Last days of Thailand

It’s time to wrap Thailand up.  Last night was Christmas and I sat on the floor of my Apartment in Harlem eating my delivered Thai dinner and allowed my mind to wander back to that time a year ago. Wow, a year ago I spent Christmas in Thailand feeling alone and strangely at home.  It’s amazing how long a year can truly feel.  While the meal I ate last night was a sad representation of a culture that left such a deep groove in my being, it did however evoke the feelings that I needed to finally finish the story of how I left Thailand.

The last things I told you about, a break up, a mysterious man from Spain, my Thai, Burmese and New Zealand kitchen family.   Now with a few weeks left on my hands before I was to leave the country, I decided I should see the south.  Go to the beach and try to just relax and let the events of the last year try to settle into my brain and bones.  I booked  a ticket down to Krabi to spend a few days staring into the Andaman sea.  I’d gotten so used to my autonomous life in BKK that going to this small beach town over run with sun burnt tourists slopping down overly sweet curries and fruit juices was a serious culture shock.  The laid backness of the locals was typical of any beach town and the tourists made me sad and feel even more foreign than I had felt in months.  I spent my time drinking beer and listening to the incredibly talented local cover bands and avoiding conversations with people in English.  I booked a snorkel tour where I was crammed into a boat with unfriendly tourists and spent the day talking to myself in my own head.  I took in some of the most stunning water and views I’d ever seen in my life.  I saw giant wooden dicks painted gold and red and tied with ribbons.  I ate curry off a boat on the beach and drank tiger beer in the hopes to numb the dullness of the people around me.

My heart was in such a state of turmoil that most of my time in Krabi was spent in a vaguely catatonic state.  I wept at the beauty of each sunset, every night it was like a dagger in my heart.  I let my mind drift back over events that I had fought to forget.  I missed my family for the first time.  I missed the familiarness of the home I had built with my ex husband and the sound of his laughter.  I missed our evil cat and the comfort of a life I systematically destroyed.  I stood there on the shore every night feeling completely lost inside the strange twisting and turning of my mind.  I had this huge thing looming in the horizon half way across the world on an Island I had never even heard of until a few weeks before and all I could do was sit there and think about the past.

I left Krabi, sun burned and hung over with the taste of sugary curry in my mouth and headed back to BKK.  Immersed back in the city I relaxed and my mind was more easily distracted.  I was to meet up with Waew again, we were planning a road trip of sorts.  We had planned to head down to Hua Hin, her childhood vacation town.  Her family owns a condo on the sea and it sounded relaxing and lovely.

She picked me up at my hotel, I’d already moved out of my apartment, and we headed out of BKK.  We listened to music and talked in-depth about our lives.  Past relationships, our parents and what its like to loose a parent, food and how we feel about being professional cooks.  We stared out the windows and we just enjoyed our time together.  Waew was struggling to figure out what she wanted to do and was seriously considering coming to Spain as well.  I was of course prodding her to do so, I wanted my friend to come with me and at that time the opportunity seemed so fantastical to us both.

We stopped in Ampawa, which has a floating market of sorts and shops over hanging the water.  We walked and ate coconut ice cream and decided to take the sunset massage cruise, which was brilliant on our part.  We texted with our other kitchen friends that were working away while we were gently rocked by waves and massaged by lovely Thai ladies.  We got to Hua Hin at dark and decided to stroll down the beach to grab some dinner at a little local seafood place on the beach.  Waew warned me to wear shoes and not go in the water, animal feces littered the beach and the ocean was polluted and would cause serious skin irritations.  This was disappointing at best, but we made the most of it.  We ate and relaxed then crashed early.  I woke to the sounds of the waves and flat blue and gold horizon.  We drove around town and Waew was not as enchanted by her small vacation town as she once had been.  We decided to head up the coast and try another small town, this one was hustling and bustling but it was like an eastern European retirement swingers party, we were clearly out of place.  We got a hotel room and sat drinking cocktails and watched the working girls and sad saggy flesh of tourists try to make something magic happen in what is otherwise a fairly dull life.  Needless to say we didn’t stay long and we soon found ourselves on the road to BKK and me back in my 5 star hotel on Khaosan road.

I spent that night out on the strip, drinking with other tourists and flirting with men for the first time in months.  I had forgotten that some western men are still attracted to western women, ha. I was leaving in a few days for Tokyo and to reunite with an old friend and that filled me with a new kind of excitement.  I was heavy hearted to leave Thailand but I knew my time had come to a close there.  I’d return someday to visit the friends I’d made.  Thailand changed me in a lot of ways and every time I make a Khao Soi or Tom Kah I am instantly reminded of this time in my life.  FullSizeRender_1

Krabi night market

Krabi night market

 

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36 hours to reflect and preserve

I’m always starting with my apologies for my absence here. I’m a terrible blogger, how do I think I’ll ever get my memoir out?!?! And yes, I know I still owe you the end of Thailand, Japan, a return to San Francisco, my time in Spain and, how the hell did I end up living in New York? Oh, yea, I’m living in New York these days. But let’s just start with something small and heart felt and hope that gets my writing juices flowing again, ok? Ok.

So, briefly, I have been living and cooking my ass off in New York since June. I’m running around with my head on fire in a city of around 12 million and loving every second of it. I’ve steeped myself in the essence of a new and completely different life than I have ever known. I walk the streets like a beast, completely unafraid of any human interaction and, I allow myself to remain open to any and all possibilities that come along. In a city like New York, there is never a shortage of opportunity.

Amongst all this newness I’ve managed to meet a few people who are keeping me inspired, in love, and questioning myself and how I work in the world. What is my role in this crazy human life? Is it just to cook and work and sleep and fuck and do it all again? Is it to keep hammering away at this dream of living as free as I can and push myself beyond the limits of any ordinary life? I realize all this stuff is just floating in my head and heart, and with a minimum of a 55 hour work week it’s hard to find anytime to sit and process. I needed to step away from this intensity for a minute and enjoy the last of summer, so I called Sara and set up a 36 hour visit to the farm and the family.

I finished my shift after an intense week of work rolling out our late summer menu, did the deep Sunday clean on the kitchen while drinking champagne then beers, then a shot of tequila, etc… Before I knew it I was getting off the subway by my house at 3:30 am and realized there was no way I was gonna get a wink of sleep before I had to catch my 6:45 am train to Baltimore. So I said screw it and stopped in to Nadals, my neighborhood deli, and chatted up my man Muhammed. Muhammed always takes good care of me, extra this and that on my giant sandy and he often skips me to the front of the line, much to the annoyance of the drunk and stoned 3 am deli zombies. There was a time when this sort of thing would have made me blush and now I just swagger in, chat with my homie get my food and swagger out. Suck it, nerds.

I trotted up the stairs, housed my shawarma, and passed out for one glorious hour before the tinkling sounds of my alarm brought me back to consciousness. Shaving your legs at 5 am when your eyes are crossed is ill advised, just saying. I somehow managed to pack and get my ass out the door and magically made my train, where I quickly passed out. I came to with a deep and sudden realization that it has been a year since I left the Bay Area. A year since my life has been completely up in the air and in the wind at whatever whim I may have. Honestly it feels like 5 years have passed since I kissed my loved ones good bye and set off to see the world. I am standing on the other side of one of the most transformative years of my life. And that journey actually started with me and Sara connecting and eating the fuck out of NYC. Seems fitting I would spend the anniversary with her.

Since I was last on the farm Sara has given birth to a beautiful baby girl named Dakota. Perfect little toes and fingers and a deeper blue of eyes than her sister Charley. Charley, nearly 3, is my favorite little sous chef and I was looking forward to her getting in the kitchen with me. But first things first, lay by the pool and reconnect with my family.

After a few hours of that we headed over to the garden plot to harvest. The last I’d seen it, the seedlings were just poking their little wispy tendrils up and unfurling their leaves, reaching for the sun. Upon my return the land had the look of late summer abundance and exhaustion. Tomatoes so ripe they just explode in your hands, Okra raised tall and pointing straight towards the sky. Turnips literally jumping out of the ground, ready for winter storage. It was heaven to see it all happening, exactly the kind of thing I have been missing this last year.

We filled a 5 gallon bucket to the brim with eggplant, turnips, green beans and a huge armload of adorable butternuts. We made a quick list of the things we wanted to make: baba ganoush, dilly beans, tomato bacon jam and butternut pie filling for the coming holidays. We also decided it was gonna be a late night coffee/shots/canning/skinny dipping kinda night. After a trip to the store for some supplies we got down to the business of breaking down our cornucopia — dinner first! I made baba ganoush, hummus and grilled shrimp with anchovy butter and lovely tomato salad of luscious heirlooms and a few crunchy greens ones, parsley and lots of salt and lemon juice.

We ate on the porch by candle light with Sara’s husband, Brian and the kids. It’s the kind of reconnection with family I needed. I get so wrapped up in my singular life I tend to forget these days what it feels like to have that ritual and comfort of familiarity. Since my husband and I split up I’ve lost the rhythm of life like that. Our Sundays at the farmers market or harvesting from our beautiful small garden plot and then the meal we would have that evening, our last bit of peace before another week of work began. I can finally admit to myself that there is a part of me that misses that and I feel so lucky that I even had it to begin with. It was a beautiful time, but clearly not the last path for me.

As I watched the dynamic between a loving family I felt warmth and closeness and answers to some of my more painful questions that rise from time to time. I live to cook, but I also live to grow. Grow food as well as myself. I am here to experience and transform and never ever stop living as full as I want. I’m truly alone for the first time in my life and its the best thing I can do for myself right now. I cook and feed strangers and give them all the best of me. I live my life out loud and honestly. I answer to no one and do my best to keep my heart beating so I can move through this life with some sort of magic. I’ve always looked for love in others and I’m finally finding it in myself. I am my own human experiment. I miss my connection with growing things and see that will make its way back into my life again. I’m working at the perfect place for me at this time in my life. I’m engaging with other people in a way that before I never could have handled. Most importantly I generally feel like there is really no reason to stress out ever. I’m broke and have no time, but I am doing what I set out to do and I have amazing stories and I’m still young enough to live a few more lives. And I have friends like Sara, that I can touch base with and fulfill the other needs with.

So we cleaned up dinner, sent the family to bed and commenced our late night hang out session. Roast tomatoes, chop onions, measure spices, SHOTs, coffee, cook off bacon, mince garlic, SHOT, jump in the pool, get back to it. Laughing deliriously from lack of sleep, intoxicated from to much alcohol and spun from coffee, we rocked out to Digable Planets radio and did what I love to to do, cook. We didn’t make it to the pie filling but it was such a beautiful bonding session and was everything I was looking for. We finished the night in the hot tub and crashed hard. Woke up the following day to eat crappy Mexican food and drink frozen margaritas with Erin, perfection.

I’m on the train back to New York, full again of love and memories and reminders that I can have a life outside of the kitchen. Looking forward to putting on my chef whites tomorrow and cook food that I truly feel connected to, in the hopes that the people who eat it feel moved in some way when they eat it. The whole story of the hands that make what we eat, from the hands that plant the seed to the hands that ship it and break it down and serve it. Eating is a social act even when we do it alone.

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Aqua, White and everything just right.

There is an absence in my being these days. I miss my time in Thailand far more than I ever thought I would. I live and breathe each day happily, and as peacefully as I can. I open my eyes and go about life with a different respect than I ever had before my time in the land of smiles. Many things have transpired in my life since my last day in Bangkok and this post is jumping way ahead of that, but, tonight took me home to Thailand in a way nothing else has. I will rewind and tell those stories, but tonight is fresh and pungent in my palate and there is no time to waste.

I have, as you know by now, amazing people in my life. People who understand my hunger to taste and experience. For the last month I have been lying low on my dearest friend Sara’s farm in Maryland. I have been cooking and loving her family in a way that is new and completely soul fulfilling to me on a level I have never experienced. One of her closest friends, Erin, who has become one of my favorite touchstones in the world of food has been a constant and loving presence through this. She has been in the food industry for more than a decade and shares my exuberance for eating and connecting with our fellow industry people during this time. Upon my arrival to Maryland she started talking to me about Little Serow, a north eastern Thai restaurant in Dupont circle DC. Small and intimate, dishes roll out without the hassle of choosing as the menu is prefixed and set before your arrival. Small, dimly lit and subterranean with no sign to let you know of it’s existence. All things that resonant deeply with me. It must be done before I leave to start my life in NYC.

I’m on my final days here on the farm, so we arranged for Sara’s husband to stay with her toddler and we set off to meet Erin for dinner. Erin arrived at 4:30 to secure a place in line for us, doors open at 5:30, first come first serve. Down a small flight of stairs, into a cool concrete room with a white corrugated metal ceiling lies an oasis of gastronomic love. From the minute we stepped in I felt at home. The grace and beauty of our hostess in her floral print dress to the white ceramic pitchers lining the wall behind the bar I knew this was a special place. Erin, who has a natural gift for pulling in people, was a minor celebrity amongst the staff and they all greeted her with the joy of an old friend who had come over for dinner rather than a guest at a business establishment.

Our server Alex, gorgeous in her jet red lipstick and matching jumpsuit, was absolutely perfect in everything she did. She laughed and joked with us, poured us perfect bubbles on the house to cool our aching palates and chatted with me in depth about NYC restaurants, her stint in the kitchen and life in general for her. I may have fallen slightly in love with her for our two hour stint in her stomping grounds. The convivial spirit amongst the staff was palpable and as they refreshed our drinks and cleaned our plates away they all dropped their own style of wisdom, love and tidbits by our table to enhance the atmosphere of our experience. I sat facing the kitchen, as I generally try to do, small by all standards, it is pumping out the good stuff with a grace and consistency that should be envied by all. I felt the fire build inside myself that occasionally goes dormant. This dinner shared with love and grace reminded me why i do what I do, why I love who I love, and why no matter where I am in the world I can find family, friends and nourishment. These people I eat with, love with and befriend, even just for a few hours, give me a calling to live each day to the fullest.

At the end of the meal I made my way to the kitchen to meet and greet the trio behind the magic. Mike, John and H greeted me with a joy that only a cook who is truly proud of their craft can. We high fived, joked and felt the warmth of camaraderie as I clicked a quick pick and praised them for a job well done. Just those few minutes with them made me want to drop anchor, roll up my sleeves and help keep the fire burning with them. I felt a true and deep love, the kind that only our people would understand in so brief an interaction. The line out the door says it all, the humble grace makes it real, but the food; the food speaks for itself. Holding true to the magically complex in flavor and simple in technique balance of Thai cuisine. Each dish completely it’s own world in taste and texture, rippling across your tongue and lodging a place in your heart. Each bite evoking deep fond memories of a life I lived, though briefly, that changed who I am forever.

As Sara and I rolled home, our bellies bulging with love (and a baby), the heady aroma of honey suckle cloying at the twilight air, I felt at peace and instilled with the idea that truly life is a grand and infinite playground. That we define ourselves not by our mass of possessions but by the depth of our experience and our ability to let them wash all our preconceived notions of who we think we are and who we think we should become away. It made me know that all that I have sacrificed is only at the benefit of gaining my soul. This is what eating, food and cooking is all about for me…

house made vermouth

house made vermouth

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The weird story of an American in Thailand

There was this one time when I washed ashore in Thailand, and worked at one of the 10 best restaurants in Bangkok, and made friends with a bunch of crazy Thai and Burmese cooks.  Oh yea, you probably want to know how the hell that happened.

Honestly I have no idea.  One night in a bar with a friend I decided I was gonna turn my whole life upside down.  I was already kinda in the process, living multiple lives as it were, but on this night, D and I got drunk and got deep in our regular watering hole, Coaches.  (Coaches is a shitty sports bar in Campbell, California that housed some of the funnest nights of my life during the nine months I went to culinary school.)  During the conversation I finally came to terms with the fact that my marriage was over.  I wasn’t even remotely present in the relationship anymore and I needed to face the fact that I would do more damage if I stayed married than if I did the hard thing and broke it off. My husband deserved to be with someone who wanted to be married and be with him.  With this thought came a tiny little wisp of another thought: Hey, I could just up and go live in Thailand if I wanted to.  Seriously, it was that involved of a process.

A few months later I was actually in Thailand, working and renting an apartment, and trying to make friends.  That is how easy it is to change your life if you really really want to.  In between there was a lot of fighting and crying and selling of houses and dividing of possessions, and on and on and on, but those details are not the purpose of this post .

So I walked into Quince, got a job, and somehow became the pastry chef.  I worked side by side with some really amazing people and some thoroughly frustrating people .  Beyond Waew, there was a badass lady from Burma named Neenee in the Garde Manger station.  Her ability to push through a heavy service always made me happy; she’s the kind of person you want in every kitchen, unless she’s angry! Then holy shit watch out! My favorite Neenee story happened one day we were kinda bored in the kitchen and “V”, our sous chef, was being classically annoying.  Neenee had enough of him that day, walked over with her bread knife, and just straight cut his arm.  He squealed like a little girl. I had to laugh! I had fantasized many times about doing that myself.  I love that bossy bitch.  She didn’t take shit from anyone.  If I had an off day she would yell, “WAKE UP! WAKE UP!” Ah, I miss that.

With Neenee was Chatree, also Burmese.  I called him my Honey Bear.  He was seriously the living embodiment of Winnie the Pooh.  He always came over to my station to eat the honey from my mis en place.  Chatree had the most amazing laugh. No matter how shit the day was, every time I heard his little bubbly giggle I would smile.    He had such an innocent joy about him, knowing him made me feel like a less bitter person. Whenever he did the Ceasar salad he would take one of the anchovies and hang it precariously from one of the croutons: it always made us giggle.

Then there was Boy from Burma.  You looked in this cook’s eyes and you could see the hard road he had traveled.  He spoke zero English, but we were pals nonetheless.  I respected his incredibly sensitive palate and sense of smell .  He was always about 30 seconds ahead of me, smelling something that was off.  One of the dishes I had to do was a caramelized banana, which I hated when we were really busy cause it threw a wrench in the works.  As a result of the “fucking banana” that I would always mutter, he started calling me Banana.   Soon it caught on in the kitchen, people calling out, “Banana!”whenever I walked in.  He was also the one who got us all to say, “No Good! No Good!” when an order was fucked or something happened we didn’t like or agree with.  Last I heard he went back to Burma to join a monastery.

Tuek! My homie and a damn fine saucier.  It took me almost a week to pronounce his name right.  He had one of the darkest senses of humor I’ve come across, and man did I love that.  Living in Thailand, surrounded by people that are always smiling, just annoyed me at times.  But I would come in the kitchen and Tuek would have some incredibly sarcastic and dark come-back to something, and it made me feel so much better about life.  I know, I know, I’m a twisted little monkey, but even twisted monkeys need playmates!

Then there was “Purple Rain”.  One of those individuals who made me so angry that I physically had to restrain myself from shanking her.  The laziest person I have ever seen in a kitchen, she was as wide as she was tall.  A big nasally voice, barely any teeth and these enormous purple “spank like” underwear that were always showing, hence the nickname.  She peeled garlic at a rate of one bulb per hour, and she was constantly scavenging in the hot kitchen.  She reigned supreme in the dish pit and barely had to lift a finger.  Her mafia connections were enough to keep her employed, and I have it on good authority that she exploited the burmese immigrants and took a percentage of their wages.  She ran illegal lottery rings and spent most of the day talking on her phone on the crapper.  She managed to forget to give me my tips for the first month I worked there.  And a few times after.  By the end of my stay at Quince I would just glare at her from across the room.  If I caught her near my Mis en place she would hustle to the other side of the kitchen.  I tried to be nice in the beginning and she tried to bully for me awhile, but like people who know me, that didn’t last for long.  I was warned about her mafia connection but I didn’t give a damn.  One day I was so angry I actually told her she was gutter trash to her face .  I shoved her during service when she was standing in the middle of the kitchen while the rest of us flew around like maniacs. GRRR!!! Ok, wow this paragraph has gotten a bit out of hand…

Moving onto Chef Blair.  Is it prudent to write about your former chef and employer in such a public format?  He said he doesn’t mind as long as I make him seem cool.  So here it goes:  Blair is one of those Chefs who is really just a big kid.  He loved being rowdy and had a great sense of humor.  He’s been all over the world and so his stories were always entertaining. We were buddies, in the kitchen and out.  I was the first westerner he ever hired and hopefully I didn’t disappoint too much.  One of my favorite things about Chef Blair is that he keeps his kitchen balanced between the sexes.  He sees all his staff as equals and when someone puts in a greater effort, he recognizes and fosters it.  He’ll ride your ass when you make stupid mistakes and his favorite insult is “dick head”.  Fortunately I think in all my time at Quince we only had one night we did not exactly get along and he called me a “fucking American”. He’s from New Zealand, for the record. Sticks and stones Chef, sticks and stones.

There were a lot of other people in our kitchen, but these were the ones who left the biggest impression on me.  Six months of churning out the good stuff, teaching them american racist slang and English swear words. Meanwhile they introduced me to one horrible snack food after another.  Days of joy and days of pain.  Running up and down the stairs to “deal with the ice cream”. Breaking that kitchen down to the bare bones and rolling up our pants night after night to slosh buckets of cleaning solution around while being tortured by V’s horrible horrible contemporary Thai slow jams.  I swear, one of those songs was about Lasagna. The day to day of kitchen life was the only thing I really had in Thailand.

When I told them I was leaving, it hit me hard the privilege I have in my life.  Some of the staff were illiterate and lived in the slums near my apartment.  Most of them were from Burma, looking for a better life, with the kind of alcoholism that comes from being under educated and poor and seeing no way out of your situation; choice was just not an option for some of them.  These people who I had worked with and in some ways loved with, they were staying behind while I left to live my free and privileged life.  They asked to come along, they proposed to me, they gave me big hugs and said their sad goodbyes.  I told them to come visit and they said they would love to, but, between the visa and no money how could they? I wonder if I’ll ever see them again.  I wonder if they have any idea what a huge impact they had on my life . I certainly hope so.  I also hope that somehow, I had an impact on them.

The beautiful front of house of Quince.

The beautiful front of house of Quince.

The amazing chicken snack.  There is also the epic crab shaped snack as well. They battled it out.

The amazing chicken snack. There is also the epic crab shaped snack as well. They battled it out.

Brioche boobs with hazelnut nipples. A Waew and Jamie collaboration. We tried multiple nipple garnishes.

Brioche boobs with hazelnut nipples. A Waew and Jamie collaboration. We tried multiple nipple garnishes.

Night crew. Tuek's last night.

Night crew. Tuek’s last night.

BBoy and Banana.  Ringing in the New Years.

BBoy and Banana. Ringing in the New Years.

Our cooky sous, V

Our cooky sous, V

Chang, Tuek, Boy and Waew

Chang, Tuek, Boy and Waew

Chef Blair, keeping it classy. Goodbye bottle of Rose.

Chef Blair, keeping it classy. Goodbye bottle of Rose.

 

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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Ma Douce Blanchisserie Française

I remember very clearly the first time I tasted French food.  I was 11 or 12, that part’s a little hazy.  My mom was dating this Texas oil tycoon and we were living out some weird pretty woman scenario.  He took us to a restaurant called The Mango Tree.  At the time this was the fanciest restaurant in our tiny sand bar of a town, Cocoa Beach.  It was a dream to me, the little white trash metal head that I was.  Somehow, I had already started developing a taste for things far beyond our monetary reach.  I marveled at the fine linens and crystal.  The fact that I was allowed to drink wine with the adults, slurp down escargot smothered in garlic butter and eat duck breast that had the most perfectly seared skin and tantalizing shade of pink amazed me.  They even served single cigarettes after the meal, and yes, people actually used to smoke in restaurants when I was young. The beautifully written French words I didn’t understand and the whole concept of eating this way made something stir inside of me.
After that dinner my mother saw how affected I was and tried her best to nurture this tiny seed of culture in me.  This can be hard to do in town like CB, which is pretty much a waste land left to philistines and strippers.  She started by renting me my first foreign film, a French movie called My Sweet Launderette.  The story was about a gay couple who owned a laundry mat.  Much of it was lost on me because of the titillating sex scenes in the launderette.  My first foreign film and my first gay erotic film.  My mom was way ahead of the curve, you could say.  What I did pick up on was the tone of the dialog and the rhythm of the language.  The expression of passion and the defeat of heart break.  It spoke to me in a way that no other film ever had.  Oh la la.  I was hooked.
My mother usually worked two jobs to make ends meet.  When I say we were white trash, I mean it.  I grew up in the welfare lines and have actually eaten government cheese.  I ate free school lunches and wore second hand clothes.  I learned to smoke, have sex and do drugs before I even knew what all of that really meant.  We were scrappy gypsy people and we moved nearly every year of my life during that time with my mother.  I have to hand it to her though, she always found a way to make it work.  No matter how bleak the scenario, we had a home, I was fed, educated and taught how to live on a shoestring.  Through all that, my mother found a way to nurture this strange affinity for luxurious eating in me.  She scrimped and saved every year to take me to a restaurant of my choice for my birthday.  It was almost always Cafe Margot, which was two towns away.  At the time, it was really upscale and meant half a month’s rent for us, major bucks in our house.  It gave her such joy to do this for me, and for me it was sheer and utter gastronomic bliss.  My dreams were made of pate‘ and wine, velvety sauces and decadent desserts.  No other kid my age gave a damn about such things and it was around that time I really started to pull away from my peers, in general.  I built a small, wobbly dream of leaving home and moving to France to write.  But, life had other plans for me.
Somewhere along the line, I left home far too young and I lost sight of my dream to move to France and write short stories.  I got weighed down by menial jobs and paying the bills.  Bad relationships, drug abuse and recovery, followed by more heart break in the form of death, and then, more death.  When I finally leveled out, I snapped out of it and just went to work, slept, ate, shat and lived a “normal” life for a bit.  It was then that I remembered that I once had dreams–  fanciful dreams of seeing the world and tasting as many different things as I could.  So, I picked up my dreams and dusted them off and reshaped them into something that was more reflective of the woman I had become.
Part of that dream was culinary school, where I met some truly amazing people.  People who helped me set myself free and held up a mirror so I could see who I really am.  This may sound dramatic to some of you but I think so many of us have a hard time really connecting with ourselves and we spend all of our time looking for validation from other people.  True freedom is an illusive notion to so many of us, and it has a hefty price, but I can say it is absolutely worth it.  It is truly a gift if a person is fortunate enough to meet people who just let you twist and yell and scream and laugh as loud as you want.
Two of those people, for me, are Courtney and Diane.  Two woman vastly different in age, appearance and backgrounds.  Two women, both searching for their freedom and their passion.  Two women who spent countless hours on barstools, dance floors and talking food with me.  Two women I hold very dear to my heart for totally different reasons.  Diane reminds me of my roots, reminds me to be humble and go with the flow.  She shows me how to see people as they are and always work hard to be happy and honorable.  Courtney teaches me to stay sassy and confident and swing my proverbial dick around when I need to.  She helps to remind me that I set out for the moon and dammit that’s exactly where this fucking ship is going.
As the end of school was approaching and we got to planning, I stuck my finger on the map of Bangkok and Diane set her course for Italy.  Courtney was waving in the breeze trying to figure out what to do, and Diane and I put the full court press  (ya see what I did there?) on her to get her ass to France.  She hemmed and hawed but when she bought her ticket I quickly followed suit and said, “Sister, I’ll see you in a month in Paris!” And just like that 20+ years of yearning was about to be fulfilled.  With Diane just a hop skip and a jump away, we made plans to convene in the City of Love, the roots of our culinary education.
The day I arrived in Paris I was a mess.  Just having left the states for what was an indefinite period of time.  Leaving a new relationship, a failed marriage, and most importantly decades of friends behind.  I arrived exhausted and bewildered and terrified to face my dream for real.  Courtney welcomed me like the bubbly, golden, midwestern angel that she is.  I tucked myself into her tiny apartment and slept in odd spurts till she got off service at 2am.  Then we took a walk, just down the street from her house and we were in the middle of the Louvre.  3am in Paris, and it had started to rain ever so slightly.  I was humbled and shaken.  How had this white trash high school drop out ever managed to launch herself to this place?  Truly amazing.  Courtney asked me if I was cold, and honestly, I couldn’t feel it.  All I felt was high.
We spent the whole next day just walking, touching, seeing, tasting and bathing in the light that only shines that way in Paris.  I watched my beautiful friend navigate her way confidently through her new city.  I felt such pride to know her and be a small sliver of her magical journey.  It helped reignite the spark in me that had set me out on my own journey.  Diane joined us  the next day and the trio of odd balls was once again united, but this time in PARIS! We drank, we ate, we ogled men and women alike.  We talked shit and criticized the food.  We ate one of the worst French meals any of us had ever had and we wandered, lost and barefoot, through the streets.  We argued and annoyed each other and slept on the floor.  We made up and saw an opera and ate more baguettes.  We arranged a surprise birthday for Courtney and had an experience none of us dreamed we would have had 11 months earlier.  It was perfect in its imperfection.  My mother would have whole heartedly approved.
To my sisters in culinary arms, I love you.  Thanks of your confidence, your reassurance and your insanity.  I can’t wait to see where we meet up next.
Diane, me and Courtney paying homage to the master.

Diane, me and Courtney paying homage to the master.

A day in Yontville eating and plotting our world domination

A day in Yontville eating and plotting our world domination

Breakfast in paris

Breakfast in paris

 

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Toujours dans mon coeur

Toujours dans mon coeur

 

 

The wrinkly fruits of love

Words that inspire are so very important to me.  When I am lucky enough to come across someone who has that gift of communicating their story, it opens me up.  When that person happens to be a chef as well then that is where I get weak in the knees.  To be clear, I could care less about meeting important people. Celebrities of all genres generally bum me out.

The whole idea behind celebrity chefs is really a touchy point with me.  As soon as I started school people said the most ridiculous things to me such as, “when are we gonna see you on top chef?” My flat answer is, never. How about you ask me what my favorite food is? What my vision is? Who inspired me to take this path?  Or better yet, how do you feel about celebrity chefs? This is not to disregard the chefs who are celebrities.  These are talented, hard working, career focused people who are helping to bring attention to an industry that is brutally hard. But the fact remains, if you tell people you’re a cook they could care less.  Tell them your a chef and the table rises 6 inches.  That’s why when I want to know about a chef I read their book, if they are fortunate enough to have published one.

I love a good journey.  And life is anything if not but a journey.  Some of our journeys are just far more fascinating than others, no offense.  I have always struggled with finding the courage to follow my dreams and not being afraid to fail.  So in my years of hemming and hawing to get my ass in gear I read about people who were cooking and loving what they were doing and it nourished me, it kept that tiny little seed just moist enough to sprout.  Then I read Gabrielle Hamilton’s story, “blood, bones and butter.”

The title alone was enough to make me smile, ahhh, a woman who loves the things I love.  I read it in under 48 hours.  Wait, the word read makes it sound like such a passive activity, I devoured that book with my mind mouth! I masticated every word and swallowed it down while I was taking the next bite. That book cracked the doors off my fear and kicked my ass into high gear.  Her voice was the one I was looking for.  Her punk rock eloquentness and soul bearing analogies filled me with determination.  The fact that she is in the top of her field and running a restaurant that is recognized by some of the best chefs in the world as an institution, and most people don’t even know her name because she refuses to be a celebrity, is exactly the icing on the cake I want her to make for me.  Honestly, I had no idea who she was till I saw her book sitting there on the shelf.

When I finished that book, I started looking for a school to get into right away.  The time was now.  I was letting my life pass me by.  I told myself as soon as I graduated I was heading to her restaurant Prune in Manhattan and eating, and maybe try to beg for a job.  And you know what? I did just that.  I exchanged many emails with my dear friend of more years than we would like to count, Sara.  I told her my plan to come to NYC before I headed off to Thailand and that she should come meet me from her home in Maryland. She immediately said, “fuck yea dude!” I think those might have been her exact words.

Sara is one of those people who is always on board for a good adventure.  She’s gutsy and loud and wicked smart.  She can talk to anyone and has the gift and curse of always speaking her mind.  Women friends don’t really have a term for the kind of friendship we have.  She is my bro, my homie and I love her so very much.  We have been through some rough times and seen each others darkest nature.  We have taken breaks from our friendship and now here we are, loving each other more than ever.  Encouraging each other to be who we are and do what makes us happiest.

One of the best things about Sara is she loves to eat. Which is really a number one requirement if I’m going to be friends with someone.  She also never whines about the cost of food, which is a huge bonus, cause that shit drives me bonkers.  So, we met in New York and proceeded to eat our way around town. And lets be honest here, we drank a lot of booze and got really rowdy and it was absolutely perfect.  The one thing that I said had to be done was we had to eat at Prune.  It was the reason for the trip and I couldn’t get side tracked by my boozy longings for kebab at 3am.

We were lucky to get a table.  Early September in New York is gorgeous and everyones out wandering around and eating and Prune is well known.  Casually elegant and a place of complete comfort to me.  It looks like it belongs in France.  We squeezed into our table between two couples, which made me nervous because Sara and I have foul mouths and we often get stares of disgust (read jealous that your life is so up tight). We ordered a bottle of Rose, and it was just right to help us settle into what was one of the best dining experiences of my life.

We started chatting with a very chic couple next to us about the food and wine and life and travels and on and on.  They had just recently been to California so we talked about what they thought of this or that.  Then over hearing our conversation this lovely middle aged couple next to us chimed in.  Turns out they are from California as well and from there it just became this magical moment, in this place that has such a feeling of love and comfort to it that I never wanted it to end.  It was better than I pictured it.

Chef Hamilton’s restaurant Prune is exactly what I want for myself someday.  She’s not revolutionizing cooking. Her dishes are old classics that she has cleaned up and perfected.  The food tastes like memories and nurturing and happy conversation between strangers.  The respect for the product has clearly been the focus and that to me is most important.  It tastes like home. Not the one I was raised with, but the one I’ve been looking for my whole life.

When the meal came to an end, Sara paid the check, her graduation gift to me.  We stepped outside and I promptly burst into tears.  I’m a big crier and this experience deserved the full emotional intensity I had let build up inside me to make a public water works display.  It was the best gift I could have been given.

I’m about to circle the globe again, so I’m making Prune a priority stop.  Sara and I are doing a repeat trip, with considerably less booze this time since she is baking a new little human, and we really want her to come out smart and hungry with all the right parts.  

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Leaves and herbs. Simple.

Leaves and herbs. Simple.

Oh so sweetbreads.

Oh so sweetbreads.

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Hey this blog is called to the marrow, right?

Hey this blog is called to the marrow, right?

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pan seared trout with grenobloise

pan seared trout with grenobloise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perspective graduated

On October 29th of 2012 my life took another of it’s extremely sharp corners.  After years of trying to figure out the logistics of going to culinary school, I was finally lining up my life to get on with it.  The thing that always held me back was finances.  Culinary school is not cheap and when you come out the other side you end up making a pittance.  I was going to have to work full time to keep my head just above water and with a mortgage and the idea that I would also have to purchase a second car to even travel to and from school, it was all a bit overwhelming.  I was denied the full loan based on my income to debt ratio, something that had been holding me back for years, surprisingly gardeners don’t make a lot of money.During the application process my admissions counselor worked tirelessly with me.  Granted, it is a for profit enterprise, but unlike other culinary schools I had looked at, they did genuinely seem to give a shit and unlike other schools, they didn’t tell me they would turn me into the next Rachel Ray (rant of it’s own).

So, in the final weeks before my class was to start, part of the money secured, I applied for a partial scholarship.  I wrote about thirty copies of my essay that I had to submit.  I have never put so much into one thing in my life.  If I didn’t get the scholarship I didn’t know what I was going to do.  I felt at the breaking point of wanting to so desperately follow my passion and feeling tied to a life that was unlike any I had imagined for myself.

My husband, at the time, and I decided to get out of town the week before I was to start school.  I wouldn’t find out about the loan until the Thursday before class was to start.  So we headed to Portland, to eat and play and explore our favorite city.  It was a good distraction.  The dreaded Thursday arrived and as we sat in Andy Rickers Pok Pok with a couple of close friends enjoying an amazing meal, the call came in.  The tension at the table was insane.  I can’t describe the overwhelming burst of positive thoughts and energy that came out of those people at that table, they were barely breathing.

Of course being my life, hurricane Sandy had just hit NY where the schools head office was and the basement was flooded.  They weren’t making any decisions at the moment and they would let me know on Monday the 29th, the day classes were to start.  Feeling frustrated and nervous I was eager to just get through the weekend and hope for the best, something I am generally not very good at.

Well Monday did eventually come and as the day wore on with no call, my heart was sinking fast. I finished my gardening day with my long time assistant and drove to sit in front of a shoe store where I could buy myself a pair of hideous clogs fit for kitchen work and then speed my ass down to Campbell for my first day of class, if things had gone my way.  When the call did come in, I almost threw up all over my steering wheel.  I had gotten the scholarship and had less that 3 hours to get my shit together and be in class.  I called my husband and cried with relief and terror,  now that I had the money and the door was open I would actually have to step through it.  I would actually have to find out if I was just a dreamer or if I could really hack it.

Nine months, six hours of commuting a week plus fifteen hours of class time on top of a full time job and part way through I started an internship at The Ramen Shop one day a week.  Garden, Drive, Cook, Drive repeat.  Four hours of sleep a night became the norm, insomnia bedded exhaustion and wrapped itself around me like a warm straight jacket.  Honestly much of that time is a total blur.  I partied like a teenager in my off time and danced on the brink of a total break down.  My marriage denatured at a rapid rate as I drifted further and further on a road that had no U turns.  I missed weddings and birthdays of people I love.  I was only focused on cooking and myself.  In school I was a laser beam of focus and drive.  I cared only about being the best and worked tirelessly to be as much immersed in my new life as possible.  I befriended people who a few months before I wouldn’t have ever spoken too.

When I cam out the other side I could barely recognize myself.  The way I see the world and interact with people is forever changed. Through it all my friends held me when they could.  They loved me and encouraged me even though I was completely turned inward and they nurtured me in my time of rapid development.  My instructors mentored, encouraged and critiqued me constantly.  The man I loved let me go so I could pursue the thing I had fallen deeper in love with than him.

And now, here I am. twelve thousand miles from all of that world, a year later, new scars both inside and outside. Following my path with no U turns and living a life that at one point seemed like a dream.  I love it even when I hate it.  Nothing is more honest than the kitchen.  You either have it or you don’t.  You can have all the technique down, but if there is no passion behind it your food will lack depth.  If you only cook with passion, I would avoid a restaurant kitchen if I were you, you’ll get your heart broken in an instant. It’s home and hell and everything in between. It is all consuming and if it isn’t then it isn’t real.  I gave everything I was to be who I am.  I am a cook. It’s not just what I do, it’s who I am.

 

Coconut, terragon flounder ceviche. Level 2 flounder my way.

Coconut, terragon flounder ceviche. Level 2 flounder my way.

9 months with these dudes

9 months with these dudes

ICC Graduation Culinary Jamie R (13 of 15)

The women who held me up through it all

The women who held me up through it all