“Hey, how are you doing lately?” I’ve kind of dreaded that question over the last two months, it’s been a pretty horrible sixty days. Anyone who’s seen me in person lately basically told me how tired I look, and they probably also heard a thirty minute speech on how miserable I’ve been. Sorry for that, all. So, I’ve quit the restaurant that gave me my start in the culinary world. I didn’t want to, but I already know I’ve made the right decision. What’s next?
Well, I need to look for a new second job, and I want it to be a restaurant. When I started work at P.F. Changs, I didn’t really know if it would fully work out, and a significant part of me thought I wouldn’t be cut out for restaurant work. Turns out I was really good at it, and I loved that job for the first two months or so! But unfortunately that led to me being taken advantage of, because I started to have to regularly do the work of three people, and nothing was ever done when I spoke to management about it. That’s what killed me the most these last couple months.
Maybe I’ve found my niche? Who knows. I’m excited to apply to new restaurants now that my foot is in the door (and despite management’s disappointment I’m leaving, I think I’ll have some very good references). Since about September once my life got insane and I started working about 50-60 hours a week. Because of that, I kind of abandoned my “Food Journey.” Well, not really, my food journey became a restaurant journey and I can’t even muster the sentimentality to capitalize that phrase. What I did at the restaurant wasn’t fun–it was work–work I was good at.
And boy I learned a lot and grew more as a person than as a cook during that time. I learned that the mere act of chopping and julienning vegetables, peeling ginger, or mincing garlic isn’t fun when you aren’t doing it for yourself or a friend. There are no life lessons to be gleaned from cooking thirty pounds of egg noodles in the span of an hour. Dozens of blocks of silken tofu do not chorus out the meaning of your existence. Every day was an endurance run that deadened the part of me that found the work tedious. And in a way, I actually really enjoyed that. The act of being in and working in a kitchen came pretty naturally after a few weeks of being in the kitchen. It was nice to be relied on, until it was too much to bear.
What else did I learn? I don’t know. That I actually really like eggplant, or that working around raw meat all day makes you want to go vegetarian (which I sort of have)? That a lot of homophobic language in the workplace actually does contribute to feelings of ostracization? Maybe that a desk job might just not be for me after all? One thing I know for sure is that about 1% of my friends could hack it in this industry, and that makes me feel really working class, in a way I haven’t before (and in a way that I love).
Culinary school is not on my docket right now, at all, really. For now, it seems that hard work, dedication, and the skills I’ve been cultivating will get me where I want to be. Not to toot my own horn, but I think my knife skills matched or were better than a lot of my coworkers (even those that were culinary educated), and I’m more proud of them than ever. I don’t think my speed or precision are much higher than they were a few months ago, but my confidence in the skills is much higher.
Now I get to go back onto the job market and see what those skills and training will get me. Or rather, what positions I can earn and hopefully, be happy and financially sustainable in. The pay from P.F. Changs helped me buy a lot of items that would’ve otherwise taken a good bit of savings to get, and it allowed me to very aggressively pay down some student loan debt. I won’t take that for granted, it just wasn’t worth the trade-off in the quality of my life.
The week I started at P.F. Changs, I was talking with two of my closest friends, and I told them that once I started work, there was no going back. There was no going back to a time before I had worked at a restaurant, there was no avoiding the big existential questions that it posed. Had I finally found a career? Was I saying goodbye to all of the dreams I’d had as a student, of being a professor, of being a grad student?
I don’t need an answer to those anymore. Well, I’ll tell myself that, but it does at least feel true as I write this. I think my shift in career path was so drastic that I never really HAD to stop and consider it. The skills I use at a restaurant are so different from the skills I would’ve used as an event planner or a professor that I didn’t have to reject that part of my past in order to move forward. Instead, a new part of me emerged. I think I knew it was there (but who am I kidding, it was a huge risk).
There’s no going back. I can’t forget these last few months, and I don’t want to. I’ve never been more proud of myself because now, I’ve taken on the burden of not becoming complacent in what I used to be. I certainly got out of the rut years of academia bore out of the ground before my eyes. I started this year with one major goal: prove that I could be a well rounded person–just be a person for once. I didn’t know who I was without academia, and now, I at least know myself much better. How’d I do?
That naive man that made a list on December 31st, 2018 of foods he wanted to try and cook–the “Food Journey 2019,” a list now lost to a dead laptop’s hard-drive–he proved he could do it. He hadn’t tried tahini, thought he hated asparagus, made fresh pasta three days a week, laminated danish pastry dough. He started buying fresh herbs, fresh chilli peppers, fresh lemons, made homemade mayo! I’ve made over ten cakes, about four pies, ten wildly different types of bread, bubble tea, increasingly weird ice creams, and consumed more eggs and sugar than my doctor would probably recommend. I tried out six different pizza doughs, read at least five entire cookbooks, and listened to 5852 minutes of food podcasts on Spotify alone between January and March. And maybe I’ll never again have the time or energy to devote my private life to food in the way I did for most of this year. It was time well spent.
So, I’ve quit the restaurant. And outward into the world I go, chef’s knife in hand, to carve out my place.
The summer after my freshman year of high school, my dad, sibling and I took a trip to Hyde Park, New York to visit the Culinary Institute of America. I’d been watching a lot of Food Network, specifically the competition show Chopped, and I wanted to be a chef. But not long after that trip I started thinking that cooking wasn’t what I wanted to do as a career, and I pushed myself into the path to becoming an English teacher throughout high school and all of college. This January, when I started my 2019 Food Journey (ugh, that name) it was to figure out if I’d actually want to go to culinary school, to figure out if I had the drive and ambition to perfect my skills in the way I’d need to do in culinary school. Well, last month, I decided that instead of going to culinary school in the short-term, I wanted to work in a restaurant to see how my half-year of training matched up to what was needed of me. And now, I work in a restaurant. I’m on my way.
My primary task at work is to prep the plates for the chefs to cook; I portion out their proteins, vegetables and aromatics according to the restaurant’s recipes. I cook egg noodles (so many egg noodles, too many egg noodles?), and I prepare a decent number of the vegetables that we use at my station. I’ve memorized our recipes for fry batter and tempura batter and make them daily, and I know the secret to a really good sweet and sour chicken. So, did my months of preparation and self/internet-training end up helping me adjust to the new environment?
No. Well, mostly no.
I came in with the basic skills needed to function in the job: I can hold a knife, I understand food safety, and I already knew every ingredient we use from intimate use in my own kitchen. I had this fantasy that on my first day, the restaurant would run out of a bottle or jug of mayonnaise, and there would be a momentary panic set in. Then, I would step in, with my memorized recipe and technique for mayonnaise (learned in January or February of the Food Journey) and save the day, impressing everyone with my skills. Instead on day one, I discovered that the kitchen staff makes homemade mayonnaise every other day in giant batches. It’s like I’m working in a restaurant of professionals or something.
I wasn’t being asked to taste batches of egg roll filling or lettuce wrap mix so that we could adjust it for salt, in fact, no-one was asking anyone for taste adjustments. And it was because, and I don’t know why I didn’t assume this going in, but everyone there has been cooking longer than me, and they know what they’re doing. It’s actually pretty refreshing, being around competent people (shocker). Often when I cook with my friends, I find myself between a rock and a hard place because I know they should’ve cooked something longer, or with different heat, or with more salt, etc. But at this restaurant, when I look at the dishes my coworkers produce, things seem polished. Maybe not perfect, but presentable, well constructed dishes and they certainly sell well.
My months of training didn’t ultimately mean anything special to my new workplace because what I’d taught myself really were the things I needed to know going into this kitchen job. The kitchen is simply paced far faster than I’d ever expected, and I haven’t worked any days that I would truly call a rush. That’s what my training this year evidently lacked: pressure. In my own kitchen, if I want to spend forty minutes slowly making a salad because I’m watching a movie at the same time, I can do that. In the professional kitchen, I’ve got no such luxury, so it’s actually been a really tough transition into the food world because I’m so far behind everyone in terms of speed and memorization of dish ingredients.
All my friends and family always ask if I’m having fun at work and the answer so far is consistently “no,” but for a specific reason. I’m still so new to the position and restaurants in general that all of my energy and concentration is going to performing my tasks as fast, consistently, and correctly as I can. I have all our most frequently made dishes memorized, so I am getting better day by day. Once I’m more comfortable at the job I’m confident I’ll have fun, because last night I had enough energy to make three pretty lame jokes that our staff laughed at. So things are looking up! But for now, no, I’m not having fun, I’m working harder than I ever have before, it’s exhausting. And it’s too soon to say if I want to do this for the rest of my life.
It’s kind of scary to think that this might not be what I do for the rest of my life. I spent almost all of high school and all of college with the aim of getting myself into grad school to become an English professor. And then I dropped out, and tried to get a job as an event planner, something I enjoyed immensely in college. And I couldn’t get those jobs, but I still had my Assistant Manager position with the movie theatre, so everything was fine with me financially. Yet, my mind kept going back to the idea of working at a restaurant, and the fourth one I applied to hired me within a week.
If I discover in five months or a year that I actually don’t like this that much and want to quit, I don’t really have any backup plans left. In trying so hard to be a good literature student, I kind of sealed off a lot of viable career paths that I now have no training for. I don’t have any major regrets, I just think I could’ve been smarter about how I spent my time. But for now, I’ve got a new job that I’m liking and that I think I’ll have fun at pretty soon. It’s certainly nice to have a second sizeable paycheck each week, even if it means that I’m now working about 50+ hours each week–my student loans won’t pay themselves off!
What the decision to work in a restaurant really came down to was one thing: at the start of this year, I thought I wanted to go to culinary school, and so months later when that thought didn’t go away, I decided to work in a restaurant to get paid to figure that out. If it doesn’t work out, I’ve still got my degree, there are cities other than Buffalo that have positions in Event Planning, and there are grad schools that won’t treat me like a child and only as a source of funding the school.
It’s time for me to see if the dream I had as a fourteen year old really is my current dream, and maybe it’s not. I don’t think I have any dreams anymore, or at least not in the way that I did when I was fourteen. More than ever I just want to have a full-time job that I’m happy with and feel fulfilled from, because my dream is to achieve even a modicum of the financial stability that millions of my fellow millennials are yearning for. So it’s not the time to ‘figure out my dreams,’ it’s time to see if a thought placed on the back-burner for over nine years turns out to have been a good intuition. God I fucking hope so.
“That food was so good! I’d definitely go
back,” Colin said, closing the restaurant door behind him. “My one coworker
would like it there—we could go on our lunch break.”
“Same, and there were so many other
options we didn’t get to try. That sauerkraut one the people had at the table
behind us looked so good. And the—oh, what was it—help me out here, Colin—the
um—oh! Chicken-feet soup-dumplings with chimichurri sauce? I feel like that
would taste gross but what if it was actually amazing? All the smells kind of
reminded me of my grandmother’s cooking in a nice way—” Adam quickly checked
the notifications on his phone then continued the thought—“She made the best
pan-fried dumplings; I begged her for years for the recipe. I gave it to a few
friends and my mom was pissed. ‘I wanted
to leave it in the family’ she said, and now she won’t let me give it out
“Reminds me of my grandma. Though her cooking was kind of shit—but we all loved it
‘cause it was hers. How could an Irish woman ruin scalloped potatoes so many
times? Though it’s fair to pose the same question to me—I’m not the best cook,
as you might find out at some point.” He produced a light chuckle. “Want to
head to the café still? I think I have enough room left for something small,
think it’s just a few blocks away on Chestnut.”
Adam responded with a quick and
enthusiastic yes, and with that, the two men were off. The date continued.
Jake restarted the conversation as
they rounded a corner. “That food reminded me of what my grandma used to tell
me about wedding rituals in her village back in China. Apparently the night
before the wedding they’d hold a big feast for the betrothed, and the man—I
guess unawares—was only given one dumpling at first—with eighteen pleats, for
luck—and was told to eat it. She told me the dumpling was filled with nothing
but salt, can you even imagine eating that?”
Colin shook his head. “No, that’d
be so gross. I mean, I like salt as much as the next guy, but yeah-no. When
you’re done telling yours—wait we need to cross the street here—I just
remembered a story my grandmother used to tell me that’s kinda similar.”
“I was basically done anyways, last
thing is just that apparently they gave him the salt-filled dumpling so that he
could prove to the bride’s family he was strong enough to carry her in the
marriage and through life. Our family tried to continue the tradition after
they moved to America from China, and my father, bless his Polish heart, thought
it was going to be filled like a pierogi, and spat it out halfway through the bite.”
“Oh my god, how did your mom’s
“Apparently my grandfather stared
my dad down and told him if he couldn’t handle a salty dumpling, how could he
handle his fiancée? I find it extra funny because this was before the phrase
“being salty” became popular (and my mom is definitely salty) but he really
loved my mom so he forced it down. When he got kidney stones around the time I
was six he blamed it all on that dumpling. What’s your story?”
“Well,” Colin began, “my grandma
was born here but she was the family archivist and used to write down all of
her mom and grandma’s stories from back in Ireland.”
“What part of Ireland?”
“You know, I never asked, never
cared. Being Irish just never meant much to me since my dad and mom didn’t keep
up the traditions. The dancing’s fun, food’s decent but that’s it for me. Oh,
we need to take a right here, another block and we’ll hit Chestnut, I think
it’s a tan building. But so my family used to live in this little rustic
village bounded on three sides by potato fields or something, and on the last
side, by a deep river—that part’s important. Well apparently a dragon had been
rampaging and destroying the town and killing all the knights that came to
reclaim the town—to hear my grandma retell it you’d think she had met
Beowulf—and lots of people’s houses got destroyed. Then—bear with me this’ll
sound a bit weird—because all the men couldn’t fix it, all the village women banded
together to think of a means to get the dragon to go away or die. Guess what
“I don’t know.”
“The women decided to feed the
dragon something incredibly spicy. They made some dumplings—Irish dumplings—and
filled them completely with pepper. One time she told me it was so that the
dragon would just explode from all the heat, but another time—and I prefer this
version, they offered a batch of dumplings to it, who, seemingly insatiable,
just like, sucked them all in at once I guess. It suddenly felt the intensity
of all the pepper the women put in it, and desperately needed to cool off, so
it ran to the river and dunked its head and neck in, gulping in as much water
as fast as it could. But, it had kept
its head underwater so long in trying to cool off that it drowned itself.”
“Could’ve just developed a better tolerance
for spice. Then again, the Irish aren’t known for their spices.”
“I’m not the one that begged the
waiter for more water after tasting the gnocchi arrabbiata.” Colin laughed and
exchanged a playful glance with Jake. Jake returned it. “The café is just
around the corner. I definitely need a coffee.”
“I feel you on that. So, I should
probably ask now, just in case, but do you want to see me again? I really
Colin opened his mouth to confer a
vibrant yes, I really enjoyed today, more
than I’ve enjoyed dates before, but paused. It was not to clear away the
butterflies in his stomach, but the light indigestion produced from overeating
at the dumpling restaurant. A second after clearing it with a subtle, subdued
burp, he delivered the intended response, and the men entered the café.
Do you have any interesting family stories about dumplings? Let me know in the comments!
I consider my kitchen a queer space for one reason: it’s run
by a queer chef (me). But I wouldn’t say that I cook queer food, and I wouldn’t
say that my methods are queer either. I know a lot of people that would argue the
way I approach cooking is queer: with an openness to ingredients or an
unwillingness to be pinned down to a specific cuisine. I won’t say these aren’t
queer, they just don’t feel like it to me, mostly because all the chefs I
venerate do these same things while being straight. I can’t stop being queer
(and I don’t want to!), and most things I do in my life are somehow an
expression of that. But most of the food I make is an expression of my culinary
skill, not my sexuality.
Whether through my bodily expressions or through the words I
write and the words I speak, I make it known that I’m queer, I’m here, and that
you should get used to it. But when it comes to my food alone, I don’t think I
have a way to tell you that I’m not straight. Sure, I could ice a cake and then
pipe the words, “I’M GAY” on the top, but that’s the written word telling you
I’m gay, not the actual cake itself. And I think that shows there’s an issue
with trying to convey meaning through physical matter alone: meaning isn’t
inherent in anything.
I think meaning is constructed and then assigned to objects,
and that when taken altogether, we have structures and webs of meaning. Living
in a social world means we understand most of these meanings, or at least
tacitly acknowledge them. And certain foods do carry a symbolic meaning with
them in certain contexts. For example, it surprised absolutely no-one when I went vegetarian for a
stretch, because men that go vegetarian are commonly understood to be gay. It’s
not true, but it’s a meaning tacitly understood. If you’ve ever heard a guy
negatively referred to as a “Soy-boy” then you know what I’m talking about. Nothing
about soy is gay, but that’s the meaning it got assigned.
So it’s possible for something that isn’t the body or the
words we say to be assigned symbolic
meaning, but I want to figure out how to do this in a way that somehow
critiques the heterosexual structures of meaning that made ‘Soy-boy’ a
pejorative and homophobia as an institution.
How do I make a dish that screams of queerness?
Paradoxically, I feel extremely queer when I cook, but my products are the
imitation of the recipes of mostly straight chefs. My food doesn’t have any
meaning assigned to it in the broad, cultural sense when I’m the only one
eating it. That’s why I want to try and access some type of “politics of the
gut” as I put it in my title.
I don’t think the gut can lie. I think that when you eat
something truly delicious, your head can’t overwrite that feeling. So if I make
something with the essence of “I’m gay,” I want the taster to know, from their
gut and palate, that “this chef is queer.” If meaning isn’t inherent to the
actual physical matter of something I make, then I can never use “Gay Extract”
like you might use vanilla.
But. I think I can
play around with the meaning assigned to certain foods deemed “queer” as a way
of usurping some of the homophobia in the world. I want to use a “politics of
the gut” to ‘un-queer’ foods.
If I can get a male homophobe to eat and like foods deemed queer and foods looked down upon for that
reason, then I’ve beaten some homophobia. Let’s assume that a straight-male-homophobe
eats my homemade tofu turkey, knows it’s made of tofu, and likes it. In our web of meaning, to like soy while being a man carries
the meaning “I’m gay.” His gut can’t lie to him, so he has two options. (1) He
has to admit that because he liked the tofu, he’s gay now (possibly
unthinkable—possibly revolutionary?). Or (2) maybe tofu wasn’t queer to begin
with, and now he can’t be a homophobe (in that way) anymore. It doesn’t fix all
our problems, but it helps.
For me this means that I have to use the meaning already
there to deconstruct that very
meaning. It means to take away the meaning from the queer food. In many ways
this isn’t new. Food has always already been political, I just won’t let it be used
against me anymore. Instead, my food is mine to serve to whom I please.
This is all to say that a “politics of the gut” ultimately
seeks to eliminate the need for a politics of the gut (the end goal of many
forms of politics—justice). Protestors are certainly going to get hungry, and
the food they eat fuels their political action. They probably won’t be stopping
at Chick-fil-A. If you get a sandwich there, you’re consuming not just a
sandwich, but a political object that carries a lot of homophobic meaning in addition
to their proprietary spice blend. I think the good done in the recent outrage
(and it seems to fade and then return every few months) about Chick-fil-A is
that it’s shown that most people’s appetites will override their revulsion at
the homophobic practices of Chick-fil-A. I think that we can harness that same
energy for good, and I want to feed people better food, and enforce better
I’m more than just my cooking, and though I’ve largely just
argued for a politics of the gut alone, I can’t forget how truly queer the cook
of my kitchen is. If you’re in the kitchen with me, you’ll know it’s
queer—because I’m in it. My bodily presence reminds you I’m queer. The way I
talk and the things I say remind you I’m queer. It’s something I won’t let you forget. If you eat my
food, and you know I’m gay and you like
the food—and I give you my word, you
will—then I won.
This last Christmas, two close friends bought me a cookie
cutter in the shape of a penis as a playful and tasteful nod to when I first
presented the argument of this article to them. I plan to get a lot of use out
of it, hopefully fighting homophobia. I’ll make sugar cookies and gingerbread
with it, and offer it to the homophobes. They can’t ignore the shape. And if
they can’t resist the care, attention, spices and butter of this queer, sassy chef, then I won.
The following sources helped me figure out my ideas for this
At the end of my 2018, I’d begun to feel like my day to day life was growing stale. I had discovered that grad school wasn’t a good fit for me after my first semester and at the same time, I realized I wanted a KitchenAid Mixer that I’d been saving for. A model far nicer than I wanted went on sale for less than half its usual price, and I was faced with a decision: continue to be a grad student and go deep into debt, or drop out to recover some savings and bake and cook my heart out. I chose the second option, and I don’t regret it but I really do miss grad school.
was close to New Years and I realized I needed to kick myself into high gear.
If I dropped out of grad school to pursue my cooking more, then by God, I had
to do more. I was making the same
five or six dishes on repeat every week. I had to do better. So I made a list, a food bucket list, for my 2019 that
started with about 20 dishes and techniques to learn. I thought this would be
enough to shake things up, 20 items spaced out over the course of the year to
make life a little less stale. I was considering Culinary School a lot a few
months ago, so I wanted to see if I could hack it as a real chef. I couldn’t
julienne carrots, I couldn’t bring myself to try fish, I’d never made any of
the five French “mother” sauces, I’d never even made a homemade cake.
I dove back into
some of my favorite cookbooks, got new ones from my library, watched
twenty-five minute tutorials on Danish making from Le Cordon Bleu, found a food
comedy podcast (Spilled Milk, I would 100% recommend it), and started adding to
the list. I had committed myself to accomplishing at least one item off the
list per week, but it quickly turned into me accomplishing three to six items
per week! Slowly but surely I was polishing my skills, and I got increasingly
good feedback from my friends and family. I’d done things I never thought I
could and eaten things I didn’t know existed (Pig kidney, anyone?). Suddenly,
things weren’t so stale for me anymore, and now it’s been a full three months.
I’m sitting at my desk drinking a new Orange-Vanilla Coke out of a bottle and I’m trying to scrounge up something to say about my intentions for starting this blog. And I think in short, my intention is to just have some fun with it. It’s for me. Yes, I do hope that people will read it, and yes, deep down I hope that I’ll gain fame like Julie from “Julie and Julia.” I’m sure I’ll post lots of photos, and lots of links to recipes, but I’m not much of a recipe developer to be honest.
What I really want to do is write. I want to write about how fun it is for me to cook new things, and return to old favorites. I want to write about my memories of food, like why I teared up the first time I made brown butter. I want to write about how inspirational the book “Hot Thai Kitchen” by Pailin Chongchitnant was for me, or write about how Samin Nosrat partially inspired me to start this blog. Maybe I’ll even write about my gender and sexuality and how food sometimes relates to that. We’ll see. Watch this space (if you’d like to).
I don’t know
where this will end up, how much I will post, or how long it’ll go on for. But
what I do know is that I’ve really re-ignited my passion for cooking, and I
haven’t been this happy cooking in a long time. And if, God forbid, I start
lapsing and my feelings become stale again, I know they’ll be there for me when
I get back (even if in a Ziploc bag in the freezer). Because there are worse
things than being stale.
Even stale bread
has its uses. It makes breadcrumbs.