Sunday, May 2, 2010

True Story: The Flaming Chef

"With blowtorches, saws and rope rounding out our repertoire, it occurred to me that serial killers and line cooks had remarkably similar training, equipment and temperament."

(This story is dedicated to my Mom, who saved my life; And to my husband, who makes life worth living. Original artwork by Jason Zenobia.)

The Flaming Chef

I had just gotten fired, and my mother was giving me a pep talk.
            “I ran into that friend of yours the other day.  You remember Kathy Winston from high school?  She’s just a few years older than you and she’s a real grown up.”
            I was approaching thirty and I felt as though she’d asked if I needed to go potty.
            And of course I had just gotten fired.
            After my last job, the temp agency was reluctant to send me anywhere new and how could I blame them?  My assignment ended in disaster when two weeks of work reformatting a technical manual resulted in nothing but heartache for our client.
            "What did you do?" my boss asked.  I could hear her through the phone as she clenched the muscles in her jaw.  It turned out that not only was my work unusable, but they had to wipe the computer’s hard disk clean and rebuild it before it would work again.
            The computer would work again.  I on the other hand, would not.
            "I never really pictured you in a cubicle anyway," my husband said.
            Getting paid to sit at a desk in front of a computer is at least tacit validation that you have some kind of brains.  That validation evaporates when the computer you work on experiences the electronic version of PTSD.
            So after fumbling around for a while, I decided to give cooking school a try. 
            I was pleasantly surprised that my boss at the temp agency provided a recommendation.
            “You’re really leaving the field of technical writing?” she asked. “Why, I’d be happy to write you a letter.”  She seemed a little eager, now that I think about it.
             As soon as I got a job in a wine shop and worked out the details of my student loan, I was ready to work my way towards a Culinary Arts Diploma at Portland's Western Culinary Institute.


            I had been out in the workforce for some time but even so, the rough and tumble of cooking school was an eye opener.  I suddenly knew a lot of people with criminal records, chemical dependency problems and “anger issues.”  They may have possessed varying degrees of dexterity but they all had the equipment required to remove flesh from bone.
            With blowtorches, saws and rope rounding out our repertoire, it occurred to me that serial killers and line cooks had remarkably similar training, equipment and temperament.
            Being in or out of the closet was a distinction that had long lost all meaning for me; and as an obviously gay man I received more than my fair share of the attention.  Some of the rougher gentlemen wondered aloud if I was interested in being their "bitch."  But I kept my knives handy and learned to avoid the alleys where they smoked and did drugs, especially after dark.

            Dodging unwanted suitors aside, I found school endlessly fascinating.  In a series of cramped, noisy kitchens where too many students fought over not enough space, I was determined to learn as much as I could.  But none of it came easily to me.
            My family owned a bakery and I had grown up in a kitchen, but this was really hard.  There was so much to learn, so many concepts to master.  So when I finally started cooking dinner on the line where I had live customers who ordered real food, it was a struggle.
            My first night working the line I was on vegetable duty and I fell behind.
            The next night, I managed some pretty good sauces, except for one that was cream based.  I kept applying too much heat for too long, and twice the fat came out of suspension, creating a pale mess that looked like snot in clarified butter.
            When I was on meat duty, I fell behind again.  I overcooked the fish (which was disgusting), undercooked the chicken, (which was potentially deadly) and ended it all by slicing my hand open.

            A few days later there was the “easy” test to see if I could toss the contents of my frying pan with a simple flick of the wrist.  I failed, throwing uncooked rice all over my instructor and everyone within ten feet as they shouted, “Stop, stop!” but I didn’t want to break my rhythm.
            “What did you expect, a guy with wrists like that?”
            I was clumsy.  I was slow.  I was a delicate creature and I was blowing it.
            The test I was truly dreading was the one to prepare two identical, plated dinners.
            The night came in a kitchen that would have been crowded with eight chefs in it, but this class had 28; all bumping into each other with sharp knives, hot pans and short tempers.  Not to mention several other classes working right next to us.  The noise was deafening as I rooted around, searching for what I needed.
            Since I had sashimi grade fish, I decided to make tuna with an almond crust and a wine, vinegar, and butter sauce known as beurre blanc.  The trick was to sear the tuna in a very hot pan, just long enough to toast the almonds and leave the fish very pink in the center, which I did.  Then I sautéed minced shallot and deglazed the pan with white wine and vinegar.  I reduced it to almost dry and then swirled in some cold butter.  The acid in the vinegar and wine prevented the butter from separating as it melted; leaving a thick, creamy sauce that retains a sour bite which is sensational with seafood.  I poured the sauce over the plated fish.  Then the simple steamed vegetables and roasted Yukon gold potatoes were done, and I was ready.
            I slid two plates in front of the chef and stepped back to await my fate.
            Chef sighed as he looked at me and pulled his private fork from his coat.  A wiry, handsome man in his late thirties, he wouldn’t have looked out of place in a boxing ring.  Time slowed as the noise and heat of the kitchen pounded in my temples and a series of images ran through my head:
            The last, gray cubicle I worked in and the computer I killed there.
            I thought of all the food I had ruined; everything I'd dropped on the floor; all the other students who didn’t seem to trip over themselves and all the cuts, bruises and burns I had collected over the last few months.
            I had a vision of my friend from high school, Kathy Winston in an open casket, dead from eating my undercooked chicken.  My mother dabbing her eyes as she spoke at the funeral.

            “She was a real grown up.”
            They would carve it on the tombstone.
            The crunch of the chef’s fork through the almond crust snapped me from my reverie.

            I had watched people take this test before.  Usually the chef would take small samples of everything on one plate, leaving most of its contents and the second plate untouched so that the student could eat it for dinner.
            Tonight was different though.  He broke the hot crust of almonds with his fork and revealed the tender, pink fish inside.  Then he dabbed at the tart, creamy sauce, brought the fork to his mouth and took a bite.   He reached for the vegetables and potato, but then he stopped and chewed and tasted.  He nodded as he raised his sandy eyebrows and a small crowd gathered to witness what looked like...


            The eating continued.  The crispy, salty almonds crusting the tender fish and the tangy butter sauce complemented each other and he said so.
            “Yeah, nice balance,” he whispered.  The vegetables were perfect, dressed with just a little olive oil and salt.  “Slightly al dente, just the way I like ‘em,” he murmured after he bit into a julienne carrot.  He nodded slowly and turned to me as the bustle of the kitchen died down.  More people stopped to take in the show.
            “That is yummy,” he said taking another bite, this time sopping up some of the beurre blanc with crusty bread.  He motioned for other students to sample my work.  Even a passing instructor tried some.  The tasting escalated into a brief frenzy of forks as people reached for bites, had seconds, and then demolished the second plate.  I watched as my dinner vanished in a flurry of nods and happy mutterings.
            For the first time in weeks, my breath felt natural in my chest, as a calm sensation washed into me from all around the kitchen.  I looked around at the students and instructors in their white chef coats.  Then I glanced down at my own, white coat.
            I belonged here.
            The chef was more than surprised, he was smiling.  I didn’t know he could smile.
            “That is yummy," he repeated.
            One of my classmates, in cooking school at the suggestion of his parole officer, turned to a fellow gang member and said:
            “That little faggy guy, made some good dinner.”  Then they both tore off hunks of bread and sopped up what was left in my saucepan.
            "That is yummy."
            I felt like a real grown up.


  1. This is so beautiful. I must cook now!!

  2. YOU'RE yummy, Flaming Chef!

    "No, you're yummy!"

    No, YOU are!

    Man, we could go on like this all day.

    No need to thank me for filling in your lines.

    I like the wrist observation. Of course, under different circumstances it would've been funnier at the time... Did you spend the rest of the evening thinking of snappy comebacks?

  3. Awesome! By the way, I think a cousin of mine went to that cooking school a million years ago.

    I'm moving back to Portland in a year...Oh, and I'm there almost every weekend. Maybe we should get together sometime?

    I'd love to meet the lucky guy who got you for a hubby. :)



Comments welcome, but if you're going to be a jerk, I'll delete your ass.