Opening the box in the drawer in the safe in the trunk in the ocean (Featuring Lobster Bisque)
As I stand at the threshold of the rest of my life, I can’t help but look back at some of the more monumental things that have happened to me in New York over the past nine, life-changing years. This is a story I’ve not had the strength or balls to tell until now, but it’s time. I carry it with me every day. I need to make peace with it so that I can start clean.
Max, my brother and then roommate, came home to find me sitting in the dark, staring at the wall.
“Hey Boodgie!” (That’s our nickname for each other.) “How’d your gig go?”
I responded, “Hi Boodgie. I don’t…I didn’t…I just…” I shook my head.
There were no words really. I stood up, shut the door and went back to my seclusion.
The client first contacted me in August of 2008. It was a family of 5: a father, a mother, 2 kids that were old enough to eat some real food, and a baby. They needed a chef to deliver meals twice a week. It was the father that had found my catering/ private chef information through the American Personal and Private Chef Association, of which I am a member.
I needed this job. It was, in many ways, the thing that kept me going.
Because I’m an alcoholic, you see, and that Fall everything bottomed out for me.
I had returned to New York in February of 2007, after a 16-year hiatus in Los Angeles. I had, in that time, jumped from the life of an out-of-work actress to the semi-regularly-employed freelance chef world. I had a skill-set that was employable but no headspace or interest in restaurant cheffing. I had amassed a decent list of private chef clients in Los Angeles, but knew LA wasn’t the place for me. So I leapt and left. Back to New York for me. Back home to a chaos I understand, to a language I speak.
New York had changed a lot though. I was 21 when I left—full of vim, vigor and vodka; ready to take on the world. When I returned, I was 38. Nothing makes you feel older than not being in your 20’s in New York. 38 is ancient. My need for the drink had become a steady thing, as had my social-phobia. Booze can keep you in a stronghold, making you think you need it to talk to others while making it impossible to function well, regardless.
Work was harder to find than I thought it would be. I was paid to cook for my grandmother, who could not live without assistance. I was embarrassed that I was struggling to find more regular work. I was scared. When I became a member of the American Personal and Private Chef Association, I finally felt some traction. People were contacting me with questions and jobs. I was still barely getting by, but I felt a little optimism. That’s when they found me.
They lived in the UK. The father’s name was David and he was in a wheelchair. He and his family were coming to the States for a three-month-long job. I sent him some menu ideas to see what sort of things they were interested in and he responded that the kids were like regular kids and didn’t like exotic food, but that he and his wife were interested in a lot of different cuisines. It was fun. I hadn’t had that much experience really narrowing down a family’s preferences. We were in contact every two to three weeks with updates to menus and when they would be arriving. We emailed regularly for three months.
At the end of October, I hit the final wall of my alcoholism. I got myself so drunk at my 39th birthday party that my dad intervened. I knew it was time, but… NO. I knew it was time, period. I started to work with a support group and took it minute by minute.
About a week before the family arrived, I was maybe 3 weeks sober. The father sent me a business check to cover my food expenses for the first delivery, but the check was for a lot more money than I was expecting. He said he was not able to wire money from his location in the UK and asked if I could wire the balance of money from the check, to his driver, who was coming in from New Jersey. It was a lot of money.
You felt it, right? You, there, on your couch, reading this story right now. You felt that moment of “Wait… what???” I did too. I DID TOO. But I needed this chance. I needed this to be real more than I’ve ever needed anything in my life, so I pushed that feeling down. I put it in a box in a drawer in a safe in a trunk and I threw it all into the ocean.
I took the check, which was a formal business check, to my bank and they deposited it merrily. I asked if it was a real check and the happy Citibank teller said in a singsong voice, “Yes, it’s from a business account. It’s absolutely real.” She smiled real big and I smiled back, nodding obsessively. “It’s real. Of course it’s real.”
I walked to the check cashing/ money transfer hole-in-the-wall a few blocks up. It was your average Harlem Western Union with a nodding junkie in the corner and a distinct smell of urine radiating from every wall. The feeling of uncertainty was terrifying, but you have to understand that everything I did those days carried with it that feeling of doubt. I had been drinking since I was a teenager. Not all the time, but enough to feel its absence– all the time. My hands shook, my body shook, my voice quavered, my intuition said “RUN”, but I got the money order sent.
David emailed later that day and said that Harry, the driver, had received the money and thanks. He finalized their first food delivery date and menu. I exhaled. It’s ok. I did the right thing. I’m a good person.
I was proud of their first menu. Here was a chance to show off. If I could manage this job sober, I could maintain the footing that I had found. They wanted rosemary chicken with caramelized onions and potatoes, spaghetti Bolognese, pan seared filet mignon with a porcini crust, lobster bisque and some mac and cheese for the kids. They set the delivery time for 4:00 but did not know which of the two locations (they had sent me addresses for both) they would be living in because of the wheelchair access, which they couldn’t confirm. I shopped and cooked for hours. I wanted this to be spectacular. This was my moment.
I waited for them to let me know where to deliver the food. I emailed them but got no response. I called and got no answer. Nothing. I stared at the carefully prepared food in my fridge. I waited. Nothing. And that feeling? The one I’d put in the box in the drawer in the safe in the trunk in the ocean? I started to feel it again.
The check officially bounced two days later. They were professional con men who had stolen a large box of checks from a business in the Midwest and were duping people all over the country to wire them money. But the details! We emailed for 3 months! I called the cops. They were not impressed. They told me to be careful in the future. Thanks, guys.
I did not drink, though I wanted to with every ounce of my being.
Instead, I hid. In my room. In the dark.
Because I wasn’t in my 20’s. I was 39. I should have known better.
I didn’t want something for nothing. I wanted a job. I wanted the opportunity to do something well. I was at the weakest moment of my life when I decided to get sober, admitting the reality of the lies I had told myself for so many years. And then this.
You want to believe that people are good. I think the world keeps spinning because of optimism. My regret and humiliation, which is ample, is based around denying my instincts. There’s a small spot in the pit of my stomach that knew the whole time it was not real, but I pushed it down because I thought it was my time to succeed. All I want is the chance to cook. I’m not looking for millions of dollars. I’m not looking for an easy road. I just want to do a good job.
And why share this humiliating story with the world? I can’t have it as only my own any more. My epitaph might read, “Alison Wonderland Tucker, fool” but it won’t say, “Alison Wonderland Tucker, victim”.
Later that day, Max knocked on my door.
“Hey Boodgie, there’s a lot of food in the fridge. Are you going to be eating it? Can I have some?”
I wiped my eyes and grabbed the container of bisque. I heated it up, poured it into a bowl and handed it to Max. I watched his face change as the soup hit his tongue and then rang the sensory bells, one at a time. There’s the salt, there’s the cream, there’s the umami, there’s the sweet lobster meat.
“Wow, Boodgie, I had no idea. Um… is there any more?”
It’s a bit ironic that the best thing the con men ordered was something as expensive and boozy as lobster bisque. I didn’t eat any of it that night, even though the liquor gets cooked out. 7 years sober now, this soup has haunted me. I’m thrilled to have it back.
- 2 gallons of salted water
- 2 live lobsters
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 1/3 cup cognac
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
- 4 thyme branches
- red pepper flakes, to taste
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 leeks, cleaned and chopped fine
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- salt and pepper to taste
- Heat the water in a large pot until it comes to a rolling boil. Drop the live lobsters in, cover, and cook for 8 minutes. Remove lobsters from the water, but save the cooking liquid.
- After the lobsters have cooled, crack the shells and place the meat into a bowl. Cut the shells into smaller pieces. Cut the meat into a large dice.
- Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large pan and add the lobster shells. Add the cognac and then ignite with a match. Tilt the pan to ignite all the cognac until the flame is gone. Add the onions, the garlic, the tomato paste, the Worcestershire sauce, the wine, the tarragon, the thyme, the red pepper flakes, the bay leaves and 4 cups of the reserved lobster cooking liquid. Simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered.
- Strain the fresh lobster stock into a large bowl. Toss the shells and veggies.
- Melt the remaining butter in a pot and then add the chopped leeks. Season with paprika, salt and pepper and saute for 3-5 minutes, on a medium heat. You want them to soften but not burn. Add the cornstarch and stir to thicken. Slowly, add the reserved stock, stirring as it comes to a boil.
- Stir in the cream and then taste for salt and pepper.
- Stir in the reserved chopped lobster meat, heat for a few minutes over a medium/ low heat.