small band of my favorite neurons have most deliciously decided to stick around. So I’m happy. Unexpected, yes. All of this is unexpected. But my neurons and I will happily re-grow. And chocolate will certainly help.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Distraction of Puff Pastry

There is a small frame resting unobtrusively on the end of the front counter of the bakery. It is clear plastic, unassuming in its simplicity. It holds a picture of a smiling woman, dark-haired and cheery eyed. She has a compelling grin; it fairly exudes a large, flavorful personality. Her gaze is enveloping. Underneath the small photo there is a delicately placed yellow slip of paper, studded with a dark type. When each customer who notices leans in closely to read, a small sigh is often released from a softened pair of lips. It is a dedication to The Baker’s wife, who died three years ago in a car accident.

Hugging her in the photo, his face snuggly set close to her rosy cheek, is The Baker. He looks younger, happier. Infinitely more alive. I watched him in the back of the bakery yesterday at work, his forehead crunched in anxious thought, his hands punching bread dough with vigor. The Baker often seems weighed down, a thin sheet of invisible parchment keeping him from laughing the way he means to, smiling more than a small grin. He is dampened, quiet. It does not seem like the art of bread is any kind of substitute for what he has lost.

There are moments, however, when his love of baking pops valiantly out of the characteristically closed facial expression, his eyebrows gyrating and cheeks scrunched into a bulbous smile. On Tuesday I spent the morning lost in the ritual of pastry dough preparation. I spent an hour rolling out dough for danishes, the thick buttery mass sliding serenely into cinnamon twisted rounds. I moved onto turnovers, systematically flattening and evening out squares of the thinner pastry, delicately folding them into triangles puffed with apple and cinnamon. After finishing and clearing my floury bench, The Baker stepped in with a mound of soft white. He cradled the plastic-wrapped package in his arms like a baby and plopped it down, looking at me expectantly.

This, Molly, is puff pastry. I make it from scratch every week. I nodded; it certainly did look puffy.

He began punching it down, showing me how to roll it out for tarts and quiche. There are so many places out there that buy it frozen. But this, this is fresh; this is amazing. Nothing beats fresh puff pastry. And I make it completely with butter. No shortening here. It makes all the difference.

There was a tingle in his voice, a playful smile on his face. I looked at him, surprised to hear the vivacity and excitement radiating from his persona. For a moment he didn’t even look like The Baker I have become so familiar with. He looked happy.

I can't help but feel that The Baker and I are somewhat the same. Amidst the soft, warm atmosphere of the bakery, we are both struggling with what we have lost. He appears to be grasping for something; the love of life that I feel sure was there before is now just beyond his reach. And I am trundling along, forever and frustratingly aware of my lack of smell and taste - a deeper understanding of the culinary is beyond the ability of my body right now. We both exist in a muted world; muffled happiness, taste-buds or both.

But based on the effusive compliments of the bakery’s customers, the pleasure of our baked goods is not obstructed by a thing for them. No matter what setbacks The Baker and I are personally working through at the moment, there will always be puff pastry.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

New Culinary Rhythms

The day before Thanksgiving was punctuated by the constant background notes of Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The dusty black radio perched on a shelf in the bakery was switched from its usual soft classical twinkle to the more raucous, louder classic rock drawl. It was a one day phenomenon, a fitting marker for the hectic pre-Thanksgiving rush that began that Wednesday morning in the cold darkness of 4am. The crooning noise of Stairway to Heaven and Free Bird reverberated around the steamy room, inspiring me subconsciously to move with just a bit more bounce. Beethoven’s lyrical melodies leave me with a relaxed smile on my face as I delicately twist buttery dough into symmetrical rounds for Danish pastries. Bach conjures up images of crackling fires and windswept grain fields in the back of my mind as I roll out linzer dough to cut for holiday cookies. On that pre-holiday morning, however, The Rolling Stones gave me just a bit more oomph as I carted around stacks of pumpkin pies and frosted cakes with the speed of one who has a herd of turkeys nibbling at her feet.

The musical change in the bakery, surprising and short-lived as it was, is a good summation of my recent life. I’ve switched from a self-imposed classical slow to a more energetic rock of busy movement. Recovering at home after the accident was a calm (however depressing) endeavor, filled with quiet thought and slow healing. Since I discarded my crutches and began work in the bakery, my tune has changed. The bakery is a complicated balancing act of buttery pastry melodies. At home, Thanksgiving was a feast for 10; my mom and I stewed in the delicious (and minorly stressful) preparation of the aggressively planned meal. Butternut squash soup with brown butter and sage, roast turkey and sausage cornbread stuffing, sauteed beans with almonds, sweet potatoes with lime syrup, fresh cranberry sauce, apple and pumpkin pies, chocolate cake – they seemingly catapulted themselves out of the kitchen. Or perhaps that was just our laughingly wine-induced perception. And not even 48 hours later, still full of turkey, I had my first stint as a caterer.

About a month ago I received a phone call. A rusty, highly toned female voice: Hi Molly. I am a colleague of your mother’s - I have heard your story and today I had the privilege of trying the cookies you made for your mother to bring to our meeting. I was wondering if you would be interested in catering a lunch for me. Surprised (the oatmeal cookies I had made on a whim for the meeting were simple at best) yet happy, I heartily agreed to make up a menu and get back to her the next day. And I found myself last Saturday running around with pans of marinated salmon and plates of sugar-dusted almond cakes. Manchego cheese had been grated into oblivion, candied walnuts broken into small pieces for salad. There was a sizzle of asparagus and the softly cloying melt of the parmesan sprinkled on top. Hiding my fear of making a mistake with a calm smile and measured rhythmic gate in the kitchen, I plated fish and vegetables, garnished with a sprinkle of toasted seeds, a dollop of balsamic syrup. Molly, this is the best salmon I’ve ever had. My face, I’m pretty sure, lit up with exhausted glee.

In the midst of these wonderful new things in life, I can’t help but admit that I am frustrated. I am at times overwhelmingly disheartened by my lack of smell, the limping step of my left leg, my muted taste buds and the overwhelming exhaustion enveloping my body every evening when I fall into bed. A pang of annoyance resonates through the pit of my stomach with every exclamation of It smells amazing in here as customers waltz into the bakery. I would be lying if I said that my happiness and deep thankfulness (strong as they are) are not countered with those flutterings of frustration and annoyance. Perhaps this is because in my other life I would be moving to Hyde Park tomorrow, shaking with delicious anticipation of my first day at the CIA this weekend. But I am soldiering on; each dark moment is followed by one of light. Whether it is Led Zeppelin or Bach, I feel motivated by the new rhythms echoing in my life.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Bakery

It was cold last Thursday; the fingers poking out of my jacket sleeves were numb. The sun was shining aggressively over the top of the row of buildings in front of me, burning my eyes. I walked slowly, a slight limp favoring my right leg. The air felt crisp; the grass lining the sidewalk was strikingly green. There was a knot in the pit of my stomach, butterflies fluttering up into my throat. I reached the long colorful strip of buildings snaking along the curve of the street, their brick bases blending in with the monotone shade of fallen leaves strewn onto the ground nearby. I opened the creaking wooden door on the corner and was immediately hit with a burst of light warmth. There were a handful of people milling about the room, peering enthusiastically into the glass cases filled with breads and pastries. Coffee cups steamed. The cheerfully brunette woman behind the cash register laughed raucously and greeted a man in a bright red sweater, clinking change and rustling paper bags simultaneously. I stepped carefully past the counter, through the arched doorway, and into the back room. I glanced around, taking in the stacks of ovens, racks of colorful cookies, stacks of earthy brown bread and cascade of metal mixers. I was looking for my new boss, the Baker.

I felt new, strange and uncertain of myself. I couldn’t understand my overwhelming feelings of hesitation. But walking into that light and airy room I was entering a new job, a new set of responsibilities. It is a concrete jump to take my life back into my own hands – to recover, accept and move on from what has happened to me this fall.

I plastered a smile on my face when the Baker came stomping up the stairs, a well-worn Red Sox hat balanced on his head. His shoulders slightly hunched, thick gray hair on his even skull and a pristine apron tied snugly over his slight stomach paunch. His eyes, creased with smile lines, are traced with sadness. He grinned, radiating kindness. We shook hands and chatted jovially as I outfitted myself in a white starched apron. The sunlight streamed into the large kitchen, a luxurious room inhabited only by the Baker and I. A small black radio was perched on a dusty shelf, spouting classical music into the air. The knot in my stomach gradually dissolved. It dissolved into the crates of apples I peeled and chopped, rhythmic and comforting in their simplicity. I buried myself happily in mounds of pie dough, gobs of flour and the delicate assemblage of thanksgiving pies.

I arrived home later that first day with aching hands and sore legs after hours on my feet. It was a familiar feeling, reminiscent of my last restaurant experience as a dishwasher and prep chef in a bistro this summer. I again lost myself in the slightly mind-numbing tasks of repetitive cleaning and chopping. I found myself dusting off the smattering of stale Spanish I had learned to have halting conversations with N, the dishwasher. I, however, washed not even a single dish. I felt strange at first asking the Baker the bevy of technical food questions that came to mind, but soon relaxed under his obvious desire to help with detailed answers. And I smiled to myself as I worked, awash with the melodies of Bach and Mozart, the whir of the mixer and the clank of the ovens.

I certainly didn’t expect to find myself making a plethora of pies, a deluge of pumpkin breads and a flood of almond macaroons that cold November morning. I still have to shake myself every so often, realizing with a sudden jolt that I am OK, that the worst is over. I am constantly surprised these days to be back in the work force, to be in a place I respect and enjoy, to be regaining my life. It is a wonderful feeling, worth a thousand apple pies.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Salsa, Rosemary and James Bond

When I was in elementary school I spent a lot of quality time with James Bond. On many a Sunday afternoon, my father and I cocooned ourselves in the sun dappled basement TV room with Dr. No, Live and Let Die, or my personal favorite, Goldfinger. Along with Tuesday night ice cream (soft serve chocolate dipped in chocolate) to be eaten while watching the adult softball league game nearby, Sundays with James Bond was a father-daughter ritual that I loved. Each afternoon I would curl up on the couch with my Dad and drape an old crochet blanket all the way over my head. Through its woven holes I could see the TV while simultaneously felt protected by its bulk. I loved the small jolts of fear the scary scenes inspired in the back of my throat. Yet I always felt overwhelmingly safe. The soundtrack in my mind to those lazy afternoons contains a methodical crunch and the rustling of a plastic chip bag: Agent 007 was always accompanied with tortilla chips and chunky red salsa. Ever since then the smell of salsa has immediately conjured up an image of a young Sean Connery, a Roger Moore, and a happy young girl with her dad.

Today, salsa does not bring any scent oriented memories to mind. In my largely odorless world, the muted taste and more important texture is what ties me to what I eat. The soft creaminess and delicate sweetness of my mom’s freshly made fall applesauce transports me to afternoons in the kitchen of my childhood. The warm crust of bread right out of the oven sends me to the bleary eyed 5am shift at the bakery I worked in before going to college. The crunch of almond biscotti feels like an afternoon in Florence; the bitter thickness of espresso is Rome. I can bring memories to mind with texture and a bit of attention almost as strongly as I had previously taken for granted that came with smell. With concentration and an inkling of imagination, I find that I can more closely understand the complexity of flavor available to me without a full sense of smell. I chew slowly and swallow, breathing out evenly, closing my eyes. On the exhale I can ‘taste’ in the back of my throat, even through my nose. I feel a subtle increase of flavor with each long exhale. When I move slowly, taste slowly, the sensations grow. On the exhale a sugary soft crunch becomes laced with tangy citrus zest, a sip of wine moves from simply sweet to layered with fruit and vine.

Not surprisingly, however, I overwhelming miss being able to taste fully. Without smell, my palette is extremely muted. Each bite is in a quiet fog; it is difficult to tell herbs, spices, subtleties apart. Sometimes I just want to feel something in my mouth without thinking about it. I want nothing more than to have a full taste sensation. This is where salsa comes back into my life, minus its smell related memories. These days I like it hot, spicy, and on everything. I put generous shakes of Tabasco sauce into my ‘extra hot’ salsa. I layer it onto tortilla chips with a spoon. Where the hint of cinnamon in coffee is a delicate grasp of an odor, the heat of jalapeno laden salsa is an unmistakably pleasant burn in my mouth, an undeniable warmth on my tongue. It is a taste that I do not need to think about; a physical sensation rather than ghostly possibility.

Beyond my unmistakable new love of salsa doctored with Tabasco, I am making progress in other arenas as well. I am walking with both legs, balancing only a bit on a (very stylish) black cane. I have a job as an assistant baker and pastry chef waiting for me as soon as I am strong enough to professionally wrestle with a good deal of dough. And last night as I was chopping up a bunch of fresh rosemary to garnish a roast lamb and goat cheese panini, its smell fairly assaulted my senses. The woodsy, rich odor of the pungent herb lodged itself wonderfully in my nasal cavity. I immediately saw myself, strangely enough, on a horse in Colorado where my family and I had spent a vacation over a decade ago. The scent brought to mind a western ranch, a walk through the wilderness, a dark brown horse more interested in eating trailside grass than agreeing to take me out for a ride. I was so happy I wanted to shove that rosemary right up my nose. I continued to smell my hands the entire night. Its lingering scent gave me goose bumps of pleasure; it reminded me, in an odd way, of James Bond.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Art of Baking on Crutches

Right after the accident, food and cooking were the last things on my mind. It took extreme effort to make myself eat even a few sips of milkshake. As the weeks went by and my inability to smell became glaringly apparent, thoughts of food and cooking inspired only a deep sense of sadness. I could eat, but hardly taste. For over a month I wouldn’t go into the kitchen. I refused to take even one step into the room.

But as Rilke says, No feeling is final. And I have recently taken refuge in the kitchen.

I woke up one morning around two weeks ago to the seemingly ceaseless rain pounding on the windows; the blustery wind howling over our roof. It was a dark morning and the airy wetness fairly clung to body. I did my graceful one-legged hop down the stairs, balancing somewhat precariously on my crutches, and sunk comfortably into a large armchair. I sat with Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose propped open in front of me, wrapped in a blanket and ready to stave away boredom by getting lost in a book. But I couldn’t jump into Stegner’s story that morning. The air felt cold and the rain made me feel restless. Without even really thinking, I got up and went mindlessly into the kitchen. When I got there I looked around, not knowing quite what I was up to, and my gaze settled on the oven.

I’m going to bake; the idea suddenly shot into my head, taking my by surprise. There just didn’t seem to be any other option for that rainy Tuesday morning. And so wobbling awkwardly on crutches, I threw together some sugar and butter into a hazy silver metal bowl. The mixer hummed in its mechanical whir. The oven clinked as it painstakingly warmed itself and the room. I added eggs, vanilla extract, baking powder, espresso and flour. Cocoa, cinnamon and a daring dash of cayenne.

It took a while to figure out how to hold and carry baking sheets, how to portage dirty mixing bowls across to the sink and reach the spices way up on the top shelf. But soon it became a rhythm – the exact number of crutched steps I could take holding a bowl without losing balance, the length of time I could stand comfortably on my swaying right leg while my left hung delicately bent above the ground. The sound of my voice humming a cheerful melody was surprising.

And in the end, I pulled a tray of steaming and soft chocolate-chile butter cookies out of the oven. They were not the most beautiful I have ever seen – lumpy and uneven in my stiffly uncoordinated attempt at arranging them on the tray. I put my face close to the cookies; I could smell their warmth, if not their scent. Temperature holds a new value in my nose – heat is the smell of two bodies huddling in warmth on a freezing winter’s night under a mound of blankets; cold is the smell of the slowly vibrating chairlift as it brings me to the top of a frosty ski mountain in Vermont. I can smell the scentless temperature; it brings vivid recollections to mind.

Since that first foray back into the world of cooking, I have not been able to stop. I have gained enough strength to use my right leg as a balancing tool for long periods of time. I can leave my crutches leaning quietly alone on the far wall of the kitchen while I navigate the small room with well placed hops. To any fly on the wall, I look like a strange one-legged culinary rabbit, jumping abnormally to and fro with bowls and pans in our small little kitchen. But being able to cook and having the desire to step back into the kitchen makes me feel very much alive.

Some of what I’ve made has been, as my mother says, erratic. But I suppose that is all I can expect in my smell-less attempts at savory experimentation. Baking, however, with its necessary measurements and scientific precision, does not need a nose for excellence. Where my Moroccan chicken tagine, sheep’s milk and caramelized onion pasta, and even basic salad dressing may have been lacking the taste subtleties that come with scent, my almond cake, pumpkin pie, gingerbread, gateau au citron, chocolate pecan and oatmeal raisin cookies have been a reassuring jump back into the delicious. My only problem now is the sheer amount of baked goods that seems to spew themselves out of my oven. It’s a good thing I have wonderful friends willing to take them off my hands.

A Return to Cooking with my Ugly Chocolate-Chile Butter Cookies
adapted from Cooks Illustrated

While many were skeptical of the cayenne in these rich cookies (I do seem to add it to many things these days because I can taste it completely), the subtle bite of the chile gives a complex taste beyond the ordinary that even people who can smell really enjoy.

2 1/2 sticks of softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon instant espresso
1 cup sugar
pinch salt
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 cup toasted almonds, ground finely in the food processor
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 1/4 cups flour

Preheat the oven to 375. Mix together butter, sugar, salt, cocoa and espresso on high speed until fluffy. Add egg yolks and vanilla. Lower the mixer speed and add the ground almonds, cinnamon and cayenne. Once incorporated, begin adding the flour slowly. When the dough comes together, take it out of the mixer and roll it into a round log around 2 inches thick and a foot long. Wrap it in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for an hour. When you're ready to bake, slice rounds off of the log, about a quarter inch thick, and place them on parchment lined baking sheets. Bake 12 minutes.

And thank you to Shauna for the Rilke quote, I think about it often.

"Let everything happen to you,
beauty and terror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final."

Thursday, October 20, 2005


The wine glasses clinked in unison, the cheers reverberating around the flickering candlelight in our small dining room. My mother, her boyfriend and I had bought this bottle of wine together when were in Italy at the end of the summer. A splurge on Brunello di Montalcino for a special occasion, we had said. We were all leaning in at the table, our faces closer together over the bulky weight of the table. Becca, having arrived that morning in a cloud of rain, sat across from me. The smiles were infectious. The laughter billowing up from the pit of my stomach felt strange, unfamiliar, wonderfully comforting all at the same time.

I placed my nose carefully near the inside of the fluted crystal glass. The red wine moved in a jaunty pirouette around the diminishing inner curve. I held the glass away from me, admiring the deep color in the light and then put it back towards my nose.

I inhaled deeply. Once, twice, three times. It was there; a scent was lurking in the back of my nose. A dark aroma of the outdoors, a cloudy fruitiness, a jarring tang. It cascaded down my throat. Brief, muted, but there all the same.

I looked up to find everyone staring at me. My family and Becca were watching me closely, simultaneously, wondering if I could smell, if I could taste, if I would hold it against them that they could. My surprised smile seemed to elevate their sympathetic anxiety.

I took a sip. I could taste the fruit; the thick sweetness of the red wine coated the roof of my mouth with its intensity. I could taste the acidity, a twang in the back of my throat as I exhaled again. The flavors were intense, wonderful, and jarringly separate. There was no melding between the sugar and acid. It had a strange echo of the familiar taste, but an overwhelming jump to the oddly split unknown.

When Becca left on Sunday night for her long trek back to upstate New York after a wonderfully refreshing weekend visit, I sat on my bed and inhaled deeply. There was no smell, per usual. Nothing but that all too familiar twang of loneliness residing in the back of my throat.

I have been existing in a strangely dissected world. I am recovered and strong enough to regain important snippets of my life. I took myself off of painkillers in order to remove the fog that I’ve felt continuously enveloping my mind. I can think clearly; I can laugh with my friends; I can move around hobbled only by my need for crutches. I grasp at my old social life, my old movement and taste. I am just beginning to smell a light waft of that deep sweetness, normalcy. It is constantly countered by that intense acidity of frustrating confusion, however. I am not beyond the immediate effects of my injuries, no matter the delicious progress I have made.

And so sipping my drink that night – my first taste of wine in months, finally off of my pain meds – it felt familiar in its strange dissociation of taste. My taste, my life, are torn between a happy sweetness of recovery and a dull tang of seeming impenetrable injury.

But I certainly think our bottle of Brunello was put to good use. The sweetness and acidity of the wine, however separate for me at the moment, are integral parts of its makeup. Eventually they will meld. Eventually everything will come together.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Kind Of Blue

The hard click seemed to echo through my body, vibrating slightly in the pit of my stomach. It came suddenly, after my softly said goodbye, the responding good luck Molly and the cold weight of the phone to my ear suddenly surprised me with its heaviness. I sat broodingly on the couch, my braced left knee perched on a vibrantly pink pillow in front of me. I stared out the nearby window, watching the wind jostle the course of the darkening rain storm, the beginning of the holiday weekend’s bad weather. The familiar rhythm of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue enveloped the pattering rain with its lilting jazz, an unavoidable melding of sound that matched my loudly confused state of mind.

I was tossed from my mood of quiet thinking by the piercing whistle of the phone again. My Mom.

Well Mom, it’s official. I sighed overdramatically, feeling quite bad for myself.

What? she asked, the phone crackling in the background.

I am officially not going to culinary school in December. I almost shouted; saying it out loud made it final, a change that I knew was coming but never expected to be real. I’m just somehow surprised that this is all happening.

It’ll be ok, Molly. Of course she’s right; mothers are always right.

And later, as I continued my avid watch of the windy wet weather, a bulky copy of E.M. Forster’s Howards End balanced precariously on my knee, my thoughts leapt unavoidably around the CIA. It had taken me a few weeks to call them, so hesitant to admit the truth, that I would not be ready to go to culinary school by my official starting date in early December. I'm slowly mending from my physical injuries. My disturbing loss of smell (resulting in my frustratingly muffled sense of taste) is also reasserting itself in painstakingly lethargic dawdle. I can’t in all reality go to the CIA until I am myself again. I found myself surprised, stunned, that the call was so easy to make. I expected turmoil and trouble; I expected this call to reflect the past six weeks of difficultly and frustration. But I changed my entrance date in less than five minutes, listening half heartedly to the cheerful reassurances of the breathy voiced admissions officer.

Alright Molly, you are officially now going to begin your culinary associate’s degree in May, 2006. Thank you for calling.

As I cradled the phone on my shoulder, writing down my new information in thick black ink in my journal, I imagined the scene on the other end of the line. The efficient admissions secretary was perched on a thickly cushioned desk chair, a black phone headset angled over and around wildly frizzy blond hair, her mouth splayed into a wide friendly smile, the computer humming and the blinking red lights of her active phone subtly shining a reflection onto the window of her office. And nearby, close to that mystery woman who entered the data of a life change I was not ready to make, were knife-set bearing, white chef garbed culinary students going about their daily life.

Damn I’m sad, I thought, attempting to rearrange thoughts of my future, this year, in my head.

But as I sat, momentarily depressed on the long cushioned couch, I eventually had to let out the creeping urge to smile a bit. I am getting through this; I will be better; culinary school will come. A change of schedule, no matter how difficult or surprising, in this world is nothing to be permanently worked up about. And the sound of rain really is beautiful.

It is hard to admit, but there is a part of me that is relieved. I do very much want to begin my culinary education. But at the same time, this accident has scrambled up my thoughts on everything that I was so sure I ‘knew’ before. Right now, I am not ready to follow any kind of plan. I’m not ready to jump off of any sort of cliff of decision. I will take it slowly; I will write my way through it all. Despite the plans and urgings of many friends and family, I just have no idea what I’m going to do.

I stayed in my father’s house in New Hampshire after my surgery for a few weeks of recovery. He has never been a pronounced foodie, by any means. (He did, however, give me my genetic and profound love of mustard. I give him credit for that.) But he announced to me one day, a smile playing on his lips almost masked by his mustache and beard, a new ‘award winning’ idea.

Molly, you will be…The Tasteless Gourmet! Can you just see it now? You will bee looking at food in such a different way, totally original! No taste, no smell, but everything else! You will make it big! I rolled my eyes, not wanting to think about my lack of smell relating to any kind of life plan.

But Dad, my taste and smell are coming back. I don’t know how well that would work, really…

But he just smiled, excited by the prospect. And I laughed, thinking how strange it would be if that plan was a success, somewhere in a strangely mottled dream world.

And the other day – in one of my frequent long distance discussions with Becca (none of them ever having to do with celebrity gossip at all, of course) – we talked about my options.

Just start cooking, Molly. You can make up recipes according to your strange new taste buds. And then I’ll come visit and be your tasting judge.

I heartily accepted her offer, amused by the possibilities of my newfound food habits (lacking a strong sense of smell gives me a very new and surprising, albeit very muted, palette). Alright, I’ve got it - you know how I love salsa, Becca, now that one of the only things I can completely taste is spicy things. And of course I still love ice cream, no matter how much I can taste beyond the sugar. I think we’ll have to start this recipe creation session with some salsa ice cream. Giggling to myself at the prospect, knowing the horror on her face.

Oh, ok, fine. Fun. No problem. And I promise I’ll even smile after I taste it, no matter what I think or how much I want to throw up.

I have wonderful friends and family. That is what it all really comes down to.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

unexpected changes

I am sitting on the plush beige armchair in the living room of my mom’s house right now. It just finished raining outside, the light is dim and there is a thick brush of humidity hanging heavily around my already frizzy hair. A cool breeze slowly wraps itself around my shoulders, sneaking in through the screen door behind me. My computer is balanced lightly on my thighs. And I don’t really know what to write.

The past three weeks have been jarring – to my body, my mind, my family and friends, my future. I don’t remember the accident (luckily, I think) at all. I don’t remember the days in the hospital or even the first days of being home. I vaguely remember seeing some old friends come to visit, bursting into tears. I have hazy images of flowers and balloons, bottles of vibrantly colored pills and extremely awkwardly used metal crutches. A combination of switching my pain medication and the beginning slow process of healing a skull fracture restored my mind, my memory and lucidity. I couldn’t read or write until about a week ago, dizzy and confused. But I am now just beginning to process what has happened. I am just now beginning to fully understand and appreciate how wonderful my friends and family have been to me. It has hit me like a bolt of lightning how unbelievably lucky I am. I will be 100% better in time. I go into surgery tomorrow for my left knee. After that it is simply a long road to recovery. I am scared. But I am also happy that I am here, that I am alright and that things will certainly be ok.

The hardest thing for me at the moment, however, has nothing to do with my bones. I am more than willing to put in the effort to recover from a broken knee, pelvis, skull. They will be fine. I am terrified because of one of the effects of the skull fracture -

I have lost my sense of smell.

There was a bruising on my brain in the front, right behind my forehead, where the neurons for the sense of smell reside. The doctors are hopeful; I am keeping every possible aspect of my body crossed. No one knows if it will return. There is a possibility that it will, brains simply take a bit of time to heal and rewire. My smell could pop right back in within a month, two months, even a year. There is also the possibility that the ligaments connecting my smell neurons to my nose were broken completely; I will never smell again. And without smell, taste is a mere invisible possibility. Salt, sweet, bitter and sour are fine. But there is nothing else. Texture and temperature is all I have right now. France is already a non-possibility. Culinary school is now on precarious balance. If I can’t taste, how will my life involve food?

So I am at home now, looking outside at the slowly growing sunshine, wondering (perhaps too worriedly) where I am going. I am confused about the speed in which things change. I am confused about what I am going to do with myself. For now, though, I am going to concentrate on healing and coming back to be the Molly that I have missed. I am well on my way and I am positive this will be an experience that will give a meaningful shape to my life. Until then, I will spend my time with my friends, my family, sniffing everything possible (practice will makes perfect), and writing. I will certainly continue to update My Madeleine. A passion for cooking and food is certainly not taken away by a smell-stealing accident. With full hope that all my senses will soon be back to normal, this will be a striking experience. It will be a short-term entrance into a strange world hardly desired by someone so in love with eating. But it is one that will heighten my other senses - the visual, temperature, texture, atmosphere. I am beginning to look at what I love in a new way. There are many unexpected changes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

an update

(this is molly's friend becca.) on august 30th, molly was hit by a car while jogging. she injured her knee and fractured both her pelvis and skull. thankfully, she's going to be completely fine. she's doing much better these days, but is still a bit too dizzy to read or type quite yet. she'll be updating as soon as she can.

Monday, August 29, 2005

what followed me to italy

Cold, brown water gushed from a black opening in the bottom of the wall-mounted air conditioner near my bed. It roared out of the rumbling metal contraption, splashing on the gleaming mahogany chest of drawers below and forming muddled pools on the bronze tiled floor. The majority of that putrid water was collecting in large plastic buckets, thick and hefty. Each filthy bucket was deposited on my bed. One by one, a never ending stream. I couldn’t see who was putting them there – an invisible hand was slowly, carefully stacking them in concentric circles around where I lay. Through closed eyes I imagined a hazy cave of plastic, felt an encroaching suffocation, a dreamy procession of liquid kitchen-duties literally piling up on top of me. The large canopied bed, fitted with off-white blankets and ruffled pillows was inundated with the containers of mysteriously flowing water. I lay there under my covers, utterly unwilling and unable to move. I could feel their watery weight shifting the mattress, yet I still could not make myself get up. There was no way I could rouse myself to bring the buckets to the sink and empty them like I knew, somehow, I was supposed to. I was so tired; it was so late. They were piling up so quickly. I would soon be crushed.

I dug myself deeply under my blankets, hair wildly flung about my pillow, restlessly tossing about, half in this disturbing dream world. My impending suffocation-by-air-conditioner-water was eerily real, yet still not sharp enough to throw me into full wakefulness. I could practically hear The Chef yelling my name, reprimanding my tardy cleaning. Why are those buckets still full? What the hell are you doing? I mumbled incoherently, tossing and turning, unable to shake the sound of rushing water.

A bucket floating over my head, slowly descending – I woke with a start, alone in an empty bed, on my first night in Umbria. I was surprised to find a dry mattress, a smoothly running air conditioner.

The restaurant followed me to Italy. The Chef in my dreams did not seem to care that I was in an Umbrian villa with my family; he hounded me as there was work to be done. I couldn’t fall asleep again that first jet-lagged night. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had left (my dream? the restaurant?) too suddenly, that S. would be stuck taking all the water from the bed in Umbria to the sink alone.


I was surprised on this trip to Italy to find that my rudimentary restaurant-Spanish eclipsed all the Italian I had studied in college. It took me two days to stop saying hola when I meant buongiorno; a week to substitute molto for mucho. I was also surprised to find myself thinking about S. far more than anyone else I left at the restaurant. And so before I can write about Italy, I need to write about him. S. touched me far more than I affected him, I’m sure. But he was a defining character in my life this summer.

S., the other prep-chef and dishwasher in the small restaurant where I worked this summer, is a short man, standing only a few inches higher than my 5’3. His dark skin is rough, weather-hewn, stretched across his small features in a way that makes him look much older than his 31 years. His eyes, though, are young, sad. He is thin but strong, his belly just beginning to acquire a slight paunch. At the end of each night of work his shirt and pants were always spotless, pristinely clean in comparison to my inevitably stained clothing. He is quiet; it took an entire summer of long hours in the prep room, our heads bent over a mountain of fresh garbanzo beans or dirty mushrooms, unfamiliar words tossed out into the void of mistranslation, before I felt like I knew him at all.

S. emigrated from El Salvador two years go, leaving behind a girlfriend, 4-year-old son, and five of his nine siblings. He speaks hardly a word of English, despite his great desire to learn this foreign tongue and get a better job.

As my Spanish improved, I began translating what was said in the kitchen for him: the jokes, the insults, the quickly spouted instructions. Never before having felt integrated into the restaurant life, he appreciated the newfound lingual entrance. He was inspired enough to sign up for an English class beginning this fall. He, in turn, always managed to procure and save for me the extra desserts that were unfit for service, knowing my undying passion for chocolate. It was a wonderful partnership.

One night during a lull of service, he showed me his boxing moves, blowing out air in mock speed sounds from his mouth, eyes narrowed, a glint in his eyes – ferocious and utterly disconnected form the meekly gentle man that I dishwashed with. He was in the El Salvadorian army for five years. He ran two hours a day with his fellow soldiers, he told me proudly. His back is covered with light purple, spidery thin scars.

S. gave me a high-five and a goofily loud Hola, chica each afternoon when we converged at the sink. He plays soccer ever Sunday morning in the park with his friends, paints houses on his days off, and sends all his extra money back to his family. He worked harder than anyone I have ever witnessed: never a shortcut, hardly ever a break, night after night without fail, his cheerfulness never faltering. Our lives were different in every possible way. I feel incredibly lucky to have known him. I feel guilty to be moving on. I went to work at the restaurant expecting only an experience of food. What has been foremost in my mind recently, however, is my undying respect for S., a man who drowned every morsel of food in Tabasco sauce.

When I said goodbye to him my last night, I gave him my phone number so that he could practice his English when he began taking the language class. He told me that he doesn’t have a phone.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

on leaving the restaurant and going to italy

Last week I told The Chef that I was leaving the restaurant. His eyes hardened and narrowed into a cold, penetrating stare. He blew a puff of offended air, exploding out of his pursed lips.

When The Chef hired me last spring we agreed that I would be traveling the last two weeks in August in Italy with my mom. I have been plagued by a constant rumble of guilt, lodged deep in the pit of my stomach, while deciding the future of my employment. But in the end, I will not be returning to my dishwashing position after this Italian journey.

The Chef was not happy; I braced myself for his wrath.

I told him that I have the opportunity to go to France, to learn the language. (Which I do; a village in the Alps.) And then an earlier starting date at culinary school.

Culinary school. What a waste. Why pay for that crock when you could be working; learning with your hands.

I told him how much I respect him and his work. This job has been an eye opening experience; I have learned more than I could ever have dreamed of.

Stop blowing hot air up my ass, Molly.

I apologized for leaving earlier than The Chef has wanted; I feel irresponsible.

You are irresponsible. This is not Brown; you can’t wake up and roll out of bed and go to class. You are an utter disappointment.

The words hit my like a slap in the face. I am an utter disappointment.

Attempting to fight the tears welling up in my eyes (there’s no crying in kitchens, Molly) I began to ramble, desperately trying to redeem my horrifying crash of respect in the eyes of The Chef. I told him that I wanted to write; that I needed more academic tutoring, a look at food beyond a faraway observation and a mountain of dirty plates. In the last few months he himself has spent a total of ten minutes with me, teaching me only to devein shrimp. I need more; I have the opportunity for more. I can’t pass it up, no matter how much I respect him.

Go interview Ruth Reichl. She worked in a kitchen. Apple worked in a kitchen. You are too romantic, Molly. That is not reality; live in the real world.

In a sad display of dishwasher toughness, I tried to smile as the tears slid unwelcome down my cheeks.

I’m sorry, Chef. I need to move on.

The Chef just stared at my, poignantly, as if he were visually measuring my worth and finding it obviously, painfully lacking. Ok, fine. Thank you for your work.

I told S. later that night in my halting Spanish, bursting into tears again. It was not a good night for dishwashing stoicism. I valiantly finished out the week, hoping somewhere in the back of my mind to impress The Chef with my hard work enthusiasm, romantic notions and all.


I leave for Italy this afternoon. There is so much more I have to write about The Chef, J., A., and S. It will have to wait until I return, two weeks from now.

But in conclusion, I have gained many things in my summer as a dishwasher and prep chef:

A continuing and undeniable love of all things culinary,

A hugely consuming respect for anyone who works in a kitchen,

A fascination with preserved meats like confit,

An even greater fascination with France, the French and French food,

Seven pounds in muscle,

And a groundwork of stories and personalities that I will never tire of writing about.

Monday, August 08, 2005

a sweetbreads overkill

I simultaneously adore and loathe Sunday nights at the restaurant. It’s a typical hectic night of chopping, cleaning, washing, and dodging clumsy backwaiters while balancing large stacks of dishes right up until 9pm on the dot. That’s when things change; that’s when The Chef’s Whim begins.

The Whim is a four course tasting menu, created by The Chef on the spur of the moment. It is done in waves: one each at 9, 9:30, and 10. Each eating member of the wave dines on the same things, though every wave is different. The food is brought out one course at a time by a parade of smiling servers, vibrant colors jumping off the feast of plates. It is an ingenious way to clear out the diminished supplies of food in the walk-in refrigerator before the restaurant closes for our two day ‘weekend’.

I loathe Sunday nights because the service takes hours longer. An additional course and a longer wait between the expedition of plates makes for extended periods of time with little to do and a much more intense post-service cleaning. Stumbling into bed at 3am after an intense Whim often makes me wonder what the hell I’m doing cleaning my brains out at the restaurant and not spending more time asleep.

The lull of work during The Whim, however, is prime observation time. And this is what I love. For each course The Chef lines up the empty, thick white plates (sometimes there are so many they are balanced all over the kitchen; extra space sometimes even found on the edge of the sink). He and the sous-chefs L. and J. follow him, each bearing a sauté pan filled with meticulously cooked delicacies. They all hunch over the plates, working quickly, closely. The Chef swirls an artistic line of bright green sauce, frothy and filled with spring. L. carefully balances a plump pink piece of olive-oil poached sea bass at a left-handed angle. J. delicately arranges a pile of buttery vegetables, careful not to repeat colors. The Chef returns, working his way down each plate, sprinkling lemon zest, fleur de sel. L. comes back with a tiny mound of crispy fried ginger on the crown of each piece of fish. J. wipes the edges of the plates, aesthetically perfect. I am entranced. The nimble delicacy of their work, the visual artwork, the utter penchant for perfectionism that they embody as a team: I drink it in with my eyes.

The highlights of last night’s Whim included a creamy corn soup, pale yellow and glisteningly fresh; a flash of butter poached lobster, dark and small cockles; crispy chicken breast and confit with a shockingly orange apricot puree. The second course for the second wave: a mountain of crispy fried lamb sweetbreads on a creamy ginger sauce paired with buttery sautéed vegetables. As the plates were being carefully lifted to the service window, The Chef called out to the house manager: Call the Mount Auburn Hospital – tell them to expect 11 heart attack victims within the next hour. These people don’t know what’s coming! He was smiling, gleeful with his sweetbread generosity and the delicious bomb of pure gourmet fat the dining room was at that moment happily imbibing.

The Chef later created a special Whim just for the five of us kitchen staff: a four course tasting of buffalo “wings” paired with an emulsified blue cheese dipping sauce. We all crowded around the metal serving cart, laughing and clinking our delightfully cold beers, reveling in our strange and tasty late-night-bar-food-with-a-twist. It was a neon red, eyes-wateringly spicy, unhealthy feast. I was in heaven. We ate crisply deep fried buffalo rock shrimp that burst with flavor in my mouth; a smooth pile buffalo scallops; a interestingly textured buffalo squid; and to top off our own culinary overkill, buffalo sweetbreads. You haven’t lived until you’ve had my special buffalo sweetbreads, The Chef told me proudly. He was right. no matter what else, this experience is still about the food.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

pork confit for a beer

I spent two hours last night with my arms submerged to the elbow in a bucket of slick yellow pork fat, slimy and viscous, pulling apart the tender meat of pork confit. I first slid my hands slowly under the thick layer of skin on each piece, using my fingers to separate the attaching fibers – the leathery squishiness was at first alarming but soon its wonderfully disgusting texture was almost comforting in the warm oil. The skin came off in one long piece; “perfect to make a mask with,” as the sous-chef A. told me. (An image of the kitchen staff, all wearing elaborate pig’s skin masks, dancing around the deep fryer immediately sprung to mind…) The skin will be dried and baked, a richly flavored chip. And then, discarding the cartilage, bones and gristle, I shredded the meat – so tender it practically dissolved in my hands. It smelled like a cozy winter’s night; a delicious olfactory journey away from the 100 degree kitchen. It tastes like the best pork you’ve ever had, only richer, more delicate and infinitely tender.

Confit, according to my newest idol Harold McGee, is a word “used loosely to describe just about anything cooked slowly and gently to a rich, succulent consistency: onions in olive oil, for example, or shrimp cooked and stored under clarified butter.” Or, in the case of my little restaurant, an array of heartier meats: hunks of pork, chicken thigh, lamb and duck tongue. The meat is cooked slowly in the oven at a low temperature, submerged in fat (either thickly rich pork or duck fat) for around 8 hours. Once cooled, I take the tender meats, cradling them delicately in the palm of my hand like a baby animal, and place them neatly into plastic tubs. I strain the cooking fat over the top to remove impurities until the meat is completely covered. This concoction is stored in the confit refrigerator; the meat is preserved by burying it under the airtight layer of fat. One month later it is removed and the great skin-removal and meat shredding begins.

It was one of the first times I was asked to handle a finished meat product for service. I felt much more a part of the production aspect of the restaurant, if only for a brief few hours. In the last two weeks The Chef has (somewhat grudgingly) given me more responsibility after a sous-chef quit. Along with the confit, I have been tutored in the preparation of ice creams (thyme, lemon verbena, crème fraise) and the dough for mini-donut beignets. The increased responsibility, no matter how brief it will be, makes me feel more of a person in the restaurant rather than a dishwashing work-horse.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to watch, however, the treatment of my co-worker S., a 31-year-old El Salvadorian who speaks no English. He is nowhere near abused, certainly; everyone is very nice. But as I have gained a bit of responsibility and a modicum of respect, his status of dishwashing work-horse is painfully obvious. I have been thinking about this a lot and will soon write more about him. But last night after the last plate went out, beers were passed around in the kitchen, a clink of good work on a busy Saturday night. The Chef handed me one (sweet reviving coldness pouring down my throat) and a pat on the back. He saw S. watching, yearning to be included, but only shook his head. No beer for you while working, S. Maybe later, man. S. did not understand The Chef’s words exactly, only the fact that he is the only one not allowed to have a drink at the conclusion of service. S. looked sad, eyes softened. But he also nodded in acceptance; he is resolved to his lower status. I don’t understand why, really; I had a guilty lump in the back of my throat as I drank.

I would gladly have given up all the pork confit in the world for S. to just have a beer with the rest of us.

Thursday, August 04, 2005


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.

Monday, August 01, 2005

chicken heads, temper tantrums, and the deveining of shrimp

Trying to fall asleep last night, I was barraged by images of chicken heads bobbing in a steaming vat of stock whenever I closed my eyes. Dribbles of oil and hunks of aromatic vegetables floating like life rafts behind my eyelids were begging the drowning poultry to grab hold.

I have been spending an increasing amount of time with stocks at work. I strain them, the huge metal vats piping hot off the stove, and cool them down. When the stocks – most often chicken and veal – cool, the fat coagulates and rises to the top. It’s my job to get them into a portable container and in the fridge before that happens. Not only has this given me massive arm muscles (on my day off last week I had dinner with Alex, who I hadn’t seen in a few months; he took one look at my shoulders and biceps and quickly dubbed me Rambo) but also it has given me a strangely disturbing array of pre-sleep images. No matter how many decapitated animalia I encounter, I am always a little shocked and surprised by their vacant eyes and limp neck sockets.

Since the blackout, this week went by in a blur, probably due to increased working hours. Eleven hours of dishwashing can do a number on your mental faculties, let me tell you. I feel like my brain is encased in a fog.

There were moments that stand out, however. Some were unfortunately of absolute horror -

Last night in the heat of service, the sous chef L. dropped two perfectly plated masterpieces of lamb’s tongue confit in a smash of broken china on the floor. The Chef looked stunned for a moment; the dishes were for a table of ‘very VIP’ and it was the last of the lamb’s tongue. He visibly clenched his jaw, perhaps trying to hold in the unavoidable blow out. But then yelled FUCK and slammed his fist down on the metal counter. He whirled around, looking at the mess, and slammed his fist down again. Plates rattled on the shelves; a collective cringe went through the kitchen staff. The Chef refused to make eye contact with L.; the kitchen was silent for the rest of service. The tension was so tangible I felt as if I could scoop it out of the air and store it in the fridge just like chicken stock.

The garde manger ( or salad and dessert chef) J. also began making mistakes again on Friday night. It began when he attempted to send out a plate of sour milk panna cotta which wasn’t perfect. The Chef saw and coldly moved right up in J’s face. What the fuck do you think you’re doing man? Do you think I don’t see everything here? EVERYTHING? Do it over. Walking away he muttered: I’ve got a garde manger cook who doesn’t know right from wrong.

J. has the unfortunate tendency to shut down under pressure and criticism. As soon as The Chef began his loud rant, J. only made more mistakes. The more yelling, the more imperfect plates. It’s a vicious cycle – one that spells doom for J’s chances to work sauté line, a position that he visibly yearns for. With each additional sloppy plate, the heat of The Chef’s mounting anger spread. It certainly reached as far as the sink and I wouldn’t have been surprised to later find my eyebrows singed off. J. was a disaster and The Chef was unrelenting. There was something wrong with every single plate, no matter what. The peach crisp he plated was one inch too big. The foie gras was a centimeter too thin. The green salad was not stacked tall enough; there were three too many crispy onions on top. The colorful vegetables in the farm stand salad were not arranged with proper visual gradation. It was painful to watch, my own ears were burning with embarrassment for J. He crumbled under the pressure.

After service, J. walked around the kitchen with blank eyes, foul temper, deflated ego, and a visible, undulating hatred for The Chef.

This week there were also, however, moments of wonderful gastronomy -

The Chef was wearing denim shorts and a ratty blue t-shirt. Without his baggy chef’s whites he was an alien being, unfamiliar and strange. But, not surprisingly, much more approachable. Together, hunched over the back prep table, he gave me a lesson on cleaning fresh Georgian shrimp. We peeled the shells off of their slick gray bodies, slit open their backs and delicately removed their digestive tracts. We kept them in a metal bowl resting in a box of ice. Seafood, The Chef told me, is ideally kept just a bit over freezing. The refrigerator, kept at 40 degrees, is still a bit too warm. Even a few degrees affects its taste. He is a thorough, inspiring teacher. I hung onto his every word, trying to drink in his knowledge. He asked me if I read about food. I said yes, of course, and rambled off a list of my most recent culinary literature (Calvin Trillin, MFK Fisher, Ruth Reichl…). The Chef just looked at me and raised his eyebrows. Get your head out of the clouds, Molly. Read about real food. Leave the romance for later.

I bought myself a copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking this morning.

And in one of the first working relationships where the whisper of friendship lurks somewhere in the background, the sous-chef A. seems to have taken me under her wing. Every night she helps me to make a list of things to be done, explaining the science behind technique and answering the multitude of questions with which I barrage her. She went to the Culinary Institute of America; when I told her that I was in the process of applying there she hugged me.