As 41 Approaches…

My birthday has gotten started a bit early. My dad asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said, “a new phone.” So I picked one out on Amazon, and I am ridiculously happy with it. It’s a Samsung Galaxy, my go-to in terms of new phone purchases (I’ve had three in various versions). This is because I download a LOT, and iPhones fill up fast with no way to add extra space. My current phone is, I think, 32 GB, but I added a 128 GB expansion card. I haven’t added my music to it, but my library of podcasts is extensive. I download them all because most Metro stations are underground and reception is spotty at best. Pro Tip: buy a refurbished phone and pay outright so that you are not on the hook with your cell phone company in terms of paying it off. There are also different variations of the same phone… for instance, you cannot root into mine (nerd alert- no need to carry the nerdiness further by explaining why), but I didn’t want to, anyway. Not my bag, baby.

Back to the cool stuff about extra space. Both Netflix and Amazon Prime will let you download movies and TV shows, which can take up plenty of room, especially if you are downloading a whole season at once. Prime has a limit on the number of downloads in terms of things that are temporarily licensed to them, but you can download anything and everything they produce themselves… For instance, on my last phone I had every episode of One Mississippi and The Man in the High Castle. Invaluable waiting in the ER, the DMV, the Metro during outages, etc.

The only thing is that it is such a powerful computer that you must have a battery saving app to go with it. My former go-to was Juice Defender, but for some reason, the link to the professional version is still live, but it says you need the free version to get it to work, and when I clicked on the link to grab it, I got a 404 error. I got Google to refund my money and bought a subscription to Kaspersky Battery Life: Saver & Booster instead. So far, it’s been magnificent. I highly recommend buying the professional version, because even though the free one works, it is inundated with annoying ads, and it’s not that expensive.

I have only bought two apps in the entirety of my smart phone-owning life. The second is Alarm Clock for Me. It looks like an old school digital clock radio, but it has some amazing features when you unlock the professional version, like waking up to your own music, a gentle lead-in feature where the alarm starts out soft and gets louder over time, weather report in the top corner, and something new- perfect bedtime, which tells you what time to go to sleep in order to wake up refreshed for said alarm. If you hate waking up, might I suggest a military grade phone cover for when you feel like throwing it against the wall? ๐Ÿ˜›

You would think the birthday surprises would end there, but wait! There’s more!

I think I genuinely frightened Dan with all my burns. They do look pretty gross, to be honest. So, she pulls out a package from Amazon and says, “open it.” Inside are Kevlar cuffs that prevent burns and cuts. I was told specifically to take a picture in the kitchen with me wearing them.

Yes, ma’am.

I didn’t have time tonight, but I will before the week is out.ย They were actually Autumn’s idea, because she’s worked in a kitchen before. Apparently, they also come in gloves, but I definitely wouldn’t wear those. I would be mortified if my grip on pots and pans was even more loose than it is right now…………… I’m sure they’re helpful for both chopping and taking things out of the oven, but they picked well. They’re yellow, so I look like Wonder Woman.

I was half hoping that I would make a mistake cleaning the griddle tonight and accidentally slam my wrist down like I’ve done a thousand times before (the griddle brick has a mind of its own) just to see my cuffs in action. Alas, tonight went perfectly, so no dice. I am sure I will have other dumbass attacks in the future where they will save my bacon, though.

On Sunday, we had our end-of-summer company party, where the flyer said that significant others and children were welcome. I decided to ask Dan if she wanted to come, because we’re good friends, and therefore, she’s significant to me. No one gave me any grief about it, but if they had I was fully prepared to say that I’d just adopted her.

She got to meet my whole crew, who said some extraordinarily nice things about me, and not just because Dan was there. My lead line cook says every shift that he’s not going to turn me into the chef he wants me to be, but the chef I want me to be…. that inside of a month, I’d be ready to run this kitchen, and inside of two, I’d be ready to run my own. I am growing to accept this praise at my ability, because there were so many awkward and embarrassing moments in my past cooking jobs that I still see myself as a n00b, hanging desperately onto Dana’s coattails. Now it’s time to get on board with the fact that I don’t need to fill her shoes. I brought my own.

In fact, one of my managers brought his girlfriend to the party, and he introduced me as their most dependable employee, and that it was embarrassing how many times I’d bailed them out of a jam. Let me assure you that you don’t even have to be that great a cook for a compliment like that to carry you very, very far in this industry. You can be the best line cook in the entire world, but showing up is even more important. This is not an industry known for emotionally stable, responsible workers. Egos clash. Brown bottle flu happens, as does “I didn’t know I was working today.” But the team I’ve got now has none of those problems. We love working together, and it shows. I am being rewarded beyond my wildest imagination. People have started to call my lead line cook, me, and our most experienced expo “The A-Team.”

It really is amazing how even though I’ve been working on internal validation for years, I’ve grown exponentially with some external praise. It’s not required, but it is definitely changing the way I see myself. I am not sure that I ever want to be a chef, but that’s not the point. The point is that someone believes in me enough to say that I’m capable of it.

Quick aside for people not in the know….. I get called a chef all the time, because people who don’t work in kitchens tend to call all cooks “chef.” But chef literally means “boss,” and there can be only one. For most of us, it feels disrespectful to be called a chef when we haven’t earned it, but we also don’t expect everyone on earth to understand the inner workings of the culinary world. So, we might be a little internally irritated, but we won’t say anything. However, if I do earn the title, you’ll be able to hear me scream from coast to coast. Fair warning.

Because of jumping back into the kitchen, my 40th trip around the sun has been an incredible year of self-discovery, reaching heights I never thought possible. It has allowed me to become less self-deprecating, which you do when you believe in yourself. I mean, I still tell jokes at my own expense, but they aren’t deep jabs. They’re actually funny.

Which has been another hallmark of my 40th year…. giving myself permission to be funny again, after years of grief and loss. Though losing my mother has reworked my version of normal, I am glad to see that with the passage of time normal hasn’t been stolen from me altogether. The only time that I really feel punched in the stomach is when I can’t do things like call her up and say, “you won’t believe how amazing I’m doing at work. I’m even having trouble.” Through our long relationship, though, I know exactly what she would say…. “I certainly can believe it. You can do anything. Just remember to wear your Kevlar cuffs, because those burns look like they hurt.”

Yes, ma’am.

Monster

First, a recommendation. I used to use the WordPress editor to create my entries, but I’ve switched over to Brackets, an open source HTML editor put out by Adobe and community supported. It’s fantastic, because when you switch over to HTML on the WordPress web site, it does not color-code tags so you can see them easily and quickly. Ironically, it does in the app for iOS and Android, which is only useful when I’m writing on my tablet. If and when I get my own server space or upgrade to WordPress premium, I’ll also be able to create my own style sheets.

Right now, though, I’m happy with what I’ve got, because I don’t really care to get into back-end development. Focusing on writing entries is enough. That being said, Brackets has a TON of extensions, both for creating WordPress themes, beautifying code, word count, autosave, spellcheck, etc. Often, community organizers on GitHub can fix bugs faster than waiting for Adobe, which makes it just that much more awesome. It also has SFTP for publishing directly to a live server, which most HTML editors have, and I am too dumb to use successfully. I always find the most mistakes by going live. Much better to upload to production first…… Something which I’ve learned through many experiences involving extreme gut-wrenching pain.

Let’s start the show, now that business is out of the way.

There’s nothing better than overhearing a conversation about yourself when people are saying truly nice things about you. I was walking past my lead line cook, who was talking to our expo. He said that he was glad he’d taken me under his wing, because in a month, I’d be running this kitchen, and in two, I’d be ready to run my own. Sometimes, I feel that level of confidence. Most of the time, I don’t, but I’m glad to hear that he believes in me to that degree. He’s no slouch in the industry- he belongs to the American Culinary Foundation. Therefore, I feel like he knows what he’s talking about, even if I have trouble believing it. I was so touched I burst into tears. God, I am such a girl. ๐Ÿ˜› My lead line cook told me there was no crying in the kitchen and I needed to “man up.” So I cried in the walk-in, something I should have thought of beforehand. At least I know now that dropping the beer cheese was not a career-limiting move.

I think that sometimes I become too tied to my past mistakes, when I wasn’t half the line cook that I am now. It’s hard to take in that much change at once. However, it is true that I am not the same cook now that I was when I started. My lead line cook has told me himself that he thinks I’m going to be a monster chef… whatever that means. He’s already said that when we introduce blackened fish tacos to the menu, he wants me to run point on it.

Being a Texan and having lived on the West Coast, I can do that easily. Tacos are one of the foundations of Mexican and Texan culinary influence, but to be perfectly honest, I prefer Californian Mexican food…. black beans, lime, and pico de gallo as opposed to lard, beans, and cheese. I prefer anything that tastes fresh and acidic…. there is always a time and place for junk food, though, but I go to Chuy’s for that. It’s nice I don’t have to take a flight back to Texas to do it- there’s one in Rockville, MD, and several in Northern Virginia (NoVA…. “doesn’t go” in Spanish…. hahahaha).

The only thing missing from my DC experience is that there used to be a Texan restaurant called Austin Grill, and while they might still be around, the last time I went, they didn’t have the only thing I wanted- Amy’s Mexican vanilla ice cream. In the early 2000’s, it was the only reason I went there. In fact, looking through their menu, I don’t see any desserts at all. The steak chili is pretty good, though…. just no way in hell am I trekking all the way to Springfield, VA for it. It’s not THAT good.

At my own restaurant, our taquitos and churros are an excellent substitute, especially if you order the churros with dulce de leche sauce. Also, the taquitos come with a very flavorful slaw, for which I’d be a prep cook for a day just to steal the recipe. #nolie Speaking of which, I think I have a prep shift tomorrow…………. Game. On.

I said something the other day that I need to walk back. My Klonopin is just as important as my other drugs in the kitchen, because I am just not as relaxed and focused without it. I’ve been out for over a week, and I can sense innately that I have a shorter fuse and less concentration because I can feel the anxiety building, and am more likely to pop off at people who I think are treating me unfairly. This has happened my whole life- I can’t imagine how much more calm I’d be had I been taking said drug since I was first diagnosed. My sense of justice is just over the top. In terms of INFJ, I put the J in it to an overwhelming degree. With an anti-anxiety drug, the bile rising in my throat as I am called out for things that are definitely not my fault stays put. I own every mistake that is entirely mine. I even own mistakes that are only partly mine. But when other people do not take responsibility for theirs and put their own mistakes on me, anger is unavoidable. Klonopin takes it down so many notches that sometimes I don’t even care. Let’s just move on, and we’ll talk about it later, when my hands no longer want to wring your neck and I don’t want to say things like, “get bent” or “bite me, doughboy.” Technically, I do say that last one all the time, but only in jest. My lead line cook and I have that relationship, flipping each other shit the entire shift. Working with him is the best part of my job, and lead me to say “I get to go to work today,” rather than “I have to.”

In other news, my dad and sister are planning on coming up for my birthday (9/10). I hadn’t made any plans with friends yet, so it works out perfectly. My dad said I should have planned a surprise party for myself. I told him that I am so damn busy it probably would have worked. I did make tentative plans with Dan for a ridiculous dessert, but it doesn’t have to be on my actual day. Hell, let’s celebrate all month. There is nothing I love more than a ridiculously rich dessert, which I often deserve after running my ass off in the kitchen (not that I had much to begin with…….). Every shift is hot yoga crossed with acrobatics, especially since I’m sauté. I stand in front of a range, a 500 degree oven, and an open-flame grill. By the time I’m done, I feel like I need a cool-down workout…. generally the best I get is the ability to use the bathroom.

I get paid tomorrow, and I told my dad I was excited to get a check for so much blood, sweat, and tears. He said that everyone puts blood, sweat, and tears into their paychecks. I told him that few people mean it as literally as I do. To be fair, though, I haven’t cut myself with a knife once, and only twice in the entire time I’ve been there on a mandoline. The only thing that really bleeds are my burns once they’ve scabbed over and then the scabs are ripped off in a different shift. I wear gloves because of it, both a safety issue and a liability. As I have said before, injuries are much worse when you burn yourself wearing gloves, because the latex fuses to your skin. Alternatively, I am protecting myself and others. It’s a double-edged sword. But even then, I hurt myself more while cleaning than I do while cooking. Grills and griddles clean so much faster when they’re still hot. I enjoy getting things done with less effort, but if I make a mistake, generally my hand or my arm get singed in a hurry.

This seems to be the only downside of cooking, however. Injuries are nothing compared to the high I feel after a five hour rush. In fact, I am so high on adrenaline that it keeps the burns from hurting until I “come down.”

Speaking of cutting myself with a knife, one of my coworkers (I don’t know who, and it’s good I don’t) bent Rachel’s tip to a degree that it can’t be sharpened to perfection anymore. Because I never got first blood, we weren’t bonded, so I went ahead and ordered a new one, which I will never leave for the other cooks ever again. They can use the one they broke. One of the prep cooks was making fun of me that I ordered a new knife because the other one was only a little bit bent. My lead line cook told her to be nice. That is some version of what I was thinking……….. She thought I was being an entitled spoiled brat. Maybe I am, but what cook wants to use a knife someone else fucking ruined? I took Rachel to the knife store in Union Station, and they told me it was too bent to fix, and when I’m chopping Japanese-style (front of the knife, as opposed to French, which uses the back), the bent point will not do. I don’t expect her to understand. I don’t expect anyone to understand. But I thought a professional cook would. My mistake.

I’m superstitious about telling anyone her name until I’ve had her for at least a year. Maybe by then we will be bonded, and we’ll have enough history together that I don’t feel like I could lose her at any moment. I know I have a better than average chance of it happening if I don’t let the other “professionals” touch her. I do let my lead line cook use her, though, because his knife skills are better than mine, and I know she’ll never clatter to the floor, which I think is the culprit of Rachel “getting bent” in the first place.

In terms of Rachel’s health and wellness, I think I am rightfully angry, instead of just having a short fuse. The new knife is also Chicago Cutlery, but it’s not Rachel’s identical twin. She has a bit of a spongy handle, important because it matters after five hours. She’s also light and perfectly balanced, another important factor, because with home cooking, I like the heft of a Wüsthof or similar, but when I’ve used them in the kitchen, after a while it feels like my shoulder is going to drop off. I didn’t think she would be an upgrade, just the same knife with a different handle, but she is. I know that for people who aren’t cooks, they’re probably confused with anthropomorphizing an inanimate object. Let’s put it this way- how much importance would you place on an extension of your hand? How much respect? Having a name and being bonded by blood are just part of kitchen folklore, something that has been done for ages and not likely to change anytime soon. The name of your knife is generally female, like a ship, but not always.

One of my readers charmed me when she said, “I bought a Rachel based on your rec. Will it make me a better cook?” I said, “God, I hope so- otherwise, it wouldn’t be a very good recommendation, now would it?” I told her to watch YouTube videos on knife skills to make her faster and less likely to cut herself. Nothing is more important than learning to cut away from your body and the finger position of “spider on a mirror.” Always better to knick your knuckle or front of your finger rather than your fingers lying flat and open to getting cut to the bone, because with a deadly sharp knife, deep cuts can happen before you feel them. But, a sharp knife is still better than a dull one, because it is less likely to slip and slide. Another important tip is putting a wet tea towel under your cutting board, so it won’t slip and slide, either. Also, it really hurts if you cut into one of your fingernails…. worse in the kitchen because you’re not allowed to have acrylic reinforcements. In those moments, you just swear uncontrollably, because “gosh darn it” won’t cover the half of it.

Although if you spend much time in a professional kitchen, you’ll start to swear both uncontrollably and more creatively than ever before. It’s just one of cooks’ charms, and most of the reason we hang out with each other, not fit for polite company. I’m going to have to start a swear jar when the twins get older. I’ll probably be able to retire in less than a month.

Especially as I become a “monster.”

Parts Unknown

It was 0745 Friday when I got the news that Antony Bourdain killed himself. Even though Central Time is an hour earlier, I couldn’t think of anyone to call but my dad. We’ve both read all his books, we’ve both been fans of the TV shows, and I broke the news to him. He told me it was awfully early for a cook to be up. I said that I was asleep until the news dinged on my phone (I get alerts from Apple News aggregator). I went back to sleep as visions of old No Reservations and Parts Unknown episodes played in my head.

As it got closer to service, at first I didn’t want to go. I just wanted to stay in bed and mourn. But then I realized that there was no better homage to Chef than getting my ass into the kitchen, mourning with everyone else. The weird thing is that everything was normal. I’m not sure my coworkers had ever seen him, and I couldn’t have explained the concept of my grief in Spanish if I tried. “Triste y llorando” (sad and crying) were the actions, but not the reasons. They didn’t know how hard he fought for them. I am not sure whether my coworkers are illegal immigrants or not, and don’t care. What I do care is that whether their immigration is legal or not, Tony fought for them. In Kitchen Confidential, he said that there was nothing better than a Salvadoran line cook. He believed that illegal or not, immigration was key to the melting pot of culture, even if they were on the line at Les Halles, exclusively French food, because it wasn’t always about the line- it was about eating where they eat or having them cook authentic dishes from their homes.

All locations of Les Halles are closed now, but in New York, the building is still there. People are crowding the doors with flowers and memorials. The DC location of Les Halles closed in 2008, so I never made it. But Tony wouldn’t have been there, anyway. If he had, he would have introduced me to the real chefs- the Central and South American sous chefs (assistants to the executive chef) who really run the place. I know this because he did this on an episode of No Reservations, where he exposed the real manpower of the restaurant in New York.

Everyone knew something was up with me, because I was not the usual “Bob Esponja” I normally am. Thankfully, someone else closed for me, and I was home by 11:30. That gave me plenty of time to sleep off depression and anxiety, for which I feel no urge to kill myself in turn, it’s just that grief is its own situational depression, especially if it dogs you in other areas of your life and you just happen to hear something terrible.

I have an old, old picture of Argo and I couldn’t help but stare at it last night. The reason I did this is that she did something for me that is different than the traditional wisdom of “reach out,” although she did plenty of that, too. She reminded me that I had power in the situation, and I wasn’t using it. It’s so important for friends to remind you that you are loved, but what worked for me is reminding me that I was not powerless. I had agency. I had the ability to help myself. It was a strident, pull yourself up from your bootstraps, no crying in baseball kind of love. I can’t help but think it might have worked on Tony as well, because if there’s anything that Tony appreciated, it was no bullshit conversations.

Because often what happens is that when you are really down in the shit, you forget that you have the ability to dig yourself out of a hole, and someone reminded me that I was more powerful than my illness. That my illness was not my personality, and my personality was not my illness.

I have a feeling that the only reason it worked is that we were low-key fighting at the time, and the cortisol from it gave me an “I’ll show her” attitude. Cortisol gave me the short-lived strength I needed to get myself to a hospital, where I collapsed once I realized someone else was in charge now, and I could stop being strong. So, even if those words were designed to say “I’m tired of your crap,” that’s not what came across. What came across is “this is the only way I know how to help you, which is hopefully kick your ass into next week so you provide yourself with options instead of relying on others to do it for you.” I remember that the nurses were going to take my phone in two minutes, and in those two minutes, I took the time to send Argo a voicemail by attaching it to an e-mail, thanking her and telling her that I’d indeed checked myself into a hospital. I was so scared, and the voice mail reflected that. Because it’s stored on my Google Drive, I’ve listened to it since, my voice rushed and a different pitch because of fear that I wouldn’t get the voice mail done in time and even though I wanted help, asking for it was tantamount to a black mark on my employment history, especially in DC, where in terms of working with databases, you generally need Secret and Top Secret clearances- not because the work itself is hard, but because of the information you could possibly run across. I will not say hospitalization was a bad move, or short-sighted, just that it is unlikely that I’ll be able to get said clearance. My only move, should I get a job like that, is to disclose everything up front so that the government doesn’t find it on its own.

So, in short, I understand Tony’s demons. I understand what it’s like to go to that place, to feel like earth would be better off without you so that you are not a burden on your family and loved ones as they watch the roller coaster of your emotions, completely helpless in the process.

The thing about depression is that talk rarely works. Checking in on your friends is key, but unless you’re the type friend that is glued to them at the hip and you’ve been through a depressive scare with them before, they don’t want to be seen. I could be honest with Argo because she’d already seen how bad it gets. To everyone else, I was “fine.” If you’re not in the inner circle, it’s hard to fight your way in. It also helped that she was not in my inner circle physically, because the wall of anonymity across the miles allowed me to write the truth into the night, open and vulnerable in a way that I couldn’t be daily. Without ever seeing me in three dimensions, it allowed for the stranger on a train feeling that allowed me to communicate just as I was. Angry at the world, confused, needing her love, counsel, protection, and all the things mothers do. I am not extrapolating this into Argo acting as my mother in this situation, only that mothers love differently than everyone else. They have experience at carrying a cub through the mountains in their mouths, and no problem with tough love as it’s required.

If you are in the inner circle of someone who struggles with depression, don’t ask how you can help. It is too much energy for the person to try and figure it out on their own. Show up with trash bags and an offer to do the laundry. Get them out of their hole, because the likelihood is that they’ve stopped taking care of themselves when nothing matters, anyway.

If you are not in the inner circle, they won’t let you see that gigantic mess, anyway. Don’t say, “I’m here if you need me.” We don’t have the energy to return a phone call, and we don’t want to talk about it. As much as we’ll hate you for it, knock on the door or text and say, “I don’t care what you look like, I don’t care what your house looks like, I’m coming over in ten minutes. We’ll figure it out.” Don’t worry. We’ll be home. Some of us can make it to work, some of us can’t, but when all social commitments fall by the wayside, it isn’t that we don’t care. We don’t have enough energy to leave the house. Or interact, in any way, at all. Even if the text goes unanswered, there’s your indication that it’s even more important to ring the doorbell, and hope that they live with someone else who’s willing to come downstairs and open the door.

But this entry is not about turning Tony’s tragedy into my own story, it is about empathy and sympathy. I feel like I understand more than someone who’s never felt what depression and anxiety can do. It always knows the very best lies to use against you, like the planet still spinning for your family if you’re gone. It is truly my mother’s death that convinced me suicide was never, would never be the answer, because I got to see the planet turn upside down, never the same, as it never will be again for Eric Ripert.

If there’s anyone I feel truly sorry for in this garbage dump of a situation, it’s Tony’s best friend, Eric Ripert, who had the awful job of finding him hanging from the belt of a bathrobe. When people say their hearts go out to his loved ones, I wish they would say his name specifically.

We often try to make sense of the senseless. Maybe his addiction came back. Maybe he never pictured himself as an old person. Maybe he wanted to go out on top, rather than withering away. Maybe he’d just received some incredibly bad health news. But that’s just spitballing and the truth died with him. As far as the news has reported, there was no note, unusual for a suicide…. but my hope is that there is some explanation, some note, and the reason it hasn’t been reported is out of privacy, the press is allowing Eric, his girlfriend, and his daughter to read it first.

As a member of the service industry, even though my restaurant wasn’t ensconced in grief, save the pallor I put on the place, I imagine that there were thousands of others bogged down, serving covers as fast as they could not because they felt truly capable in their grief, but because it’s what Tony would have wanted.

As my friend Drew so eloquently put it:

Great service chef. You clocked out, now get your shift drink and head on home. We got you covered.

Where heaven is Parts Unknown, and you need No Reservations.