Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Iron Chef Providence. Battle: Everything in our Kitchen.


It was a fierce battle in apartment-kitchen stadium, Monday night, 6pm. Iron chef Molly and Iron Chef Becca battled the fiercest opponent of all, themselves. Judged by the most intimidating, awe-inspiring culinary critics known to Brown university campus (also known as Molly and Becca), the Iron Chefs put up an intense fight, desperately striving to win points for their own taste buds.

With only five more days left in the apartment, all stock-piled food had to go. The shelves stacked with all sorts of ingredients needed to be purged of their delicious load. Upon entering the kitchen stadium, Iron Chef Molly and Iron Chef Becca quickly put their heads together to come up with a battle plan. It was difficult, thinking under that kind of intense pressure, but in the end I think we all agree that they triumphed.

Under the clock, the chefs performed a miraculous feat of culinary expertise. A porcini mushroom risotto was made with one whithered onion, white rice, chicken stock, dried porcini mushrooms (ones that Iron Chef Molly had brought with her back from Italy), and a small chunk of parmesan that had lived in the back of the cheese drawer for some time. Its pungent aroma infiltrated the noses of the hungry judges, inspiring them while they cooked.

In a surprising turn of events, this rice dish doubled as an appetizer – risotto cakes - coated with flour, egg, and a Total and Kix Cereal crust, fried in some vegetable oil.

A frozen pizza crust was topped with a tomato sauce made from canned tomatoes, shallots, garlic, dried basil and oregano, simmered to perfection on the stovetop in the kitchen’s one remaining unpacked sauté pan. Over that the pizza was covered with instant spinach and ricotta tortellini, purchased from the supermarket on an experimental whim. The Iron Chefs found instant tortellini to be surprisingly delicious. Topped with parmesan and baked in the oven, the pizza looked like some kind of postmodern art object.

A Jiffy corn bread mix, dried cranberries added, was used to make muffins. They were topped with a crystallized ginger, walnut, and brown sugar streusel. They came out of the oven piping hot, golden brown. Frozen phillo cups (purchased last July) were filled with lemon pudding, set in the refrigerator and topped with a single frozen raspberry (until the raspberries ran out, then just plain).

When these creations were put to the judging panel, Iron chef Molly and Iron Chef Becca were pleased to find that they actually enjoyed their dinner. The risotto was a nice balance of flavors – even the distinctive taste of Kix Cereal in the risotto cakes gave an interesting depth, certainly enhancing the eating experience. What the tortellini pizza lacked in texture and a certain mix of flavor, it made up for with heart. The corn muffins were sweet, crumbly, and followed with a nice zip of ginger down the throat. The lemon philo cups tasted like Maalox, but were pretty to look at. All in all on the scale from 1-10, Molly and Becca awarded themselves a 7.0 for flavor, and a 9.5 for plating, and a 12.0 for originality.

Battle: Everything in the Refrigerator - an overwhelming success in the minds of the only ones that count and the only ones present for the battle, Molly and Becca.

Monday, May 23, 2005

on gourmet muffins, truffle stained notebooks, paris, and becca.

A cool October, almost two years ago, I flew from Florence, where I was studying art for the semester, to Paris, where Becca was living for the year. It was my fall break; I crashed on the floor of her room - a tiny, quiet space off the side of her host family’s apartment. In the mornings we heard the faint voice of opera music; the man living across the way was a professional singer. We walked all over the city, breathing in the sights and smells. I was enthralled with all that is Paris; wanting to eat the colors of the art, drink the way the water shimmered through the cracks in the wood panels of a bridge near the Louvre, smell the crisp lines of Rodin’s sculptures. We wandered in museums for hours on end – stumbling upon a favorite Degas, Cezanne, Seurat was overwhelmingly delicious. The museums are filled with long-lost friends, ones that I have had a long correspondence with, yet never met. We explored old graveyards, finding Chopin’s and Proust’s in the dappled afternoon light of November 1st, an eerie Day of the Dead. We laughed constantly and hysterically over everything and nothing, took pictures of ourselves in the booth at the subway station. We bought pounds of candy on Halloween and horrified Becca’s host family when they walked into the house to find us swimmingly tipsy on white wine, surrounded by junk food.

Becca introduced me to French food with an intensive eating-fest. Delicate lemon tarts, creamy carrot soups with crisp goat cheese tartines, crusty baguettes, softly sweet chocolate macaroons, tangy fromage blanc and gooey cheese crepes. We studied the menus of every restaurant we passed and ate out at one fancy restaurant that we pretended we could afford – salmon and perch duo with caramelized grapefruit sauce, mushroom cake with pesto and cider reduction, banana cake with violet, crème brulee with lemon and thyme. We had streaks of chocolate glued to our faces as we reveled in the chocolate fair in the Louvre – a foie gras and chocolate onion chutney sandwich, the earthy sweet crunchiness a surprisingly perfect medley, burned itself into my taste memory. It was a beautiful week with a beautiful friend.

It was also the week that we both realized our mutual obsession with food. We may have suspected it before, but when over 10 days together in Europe we gleefully spent a large portion of our bank accounts together on culinary extravaganzas, we knew with certainty. Over tea, tarts, and our mutual culinary revelations one afternoon in Paris, Becca and I talked for hours about the future. For life after college the only possible option, we decided with wonderful arbitrariness, was to open a muffin shop. A gourmet muffin shop. And later that night, warmly inspired by the white wine and crème de cassis in our glasses of kir, we listed all of the muffin flavors we would create with our culinary genius. We even went so far as to make a pact: neither one of us would eat a muffin until Becca returned from Paris, both of us safely back at Brown together.

And today, cleaning out my room, packing and preparing to depart Providence, I found a forgotten notebook. It is a worn, hand-dyed blank book that I bought in Florence. The front cover is, fittingly, stained with some truffle oil that spilled in my bag in the flight back to the US. It is filled with my careful handwriting – a complete container of recipes and detailed lists of things I ate while in Europe that fall and winter. And hidden away in the back, I found the muffin flavor list. Savory and sweet, deliciously inventive and ridiculously repulsive, we covered the spectrum of options with over 80 potential muffins.

We’ve hardly made a single muffin in the last year since Becca returned from France. We’ve inundated our apartment with countless other baking experiments instead. And now post-college, different occupations and locations are calling us. The muffins will have to wait. But I don’t doubt that someday Becca and I will find a way to combine our creative juices into some kind of baked good adventure. Until then, though, I’ll just have to dream about the taste of a lemon-champagne, chile-chocolate, or bergamot. I bet those muffins will be delicious.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

an ode to cottage cheese toast

As this last semester, the last month, (and not to mention my entire foreseeable academic career) is quickly winding down to its end, I think that it is necessary to bring attention to one of the strangest and most delightful rituals I have had in the past year. Me, Becca, and lunch. For two people so obsessed with food, it is remarkable strange that we eat the same thing almost every afternoon, perched in our black wooden chairs at the little wobbly wood breakfast table extending from the center island.

If I were trying to be all gourmand-y, I might say that we indulge in the elegant French tradition of tartines, an open-face crispy bread topped with such delectables as a light and airy cheese curd over a spread of tangy dijon, fresh garden tomatoes, crunchy cucumber pickles, and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper to top. A palate cleanser of seasonal fruit fruit. To finish, a selection dark chocolate.

If I were to speak truthfully, I would say that everyday we foodies inexplicably eat a piece of toast with cottage cheese, tomatoes, and pickles (often the kind sweetened with Splenda - gasp of horror). Mine is always with obscene amount of mustard (I can’t help it; I’m pretty sure my love of the stuff is genetic. Just ask my dad.) We heat up left over coffee from breakfast. Sometimes we munch on pretzels, straining and using our entire arm length to reach them at the bottom of the huge plastic pretzel container which lives under our cookie shelf. (Yes, we have an entire shelf dedicated to cookies). Then, our lunch always finishes with chocolate Jello pudding, delicately scooped out of one of those portable plastic cups. I like to eat mine with this tiny spoon that I mysteriously acquired somewhere in my travels (Did I steal it from an airplane? Who knows.)

Becca and I are both obsessed with food, with good food. We talk about it all the time and can usually be found doing crazy cooking experiments by night, always overdoing the quantity and reveling in our love of the culinary. But during the week (this lunch-time habit rarely overlaps onto the weekends) it is a comfortably easy and surprisingly satisfying culinary strangeness. Our lunch-time ritual has given our hectic days of classes, studying, and work a nook of afternoon coziness, a respite from our stresses.

As I shed the life of a college student, I think that I will probably also shed my habit of cottage cheese toast for lunch. But I will always hold a fond spot for it in my heart, probably located in the space under the cookie shelf.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

on macaroni and cheese with a splash of squash

Posted by Hello

Yesterday I went on a journey to return some borrowed furniture to my ex-boyfriend's mother. Alex was home for a few days before his own graduation; it was only the third time I had seen him since we broke up almost a year ago. I went with some trepedation. I expected a protectively angry mom, possibly brandishing a rolling pin with violent intent. I expected a distant Alex, not yet ready for a renewed friendship. But what I found was that same comfortable feeling of belonging - the desire to sink back into a place where I once felt so at home. I remembered that Alex, in our 2 and a half year relationship, was my best friend and that connection never fades, really. I also remembered, clearly, sadly, how our quickly diverging life paths kept and will keep us apart. Sometimes, though, a surprising happiness is harder to understand than an expected depression; I drove home feeling like someone had socked me in the gut.

It was long, draining day - a day that needed a miraculously force to alter the negative emotional course the furniture return had inspired. Adrienne and Grace brought the cheap red wine; Becca and I made the only thing one can make on that kind of a day: a magnificent baked macaroni and cheese with roasted butternut squash. It certainly did alter my emotions - in fact, it changed all of our days into a blur of gooey comforting warmth, raucously laughing friends and a happyily shared passion for cheese.

We roasted a butternut squash, chopped and drizzled with melted butter, nutmeg, salt and pepper until it was tender, almost falling apart. We made a roux, added milk and simmered it on the stove top, bubbling thickly. Also we threw in some mustard, gobs of cheddar cheese, chicken stock, salt, pepper, nutmeg. It all went into a bowl with barely al dente pasta tubes and our small perky orange chunks of squash, sloshing around so goopily as I stirred I couldn't help but jump up and down with excitement. And I'm not really a jumpy person. We poured it into our designated macaroni and cheese dish and topped it with a panko-cheese topping. Under the broiler for a few minutes, it came out oozing a rich, pungent smell of tangy cheese and warm pasta, with a crispy golden brown (accidentally close-to-singed) top crust.

We dug in, clasping our warm bowls, our wine glasses, curled up on the arm chairs and couch of the living room (the kitchen chairs were gone, the source of my sad morning journey) and contentedly we ate. The squash added a homey textural and colorful addition, a mild sweetness that contrasted nicely with the cheddar, played nicely off the nutmeg. The crunch of the crust brought it all together perfectly.

At the end of the night, my spirits had improved immensely. I still hadn't finished my art history paper (see Saturday's entry). But I no longer felt like I had been emotionally socked in the gut - my proverbial gut was feeling pretty damn good, thanks to wine, cheese, and the obligatory chocolate of course (a plate piled high with cookies, never a bad thing).

Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese
inspired by the Food Network Kitchens

one small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, chopped into 1 inch cubes
2 tbs. melted butter
salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste

1 pound elbow macaroni
1/4 c. unsalted butter
1/2 c. flour
4 c. milk
1 tbs. mustard
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 pound shredded medium sharp Cheddar (about 4 c.)
1 3/4 cup chicken stock

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup panko

  • Preheat oven to 400. Drizzle butter over the squash and season with salt, pepper, nutmeg. Roast for 45 minutes or until very tender.
  • Position a rack about 6 to 8-inches, from the broiler and preheat.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it generously, and add the elbow pasta and cook until tender but still slightly more firm than al dente (about 5 minutes). Drain the pasta in a colander set in the sink; don't rinse.
  • Meanwhile, melt 1/4 cup butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Scatter the flour over the butter and mix with a wooden spoon into a paste. Continue stirring until the paste puffs slightly and lightens in color, about 1 minute. Off the heat gradually whisk the milk into the paste. Return to medium-high heat and whisk until thickened, then simmer, stirring occasionally until the sauce has the consistency of heavy cream, about 8 to 10 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Whisk in mustard. On the lowest heat setting, whisk 3 cups of the cheese into the sauce alternating with chicken stock.
  • Toss the hot pasta with the cheese sauce and the roasted squash in a large bowl to coat evenly. Transfer to an oven proof dish.
  • Mix the panko breads crumbs, melted butter, and remaining 1 cup cheddar together; scatter over the macaroni.
  • Place macaroni and cheese under the broiler and cook until hot and bubbly and the breadcrumbs are brown and toasty, about 2 to 4 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes and serve.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

grilled pizza inspired food coma

Last night was a gustatory orgy of the highest order. My mom and her boyfriend Charley drove down from Boston for a birthday celebration at the culinary mecca of Providence: Al Forno. Becca and I joined them with ridiculous enthusiasm; we had been mentally preparing for the outing since last December when we blew our bank accounts there as a Christmas present to each other, and have been dreaming about the food ever since.

An Italian restaurant opened in 1980 by Johanne Killeen and George Germon, Al Forno has received numerous awards (even selected by the International Herald Tribune as ‘number one’ in the world for casual dining). Johanne and George both trained at our neighbor school RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design) where Johanne studied photography and George sculpture, architecture and television production. They each fell in love with food while living and working in Italy after college and conceived of this elegantly simple restaurant together in America. They serve an artistic, aesthetically pleasing, familiar set of Italian comfort foods, with unique and utterly delicious twists. Al Forno is often credited with the invention of grilled pizza (on taking my first bite, stars burst in taste overload behind my eyelids). We asked after our meal, rousing ourselves from a hefty food coma, if the owners were often in the kitchen. Apparently, our waitress told us, they fly in every four months or so to check on things from their house in the south of France. I couldn't be more jealous of their life.

I wasn't sure that the food would live up to the 2 and a half hour wait (a laughing and hungry wait filled with wine and woven stories about the people around us). But it did.

I started with (and oh so generously shared) a grilled pizza: thin flatbread topped with spicy oil, pecorino, bel paese, green onions, tomato – crispy spicy crackling yet melting in the mouth, oozing gooey tomatoes yet crunchingly smoky underneath. Others ate deliciously aged goat cheese and beet salads sprinkled with aged balsamic vinegar - a vibrantly green, light and airy pea soup, right out of the garden into the bowl, topped with a swirl of cream.

I then had curried riso ‘al forno’ under egg – a risotto style rice with sweet bursts of raisins, small pieces of chicken, prociutto, and an egg, cracked gently over the top of it, sprinkled with cilantro, and all baked in a cast iron pot. In my utter excitement I burnt my mouth in a shocking mouthful of fire – but I pushed through the pain and it was well worth ever second of discomfort. The egg yolk ran gooeily over the rice, combining with its sauce a delicious and interesting mix of flavors. My mom had an herb crusted pork tenderloin, incredibly moist and succulent.

Not only are the desserts worthy of murder, they are very clever: you have to order them before your meal, therefore your choice can't be influenced by the sheer amount of food already consumed. I had a candied rhubarb upside-down crème fraise cake: light, fluffy, deeply sweet and tartly sour all at the same time. A perfect dollop of crème fraise was on top to cool it all off. Others ate a malted coffee chocolate ice cream sandwiched between richly dark brownie cookies, a tangerine crepe with honey – light and summery, and a decadent chocolate bread pudding, gooey and warm.

Everything that we ate was astounding. Simple, recognizable, yet made with the very best ingredients with a perfection and creativity that brought the entire meal above and beyond what we had hoped for. We staggered out, filled to capacity, happily satisfied with our celebration and the fact that we all love the beauty of a good meal and good company.

I found the owners of Al Forno, Johanne and George, quoted in an online bio: "For us, our restaurants are like an art project that keeps evolving. The kitchen is our studio, and the food we cook is like a canvas that is continually being repainted, changed, and refined. Food is eaten the way art is perceived; it is digested and recorded. Given the right circumstances, a connection is made and communication takes place, which is what art is all about." The parallel between art and food has always been very strong for me; in fact, it is often a blurred line of similarity in my mind. Fine art often moves me, inspires me, and makes me think. A work of art has the ability to connect me to my own emotions and memories with its colors and movement. Food has the same effect. The palette of my taste is easily inspired; it links the visual with taste, with the body. It creates a great connection between people, a communication between the body and soul, an excuse to sit happily together at a table. Eating at Al Forno is like a bright impressionistic Monet, bursting with color and emotion - but, more imporantly, eating at Al Forno is like I am tasting those colors with my tonge, digesting those emotions with my teeth, understanding his landscape with my place setting.

Becca and I later headed out to see some friends. We walked down Thayer Street, the main drag of stores and restaurants on Brown’s campus. We could hardly move with the weight of all we had eaten dragging us down. But true to form, we found ourselves talking about what we would (and wished we would) cook this week: a baked 5-cheese pasta, bulgur salad with toasted pecans, an orange-anise panna cotta. We simultaneously sniffed the air and smiled as the smell of freshly fried donut wafted in sugary sweetness past our noses. Luckily, we bounce out of food comas pretty quickly.

a gingery morning

fresh ginger goodness Posted by Hello

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The cold wetness of Providence’s springtime drags on forever, frizzing my hair and endlessly muddying my shoes. But, I woke up the other morning to an apartment filled with light, a sign of the first non-rainy day in what feels like a year. Becca, my apartment mate, was out until that night and I had the place to myself. I could hear some twittering birds, a clanking garbage truck, a silence where the ambient rain-noise usually is.

I had one large paper to write looming over my head, the only thing left between me and graduation, as well as a thousand end-of-the-year obligations to take care of. So, obviously, I did what was most important. I baked.

I looked through our fridge and saw a knobbed root of fresh ginger, just begging to be used. I think ginger root is an artwork in itself: a beautifully undulating bulb of browns and golds, always interestingly different. It is one of my favorite flavors (up there with mustard and chile: all piercing and pungent) and I use copious amounts of it in my cooking (often to the chagrin of Becca, my excellent cooking partner.) I discovered my true love of ginger when traveling in China last summer. I fell in love with their pure ginger tea – simply slices of fresh ginger root in hot water with the added tang of honey – spicy and sweet; I could drink it by the gallon.

Ginger is often used as a background flavor, a mellowed-out spice to enhance the overall feeling of a dish. It can pack a mean punch with its cutting heat and doesn’t often get a chance to really shine on its own. And I’m sorry that it doesn’t - I love it so much I would practically gnaw on the raw roots for fun.

That morning my oddly bent little root stared at me imploringly with its bulbous head, begging for an opportunity to be the star ingredient. I indulged its desire (and mine) and baked a fresh ginger cake – a moist, sticky bread-like cake from a recipe I’ve been eyeing for a while. Duke Ellington serenaded me as I covered myself and my kitchen in flour. And an hour or so later, I pulled the cake out of the oven: golden brown and soft to the touch, piping a rich, molasses and butter scent through the apartment.

Adrienne came over (partly for cake, partly for gossip about the dastardly characters of our love lives) and watched as I made a lemon glaze, drizzling it gooely over the top of the warm cake. It spilled all over the table too, but I think that just enhanced the artistic effect. And we ate – its mild spiciness spreading deliciously down the throat. It was light and moist, tenderly melting in my mouth, perfectly paired with the hint of lemon in the sweet glaze.

The paper for my art history seminar is certainly no closer to being finished. But as far as procrastination goes, ginger cake and gossip is as good as it gets.

Fresh Ginger Cake
(inspired by and adapted from Nigella Lawson's recipe in How to be a Domestic Goddess)

5 tbs. unsalted butter
1/4 c. plus 2 tbs. natural applesauce
1/2 c. plus 2 tbs. packed dark brown sugar
3/4 c. plus 1 tbs. light corn syrup
3/4 cup molasses
3 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
1 and a half tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 c. chopped crystallized ginger
1 c. plus 2 tbs. milk
2 large eggs, beaten to mix
1 tsp. baking soda, dissolved in 2 tbs. warm water
2 c. flour
baking pan, 12 x 8 x 2 inches, greased and lined with foil or parchment paper

lemon glaze:
lemon juice from one medium lemon
around a cup of confectioners' sugar, added until the consistency of your liking is reached
1 tbs. warm water

  • Preheat the oven to 325°F.
  • In a saucepan, melt the butter along with the applesauce, sugar, syrup, molasses, ginger, and cinnamon. Off the heat, add the milk, eggs, and baking soda in its water
  • Measure the flour out into a bowl, add crystallized ginger, and pour in the liquid ingredients, beating until very well mixed (it will be a very liquid batter). Pour it into the pan and bake for 30-45 minutes until risen and firm. Definitely don't overcook, it is delicious a little gooey.
  • And when it's almost cool, make the glaze: Whisk the lemon juice into the confectioners' sugar first, then gradually add the water. Drizzle over the cake and then dig in.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

a beginning

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.