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.