Monday, August 14, 2006

On Returning to The Restaurant, One Year Later

“What does it smell like?” I asked my mom. We were sitting in her car, windows open, parked in a tiny lot in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Just coming off the recent heat wave, the breeze hitting the back of my neck was warm but not clammy, the sunlight tinted with that bronzed edge of a summer evening.

“It smells…good,” she said, inhaling deeply, “like… cooking.”

I peered out of the car window and looked at the a familiar red sign, next to a large brick building, a doorway and small set of stairs. The name of The Restaurant, emblazoned on the sign in white letters, was bigger than I remembered. We had a 7:30 reservation to eat dinner and I was not yet ready to open the car door. It had been a year since I was last in that parking lot, and it felt like a lifetime.

An older couple walked by on their way to the entrance—the woman in yellow and clutching a brown handbag, the man with white hair and stooped shoulders. He held the door open for her and she smiled before they disappeared together inside.

“Lets wait; just a minute,” I said. I was having a hard time getting the last words of The Chef out of my mind, thrown at me bitterly when I quit my job as a dishwasher and prep chef there at that restaurant last summer – You are an utter disappointment. I suddenly did not feel ready to face him again.

My mom and I sat silently in the car for another moment. Excitement, hope, exhaustion, dread—they were all rolled into a fuzzy lump somewhere in the back of my throat. Strong feelings for a simple dinner out, I know. But they were fitting—and familiar. It was the same thing I felt every night last year when I arrived to dishwash. They again bubbled to the surface of my consciousness in the parking lot. The only difference (besides the fact that my pants were not stained with beet juice or duck fat and my hair, perhaps, did not so closely resemble a bird’s nest) was that I could not smell the cooking which I remember permeating the air for blocks outside the restaurant. There was a monotone, olfactory nothingness where wafts of simmering veal stock and roasting chickens had previously inhabited my nose. Those smells, however, were so interlaced with the memory of that space and those feelings that sitting there in the car I could almost smell them again—the scent was on the tip of my tongue.

My heart was beating rapidly when I walked into the small, cozy dining room of The Restaurant. It was bustling with people. The waiters and waitresses were in jeans and white aprons, carrying bottles of wine, steaming plates. A light chatter of diners punctuated the soft jazz music; the walls and tables were warm in red and brown.

I smiled at the hostess, “Molly Birnbaum, reservation for two,” I said.

We were brought to a table deep within the dining room, my mom and I both in clicking heels and rustling summer skirts. It felt odd to be sitting there amid crisp linen and flickering candles, wearing make-up and jangling earrings—in my working past I had never spent more than five minutes in the dining room at one time. It was my first visit to The Restaurant since I left last year and the first formal dining experience ever. Looking around I was happy to see that I didn’t recognize anyone. I didn’t want to give the long, exhausting explanation of why I was no longer in the professional culinary world. I just wanted to eat. And drink. And toast to the fact that the one year anniversary of my accident is swiftly approaching and I am alive and well.

I soon saw a familiar face, however. A curly-haired waiter with whom I used to chat about books (in twenty second intervals, mainly about the most recent Harry Potter, while he was slicing lemons in the back hallway and I sped past lugging stacks of dirty dishes) came to our table bearing a pitcher of water. He did a double-take, glancing away and then back towards me again, not sure if he recognized me without those said stacks of dirty dishes. Without rivers of sweat running down my forehead I look different, perhaps.

“You’re Molly!” he exclaimed. I smiled, suddenly happy that my evening would not be completely anonymous. “I thought that was you!”

After a hearty greeting and rambling explanation of anosmia and why I am living in New York City and not at culinary school, he said, “I’ll tell The Chef that you’re here. He’ll want to know…” And he scooted off to attend to the rest of the busy dining room.

“You’re afraid of seeing The Chef, aren’t you Molly,” my mom said after the waiter left our table. “I can see that look of mild panic in your eyes.”

I nodded. Sighed. The whole evening made me nervous; the rest of my life felt very far away from dishwasher-Molly. “Hopefully he will just pay no mind to what the waiter tells him. He was so angry with me when I left—I highly doubt he cares that I am here. He still thinks that I’m at culinary school, still disappointed that I didn’t want to work my way up the line of his kitchen.”

My nagging apprehension disappeared, however, with the arrival of a bottle of wine. While perusing the menu, my mom’s eyes had immediately landed on a bottle of Sancerre; she had just read an article on the French wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes in the Loire Valley and really wanted to try it. A bit more expensive than we had intended, but, as she said with a playful grin, “we are here to celebrate an anniversary… and nothing says ‘I survived being hit by a car’ like great wine.” It was a crisp, white 2002 Sancerre "Jadis" Henri Bourgeois and after the first sip (ripe with tropical citrus, mint, a mineral breath) my mom’s wide smile and little wiggle-dance of happiness in her seat banished all of my worries.

When I worked at The Restaurant food was, obviously, the most important thing on everyone’s minds. It was a passionate culinary environment. There were certainly moments when I forgot about the food– moments involving maggots, black-outs, temper tantrums and surprising friends. Despite the general culinary intensity, though, I never once ate the food like it was intended to be served. I ate a lot, of course – a lot of wonderful, inspiring things. But never sitting at a table and never plated with the aesthetic precision that The Chef cared so much about. So when my first dish arrived that night in the dining room—a ragout of local forest mushrooms, snails, slow cooked fresh farm egg, garden herb puree and lavender blossoms—I had to spend a moment taking it in with my eyes. The bright yellow of the egg yolk balanced carefully on the muted brown mushrooms was complimented by the trickle of frothy, vibrant green puree. The delicate lavender was a soft purple punctuation to the pillow of egg white. It tasted like a rich, comfortable ramble through the woods.

On the shallow white bowl that contained my main dish there was a vivid stripe of orangey-red, skillfully curled from the center to rim – a sideline to the ricotta gnocchi and fresh garden vegetable glacee. It was a nectarine saffron emulsion and the color leaped into my eye-sockets, begging to be put to my lips, dancing with the bright colors of the vegetables alongside. I spent hours in the kitchen last year watching The Chef as he bent carefully over the row of white plates, holding a metal saucepan in one hand and long spoon in the other, and with expert, precise movements made swaths of colorful sauce marks under the dishes he was constructing. I always loved the way he moved – a large man making small movements in liquid flavor – the effect of the plate was heightened knowing the dance of orchestration behind it. Beautiful. The soft pounce of gnocchi was a texturally perfect foil to the vegetable crunch.

My mom’s creamy yellow potage of sweet corn was topped with crispy fried clams and kept the wine-inspired smile afloat on her face; it was continued by a rich olive oil and chorizo-broth poached sea bass.

For dessert we had an Ocumare chocolate brownie (gooey and rich, a subtle bitterness in the dark Venezuelan chocolate offset the sweetness) topped with homemade peanut butter ice cream (the whir of the oft-used ice cream maker in The Restaurant’s back kitchen ran in the back of my memory as we ate). In addition, we had the sour milk panna cotta; a square of milky white pudding flecked with black vanilla bean side by side with a pile of fresh blackberries. One bite and my mind was flooded with sensory images – when there was panna cotta left over, late at night and beginning to de-form in the large plastic tubs where it was stored during service, The Chef handed it off to me and S., my fellow dishwasher. The two of us would stand at a makeshift counter in the back hallway, talking in my broken Spanish, manning serious spoons, and eating that cold tangy cream until I thought I would burst. Those were wonderful moments. It was odd to be sitting, speaking in English, and eating a normally sized portion of that familiar dish.

After drinking a bottle of wine together, my low-tolerance mom and I were lost in a world of giggles. We were surprised when our waitress came out to the table not with our check, but with two tiny silver spoons, which she placed carefully down next to our hands. She smiled knowingly, disappeared and then came back a moment later with two small white cups on a tray.

“A special something from The Chef… rhubarb hibiscus soup with yogurt sorbet.” The soup was cold and feathery pink, tart and simultaneously sweet. The small dollop of yogurt sorbet was milky white. Small surprise courses from the kitchen were what The Chef called “VIP treatment procedures.” I was flattered and happy to be the recipient.

Later, my mom and I were taking bites of the buttery madeleine cookies that arrived with the check (how fitting, I know) when I looked up to see The Chef approaching our table. His hair, once long and dark and always kept in a rough ponytail, was short and manicured. He wore a blue shirt with his name embroidered on the right pocket, a clean white apron. His mouth was in a hard line.

I stood and shook his hand. My smile was wide, overtaking my face; I was suddenly so happy to see him, this man who taught me so much about food.

“The meal was wonderful,” I said, almost bashfully. “Thank you so much.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” he said. A moment of silence. “So, what are you doing these days?” He looked at me pointedly and I was hit by a wave of embarrassment. I am not working my way up the culinary world, proving my pluck in the face of a good deal of physical opposition like I once was – instead I am sitting at a desk in midtown Manhattan, reading things. Under the glare of The Chef it seemed silly. But I explained, swiftly and in few words, about my accident… “only a few weeks after leaving the restaurant” and my loss of smell… “though it is slowly coming back”… my current quest to write in New York.

“Well,” he said slowly, shaking my hand again, “at least you still enjoy your food. Good luck to you, Molly.”

“Thanks.” I think I whispered.

Before we left I walked to the back hallway of the kitchen, out of view to those on the line, but still close enough to hear the clanging of pots and calling orders. S. was there, peeling garlic with his weathered hands, wearing a white shirt and jeans. I called out his name and his eyes lit up. He grasped my arm in greeting and we smiled at each other, perhaps a bit goofily. S. spoke about his life, always in Spanish, and I listened. This was always our relationship; I’m happy that I have somehow retained my ability to understand the language. When The Chef’s gruff voice called S. back into the kitchen we said goodbye. He gave me the number to his new phone.

My mom and I left The Restaurant and walked into a clear summer night. I had been afraid to go back and remind myself of what ‘was’. But on leaving I felt simply happy. Lucky. Full.


Tuesday morning of last week I ran hectically around my apartment looking for one of my black sandals. I couldn’t find it anywhere and I was going to be late for work. I jabbed a pair of big earrings into my ears as I searched my closet floor, not even sure what I was putting on. I tossed some books and papers into my bag, walking lopsidedly towards the kitchen while attempting to tie my hair back with my one free hand. I got down on my hands and knees, trying hard not to crush the smooth pleats of my linen dress and stuck my hand blindly under the futon. Just as my fingers grasped the heel of that lost shoe, my cell phone began to ring and I hopped up to answer.

“Hello? …Hello?” I said, hardly listening as I shoved my foot into the sandal and lunged towards the door to leave.

“Molly? Estas tu?” a low voice said, gravelly in phone-static. I immediately stopped moving, straining to hear. “Molly? Como estas?”

It was S. -- eight in the morning, just a few days after I returned from Boston. He called to tell me that he is happy that I am no longer washing dishes. He is happy that I found other work. Dishwashing is not for a “chica simpatica.” He had to repeat himself many times; my Spanish comprehension is better in person than on the phone. We talked as I walked slowly down the sunny sidewalk towards the subway, no longer caring that I was late for work. His voice was familiar and kind. Towards the end of our conversation he told me that the time I worked with him at The Restaurant was one of his happiest. When I was there I listened to him; we talked. He was happy. He wanted to wish me the best.

When I stepped onto the subway moments after hanging up the phone, my eyes stung. I felt lost in a throng of suits and heels, steamy breath and rustling papers. A baby was screaming and the woman standing next to me was immersed in her Blackberry. The world I inhabit these days is different; I could feel the tears begin to well over.


Anonymous said...

Once again, we see the true 'hero' of that world - your fellow dishwasher. What a large and grand heart he must have.

Anonymous said...

This is such a fantastic post - so descriptive and poignant. From the way the food looked and tasted to how you felt standing in NYC while the world whizzed around you, you really nailed it.

Rainey said...

It's lovely to read that your recovery continues.

I know next year I'll read about even more progress but right now reading your description of the perfume of boiling water confirms what I've known all along — the time will come when you will be grateful for these occult awarenesses that will propel you so far beyond where you could have gone without them.