From the first time I cut a hot dog up and mixed it into Kraft Macaroni and Cheese at the age of seven, food, and the creation of it, have been defining factors of my life. So much so, that at the age of 17, when I got my first summer job making salads and grilling pita (at a family owned Greek restaurant in Uptown Minneapolis that probably only gave me the job because I was practically family) and signed papers to become a 92G (Food Service Specialist) for the Minnesota Army National Guard, I already knew that it was the only profession I’d ever be happy in.
Fifteen years later, it’s still true. I will literally (and Lady Merc can attest to this) sing and dance while trying out a new recipe, or simply trying something new without a recipe. (I made shepherd’s pie from scratch on the day of Baby Merc’s first ultrasound, and can not actually remember being happier.) Each and every one of those moments, and every minute spent in the company of Lady Merc and our little one roil happily in the simmering pot of life.
But at the same time, fifteen years worth of concerns, mistakes, problems, and just general anxieties have also found themselves filling my pot. And it’s been a challenge just trying to keep that balance of flavors.
Enter Anthony Bourdain. While I can’t pretend to have read each of his books, or watched every episode of his shows, his mere presence, his ‘I’ve done it all and come out on top, somehow’ attitude, and the way he unashamedly talked about his own struggles was an anchor. It said to me, ‘you’re going to struggle, you’re going to stumble, but you can come out on top. You can succeed, and you WILL create.’ No matter how much I struggled with poorly designed recipes, ignorant asshole chefs, or anything else, I could persevere, and I would be better for it.
Something has changed today. As I write this on Friday, June Eighth before I head into another day in the trenches, I find myself looking into my pot, wondering when it will boil over. Waking up to find that ‘the one who made it’ really hadn’t is both disturbing, and sobering.
I won’t lie. I haven’t been able to write a single thing today without tearing up. Just an hour ago, as I told a friend I was writing something about what Anthony’s life meant to me, I nearly broke down crying. It was so obvious, she stopped what she was doing and hugged me. In the middle of a Goddamn Starbucks. (And tonight, following the end of the dinner rush, I found myself sitting on a pickle bucket in the cooler crying.)
I didn’t know him personally, but I feel like I ‘knew him’ in the way that nearly every single career chef knew him. We’ve walked the same path, we’ve fought the same battles, all for the love of our craft. Comrades of cutlery, brothers of the broil, as it were.
But it is the fact that his death is an apparent suicide that has hit me the hardest. I saw a lot of myself in the way he presented himself, all the way down to how he talked about the harsh realities of the kitchen lifestyle. Learning that the industry still managed to chew him up and spit him out so many years after he escaped the grind is, for lack of a better term, terrifying. It also has me reexamining where I am right now in my life.
I find myself returning to the analogy of the simmering pot. Every ingredient adds flavor, substance, and texture, becoming part of the stew called life. But what happens when the pot isn’t big enough to hold all the ingredients? Normally, you’d just get a bigger kettle and keep right on rolling. That’s not an option in life. The Powers That Be don’t simply hand you a new one and say, “Our bad, keep doing what you do.”
So what do you do to keep it from boiling over and making a nasty mess? Skim a little bit off the top. Get rid of the fat, which, in the case of most chefs is drugs and/or alcohol. (Haven’t touched weed in over a decade, and am currently six months stone sober, myself.)
That’s a time consuming process, and something that many of us completely fail to do. I recently had another chef ask me if I ever planned to start drinking again. When I told him I didn’t know, and maybe I wouldn’t, he honestly looked like he had no idea what to do with that information. So many of us will live and die by the bottle, and that wasn’t something that I wanted to put my new family through.
But life is like an over eager culinary arts student -the son of a bitch just keeps adding more to the pot- and by the time you’ve got your fat skimmed, you’re at risk of boiling over again. You want to shout and rage at the little bastard for screwing with your stew, but the exec -society- is looking over YOUR shoulder with that ‘why aren’t you in control of the situation? You know he’s just an idiot with a CIA patch on his crisp white coat.’ look.
At that point, you’ve only got so many options. 1) Turn to your crew and call for help. 2) Shout and rage anyway. 3) Quit.
Anthony once said, ‘The kitchen is a lifeboat, and the weak go over the side.’ That basically boils down to the idea that if a cook isn’t capable of performing, he’s dead weight, a liability. So, often times, if the new guy is getting wrecked, the rest of the crew will sit and watch, see how he handles it. This creates the mentality of ‘no one is going to help, so I HAVE to do this.’ and the more it happens, the more that begins to bleed into the rest of our lives. I slept in my car for weeks on end one winter because I refused to accept financial help from my mother. Even now, knowing all of this, the conditioning is so hard to break that even though I can recognize that I should probably ask for help, this is all I’ve been able to do.
The second option, turning into that angry chef stereotype, throwing pans and utensils around any time life fucks up your stew? Better believe that starts to integrate itself into your personal life. And though he had mellowed out in his fifties, that kind of unchecked anger and stress leaves indelible marks on your relationships. I myself have already been through anger management courses, and am looking up another as a refresher, because I need to be my best self for my Baby Merc, just as he had to be his best self for his daughter.
And quitting? Everyone’s seen what happens when an essential part of a team throws his apron on the floor, wiggles his little middle fingers high in the air and says ‘fuck y’all, I’m out!’ it throws the whole damn thing out of balance. In a kitchen, that may mean two to five weeks of everyone working extra shifts to cover for the new hole in your roster while they hire someone else. In life, no one will ever be able to replace a little girl’s father. Yeah, someone might take up the duties, but that hole, that Daddy-shaped void will never truly be filled.
Yesterday, you could ask me if I was doing alright, and my answer would have likely been ‘be doing great if these dipshits would stop making me pick up their slack.’ In fact, it probably was. But today, after learning about Anthony’s death, and examining the similarities in our lives despite him having been twenty-nine years my senior, I’m not really sure, anymore. All I really know is that I still love food, and Baby Merc is going to need me.
Tony, I thank you for opening my eyes one last time, making me stop and look at myself, and I hope that you finally have the peace that you sought.
You will be missed.