Thursday, February 5, 2015

“How can a cooking date with a chef go wrong?”

Tonight I was watching Masterchef Junior with my son, because it’s his favourite show, and there was a part where Gordon Ramsay was trying to match his daughter Matilda up with one of the contestants. She turned to him and said, “I’m not going to marry a chef!” His response to his daughter, “What’s wrong with marrying a chef?” Her reply, “You’re a nutter.”

A few days ago on Twitter, during a mini conversation with some friends, one of whom used to manage a restaurant (coincidentally she’s also Scottish like Gordon Ramsay), I told her that, not only was I in awe of the fact that she had handled a professional kitchen, but I had been married to a chef and would tell her about the cooking date we had that almost ended us before we began. During that conversation, someone asked, “How can a cooking date with a chef go wrong?”

If you’ve known me for longer than a decade, you probably know this story already. It’s an easy one for me to recount in person. It’s easy to show my expressions on my face and inflect my voice. I think that’s a key part of the story that I’ve never been able to write down. I’m going to try once again to do it here.

In 1994, I met this young chef who was getting ready to go to the Stratford Chefs School (long before it would be a staple of Food Network Canada). I was a vegetarian at the time, fending for myself, so I knew how to do more than boil water. In fact, I enjoyed cooking, which was something he appreciated.

He had been asked to cater a five-course dinner for friends of friends of the family, and it was going to be a fairly large crowd, so he asked if I would help him. He wouldn’t pay me, because I wasn’t a professional, but he thought it would be fun, because we’d be working together, cooking together, and he wouldn’t be completely on his own during the lulls in service. I thought it would be fun too – I would be learning new things, getting to know someone that I really liked, and afterwards, meeting his parents because the gig was close to his house so I would be crashing in the guest room.

We met at the house, and I went in through the back. He gave me chef whites to put on, along with a hat. Apparently, I looked cute. Let me just say I’m glad nobody took photos of that evening, and I’m even more thankful that this happened long before Instagram.

Like Matilda Ramsay said so accurately and succinctly above, chefs are nutters. In all meanings of that word. They are creative, they are smart, they think on a dime. However, they are in one of those creative areas where their work is never permanent, and judged instantaneously. Painters, writers, musicians – we take a while to create something, we get a chance to hone it, and if it doesn’t work, we get to scrap it and start again, and take our time until we get it right.

Not so with a chef who has to serve dinner. They may have time to practice, but every service is like a final exam. It tends to make them a little (read a LOT) friggin uptight. And my chef was a Virgo, the most uptight of all the uptight signs, with a precise need for perfection that is enough to make any other sign, including Virgo’s fellow earth signs of Capricorn and Taurus (me) throw up our hands in despair and crack our skulls against brick walls.

The first thing you need to know about a chef, especially a young chef, is that they think everyone is a mind reader. Sure, they give you a basic sketch of how something is supposed to look on a plate. And then they expect you to execute it. Well that’s fine if it’s a competition. That makes for great television. But in the real world, especially if you’re not a professional, it’s a fucking nightmare.

Before that night, I had no idea how important plating was to the overall aesthetic of a dish. And when I say plating, I don’t mean just making the food look appetizing. I mean the scientific precision of where each item is placed in relation to the others, to the motif on the plates, to the place settings, to the other plates on the table. And of course I was getting them all wrong. Because my idea of 90 degrees was not the same as his.

So how can a cooking date with a chef go wrong? When it’s a professional dinner, when the chef assumes you know professional terms because you can handle a knife better than most other people he’s met, and when the chef expects you to be able to read his tiny handwriting and understand his sketches and read his mind to know that the poultry leg is to be precisely 85 degrees to the veg on top of the puree.

Never mind I was a vegetarian and I was handling wild game that had been shot by the owner within a couple weeks of the dinner itself. The game still had buckshot in it, and part of my duties was cleaning the buckshot out of the raw carcasses.

By the third course, I was in tears. I mean, I worked through the hurt, the hot eyes, the bitten tongue, the crying, because no matter what I do, in a professional forum, I remain businesslike, in spite of the fact that I was being berated, yelled and screamed at, and expected to have a knowledge base that I don’t even think I have today, some twenty years long after that date took place.

At the end of the meal, just after dessert was served, the hosts came in and raved about how wonderful everything had been, and thought we did a great job working together. I could see the pride on my date’s face. I was happy for him, and put on an industry smile for the host and hostess. (Just an aside, I had taken acting lessons by this point, though I never thought I would use them.)

But the minute we walked out of the house into the warm, Indian summer night, I lost it. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not someone who generally keeps things inside, unless it’s necessary, such as among strangers whom I may possibly meet again, or in a professional setting, or when there may be legal consequences involved.

None of those things were in play during that walk home. So, in a very twenty-four-year-old way, I told my date exactly what I thought of his kitchen manner and his people management skills. I was hysterical because, well, I really liked this guy, and I didn’t want him to be as much of an asshole as the guy from my previous relationship. I told him that if he wanted to ever manage people in a kitchen, he shouldn’t treat people as if they could read his mind. And that making someone feel inadequate and humiliated for their lack of knowledge wasn’t exactly an ideal date.

He stopped on the sidewalk. He was completely taken aback. He had no idea he had been like that. He was truly remorseful. He said that hadn’t been his intention. He honestly thought it would be fun, and admitted that it had been a mistake to assume that I had the level of culinary knowledge that he expected and demanded from a sous chef. And he apologized, and said he would never treat anyone like that inside a professional kitchen again.

There was something quite sincere about his words. He had softened right down from how he had been back in the kitchen. We arrived at his house, and I said to myself that I would give him another chance.

Turns out the guest room was in the basement of his parents’ place. He led me downstairs, showed me where everything was, and we hung out until he had to head back upstairs. I settled in under the covers, and he headed towards the door.

“Oh one more thing,” he said, standing in the doorway, “There are lots of centipedes in the basement, so watch out for that. Good night!” He turned off the light, closed the door, and headed upstairs.

Yes, that’s the man I ended up marrying. I still purse my lips and shake my head when I think about that moment. I even just looked around the room to make sure there were no centipedes (in the middle of February) headed towards my laptop.

I learned a lot from him, in all senses, over the ten years in total we were together. Things I carry with me right now, whether it’s when I pick up a knife to chop an onion, throw a couple juniper berries in a stock, or think about doing a fancy plating with a chicken leg and celery root puree with steamed veg on my black octagonal plates.

I lost him ten years ago this February 20th, and over this past decade, I’ve learned even more about food and cooking from him than he had time to show me while he was here. Finding recipes, finding his school notes, hearing little voices in my ear when I try something new. Understanding his need for perfection, and learning to decide if the dish I’m making would warrant such precision or could benefit from a little lackadaisicalness. I’m losing that omnipresent fear of the kitchen because, in a way, I’m doing it for him now.

So was it a horrible date? It was one of the worst dates I’ve ever been on. But I would do it again, replicating every second? In a heartbeat.

You’re always in my heart, Bobo. I just hope I’m doing you proud in the kitchen, even on those days when I still cry.

Paul J. Mesbur September 16, 1970 – February 20, 2005.

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