Lovely, big-hearted Jada was the first chef of the Hell’s Kitchen cheese & wine bar; I was the first sever. During a crazy night, we would take a mini break in the stamp-sized kitchen for hugs and deep breaths. “Ok, I can go back out there now.”
In 2008, Jada and I flew to Seattle. We spent a weekend walking the rainy streets til our feet cried out in blisters. We went dancing in a cavernous bar down a long brick road. We drank inky coffee in bookstores. We ogled dreamy cherries and peaches and the cute fish boys at Pike Place market. We ate sushi so good we broke out in giggles.
And then, we caught a bus to a ferry and made the stunning journey across the bright blue ocean to Orcas Island. We were visiting Alex, one of Jada ‘s good friends, who had left his big deal NYC kitchen job to work in a restaurant on a little farm, perched oceanside. The whole thing was as beautiful and romantic as it sounded. Swimming in the waves in the black-black night, I wanted to say “ciao” to New York and move there myself.
Alex’s girlfriend was the one who picked us up from the ferry. She took us to a farm for dinner, where everyone was grilling pizzas and corn cobs over a big fire; playing guitars and singing. Later, she made us a makeshift bed in Alex’s house–a former chicken coop he shared with 5 other guys. The chicken coop’s seemingly ancient owner let them live rent-free. In return, they built walls and floors, carved abstract, swirly designs into cabinets and moldings. A stately curly-haired lioness presided above the door, but the bathroom ground was made of earth.
Meanwhile, Alex was working. Working and working. And Jada worried about Alex and the prodigious piles of beer cans in his room. His eyes were rimmed with blue-black.
“Is Alex ok?” we asked the girlfriend, who was lovely and onyx-haired.
“You know,” she said. “Restaurants.”
Even in Orcas Island, in the middle of nowhere, he lived the restaurant life. Not all restaurant people live this way. But so many of them — of us — do.
It goes like this — work all day. Really hard. Twelve hours, fourteen, longer. Start the day exhausted, hungover, foggy. Fuel yourself with egg sandwiches and endless caffeine. Espresso is the best, but coffee will do, too.
As the day unfolds, you wake up, mixing giant bowls of brownie batter, scooping out meatballs with ice cream scoops, shaving carrots into translucent ribbons.
The restaurant biz is made for adrenaline junkies, and the pace of the night snaps you into alertness. Service goes by fast. You’re running, sweating, in the shits, in the zone. Being in the shits and in the zone go together, somehow.
Now, energy is zooming, pulsating, coursing through your veins. You feel alive. You have a cold beer as you clean up, and it tastes miraculous. The tired haze has vaporized, everything is clear and bright and promising, and the whole night is ahead of you. After work — it’s 11 PM, or midnight, or 2 AM — you’re ready to go out. And so is everyone else.
It’s the dive bar across the street, or the Irish pub. The bartenders know you and your coworkers, they let you slip into the doors before they lock up. You tip well, and they love you because you get it. Then, the next place, the smoky after hours spot where they serve only vodka in glass jars, infused with things like blackberry and ginger. There is garlic vodka, and someone orders that, too.
After, you are hungry, and this is why you are thankful to be in New York. The lamb and rice place is open, and so is the 24 hour diner. Some fries and milkshakes to sop up the alcohol, the night.
If you live in Orcas Island, not New York, where you can only get to the island via boat and there are no 24 hour diners, you drink beers by the ocean. You cook up cast iron panfulls of hash browns in the chicken coop, which is bursting with friends and travelers. The coop is thick with weed smoke, and there are jars of pickles everywhere, and nobody knows who the girl is sleeping on the couch, or seems to care.
In 2011, in a trendy biergarden, my super-talented pastry chef friend Sophie and I catch up. She’s planning her move to Dubai, to preside over a burgeoning cupcake empire. The reasons are multitudinous — to travel, to make some money, to have an adventure. But the other reason is that this New York restaurant life is starting to feel unhealthy and unhappy for Sophie.
She describes what I have: the brutality of busy 13 hour shifts, six days a week, sometimes seven. Unfathomably late nights, and the formidable days that ensue. It was fun for so many years, and also exhausting. Now it’s becoming mostly exhausting. She never feels quite at her best. She wants a change of scenery, a change of routine. Watch out, Dubai!
As for me, I’ve had a love hate relationship with the restaurant way of life. Jada and I discussed this:
“But you loved it!” she cried.
And I did love it. I grew up in restaurants, became an adult, became me. The best part was anything could happen. I met amazing, crazy, fascinating people. I drank molecular cocktail concoctions at 5 AM. Roti rolls at 3 AM. Danced through the streets of SoHo and watched the sun come up. I worked my ass off. I ducked into the alley, so no one would see me cry. I burned my arms, and sharpened my knives, and folded napkins, and fell in love.
I loved the buzzing, amazing energy. I loved being a part of something magic. I loved sweating. I loved the night going by in a frenzied flash.
But my brain shuts off somewhere around 10 PM. And I hate the sluggish feeling of a hangover, and even sometimes the whir of having one too many mysterious Greek after dinner drinks (whatever they were pouring?). I hate how every night feels somehow the same. I hate the anxiety dreams, waking up and staggering to my kitchen to find a corkscrew because I forgot table 8. Shit.
I needed a restaurant break. To spread my wings and try something else. To live a healthier, more balanced life. I’m still seeing how it goes, how it’s going to go. Two years later, I sometimes think about going back. But then it’s midnight, and I’m in bed, and that feels wild, and delicious, and right.