Wednesday, March 16, 2011
t’s sunny today. Water floods the streets as the snow melts into rivers cascading down Lake Street and what doesn’t pool into mud puddles on my front lawn, empty’s out into Little Traverse bay. I slip off the sunny street and into the ally that leads into the basement door of the bistro where I work. Steve our dishwasher is standing in front of the door smoking. As I open the door I pound his fist and ask him how he is, only to shut the door in his face before I have to listen to the whole story of his life and why his P.O. is such a pain in the ass. As I unwrap my scarf from around my face I am greeted by Erin, our pastry Chef, not with a hello but an “open up”. I open my mouth wide so as not to touch my lips on the pastry bag and allow her to dose me with a heaping load of chocolate mousse. I change my shoes, tie my apron tightly around my waist, fill the ice buckets, and head upstairs. Next is a long line of various greetings. We have the line cooks who are wrapping up prep before the shakes set in. They can sneak a shot before dinner rush (makes for much smoother service, trust me). Then I have the bartenders who I have only known a few months but know every intimate detail of their divorces, and sexual partners since then, sometimes including pictures that I did not ask to see and now can never forget. As I walk towards the front of the house, Chef tosses a copy of “Full Metal Jacket” to me without even a word. The previous week I mentioned to the kitchen that I hadn’t seen it and they all got so upset I was asked to find someone to run my food for me the rest of the night. The other early shift server that is on today is Joe. Joe doesn’t have a bank account, has a fake last name, spends his winters in Colombia, and lives with girlfriend, Sara in the winter. Sara is a pretty, middle-aged nurse with a nice house and drives a 2008 Subaru Outback. She looks like someone he would wait-on. She pays for everything which Joe routinely brags about. He also constantly whines about not having a baby and feels that he and I would make a beautiful child together and that I should “think about it.” It’s a large amount of repulsion to swallow night after night, but I manage. Its 3:30 dinner service starts in an hour, but the rest of the freaks won’t be here till 6:00.
I do, I work among freaks, and don’t get me wrong I’m a part of the show. However, on the floor from 6:30 to 9:00 you have to look carefully to see that show. Sure we might slip with a B-list swear word, or a barely racy sexually innuendo, but most of us have perfected the façade. We are your gracious hosts and hostesses for the evening and even on our worst day, servers remain warm, understanding, and accommodating. Words and phrases such as “excellent”, “most certainly”, “wonderful”, “earthy”, “barnyard”,” well-balanced”, “well-done? Of course!” have become easy to swallow under most circumstances. However, once behind that swinging door, under the fluorescent lighting, and safely muffled by pots, pans, the expeditor and bar crowd…a paradigm shift occurs. Now sarcasm is dominant and welcomed. My melodic phrasing and elegant demeanor is replaced with “hey this guy hates delicious food, kill that filet”, “where is my food for 301?” “It’s working!!!!!””Oh shit, fire 312!”, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, I forgot to mark 305…”. It’s kind of scary actually, however perfectly acceptable.
Before having worked in a restaurant I would never, ever, swear, tell a dirty joke, drink on the job, or discuss sexual episodes at work. Now I just call that Wednesday. This makes me unique in this world, because restaurants to do not cultivate freaks, they attract them. Ex-convicts, drug addicts, the sexually depraved, writers, musicians, actors and all who are lost in life will at one point, work in a restaurant. When and if they ever come out of the industry, they will come out more tolerant, cultured individuals. But you always know when you’re waiting on someone who has moved on, that freak flag fly’s too high. I am speaking the truth, next time someone tries to proposition you for a four-some, sell you a prescription pill, or DJ at your next party, just ask them what restaurant they work in.
First thing that comes to mind is mussels. Prince Edward Island mussels soaked in butter, Pernod, white wine, garlic, and saffron. Actually, the beginning of the meal would be a plethora of dishes to share with my loved ones. A ceviche, of Chilean Sea Bass (however politically incorrect) would be present, and no one would be allowed to use the term Patagonia Tooth Fish, its Chilean Sea Bass or nothing. A small dish of yuzu glazed-pork belly and soba noodles, with a dashi garlic broth, oh my god.
Next a frisee aux lardon using pancetta and and bacon fat vinagrette. I know my flavors are all over the place, but there is nothing I love more than breaking open that perfectly poached, creamy, warm egg, and watching it coat the greens and pork, genius…pork and a poached egg. Taking that first bite and having to lick the bright yellow yolk and salty pork flavor off my lips is impossible to do with my eyes open or without sighing, try it.
Pan roasted Black cod with soba noodles coated in garlic, yuzu, sesame oil and soy mirin, with pea shoots. Cheese at the end of the meal, humbolt fog, barely buzzed chedder, and a cashel bleu, with fresh local strawberries. Homemade strawberry rhubarb jam on the plate as well. And probably the cooks house espresso creme brulee, (just for good measure) I would want to die tasting somthing sweet.
What would be the setting for the meal?
Definitely north of Harbor Springs, a big table in the middle of the Tunnel of Trees, on this one piece of land that I love, where I fell in love with Northern Michigan. The waves crashing, a cool breeze, a mid-September evening. The sun drops gently into lake Michigan just centered perfectly on the horizon that time of year, pulling softly shaded pink and red cloulds into the water before the moon rises and creates a yellow-bellied lake.
What would you drink with your meal?
I would have to have a glass of bourbon, (makers rocks) and wine. A rich, smooth, and fruity zinfandel or meritage, probably the Prisoner, or Woodenhead, I would want my lips to be stained purple. My Makers I would want to sip out of an over-sized crystal rocks glass, the wine however, out of simple juice glasses. I would want a glass of Veuve Rose with my cheese and dessert….that I don’t care what its served in.
Would there be music?
Who would be your dining companions?
The man I love, my parents, my siblings and their families, and Peter Lucas, my only life long friend and someone who loves to eat and cook as much as I do. Also he makes me laugh harder than anyone in the world, my cheeks ache after our visits.
Who would prepare the meal?
Myself, J Kott, Tom Kaszubowski, and Jen Blakeslee. All people who I fell in love with immediately, and it was through their warmth as they expressed it through food. Not to mention I would be keeping the best of company in my final hours while enjoying my favorite thing in life….eating.
It was a good spring. We were lucky. The air and water were warm already. I can remember closing my eyes as we walked out onto the dock. It was damp…I can still feel my Tree-Torn’s sinking into the dank wood. Tide was high and the two little Whaler’s were waiting for us. Chico was on one boat, the other was empty.
“How do you want to split this up Frank?” My father said while laughing at what I can imagine was the idea of himself and John on a boat with Capt. Chico all day.
“You and John take that one with Cleo, Beth, Melinda, Linz, Doe, Alex, and Amanda. Ill go with Chico, Bets, Rich, young John, Sam and Abi.”
I was pleased with the crew Frank had assembled. Our families had been vacationing together for years and although we were all close, I preferred the company of my little brother, Richard as well as Sam and Abi. Young John was several years older than me, but I was crazy about him. He was a handsome and sweet boy. John use to organize “hold-ups” amoung us kids. The most recent being the robbery of my fathers Thule, which we had discovered earlier that morning was securly attached to my mothers mini-van…and locked. It was a disappointing mission to us all, however I remember being excited watching John craft a gun out of sticks, and he looked good with a hankerchief covering the lower half of his face.
I could see the relief on John Seniors face not to be stuck with Chico. John was tall and distinguished looking, with perfectly combed silvery gray hair. His shirt was tucked in, and he wore boat shoes. Chico was not a large man, maybe 5” 9’, skinny, but with a brown pot belly covered in white hair. He wore sunglasses and a pair of grey shorts perfectly faded by the sun. I liked him. He had yellow toe nails. They were thick, rippled, and chalky from salt and poor hygiene. As I sized him up I let go of my Dad’s hand and grabbed Uncle Frank’s.
Frank picked me up uncomfortably by the arm pits and set me down in the boat. I waited eagerly for Sam to get lowered on as well and relaxed once she did. I was always relieved when Sam was around. She, unlike my older sisters Lindsay and Dorrie, was uniquely drawn to things in life that I shared a passion for as well. Nature, music, a generally dirtier lifestyle than that of the one heavily peppered with tripple-layered mini dresses and brownie meetings, that my sisters firmly embraced. I felt lucky to have her as a friend even though she was a few grades ahead of me. In high school Sam would sneak me out when my parents were out and squirt cheap vodka into my mouth from a once-empty facial cleanser bottle. She also taught me the joys of heavily buttered cooking habits which I would later love her for. Her younger sister, Abi I found facinating, as did Richard who adored her, the two had a bond that the rest of us weren’t in on. The sisters had beautiful straight and shiny hair. Sam’s was brilliantly blonde and Abi’s was jet black, the opposition always enchanted me. Thier bright, blue eyes would widen with affection when you would open your arms to embrace them.
We pulled out of the harbor into the reed ridden savannahs of South Carolina. Chico plowed through the harbor and passed the no wake bouys as John was just getting his lines untied. I looked back and John had his arms in the air, furious.
Chico, being a seasoned stoner who chose an alternate path to suburbian life, was immediately liked by Frank, who has always been torn between two lives. One involved daily commutes to an office broken up by parties at a country-club where he would wear bright red pants covered in something horribily offensive like ducks or cocktail olives. The other involved eating acid in the jungles of Uruguay, studying the minutia of rare spider habits and making passionate love to indiginous women named Hu Tu. As the two bonded Sam and I were quiet while Richard and Abi played with thier milk cap collections.
I remember breathing deeply that day. I would pull as much air through my tiny nostrils as I could, whistling at times because I was increasingly unsatisfied with the amount of salt I could taste in the back of my throat. It was my first time on the ocean and I was curious. I could easily compare it to the first time I became horny, watching two teenagers make out on a moving motorcycle in Aerosmith’s video for “Livin’ on the Edge.” I was excited, unsettled, and frustrated, wanting more and not knowing what of.
We stopped to explore a small island littered with gulls. Chico cut the engine and we went searching for sand dollars. An incredibly boring activity which Im sure Chico indulged hundreds of tourists in each month, especially small children. I waded in the water about waste deep and took another deep breath in. Finally I could stand it no more, I had to taste it, I dunked my face, eyes open, toungue out ready to drink in what I imagined to be pure and refreshing.
I was wrong. Uncle Frank and Chico laughed as tears came to my eyes and I spastically flailed my wrists, fanning my face then rubbing it profusely. Frank hugged and kissed my head, trying to calm me, all the while laughing. When I became less hysterical Chico put his face right in mine and spoke to me in a thick Carolina accent. His voice was rich with salt, cigars, and bourban. All three were delivered in a raspy tone that made me feel safe.
“There is a better way to taste the ocean, can I show you?”
I nodded yes as I wiped my upper lip, still hyper-ventilating from my recent shock and overreaction. Chico took me from Frank’s arms and hoisted me back up onto the boat. The others joined and we headed back out to the depths. We didn’t go far before we came upon a bouy bobbing sullenly and Chico once again cut the engine.
Chico reached over the boat and began pulling up the rope. Whatever was at the end of that line was heavy enough to make chico quietly grunt as his tan almost black back flexed with each heave. All six of us were quiet until Frank reached over to pull a dark and slimy crate on board.
“What is it Poppa?” Abi sweetly inquired.
Frank looked at Chico and grinned before shouting “Oysters baby, they’re oysters!”
I quickly and clumsily stepped to the bow of the boat, my brown feet slapping unsteadily on the sandy wet floor. Chico pulled out a pocket knife and stabbed, twisted and flicked the sharp metal into the hard shell, effortlessly prepping it in seconds and handing it to Frank. Frank brought the shell to his lips, tilted back his head slurped it down. The slurp bothered me, but I was still curious, debating on whether to try one myself. Chico began to indulge as well, he had about three down before Frank was done with his one, but Frank was taking his time, enjoying. Then he slowly slipped his toungue between his lips and curled it up to his grey and white moustache. His lower lip followed and I could see blissful content pouring out of him. It was this expression on his face from that salt water chaser that sold me.
“Can I have one?” I asked, still uncertain.
Chico looked to Frank for approval before shucking my very first oyster. I had no idea the depths of love and appreciation that I was about to open my eyes to. I opened my mouth and awkwardly fit my lips and toungue around the shell. It being to big for my little jaw, Frank helped me slip the oyster into my mouth. My eyebrows involuntarily crushed themselves together as an initial reaction to the texture, then raised and relaxed as the fresh salt rolled over my toungue. I swallowed without chewing and let the cold meat slide down my throat and into my warm little tummy. I rolled my toungue around in my mouth, sucking the remaing sea off of it. I then opened my mouth and took a deep breath, now feeling pure and refreshed from the oceans beautiful gift.
There are only a few moments in ones life where you can actually feel an emotional shift in your heart. This was the first moment I felt it open up and make room for somthing other than my Mother. It was on this day, with Chico, that I fell in love with food…and it changed me forever.