[All photography is by the talented Nicholas Occhino]
If you have ever wondered how I create my menus, let me explain.
It starts out with anxiety. A steady leak of comparison drips through my mental barriers, and slithers down to smolder inside my chest. Fueled by the scrolling of Instagram posts and Facebook feeds lead by my peers, it thickens like a tar. Smoke fills the cavity of each rib, making it feel as though I can’t catch my breath. The anxiety grows in the form of sweating palms, sleepless nights, and snapping at those around me. I fall behind at work, I make stupid mistakes, I get trapped inside my brain. It feels as if I need to purge some sort of toxin from my blood.
Am I good enough? Is what I’m doing valid? Is it right to stay here? Am I failing? Am I valid? Is this “purpose” I’ve found really true at all?
Then a pen is grasped, and paper is found, a napkin, back of the grocery list, anything, and sketching begins. It may not even start as a real idea, just a few lines and some shading, from there I can discern what it is. Flavors, textures, nuances begin to take form, all melding into a cohesive dish. It isn’t necessarily done in the correct order, in the proper form, but I find it eventually – the message behind the chaotic lines.
The pulsing and pounding that lives behind my eyes so often starts to soften, the rushing inside the ears dims, and the hazy smoke seeps out from my fingertips. There is clarity in the chaos for a few precious moments, and it doesn’t matter if it is good enough in the grand scheme of things, because it is salvation, and peace, and purpose internally.
Another sketch, another moment. Another sketch, another message. Originality isn’t the focus, nor are any of the rules of what constitutes “correct” cooking. I am not a chef, nor have I ever claimed to be (unless you count the required line on my business card), because I know I never will be. I will never give particular care to whether or not my knife cuts are precise enough, if my soubise is done in the classical form. I have never been in this industry because I love it, or revere it, I am in it because I use it. I use it as a way to selfishly find my way back to me, through food. I do not claim that to be right, or worthy of respect, simply true.
From each sketch comes a certain focus, there is something that I can successfully work on, edit, and polish. Not perfect. Perfection is unattainable, but emotion is. Connection is, storytelling is, creating an atmosphere, an extension of myself, sharing the goddamn narrative is. Those things I can reach for, and grab.
This is not a flowery metaphor about menu making, it’s honest. The three dinners I have put together thus far have been fueled by equal parts anxiety, worry about whether I can fool people into believing I know what I’m doing, and an insatiable need to create. An indescribable, unending desire to imagine, build, and share something of myself to others, to show them something new in the process. There is so much more to food and eating, than just food and eating.
There is a story behind every farm that contributes to a plate, every cook that prepares the meal, every hand that serves, every voice that weaves the night together. There is an entire troupe of human hearts trying to find their way, their passion, and their bigger purpose in life, putting these nights together. When I design a menu, all of that is pushing and pulling it’s weight inside me. There is a certain responsibility I put on myself to create something worthy of the time, and effort, everyone so humbly puts into these things; these things that are a very part of me, that they all show up for, support, and give themselves to. They may not even love food, cooking, or hospitality, but they show up. So it has to be right, it has to.
There is also a need to be different, not for the mere sake of it, but to showcase to the audience that I have, what is possible. There isn’t a bone in this body that believes what I do is unique, or special, but it is different for where I am. That is important. That is needed. Pushing the boundaries of an area in the one way I can is something I feel a call to do.
There’s a rivulet of one hundred emotions coursing through myself, from pen and paper, test plate to completed course; There are countless edits, and revisions, all encompassing an inner monologue. I wish I could accurately explain. I struggle daily to find the right ways to turn what happens internally, outward. There is shouting and screaming, anger and excitement, hope and frustration, all running rampant in my brain and heart. There is no moment of real rest, except for the times I’m planning and performing these dinners.
When I create a menu, I am desperately trying to curate a small piece of my journey, in order to give it to someone who may be going through similar moments. A small reflection turned into connection, that is the goal. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if the diner simply enjoyed a lovely meal, because they’ve also shown up. Something about the menu pulled them into the dining room, made them decide to partake in the night at hand. They decided to join the troupe, to become apart of the menagerie for one evening.
That means something to me.