Detour Through Diner Land

I was incredibly lucky to start my foray into professional cooking at The Beech Tree, with a man who was an actual chef, not a ‘good home cook’ given a restaurant by his parents, or a young person who had ascended the ladder much too quickly and taken, perhaps, a presumptive claim of that title. Bob opened his  little 30 seat restaurant in my neighborhood and my ex and I, always looking for a new and good place for a cocktail or a bite, became quick regulars. Something here was different, though it was hard to put your finger on it. It was the smallness, the intimacy, the hope and fear pervading the place. It was the food and the focus on quality, quality, quality, the cocktails made with fresh fruits and how the bartender passed us house made bitters to try and slid dishes of candied nuts across the bar. It was like being in somebody’s living room and being served a home cooked meal.

The first few times we went in, the restaurant was completely empty, save for Bob, seated at the bar in his apron and black t-shirt with a pint in front of him. We would order cocktails and try one of the four beers on tap and talk food and booze with him. I borrowed the newest issues of Lucky Peach and Gabrielle Hamilton’s ‘Blood Bones and Butter’. The tables sat, candles lit, cloth napkins neatly folded, and empty. Bob, Chef, and a bartender. That was it. We would order food and Chef would make it, sometimes peering out of the swinging door at the empty restaurant and sneering, then Bob would run the food, wash the dishes and sometimes play bartender as well. The first time we went in for brunch and there was a server working was a strange sight.

One night, sitting at the empty bar long after the dinner crowd that finally graced the restaurant had left, I mentioned some aspiration of maybe going to culinary school. There was something I loved about food, all of a beginner’s naive aspirations to create, romantic ideations of something I couldn’t quite articulate. My words, which frankly, are my most natural talent, had abandoned me along with my self confidence. Writing felt almost pornographic , obscenely personal and fake, and I had no idea what I was doing with my life in the long term. My partner, driven, educated and focused, had some sort of plan. I did not. I managed the sinking ship of an east downtown cafe by day and wallowed about in self doubt which manifested itself as an inability to participate in life by night.

We were a few beers in (and by ‘a few’ back in the day, I mean we’d probably been at The Feathers for 3 pints before heading to the Tree to consume a further 4) when I uttered this out loud, the contemplation of returning to school, pursuing a plan, a career. “Don’t do that,” Bob said, probably standing on the rungs of his bar stool to lean over the bar and draw us all a top up. “Come work in my kitchen!” and he asked me some questions about whether or not I had knives, if I had worked in kitchens before, and then told me to be in for one o’clock the following afternoon. So I showed up with no knives, wearing Blundstones and black jeans and my ratty home kitchen apron with my hair in a ponytail and started to learn.

Going from making everything from scratch, and I mean EVERYTHING, to what I affectionately refer to as my detour through diner land, has dampened my enthusiasm for restaurant cooking. Sysco truck loads of canned nacho cheese, powdered Hollandaise, all day breakfast, the domination of the deep fryer. A small city restaurant scene dominated by roughly the same twelve people in a self-masturbatory circle jerk, where ‘good’ food as seen by the people of the city left me with eyebrows raised and jaw agape.

I started making the most ridiculous rookie mistakes at these jobs, even though I KNEW better. I was completely and totally disconnected. The only thing that made the long, hectic hours of kitchen work tolerable, the only thing that mitigated the toxic kitchen culture and night shifts and drinking and addictions and shit pay and strife was putting out good, no, great food, striving for something great and beyond myself, learning, pushing and yearning. When I don’t care about something, I truly half-ass it. I don’t intend to. I want to do well at everything I do, but as somebody who was already a late comer to the kitchen game, I felt pretty sorry for myself for getting sidetracked. An untimely end to a relationship left me homeless in Toronto and moving back to the shithole of a city I still fucking despite and leaving behind my good job. I guess I could have chosen to stay and find a new apartment in my price range and soldier on, but it seemed unthinkable to stay as an “I” where I had so long been a “we” and I instead chose to bail and kick any of the remaining bricks of stability from beneath myself and spitefully try to find rock bottom.

At one job, at one of those ‘good’ restaurants in Guelph, I was hired on at the same time as a male cook with about the same amount of experience as myself. He was paid more hourly and given more hours. I started getting shifts in the dish pit. I am not above doing dishes- no cook or chef should be- but being regularly scheduled for them when all of the male line cooks stayed in their stations on the line really pissed me off. The final straw came when the manager, who truly had no idea about how to run a restaurant, said “Well, women are more organized,” as explanation. Never was there such a surly dishwasher as I.

I was asked to do things that completely went against every philosophy of cooking I had ever learned. “Pre-plate that salad, I want it asap!” Not only was I not trusted to be able to manage a relatively easy salad station, but told to plate things long before their counterparts were ready, then leave them to wilt and cool and congeal under lamps. Disconnect. No longer caring and knowing how low the standard was to keep my job, I checked out. I let my knives go dull and neglected to hone them. I was sloppy in my prep and slow on the line. I texted photos of awful dishes to former co-workers and we viciously tore them apart. Jamie’s standards and intense communication of displeasure kept me on my toes and striving to be faster, more precise, more intuitive, better at my job.

Another day, I was showing another cook how to plate a new dish, a fucking embarrassing combination of poorly cooked duck that came pre-cooked in a BAG and was reheated to order and a mish-mash of other completely uncomplimentary and extraneous ingredients. “You put this shit on the plate, then you put this other shit on top. Then-” indicating the gelatinous glob of flesh claiming to be duck confit, “you put this garbage on top. Then you garnish it with some of this shit.” The head chef stood observing on the other side of the pass, a detail which had escaped my attention.  I burned bridges at every restaurant I worked at in Guelph, and the part of me that actually is a workaholic and has pride in my reliability and steadfastness regrets that. “I should learn from every situation I find myself in and take everything I can out of it,” I think. But when a corpulent owner of a bad restaurant serving powdered Hollandaise comes in the kitchen, does a shot of the gravy that his son, the ‘chef’, made, and then proceeds to bellow about how I need to take pride in my work, I will take off my apron, gather my knives and leave, every time.

I forgot what I loved about food and cooking and began to turn away from it. I’m still a little cool on it, to be honest, lukewarm and scared to feel the really intense love and addiction and hope and desire to ascend that I did a few years ago. However, I was in Boston this past weekend and had the opportunity to go and check out a restaurant I’d been dying to go to for a few years- Alden and Harlow, with chef Michael Scelfo at the helm. Checking out trendy restaurants and new places in Toronto used to be de rigeur. I’d finish a shift and subway downtown in my black yoga pants and sneakers, still reeking of fryer grease and shallot, to hit Bar Isabel before it closed and try as many things off the menu as I could in one sitting. I justified it was research and education.

Stepping foot into Alden and Harlow  was strangely home-like. Its casual but elegant ambiance, trim and cozy without being fussy, reminded me of BT. The kitchen is open, crowded with cooks buzzing about frenetically on a Saturday morning. Large shelves lined with cookbooks and in-house made preserves partially obscured the view of the kitchen. Cloth napkins. Unobtrusive yet attentive service, waters kept full, food brought out as it is ready. I love the confidence that servers have at better restaurants. They know their service is good, they know their food is good and they assume their patrons aren’t total jackasses and don’t feel the need to quality check every thirty-five seconds, knowing that if something is wrong, they can intuit it by the untouched plates or the way a patron scans the room, looking for help. Quality checks are for a lower caliber of servers.

The food was familiar, though I’d never had it before. I took my mom, who is vegetarian, and not a cook, or involved in hospitality in any way. My excitement is often private and my disappointment or displeasure experienced alone. So when we got out food and she was as moved as I was, I knew we’d hit jackpot. For me, the pleasure was two-fold. The food was just perfect. We had a raw pumpkin salad with pepitas and cotija cheese, the pumpkin shaved into long, noodle like strands. Two leaves of fried sage garnished the plate and I knew, instinctively, that this was my kind of place. It had been drilled into my head over and over again that everything on a plate should be edible, including your garnish, and when my mom left behind one of those crispy leaves, I told her so. She took one and ate it paired with the pumpkin and cheese and you could see the look of revelation in her face.

The panzanella of pickled beans, slightly stale bread brought back to life with oil and vinegar, shaved pickled radishes, halloumi and a variety of pickles, was a true delight, acidic and sweet and bitter all at once. Every forkful revealed more layers, kernels of corn and splashed of the parsley chimichurri that lent it a momentary bitterness that lingered on the back of the tongue beside the vinegar bite of the pickled beans, the slightly woody taste of the fresh trimmed microgreen garnish. Delighted with both the food and the knowledge that I KNEW HOW to execute each of the components of the dish, I ate in silence. Home, in love, inspired. The hickory smoked pigs tails and the daily three berry cinnamon bun further confirmed my excitement, and I left with the thought of-

“Right… this is food… this is what you want to do, have done, what you’re capable of.”

Pictured- the hickory smoked pig tails from Alden and Harlow, with cheese crisps and grits. 

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