--- D A V I D F L O Y D
When I attended the Culinary Institute of America, a chef-instructor asked the class what was our "most memorable meal." He was tough, with a Navy Seal tattoo on his hand; he was from Louisiana and spoke like Ross Perot with a bad attitude, and had a presence to back it up. The replies were dishes like coq au vin at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia or pate en croute at Daniel's in New York City. Chef Clarke was listening appreciatively, then he told us his most significant banquet. Some kids in school beat him up. Returning home, feeling sorry for himself and blue, his mother made a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, served with a glass of milk; that was his most memorable meal. He was teaching us about how memory and sentiment can affect our palate, and trying to ground our ostentation back from the elitist spirit that a culinary school can perpetuate.
Almost three years before that story, my poetry-writing professor gave an analogy for Robert Frost's "The Tuft of Flowers" at Stockton State College. He mentioned, without any pretense, some of his literary awards as a set-up for his metaphor. Then he said, "I really feel a sense of accomplishment after I mow the lawn." I thought he might have gone temporarily mad or had had too many scotches the night before. I had just won a commendation in a national poetry competition, and had just received a $10,000 scholarship for my studies in Literature and Creative Writing-achievements that, to me, felt as equal to giving birth. It was before I knew the price of hubris and the value of grace. I didn't understand what Stephen Dunn was getting at until I bought a 1966 Ford Mustang and got the windshield washers to work. Sometimes, perhaps, I still don't get it.
The gravy of a career in the culinary arts: where else can one play with fire and sharp metal objects without being put away or put under arrest-and get paid? The millstone of cooking for money: holidays and weekends without family and friends. Besides the high pressure of being a chef, this is the loss, and usually renders down into divorce, dope-use, and heavy drinking. I had experimental experience in all three.
Escoffier, in Le Guide Culinaire, wrote, "simplicity does not necessarily rule out beauty." Some of my best cooking and plate presentations came out of a Tuscan-Italian restaurant in Princeton where I was the First Cook. It wasn't ornate or intricate like classical French cuisine, but fine in its delivery of flavor, texture, and aroma. Pappardelle pasta with rough-chopped red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, and a chiffonade cut of fresh basil, threaded with extra-virgin olive oil. William Carlos Williams executes a lovely poem by beginning with a confession: "I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox." He asks for forgiveness in the end, at the same time offering a justification for the crime by describing the fruit: "…they were delicious/so sweet/and so cold." No dictionary is necessary to follow Williams' diction or his effects. T.S. Eliot, though a great poet, has us going to the library to figure out the symbolism in "The Wasteland." The professional chef at a high-profile restaurant would probably say "nectarous" instead of "sweet," and "wintry" instead of "cold." The professional chef content with cooking well, and not so much reputation, would be happy with the precision of Williams' adjectives, and happy the food one prepares creates pleasure and solace for the patron.
I was 16 when I became a garde manger, 27 when I left the craft as sous chef. The executive chef who gave me my first chance in the field, gave me a warning. He told me all my girlfriends would be waitresses, all my friends would be waiters and cooks, and the kitchen would be my home. I didn't listen. It was dazzling to think I might sauté someday, and toss fire and food into a kind of radiant dance. It was certainly sexier than the duties of a busboy, which is what I was at the time. I used to bother the chefs de partie, requesting demonstrations and asking questions. Some made allowances for me, perhaps out of kindness, and a way passing on some trade wisdom--most, probably, let me behind the line because they could grab a smoke while I would finish their mise en place. It was an introduction to basic culinary methods and preparations. I could flip an omelet without it breaking its circle or ending up on the ground, all the while impressing a customer during Sunday Brunch. I could handle a paring knife and make a rose out of a tomato's skin, or a palm tree out of a scallion. The restaurant was also an introduction to my first cigarette, underage drinking, and my first and last lines of cocaine. I was inexperienced and all desire--I had to know, taste and touch the works. It was my way of discovering what Blake meant by "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom"--I had to find out what was too much to figure out what was enough.
The practice of cooking and the practice of poetry writing are both ongoing processes. But once you get a poem right-and that's difficult to do--it's done; publication is a kind of etching in stone. The perfection of a recipe is a creative technique that is always creating itself every time one cooks. I have been tooling with a risotto dish-with sautéed shrimp, asparagus, roasted red peppers, and Pecorino Romano cheese--for years. Every time I make it it's somewhat different, though I attempt for it to fall into a certain range of quality in which I gauge myself. In cookery, the creativity of a dish one often makes is continuous; in poetry, the finished poem is finished. But the culinary dish is only a thing of pulchritude for about twenty minutes--then it becomes a cold heap of savory pulp; the culinary artist's vessel is short-lived. Poetry, done well, can become a work of art that generations will continue to taste--the poet's way of cheating death.
The great French cuisinier, Fernand Point said, "there are many people who claim to be good cooks; just as there are many people who, after having repainted the garden gate, take themselves to be painters." There are many cooks who, after having their parents spend $30,000 on them to attend the CIA, think themselves chefs simply because they graduated. I've had some of my fellow alumni work under me and I wouldn't trust them babysitting a pet rock, much less taking a leadership role in a kitchen. There are those who write attempts at poems and think themselves poets, but couldn't write their way out of a grocery list.
My most memorable meal was at La Campagne, the night I proposed to a woman who would later become my ex-fiancée. I can't help it. It was a turning point in my life; it was the moment I feel I became a man, the first time I truly put someone else, and something else, above myself. Sentiment certainly had its affect on my palate's remembrances. It was a succulent rack of lamb--prepared by Chef Olivier De Saint Martin--the best I recall tasting. He said, in a regionally published cookbook, that his favorite chef is his mother. I am envious of such a statement, as with Chef Clarke's memory, since I can't remember anything unforgettable about any of my mother's meals--only the sustenance she provided for me. My mother taught me how to be affectionate towards women and friends; I try to teach her how to carve a roast properly, and achieve a good viscosity in sauces. We are still learning from one another.
The most memorable poem I wrote was at a writers' getaway in Cape May. It was an assignment poem, about a difficult relationship, for a workshop with Renee Ashley. I had begun experimenting with prose poetry, which has its origins in France, in order to rediscover my voice, since I hadn't written anything in six years. I am apt to create a persona in a poem, but the speaker of this poem was utterly myself, and I didn't like getting in touch with my anger over my failed engagement, especially during a sort of vacation. I felt like I needed a vacation from myself while in the process of composition. The price paid was worth the value. If what Shakespeare says is true, "by indirections find directions out," then poetry writing is a kind of healing for my hand's burn and knife flaws from eleven years of being a professional culinarian. Some scars don't amend and can weather one--others create a way to remedy.
In F.T. Cheng's Musings of a Chinese Gourmet he addresses the issue of whether cooking is an "Art or a Science." He states that "one may call it a combination of both; that is, so far as the means of cooking are concerned it is a science, and, so far as the application of the means is concerned, it is an art. There are born-cooks, just as there are born-poets and born-painters; but the average cook has become such merely through necessity, practice, experience, and in some cases…training."
Culinary school is supposed to be where you learn theory and proper cooking methods for application in the real world. It was the opposite for me; I had been in the real world for eight years before attending "Camp Culinary." At the CIA, I learned the process behind what I was already doing. If I was doing anything right it was from fat chefs screaming and throwing tongs at me, not because I knew any better. CIA gave me the why behind the appropriate technique.
Cooking school will make the mediocre cook merely sufficient. Perhaps he or she will become a strong saucier on the line, but won't be a chef who's innovative with shaping menus and creating trends in cuisine. By attending writers' workshops and seminars, the would-be poet will learn much about craft but won't acquire talent if it isn't already there. You either have it, or you don't--same as with cookery, and other things. There are hundreds of culinary graduates with a good degree in classical French training, and no degree of practical experience. There are probably hundreds of people who try to write poems every day, have good compositional habits, read well, and are ambitious, but ability and craft never metamorphose into poetry because they don't have that most important ingredient: talent.
I had the talent, it seems, as a chef, but lacked that most significant element: temperament. My character was not evocative of management material--though I got the jobs and could fake it. I didn't get an ego-boost by having the authority to tell people what to do, I wasn't comfortable with yelling or motivating, and I didn't delegate responsibility very well. If a dishwasher didn't show up, I could tell the poissonier to go and clean the pots, while I take over the station's duties. But I didn't have the heart. So I would find myself, in debt for tens-of-thousands in student loans to attend the most prestigious culinary school in the country, scrubbing the encrusted-burnt-on-crud off a sauteuse pan. Marlon Brando said, "if a studio offered to pay me as much money to sweep the floor as it did to act, I'd sweep the floor." If I would have made as much coin for being the sauté cook at the White Dog Café in Philadelphia as I did for being the sous chef at Dock Street Brasserie, I would have stayed dogging it out, sweating through the lunch rush of two hundred covers. A sous chef does more deputy work than food preparation.
I worked with Chef Yves Vacharesse in Princeton; he was the former chef de cuisine at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. One of the few chefs I've cooked with who was intelligent about purposeful subjects other than food and wine. Many of the chefs in my career were narrow-minded, close-minded, sexist, and racist, but not this restaurateur. When he was returning to the City for another executive position, we held a going away party in his honor at a local microbrewery, just across the street from the Ivy League University's campus. I was eavesdropping on a conversation he was having with another (somewhere in me, the writer was still curious). He said, "since the `90's, it's been cool and chic to be a chef; but it's still the same bullshit it's always been." I've sounded interesting at cocktail parties, telling people I was a garde manger, a fancy way of saying pantry cook. To the outsider, culinary arts seem an exciting career choice. Being an accountant would sound zestful to me--no work on the weekends, big money--if it weren't for my poor mathematical abilities, and my refusal to wear a suit and tie all the time, and sit behind a desk. I seemed more attractive at those parties than the accountant might, but the accountant could buy more attractive things, and attract more attractive women in another setting. Chefs have a celebrity status, nowadays, by the trends of consciousness towards healthy eating, and marketing by the TV Food Network. Other than rarities, like Robert Bly, poets usually attain celebrity with death (which makes it difficult to do television appearances). It might be sexy to a woman to be involved with a poet, until she finds out that the payment he receives for publication is a free, contributor's copy of the literary periodical--not much bartering power when one needs to pay rent, and make a living.
In the summer of 1998, I left my $30,000 a year sous chef position in Philadelphia to return to Stockton College in South Jersey as a poor literature student. I miss the city life, and it took a long time to get used to the quietness. It was hard to fall asleep at night without listening to the sounds of street drunkenness and gunplay--all I could hear was the song of the crickets, and they just made me nervous. I love to cook for those I care about, love that I no longer cook for currency, but for nourishment. I still smoke cigarettes, but I try to keep the smoldering down to a pack a day. Some days I do. I still drink, but it's no longer for youthful assertions and no longer to forget the hardness of the day--though some think it's still too much. Now the only mind-altering devices that enter my body are the words of poets who I admire and try to live with, and live by. William Carlos Williams writes, "It is difficult to get the news from poems/yet many die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there." Now I write prose poems, send them off to literary journals, and hope that at least one will catch on like a grease fire.
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