I feel alive in New York. More alive than when I'm anywhere else, actually, even though statistically speaking I'm much less significant. There are 12 million people hanging around these here parts, and I am a cog in a big machine, not anything large in and of myself. There's some kind of harmony in the dirtiness, in the smells and in the little inconveniences of being surrounded by so many people and so many agendas and a rhythm in being in it. And as I was walking to dinner last night I was struck by exactly how much I felt like an ant. Like one of those "scout" ants that releases a smell trail so that other ants know where to follow to find food (I was somewhat smelly from a very hot day in the prep kitchen). And yes, that could seem dehumanizing and sad to think that people are like ants, but it somehow made me feel comforted, like it's amazing to think that being so infinitesimally small is actually powerful. That yes, we may have the illusion of freewill (or maybe it's not an illusion, I don't know) and we also have consciousness, but there's gotta be something bigger, too. And I'm really happy to give the idea of my big ego and my big life a much needed vacation; they've worked some long, miserable overtime hours and I'm hopping they'll be more fun when they return with some good drinking stories and a tan.
Making jewelry and cooking both put me in the same headspace that New York does. It's my meditation. It's having a plan, and in putting that plan into motion, making hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny little movements to complete the plan. It's more rote than conscious and it's incredibly mentally quiet, though it's certainly not physically quiet-- the prep kitchen was insane with playlists of both Tool and Tejana music last week. I had to completely block that shiz out the same way I did when we had the same 45 minute music loop (including Coldplay tracks, oh joy) for six months when I was folding t-shirts at Banana Republic.
In this space feel purpose, though I am not really important or significant. People make stuff all the time. People feed themselves everyday. Here I am part of everyone, even when I am no one.
I am the oldest stagiaire (that's a person who is doing an apprenticeship with a chef, in case you were wondering) that has ever existed. Not really, but I've kind of been feeling that way over the last week. My feet are blistered and my clogs are smelly. My fake eyelashes (yes I have awesome fake eyelashes and I love them) have halfway melted off from the heat of the restaurant's crazy grill, and the sous chefs (who are, by the way, spectacular people) and the prep cooks weren't alive when Three's Company was in first run, possibly even when Three's Company was first in syndication. I find myself trying to fit in and sounding like a freaking blue-haired biddy that has a crush on Englebert Humperdinck. And if you aren't getting any of these references you are either too young or too cool to be reading this blog, so go home.
Despite my advanced age and lack of experience, I have been very welcomed, especially by the Chef de Cuisine, who also shares with me the most badass first name on the planet. She's a particularly good egg to everyone-- she's fair, clear, hardworking and kind. She laughs a lot and pays attention to everything going on around her. There's an easiness to her that doesn't take away from her strength in the slightest, and she's been really fun to be with.
So yesterday I started the day with her and another sous (who is also a seriously fab lady who began a second career as a chef after a successful career in finance) at the Farmer's Market at Union Square where we gathered up more heirloom tomatoes, little peppers, purslane, greens, nectarines, peaches, squash and herbs than I could've imagined. I'm pretty sure that the cab driver loved us despite the fact that he helped us load up the entire back of his minivan with the produce because the scent of basil probably encompassed a block radius around the cab at all times. It's much nicer than a piña colada air freshener.
On Friday I asked what was the most dreaded kitchen task (by the way, I have to be clear that no one in this kitchen has complained or given anyone an attitude about anything; I would say they are a very content group) and was told salsa verde. So I asked to make it.
And so yesterday I did.
And now I have an awesome callous building on my right hand from my new chef's knife to match the blisters on my feet. I really should have just brought my Shun from home, but I thought new experience, new knife, right? I wanted to mark the occasion. And mark it I did, with that stupid blister/ callous.
Let me give you the broad strokes of what it is to make what I would call a vat of an herby sauce that accompanies a chicken dish that the restaurant (and chef/ owner) is absolutely famous for. It's leafing/ stemming and entire field's worth of tarragon and oregano. It's chopping a forest of parsley and then chopping the previously leafed and stemmed herbs some more. It's adding a lot of EVOO some other delicious things like garlic and anchovies and capers and a dash of heat. There's a reason why this sauce (which I've been told Chef Kenobi jokingly calls a "mother sauce") is part of the signature dish of this restaurant-- it is simple, fresh, delicious and a total pain in the ass. The chefs and cooks all keep tabs on the record times in making it and delight in stories of their own personal bests, (I think someone boasted 25 minutes, though the others scoffed at this) but I took four flipping hours. FOUR HOURS. I could've driven to Vermont in four hours. But even this laborious task was still part of this meditative joy I described earlier-- it was significant that it was my hands doing the work only in that the work got done. There's no way to run a kitchen without many people who individually are significant only in their own discreet experience of doing something (I wonder what everyone else is meditating on/ ruminating over when they're working), but necessary for a the output of the greater whole.
In honor of all the green stuff I chopped yesterday I'm posting a recipe for Hugh Acheson's shallot-thyme vinaigrette because that's the only connection I can come up with right now. I used this dressing on another of Acheson's recipes, a spinach salad with spiced pecan, sliced pear and blue cheese, when my mom was visiting me in LA this spring. They're both recipes from his book, A New Turn in the South. I'll post the salad recipe, too, when I get back to LA and can transcribe it from the book verbatim (pretty much it's toast some pecans with cayenne pepper, sugar and some salt and let cool, slice some pear, crumble some blue cheese and toss it all with the shallot vinaigrette).
This vinaigrette would be great on just about anything. Truly.
- 6 stems (about 1/2 ounce) of fresh thyme
- 3 shallots, finely minced
- ⅓ cup (75 mL) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ⅔ cups (150 mL) champagne vinegar
- 3 cups (750 mL) extra virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon (2 mL) mustard powder
- ½ teaspoon (2 mL) kosher salt
Using the blunt side of a large, heavy kitchen knife, bruise the thyme by pounding it about 10 times to extract its essential oils.
Place the shallots, thyme, lemon juice, champagne vinegar, olive oil, mustard powder, and salt in a quart sized Mason jar. Close tightly and store in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
Remove the vinaigrette from the fridge, bring to room temperature and pass through a conical strainer, pressing the solids vigorously with a small ladle to extract the thyme and shallot flavours. Discard the solids and place the vinaigrette back into the quart jar and seal tightly. Shake well before using.
Note: Conical strainers, commonly used in traditional French cooking to make smoother vinaigrettes and sauces, can withstand repeated pressure better than a round strainer. You could also use a food mill as an alternative.
So yeah. I'll be back in the kitchen this afternoon, half-eyelashed and all. I'll sweat and I'll try not to chop my fingers off or say something about how much I love Tom Jones. I'll probably learn a thing or ten.
And when I'm walking home I'll be a very happy little ant that feels an awesome sense of purpose.