One door closes, and another one opens.

It occurs to me my last post was maybe not the most food related.  I guess that’s bound to happen from time to time. Lets get back to the heart and the reason for this blog!

As the final weeks of my kitchen life in Bangkok were coming to a close, I was feeling more than a bit lost. I had my tickets booked to Tokyo and back to the states but, I had no real destination in mind. I decided I would take the time to travel around and look within and see what I really wanted. I knew I wanted to be in a higher caliber kitchen and wanted to work with more seafood. I wanted to distance myself from the pastry section of the kitchen and build towards a future for myself. I also wasn’t having a very big draw to be back in my motherland.

Then as life is often strange in it’s timing, a tall man from Spain darkened the pass at Quince. (Mind you he’s not actually tall, but to me, having lived in Thailand for as long as I had, he seemed like a giant.) Chef Blair had mentioned that we were going to have a guest chef from Spain for a week in the kitchen. I had mixed feelings regarding this. For one, more than one chef in the kitchen could create a bit of chaos but, I was also excited to see and taste someone else’s food. “MH” poked his head in and said his swadee kap with the glittery eyes of a child. I was wary of a western man in Thailand, as many of them seem to have one main agenda and as usual I was an item of curiosity, who is this American girl working in a kitchen in Thailand?

MH and I clicked fairly quickly. It had been so long since I had someone to smoke and drink the night away with, I forgot how good it felt. We talked politics and Thailand and love. Chef Blair, MH and I, all having been very recent sufferers of broken hearts, we bonded over beers in back alleys and ate probably the best street food I had my entire time in BKK. In the Kitchen we laughed, expressed our frustrations and talked about food. I was really starting to see that my time there was coming to an end and I was gonna miss Chef and my kitchen family more than I had realized.

One night after having gone out with the Chefs I came into Quince ready to work my first shift as expeditor. Chef Blair had asked me the day before and I was nervous and excited. It made me feel great that he had the confidence in me to run his kitchen while he took the night off. Just before service MH approached me. During our foray the night before I had asked him what it would be like to come and work at his restaurant in Spain. “Is that something you would want to do?”, he asked. I replied, “Yes”, I wasn’t particularly eager to head back to the states and had seen myself living abroad for at least a year. A season in Spain cooking in a restaurant of the caliber his restaurant seemed to be sounded pretty great. That day he came at me with a proposal that rocked me. He mentioned he had just signed a lease on a new restaurant and that he would like me to be Chef there. I almost threw up. I responded with, “Are you still drunk? ” He laughed and said no, he was very serious and we should take a beer after work and talk more. I tried to refocus my mind on the service and push the crazy notion of being “chef” out of my head.

It’s probably every cooks fantasy to get out of culinary school and 6 months later, be offered a head chef position. I heard my Chef instructor’s advice ricocheting around my head, “Step by step. Don’t jump ahead of your learning process.” The meaning of the word “Chef” also bounced around my head a lot. I had barely worked the hot line, I knew Garde Manger and pastry. I had assisted in every aspect of the kitchen. My age is a huge factor in the kitchen. Keeping up with people in there 20’s who have been cooking since they were in their teens is exhausting at times. Trying to put that stupid ego voice out of my head and look at it from a truly real perspective.

Service ended, I had made it through the night with no more turbulence than normal and felt a little rush from calling orders, plating and dealing with the on going headache of explaining western dishes to our lovely thai servers who had never eaten aioli so couldn’t find a way to explain it our guests.  Sigh. Then MH and I  went off in search of beers and cigarettes and to talk about this insane proposition. He explained his concept; back to the roots cooking, small rotational menu serving fresh and seasonal. A market kitchen doing 40 people very well instead of 60 people very bad. We’d make our own breads and pastas and make it a place people wanted to be. It was right up my alley in so many ways. I told him I wasn’t sure I was ready for this, that I had so much to learn and think about. He said, “Take your holiday and think about it, and then say yes.”

I emailed my ladies. I was in a twist about this proposition. Was I ready for this? This man who had been cooking over 20 years had such confidence and belief in me, I thought, he must know something I don’t. What should I do? They all responded in the same way. If you don’t do this you will always regret that you never tried. Whether you succeed or fail at least you will know. This is the way your life is, take the leap. Take the leap, take the leap, take the leap.

I talked to Waew about it the next day. She was shocked! But, as usual, supportive and encouraging. She was sad I was leaving Quince and wanted good things for me. She was in deep flux about her own career, and what she wanted to learn. I had started encouraging her to travel abroad to cook, that if she really wanted to cook western food she needed to go to the west and work in a western kitchen. I told her I was going to work for MH no matter what, whether it was going to be as Head Chef or as a line cook for the season. I had a feeling this was the place for me to go. Fly or fall, I want to try it all.

MH’s time in our kitchen came to an end. I was sad to see him go and he had left me in such a strange state; questioning what my next move would be. He set off on his own holiday and his own soul searching.
I finally told Chef Blair about the proposition and he asked me, “You think you’re ready for this?”
I said, “I have no fucking idea. But, why the hell not?”
He said, “Yea, why the hell not?”
He’s flown in the face of adventure and cooked around the world and led a crazy life, so he gets me. He knows the importance of experience and travel and getting your crazy on. He had been so supportive in my time at Quince and was more than a bit sour with my decision to leave for a guy. He had, in his own brand of chivalry, offered to dick punch my ex. Gotta love that. I felt a bit guilty in my own thinking about leaving my Chef for another chef. I do have some sense of loyalty, even if my ex-husband doesn’t think I do.

I knew before my days at Quince were over that I would take the job as Chef and move to Spain, but I didn’t give my answer just yet. I still very much believed that the offer would be rescinded in a moment of clarity on MH’s part. But the offer stood firm, and I started to look at it as a reality and that this is what was next for me. This is what was next for me. This is what was next for me. I had nothing to lose. Right?

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Dinner with the Chefs, the only real way to eat in Thailand, on the street

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Hoi lai prik nahm pao; wok fried clams with chili paste and basil

3 am with the chefs, Food is always the focus, no matter how many beers we've had.

3 am with the chefs, Food is always the focus, no matter how many beers we’ve had.

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Phad pong karee poo, wok fried crab with egg yolk , yellow curry and thai celery. There is nothing better than this dish. I’m dead fucking serious. The sauce made me want to cry.

A Prayer For the Heartbroken

It came time to renew my visa for Thailand one last time.  I decided to head to Kuala Lumpur in Malasyia.  I heard the food was amazing and I was wanting to see the Batu caves.  KL is truly a mash of the future.  It has 5 languages that are spoken, modern sky trains and crumbling relics.  The old religions of Islam and Hinduism ares still visible in the dress, the dialect and most certainly the food.  Oh, the food!!!  After 5 months of Thai food, the prospect of eating in Malasyia was a breath of fresh air.  I have no idea what anything I ate was called but I didn’t have one bad meal.  The rich deep spices and dry fried beef, they make me salivate today, months past and thousands of miles away.

Once again, I arrived and faced the initial disorientation of a new country, new currency and new languages.  I hoped in a cab that was unmarked and by the traveling mercies that have followed me around the globe, I was safely deposited at my hotel, all my limbs intact.  I looked out my window onto KL at night and was eager for the day to break so I could go explore.  Room service was my only option so I plopped on the bed and watched the first TV I had seen in months.  I fried my brain on shitty Australian made-for-TV movies.  In the morning I stretched and laid in bed listening to the ominous sounds of the call to prayer. Hauntingly beautiful.
I dressed and set out to find coffee, my one serious and true addiction.  My one true love, my dark Lord, master of my morning brain. Taxis flagged me to get in them but I set off to walk instead, packing a large pashmina to hide my scars and tattoos just in case.  The smell of toasting spices in the morning filled the air and the variety of faces buoyed my steps.  It was good to be out of Thailand and see different shapes and colors again.  Varieties of Halal markets with large groups of men drinking tea and coffee, women in Burkas, right next to teen girls in crop tops and daisy dukes. The mashing of worlds, old and new.  I sat and drank my coffee and just watched for the first few hours.  Then, I started walking.  I walked almost the entire city in one day.  Poking in and out of shops and food stalls.  Tasting here and there and thinking about my upcoming move back to the US.  I was looking forward to seeing E in just a few weeks, and I had just booked a ticket to Tokyo to visit my old friend Yuki and  to see what Japan had to offer.  My mind was twisting and turning as I roamed the hills and drank it all in.
On my second morning there I decided to head to the Batu Caves.  I woke with an ominous feeling and tried to push it off.  I boarded the train and made the long slow journey to hike the enormous staircase that leads into the caves,  As I journeyed up, and up and up I reflected back on the last few years of my life.  I was hit by a car the year of my wedding and suffered severe damage to both of my knees.  It took me a long time to recover from the accident and as a result I became overweight and severely ill.  I was borderline diabetic and severely depressed. The toll of losing my mother, my damaged knees and then losing my sister within the span of a few years had left me seriously broken.  I had been sinking with no hopes of surfacing.  It had gotten to the point in 2011 that I was so ill, I couldn’t sleep.  I finally went to the doctors and he told me I had GERD, which is an early warning sign of ARVD, which my sister died of suddenly one night at 42 years of age.   He put me on Prilosec so i could get some sleep and not be in chronic pain.  I went home and jumped on my elliptical and threw out anything in my house that might agitate my stomach.  I radically changed my life in one day.  I called my dear friend Dr. Sundy, a chiropractor, and set up regular appointments.  I weened myself off the Prilosec and used papaya enzymes to control my stomach acid.  I portion controlled and ate fresh foods everyday and I went to boot camp like a religious nut.  It solved my depression and relieved my stress.  I quickly found the motivation to live my life again and not just slog through the days.
When I reached the top of the staircase I looked out over KL and all that came back to me.  The struggle, the pain and the recovery.  I cried as much as I could with all the tourists flocking in and out of the caves.  I laughed at the monkeys as they clamored all over, harassing the women and stealing people’s food.  Then I decided to take the dark cave tour.  I’ve always found caves terrifyingly fascinating. Theres a botany nerd that lives in my heart.  During the tour we learned about the cockroaches and centipedes and of course, the bats.  I love, love, love bats!  Truly, I do.  Standing in a pitch black cave with 20,000 bats is freaking awesome!  But somehow, it brought back that weirdly ominous feeling that I had been having all day.  As I left the caves, I looked back understanding why it was a sacred place, and it left me feeling a deeper respect for religious traditions than I had previously felt.
I wasn’t keen on going back to my hotel and a single woman in a bar in KL attracts some very unwanted attention.  So, I went to the movies and had dessert for dinner, like an adult.  I walked through the pouring rains with my shoes off till I felt tired enough to sleep.  E had been unusually quiet in his texts all day and I knew the inevitable was about to happen.  I had just purchased my ticket home and had sent the exciting email for us to celebrate, with no response back.  I laid in bed sleepless.  Anxiety like a cloud I couldn’t see through.  When the call came in that he was calling it quits, I sank like a stone.  I did the stupid, and natural, thing and bought a big bottle of shitty Malaysian whiskey and proceeded to drink myself into a stupor.  I talked with my dear chef friend Andy Werhle for most of the day and called my girls to comfort me.  I had never felt so alone in all my life.  The path I thought I was about to walk had been obliterated by a storm.  The call to prayer soothed me that early morning and again in the evening.  It calmed my mind as I drank to still the pain that was cutting inside me.  In one part I felt that honestly, this was the best thing for me.
I have never really been alone in my life. I have gone from one relationship to the next.  I fall in love easily and tend to disregard my own needs in favor of the person I am with.  I am a demanding partner who requires that I am the center of the relationship.  But, I give it all.  Everything I have to give, I do.  To a fault.  To the point where I end up feeling resentful of my partner.  It’s my own unhealthy shit to deal with.  I have dragged this baggage into every relationship that I have had.  This one hit me especially hard.  Mainly because for the first time I was with someone I actually saw myself having children with and raising a family of my own. This is something that when I shared with my ladies they were floored.  But the last few years have shown me so much about myself that in some ways maybe it’s not all that shocking.
It was time to return to BKK and finish off my time there.  I packed my bags, now bursting from over-shopping while drunk and sad, and jumped in a taxi.  The taxi driver took me to the wrong airport and when I protested and asked to be taken to the right one he shoved me out of the cab with my luggage and left me there.  I raced to get another taxi and he was a total life saver.  I told him my story, and he drove like our asses were on fire to help me make my flight.  I barely made the plane but before I knew it I was back at work at Quince, serving pastries and trying to keep from sobbing into the food I had worked so hard to prepare.  Waew was my sole comfort. She hugged me and raged with me and shook her fist in frustration like any good girlfriend would.  You know you have a good friend when they feel your pain and let you just explode all over the place and don’t judge you for the crazy shit you say or do cause they know you are temporarily insane.  We went out the next night and drank absinthe and listened to music and sang along with the 90’s cover songs and it was perfect.  I wasn’t healed, still working on that, but it was a bandage on a gushing wound.
I love you Waew, your an incredible woman and friend.
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In A Place Called Thailand

Packing my bags yet again, this time for my “final” destination, Bangkok.  I arrived into a land so different from anything I had ever known, dazed and confused.  I was dizzy from the Swadeeka’s, the currency difference, and the rocket ship taxi to my temporary host’s home.  Lena, who I met via Air BnB, had agreed to host me for the first 3 months of my stay in BKK.  When I arrived, exhausted sweaty and coming down with Strep, I could see the trepidation in her eyes.  Who was this black haired, tattooed Farang showing up on her doorstep?  She showed me to my small, yet efficient room and walked me through the house.  She was gracious and helpful, right from the start.  She told me it was her birthday, and she and the whole family were gathering for dinner.  She said I should join them.  I showered and laid down for a moment before we headed out to meet everyone.  My first meal in Thailand, we ate Vietnamese!  HA!!  They worked to explain how to eat the food and I smiled and laughed and assured them I may be Farang, but I’m no stranger to Asian cuisine.  I dug into the fresh herbs and chili fish sauce with such gusto they were shocked!  But I think I also won them over in that moment.  Eager to try everything and asking lots of questions, I rode out the night as the jet lag came down on me like the hammer of Thor.

I awoke the next morning with fever and chills, I couldn’t move or speak, and I laid there in helpless agony for 3 days.  Lena came in to refresh my water and bring me juice.  On the third day she pumped me full of Thai home remedies and within  a few hours I was on the mend.  I hadn’t eaten in days so I set out on my first moto taxi ride, shaky and scared with my eyes bugging out of my sockets.  I went to the mall, ’cause in big cities in Asia you always go to the mall.  I immediately bought myself a bubble milk tea and wandered lost through the maze that qualifies as a mall.  I found a place to sit to eat a hearty bowl of Tom Yum and heal my broken body.
Over the next few weeks I laid low.  Taking in my surroundings and trying to understand the local language, which I quickly learned was impossible.  I would have to rely on the kindness of strangers.  I was eager to look for work but my boyfriend, “E”, at the time, was coming to visit me and I wanted to spend the whole visit free with him to explore and eat and discuss what was going on in this crazy long distance relationship.  When I had left the state we were still a very new couple, and very hot and heavy.  The “L” word was dropped, and in my final weeks we were inseparable.  He was 9 years my junior, but I thought I had found someone who understood me and that some how we could make it work.  He nursed me through the initial stages of my divorce, and was my rock through the packing and moving and the blah, blah, blah.  Leaving him was a kick in the chest and we talked nearly everyday.  It was clear this was more than just a fling for either of us.  I had purchased a ticket for him as my, “I’m sorry I’m leaving you” consolation prize.  It was just something I had to do.  I had spent my whole life in the USA and I needed to see the world.  I also wanted to put as much distance between me and the life I had built with my ex-husband as possible.  I needed to be free, to fly or fall, it had to be done alone.
By the time he arrived I had figured out fairly easily how to get around and the currency no longer boggled my mind.  I was getting better at body language and had been eating as much as possible to learn the different flavors.  I had booked us a trip to Chiang Mai to soak in the beautiful northern landscape, people and food. The minute we saw each other in the airport I thought my heart would burst.  To see a familiar face and this man that I had been yearning so deeply for was like a million fireworks in my heart.  He had been going through his own trials of being a sous chef at a new restaurant and losing one of his closest friends to heart attack. He needed this time as much as I did and we tucked ourselves into a gorgeous boutique resort in the hills of Chiang Mai and spent the first few days, eating and sleeping and listening to the waterfall.  We drank whiskeys in the pool and did stupid tourist things that made us feel guilty and sad.  We had a traditional northern Thai dinner by the waterfall, where we both fell in love with Chiang Mai sausage, all the while surrounded by a young Middle Eastern girl’s birthday party, where were asked to pose with her and sing happy birthday.  All of this was hilarious and extremely awkward.  We went to the night market in Chiang Mai and stuffed ourselves on quail eggs and more and more sausage.  I held back from going head first into the bowl of Black Jelly, which I had developed an addiction too.  I learned the horrors of fermented anchovies and that it takes days to get the taste out or your mouth. We bonded and discussed the future and how we would make our relationship work.  It was magic.
The day he left for home I was heartbroken.  I knew I couldn’t go long without seeing him again soon.  He flew out on the same day I was to start my job at a restaurant.  I kissed my man goodbye and packed my knives to embark into kitchen work at a restaurant called Quince.  I had eaten at a few of the local western restaurants in Bangkok and had settled on Quince because I felt I could help with elevating the food a bit.  I met the new Chef Blair Mathieson, we seemed to connect.  Western food in Bangkok, for me was not great, but had a lot of potential.  Quince was ranked in the top ten at the time.  The first few days were a dizzy headache.  I was relegated to the pink ghetto to learn the pastry of the kitchen.  I was trained by a young Thai boy named Alex and over the first few weeks we developed our own language. We laughed at each other’s follies and did the best we could.  Eventually, he had taken another position at a new restaurant, and I was to move into being the lead pastry chef.
The week before I started, another female had started in the kitchen.  She was the first girl to work the hot line at Quince.  A tiny Thai girl with the most amazing smile, Waewrawee Pantumachinda soon became a close personal friend to me.  We shared the same interest in music and art and talked about food as the focus of all things in our life, how it made us feel and how we wanted to only produce the best that we could all the time.  I loved watching her tiny self bob around during the rush of service and the little hop she would do when she was in her groove.  Always eager to help everyone and push harder and faster, she won me over in big ways. While I didn’t learn much about actual cooking at Quince, I did learn what it meant to communicate and work with people so vastly different from you and be accepted. It changed me.  I lost the fear of the unknown and just went with the flow.
I was living alone for the first time in as many years as I can remember, and that to was a seemingly new experience for me.  Faced with silence in my apartment night after night, loneliness closed itself around me like an iron fist. I started talking to myself, since I had no one to really speak to outside of work. The Farangs I met were disappointing in their arrogance and lack of understanding of the Thai ways. The Thais I met outside the kitchen just wanted to be westerners and took all the shit that was dished out to them.  No one understood my sense of humor and more than anything I just wanted to be hugged.  While Waew and I were close, she had her own life and I mostly just shuffled around feeling lost.  I went to the movies and cried in the dark surrounded by people.  I talked to E incessantly and listened to his own downward projection trying to be a loving and supporting partner 12k miles away.
Part of me working in Bangkok meant I had to leave the country every 30 days to renew my visa status.  I decided I needed to go back to San Francisco for Thanksgiving and see where things were at in my relationship and if maybe I should move back home.  Once again seeing him as I stepped off the plane was perfection and like no time had passed.  We would just hold hands and smile at each other and repeatedly say, “yes, I am/you are real”.   Every moment we could be together was wonderful and we slipped into what we dubbed “our time warp”. We talked more and more about a future together.  I decided I would return to BKK and within 6 months we would figure out our next step, together.  I drove around visiting old friends and eating at my favorite places and realizing my time in SF was truly done.  I had moved past this place but it would always hold a very special place in my heart.
On Thanksgiving I woke early to make the stuffing and roast the Turkey.  We packed up his car and headed to my friends Kaitlin and Eric’s house to share in the only good part of this holiday, being together with friends and eating till you can’t move.  We spent the day in the kitchen all together working to make a beautiful meal, staying warm and keeping each other laughing.  We trash-talked and cracked jokes. E and I ribbing each other about not chopping onions fast enough and I let him carve my turkey, a first for me.  It was a beautiful day, spent with beautiful people. But, it was time for me to return to Bangkok and resume living my life there.  I had just signed a 6 month lease on an apartment.
Upon my return to Bangkok I realized I was stronger than I was when I left.  I came back full from the love of my people and reminded why I set out to do this.  I dug my heels in and put everything I had into my work and working out.  I attempted to make friends with people but found it exhausting and that I couldn’t connect with anyone.  E and I were missing each other more with every passing day and my work at Quince was unfulfilling.  I was bored with the food and wasn’t teaching me anything new.  I loved my coworkers and seeing them was the highlight of my day. The inside jokes in our broken languages, flush from a busy service, despair from a night gone horribly wrong. But, it wasn’t enough.  E was struggling with his work and wanted to leave.  I decided I wanted to be with him and would return in February and we would try to figure out where to live from there.  Chicago and NYC were the options.  We had a plan, of sorts. I had to leave Bangkok for my visa and before I did I told Chef Blair on New Year’s that I was done and would leave at the end of January.  My time in Thailand had an end date.  I worked my best to wrap my brain around this idea, and tell myself it wash’t a failure to head home after 6 months.
I learned so much from those months, being white in a yellow world.  My brashness had subsided a bit and I was dealing with things in a calmer, gentler way.  I was learning to sit alone in silence and absorb the world around me.  In these ways Thailand wasn’t a failure for me.  It taught me the importance of understanding yourself and broke the rigidity that has always existed inside me to just be free and go with the flow.  Around every corner is a new adventure, if you want it.  And yes, indeed, I do want it.  More than anything I want to fill my life with an overflowing amount of experience.  Be it heart ache or the rush of success. No matter what, I can always find a kitchen to call home and a way to communicate with people even if we don’t speak the same language.
my beloved Tom Yum!

my beloved Tom Yum!

Pa naeng

Pa naeng

Spring rolls done right

Spring rolls done right

Som Tum, you know it, you love it. topped with a giant river prawn.

Som Tum, you know it, you love it. topped with a giant river prawn.

Room with a view in Change Rai

Room with a view in Change Rai

Our breakfast companions

Our breakfast companions

Traditional Chiang Mai feast

Traditional Chiang Mai feast

Chiang Mai night market

Chiang Mai night market

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