Ode to the Kitchen I Cut my Teeth In

A Kitchen Confidential Inspired Writing Project 

For me, the cooking life has been a long love affair, with moments both sublime and ridiculous, but looking back you remember the happy times best— the things that drew you in, attracted you in the first place, the things that kept you coming back for more.” — Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential 

When I graduated college, I was at this point in my life where cooking and baking were the only consistent joys bringing hope to my day to day. It was a time when I was burnt out on anxiety and imposter syndrome, on perfectionism, information overload, and a slew of unexpected life events that extinguished any momentum for academia I had left in me. 

I was hungry in more ways than one, and creating beautiful food filled more voids that one.  

The kitchen was a space where I found I could healthily exercise control and channel my propensity to be intensely hyper-focused and obsessive. It brought me peace and I wanted to chase that feeling. I wanted to immerse myself into the food world fully, and, an ardent Anthony Bourdain fan, I envisioned myself starting work in a kitchen on Cape Cod like he did— cutting my teeth and becoming a tough as nails, boss ass bitch. 

So, twelve days after graduating college with a degree in geology, I was in Woods Hole and beginning work as a prep cook and line cook in a Cape Cod scratch kitchen. I was re-reading Kitchen Confidential, and the sublime, ridiculous love affair Tony wrote about was the life I dreamed about. It was chaotic and unforgiving, but even as he wrote candidly about the horrors of the industry, there were unmistakable glimmers of nostalgia that romanticized the experience. And I wanted all of it. The highest highs and lowest lows. To fully understand the world he wrote so beautifully about. At the time, I was so energized by the idea that when people warned of the harsh realities of the work I was entering into, I shrugged it off entirely. Don’t they know I am strong and capable? I thought? I’ll show them, damnit. My perceptions of myself convinced me I had something to prove. 

Over the next year, I would learn that I am much stronger and more capable than I knew myself to be. I became more self assured, such that I no longer felt the need to prove myself necessarily— doing so was a weight that took energy I had expended elsewhere. But this was part of a new burn out. One where I saw how unsustainable the line cook life really is. It is nostalgia ridden, romantic, and chaotic in the best way. It is grueling, anxiety inducing, and relentless in the worst way. It is beautiful and it is a contradiction. I got the full experience I was in pursuit of. 

I learned the language of the kitchen: The slang, the energy, the fast pace. I found a family in the characters I worked beside— there is a unique bond that comes with the shared experience of the long hours, the constant grind, and the knowledge of the details of this life that people on the outside don’t see. As someone who used to be one of those people on the outside, the experience meant that much more to me because it taught me the tough realities of the lifestyle, the beauty of working so closely as a team/ family, and the pride that comes with working so goddamn hard all the time. 

I will always look back on this chapter of my life with fondness and a level of sentimental longing. There were many days that were beyond difficult to get through, but those days were part of what made the experience whole. As someone who journals every day, I look back on my commentary throughout my time working in the kitchen and am grateful my otherwise forgetful, tired self made time to document the adventure. I can’t help but smile at the utter ridiculousness of so many of my highest highs and lowest lows:

  • The evolution of my oyster shucking abilities (bragging rights now, baby!). I’ll never forget it started with blood, tears, and ineptitude.
  • The peace of prepping on slow rainy days, Bill Withers playing softly in the background as I chopped vegetables. The vigor and intensity of prepping on fast paced days, Rage Against the Machine and Wu Tang Clan playing loudly in the background as I hustled.
  • The elation of my house breads and foccacias coming out of the oven, perfectly done, on days I worked in the kitchen’s bakery.
  • The kitchen fire.
  • The crazy 16 hour days.
  • The satisfaction of cooking the last meal served from the kitchen in 2019.
  • The time I got slammed with 15+ strip steak orders over five minutes, at which point I realized I no longer cared about being a “tough as nails badass” like Anthony Bourdain… some things do in fact break me.

The stories and the details that are maybe funny now, but definitely were not at the time. What one might call Type II fun: “miserable while happening. Fun in retrospect.” 

The experience was challenging, transformative, purposeful, exhilarating. And it was fun.

What I learned in this chapter I’ll cary with me always.

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