September 19, 2018

The Sweet Torture of Kitchen Life

I’ve just come home from work. I’m covered in burns and cuts to the point where the heat from my shower stung so much I had to turn off the hot water halfway through. I have so many scars on my hands, so many broken nails, that my manicurist regularly scolds me. I’m fueled by espresso and adrenaline and haven’t eaten anything since yesterday. Did I even eat dinner last night? Despite some shockingly expensive insoles, my legs ache so much I could ice myself until tomorrow and do yoga religiously, but nothing can undo the damage of 14 straight hours on my feet. I think for most people, this might sound torturous, but for a chef, it’s just a typical day.

You may wonder why anyone would do it. What would possess a sane person to get up at 5 a.m. to pick herbs in the dark and risk a snake bite (yes, that happened), drive to work in the rain on bumpy and dangerous roads and then spend the day brutalizing her body? The best way I can describe it is as an addiction like running or smoking.

But it also seems like a requirement; like breathing and sleeping, the action of a hot kitchen with its pleasurable intensity, its flames and sparks, its relentless physical push and pull is intoxicating. When you are 20 orders deep, headphones on, smoking oil and woks in the air, backed up against continuous deadlines that come within seconds of one another, you find a place deep inside of you, a sweet torture that creates a temporary vacuum in the air and electrifies it.

Like a fly, you circle the web of your nemesis. You try to come as close as you can by stepping around an edge without falling in because the memory of the last time you got eaten alive still stings. Unfortunately, the only way around your predicament is preparation so exhaustive and precise that running a marathon seems like a walk on the beach. Add to that the fact that your fate depends on the consciousness and the physical and mental acuity of others. You can be on track with your orders, but if your co-chefs are not on their game, you will go down in flames alongside them, inevitably and cataclysmically like a Sunfish sailboat in a perfect storm.

Like your favorite lover, chefs will decant a seduction onto your plate and the better we get to know you, we will chase what you like until you catch on that you’re ours.

Then there are the sounds and smells of a professional kitchen, as musical in and of themselves as a favorite song on a repeat. “Order in!” shouts an expeditor and, like a starter’s pistol at the beginning of a race, the body reacts viscerally. You know you’re on, and for another hour or two, you will become so enmeshed, so deep in the weeds, so deliciously absorbed, you will barely feel it when you pull focaccia out of a 600-degree oven with your bare hands. When your mezzaluna falls apart, its handle still slick from olive oil, because you have so forcefully pushed it into the rosemary and garlic-scented crust, unless the sight of blood gushing forth from your hand stops you, it will barely register.

And then there are your customers. The way they look at you when you’ve remembered — without being reminded — that they hate cilantro. Or the way a child will run up to hug you with stars in their eyes because they still remember that time you presented them with a sprinkle-laden Mickey Mouse-shaped pancake. The flash of adoration you see when you watch someone take a bite of warm challah that you’ve braided and adorned with your prayers. The look that says you’ve stirred a memory — of a grandmother or a wife or an aunt far away — its innocence so pure it makes you buzz as though you’ve drunk a glass of champagne too quickly.

Absorbed in the act of icing a cake, I often look up to find my customers silently watching me, completely engrossed in my task and with looks of appreciation so intense that sometimes it makes me blush. My greatest pleasure is making customers one-bite spoon treats when I am finishing off a dessert and have leftover bits. Some cake crumbs, a swath of cream and a drizzle of dulce de leche piled onto a spoon and handed to someone having a tough day may as well be a life preserver thrown out to the drowning — so simple, yet so powerful.

In my mind there is a Rolodex: Michelle hates sweet potatoes; extra onions for Carmelita; Jenny likes her eggs soft; JoJo doesn’t want oil in her salad dressing. My only talent — that of remembering people’s likes and dislikes when it comes to food — has paid off in my kitchen life. Like typing — a skill that seemed so pointless once — has become one of my greatest advantages. Seemingly insignificant details about hundreds of people’s preferences flash through my mind all day, and along with those details, a connection to that person that remains long after they have gone. Not adding chile to Meghan’s food but making Kevin’s food extra spicy may not seem like a very big deal in the scheme of life but it’s the very essence and language of a kitchen.

Somehow, all the bruises and failures of kitchen life evaporate when I present someone with a cake, buttercream flowers strewn about in shades of their favorite color, and they burst into tears of joy. People know when you are giving them a piece of yourself and when your heart is in the game. But unlike a revealing “tell” in a game of poker, in the kitchen, when you have shown your hand, you are left without the option to fold. Chefs will go all in every single time. Like your favorite lover, we will decant a seduction onto your plate and the better we get to know you, we will chase what you like until you catch on that you’re ours.

The seemingly relentless disappointments that go hand in hand with the pursuit of anything this demanding is not for the easily discouraged. Since life naturally ebbs and flows in swirls of sorrow, delight and impermanence, one solution to disheartenment is to try to catch a wave of joy and ride it as far as you can.

Like the fly, it’s instinctual for us to try to avoid the web. But in the kitchen, as in life, perhaps the only thing that may keep us from the silky clutches of the spider is a fierce trajectory toward our passion.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.