I grew up in New Jersey in a big family – loud people talking over one another, huge hugs and Sunday supper at my grandmother’s house every week as traditional Italians tend to do. As I was a rambunctious and attitudinal little girl while my grandmother was traditional – children should be seen and not heard quite SO much – the only place her and I seemed to get along was her kitchen. I remember being mesmerized by her; she never measured, moved effortlessly but always with a purpose, and knew exactly what to do – no cookbooks. I didn’t understand how she could know all of these things that created the wonderful food I had become accustomed to on Sundays, but I wanted to learn. She would pull a kitchen chair over to the counter so I could stand on it in order to reach the counter to roll meatballs. I learned recipes, that cooking is an art, and how a meal can bring people together. I fell head over heels in love with food in that kitchen. We sold her house over ten years ago and I could still draw you a map of her kitchen to this day.
Once my fascination with food started, I couldn’t turn it off. My love for cooking and baking permeating everything, including my school projects. I enjoyed it but never occurred to me that it was an option as a career. Then, one night, I watched a particularly special episode of Iron Chef (back when it was only shown on Friday nights and was broadcast in Japanese). At the end of the episode, I sat there in amazement and thought, “I can do this”. Fast forward through high school and I found myself applying – and getting accepted to – one of the best culinary schools in the world. It was an incredible experience. After a medical mishap during my sophomore year, I eventually graduated with fibromyalgia, Celiac’s disease and a Bachelor’s degree in culinary arts. I was eager to gain experience and learn as much as I could, so I applied to every open position in a kitchen I could find once I was back in New Jersey. Ironically enough, my first post-culinary school job was working for a pastry chef. I spent years working in more than one kitchen at a time – cooking, catering, baking – whatever I could get my hands on. I worked for country clubs, high-end catering companies, fine-dining restaurants and small privately-owned businesses.
An opportunity presented itself to be on the opening staff of a new Daniel Boulud restaurant in Washington, D.C. Being single and in my twenties made it extremely feasible for me to pick up my life and move 200 miles away three weeks after I had an interview. Halfway through the first day of orientation, I called my mom practically in tears. The company was amazing; even though they were in the restaurant business, they understood that cooks are people, not superheroes. They offered benefits, competitive wages and overall had a philosophy for hospitality that gave me goosebumps. I was ecstatic. This was going to be the job that changed my career… I had no idea how right I would be.
Anyone who has ever helped open a restaurant knows that it is no small task. I’m not talking about the construction, the money or the permits; I mean once all your i’s have been dotted and your t’s have been crossed. When it comes time to actually get food in the kitchen and start cooking your menu. I was excited. It’s grueling and a constant state of chaos, but I’d done it before and was looking forward to the menu and the talented chefs that were leading us through the madness. I was hired to work the Entremetier station – vegetables and side dishes – for those of you who don’t know French or anything about the brigade system. I was responsible for every component on an entree’s plate except the protein, plus the side dishes you could order a la carte. Basically, anytime someone ordered any entree (besides a burger), I was cooking majority of what was on the plate. The protein guy was on the left side of Chef and I was on his right. We worked in tandem. Needless to say, it was a busy station.
If you know anything about fibromyalgia, you might know it is not a condition that appreciates an abundance of movement or lack of sleep. For those who don’t know, you should really look it up. It’s an invisible condition, people who have it look like everybody else, but they’re not. It is a debilitating and incredibly painful disorder, and I have it. The restaurant opened and was a booming success. After a few 70-hour work weeks with 300-400 covers on a Saturday night, my body started to break. My ability to move at the pace I needed to was impossible. My chef was incredibly understanding and let me step down to do prep while I saw doctors and tried to get a handle on what fibromyalgia was doing to my body. Stepping down didn’t help; as the days went on I moved slower and slower. I would work short shifts and still be in tremendous pain. By the third week of October, I told Chef I needed to take a couple weeks off and try some new medication. I hated to put him in that position and I told him I understood if he needed to replace me. Continuing the compassion and understanding he had always shone, he told me to take my time and just keep him in the loop. He didn’t want to replace me. At the height of all this I was spending 12-14 hours a day in bed because walking was too painful. After seeing a rheumatologist and trying new medications, it was evident that I had pushed past a point of no return. I was told what I needed to do to get to a manageable ‘normal’ and it was the antithesis of working in a kitchen. On Nov. 4, 2014, I called my Chef and told him I was going to have to quit. I wanted to do it in person but I knew I would have an emotional breakdown. He understood and told me if things ever changed to give him a call. It wasn’t fair for him to hold a spot for me when it had become clear that my career in kitchens was over. That’s when I started to lose it and Chef just put me over the edge: “I hope that’s not true. It would be a shame for you not to cook anymore.”
It’s been almost two years since I cooked in a professional kitchen. I can’t let it go, though. Hence the blog that will be inundated with the thoughts of a former culinary professional. They say time heals all wounds… so here’s to hoping.