I’m getting too old for this (featuring Leek and Tarragon Puree)
We enter the kitchen simultaneously. Hauling bags of food and crates of equipment has left me panting heavily; her breath is shallow and nervous. There’s a stranger in her home.
I circle to the fridge side as she pretends to casually lean against the Caesarstone island between us. I say pretends because I know she isn’t casual. She is studying me, watching every move I make. My actions are slow and intentional, I move with a quiet purr.
Her designer cotton t-shirt hangs loosely over her slim waist and when she laughs, which she does more than necessary, her alabaster teeth shimmer blindingly.
The sticky raspberry coulis stain on my fraying v-neck tee is covered by my black chef coat, A Wonderland of Food calligraphed in white thread across my left breast pocket. My bright red hair is hidden under the porkpie hat I always wear to cook. My mouth tastes like coffee and Altoids so I speak as little as possible. I am smiling to subdue her.
Our movements are meditated and analytical as, like cheetah and cougar on a new battlefield, we suss each other out.
“Do you need me to show you where anything is?” Her voice is high-pitched while she paces the kitchen’s perimeter, tapping her rarely-used, top-of-the-line kitchen equipment one by one as if to subtly say, “Don’t touch this nice thing, or this one, or this.”
“Please help yourself to anything you need!” She exclaims with a walloping smile, arms extended to emphasize “anything,” but I smell the fear behind this artifice. She is wondering, will I destroy her kitchen in the final preparations of this party for 50? Will I make inedible food? Break heirlooms? Humiliate her? Steal things? Fart loudly as I bring heaping plates of mediocre canapes to her buffet? Anything is possible.
“No, thank you. I brought everything I need with me,” I reply with confidence I rarely acknowledge. I shared her anxiety, as I never know who will be waiting on the other side of the doors I enter for work, but she is harmless and I’m eager to cut through the small talk and return my focus to the food.
I pull my knife from my bag, unsheathe the blade, and set it on the spotless white countertop. Her eyebrows raise and she gasps with an appreciation for my chef shiv.
I have wrestled her fears into submission. I’m in charge now. I am her servant, but the power belongs to me.
I know EXACTLY what I’m doing.
She submits gleefully, her shoulders and face visibly softening. We both know this is what she wanted when she hired a chef, but I’ve been vetted only by a functioning website with glossy pictures and 5-star Yelp reviews.
This is the hardest 10 minutes of the 25 hours I’ll work on a party this size. Food is easy. People are challenging.
“Excellent!” she chirps, “I’m going to go get ready,” and off she bounces into wings of the house the staff never sees.
Triumphant over my new domain I redecorate the room with my gear.
Foil pans holding succulent beef and skewered chicken are popped into the fridge, parcels of pastry folded around caramelized vegetables and rich cheeses are set in the freezer, quart containers with purees, reductions, and aioli line up along the counter, squirt bottles of drizzly sauces are set next to white serving platters, a bouquet of herbs next to them. I have spent quality time with each ingredient, much more time than I will with any human for this party. These pieces and parts of the meal are extensions of myself and I feel heartened to reunite with them. They keep me sane, these morsels of food. They know more about me than anyone does. They have heard me smack my lips and cheer when we’ve worked flawlessly together and scream when I’ve misused, mistreated, and misunderstood them. I am comfortable around food in a way I find challenging to be around most humans.
But here’s the thing: that night, the beautiful hostess whose domain I was so focused on dominating? She disappeared. Once she felt secure in my ability, she paid no attention to me at all. It was an Indian-themed birthday party with Bollywood Hip Hop blasting so loud that I thought my eardrums might explode. Neither the hostess nor the guests cared about the food as much as the drink and by the end of it I was so tired I could barely stand. I started to honestly think, maybe I’m getting too old for this.
This past year has been eye-opening for me. My 20-plus years’ experience cooking in people’s homes has resulted in a chef who knows what she’s doing. I’ve realized that I can put my insecurities on the back burner and let people see why I love my job so much. I can share with them who I really am. And they respond so kindly. Is it possible that human interaction is key to the enjoyment of my job? If so, I’m screwed. You can’t make people attend to your ego, no matter how sharp your knife is.
I’m just about to turn the big 5-0 and I’ve been predictably assessing my life. I love my husband (happy anniversary, honey!), my dog and cat, and our home. I have wonderful friends who support my ups and downs. And I have this passion that people keep paying me to share with them. I might have a lot of moments where I feel I’m getting too old for this, but I don’t think I could survive without the battles. I don’t take for granted that I’m the luckiest girl in the world.
Recently, I had three parties where I felt like the thrill of victory was inconsequential. Then I was hired to cook for a family celebrating the mother’s birthday. They were so wonderful and responsive that I felt my spark reignite. Their main course was a miso-marinated salmon atop a leek puree. This puree is so wonderful that you can pair it with almost anything… fish, veggies, or just alone on some crostini. Please enjoy!
Leek and Tarragon Puree
(makes a heaping cup)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 small shallot, chopped fine
- 2 garlic cloves, sliced thickly
- 2 leeks, white and light green parts cleaned well and chopped (doesn’t need to be a fine chop at all)
- 1 teaspoon champagne vinegar
- 1 tablespoon vermouth
- ¾ cup cream
- 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, chopped
- ½ teaspoon white pepper
- Salt to taste
- Heat the butter in a saucepan. When the bubbles have subsided, add the shallot and saute for 3 minutes on medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the leeks and a dash of salt and saute uncovered for 15 minutes on a low heat.
- Deglaze with the vinegar and the vermouth, scraping up any leek bits that have stuck to the pan. Add the cream and simmer until the sauce thickens, about 2 minutes.
- Stir in the tarragon, white pepper and salt to taste.
Can be served as is, or pureed finer with an immersion blender or food processor.