This industry is the balance between hot and cold, fear and beauty. On one hand we revel in extreme temperatures, our hair and skin regularly singed by open flame, and we all share an affinity and respect for sharp blades. We wear our cuts and burns as badges of honor. We compare notes on the pain a particularly long, grueling shift can take on our bodies. On the other, we exalt the beauty and preciousness of the delicate flesh of a perfect tomato. Hardened hands that barely flinch at the splatter of hot grease can so lovingly plate with such pristine perfection: a fragile leaf of herb or dainty garnish placed with care. We are the balance between the uncontrollable and the desire for perfection. We ride the line, we hold both sides together and, from my rare perspective, it’s the food people who work as the seam that holds the fabrics of our volatile civilization together. We are the beast, and we are the artist.
Like any industry that begins with entry-level work, there are people who wander into this field unexpectedly and unenthusiastically. If you start out cleaning restrooms at a tech company, it’s not likely you’ll end your career as the CEO; but start out washing dishes at a restaurant, and you have a pretty good chance of making your way to chef before the movie ends. This career always manages to funnel in those who aren’t welcomed elsewhere. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The kitchen, that’s the real refuge! We welcome you, flaws and all.
For some it will remain a job, but for others this hot room of loud noises and salty attitudes becomes a calling. Life outside of work just serves as time to fuel up for the next shift. Everything we called-upon people do revolves around the kitchen, and maybe we’re the ones who really have it all figured out. We respect our position in the world. While we often aren’t looked upon with such high esteem as other professions, we know the importance of what we do. We recognize the magnitude of our duty. Life revolves around the kitchen. Food is the thing that binds us all. No matter how big the fight, how wide the differences, eventually we all take our seat at the table. Every society, every culture, every place — We all eat. You make time for the meal, but we set the table. We are the ones who not only face the fire, we keep it burning. And as long as that happens, there will always be something to which we can all relate. The world is wide, but we all sit together at dinnertime.
Unless you’re one of the lucky few who make it to celebrity status, the average restaurant cook isn’t a highly celebrated position. Perhaps that’s due to the gritty attitudes most chefs showcase, which is probably thanks to the level of difficulty of the job and the not-so-appealing route a poor sap must take to get to the level of chef. Think eight hours standing on soaked feet from old mop water, hands deep in a cesspool of juices from strangers’ plates. Think plunging toilets full of a deposit you didn’t deposit. Yeah, working your way to the top of this profession is not easy. But the good news is when you do reach the top, you’ll probably barely make enough money to pay your bills. The even-better news is you’ll spend so much time at work you won’t have time to accrue too many bills or spend too much money. See, it’s a win-win, really.
So after that particularly glamorous job description, you can see why kitchen folk really do need role models. We need our celebrity-status chefs to revere. We need decorated winners to best represent our industry and give us outstanding, albeit mostly out-of-reach, goals to reach toward. We need kitchen heroes. We need to be reminded what we’re doing matters and society accepts us. It’s especially important that those who do represent us represent all of us, the pith and the pits. Anyone can like Rachael Ray, but not everyone could love Anthony Bourdain. Yet he chose to show the good and the bad, and still people respected him. He made room for a person like me at the table.
Today I lost one of my table legs. I’m stunned. I was actually physically shaken by the news of his suicide. His loss . . . our loss. The darkness won.
I could always easily describe myself as half Vivian Howard and half Anthony Bourdain. That description is actually so accurate it eventually defined me: fifty percent grits and fifty percent grit, the intro to my elevator pitch. I find acceptance in their flaws because I share those flaws. It actually energizes and comforts me to see them as real people, not just celebrities, because I can see my own potential succeed beyond that which hopes to hold me back. I get to see people who started in similarly common, unsophisticated beginnings soar, while still carrying with them a determination to not be ashamed of their start. You can do both. I see the same insecurities, anxiety and crippling expectations plaguing me as I move forward in the same direction in the same industry that takes joy in cutting. If they can do it and find contentment at the end of the work, I can, too.
But one of them couldn’t.
One of them succumbed to the darkness that eventually this particular combo of personality and career can bring.
One of my legs broke.
That is why I feel the way I do today. Everyone will speak of Bourdain’s work to connect us to other parts of the world, his ability to find the common ground that connects all people. They’ll highlight his many accomplishments and accolades. They’ll discuss his loss on a global scale. And they should; he deserves it. But I wanted to tell you about our loss — the kitchen kids who are working our way through the smoke. His loss has served such a gargantuan blow to my people. We didn’t lose a favorite TV star. We didn’t lose a famous face. We lost the person who made us feel safe to be us.
I wonder what his last meal was. I hope it was created with the passion he deserves. I hope it was simple but memorable. I hope he was comforted by it. I hope it was perfect. And I hope somehow, someway, our consuming need to create one more such meal and experience will be enough to keep our fires lit.
Monica Carvajal-Beben and her husband co-own and operate Smoking Mo’s, the renowned barbecue restaurant in Shelton, WA. She recently opened Craft, a pie and art bar in Shelton. Some of her other writing to date may be found at SmokingInTheGirlsRoom.com