Chefs in the Kitchen Image courtesy of
By Hannah Howard

I see Micky for the first time in nearly four years. It’s can’t-feel-your-face cold, the wind bellowing. We hug hard on 57th Street. He smells of cigarettes and vanilla beans.

“I can’t look at you yet,” he says, half laughing, half serious. But I look at him, all cheekbones and scruff and high seas eyes. We sit at Whiskey Traders, where we used to go after work for beer and popcorn, the same bartender behind the bar, everything the same and everything different.

– –

Four months after Micky and I met, fell hard, and stayed up all night talking big dreams, we were living together and running a fancy restaurant for a real estate mogul and his kinetic wife. Micky was the chef, I ran the front-of-the-house.

Micky’s cooks were all fiercely loyal to him, his apostles, which is why they worked for us for terrible money, came in as the sun rose to chiffonade, and stayed deep into the darkest night to mop the floors, cryovac kirsch-soaked cherries, and leave fragrant veal stock at a whisper of a simmer.

Each night, when the last plates were whisked away, Micky and Jay and Evan and Cody opened their beers and left the hot kitchen for the cool garden, smoking cigarettes, bullshitting, and gathering a second wind for the relentlessly thorough cleanup Micky mandated.

“Can’t they clean without you?” I asked every so often, my eyes blurry after 12 and 14 and sometimes 16 hour days, the soles of my feet sore. After all, he was the chef, their leader. But it was important to Micky to scrub beside them; at night his soft skin smelled of bleach.

Micky was up all night reading about savory ice cream texture and airy macaroons and tofu so rich with umami it might grow balls. In the mornings, he and his cooks brought these things to exquisite, intricate life. They dehydrated parsnips and turned gazpacho into Popsicles and meat-glued short ribs into glossy towers.

I posted all the Craigslist ads searching for Micky’s cooks. They said something like:

“Looking for a cook with a shit-ton of energy and passion. Helps if you are ambitious and hungry and young, obsessed with fine dining and serious technique, but willing to work for nearly nothing, peel fingerlings until your fingers go numb, and scrub the fryer ’til it shines like the moon.”

Cooks came and went, didn’t show up, threw plates across the garden and stormed out, leaving their knives behind. Our pimply and kickass intern went back to school. We interviewed so many people we forgot who was who. I handed out W4s like candy.

Slowly, we got Micky’s crew together. They came, and they stayed. They moved like dancers in the tiny, heart-stoppingly hot kitchen. They knew all the steps, they finished each other’s sentences, fought with their hearts flung open, and would fuck someone up for each other.

I liked Jay the best, who had just graduated from college and talked way too fast. He was always reading, plotting, growing tomatoes in his little apartment that he shared with a million guys and was caked deep in filth. “It’s a disgusting apartment,” Micky complained, “But he grows some good tomatoes.” We ate them like apples, made them into gel and strung them throughout ribbons of parpadelle.

Cody was tall, as if he had been stretched out, and tattooed, and always high, sometimes out of his mind. His eyes were painted with a permanent film of far away. But he was a great cook — lightning fast, serious. Micky had to pick him up from jail one day while I watched over his kitchen. We loaned him money.

Micky wouldn’t hire women. He tried once — a blonde pastry chef with buff arms — and when she didn’t work out, he recommitted to his strict no-girl stance. So he had his boys. And his boys loved him and feared him.

One day I found Jay in the walk-in, crying.

“Are you OK?” I wanted to give him a hug.

“Sort of,” he said. “Chef is not happy.” And when chef was not happy, nobody was happy.

“Micky,” I said, “Jay is really upset.”

“So am I,” Micky said, his eyes bloodshot with anger.

So I stayed out of it. I had my own staff to watch over. I had to make sure Jason wasn’t drinking all the beers in the basement, and that Richard didn’t forget what an espellete pepper was, and that Jules’s creepy admirer, who sat on table 49 with a grin and a whiskey, was as far away from Jules as possible.

In summer, Cody came to work more fucked up than usual. Micky told him to go. By then, Micky and I were talking about breaking up. My heart felt perpetually sour, unbearably heavy in my chest. Still, I worried for Cody that day, unsteady beneath the hotel pans stacked in his ropey arms.

Cody said, “I’m fine, I’m working, I’m staying.” Micky needed him, and so he took him out back and told him this was the last time. Micky wasn’t talking to me much, but still we had to go over the menu for the night: stinging nettle risotto, salmon belly ceviche, braised lamb shank.

I gathered up my staff to discuss the new dishes. “The risotto is garnished with lovage, fried jasmine flowers, and thyme confetti.”

Cody, high on who knows what, fried up delicate, lovely jasmine flowers, lowering each onto into a big vat of oil with a slotted spoon. He dropped the spoon into the hot oil, reached in with his left arm to retrieve it, and screamed so loud in shock we all ran to the kitchen. Micky called 911. Cody and Micky left through the green garden in an ambulance, Cody’s skin red, missing from his elbow to his fingertips, fried like the jasmine flowers.

We had two men down, and a busy night ahead. I jumped in to expedite, hitting up plates with tarragon oil and sunchoke chips and wisps of basil foam, my head spinning like the earth, my stomach churning.

– –

I left the restaurant first, then Micky. We broke up and got back together and broke up again. I wear the ring he got me most days, the color of a clementine.

Years later, Micky unwraps a little gift: grapes on their stems that he has slow-dried into soft, meaty raisins. We eat them with our beers. Every few minutes, someone opens the door and the February wind hits us unkindly.

“How are Jay and Evan and Cody?” I ask. Jay has a booming veggie business; Evan is a sous chef in a big-deal restaurant; Cody…who knows? Micky and I laugh a lot and cry a little. We wait on the opposite side of the subway platform, he goes home to Queens, and I go home to Harlem, make tea, and roast veggies, my kitchen fragrant, warm in the frozen night.

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