I think I’m kind of weird since so many people I know have died. It’s not like I have a curse or a black cloud of death that follows me, it’s more like I’ve known a lot of people who were the exception. One of my best friends was killed by a Hollywood producer’s son when the dude went off his meds and decided to drive his Volvo into a crowd. When I heard my friend’s name read as one of the victims killed, it was on CNN, and I remember thinking: that’s weird that someone has his name — his name is so unique. Yeah. Could’ve been denial, could be that I’m an idiot. I would go with either. But I’ve had way too many of those sorts of moments in my life and they’ve made it much easier for me to be in the moment.
When I talk to someone, I listen like I may never see them again. Every time. It’s not something to brag about. It’s like taking LSD to see the oneness of everything because you lack the patience to meditate. I got a rocket-ship ride into total consciousness thanks to the sudden unfairness of death. But hey, it made me a good listener.
Last night, I came home to find my roommate, a super-talented chef, up and cooking in our kitchen, working on the same dish she’s been trying to perfect all week long. Every night. We keep weird hours in my house. Most of us are up until three or four every night. There’s a waiter, a chef, a freelance writer and a German — no one really knows what she does, but she does it well and with gusto. When the chef and I met in the kitchen for the third late night in a row and she was still fussing with that same dish, I guess I looked puzzled because she said it was the same one, as almost a defense for why she was up, again. Whenever I came in from a late night skate or walkabout or whatever got me up and outside, she and I’d chat and kinda skim over the highlights of our day. There’s something about food cooking in a kitchen that leads to conversation.
She’d explained the dish to me. She’d shown me the dish in various stages. I’d seen it evolve for the last week. Finally, home right before she was about to plate her latest version, I had to ask, “Hey, why is this dish so important to you? Every night you’re pushing at those edges, flipping that — what is that, a — “
“It’s like a crepe. It’s like a Hong Kong crepe.” She said, knowing where I was headed.
“So, like, are you super-nervous about your head chef’s opinion or something?’ I asked. This was my best guess. But I never thought her answer would bring to light, for both of us, areas of darkness that needed some. She doesn’t open up much. So it surprised me when she did. Yet, you see, this is what happens when you can’t help but listen to someone else like one of you might be dead next time.
She stood at the stove, pushing at the edges of a crepe — but it was not a Parisian crepe, this was a Hong Kong version of that French pastry. It looked almost rubbery, like a very thin omelet. It was light in color, like an egg white omelet, the kind you’d order for brunch in the Westside, but lighter. It had the lift of an angel food cake dough. Maybe it was a rice flour. That’s my best guess. But I don’t know these things. I didn’t think to ask as I watched her lift and curl the edge of the omelet-crepe with a mixing bowl spatula. She worked her way around the edge like the hands of a clock.
“I’m starting to hate this dish. I kinda wish I didn’t pick it as the one for work — I made it, yesterday, last night, and it didn’t turn out right. At all. Remember how I was supposed to do a taster for my head chef — well, I was pissed when he didn’t show, but then I got lucky because when I made it, it was … it wasn’t right. But because my head chef wasn’t there, it was just the assistant chef, so he judged it, but he just critiqued it like a friend. Y’know?” She looked up from the pan.
I nodded. I did know. She’d told me at least twice in the last week how nervous she was because her bosses and head chef weren’t taking her seriously. They’d made promises to her for the last three years. She’d told me a lot about how, in Texas, she owned her own restaurant and was getting press for making her brand of Hong Kong dishes. That’s how they found her, and why she eventually left her little restaurant to work with the prestigious, high-action restaurant she works for here in Los Angeles. But now, they weren’t taking her seriously.
She wanted this dish to show her head chef she was badder than badass — she was undeniable. She curled the edges of the crepe and checked her heat.
I said, with the extra emphasis of someone who’d just come from somewhere where he’d been talking over the loud bass of a live band, “But, hey, you know you got this, right? I mean, like, I see how this looks and smells, and yeah, we both know I don’t know fuckall about high-end Asian cuisine besides, Mmm, that tastes good as fuck, but, like, I imagine your bosses and the head chef dude, they’re gonna be on their ass when they taste this. Isn’t this, like, totally in line with their menu? This is what they don’t know how to make, right? A dish like this is why they brought you out here, right? …Maybe I’m wrong.”
“No, that’s it. That’s why they brought me in — they want something like this, but it’s just that I keep getting it wrong, I can’t make the dish like the way I remember it … it’s not how she made it,” she said, leaving out who she was.
I assumed she meant her grandmother. Curious to know, I asked her, “Y’mean your grandmother, or your mother, or like an aunt, or—”
“No, my mother. This is the last dish she made us before she left.”
“Before she left … like…” I said, letting my words trail off and leave a space for hers to follow.
“Us. Before she left us. My siblings and me. My dad was already gone. She ran him off because of all the cheating. My dad’s a player. He still is. That’s just who he is. He’s always been like that. But she couldn’t stand it, and then one morning, we woke up and all her stuff was gone and she was gone.” She said and let the air hold her words.
I waited for her to finish, as I assumed her story wasn’t close to done.
After a long beat, she pushed at her omelet-crepe awhile and then said, “The night before she left she was making this. I always remember it, and I thought — this would be a good dish to make. It would really impress my head chef. Y’know?”
I did know. Oh, did I know. After my parents split up, I vacillated between two poles. Either, the boy who didn’t give a fuck and viewed his father as dead to him, or the kid who worked to prove to his father that he shouldn’t have left because he was missing out on spending time with such a kickass boy. I tried to prove he made a mistake.
Watching her adjust the flame under her crepe, and then push at the edge to check the browning of the underside, I nodded. I knew.
“But like, no matter how hard I try to get this dish right — and I’m so sorry that every night you keep seeing me up at all hours, cooking … I just need to get this dish to–” she waved her hands as if to indicate some sort of magical effervescence.
“Gurl, please. You think I give a fuck if you’re cooking at two a.m.? You’re lucky I don’t pull up a chair and wait to eat all the rejects.” I said, trying to give her an out if she didn’t want to touch on what we were so obviously circling around and so close to broaching. This was the last dish her mother made before she left her and now she wanted to get it right to impress her boss who wasn’t taking her seriously, after uprooting her. The repetition of trauma and drama was too obvious to sweep away.
“I think maybe I shouldn’t have picked this dish. Like, maybe that was a bad idea because all of the stuff around my mom — but I just thought if I could get it right … I mean, I remember the dish being so good…” she trailed off, led by the reveries of memory.
“What if you’re pushing yourself too hard to ‘get it right,’ y’know? If you get all tense and are focused on pleasing your bosses and your head chef, then you’re cooking to please some imagined palate. That’ll never work. In writing, Vonnegut warns us not to try to write to an imaginary audience. He says it’s like opening a window and trying to make love to the world. Of course, I’m paraphrasing. But, basically, if you try to make it just like your mom would make it, you’ll chase after an impossible to catch memory. I’ve had your food — that shit’s insane-crazy-driving-miss-daisy good. So, I don’t know, maybe, make it the way you would. Do your recipe. Rather than recreate her shit — create your own shit. Y’know?” I said the last syllable with the most positive upswing I could add without making it sound like I’d just stepped on a tack.
She had worked the spatula all the way back around to 6 p.m. of the crepe. She didn’t say anything.
In that long wordless pause in our conversation, I got to enjoy another one of those moments I tend to have: “Shit. Why did you say that? You coulda just said, yeah you’ll get it right eventually, but no, you gotta go mucking around giving your unsolicited opinion.” That’s what I was thinking. But I also remained silent.
Eventually, she spoke up and I got to stop listening to me, go back to the far more pleasurable listening to her.
“…No, you’re right … I think that — I think I’m good enough … to do my own version, Then I think: but I’m trying to impress them, so I need to do it their way.”
“Okay, this is going to sound crazy, but stick with me, because I’ve been drinking. Their way is changing. Their way a year ago, is not their way now. Right? And even their way a month ago is already getting stale. Right now, they want to see what you can do. If you impress them, their way could be your way. You know what I mean? So do what you would do, take your mom’s recipe, but do it your way and then they’ll be like: ‘What the fuck? This is amazing — we have to add this to the menu! What other dishes do you have up your sleeve?’ Or however, chefs talk. I don’t know your language.” I said, like the cab driver who fancies himself the pilot of a rolling therapy session.
“Yeah, I’m a better cook than my mom, anyway. I just remember hers being so good. I’m gonna — I know what I’m gonna add, it’ll give the crepe the stretch I want.” She said, her eyes already imagining folding in new ingredients to her next batch.
Cooling to the side of the stove was glass cookware with the meat pie stuffing that would soon be rolled inside the crepe. Finely diced bits of pork. A few different names of mushrooms, multiple types of onions, fresh garlic, and all sorts of other shit I’d never heard of but it all smelled amazing and tasted like something that would make Gordon Ramsay slap himself.
I told her, “There is no way your mom could make this. Not because she’s gone, because she’s not you.”
That was all that mattered to me. Her laugh. Laughter says more than words sometimes.
Too often the sins of the father are visited upon the child. Or in her case, the sins of the mother. The shitty part is it’s up to all adults to cure any damage left by the previous caretaker. So, we end up standing in our kitchen pushing around a Hong Kong style omelet-crepe while we verbally stumble into the sudden realization we’re still trying to get our parents’ attention, or we’re trying to learn how to stop asking for it. But it beats the alternative. You could be dead.
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