Mark was a cook, a blackout drunk and all-around unsavory character I knew back in the early days of my apprenticeship. I was just past twenty; he was a few years older. We'd both started working around fifteen -- me stirring sauce and turning dough in a small but well-loved neighborhood Italian joint, him in the pantry of a somewhat famous French restaurant. Neither of us were bright enough to realize how lucky we were, how such places can act as springboards to gainful employment for youngsters with ambition and tenacity. We were, in a word, idiots who'd probably listened too little to the parents, friends and guidance counselors who'd tried to steer us toward success, and too much to our own base instincts that told us the kitchen life meant a steady paycheck, cheap dope, free drinks and a limitless and ever-changing supply of very liberal-minded waitresses.
Mark and I met while I was working as a line cook in a lace-curtain Irish pub/restaurant slopping out stringy corned beef and Killarney chicken to 200 covers a night under the watchful eye of an ex-Marine sous chef with the disturbing habit of whipping off his chef coat and showing me the three bullet holes in his hairy back by way of explaining why he couldn't work that night and why I had to work a double. I was often tempted to give him a fourth. Mark was just a few blocks away, sweating blood as a station cook under a psychotic German exec who kept two bottles of cooking sherry in the speed rack above the expeditor's station and had to drain both during the four-hour dinner rush just to stay on his feet. The crews with which Mark and I worked both drank at the same bars after work. We were loud, abrasive, narcissistic, ugly, foul-smelling arrogant bastards badly in need of serious, repeated ass-kickings. We knew the same people, chased the same girls (or guys, in the case of Lisa, who worked sauté at my Irish place and had skillfully bedded just about every poor, suffering line dog in town), would gladly drink with anyone stupid enough to find us amusing and, together, puzzled over what evil we'd done in a past life that got us condemned to the particular hells in which we currently labored -- all the while committing enough fresh sins to screw ourselves well into the next life.
Mark and I were good friends, tighter than brothers for the three or four months we knew each other, inseparable outside of our respective kitchens -- until the day he didn't show up at the bar after work. No-call, no-show on a Wednesday night, his crew members explained, shrugging their shoulders. Just gone. And since that's the way these things usually happen, no one (myself included) thought much of it. About a year later, I ended up in Mark's old kitchen, working under the German who was exactly as Mark had described him, except that it was vodka now, not sherry, in the speed racks. And two years after that, I ran into Mark in the dining room of a restaurant much nicer than either of us would have ever been allowed in three years earlier.
We barely recognized each other. The Mark I remembered was a rail-skinny grubber with a long goatee and stained check pants. The me that he remembered was a twitchy punk with more burns on his hands than skin, drunk all the time, and pissed off at the entire world. Now he was in a jacket and tie, forty pounds heavier, clean-shaven and a full-blown chef with a house of his own. Now I was sober and had a career: executive sous chef at one of the top three joints in town. We both wondered what had happened. He talked first.
For him, it was wine: what sommeliers and devotees of the grape call a "wine epiphany." And while I don't remember the bottle or the vintage that put him over the edge, I do recall him describing in reverent terms an experience finer than all the cheap, dirty, rock-star thrills of our youth rolled into one. He'd tasted something in one glass that turned his whole life around, transmogrifying the miserable, hedonistic two-bit station cook I'd known into an actual chef, a responsible member of society and a man with a mission. He'd been to Paris, to Northern Italy, to Napa -- chasing something he could barely describe in words. He told me I just had to experience it myself, that he (the stingy weasel) couldn't explain how it had changed him, but that I'd understand it when it happened.