I used to be such a sweet sweet thing
till they got ahold of me
The kitchen of The Tonic, a well-conceived and -funded but relatively-short-lived-then-reconceived restaurant on 17th between 6th and 7th in 1999, was the first place and time I was ever yelled at, and by “yelled” I mean a full-throated, profane scream–along with coaching, suggestions, insults, encouragement, discouragement, a dare from the executive chef to punch him in the face (glad I didn’t try), blistering sarcasm, and flat-out laughter and dismissal in French, pidgin French, Spanish, Farsi, and Canadian.
I opened doors for little old ladies
and helped the blind to see
Now, understand that my parents NEVER yelled at me, not once, not one time, not ever, not either one of them. When baseball, soccer, or basketball coaches yelled at me, I sometimes yelled back (my crew coaches were too big to think about yelling back at). So to get cussed, personally and epically, at maximum human decibels, rattled me.
My dog bit me on the leg today
Cat clawed my eye
Mom’s been thrown out of the social circle
And Daddy has to hide
Quitting was not an option; I didn’t know how to begin to do anything marketable other than cook. I want to believe aphorisms such as “the hardest steel is thrust into the fire a thousand times”, but I think the plain fact is that I was (am) stubborn, and not a little naive, and I kept coming back for more. Slowly–and I mean over the course of four years, including time at The French Laundry–the screams turned to pointed insults to glares to indifference to acceptance to faint praise, and not the damning type.
I went to church incognito
When everybody rose
The Reverend Smith, he recognized me
And punched me in the nose
No more Mister Nice Guy
For ten years, I measured my own abilities and successes by comparison to the cooks and sous chefs I learned from in that underground kitchen–a clean, disciplined, tight, French one. And the cooks from that kitchen wouldn’t mind that, rather that Point or Escoffier, I invoke Alice Cooper: the less pretense, the less sanctimony, the better. Good lessons for the next generation of committed cooks, whose numbers seem to be ever-shrinking . . .