|First, “chef” means boss. He is serious about
this. You must not laugh.
I like Diet Pepsi. It tastes like pencils, and that’s what I like about it. He licks a penne, scorns the iodine in my missalted water. Swooning, I worry that he will taste old boyfriends, every sour, bitter love gone by. Instead his kiss channels Mom’s fried Spam slices, her square miles of mac and cheese. His taste buds plumb my DNA’s depths. Practiced teeth seek the melt and chew that was Oma’s creamed spinach. Breathing hard, we hold hands, scan menus, at a long-ago lunch counter.
Tummel’s club sandwiches, circa 1958:
Ask him to wash his hands. Chile pepper atoms glow warm, sting with sexy danger, tonight. You will regret this in the morning.
I am still learning. My demonstration cow, he shows me his cuts of meat: chops, sirloin, rump. I taste each one, note the nuances. Muscles that work hard are flavorful but tough. Flank steak legs stand thirteen hours, run up and down stairs, bend into fridges. Shank arms tote ice blocks, lift sheet pans, carry me like a sack of potatoes. His back fat, enriched by confit and whipped cream, is tender. I pinch him in the filet mignon and he squeals like a pig.
Wearing condoms is like chicken breast en papillote, he will say. (That’s parchment, he’ll add, as if you don’t know). It’s healthy, but there’s something in the way. Bareback is like sauté. Lubed with fat, more spatter, more succulence. Make him wear one anyway.
He is at once more gentle and more vicious than I could have imagined. I am whisked, flipped, seared, chilled, sauced. Each touch of his scarred thumb heals me a little more.
You will fall in love for the perfect lines of an oven rack burn on his arm. You will leave him for late hours, grease smells, low paycheck. You will return for the risotto.
|I have learned new words in French, all forms of torture.
Batonnet, chiffonade, julienne. I am issued plastic vegetables, models from
large dice to brunoise. This last is the tiniest, most perfect cube you
can imagine. Make one. Make five hundred more from a single stalk of celery.
Do this to a case of celery. Still want to be a chef?
“Your knife is an extension of your hand, an extension of yourself,” my textbook reads. My knife is an angry dog. It knows I’m afraid and it bites. “Your knife must be sharp enough to slice meat.” It is, mine. “Never let anyone use your knife. Keep it safe. Show it respect.” Especially once it has tasted blood.
I am unable to turn parsley into dust. Everyone else has vaporized the spiky green leaves, boards chattering, wrists flying. The chef says mine still looks like parsley. It is parsley. A tear drips down, makes things harder.
A tournéed carrot looks like a seven-sided football, 3/4 inch by 1/4 inch. Not six-sided. Six would be easy. Seven. I slash at my fingertips with the birdbeak knife. Do they taste better because they’re so hard to do? I don’t know. They’re my children.
My first job at my first job is to slice scallions. Not chop, slice. I botch it, and am not allowed to slice scallions any more. Every night my chef places a quart of sliced scallions on my board. Every night he reminds me that he’s not going to do this forever. This goes on for six months. Then I quit.
|What have I killed in my life? Bugs, fish. Dismembered
thousands of chickens. Lobsters are big roaches, easy to snuff.
The sadness of knees on frogs’ legs, baby lamb shank ankles couldn’t keep me out of cooking school.
We learned to butcher from large to small. Cut up halves of cow, tracing the joints. Next: lamb, pig, turkey.
I tried to be absent the next day. If they said bunny on the menu, no one would order it. In France, they leave a patch of fur, so you know it’s not a cat. I closed my eyes, closed my heart, cut.