Monday, August 13, 2012

Late Night, Maudlin Street

It's late in the night, and nearing late in the summer, and I'm writing this realizing that I've neglected my dear Food on the Dole for a dreadfully long time during my stint in Montana. I suppose I could blame my absence on the amount we've been working out here; I'm not joking when I say 80-90 hour weeks have, for the most part, been the norm. But no--that would just be too simple of a way to explain it.
 Thing is--and I know this from every minute I've spent in the industry--the closer I've ever been to food on a professional basis, the further away from it I feel.  In production mode, it can be so difficult to stop and understand and care for each bit of food in front of you, and I'm not saying no one does it, because there are many, many chefs out there who work more hours than I ever have, and do it better, and in a more caring fashion than I could ever dream of. During a stage at the great Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, I was blown away by the amount of care and effort and energy that goes in to every detail there--down to a walk-in freezer of cryovaced peak-of-season hand squeezed lime juice for drinks to the reach-in fridge explicitly for huitlacoche. The chef, yes, THAT chef, was there for each shift, tasting each sauce, making sure everything was just so for each service, and this drove home the point that sometimes, with great care and skill and desire, all these great things can be maintained in the food industry. All the care that a grandmother puts into that Sunday dinner can be translated for the masses. And there are examples of this all over Chicago, and all over the world.

But for yours truly, it can really be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Each day brings a conflict of the easy way, and the right way. Thankfully, I still choose the right way most of the time, or at least I think I do--otherwise these weeks wouldn't be 80 hours long. Taking time to think things through. To plan and prepare and use proper technique and do things like make sure the kitchen is clean at the end of each night, even if it is 2am and the sink is overflowing with an hour's worth of really nasty dishes and pots and pans and there are only two of us standing there looking at each other through bloodshot eyes just wanting to sit down, drink a beer and pass out. This little story is not designed to give me a pat on the back; instead, it confirms that I do love what I get to do on a daily basis. I keep getting kicked, and I keep coming back.

However, it is sometimes surprising to hear how poorly chefs--we who supposedly love food so much--actually eat in terms of quality. An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted Grant Achatz's fridge contents: "...sriracha sauce, Hellmann's mayonnaise, Heinz ketchup, French's yellow mustard. People think that because I'm a chef my refrigerator is filled with high-end stuff, but we're people. Good God, in my freezer I have crappy vanilla ice cream." My fridge here in Montana has, and has had statically for the past 3 months, plus or minus a bottle or two of ginger ale to mix with whiskey: a bottle of sriracha, a jar of mustard, a thing of fish sauce and some pickles. And definitely the obligatory Busch Light. And not much else. Of course, comparisons of me to Grant Achatz come to a crashing halt after refrigerator inventories, but you get the point.
And I'm spoiled. I have had some great meals out here in Montana to be sure; one at a friend's Bistro in Livingston during a Jim Harrison stalk session, and one at a saloon-y steakhouse preceded by several whiskeys. But the only meals--and I mean meals, not sandwiches thrown together with whatever is around, eaten in 15 seconds, standing over a trash can--I've really cooked were when I'm out camping and grilling a steak over an open fire. Which is one of my favorite activities of all time, bookended on both sides by whiskey and cigars, but it is kind of far away from the ideas I had when starting Food on the Dole, and the Salon.
I've come to realize that the reason I ever got into this industry is not to be the next big thing (obvious from day 1), and not to change the culinary world, either. Rather, I've come to realize that what I really want deep down is to nurture; to be somebody's grandmother. Ridiculous I know, but hey--to have a huge multi-generational family around a table of food I spent hours/days preparing? That's what it's all about to me. That's what my New Year's Eve Dinner Party is all about. That's what the Sunday dinners are all about. That's what the Salon, to a degree, is about.
So, to that end Chicago, as my term here in Montana comes to a close, I want you to know that am so ready to come home to you. But to be clear: I have absolutely loved my time here in Montana, and given the choice, I'd do it all over again. I've gotten to experience so many things I never would have in the city, I've met myriad wonderful people and I've been able to spend 3+ solid months of those 80 hour weeks cooking with one of my best, most talented friends in the world, and we still like each other. I've seen buffalo grazing a weak stone's throw from me, watched bald eagles fly above pelicans on a mountain lake, been in houses that make the Hyde Park mansions look like tinker toys, stood in some of the clearest, coldest rivers in the world fishing with nary a soul around, and have been able to become a part, however small, of the Bozeman and Montana community. I have to say--if you can ever make it out here for a visit, don't think twice about it. Just come.
But, I've allowed the city to seep deeply into my marrow over the past couple of decades, and thus, I'm ready to return. I need Argyle Street and Chinatown and Tacos Veloz in the worst way right now. I need the Music Box Theater and Reckless Records and Myopic Books. The Chipp Inn and Susie's Noon Hour Grill and Lake Michigan.

And most of all, I need my kitchen back.

So, here's a big cheers to Bozeman, Montana, and all the great things you've shown me. Now, I'll be ruined in the city. I know I'll long for silence and space while standing on a packed, sweaty el train. Every new precious pie and cupcake store that opens will make me ache for the feet-on-the-solid-ground-of-simplicity I've found in Montana. When I pass someone on the street, smile, and am denied eye contact, I'll be hit with nostalgia for the open friendliness I've found out here. And when I am that person who refuses to make eye contact, which is certain to happen, I'll know it'll be time to spend a few days in the open air outside of the city. I suppose I'll forever be afflicted by this ebb and flow of alternating desire for the city and the country, but hey--memories, mixed with hope, have always made the best combinations in my book.