A couple of weeks before COVID-19 closed down all the restaurants in NYC, Paul the server was standing in the kitchen, waiting for a pasta course to be plated. Paul loves to talk. He’s an actor, big and handsome, with warm ways and a subtle Italian accent.
“You know when a woman is wearing a perfume that takes you back to childhood, but you can’t think when?” he asked us. “It creates a schism in your brain, man, these characters that don’t make sense because they didn’t exist back then.”
I knew what he meant, though to me it feels like the reverse. Someone from the past comes into the present briefly. She isn’t there. Maybe she no longer exists. A stranger is carrying her for me.
It’s not just perfume, of course. Memory rides on the passenger side of all kinds of smells, notoriously food. In the first month of quarantine, I was constantly thinking about the line and the prep kitchen. I was using up the bags of food we salvaged from the walk-in: radishes and fava beans, simmered green peas, a dressing of anchovy and garlic, white wine vinegar, kalamata olive oil.
We shut down on a Sunday afternoon. Monday night, I slapped a pair of whole branzini down on my own griddle. At work, I was supposed to clean the bones from the fish when they came out of the oven. Plate, inspect, pass to Chef for fried capers and olive oil. I was so bad at it, though I wanted so much to be good. Slow, clumsy, constantly missing tiny pin bones. Sometimes Chef stood beside me to watch. “No!” she said once. “This way you destroy the branzino!”
In my own kitchen, I flipped the fish on their parchment, opened them up with the back of a spoon, scooped out the spine, took my scissors to the bones. I could smell the accompaniment to my anxiety: the clean, oily, almost herbal flesh, steaming white triangles. The familiar fear of failure was there, alongside home and safety. Chef beside and not beside me. A schism.
The original idea was a two-week shutdown. I left my knife roll at the restaurant, and my work clogs. Four months later, I’m still missing them, hoping to get them back someday. But I have some good knives at home, and in my own kitchen I go barefoot or slippered. I’m not on my feet for 8-12 hours anymore. I don’t have to slice a Cambro full of cabbage, or frozen beef that gets slippery as it begins to thaw. I’m still working off a prep list, though there’s no one to hassle me if I don’t have it done in time for dinner. I’m still labeling containers with a piece of tape, though I don’t always have a sharpie in my pocket.
I don’t miss the constant pressure. I may not go back to it, if I can find another way to work. One thing I do miss is knowing that I’m cooking for people I’ll never see, people who will exclaim to each other when they take a bite and close their eyes in pleasure. I love that invisible intimacy. It’s tenuous, a slim bridge of trust that the server walks between us. Maybe the eater will hate the food, or be indifferent to it, leaving half a pile of shaved artichoke untouched. Maybe I’ll get called out for too much salt. But I generally imagine satisfaction. Partly because people go to a restaurant intending to enjoy their food, partly because I’ve been lucky to work under chefs who actually care about quality.
Now I cook mostly for my boyfriend, who’s been eating my food for almost ten years. I know his taste for sweet, rich, earthy things: mole, miso eggplant, roasted beets, tonkotsu ramen. If it’s my job right now to cook for him, that’s easy work. I get to see his face when he really likes something. Plus, a restaurant patron never kissed me for feeding him burrata with roasted purple daikon radishes. The challenge becomes internal. I have to be my own critical chef, looking over my shoulder to demand why I’m washing greens inefficiently, or why my pasta plating looks like shit. It’s great, not getting yelled at. But I don’t want the freedom to mean I let myself get lazy. I’m practicing, focusing. Faster, smarter, more precise.
My back still hurts, doing home work. The knife callus on my right forefinger is flatter but not gone. I’ve started picking up a friend’s CSA share and prepping it for her along with my own, so for a couple days each week I’m surrounded by bulk greens and roots and fruit again. Occasionally I put in an order with one of the wholesalers that do residential drop-offs now, and that’s a funny thrill. I wonder how long I’ll get to live like this. The labor I love, free from the anxieties of employment.
My mother, a woman of resources, used to make us a powerful soup. “Magic Soup!” we’d cry, recognizing the operation. She’d caution us: “You’ve got to whisper it, so the neighbors don’t hear. They’ll come in here and eat it all up.” Hoarding our bowls, I’m pretty sure we believed her. The soup? Cream of broccoli. Nothing special, except that it was.
Magic Soup is my reminder that the idea and presentation of food are almost as important as the dish itself. Also important: who’s eating. I’ve made some technically good meals that I enjoyed much less, eating them alone, than the sloppy collection of plates I set out for a group of friends on a long night of wine and jokes. My friend Alicia remembers coming over after a trip and eating an easy old comfort dish, red lentils cooked with jalapeno and ginger and coconut cream. “I think I cried?” she says. Tasia remembers eating borscht by the bonfire behind my house, feeding spoonfuls to Becca. “That tender moment.”
That’s what I resent COVID-19 for taking from me, much more than the break in my career as a professional cook. Making food and eating as a source of companionship.
These quarantine days, I often think about the Fête de la Saint Honoré. I grew up on a small island near Seattle, a semi-rural community fond of any excuse to throw a party. As a kid, I played violin at the Lavender Festival, the Strawberry Festival, silent film screenings, parades. I helped my dad cater for small-scale galas, and ate raspberries off the bush during farm tours that turned into bonfire nights. The event that sticks with me most, though, was the annual potluck that a local baker threw to mark the feast day of Saint Honoré, patron of bakers and pâtissiers.
Bill had built a stone oven in his back yard, a private, hilly garden bordered by forest. In mid-May, the island weather had usually tipped over into warmth. My memories are all of sunshine and green things, blankets spread on the grass, heat shaking the air when Bill pulled a loaf from the oven. There were long tables where people set out enormous pasta salads, blackberry pies, soft cheeses that would collapse under the sun. The grownups would get tipsy, listening to a local band, sipping beer or cider. The kids ran in and out of the trees, stopping only to eat hot bread. I remember a glimpse of fire in the oven, vivid as the evening darkened. Blankets rolled up, leftovers wrapped. The luxury of falling asleep, sunburned, on the short drive home. A line of cars winding back to the one road that spanned the island, north to south.
I think it would be corny to say that the pandemic taught me what I really value. I knew that I loved cooking for my friends long before most of us were stuck inside. But it’s true that isolation has intensified my memory of community. So I know what I want from the future.
Where I live now, in Brooklyn, it’s grilling season. I can smell the propane and searing meat almost every day, blowing in through my windows. My neighbors, with varying degrees of caution, continue to share food, music, and company up and down the block. I’m glad to be near this source of love. I imagine someday being able to pass out fliers, as Bill used to, with the image of a man clutching armfuls of loaves. To open my home for everyone who wants to share a dish, listen to the band, break bread.
Isn’t that what my skill is really for, everything I’ve been trying to learn? So I can say Magic Soup with a full throat, and the neighbors will come and eat it all up.
When I texted my mother for her recipe, her response read, “Onion broccoli butter broth and oh god I think cream cheese.” There you go.
1 T butter
1 onion, diced
½ pound broccoli florets (about 3 cups)
3 cups vegetable broth
½ tsp cumin
½ lemon, juiced
½ cup cream cheese
Salt and pepper
Melt butter in a large heavy pan. Add onion and cook on medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add broccoli, cumin, salt and pepper to taste, and broth. Bring to a simmer and cook 15-20 minutes. Stir in cream cheese until incorporated, then add lemon juice. Purée with an immersion blender or in batches using a food processor or blender. Adjust seasoning.
Liam October O’Brien grew up on a small island. Some of his recent work can be found in Electric Literature, New Delta Review, the Denver Quarterly, and Nightboat Books’ We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics. He received his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow.