I recently had the opportunity to assist at the kitchen where I used to work. It had been three years since I set foot in that kitchen, and I simply did not want to go. I have a full plate at my own stretch of culinary zone. Besides, it would break my heart and bruise my ego too much to see how well the kitchen has managed since I left. I had this dream that the place was now in shambles. How could they have possibly succeeded without me?
I was one of several chefs in this kitchen of about 70 BOH employees. In my biased view, this kitchen was perfect: big and beautifully kept.
During my tenure there, there were cooks who had been there for over 20 years and there were cooks who had been there for two weeks. The kitchen was diverse in every way imaginable. This was a kitchen with many female cooks and staff. This kitchen spoke English, Spanish, Mandarin, Tagalog, Laotian, Korean, Cambodian and many more. There were cooks who are career line cooks, there were professional prep cooks, there were dreamers, there were aspiring chefs, there were students, and there were “no-experience-but very passionate” cooks. You name it, this kitchen had it.
Many of the cooks in this kitchen were my teachers when I first started cooking. They taught me how to skin and fabricate a whole salmon. This is where I learned to confit, cure, smoke, brine, and season. I learned that good stocks are the foundation for rich sauces and delicious soups. I learned to make large batches of soups from scratch. I perfected my mashed potatoes in this kitchen. I learned to properly wrap and store food. This is where I learned the importance of local food and the connection between eating and the environment. I learned how to eat. I learned teamwork and humility. Without a doubt, this kitchen groomed my character as a cook, as a leader, as a person, and as a chef.
With stomach butterflies that seem to come alive inside me, I drove up the windy hill to the parking structure on a rainy Tuesday morning. I had no expectations, only a task to accomplish.
The kitchen looked as beautiful as ever. It was in order and clean. The kitchen was in its usual busy rhythm, and there was a positive hum. They had managed just fine without me!
People seemed genuinely happy to see me and I was very happy to see them. We exchanged many hugs and smiles, and I reconnected with everyone in no time.
Four things became evident to me during these two days.
1) This kitchen will run like a well-oiled machine, not missing a beat. That beautiful hum is no longer my own, but wonderful just the same. It is a solid kitchen with solid foundation. Anyone would be lucky to lead it.
2) Now an outsider, I realized that the beauty of the place, works of arts, and previous bosses were not the ones that inspired me. I guess I knew it then but it is more apparent to me now that the true inspiration came from the cooks and chefs I worked with. They were my muses. They taught me to be kind and tough in the kitchen. They helped me mend my broken heart and rejoice new beginnings during that time. They were the people who fought with me through many battles, both powerful and petty. They are the ones who gave me love, and whom I loved back wholeheartedly. They are the ones I missed. They are the ones who were difficult to leave.
3) It was not always good. It was not always perfect. Plenty of very challenging times offset the countless wonderful moments I had in that kitchen. I did not always know what to do. I did not always make the right decisions. I shared this with the new chef when she asked for some tips on how to run the place and wanted to know the secrets of my success. All I could say was that I was always grateful for the opportunity, and I always gave it my best.
4) A couple of my old cooks were still there, still raising the bar of what great food can be. Manuel Mendoza makes the best soups anyone has ever had, and I will always crave them. Maria Gonzales was, and, I am convinced, will forever be the best line cook I will ever work with. She understands consistency, discipline, commitment, and flavor. There were many days when the only things that made very bad days bearable were Manuel’s posole and Maria’s bouillabaisse.
The drive down the hill on my last day of visit was very foggy and wet, but my vision was as clear as a summer day: I knew that I no longer fit in there. I knew that this kitchen moved on quickly once I started my new culinary journey three years ago, and I am fine with that. My long-time romance with one workplace ended, but I am now in a very promising relationship…one that I look forward to nurturing.
I was truly happy to see Manuel, Maria, the kitchen, and the grounds. I did not realize how much I have missed them. To honor the memories, last weekend I made pork posole. No, it was not transcendent like Manuel’s, but it was just good enough to keep the delicious memories lingering for a few more days.