*A quick author’s note: This is not a story about any social or political trauma. It’s a day in the life story of a neurotic chef in action. Fear not, read on.*
I am so scared. More scared than I’ve ever been. I took a Melatonin at 9:30 and slept until just past midnight when I woke with a jolt of fear. So many ways to fail tomorrow… which is today. Fuck.
I blink at the darkness of our room. I am so scared. More scared than I’ve ever been. I took a Melatonin at 9:30 and slept until just past midnight when I woke with a jolt of fear. So many ways to fail tomorrow… which is today. Fuck.
Francis stirs and asks if I’m ok.
“I’m terrified. I can’t see the progression of the meal in my head. I’m going to screw it all up. I’m so scared.”
He pulls me close and says, “No, love. You feel this way every time. Don’t you remember? You’re like this with every gig.” And then he falls back into a deep, comfortable slumber and I am left alone with my terror.
It’s different this time. Different. He doesn’t understand. This time it’s particularly impossible.
I slip in and out of a fitful sleep that feels like marathon running. I wake up out of breath.
Now my phone says it’s 3:27 am. Two hours and three minutes to go before it’s time to start cooking again. Two more hours of me searching for the elusive perfect pillow side, the most comfortable leg position, the quiet brain.
It’s silent in our bedroom other than Meals occasionally twitch-chasing dream squirrels. Francis is breathing steadily; Grace is a ball of fur between us. The stillness and constancy of my family should calm me, but instead, my mind rides a hamster wheel with visions of how I will ruin the next day’s catered event. Every moment, a newly imagined disaster pushes out the last culinary calamity. My delusive failure circuit reloads again and again. Desperate to stop the sequence, I clasp my hands together under the sheets and ask myself what I am most afraid of?
I am terrified I will run out of time– the only kitchen commodity never recoupable once lost.
Now it’s 3:29 am. The constant fluctuation in the size of a minute baffles me.
I had been prepping for this gig for a few days. The clients were a group of 7 businessmen/women gathered in Portland for a small conference. They hired me to cook them breakfast on the first day and then breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the second. I had already cooked the first breakfast for them the day before.
It was simple enough. A party of 7 people is a very manageable number to feed when you sometimes feed 50. But in true Alison form, I had pitched them menus with multiple appetizers, sides, salads, entrees, and desserts. They wanted it all:
For Breakfast both days:
Omelette station with fresh tomatoes, caramelized onions, sautéed mushroom, spinach, goat cheese and white cheddar cheese
Hash Browned Potatoes
Grilled Herbed Vegetables
Steel Cut Oats
Freshly Baked Whole Wheat Bread
Lunch on day two:
Shrimp Shumai with Mint Soy Dip
Curried Chicken Satays with Mirin Mint Vinaigrette
Pan Seared Sesame Crusted Tuna Steaks with Ginger Scallion Soy Sauce served over Farro and a Bed of Mixed Greens
Haricot Verts with Garlic Miso Sauce
Shiitakes with Bok Choy
Chef Special Key Lime Tart
Fresh Berries and Cream
Dinner on day two:
White Bean Puree on Endive spears with Balsamic Glaze
Garlic and Rosemary Stuffed Mushrooms
Asparagus and Basil Goat Cheese Wrapped in Prosciutto
Pear Salad with Arugula, Walnuts, and Gorgonzola
Beef Tenderloin with Caramelized Shallot and Red Wine Reduction
Herbed Grilled Asparagus
Roasted Rosemary Fingerling Potatoes
Green Beans with Toasted Hazelnuts and Brown Butter
Flourless Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Cream and Fresh Berries
When I arrived at the apartment-complex-turned-Airbnb suite they had chosen as their main kitchen/ dining room locale, it was tiny, with about two square feet of counter space and a cheapo induction oven that took 40 minutes to preheat. There was a little side table in the kitchen, but I struggled to see where I would set things as I prepped and completed the components of each dish. At 3:29 am, my memory explored every nook and cranny of that kitchen, looking for enough space to properly cook the 3 meals ahead of me. I balanced imaginary colanders and serving platters on my head as I seared tuna and blanched beans. Where would it all go? How would it all fit?
The other issue was that the suite only had one small table with four chairs for dining, so that morning half the members of the group sat on couch corners with their breakfast plates perched on their knees. I struggled to see how the 3-meal day would work in this strange seating configuration. Their final meal was a “chef’s table” meal with multiple courses paired with wines leading into a fillet of beef tenderloin with a red wine and caramelized shallot reduction. It wasn’t the sort of thing I typically served to people eating off plates balanced on their laps. It brought the term “chef’s table” into a whole new realm.
I had spoken with the member of the group who had hired me and asked his opinion on the larger (knife and fork required) meals. He said the group was very casual and didn’t care at all about the formality of service. They would eat on their knees and be fine. I surveyed the small space and told him I thought I might cancel the server that I had scheduled for that evening’s meal. I was concerned that one more person in this little room would become overwhelming. He said he thought that would be better because, once again, they truly were not picky. I emailed my server and told her the space was too small to accommodate the outstanding table service that she normally provides. I wrote, “You’re probably better off. The service would be really awkward. There’s no way you can’t sexually harass someone in a space that small.” She lol’d, or at least wrote that she did.
Breakfast the first morning had gone well. Working two omelet pans on those lousy induction burners was a challenge for sure, but the only mistake I made was putting spinach in a non-spinach omelet. That doesn’t matter at 3:29 am though, because at 3:29 am all you remember is that one of the omelets was not perfect. And that, in only a few short hours, you will be back in the tiny kitchen to attempt a smooth breakfast service for lovely table-less clients.
I flip onto my other side and try to remember the small victories of the previous day.
After I had finished the first breakfast service, it was time to stop at my favorite suppliers for ingredients. It’s the same routine, every time…
“Alice!” Frank, my contact at my wholesale meat distributor, has never once gotten my name right, but he’s always charming and eager to let me know what’s on sale and what looks great that week.
“Like Eating Out… IN!” he shouts my company’s motto to let me know he’s been on my website or looked at my business cards.
“That’s A Wonderland of Food,” he informs the woman at the counter who processes the orders for payment.
“I know,” she says and rolls her eyes at him but smiles at me. “How are you today, Alison? Y’know, we keep telling him your name is Alison, but he never remembers.”
“I know. Last week he spelled my name A L I C E O N, which is closer than he’s ever been before. It happens all the time because people remember Alice in Wonderland. I don’t care at all, really.”
She chuckles and hands me the bill. She and I always laugh about how slow their credit card machine is while I stare at the word “PROCESSING” for what seems like hours. Large bearded men with beardnets and blood-stained smocks walk through the office back to the warehouse and suited salesmen chat on the phone with clients about the best cuts that week.
There is a small bowl of lollypops next to a laminated advert for fresh dog food with a picture that looks like scrapple that I will never buy because I know it would make Meals very happy and farty.
I always grab a red lollypop and then always worry I will drool on the credit slip I’m signing because I almost do every time. The checkout lady laughs at me, and I try to smile without opening my mouth, feeling my tongue swell with sticky sweet saliva. Then I walk outside to the pickup door, ring the bell, and hand my receipt to whoever opens it. They’re all smiles and flirtatiously walk the box of beef tenderloin to my car trunk. The box always has a tag on it that says, “A Wonderland of Food” and I am filled with this sense of belonging that overwhelms my tear ducts. I’m doing this. I’m doing the thing that I love most in the world, and people see me and want my food and like my style and don’t mind my quirks and… ok, Alison, enough. You’ve gotta get to the fish place and get back to prepping.
My wholesale fish purveyor is in a neighborhood called Kenton, off the Columbia Slough, originally formed as a company town for a meatpacking business. I drive my dented Prius slowly over the deep divots in the pebbled streets and almost get stuck every time. It feels like a ghost town or like a Jim Jarmush movie; with angry seagulls, abandoned couches, and endless warehouses. Even on a clear summer day, it seems cloudy and cold here. I park and walk up the metal stairs to the trailer office next to the fish warehouse. I wave at the ladies at their desks and sign my order form which is waiting on a table in the front room for me. Moments later, another box tagged “A Wonderland of Food” is carried out by a smiling fish guy.
“Thank you! I’ll see you soon!” and off I go, carrying the ice-packed catch of the day, grinning with the pride of a small business owner who can’t quite believe any of this is real. Grinning like I always do.
Like I always do.
Which is when it hits me. At 3:32 am, I have an epiphany– a wake-up call, if you will.
It’s always like this. I can never sleep before a gig. I always think “this time is different, this time it’s more serious than it’s ever been,” but it’s not. It’s just dinner for 7 or drinks for 40 or private cheffing for 2 and I’m out of my fucking mind every time, holding onto the bed for dear life as there is no scarier place than my imagination. And then, like the torture of childbirth, the memory of these moments just disappears. Zap! Gone! What torture? I only love my job!
And the phone rings with a new client, and it all begins anew.
My gig went really well. After the breakfast service, they realized that one of the suites was a lot bigger than the one they had been eating in. We pooled some tables, plates, glasses, and silverware out of various rooms and put together a lovely eating space for their lunch and “chef’s table” dinner. They were a fantastic bunch, for which I’m grateful. That day was long enough without dealing with snooty clients. They were gracious and funny and respectful. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity.
One of the members even wrote a nice review on my Yelp page. He specifically called out my seared Albacore salad with farro, so I thought I would share the recipe. Francis and I eat this weekly. We get local Oregon albacore, but if you can’t find albacore or tombo tuna, you can definitely use sushi-grade ahi or yellowtail tuna. It’s more expensive but it’s phenomenal.
Seared Tuna on a Bed of Greens with Sesame Ginger Dressing and Farro
4 dinner servings
For the marinade and dressing
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 3 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated or chopped (preferably with a Microplane grater because it renders the juice as well as the pulp from the ginger)
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped or grated with Microplane
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of finely chopped scallions
- 1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- Mix ingredients together in a bowl. Take 2 tablespoons of the dressing aside to marinate the fish.
For the tuna and salad
- 16 ounces of tuna fillet (can be albacore, ahi, or yellowtail)
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
- salt and pepper
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 handfuls of salad greens, can include baby greens, kale, arugula, and/ or spinach
- 2 radishes, sliced
- 1/2 cucumber, sliced
- 1 1/2 cups cooked farro or other pearled wheat grain such as barley or spelt (or quinoa, though it’s much smaller)
- Place the reserved 2 tablespoons of dressing into a bowl and marinate the tuna with it for 15-20 minutes.
- Sprinkle the sesame seeds, salt, and pepper onto a plate and roll the marinated tuna steaks in the mixture to coat the outside of the fish with seasoning.
- In a small non-stick pan, heat the sesame oil until almost smoking and sear tuna without moving it for about 30 seconds. Flip it and cook the other side for the same time. You aren’t cooking the inside of the fish, only getting a nice sesame crust on the outside of the fish so don’t worry if it’s still pink in the middle. It’s supposed to be! Let the fish rest for a few minutes before slicing.
- Toss the salad greens, the cooked farro, and other salad veggies in a bowl with half the remaining dressing.
- Plate the dressed greens.
- Slice the tuna into medallions and lay them on top of the salad. Pour a little more dressing on top of the fish pieces. Enjoy!
And here I am making this recipe on KATU’s Afternoon Live! (click on the picture):