The dish before the utensils
Amidst cries of “out of the sidewalk, into the street” and “si se puede,” with American Hi-Fi’s “Flavor of the Weak” stuck in my head, as I threw my fist into the driving bullet-sized rain and pulled parsley leaves off their stems, as my neighbor Adrian compared Nas’ Illmatic to a sister, as I woke up and wondered whether it was 6 AM or 5 PM, as I microwaved pizza and cooked shrimp scampi for girls I barely knew, as I interviewed a massage therapist, I realized my summer was half gone.
So far it’s mostly been me dreaming about carrying plates to tables populated by the wealthy, with an element of me trying to fit the things I am interested in (yelling about immigration reform while it rains; bands; skateboards) into a hyperlocal newspaper. It has also involved a lot of me meeting the seals that live outside the aquarium. Also, I bought a skateboard, and I microwaved a fair amount of pizza.
But what sticks with me is the kitchen. I love cooking (almost as much as I love microwave pizza) and when I work at the restaurant (co-owned by the bassist from American Hi-Fi) I really feel my best when I’m working for the food. I never go to a restaurant to be an asshole to servers or to feel awesome about how much money I can throw away on a small-plates course. I go for the food. And only then when I’m tired of microwave pizza.
In the kitchen, tension is definitely high, but it serves a purpose, and that purpose doesn’t seem to be tips. Each plate needs to be perfectly presented, and each part of the dish has to be appropriately moist, seasoned, hot, cold, or crisp. So while I polish glasses or separate leaves from stems or get yelled at for folding fish, what I’m absorbing, besides espresso and Saves the Day (provided it’s after 10 and Jesse is controlling the speakers) is a love for craft. And that isn’t just a feature of the kitchen.
When you put work into something that you want to turn out beautiful, as I see it, is the only time in any given day where you might be living for a purpose beyond survival. Simple survival is not a virtue. Newspapers are currently struggling with that problem, but they’re at their best when they ignore it. A kitchen doesn’t survive on fulfilling orders, it survives on quality and the beauty of a perfect dish. Same goes for a newspaper.
So when I write for the paper, I feel like I do when I’m cooking. What I’m doing might be as mindless as cutting garlic, minding temperatures, and tailoring seasonings to my mood at the time, but none of those can be omitted for a perfect article. Like one of the unconscionably wealthy patrons of my restaurant, I’m not going to feel satisfied with a half-assed dish. I have to do my research, I have to keep an eye on my sources, I have to pay attention to the climate in which I meet them, and above all, I have to make sure the story comes out looking like it was chiseled out of marble. The meat might be ridiculously good, but it has to look like it’s good or nobody will ever find out.
Art is always the intersection of work and beauty. For food, that means a paté that covers two square inches but looks like a buffet. For journalism, that means a story that’s digestible and engaging but draws the eye and the mind like a bright orange stripe on a 6′x6′ canvas of sky blue. And that element of craft and commitment can’t be understated or underdone.
Whether my subject is an old person at a dance or an anarchist screaming about Arizona’s laws, I work to make myself feel like that subject is the center of the universe. If it isn’t, I wouldn’t read it as I breezed through the news on the way to Facebook or Altered Zones. So I’ve learned to treat every article like the best goddamn burger I’ve ever eaten. I won’t be eating it, but I hope the people who do feel satisfied, fortified, and enriched. It’s all in the prep. I hope I never have to leave the kitchen.