She spoke in very broken English, with a nervous Spanish quiver. She had found me through Thumbtack.com, a website I work with frequently that connects private contractors with clients. She was looking for a caterer for a family barbecue and I had bid on the job with some menu suggestions and a ballpark estimate. As I listened to her speak, I envisioned a gorgeous Latina matriarch; someone who gets her hair and nails done a couple times a week, a woman who loves to throw big parties for her friends and family. I fabricated the clan in my mind, as I listened to her beautiful accent struggle to find the right words; with bouncing brown babies and grandbabies, supportive daughters and sons and aunts and uncles around all the time. She mentioned that her husband was in the restaurant business, and I imagined a tall, strong man, working his way from measly busboy to manager of fine dining establishments. They were a tenacious force in their local community, emphasizing stability and good family values. My imagination was having a field day.
She asked if she could meet me at my restaurant to talk more about the party.
“Oh, ma’am, I don’t have a restaurant. I’m a caterer. I rent a kitchen where I prep for parties, but I don’t have a brick and mortar all my own.”
“I can meet you in a restaurant that’s convenient to you. Or I can come to your home if you’d prefer. I just don’t have my own restaurant. I’m a caterer. It’s ok. I’m a caterer.”
I don’t know why I felt like she was going to hang up on me because I don’t have a conventional kitchen. Most caterers can’t afford their own places and I had only been in Portland for 2 months at that point. The woman I had invented on the other side of the phone was very judgmental.
“Yes, you can meet me at our home,” and she gave me her location and a day and time that was convenient for us both.
Their place is in Tigard, which is about 30 minutes outside of Portland and has that suburbs-during-the-’70’s feel. Lots of discount tires for sale. Like more tires than any civilization could actually use. I wound my way through the streets as guided by the soothing voice on my phone’s GPS. It’s a leap of faith, this going to meet clients in their homes and I never know what to expect.
They live in an apartment complex, with identical 3-level beige stuccoed buildings in a long row. I parked and then popped down my car visor, opened the mirror, and smoothed some gloss over my lips. This was the first client I was meeting face-to-face in Portland and I had no idea what to expect. I looked into the tiny, warped mirror. “Alison, you’re organized, confident, capable, ready, anxious. No, get rid of that. Not anxious. You’ve done this a thousand times.” It’s still nerve-wracking. “You can do this, Alison. It’s just catering.”
I climbed the wood slat stairs to their second floor apartment. So much stucco. Stucco has always felt a little dangerous to me, like if you fell into it you would get really scraped up. I knocked on the door. A young lady opened it, holding a baby. She looked… maybe 17, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt because I never know how old people really are. Let’s say she’s 22, which makes her old enough to vote and drink and have the three children that she has. Yes, I know you can have three children at the age of 17 too. I looked over her shoulder for her mother or grandmother and then focused nervously back on this young, beautiful woman. She must have seen the look in my eyes and she extended her hand. “I’m Sophia, I talked to you on the phone.”
Her smile softened me.
I have been a chef for over 25 years now—in Los Angeles and New York and I’m very familiar with the belittling feeling of standing at the door to a millionaire’s home. I know what it’s like to sip water from a glass that costs $200 while being asked to drop my fee because the client just doesn’t want to pay that extra $2 a guest, for a 40 person party. I was ready to go to battle again, not to be greeted by a real person.
Her husband came out and his smile was also warm and accommodating. He was exactly the person that I had invented, but about 20 years younger. He had worked his way up from busboy to manager and was excited to talk about food. We sat at their round kitchen table, as the babies laughed and screamed, and they told me that the party was a baptism for their little girl. It would be in the park across from their church. The whole family would be there, just like I had pictured. They wanted ribs and chicken and pasta and salads. We talked about roast vegetables and slaws and fruit salads and mini cupcakes. I always get so excited at this point—the point of endless possibilities, but then I started to panic. At that moment, I had no wholesale connections. I would be purchasing food from a grocery store and I knew it would be expensive. I had already been rejected by a couple of prospective Portland clients because my NY rates were too high, and I had pitched a reduced fee when I first bid on this job, but as I worked the numbers in my head, I knew the total would probably be higher than they expected to pay. I wanted to give them a great deal but I could only imagine losing money. I told them that they probably didn’t want a caterer because caterers tend to be a lot more expensive than take-out from a restaurant. You’re not just paying for high quality, often specialty food, but for service too and that gets pricy. Hopefully, this did not come off as assholic but more caretakerish. I’m not a snob. I just want to cook great food and not feel cheated. I was struggling to readjust my strong “here’s my bottom line” New York mentality to something softer. The husband said that he has worked in a restaurant all his life (ALL his life of 24 (guessing) years) and that he’d rather have authentic food that’s not as predictable as the cheap local restaurants are.
I kinda liked them.
They were great, actually. They were authentic.
And they did not flinch at all, like so many millionaires do, when I told them the grand total.
It took me an hour and 15 minutes to get home in traffic and the classic rock radio station served up 70’s Bee Gees and Neil Diamond hits that matched the landscape perfectly. I sang along loudly and out of tune and stared at discount tires for miles. It felt like America. It felt like time travel. It felt like my childhood when I would visit relatives that did not live in New York City.
“And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
Till touch down brings me ’round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh, no, no, no, I’m a rocket man”
And I burst into tears. I’m not the (wo)man they think I am at home either, Elton.
I did not book the job. They never got back to me. I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed in myself. I basically told them not to hire me. It’s a shame, I would have done a good job.
I am redefining my life. What is true for Manhattan is simply not true for the rest of the world. In many ways, I am more like these hard working immigrants than I am like the millionaires I have cooked for. I am real. I struggle. I survive with the love of my friends, family and community.
A lot of things have changed in the 5 months since I went to Tigard. I have amazing support from local purveyors that make my rates a lot more affordable and a brilliant wait staff that’s able to do all the things I can’t. Most importantly, when I wake up in the middle of the night, with demons dancing over my head telling me I will fuck it all up, Francis wakes just enough to take my hand in his.
I am not alone. I am not alone.
Here is one of the things that I pitched to those wonderful, young parents. It is something that Francis and I make all the time, because it’s really easy, it’s really good for you, and it’s startlingly delicious.
Roast Cauliflower with Tahini and Picante Paprika
- 1 bunch of cauliflower, separated into florets
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 tablespoons of tahini, room temperature
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Spicy paprika
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Spread aluminum foil or parchment paper onto a baking sheet.
- Toss cauliflower in a bowl with olive oil and then onto baking sheet. Generously salt and pepper the florets. With a spoon, drizzle tahini over cauliflower so that every piece has a decent amount but isn’t swimming in tahini. Sprinkle paprika on top, to taste (it’s not as hot as cayenne, but not without a little sting so be careful if you’re sensitive).
- Roast for 25 minutes.