Resurgence

[All photos courtesy of Nick Occhino]

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July 20th, 2017, is going to forever remain a pivotal moment in my life. It wasn’t perfect, in retrospect it was quite amateur, but it was a shift. An internal inertia turned physical reality, right in front of my face, proving something true.

I can do some really cool shit, with some really amazing people.

The one thing that I have always craved, since day one of finding this passion, was a means to translate the chaotic, incessant, overwhelming amount of fascination and love I feel for food. Beyond immature goals of becoming a “chef”, climbing the social status ladder of the industry, or finding someplace “real” to work, that has remained constant. There’s a reason for that – it’s the real, humble, and honest goal at the root of my place in this field.

Attaining a certain job title no longer has the same appeal, grande reputations of established restaurants or cities aren’t the carrot anymore; connection is. Connecting everyday people to the ingredients before them, and individuals with opportunities for expression, is what seems like a truly exciting endeavor. The night of my dinner was so incredibly invigorating and adrenaline filled not because it was mine, my food, my ideas, my night, but because of who I was performing it with. People that I’ve grown to love and care about showed up to help and support me with something that up until now was a carefully avoided dream, because it never seemed possible. It lit me up in ways I didn’t know life could.

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There were moments that needed more preparation, aspects that could have been enhanced, and parts where I should have gone out to the diners to interact more, but I don’t want it to have been perfect. I want to look back, a year from now, and see growth. To be a better line-cook at my job, a better chef who plans dinners that create an atmosphere, and a better student who learns faster.

When I first started this blog, I was searching for a chance and avenue to express myself. I was past the point of “recently graduated college student”, well into my new job, and felt a nagging pull. I hadn’t created something purely of my own volition in too long, and felt myself drifting in too many directions. In some karmic cash in of good deeds, I had a mentor who trusted and believed in me enough to present me with a huge risk. A chance to jump far and beyond my comfort zone (or his, I’m sure) in order to grow, to do something big not just for myself, but for the cafe, and the food scene of where we reside as a whole.

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Seeing a certain part of your story come full circle, a particular chapter ending, and a page turn, is gratifying and exhilarating. The menu for the dinner was comprised of dishes that I had already created, when I was working at my college’s restaurant, but with the additions of what I had learned in a years time. A little more finesse, a little more attention to quality, and a lot more humbleness, added up to what I like to believe was a satisfying meal. Not a spectacular one, but hopefully that will come sooner than later. Just a meal that showed one persons growth, as both a cook and an individual.

If asked to, I could flip through the pages of my worn out cooks notebook, and find versions of each course from one to two years prior. I could point out what was lacking in the first editions, which would usually be a mental or experience based flaw. The two courses that were personal favorites however, the main and the dessert, were total examples of what environment and influence can do to a person. The main, essentially coffee, bacon, and toast, was meant to thank the second Darrow I’ve been lucky enough to have as a teacher. The dessert, a combination of summertime fresh fruit, herbal gin, and everything sweet, was intended to recognize the influence of a fantastic baker boss, and ultimate grown woman goals.

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Despite the kinks, mishaps, or unavoidable amateur nature of the night, I hope that everyone who attended as a diner enjoyed themselves, and want to experience another in the future. I hope that everyone who was apart of the production felt the same sort of passion and adrenaline that I did. Things need work, I need work, but I can only pray that everyone will want to grow and go further together. This shouldn’t be merely a beginning of a new chapter in my story, it should be a part of something much bigger. For the people around me, the people I have the gift of feeding, and a certain, small, city that deserves a chance at something more.

Take risks, run further, work hard for yourself – but bring others with you. The next phase isn’t as fun without them.

 

Reach.

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Looking for the Line.

I thought it was fairly clever, when I first thought of it (especially compared to “a checkered past”…cause, pants). It rings true in ways I didn’t realize until recent weeks.

Though I can’t fully remember the turning point, there was one, back in college, where I looked at a plate of food I had made and thought “I can do this.”  There was no timidness in the dish, no meekness in presentation, no over compensation masquerading as cockiness. It was just a damn good plate of food, that looked beautiful, of it’s own accord, that I had helped craft together. It was one of the first times I wasn’t focused on the idea of the plate representing me, but of me properly presenting the ingredients. It was an evening free of outside or internal pressure, a relaxed, meditative flow of food.

That dinner shift, with that flow, and that plate of food, is the Line.

The one that meanders back and forth between passionate, frenzied excitement, and a peaceful tide. The one that creates a sense of rhythm inside me that I can understand, and accept to the point I don’t think about it anymore. It isn’t forced, it isn’t diligently acted out, it just happens. My rhythm. My reason for being here. The Line that lets me be the version of myself that I don’t feel I’ve reached yet, but am nearing.

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This version, some girl that isn’t a girl but a woman, some cook that isn’t a cook but a chef, knows herself. Knows her food and footwork, in equal parts, are what make up the song and dance of #kitchenlife. Knows that a white coat doesn’t define the chef, but the reaction to being asked for food by a loved one at 1 am, after a shift, at home, is. Knows that it’s OK if she is the only one that knows her.

Close, but still reaching. Up, up, up, we must all go.

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Up, at first, started as staring. A lot of it; at the wall beside my couch, the ground as I walked past that same bookstore, in that same town, that I’ve walked by since I was five. Finally, progressing to the ceiling above my bed. Staring, mulling. Whining. We didn’t get this job, or that opportunity, or their praise, or our wishy-washy wish of the week.

Then it turned into rolling. Rolling over to the other side, because that side of the bed always resulted in dreams of places we hadn’t been to yet. Rolling a pen between the fingers instead of against paper. Rolling bitterness from one chapter over into the other, then wondering why it stained new pages.

Finally, Up became marking. Pages full of scribbled marks, remnants of flexing a creative muscle gone lax. Marks in an abandoned notebook, curling swiftly into pushes on a plate. Word documents littered with the marks of a wannabe blogger, inner forearms with that long-forgotten bouquet garni tattoo idea, scraps of paper with dreams involving pop-ups stuffed into the dryers lint catch.

Then there was a calendar mark.

7.20.17

Then a menu.

Another menu…..then one more.

Timelines, production schedules, PO’s. Ticket sales.

All a bunch of marks, reaching up, a steady incline on my life graph chart.

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It feels like a moment of resurgence, and a hurdling, forward vortex of creative ammunition. It’s the most humbling of the heart experience.

A troop of misfits, with their own lives, problems, events, and opportunities, want to help. I’ve never experienced such sincere goodness like this before, with a combined hope for success. It makes it better. Makes it what it is, which is the most exciting, liberating, and exhilarating exertion of effort. A spring being tapped, a season changing, whatever other metaphor or simile there is.

It’s late, and per my now routine method of writing, I’ve lost the original point that started this journey of written word. Final notes though –

Experience isn’t what it is because of location, accolade, or reputation. It’s due to the hands involved, minds met, and hearts befriended.

 

Sometimes luck steps in, and makes that known early.

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Bloom.

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Finding purpose has never been an easily hit target, at any point, for myself. Murky waters of doubt surrounding the source of my intentions tend to cause anxiety, and spur retreat. Am I doing this for a real, true, sincere and honest reason? Or is it selfish, rooted in a deep and tangled web of thorny thoughts that demand safety for me, security for me, fulfillment for me, me, me. Has staying here really been a product of outside sources slamming down the windows of opportunity, or have I just drawn the curtains closed? Been surrounded by my own self-imposed serenity of dark, that I don’t recognize light anymore.

Light being change, movement, forward motion. Light being the reason I’ve landed in the desert of adulthood, with a compass called passion.

I don’t think it matters anymore, what it started out as. Selfishness, honest belief I could change the thinking of the place I grew up, all those reasons are just scraps now. Little bits of paper torn from diaries kept by a much younger girl, with a much emptier schedule. Stars aligning, Gods good graces, dumb luck, whatever it is, between the cracks of self-interest and selfless hope, a purpose popped up from the dirt.

Take to give, accept to share, learn to teach. Try to fail and fail to win.

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Everyone enters this field for a different reason. Some want to live out the archetype; brash, rude, intense, a 0-60 personality that’s allowed and embraced because of the environment. It gives license for emotional junkies to let loose.

Sometimes a kitchen is the only haven for an individual that isn’t accepted anywhere else. Records, rap sheets, addictions, disorders – hardly ever are they discriminated against. Kitchens need warm bodies that can punch in and do the shit, they don’t need pristine business models that wear ties.

Among the endless list of other reasons, some people just really love food. Waking up to thoughts about peaches coming into season next month, going to bed with the a plate mock up. Meandering the avenues of daily life with the next meal (to eat, to serve, doesn’t matter) on their mind. That’s my reason. That’s my why.

I don’t stop thinking about food, ever. I don’t stop considering whats next to eat, try, experiment, give, force feed to someone, etc. I could give two shits about the ‘culinary field’ as a whole; that’s the selfish part. Restaurants and kitchens are just venues for me to live out a life that is constantly surrounded by what I love.

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At the crux, that’s the reason I haven’t ventured out of the safe abode of hometown living yet. Food, cooking, serving it (even a certain style, to an extent) is what gets me going day in and day out, but the place in which I do it is less important. The city setting, address, or restaurant name doesn’t hold the same appeal as sharing said passion with people I know, names I care about it, face I see everyday.

When opportunity arises to blend the deeply personal love of the art form, and the fulfillment of sharing it among those closest, it feels validating. More than validating, it feels humbling. Just a nobody, with a mediocre talent level and beloved Sabatier, when given allowance to dive in, is probably going to drown, but will do so in blissful happiness.

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Learning to feel where two feet are currently planted, digging fingers into the soil surrounding them, small of the back against this particular patch of Earth, inhaling the air above and around – it focuses everything. Brings you into the moment, and lets you realize there’s more. You can be selfish and selfless, you can strive for yourself, and give example to others at the same time.

Time to leave that safe, quiet, dark space.

Light is peeking in. It’s time to bloom.

 

Thaw.

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I struggled with a self-imposed question this week – is life risotto, or a pot of water?

I’m stretching, a crazy diversion from the usual posts.

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Risotto makes a strong case, with those tough, hard grains, being slowly massaged into a creamy, indulgent, luxurious gift of sustenance. Created with the barest of ingredients, water and rice (essentially). It isn’t what the dish is made of, but how it’s approached. How the person wielding the wooden spoon chooses to tend to the process; choosing between tender, constant attention, or leaving it to dry out, burn to the bottom, and then dump in an excess of liquid in the hopes of reconstituting it.

Get it? The ‘life is like risotto’ thing?

Fine. I don’t have any arsty angle shots of me stirring a spoon anyway.

In fact, I barely have any photos for this time around. For the first time, in a long time, I am busy. I’m not ‘keeping busy’, nor puttering around trying to make it look as if I am. I am, in fact, working. Working towards a goal(s), working towards something out of reach, requiring the use of muscles I haven’t flexed in almost a year. That’s why, ultimately, I decided on a pot of water.

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give onions a friend in juniper berries

Life is akin to a pot of water, with the old adage of “a watched pot never boils” blaring its way across the speakers of a sound system I didn’t realize I had playing in the background. I must have tripped over the volume dial.

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chimichurri, with carrot tops

Life does not often do what we want, when we want it. Life doesn’t rush forward when, high on adrenaline and ego, the gas is pressed to the floor. Life doesn’t roll to a stop when the break is slammed in a fit of anxiety. Life has its own ebb and flow, outside of our limited range of control. It will spike from a simmer, to a boil, the moment it’s left uninterrupted, to behave as it’s meant to.

Eat with the seasons, chef told me. Live with the seasons, I tell myself. Embrace that your existence stands within its own, unique, defining season at this moment. It may be winter, you may hate the cold, but you can only learn to thaw, to bloom, by losing leaves, and hibernating. Warm yourself with thoughts of life giving rain, showering you clean with the Spring’s intrinsic sense of hope.  The heat of deep summer, invading your pores, pushing its way into your core, filling you with fertile imagination. Heatwaves of opportunity and creativity, reaching towards a soul ripe with ingenuity.

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Breathe in the calmness that comes from accepting you don’t have to do it all; push forward with wants, desires, goals, and dreams, but let them happen as they happen. Rest during seasons of inward, grow during seasons of outward. Keep the mind going, always.

On the precipice of summer, heat prickling the base of the neck, diving forward. I will neglect the urge to cool down. This is the season, this is the life.

 

Consolidation.

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When cooking on a hot line, you become very aware of your size. The space it takes to make a 360 is smaller than you realize, but the distance from kitchen to dining room is always further. Taking as few steps as possible to achieve maximum efficiency is the goal, creating a small square in which you operate, mise only a glance away.

That level of awareness carries over into civilian hours. Darting in and out of grocery store foot traffic, your social circle alarmingly close and simultaneously comfortable at the bar. Your body just becomes another tool, a little large for the knife kit, but the concept remains. Depending on how quickly you become serious about the field, you start to treat it like a tool as well. Late night shots and loading dock cigarettes are a cool facade, until you can’t handle twelve hour shifts and brunch service the next morning.

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At twenty three years old, five years of pretending to be apart of the field, it’s become apparent that the physical consciousness doesn’t translate mentally. Realizing the influence of mental space has taken much longer to gain, in regards both to myself and others. The effects that it has on performance, professionally and personally, result in the difference between a smooth dinner service, and a senior discount brunch.

The space that energy takes up is infinitely more important. A kitchen full of passionate participants, feeling the intrinsic rhythm and music of prep that transitions into an adrenaline fueled service, flames beating in sync with heartbeats, knife cuts pounding to the tenor of the expediter – it’s all energy bound. So is the kitchen dragged along by the deadbeats and downtrodden.

People are a lot more fluid than they like admitting, folding and twisting into the form that surrounds them. Who surrounds you is the mold, and as with anything else in life, you have the ability to choose what, and who, you want.

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If it does not serve the food in some way, do away with it. If it doesn’t amplify flavor, intensify natural color, bring texture or aroma to the forefront – it isn’t needed. It is a distraction and a detraction from the simplistic beauty of what an ingredient can be. This applies to people, as well. If the who’s, he’s and she’s surrounding don’t amplify, intensify, or push you, they are detracting, and draining to the palate. Question which one you are constantly.

Consider too, mentors. Few, far, and rare, I’ve been blessed with too many in this life, each primed with a skill set that I just so happen to need at that moment. You get to pick those too, if you try hard enough. Choosing who you want to learn from is easy enough, convincing them slow down, and teach an incessant, questioning (probably irritating) equivalency of a child, is the hands in the dirt-tearing at weeds-torn fingernails part. Recognizing superior knowledge, experience, and skill is easy. Sacrificing pride, in reality, is more akin to what I imagine a bulb of garlic feels like when it’s being unceremoniously ripped from its dark cocoon of the earth.

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Being a chef is more about restraint, and containment, then it is about flourishing gestures, and grandiose experimentation (even though its fun to deviate). Calculated moves, honing of tools, paying respect to the ingredients you manipulate. I’m trying to learn how to live and breathe those practices, in and out of a coat.

There’s no greatness, in anything, before you are good. You can’t be good until you learn how you’ve been less so. Find the chefs (people) that show you by being better than what you are.

 

 

Ripen.

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Tomatoes are not in season. They’re close, inching, crawling, scooting like a tiny worm towards the door of the cafe. Close enough I think I can smell their deep sweetness, feel the fresh bitten burst of juice. A pinnacle sign of musky, heat wave filled July’s and Augusts.

I relate to those tomatoes. Close to creative ripeness, to luscious success, but just far enough away to be laughable at obtaining right now.

I can taste it. the sour-sweet tang of creative liberty, earthy responsibility of reputation; paired with the feeling of apron strings pulled tight, a cord of imagination turned tangible.  It is all, literally, right. there. In front of me.

Just like the waves of heat in those musky summers, visible, shimmering, present. Pulling you in like a mirage, luring with satiation and fulfillment. Elusive “future”, teasing the present.

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I am a habitual liar though.

You’re scared, you’re not ready, inexperienced, not creative enough, no opportunities,  tired. 

You’re so tired,

aren’t you tired?

You need a break, a rest,

a reset, a start-over.

I haven’t even started. 

There is opportunity, even more importantly, there is support. Endless, boundless, support, from people I wouldn’t have dared ask of it. There are no valid excuses to support the tamping down of chances I’ve put myself through time and time again. I’m just scared. Scared of failing, more scared of not, and having expectations to live up to; a suffocating, claustrophobic tunnel narrowed by my own vision.

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This blog will turn one year old in March 2018. Imagine if I’m still writing about being scared? Still stagnant, still taking kinda shitty/kinda passable photos in my tiny apartment. Imagine if I’m still just writing, and not doing?

So stop being a little bitch, “In Whites”. Start working. Planning. Clock in, clock out, keep going. Little sketches in a book are cute, until they get yellow with age instead of stock, then they’re just sad. If you want strong roots, dig deeper. Water them, feed them, sustain them. Follow through on the chances you keep “agreeing” to, instead of letting them drown in the depths of abandonment. Passion will follow suit.

Make creativity corporeal, turn this small space into a curative process. A gallery of experiments, personal and public. Some will slip into a cohesive path, without breaks, showing growth. Some will turn into steps. Appreciate them across the board, but just try. 

Be tired, need a rest, need time. Embrace the soreness of feet holding you up hours past the time stamp, hands cramped from holding a knife after closing. Let yourself grow, accept the pains, and enjoy fruition – like a sweet, sultry, summer night.

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Sprout.

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I was eight when I decided what I wanted to be as a grown up. Curled into my grandfathers recliner, watching an old Italian woman merry foreign flavors together, create music out of sizzles, pops, and slices. Background noises of my mother making dinner in the kitchen blended into a mural of a softer version of what I love hearing in kitchens today. Wooden spoons sweeping the sides of sauce pots, the deep bubbling sound of boiling pasta, butter foaming, sizzling, and browning.

I was eight when I decided I wanted to be a cook.

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I was 18 when I decided what I wanted to be as a woman. Watching my mother process a phone call that no daughter wants about their mom. Seeing shoulders be pulled back in assertion, heart continuing to care, and give. The moment of realization, in me, that she was the branches between the leaves of our family. Tendrils stretching and weaving out from the core of her, intertwining all of us. Watching her continue to be the strong-willed, soft-hearted, fiercely loving force in my life. She was, continues to be, a deeply rooted, softly swaying willow tree.

When my sister decided she deserved to make her own path. Digging deep into the dirt, peering through the salty sweat, planting seeds of what she is today. Demanding respect, giving it in equal measure, calibrating her own scale. Straight spine, set shoulders, keen eyes. Meticulous, and articulate. She is the timbre and cadence in my voice, the one I fake in kitchens when searching for the same presence in myself.

I was 18 when I decided I wanted to be in their roster.

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I was 19 when I decided I was going to be a chef. Gazing out at the abyss like void of the future, and seeing two options. One entailing comfort, ease, and security. Becoming a cook that showed up for a 9 hour shift everyday, knew her place, had the pleasure of working with food, and went home each night.

Or struggling, getting screamed at, possibly demeaned, realizing how much I suck at this field. Learning my station can always be more organized, I can always move faster, whine less, do more, hustle more, create, strive, give – more. That right now I am less, but can be more.

Realizing that I don’t suck, but instead have that annoying element called potential. Niggling, nagging, whispering, and leering in the background. Possibilities of what could be on loop. Deciding to tear into it with both hands; shredding the neatly aligned sides that contain it, getting to the marrow, scraping it out of corners and getting it stuck beneath grubby nails.

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Working day and night to polish it into skill, giving talent a backbone. Overcoming insecurity and blights of laziness. Climbing over walls of self doubt. Choosing the harder option because of it being more difficult by nature, and therefore more worthy in the end. Win or lose, success or failure – I chose the latter. I chose to try.

To try more, to try at fucking all.

It wasn’t until 23 that I decided I didn’t care though. If my personal struggle is recognized, and comforted. If the leaps and bounds are broadcasted and *liked, *shared, *reposted, *tweeted into oblivion. If there are questions and quiet whispers about why I’m still where I am, why I didn’t move there, or go for that job. Not even that out of everyone else, I was the one that used to care most of all. Most likely, the only one.

I am learning more now, in this chapter, than I have in all the previous. Which is how it always goes, but I was always guilty of trying to read ahead, becoming confused when I’d read the ending page of a protagonist I didn’t know. Each model of success I have in this field has stumbled, fallen, and kept going. Re-routes and detours were defining parts of the character mold that made them models.

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Having the gift of just enough clarity to see through the haze of bullshit, and recognize, is humbling. Recognize the mentors, teachers, character arcs and building blocks. Piecing together the puzzle as you find the parts isn’t common, and I’m trying to remember that. More importantly, that the puzzle is your life, and it takes years. I won’t have an idea of what it’s meant to look like until it’s almost complete.

To those that teach me – thank you. Encourage me – thank you. Motivate me – thank you.

To the ones that question? Keep asking. I want answers too.

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