confessions of a pandemic chef

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I never wanted to be a cook.

I had moved to a new city to get married and graduated into an economy that didn’t have anything for me.

As it turns out, when you live in Portland, there’s always a coffeeshop looking for help. Granted, a friend of mine helped me get in, but I had no industry experience. I started out mainly washing dishes. Taking orders. Getting yelled out by customers because I made a mistake taking their order. All of the bits you have to learn to make a hard shell over your soft skin.

I started to cook because it was a way to show who I was to people I didn’t grow up with.

I wasn’t very good at it.
I knew how to fry chicken, and make rice a roni. I could pop open a can of green beans and douse it with Tony Chachere’s. It was the only thing I really wanted to be good at. My friends were better at other things that I knew I didn’t want to do.

I really wanted to be that daunting figure in the kitchen sweating and cooking.

It was something that seemed so wildly complicated, that being able to control it felt kind of God-like. Listening to an egg cook or smelling when onions cook too long was becoming something that I could thread in and out of my daily life like a coat made just for me. Hell, now I can hear the moments water goes from simmer to boil with pretty good accuracy.

Cooking helped me open up.
It became the thing that gave me some authority on anything, really. I knew that I could poach an egg with confidence or crank out a delicate vinaigrette on the fly. It gave me the confidence I’d been missing my whole life.

I was obsessed with something I knew I could get better at every day.

Even the hell of falling out of love with a person, the kitchen became my way to block out pain and still maintain some sense of purpose.
“Well, at least I have this” I would say. (And still say that at times.)

Kitchens can and will break you down. Every cook knows that there is a point in any given day where it breaks you. Most days, it doesn’t. You have a hope in the back of your mind that your day can be somewhat normal. You will maybe, go home and actually cook dinner for yourself and partner.

But, something usually happens.

The drain in the dish pit over flows with grease and food bits and God knows what other hell.
Or your anxiety decides to overwhelm you in the middle of service and you blank out. You turn into a robot of yourself to get through the day. It’s all happened, and it will happen again.

There is something incredibly addicting about a restaurant that works, day after day. All the deliveries came at the best time. No one was out of the cheese we needed and our Coke delivery guy wasn’t an asshole for once. (And did I mention Sysco didn’t dump all of our boxes in front of our oven in the middle of the lunch rush!?)

And then the pandemic came.

Once the reality of having to shut down entered my bones, I’ll admit, I felt a bit relieved. Something felt so toxic about being open and encouraging people to cram into a small space when all the health professionals are telling you not to do it. (But if we don’t do it, we’ll drown as a business…?)

I couldn’t adapt fast enough. I felt like an immense failure. (Still do sometimes.)

I was completely exhausted.

Our business would adapt a bit and I would drink a lot. And order DoorDash. There was something so amazing about a brown bag full of hot food with my name on it sitting outside my door WITHOUT having that awkward interaction of someone catering to my lazy ass. It was incredible.

I got to turn off my phone alarms. Well, the ones that wake me up and the other four that remind me to order things for the restaurant — then there’s all my reminders about other things I need to do for the restaurant so that I can finally relax. Well, after the panic and anxiety died down after our first week of quarantine, I got to relax.

After a month and a half of doing take home dinners once a week, we got back into the restaurant on a daily basis. My work shirts almost didn’t fit because I had gained so much weight from well, *gestures broadly at everything*.

Kitchen work is hard, and if you don’t stay in practice, you get lazy, fast. You forget the motions and turns, the heat and the pressure. But by now, we are almost back to whatever it is I can call normal.

Wearing a mask while standing over a grill has taken some time to get used to, but everything is harder. Not just the labor, but people are harder. Things got way more political over our little break, but in order for us to stay open and busy, I never really got a chance (nor did I want the chance) to be political about masks. To me, it was just tiring having to defend it either way — I just needed to be busy again.

But it’s still really hard right now. For everyone. Those of us in the hospitality business are kept alive through people gathering together. The restaurant experience is about food and drink but most importantly, it’s about people connecting. Not just having people cook your food and serving you, but the people around your table.

The depression I feel most deeply, is that cooking and being a chef is shifting for me. It shows me how incredibly delicate all of this is — and when it’s stripped away, I wondered how necessary it all is. (I wondered how necessary I was.)

I love being a chef. It’s all I ever wanted, to be honest. It has been one of my proudest accomplishments. To have that name and that respect — but damn, it is hard to be inspired in times like these. Not only inspired, but to also inspire. To be strong, to be a leader and to make a million decisions in my head every day.

A while ago I was told I was emotional, which is fine and funny. It was by a friend that doesn’t know me very well, but it also goes to show me that being vulnerable makes leadership necessary. I don’t always feel strong enough to lead people, especially now. Most days feel hopeless for the future of anyone ever agreeing on anything (ever again). My own patience is worn so very thin, as is yours. I hate the aggravation I hold so close to the parts of me I love the most.

Maybe I won’t be a great chef, like the ones I read about.

And that’s okay.

But I’m still here, and I’m doing it.

I cook your grits and wash your plates.
I lay awake at night hoping that whatever we bring to your table gives you some sense of normalcy.

I have always loved having you at my table — and I’m still dreaming of a future where we are all better people for doing the hard work of being good to one another.

In the meantime, I’ll be here, working in my hot kitchen,
adding more cheese to that pot of grits
(because I know you really need it today.)

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