Authors: Molly Harper
n retrospect, I should have known something was wrong when the arugula started telling knock-knock jokes.
Leafy greens rarely had a sense of humor. And yet there I was, standing in the bustling kitchen of my busy Chicago restaurant, watching the vegetables on the prep table perform their own vaudeville act.
When confronted by the comedic stylings of salad ingredients, most people would have maybe called it a night, taken a sick day. A normal person would have done exactly that. I was willing to admit that now, exiled from my kitchen and the city that I loved to the wilds of western Kentucky.
My only excuse was sheer exhaustion. The restaurant, Coda, had been overbooked since it opened four
years before, far beyond even the wildest expectations of the owners. Six months in, the executive chef quit in a very loud, very public snit over farm-grown oysters, which I still didn’t understand, so I’d been promoted to the head position on the fly. Changes I’d made to the menu caught the attention of some reviewers, which brought even more people through the door. The owners offered me a 5 percent share of the business because I’d been working eighteen-hour days for nearly three years and hadn’t yet called the labor board. Even when I did manage to get a night off, some crisis would call me back into the kitchen, and before I knew it, I’d worked twenty-one days without a break.
I started making stupid mistakes, confusing sea bass with turbot and mistiming pasta. It was all fixable, but in my head, the mistakes compounded and made me a nervous, double-checking wreck. And yet I still kept up the schedule, only coming home to collapse for a few hours before rising again to scour the supplier markets for ingredients. Chefs who slept in missed the freshest produce and the choicest cuts of meat.
I ignored the signs that I was overworked every time I looked in the mirror. My hair was dark and thick but hung in a limp cloud around my face. It had no luster, no life. My skin was pale, pasty, and drawn. While I had a passably pert nose, my lips were far too wide and my blue eyes too large for my face, which
was emphasized as my cheekbones became more prominent and the dark undereye circles spread.
I lost weight that I couldn’t really afford to lose. I was short and small-boned but what one briefly employed busboy charmingly referred to as “stacked like hell.” As if I needed another reason for men not to take me seriously in the kitchen, the distraction of an above-average rack meant I had to work that much harder, which led to more hours, which led to my interactions with giggling vegetables.
On top of the sleep deprivation, my vacation to London had been canceled because the restaurant’s business manager, Phillip, booked a high-profile vintner’s dinner for that week, deciding that I “wouldn’t mind” putting off my trip for another year. That same manager, who also happened to be my ex-boyfriend, had asked me for “space” three months earlier and then had gotten engaged to the woman who cleaned his teeth. Who also happened to be his ex-girlfriend, something I didn’t find out until after their engagement. No wonder he spent all that time flossing. And because I worked such insane hours, the chances of meeting a new man I was attracted to and didn’t work with—trust me, I’d learned my lesson there—were practically nil. My rent was going up again, just as I was getting close to saving enough for a down payment on a townhouse. So if I wanted to buy my own home anytime soon, I was going to have to work more hours.
I was contemplating how to bend the space-time continuum to make this possible, when the arugula shouted, “Knock knock!” When I answered, “Who’s there?” that seemed to upset my coworkers. Joining the veggies in a full-on George Burns soft-shoe ensured Tess Maitland’s place in the chronicles of “chefs who publicly flipped their shit.”
The room tilted under my feet like a ship’s deck, leaving me seasick and dizzy. I heard the disembodied voice of my mentor, Chef John Gamling, telling me that my hollandaise was gelatinous swill not fit to dress a McMuffin, which was weird, because I hadn’t made hollandaise sauce that night. I tried to argue that I had people to do that for me, but then I collapsed on the floor in a heap.
And that’s when the paramedics showed up.
Phillip, the ex-slash-manager, “strongly encouraged” me to take some time off. I said, fine, I would take the weekend. And then he made a noise in his throat that made it clear that two days was not what he had in mind. And then he used the word “sabbatical,” which was international culinary code for “lost her fricking mind.”
We cooks liked to pretend that our exiled brethren were touring northern Italy or southern France, collecting recipes and refining pastry techniques. But “on sabbatical” usually meant they were drying out in a facility called Promises or Sunrises or some such thing.
I responded by inviting Phillip to commit indecent acts upon himself with a lemon zester. Phillip suspended me without pay for six weeks, which was, I felt, an overreaction. By the time a dishwasher drove me home, the urge to sing and dance with garnishes had worn off. I sat in my living room, staring at the blank beige walls, and I got pissed.
“Coda” meant a satisfying conclusion—the slow build of a good meal brought to a delicious climax. Phillip had come up with the name. He could be a pretentious prick, but he knew about branding. Where was my coda? I loved my work. That kitchen was my life. But was I supposed to work myself into delirious zombiehood and then collapse dead on my stove?
The fact was, I needed a break. I needed to rest, to sleep, to have conversations with people that did not involve butter-fat ratios. I needed to get as far from Coda as possible so I wouldn’t get sucked back into the kitchen and into that compulsive vortex of crazy. I made some arrangements online, packed a few essentials, and drove to Half-Moon Hollow, Kentucky, the only place I thought I’d get a welcome. Also, I may or may not have driven to Phillip’s apartment and thrown a honey ricotta cheesecake at his front door.
Chef Gamling and his life partner, George, had retired to Kentucky a year before to be near George’s family. Chef, my mentor in culinary school, was the only family I’d had in a long time. Never one to tolerate
martyrs or kitchen drama, Chef had assigned himself the task of “whipping me back into shape.”
Knowing Chef as I did, it was possible he would use a wire whisk.
So there I stood, on a dirt driveway in the middle of nowhere, outside the two-bedroom farmhouse I’d rented from late September to late October. It looked as if someone had been building a sturdy little farmhouse and at the last minute decided that Victorian gingerbread and frills were an absolute necessity. The house was halfway to restored, with recently painted lemon yellow siding and bleached white trim. But there were no flowers in the yard, no silly wind chimes laced through the gingerbread eaves, and I found that sort of sad. There were carefully mulched beds surrounding the house, but no one had bothered to plant anything in them. The house seemed ancient but somehow half-finished, a pall of failure hanging over it like real estate B.O.
I would fit right in.
My landlady, Lindy Clemson, had placed the house on a rental site after she and her husband filed for divorce. She’d told me she wanted to get some income out of it before she put it on the market in late October, when the divorce was finalized. Lindy seemed nice enough, if a little tightly wound. It was a real stroke of luck finding a landlord willing to rent for a term as short as one month, particularly in such a small town.
I heaved a sigh and adjusted the messenger bag on my shoulder, blowing the stick-straight dark brown hair from my face. Resolved, I tugged open the rear door of my SUV and hauled out my suitcases and boxes of kitchen equipment. The thought of using someone else’s pots, pans, and knives was just ridiculous. I’d also packed coolers with the contents of my fridge—organic eggs, cheeses from Meroni’s, asparagus from Sal (my asparagus guy), and enough wine to sink a ship. And of course, my travel-sized spice kit.
None of the food talked to me during the drive, which I took as a good sign.
Unpacking didn’t take long. I hadn’t brought many clothes, and I left my pans and knives in their special linen wrappings in the packing boxes. I explored the house, but once you got past living room, kitchen, dining-room-turned-office, two bedrooms, and bath, there wasn’t much to discover. The basement, Lindy had explained, was being used to store her ex’s belongings and wouldn’t be accessible under my rental agreement.
The rooms were clean but bare. Lindy had left only the most basic of furnishings, the kind of stuff older relatives pawn off on college students and newlyweds: an old brown plaid couch, a sprung pleather Barcalounger, a chipped pressed-wood coffee table. Not to mention the bold brass and black laminate dining-room table that may have belonged to a villain on
A few pictures decorated the walls, but squares of unfaded wallpaper revealed where other frames had hung. Other rooms were freshly painted or, like the pretty little kitchen with its cheerful white and blue tile, had recently been refloored. The house smelled pleasantly of linseed oil and sawdust. I explored the rooms, pleased to find the odd window seat or corner bookshelf here and there.
While I was happy with the house, it didn’t matter much. I could live without cubbies and comforts. I just wanted to do my time “on sabbatical” and get back to the city to reclaim my life.
The main problem was, without the grinding routine of the restaurant, I had no flipping clue what to do with myself. There was TV, but it only had basic cable, and I didn’t feel like sitting down for the farm report. I hadn’t thought to bring any books with me, and the only selections to be found in the house were a bunch of John Jakes paperbacks. I wasn’t even hungry. Ever since “The Incident,” my stomach fought against anything but chamomile tea and toast. So I did something I hadn’t done in almost ten years: I treated myself to more than four hours of sleep.
I put fresh sheets on the lumpy little double bed in the master bedroom, pulled the shades tight, and went to bed at 7:30
. I slept deep and dreamless, even with the occasional creak of the house settling against a backdrop of blissful country silence.
The first order of business the next morning was to drop by my landlady’s office with my deposit and rent for the month, then to visit Chef Gamling. It shocked me to find that Chef Gamling was well and truly retired. Like most of his students, I believed he would die with a spatula in one hand and an unruly saucier’s collar in the other. Now he ambled around his house all day in yoga pants while George taught chemistry at the community college. He was taking up gardening and painting abstract watercolor landscapes that looked like extremely depressing Rorschach blots.
George, a sweet man with fading cornsilk-colored hair and shoulders as broad as a barn, insisted I was too skinny from the moment I walked through the door of their cute little ranch house. Before ushering me to the back porch, George loaded me down with a bowl of something called monkey bread (a local specialty, I assumed). It was basically blobs of biscuit dough shoved into a Bundt pan and doused in caramel syrup. I don’t believe monkey was an actual ingredient. I didn’t want to ask.
I think this lump of sucrose-soaked carbs was supposed to serve as a comforting buffer for when Chef lowered the boom on me. It did not work.
“Any proper student of mine would know better,” Chef growled without preamble, glaring down from his easel, a paintbrush hanging loose in his hand. Chef was a stocky, mustachioed bull of a man
with salt-and-pepper hair and deceptively steely gray eyes. And because I knew he loved me and I deserved the ass chewing, I contritely sipped iced tea, trying not to feel like an ill-behaved third-grader called to the principal’s office. The hint of a German accent made the admonishments seem even sterner than he intended.
“A chef must be sharp, reacting to a multitude of crises with calm and confidence. In order to do that, you need rest and proper meals. Did I not tell all of my students that ignoring your body’s basic needs was a one-way ticket to addiction, exhaustion, and disaster? How are you to maintain quality and prevent mistakes if you can’t remember orders? What good are you to your staff if you have run yourself down like a soggy dishrag? How are staff to respect you if you are singing and dancing like the puppet show—what’s it called, with the chicken and the vampire?”