This is part one of a two-part series, to be continued tomorrow. -Ed
The nerves get me about five minutes before the cameras switch on—before I am due to step onto the makeshift stage, into the show kitchen, in my freshly laundered checks and buttoned white jacket.
Everything before this had been easy. I’d shown up with my gear, my knives, my special pans and two big boxes of raw materials lifted from the coolers of the restaurant where I was nominally employed. I’d fallen into the rituals of prep—meditations in garlic and shallots and knife work that I could’ve done blind, lobotomized or drunk. I’d laid out my mise along unfamiliar boards, folded kitchen towels, bumped my fingers along the breadth and reach of my work space to get a feel for it. No problem.
There was a cameraman. His only job was to switch on two cameras set in locked positions and to fit me with a microphone. When he approached—when I stepped back from the board and raised my arms so he could run the cord up under my jacket and clip the mic to my lapel—it occurred to me that I really should’ve given a little thought to what I was going to say.
60 minutes of saying nothing, dull-eyed, like a cow hit with a brick, is going to feel like the longest hour in the history of hours.
This was my first demo: 60 minutes of time to fill, a room full of housewives, home cooks and amateur gourmands, big screens at the front of the room showing close-ups of my hands all burned and scarred and mangled against the clean whiteness of the cutting board. They were hands that I was proud of—sketched with the harsh iconography of a decade spent in macho kitchens where spilling blood was proof of commitment and dedication—now suddenly looking ugly and broken and raw and used up, projected at 10 times their size above my head.
When I feel the rushing plunge in my stomach, I know I’m in trouble. I’d prepared like a chef, knew what I was going to be cooking and had everything laid out like a pro: three course dinner for 60, quarter-portions. Cinch. It was wild mushroom polenta, I think. Stuffed and roasted chiles. Chicken with a Sauternes sauce. Something like that. The menu is hazy in my memory, but this part isn’t:
The cameraman asks, “Hey, you okay?”
I say, “Sure.”
He says, “Really?”
And I look at him like a child making his first confession, like a man about to admit something terrible to his wife.
When I feel the rushing plunge in my stomach, I know I’m in trouble.
I look at him, wanting to say how I’d been very busy these past few days at the restaurant and, honestly, had forgotten that I’d agreed to do this demo until just a couple hours before, and had imagined, sure, what it was going to be like to stand up under the lights showing a bunch of ladies of leisure how to cook like a real, live, honest-to-Jesus chef in my pretty white jacket and $12 dollar haircut, but had never actually given a thought to what I was going to, you know, say. 60 minutes feels like nothing when you’re living it, but 60 minutes of me standing there in front of the cameras, saying nothing, dull-eyed, like a cow hit with a brick, is going to feel like the longest hour in the history of hours.
I say, “I should’ve written some jokes.”
The cameraman snaps the mic into place. “You’ll do fine,” he says.
Oh, I most certainly will not, I think.
“Can I tell you something?”
“Don’t stop talking. Doesn’t matter what you say. Just don’t stop talking.”
I nod. At that moment, my only concern is not throwing up.
“You’ll be fine,” he says again.
“Who you trying to convince?”
Then he walks off. And then everyone is taking their seats as the event planner announces my name. And then
“It was an accident,” I insisted. “He was aiming for the guy’s head.”
I am stepping into the light and putting my hands onto the cutting board where their every movement will be projected hugely above my head. I twist my neck to look at them on the screen. I curl my fingers, touch my thumb to my ring and pinky fingers, stretch the other two into a V.
“Look,” I say. “A bunny.”
The women laugh nervously.
And I think, the hell with it. 59 minutes, 50 seconds left to fill…
I didn’t stop talking. Not for a second. I taught them tricks. I made jokes. At a time when the Food Network was desperately trying to convince a gullible nation that cooking was a respectable art and that every kitchen was run by pudgy, catch-phrase-spouting chefs with cherubic smiles and no scars, I told wildly inappropriate stories about what it was like to actually live and work as a professional chef. Like the one about the Friday night we blew the Ansul and had to cook everything in the baker’s ovens and over portable butane elements. Or about the line cook I once had in New Mexico who’d make Monday runs to Juarez and regularly show up for work on Tuesday still twitching under the influence of Ritalin and black-market boner pills. Or the grillardin who sang along with every song on the galley radio but made up his own words, and how it drove everyone crazy but no one more than the guy who worked beside him on the grills. He’d told him to stop a thousand times—had asked, pleaded, demanded—until a night finally came when he just gave up and hit him in the neck with a heavy skillet full of roasted vegetables.
“It was an accident,” I insisted.
I did it slow. I made it a game—watching as the ladies in the crowd began to squirm in their seats.
“He was aiming for the guy’s head.”
My hands—my stupid, ugly, and utterly dependable hands—did their business while I spun out stories of debauchery and terrible injury in the service of cuisine. And when I got to the part where I have to make the Sauternes sauce for the chicken, I knew I had them. The sauce required butter. Six pounds of butter—added slowly, over the course of many long, drawn-out minutes. Standing up behind the burners with sweat running down my ribs and my mouth running out ahead of my brain, I talked about wine. I talked about emulsions. And I started adding all that butter to the big pot in front of me like it was nothing. Like six pounds of butter is a completely reasonable thing to eat.
I did it slow. I made it a game—watching as the ladies in the crowd (and it was mostly ladies—every seat but a couple filled with women) began to squirm in their seats.
This night, this place, this moment is not for the timid and it is no place for half-measures.
The butter was chilled and cubed, and I added it one piece at a time. Drawing it out like porno, like something dirty and wrong and so, so good. I imagined I could hear them all out beyond the pale arc of the lights breathing heavy, wanting to look away but not able to. Atkins diet, South Beach, grapefruits and brown rice and cranberry juice—forget it. This is pure sin, baby. Pure luxury. Doctor says you’ve got to get that cholesterol down? Not tonight. This night, this place, this moment is not for the timid and it is no place for half-measures. So come, death, and take me in thy buttery embrace…
“Butter is love,” I said. “When you go out to that nice restaurant downtown and have a great meal—some wonderful sauce, smooth like liquid velvet—that’s butter.”
I scrape a half-pound of jumbled cubes into the pot all at once.
“This is what a good cook does,” I told them. “This is the difference between dinner at the little neighborhood place with the candles and the wine list and lunch at the Olive Garden. The difference between a dinner that has been made and one that has been manufactured.”
More butter went in. I stirred the pot and, on the screen behind me, you could see the sauce—all glossy, pale gold and perfect. It’s just a beurre blanc, but it’s magic.
“When you eat out and you can’t figure out why the chef’s sauce is better than the sauce you make at home, the answer is butter. When you don’t understand how something can possibly be so smooth, so rich, so glossy, so delicious, it’s butter. When a cook is happy—when he is doing good work in a good house with a good crew and standing proud at the end of every night—this is what you’ll get. Butter means they love you.”
The sauce was the last thing I made for the night. There was supposed to be a dessert, but, without realizing it, I ran out of time. I dropped the last cube of butter, stirred it in. “Let’s eat,” I said.