Years before Prune's chef wrote a bestselling memoir, I asked her to teach me to cook -- and she changed my life
In 2003, I was an editor at Harper’s magazine. My job was to compile bits of beautiful and bizarre text from near and far: odd instruction on Pakistani crosswalk signs, transcripts of phone conversations between Slobodan Milosevic and his son about colored socks, circus tiger training manuals, quiddities, poems, stories about snow.
I read newspapers and journals and books and pamphlets in search of written material that told us something about how we lived, saved it from anonymity, organized it to reflect the gorgeousness and absurdities of life.
I can’t imagine I will ever have another a job I like so much. The trouble was that I wanted to cook. I wanted to cook more than I wanted to read, or even to write.
My dark little office always smelled of something: It smelled of green garlic or the scarlet-bulbed spring onions I’d bought at the farmers’ market. Or of strawberries. Sometimes it was almost unapproachable because of a jar of chilies marinating in fish sauce I kept on my shelf for a Thai squid salad that wanted it added at the last moment.
To get into my office you would have to sidestep paper bags full of beets, or a basket of cabbages. I noticed fellow editors looking skeptically at the bowl of wild mushrooms or tiny artichokes I put on my desk because I needed to see them out of the corner of my eye while skimming the day’s several newspapers.
It got to be too much, finally. As I turned pages, incessant philosophical debates raged inside me over why my brain deserved to be treated to all the stimulus the media and academe could offer while my body, so energetic and full of senses, went unused. My back wanted to bend, my nose and tongue ached to have something asked of them.
So I started to walk from my office at lunchtime to my favorite restaurant, Prune, a few blocks from the magazine’s office.
It is a perfect little restaurant, its front shadowed by dark pink awning, little, round lanterns that come on each night at 5:00. It has a slim door through which every movement becomes a bustle. A menu with sweetbreads, a soft omelet of caraway seeds and sour cream, oysters and lamb sausage.
The first few days I just walked by, stopping in front of the restaurant’s white-paned door, perusing the menu, trying to appear nonchalant.
Then, I began to peer through the windows. First I would just glance, but afterward, I looked more boldly, cupping my hands around my face.
I watched what went on: Usually there was a cook in the small kitchen in back, hunched over something, working quietly and intently. Sometimes someone was mopping. Occasionally, there were people sitting around a table, looking purposeful, eating and talking and pointing at papers.
The second week, I went in. I asked the man who was cleaning if I could speak to the chef. He told me she was out. I left. Two days later I returned. This time, a woman, thin and floury, was standing at the copper bar by the door, drinking a coffee. I asked her if I could speak to the chef. She told me the chef was out. I shrank, red-faced. The next day I returned again, watched the same floury woman, now rolling dough in the kitchen, through the window, turned around, ate curry at the Punjabi taxi stand around the corner, and went back to the magazine.
I let several weeks pass without walking by Prune. It was all right, I told myself. I’d never known what I would say if the chef emerged. It was a sign: I should enjoy cooking dinner at home, and spend my days reading and writing.
Then, I found myself again pulled toward the restaurant. I returned. I opened the front door, saw the tall, flour-dusted woman drinking coffee at the bar and asked for the chef.
She looked at me quite seriously for a moment. Then she asked what I wanted.
I gushed: I was an editor. But perhaps I was a cook trapped in an editor’s body. Perhaps I was just an editor that loved food. I needed to stand in that tiny kitchen, hot and frizzy, I needed to rush and sweat, to see the underbelly of cooking.
“Are you a writer?” she asked me.
“I suppose I am,” I said.
“The chef is a writer, too,” she said. “You should write her a letter.”
The chef, Gabrielle Hamilton, had written an article I’d loved. She hadn’t yet written the book of her journey to become a chef, which she published this spring. But I had been able to tell, reading the article, that words sounded like bells to her, as they did to me. I could tell that she liked to knock them against each other.
The following day, I returned, a letter folded into an issue of the magazine and my business card clipped to the top.
It was a self-important letter, very young and grave. I found it recently.
I am writing from my office at Harper’s Magazine. (I don’t have a door so I am writing this casually, not to arouse suspicion.)
I am writing at the suggestion of your pastry chef, with whom I spoke on Thursday at the restaurant.
I have stopped by before, spoken to a cleaning person, spoken to the pastry chef. I’ve let a month pass. I don’t know why: probably it is because for a few weeks words won the contest they are forever fighting with food.
The terms of the fight: I am seduced by language and by cooking. I am, however, better trained to shape language for money.
Now, again, four weeks later, I feel the pull; food is the stuff of my dreams and the words only come easily when they are about food.
But I romanticize it. I read too much Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher. I would like to do the hardest and dirtiest things that there are to be done in a restaurant kitchen before I let it become any more mystical: if food hasn’t lost its luster after I have peeled hundreds of potatoes and de-veined livers and broken down smelly boxes I’ll re-plot my course.
I am writing to ask if you will let me figure some of this out in your kitchen.
I came to Harper’s because I reasoned that if I didn’t love working here, I wouldn’t enjoy working at any magazine. Prune represents the same in a restaurant.
I can’t quit my job, so I can only offer my labor at strange hours or on weekends or at certain times of the month. But I am not asking you for any money or any regularity; I am not squeamish; and the way I see it, unless I empty the till, you have nothing to lose.
It’s so rhetorical and blustery it’s hard to read now. But it was true. I think that is why the chef, whom I’d come to imagine in her office avoiding me, called and asked me to come in to talk the following day.
So I did.
There, at the back table, was the chef, her sous chef and another cook who looked at me imperiously.
I stood, trembling, next to the table, declined an offer of a pancake, which they were all eating as they talked, and then felt miserable, watching them scoop scrambled eggs up with their pancakes as though it was all the only obvious thing to do in the world.
“What do you want?” she asked me plainly.
“I want to cook here.”
“We have thirty seats. I don’t have hundreds of pounds of potatoes for you to peel. I don’t need you to break down boxes. Do you cook?” she asked.
“I think so,” I said.
“I can’t teach you to cook,” she said. “I learned to cook at my mother’s apron strings. You won’t learn how to cook by peeling potatoes.”
I was bluff and determined now. “I can cook. I can come on Saturdays.”
“I don’t need you to come on Saturdays,” she said.
“Please, let me come in on Saturday,” I said, trying to be very steady.
She looked at me directly. She told me slowly and not unhappily that I should not become a cook, but rather go on writing and editing. I couldn’t think of what to say, so I looked directly back. She then smiled, broadly and briefly, told me to bring a chef’s knife and a paring knife and arrive at 8:30 on Saturday morning.
I spent the next three days at my desk learning cooking terms: “dice” meant more than one thing, brunoise referred to a size, julienne meant skinny ribbons, I prayed no one would ask me to “tourne” a potato, which I learned from an encyclopedic cookbook was very hard and involved seven perfect sides.
At night, I cut onions at home. My boyfriend watched with glee as I practiced not cutting onions, but cutting onions coolly, without looking down or frowning. After I had a small fit about my chef’s knife having been bought as part of a set at a department store (which I’d read somewhere was a terrible thing), he bought me a big knife, very sharp.
On Saturday morning I woke up at 6:00, prowled up and down our apartment, wrapped and rewrapped my new knife in kitchen towels, changed clothes, cried briefly, and then rode my bicycle across town. I locked my bicycle, checked my watch, felt the first moment of relief I had all week, because I was exactly on time, and walked in the front door, soggy with sweat.
There was already a hum to the place. The chef came up the narrow stairs and told me I was late. I had to clutch my hands like a choirboy to keep them from shaking like wet birds. I felt sure I was the grimmest person to ever enter the hallway where I was sent to change into a big white shirt and I stopped in it, staring at the ridiculous bundle of my two knives, and looked at my clean, soft hands, and wondered what I was doing.
If I had paced back and forth in front another restaurant, I think that day might have been my last in a restaurant kitchen. Everything in it seemed labeled in hieroglyphics, and the refrigerator was so cold I had to clench my teeth to keep them from chattering as I repeatedly pulled out the wrong thing. Fish eyes glared at me meanly. I stupidly got myself stuck in the refrigerator, had to ask for help opening the door of another, slipped on a stair, and cheerfully refused food at midday, so that by the afternoon I was woozy and it took an eternity for any instruction to sink it.
But I had paced back and forth in front of this one. The chef stood across from me in the big, bright kitchen where food for dinner was prepared. She showed me how to wrap little raw chickens in pickled grape leaves, turned on public radio to listen to a piece on Darwin, then turned it down to teach me how to peel the fine, transparent membrane off sweetbreads and, after watching me nick them horribly, dared me to eat a creamy piece of one, cold, directly out of its brine, and laughed at me when I did.
Then, as I felt myself begin to roll to an uneasy halt, tired and hungry, she brought me an omelet, filled with beef tongue and salsa verde, told me I could work without a baby sitter, and asked me to return the following Saturday.
I did. I arrived early, proud, prepared to tie chickens in grape leaves and was instead ordered up the stairs to help on the grill station, where instead of public radio and a big, spacious kitchen there was a tiny, hot oven and a deep oil fryer, yelps to “fire” things, a whole lingo I could hear, but not understand. I was in everyone’s way. Each time I opened the oven, the kitchen screeched to a halt because it took me minutes to put anything in or take it out.
Told to shuck oysters, I wrestled with one while the rest were easily clicked open by a woman moving quickly between grill, fryer and tiny cutting board. I wished the whole time I could disappear. In a strange flutter I knocked a tall stack of metal trays behind the fryer, which the chef herself retrieved, telling me that she was oddly well made for such things. At the end of that day, I drank a beer and looked down numbly, knowing I’d only made the day harder.
And then, the following Saturday, I returned and was again ordered up the stairs, where I found no one but the sous chef awaiting me in the kitchen, and was told I would work the grill alone. I shivered and stuttered, he nudged me along. Then, the day was over, and I drank a beer, sitting on a stool, feeling as though I’d done more good than harm, and letting myself smile around the room.
And then the following one, we were busier, and the restaurant screamed with customers and food, and I ran out of things, and began, in an indescribable panic, to burn every ingredient I touched until eventually the chef had to stop her work, walk firmly into the kitchen and ask me to please take her place downstairs, and give her mine, before I turned the remainder of the week’s inventory into inedible charcoal.
Everyone was kind. When I would forget, other cooks pulled my basket of tiny, sweet merveilles out of sizzling oil just before they threatened to burn. No one ever yelled, though sometimes I would catch people looking at me with some concern, wondering whether I would be able to dust myself off after my most recent stumble.
When the chef worked in the tiny kitchen, I learned quickly, lessons that were sharp and clear:
Tongs were not things one held: They were extensions of one’s hand; they were what one used to hold other things.
I should keep one towel in the front of my apron, one at the back. I shouldn’t need more than two, and I should need two. I knew I looked like a clown until I understood what each was for.
I must press on meat with my finger to tell if it was done. It would feel like a part of the palm of my hand.
If she were mean, she told me once, she would slam the little oven door closed on my fingers as I bent uneasily, holding its door open, releasing its heat while I batted like a sea lion at the elegant ceramic cocotte cups I had to move in and out of a deep, frightening hot water bath. If she were a different kind of chef, she would count to five, let it slam shut, and I would learn to be faster.
I think Gabrielle believed she was allowing me to learn to be a line cook, which is a different thing from learning to cook. A line cook has a mental rhythm that allows her to do 18 things at once. She develops techniques not for cooking, but for thinking: She knows that once she drops merveilles into the oil, she must put a basket lined with paper next to it. It will remind her that she’s frying something and give her somewhere to put the hot merveilles.
I did learn about line cooking. Even before I learned to wait until an oyster’s hinge gave way before prying it open, I learned that because oysters were ordered every few minutes, if I shucked one whenever I had a free moment, I had a passing chance of ending up with three by the time an order came in. I developed the appropriate tics: turning the handle of a little pot of chickpeas in one direction when I put a tomato to broil in the oven, then rotating it when I retrieved the tomato, so that if I ever lost track, I only had to look down to see where I was.
I do not know if she remained wed to the idea that she couldn’t teach me how to cook. I thought, after I’d come to understand how much better it was to butter toast boldly, and a little unevenly, than to spread it thinly as though it were apologizing to the bread, of telling her. Then I decided not to.
It is true that she never told me what steak or sausages smelled like the instant they caramelized on the outside. Nor did she say to move them to a cooler part of a grill to finish cooking. I figured it out: They always smelled the same when their outsides seized up and became dark and perfect; and if I left them where they were, as I’d learned that one mortifying Saturday, they burned.
Parsley, I learned, made a delicious salad. Canned chickpeas were a useful ingredient (my mother had always soaked and cooked them from dried). An omelet should not have anything brown or hard about it. Butter and oil were glorious. Spaghetti was good at breakfast time. Hollandaise sauce could be slick and dark yellow.
Most of the tacit rules about food I’d learned in 26 years of eating were bunkum. Bitter greens could be so lemony they made your mouth pucker, and you might still find yourself greedily wanting more. Bones filled with quivering fatty marrow were simply good. They belonged on the table, they belonged with butter.
There were no rules at all. All that mattered was being hungry and being happy for an opportunity to eat. And why not, I learned, do it with gusto? Why not make feeding one’s appetite creative and odd, poetic, dark, oily, salty, acidic? Why not dust it with powdered sugar, or hot sauce? Why not allow it to quiver, as our appetites do? Why not char it for a moment, let oneself taste that fire has been used, that cooking has been done.
After three months of Saturdays, I was wrung dry. I was tired after five days of work, and usually returned to my office on Sundays. I told the chef I was considering leaving. She wrote me a note recommending that I spend an afternoon recalling what I’d wanted to learn by peeling hundreds of pounds of potatoes, and let that intention guide my decision.
She told me that I could move up to another station, or cook nights instead of weekends, certainly not because I was ready to — I was still trembling my way through each service. I was slow and clumsy, I burned myself constantly, the hot water bath in that deep, hot oven still haunted me all week long, splashed and burned me each time I foundered in its direction.
She only suggested it, she said, so that I might, if I thought it useful, “dip my toe into the lake from all sides.”
It was beautifully put. I thought about dipping my toe into the lake. The sound of the words awakened something in me. The fragile resonance between memories of cold water on a hot, excited foot, and trying something new, the dipping in before jumping. What words could do sprung back at me with a force that almost shook me.
My small, odiferous office seemed perfect, then, suddenly. My toe felt wet, I did not want to swim.
I returned midweek to tell her I was leaving.
She sat in her office, as she did, and nodded her head proudly. Good, she said, good, go write, go edit. Go forth!
I kept editing for a year before moving to Georgia to help friends open a restaurant and then taking over its kitchen a few weeks later. More burned and scared than ever, I put off writing her to tell her, even though I badly needed advice. How should I keep marrow in roasting bones from leaking out? Why was my hollandaise sauce not as bright and glossy? Where did one stand to call orders out to a kitchen?
One night, before a big wine dinner, I wrote. I wrote asking her forgiveness for reneging on my promise to go forth and write.
She wasn’t angry. She told me what to do with the marrow bones, she gave me tips for hollandaise. Stand, she said, wherever they can hear you.
I went on cooking, standing where I could be heard, more conscious at each moment of how much I’d learned in that tiny, hot kitchen than I’ve ever said out loud. I’ve finally abandoned restaurant kitchens for writing. As I promised I would, which is how it all got started in the first place.
Gabrielle’s great memoir — which she was working on when she first agreed to let me give action to my need to cook — is probably as close to giving language to her love of stories as anything she’s ever squeezed with lemon, or slathered in thick butter. I have figured out, meanwhile, that cooking and writing are just the same.
As soon as a dish of fried chickpeas seems not to feed a certain hunger, incite a need for a cold sip of beer, look quiet and right in a corner of a table, a new narrative begins to simmer in the absence. Salt will continue to spill, bread be broken, wine shared. Food and words will continue their strange dance between how we eat and how we describe it. They will continue to make us hungry, we will continue to try to feed. Birds in the hand — whether they’re a meal we’ve imagined, or a sentence better than the one that’s on the page — will continue to show up, as they do in my mind, and it seems clear to me they always will, small, golden brown and roasted rare.
Tamar Adler was an editor at Harper's Magazine before cooking at Prune, Farm 255, and Chez Panisse. Tamar's first book, "An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace," was recently published by Scribner. More Tamar Adler.
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