I’m the next generation of chefs, and this is what Bourdain’s death means to me.

My first day of culinary school, the chef was late. Twenty-five of us sat quietly in our starchy chef whites and checkered pants, and wondered if we were in the right classroom on the right day or if we had understood everything terribly wrong.

A few minutes later we heard an ambulance siren travel outside the school, and the head chef of the school walked in. His name was Chef DJ, which unlike my starchy white apron, wasn’t reversible for extended play. (Chef DJ for the cool mornings, DJ CHEF for the HOT NIGHTS.)

Chef DJ explained to us that our Chef had fallen and couldn’t get up. Our chef had a bum hip, he’d fricked it up again, and yes, that was him being taken away in the ambulance. If all went well, he’d probably be back in a few weeks, but for now, Chef DJ would be taking over our morning class, (and DJ Chef would take over the night class.)

In a few weeks, our original chef returned to teach the class, on crutches. DJ Chef actually had a bum hip of his own, and would often walk around with a cane to help himself out. I remember the beginning of one class, looking to the front and seeing two men in their late 40s, one with a cane, one on crutches, and asking myself “what the fuck am I doing?”

Everyone starts cooking because they love food – but what do you do when you can’t do what restaurants ask of you? What do you when you can, but don’t want to any more? Would I have a future, or is the future only the next 10 years of my life?

Anthony Bourdain showed me how being IN a kitchen can make you valuable OUT of the kitchen. He showed that being curious, smart and communicative could make me important in my field. I thought that I could live my life like he did, and be the glowing, silvered member of the community that everyone respects.

Not only all that, but heck, travel the world, eat food and make friends.

Like nearly any of the chefs & cooks you’ll stumble into tonight, crying into their beer & a shot at the late night happy hour, Kitchen Confidential was one of the most influential books I ever read, and was what informed many of my culinary choices. The series of events that make up Bourdain’s life is the most well-read series of events in my profession. We fucking love this guy.

Many years ago, I remember an ex-boyfriend of mine telling me that he’d been giving it some very serious thought, and realized that maybe his dream career was something like, “y’know, I dunno, maybe Anthony Bourdain’s. I think I could really like making shows where I eat interesting food and travel the world.”

I responded by just laughing at him, because I was a real B minus girlfriend. “Yeah, of course. That’s the dream, isn’t it? That guy MADE it.”

A year or two before I went to culinary school,  I picked up my first copy of Lucky Peach. I was starting to educate myself with the buzzy & ever growing and glowing “Food World” happening around me and wanted to learn who was cooking what and who was writing and who mattered, and THERE HE WAS, Tony Bourdain, writing an article about food in films. It was the coolest article I ever read. He was curious, and drawing connections. He wanted to share and talk about food beyond the capacity of just being a mechanical line-cook. He knew that food really MEANT something. And he was being really crass about it.

Bourdain still sounded like he belonged in a kitchen. He still sounded like he was caught in the Ageless Zone that Kitchen People are caught in. Kitchen life is sort of a Never Never Land where you don’t quite have to be a grown-up, but you’re definitely not a kid. You’re (usually) allowed to swear! You’re wearing pajamas, barely showering, eating cake at weird times of the day,  but you also have to pay taxes and clean up after yourself (can’t have it all, y’all).

In a kitchen, you want to be super flashy with your knives, knowledgeable with your products, and lightning fast at it all – but there’s a lot more going on than just that. You’re spending a lot of time together, and finding out what is the gooey nougat-filled center of the cook next to you. What are they into? What did they eat last night? What are they in love with?

People who work in kitchens often have one or two other skills they’re hoping to use some day, or dreamily, to use in conjunction with their love for food. My pet skill is always “Wellllllll, I’ve always been a wriiiiiterrrr…” and my kitchen idols have always been the literary types (Gabrielle Hamilton! Michael Ruhlman! Peter Meehan!).

Even chefs who stay focused on the daily grind of kitchen labor know they’ll eventually have to find a path out of there. When the only thing you hear yourself saying at the bar after your shift is  “I stood on my feet for 14 hours today in 110 degree heat, didn’t have a meal besides candied almonds and some grapes,  had two hours of sleep, and I’m alive”–professional longevity ISN’T desirable.

Anthony Bourdain was the chef that MADE IT. He was honest, he lived the kitchen life, and people wanted to hear what he had to say about it. Rich people who watch CNN wanted to see him have authentic experiences with people from other countries to which they would never travel. He was living well in a shitty world, and the people still caught in the shit respected him.

He was caught in an extraordinary cultural intersection that is exclusive to this time and to our country’s understanding of kitchen culture. We’re caught in a place where the media’s fascination with kitchens & food is at an all-time high, but chef’s and cook’s quality of life is not at a corresponding all-time high. However, it IS getting better…sorta. And, quite relevantly, it’s better than how Bourdain lived and chronicled in Kitchen Confidential. 

And don’t get me wrong – as the next generation of chefs, Anthony Bourdain’s problems aren’t going to be my problems BECAUSE of Anthony Bourdain. I believe that 100%. He forever altered the world for us.

It’s very, very sad to me that he took his own life. It’s also very troubling to me, as a chef, that the guy who I’ve always said has “made it” was so unhappy he chose to end it all. However, I would much rather emphasize here that I have zero idea what he struggled with, and can’t possibly say why he chose to end his life…nor do I want to. Not only can circulating pure speculation be hurtful to those who were close to him, it makes me spend more time dwelling in the dark than I would like. I don’t want to color his legacy with only a dark palette.

Bourdain is still a hero, and still one of mine. He’s still a hero because his death doesn’t change his life…but his death does change MY life.

My idea of what “making it” is now forever changed. It is still a foggy concept, and probable illusion as it was before, and the Silver Hero who exemplified its essence is now gone. I think I have less of an idea of what “making it” looks like now, and that’s what all of this is meant to say.

For all of us chefs, cooks, kitchen types…these are hard times, but take your blessings where you can, eat real food, sit down sometimes, and let yourself cry in the walk-in.

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RESOLUTION CHEESEBURGER 2016: Pause, The White Eagle & The Cafeteria At My Work

Every cheeseburger has a story, I guess. Or at least I tell a story about every cheeseburger.

Only two weeks in, and I’m already unsure how long I can keep this up. In case you forgot, my resolution for 2016 was to eat 3 cheeseburgers a week. It’s not just that this resolution is asking a lot of me calorie-wise, it’s asking a lot from me emotionally. It’s making me search the dark corners of my psyche to pull up every expectation I’ve ever had for any cheeseburger, and drag it out, center stage, stagelight blaring, and make me examine my cheeseburger cravings. Every cheeseburger has sent me hurtling down a tunnel to self-discovery, and the tunnel is tiled with dark profundity and partially-melted American Cheese.

Long story short, I’m figuring out I’m a real basic bitch when it comes to cheeseburgers, and this whole time I thought I was a hipster. It’s getting real “hey, could I get a pumpkin spice latte cheeseburger,” up in here and I’m standing around awkwardly, not sure what to say or where to put my hands.

If finding out I’m something I thought I hated is the worst part about eating so many cheeseburgers, then the best part is hearing other people explain their perfect cheeseburger to me. I ask a lot of people when they’re describing food, (“where’s the pickle?” “are the onions sweated?” “how far can you squish down the bun til you can feel some resistance?”) and people are SO ready most of the time.

Since I work in a kitchen, it hasn’t been hard for me to monopolize most of the conversations to be about cheeseburgers lately. I’ve gotten a slew of recommendations for local burgers, dreamy recollections about far-away and long-ago burgers, and even more narratives of “dream burgers.” Every person is a unique frickin’ snowflake, and their burgers are not quite as unique, but pretty close.

Bless everyone’s tender hearts – we’re all so very fascinating.

PAUSE

Pause

I started off this week by taking a recommendation from work. One of my co-workers recommended this spot to me, and the conversation went like this:

“Oh, and Pause has a good burger.”

“Paws?”

“Yup, Pause. On Interstate.”

“Paws. Bad name.”

“Pause. Yeah, not a great name. But good burger. Grassfed…”

“Oh! Pause. That place! It looks like a weird after-school Christian hang-out space.”

“Yeah, it has a weird font.”

At this point another co-worker joined in:

“I hate the way that place looks. Looks like a cafe from the early 2000s.”

“Yeah I was walking by it the other day, and I thought ‘god, I hate how that place looks.'”

I was happy to hear that nearly everyone agreed that the place had an odd look to it,  but I decided  I should stop being font-racist, step out of my comfort zone and check out Pause. Short-walk from my house, and the second I approached it, I shuddered. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s a perfectly nice looking place. Just the place makes me feel how I feel whenever I’m in Florida: all my dreams are dead.

The place was slightly more reassuring on the inside: wood-paneled bar, friendly bartender, Big Star, straight-forward menu. Maybe you shouldn’t be so rude about Florida, I chided myself. Mom is going to get upset about that one. 

“One cheeseburger.” The waitor repeated back to me. “Now, how would you like that cooked?”

My response drew to a halt as my mind’s soundtrack hired crickets to sing. How do I want my burger cooked? Whoa…I haven’t been asked that in awhile.

I used to be such a little prat about wanting my burgers cooked rare or medium rare, and lately all I’ve wanted is a fully-cooked through burger. Yikes- I’m being faced with my past, and I no longer know what to say.

“Err, umm Medium? Yeah, medium.” I coughed and tried to look like nothing was weird for me right then. Damn…I’ve been really feasting on diner burgers lately.

It was a nice cheddar cheeseburger. It was $11. Perfectly medium, fresh tasting, albeit under-seasoned beef, and a great bun. The “toppings” were also very nice, but they’re served on the side, which I find to be a big eye-roll. How safe. How free of personality.

How “we don’t really have an opinion about burgers, we just want your parents from out-of-town to not complain about over-priced Portland burgers on Yelp after eating here.”

And I guess that’s how I felt about the entire experience. This tastes like how a pause button feels – but not in a cool way,  I wrote down at the time. I looked back at that sentence before writing this blog, and I’m not entirely sure what was going through my mind at the time, but decided I should share it with you all anyway.

Eating a burger at Pause reminded me how I’ve changed, and how I don’t want to look back. Just because something is technically good doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good to me.

So that was that.

The White Eagle

White Eagle 2

“It’s so dark in here.” “Why don’t you put the burger by the light?” “Oh yeah.”

This is my boyfriend’s favorite burger, and it didn’t occur to me until the moment the burger was going into my mouth that if I didn’t like this cheeseburger he might dump me. Also, if that was the reason he dumped me, I would respect him so much. Now THAT is integrity.

Fortunately, a cheeseburger at The White Eagle ($10.50) is really tasty. Six ounce patty (which I much prefer to an 8 oz patty) which was really well-seasoned (FINALLY), a yummy sauce (THAT APPARENTLY IS A SECRET) that I thought was well-portioned, and good toppings. I was a little disappointed that all the toppings were at the bottom of the burger. Boyfriend Man say he likes that because he feels like it all stays in place better. I feel like it’s just being easy on yourself when you’re assembling the burger, and meanwhile compromising the integrity of the lettuce (which in this case was green leaf.)

I really enjoyed it, even though it didn’t feature some of my favorite elements of a burger. However, it definitely was on the “recommend to a friend” sphere.

White Eagle 1

Before I put the burger by the light. Hashtag: truth in food photography.

The Cafeteria at My Work

Cafeteria 3.JPG

As I mentioned before, I’ve been monopolizing my work place to be a continual Cheeseburger Discussion Zone. I had spent a good chunk of my morning trying to explain myself to my coworker Travis. It mostly orbited around my recent desire to have fully-cooked burgers, and how dorky that made me feel, but through enough pseudo-science and David Change references I might be able to explain how I’m not a complete idiot for wanting that.

“I’m sorry, Travis.” I said, after a particularly long paragraph of ranting. “I just need to explain myself.”

“I know!” He said cheerfully, and evacuated the room for a number of hours.

He eventually came back, pointing at me. “You!” he said.

“What?!!” I said.

“You won’t believe it. Cheeseburgers. In the cafeteria. Today.”

“Shut. Up. No. Way.”

“Way. There’s burgers. And cheese. And toppings. I made mine a double.”

I gasped.

Eventually, the entire kitchen became abuzz with the presence of cheeseburgers in the cafeteria, what this implied, how we were going to build our own, and if this would all be a big mistake.

I mean, I knew walking into this that this would be a “cafeteria burger”. This wasn’t about to be anything too delicious -but boy did it feel exciting.

I anxiously raced down to the cafeteria and hoped that there would still be enough of everything. I found a nearly empty cafeteria, and a sort-of delicious and wellish-stocked looking burger bar.

Cafeteria 1

Ok – straight-up: the patties were gross. Let’s not fool ourselves. Except that cafeteria patties DEFINITELY know how to be seasoned (mass-production is at least a genius in how to use salt), any patty held in a steamwell is going to be  a little freaky texture-wise. And indeed it was.

I followed Travis’s lead by making a double cheeseburger, which certainly was an error…it was just too much food, and I slogged back into work because of it. But I just couldn’t look at all this potential in front of me and not capitalize on it. There were just PILES of American cheese, waiting to be slapped into between layers of 1/4 pounds of pre-heated beef and three squirts of mustard.

Cafeteria 2

The main problem with the cafeteria burger was it’s inability to squish together and stay as a unit. Because I assembled this burger myself, I can also be to blame for it’s structure and integrity, but I mostly blamed the hard-sponge like texture of the patty  for it’s propensity to slide around like a unit inside of the bun. I’d go into take a bite, and the entire patty would try to escape, slipping off the burger and veering back toward the plate.

Or perhaps GMO patties have developed consciousness and are now self-aware of themselves  as a food substance and are revolting against being devoured by the gnashing teeth of the human race. That also seems just as likely.

Regardless, I had a lovely time in the cafeteria that day, pulling apart sticky tater tots from themselves, and dipping them in the remains of ketchup I was able to ejaculate from a nearly empty bottle.

 

This was an invigorating and emotional week. Can’t wait to see what the next has in store for me in RESOLUTION CHEESEBURGER 2016.