Three years ago, Tyler Nemkov was a Johnson & Wales student who came to Cafe Society as an intern, interested in where a culinary career could take him. So far, it's taken him to J-school at the University of Colorado, a gig at Cured and, at the edge of 23, a short-lived job as exec chef at Mateo this spring. Here's what's next:
"All right, tomorrow's gonna suck," Micah says as an episode of King of the Hill ends. He walks upstairs from the basement at 2:51 a.m. without saying another word. Micah is waking up tomorrow to do another double at a local shitty Mexican restaurant, and while the tenets of judging if someone has had too much tequila again is probably useful, he is doing this for the money. Another dollar towards Thailand.
I'm right with him, working the late shift serving at a new bar/restaurant and cooking at the sister restaurant. It's all temporary for both of us -- I suppose it's temporary for everyone. Boulder has run its course: I gave climbing and yoga a shot, but I can't find enough beef tendon or underaged Thai prostitutes who are probably men. Okay, I'm only actively searching for one of those things, but I'm sure someone could find some truth in the deceptively subtle girl-man as well. One-way to Bangkok is the only reasonable option.
We land at 11:40 p.m. in the sprawling city-monster that is Bangkok in one week, and decidedly little is planned beyond that. Every person knows someone who knows the best hidden gem in Southeast Asia, and while it's more than helpful to get input, I now need to take all of it with a mountain of grains of salt. Who the fuck knows what I want? I sure don't.
That's mostly why I'm going. If I can get one "a-ha!" moment, this trip could be a success. Besides the inevitable life lessons learned from carrying around my own toilet paper and mosquito net, I need something to give me a rise. Just one sight, one smell or one emotion to remind me that it's worth fighting through the muck to eventually see the beauty.
There's a very good chance that I'll find this in a bowl of noodles. Food is my life, and the iterations it takes and emotions it invokes will be my never-ending chase. I have cooked in plenty of restaurants in Boulder, Denver and my hometown of Littleton, and have buried my nose in more food books than reasonable. I find the perfect zen while cooking on the line, but know that this is too temporary to keep chasing. My skin crawls as service ends, the short-lived satisfaction quickly being overcome with a growing yell in my head to just go.
So I am. Micah, my best friend for over half my life, happily jumped on board. This arrangement only works because neither of us would hate the other if we were randomly ditched for reasons ranging from the momentous ("that cart of skewered chicken hearts is eye-fucking me, peace") to the insignificant ("I only have enough money for STD medicine and a flight home").
Tickets were purchased in June, and since then I've been trying to make current life more than a holding pattern for the near future. This has been expressed in the form of drinking way too much well whiskey and trying to learn how to not be terrible at pool. Thus far, I have one of those things totally mastered. There must be pool halls in Southeast Asia.
Bags are purchased, raincoats researched and vaccinations planned. The only thing left to do is to continue to twiddle my thumbs and wait for life to start. There couldn't be a worse way to look at things, but how can I really control how I feel?
The creeping sense that it's all temporary hopefully will spur me on to having new, life-changing experiences such as, um, talking to strangers once in a while. But I wonder if all the time I spend building this thing up will inversely dampen the total possible joy I could have in a foreign place. If I read too much about pho, will that first authentic experience in a stall -- sweat dripping from the tip of my nose onto the Thai basil and cilantro floating in the anise-scented broth -- make as strong a dent in my mental culinary rolodex? Does it need to?
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Relatively blindly, I jump into the abyss. When I come up, I can only hope that with me comes a legibly written, decent story. Blah blah blah from Southeast Asia.