By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
It's been two years and change since I walked out of my last kitchen. That last one, in Albuquerque, wasn't even a good kitchen, but I remember it with an irrational fondness because it was the last one, and the last of anything is always special. I was (believe it or not) working the night-shift line at a Waffle House, doing short-order and crisis management, when the call came for me to pack my bags and come to Colorado. Here I was, a Colonial French-trained chef, fourteen years in the business, my resumé strewn with good reviews and abject failures -- honor and shame in equal measure -- so why was I spending my nights flipping burgers?
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Because I liked it. Because I had nothing to prove to anyone. Because I started my career in places like the Waffle House, and coming back at the end of it felt right. Also, I needed to pay the rent. I was working days as a freelance food writer, and the money wasn't exactly pouring in. (As loquacious as I am, getting paid by the word still wasn't enough to cover the nut.) You know that old saying, don't quit your day job? Yeah, well, my day job just happened to start at ten in the pee-em.
Anyway, you'd think that two years and a few months would be time enough for me to settle into something approaching a normal life. Three squares, up with the sun, down with the moon, that sort of thing. But no. My body and brain -- having spent roughly half their natural existence wired into the all-encompassing microcosm of the kitchen life -- have been (and I'm beginning to think always will be) kinked to an unusual cadence. I still measure time like a cook -- in shifts, night preferable to day, those hours between midnight and 4 a.m. like a wakey-time bonus available only to graveyarders, cooks and the criminal element. I feel strange when I have a weekend with no work in it. I measure my past by where I was working when, the chronology dotted with odd black patches when I wasn't working anywhere and all of life seemed simply to stop.
For me, seasons are not marks on the calendar, but menus. Particular ingredients. The special red circles on a trusted produce man's fax -- guys bidden by friendship or out-and-out graft to let me know first when the new crop of this or the first flats of that were coming in. In The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, Jacques Pépin (who, by the way, did ten years of diner work in the prep kitchens of Howard Johnson's, a gig he chose over being private chef to John F. Kennedy) vividly remembers lean seasons in France -- the war years --by what he was eating. Or not eating. He remembers his mother's restaurant through the eyes of a twelve-year-old peeling potatoes at her sink, his first real job as a thirteen-year-old apprentice in a French hotel galley. And with every chapter, with the turn of every season, he closes with a recipe that, to him, is indicative of the time. Jeremiah Tower fills his book California Dish with menus that he's saved from every important dinner he's ever had -- from the smallest soiree with friends to his first menu from Chez Panisse. This is how we make memories. This is how we see the time passing.
For me, June was always summer-squash salad with shallot Dijon vinaigrette, the recipe lifted from God knows where. In July, Black Tip shark tacos when I could get the fish line-caught, cheap as sin and fresh as hell. Veal cheeks in sauce gribiche -- that was winter. Huge bowls of penne, hand-rolled around pencils because the guys in my kitchen were constantly losing the proper dowels, in a killer smooth-and-heavy gorgonzola cream sauce studded with quartered baby red potatoes and chunks of mozzarella barely two hours old at the start of service.
French mussels in February; Aussie lobsters in the winter, tail meat curled around a thick grilled-veggie ragout or, oddly, a bitter green salad juiced with preserved Meyer lemon -- the closest I ever got to the vertical architecture of Alfred Portale. Autumn was potato-and-sweetbread hash; hanger steak with chipotle-black-cherry barbecue sauce (my own recipe and the closest I ever got to California cuisine); whole roasted chickens stuffed with bouquet garni and lemons, the birds expensive, coddled, killed just for me and babysat in the oven until the skins were perfectly crisped. To this day, I have no hair on the backs of my hands because it was repeatedly burned off while I crouched before the oven, shoving chips of ice-hard beurre d'Isigny sauté butter up between the skin and the breast of the birds.
I miss the ordering of my life by this near-subconscious attenuation to the changing of the seasons. Summer in the kitchens was pure murder, winter a long but not unpleasant siege. Spring was just too light for my tastes. In the French canon (or at least in my bastardized version), there is no spring, only a long winter of comfort and solace bookended by a brief, brilliant summer and a russet autumn full of everything I loved about food. Fall was my favorite time for cooking. The season always started at some indefinable time after Labor Day, on the morning after the first night I saw my breath when walking home from the bar or immediately following that first burnt-cinnamon hint of dying leaves in the air.
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