It’s the beginning of February in New England, with many parts of the region are expecting a high in the 50s today. Meanwhile, the middle of the country has been battling sub-zero temperatures, able to freeze water (and noodles) on contact. This unwieldy yo-yo of weather not only does a number on buildings and natural elements, but it can also leave the body searching for its own rhythm.
In my line of work, I frequently enter the walk-in cooler and freezer multiple times a day, running from the hot grill where I’m searing chicken for Coconut Thai Curry to the reach-in fridge to snatch up some fresh cilantro, outside to take out the compost once I’m done prepping the butternut squash, and then in front of the stove to start the Vegan Lentil Stew. It’s the pace of the job that keeps me on my toes; I visualize a mental flow chart of the ingredients, where they are in production, and a timetable to make sure everything gets out on time. In some ways, working in the kitchen has its own rhythm, a cacophony of sounds that somehow magically arranges itself into music for the ears: the metallic clicking swipe of a vegetable peeler on carrots; the soft, airy tap of a knife through mushrooms; the irresistible sizzle and aroma of sweet onions in a hot skillet.
But once the food goes out, everything slows down. I can exhale, at least for a few minutes, and I recognize that I had been holding my breath. I take a swig of my tea and realize it’s stone cold and over-steeped; I didn’t have time to enjoy it in its prime. As I make my way to the microwave to reheat the mug, I feel the stiffness in my knees and pain in the arches of my feet.
The kitchen crew and I have about ten minutes of downtime before extra pans of food are needed; five minutes after that, we deliver dessert; ten more minutes, and the plates start coming back in; forty minutes out, and we are able to partake in any leftovers that come back into the kitchen from the buffet line. We make our plates and often take a few hurried bites before setting it aside to clean up – bringing in more dishes, packaging up food, scraping pans, letting the dishes soak, wiping down counters. We come back every few minutes, shedding our food service gloves and taking a few more cold bites of food before returning to our tasks. We take out the trash, compost, and recycling; we sweep and sanitize surfaces before mopping. With the dull click of the switch, we turn off the lights on the glistening, still wet terra cotta tiles.
Don’t get me wrong: I love working in the kitchen, and I love the rhythm that comes with it. In this particular environment of cooking at a retreat center, I get to experiment more than most – adding a little more ginger here, a bit more brown sugar there. I also really enjoy being able to feed others in a very physical and real way. Many of the guests are colleagues and friends, and when I’m carefully trimming brussels sprouts for roasting before they’re tossed with a sweet and sticky balsamic glaze, a lot of love goes into every step of the process.
But it leaves little room for me to enjoy food in its truest form, and especially in community, leaving the rhythm of my day off-kilter with meals landing in awkward times. How many of us eat breakfast in the car, or lunch at our desk? How many of us have meetings late into the evening, meaning that dinner is often reheated? So I’ve gotten a little creative in the past few months to help remedy this in the midst of the chaos of our lives: cooking for others in my home or in theirs. For Christmas, I offered my friends a four-course meal that I’d cook for them, and it was as much a gift for them as it was for me. We could take as much time as we needed – time to set the knife on the cutting board in the middle of a serious conversation, time to saute the vegetables to just a little bit more golden brown, time to fully taste and savor the flavors.
The first meal I created was for two beautiful friends who are moving to Chattanooga, TN in the next couple of weeks. I knew I wanted to share one last hurrah with them in the form of food, and the love and laughter we shared helped to set us all back onto a rhythm of eating with others and eating while fully present. We started with a Local Goat Cheese and Orange Cranberry Filo Tart with Thyme-Infused Honey – we had so much fun going to local cheese monger and trying so many cheeses, we weren’t sure if we would be hungry for the rest of the meal. Then we moved onto one of my childhood favorites, which I mistakenly called “Pukin Soup” at the age of five. I bolstered it up to create Pumpkin Bisque with Crispy Roasted Pepitas and Sage-Infused Olive Oil. Next we had Maple Baked Salmon with Sauteed Asparagus and a Miso Parsnip Puree – a wicked easy blend of roasted parsnips to bring out their sweetness, a tablespoon of white miso paste, and plenty of butter and cream to bring it all together. SO. GOOD. And for dessert, we finished with a Warm Vanilla Bourbon Blueberry Crumble with Fresh Whipped Cinnamon Cream.
With the sky turning an inky blue and the stars rising, we melted onto the couch, warm and content, laughing and exhaling, having finally found our rhythm.