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.)

rage.

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I get so tired of falling asleep with rage in my belly.

I envy those who let things pass so easily and with grace. Sometimes I can, but my patience these days is wearing so thin. I used to be so good at holding things in and during a younger season in my life, learned about the wild things I could no longer contain.

I learned about the airing of memory filled with grief and sorrow, but also a lot of goodness.

The kitchen brought me some rage, as with any high stress job where your margin of error seems almost unforgivable. There is no shortage of things that fill me (and most likely you) with some deep glowing fire.

That kind of rage stays with me. It lingers, mostly into the dark. Sometimes, my only option is to drown it with sleep. I know it’s not good, but sometimes it’s also inescapable.

The last thing I want to do is drag someone else into the things that I feel.

I’ve been learning to navigate some anger — in general I direct it at myself for allowing something to get to me so quickly, but also most of the time, it has something to do with a thing that is not within anyone’s control.

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Being alone can be hard. Self-control is even harder. We’re allowed to let off steam — but never at the cost of hurting another thing. I think this will be a life learned lesson, one that comes at the cost of being hurt by another.

We have a lot to be angry about. Maybe some of that is accepting things were never as they seemed. This feels a lot like being betrayed by someone you love who is never willing to apologize, a toxicity that is being bled out. At some point though, you have to put pressure on the wound.

Maybe that’s what this time is about.

There isn’t much space to hide anymore. In fact, it is maybe one of the best times to dig in deep and work on the next shift of your life. Maybe you’re already doing that and this quarantine has shown you how much you’ve grown into yourself and how you move alongside with the other people in your life.

For me, being alone does not equate to loneliness. Some days are harder, but I’ve been growing in ways I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have this space.

I’ve never been one to stray too far away from a challenge, especially at the cost of my own peace. Surely the older I get, the more comfort I crave but I still recognize the wild things.

The sense to grow and move and challenge my humanity (and maybe yours.)

The rage never lasts. It dies because it has to. (and I continue to lay down weapons I shouldn’t use anymore.)

It will always be in my belly — it is how I’ve come to recognize the most important things in my life and that maybe I need to drop the things I’ve been clinging on to for so long. The heaviness of expectation, the need to please and the wondering if I’ll ever be enough for you.

There are always newer, lighter things to pick up along your way.
I hope you give yourself the time and space to find them.
You’re a gift to the people that love you.
Be sure to love yourself in return.

 

 

 

 

sunday biscuits

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Sunday is for being soft.

Well, it is a new luxury for me.
If you’re not a brunch cook on the line, or a waiter at Cracker Barrel on a Sunday afternoon.

But for me, Sunday has become a way to reconcile with my week.
It softens the edges of my trials and toils.
I reflect on my week and I gain courage to take on another one.

Today, like most days, is a day I allow myself to live in a lot of grace for my mistakes,
and for my bad attitude,
my hectic mind racing back and forth, seemingly between to entirely different states.

Yes, this is a luxury.

I picked up a jar of homemade fig and strawberry jam from the farmer’s market.

So, I made Sunday biscuits.

As I pulled them out, I observed how much they had risen and inhaled deeply the browning butter sizzling under the crispy, brown bottom.

It’s the small things, really.

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I set out a couple of eggs on my board and thought they looked beautiful.

Today, is the day I feed myself.

After spending my weeks cooking for the general public, I also cook for the people I hold a little closer, and I try to treat them like jewels. Because our weeks and months grow long, and they are also fast. I like to give myself to these treasures. I like them to slow down for a minute and listen to them speak from their hearts.

Maybe something wine induced, and maybe the smell of tomatoes and fresh bread helps, too.

Someone recently called me a healer.
No, I do not claim to have magical powers, nor can I own up to that term every day.

Only the idea is that all of our words and actions carry their own weight.
The weight I choose to put on my words and actions are heavy.
We are all capable of being healers.

I try, anyways, to not tear down people’s worlds. I will maybe try to pry a board loose, but I also know that it’s a delicate action, to restructure. To bend and not break.

Sunday is for healing.
It is for dusting off tools.
The ones that I use to breathe deeply from my belly when I feel as though I’m carrying a cannonball.

They are the tools that allow me to keep going, to keep recognizing my own strength and maybe, allow me to show you your own.

I know you are afraid of what you don’t know or understand. It makes you feel weak and defenseless. But that’s not you.
Recognizing your strength.
Pushing forward.
Embracing the gravity that works against your body.

Letting ideas and motions flow through you. Permeable. Osmosis-like.

That is all we can do, some days.

Sit down.

Cut some butter into flour.

Watch them rise and sizzle and brown.

Soft butter. Warm jam.

Pour a cup of coffee.

And feed yourself.

again and again.

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There are some major forces at play here.

Each week feels like a micro-course in learning one’s self. I suppose we all are, but since I am concentrated to my own head, and not a person who I live with or am married to, I get all of me.

Some days I can be too much. That’s no surprise. I wander around in different stories and I wake myself up to dreams where I am unfamiliar with my own room.

I get up.

“I’m in the wrong place!”

I sit back down. I rub my face with my hands and somehow, fall back into an unconscious sleep.

Weekend nights are the hardest. I feel like it’s a sin to be alone on a weekend night. I feel like there are people riding with their windows down discovering their whole beings, screaming, “I am alive!” while I’m at home, straining chicken stock and watching The Desolation of Smaug for the 12th time.

It’s okay.

To be honest, I’m wondering if I should cook anymore for a living. And I can’t explain it to you, this shift that is taking place in my heart. I can’t say it’s flight or fight. I’ve never enjoyed anything else more than I have cooking and feeding people. I know I should listen to that. People always respond with, “Well, what else would you do?”

Sometimes, I take that as an insult. It feels like I wouldn’t do well at anything else. But I know what they mean. They know I belong in a kitchen.

I know I belong in a kitchen.

That is hard to swallow.

I’m sort of young still, and already, I heavily desire a place to call my own. I am certainly in a season of having to catch myself on fire, because I am not following another person into the flames. I am having to be my own sense of hard work and passion.

Sometimes, that’s hard to live in.

I tell people all the time about my Saturn Return. They look at me like I’m a goofball. It’s true, I am. But I tell them that I can’t explain the pull in my head and heart. This constant feeling that my life could take many directions and that I’d enjoy them all. Fast and hard. Slow and soft. Most of my days are a combination of both.

Perks of working in a kitchen, I suppose. That, and bacon.

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The love of self is the best way I am able to love others. If I am worried with myself, I can’t give much space to you. I think often of the kind of person I was when I lived in this city before I was married. How I always carried around a cause. How I was the social justice guy. How selfless I seemed.

And then I got married and devoted myself to just one person. I also learned that I was a pretty decent cook. This became my life. These things became meaningful. I got to serve people, not just one day every week, but five and sometimes even seven days a week. So I’ve mourned a lot of the person I used to be, and how I sense that sometimes, other people do the same.

And I recognize myself as I walk and drive down the same streets. A different person. A person who is always seeking to understand.

The end of most of my days involves a mop and hot water. Swinging back and forth over dirty and greasy floors, only to be dirty again and again and again. And cleaned again and again and again.

While that’s daunting to some, I love the sense of completion.

I guess it always comes back to that, for me. The kitchen and its ebb and flow. Its own world full of frustrations and grace and spirit. Every day I live in it.

And every day,

I’m thankful for it.

 

Oh, and new mop head day?

Well, I love new mop head day.

Higher Education (And Why Sauce Makes More Sense than Calculus)

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I’ve been having some major writing blocks this week. When that big bright sun is outside, it’s really hard for me to be as reflective. Maybe it’s the usual overcast and rainy sky that brings me most inside my head. Either way, words are being pushed onto the blank screen, and for a person who writes, that’s how you get over it.

And while I eek out one word at a time, there is something I’d like to dive into, if just for a little bit.

I, like most 17 year olds at the time, was looking at what to do after high school. College was the next step. At least that was the way my community worked. I had the means and Southern Miss pretty much took anybody who could get a decent school loan.

Don’t get me wrong, Southern Miss is my Alma Mater and an important establishment in the Belly of the South.

But hear me out: I struggled with college.

I’d like to say I barely made it out. But that’s not really true. I worked hard, sometimes. For me, college was about connecting with people. The sitting in class and in the library was all on the side. An expensive way to connect — that’s for sure. People ask me if I would have changed anything about my college experience. My grades or the path I chose to study Psychology and Sociology — and I almost answer right away: No.

Let it be clear: college debt is no laughing matter and should be taken seriously. You should know what you’re getting into. Luckily at the time, Southern Miss was not an incredibly expensive school. I got out of there with about as much as some folks pay in a single semester. What that says about my school is up to you, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The people I met eventually led me to where I am today. I think most people would agree that college is beneficial — especially in the ways modern day work is changing.

But, it’s certainly not necessary in learning.

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I know that may sound off-putting. Let me explain. At least in my case.

I’m a very hands on learner. I think it’s why I picked up cooking so quickly. That in part with my intuition, it just seemed to fit in my head.

I can’t break down a long equation without getting some sort of panic attack, but I can make a sauce and know how emulsions work. At least it works in my head.

Some people understand how engines work. I listen to the sound eggs make when they cook.

I’m not just referring to cooking. But sense it’s sort of a food blog, I’m making this my example, and because it’s so very real to me. Learning is an interesting subject. Lots of people do well in school settings. But if you’re like me, answering multiple choice on Scantrons is a nightmare. Having definite answers is not something I do well. Too much pressure. There’s zero wiggle room.

There is a right and wrong. I guess that’s hard for me. The lack of grace on those green and grey slips of paper. The lack of discussion and understanding.

I also recognize the privilege that I’m complaining about higher education. I suppose my problem isn’t so much with higher education as with the ways we go about it. This is obvious and can probably assume many professors agree. Most of my education was spent on memorizing, not learning. I think there might be a difference. I had professors who were terrible at teaching, but great at research.

If you are in the process of acquiring a degree — hold fast. But know that learning doesn’t stop outside of that degree. In fact, you might want to do something else. And a bigger fact than the previous is that you probably will work outside of what you went to school for. At least there wasn’t work for me at the Psychology store.

I needed work and non-profits weren’t hiring. (Because I felt that was probably the only thing I could do with a Psych/Soc degree.) I adapted to the need and here I am. This isn’t to say I won’t dive back into that world at some point, but like I said a few posts ago, there are lots of ways to do what you want to do. There’s nothing wrong with taking space to figure it out. Regardless of what you do, you will be gaining experience in other forms of education along the way.

Soak it in. Learn to be on time and work hard even when it’s not necessarily something you want to do.

Find something you’ve been really interested in and pursue it. Most likely, you will grow. I’m a firm believer in people being drawn into the things that feel right for them.

If you take away anything from this, know that I’m not saying college is bad. Most likely, you will benefit from it in some way, at some point in your life. But it’s not the only way to learn and grow.

You are not alone if Scantrons terrify you. Or if sitting in a room of 200+ students feels intimidating.

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You’re a learner in the best sense of the word. Embrace the idea that the traditional college setting isn’t for everyone and you’ll find it easier to move forward.

And now that I’ve completely ruined my dream of getting a job in any admissions office of any school, let me just say I’m proud of the decisions I’ve made.

I’m proud of the dude I’ve turned out to be.

And trust me, you don’t have to work long in a kitchen before figuring out that most people there need a little psychological evaluation.

So maybe, I’m in the right place after all.