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Cooking for Life



Published November 28, 2007 at 1:10 p.m.

The instant the man entered my taxi, I knew he was a cook. It wasn't the distinctive, black-and-white checked pants, the muscled hands or robust physicality. No, the giveaway was the scent.

Post-work and pre-shower, chefs give off a distinctive aroma. I often drive them, so I should know. It's the smell of all the food flavors of a commercial kitchen blended into one pungent potpourri. If all the players in an orchestra were to hit a different random note simultaneously, it wouldn't quite resonate as music; in much the same way, this amalgamated victual bouquet isn't immediately identifiable as food. Sometimes, on nights when my nose is up to snuff, I can guess the cuisine - Italian, Thai, etc.

"How about Essex Junction?" he requested. "I have to check on my tenant."

"Essex it is," I replied, and swung the cab eastward into the windy night. "Finished your shift?"

"Shift? Ha!" he retorted in a hoarse voice. He was below average height but projected a tough-guy air. With his tightly bunched features and short-cropped brown hair, he brought to mind one of those compact, tenacious creatures, like a meerkat or a marmot. "My 'shift,' if you want to call it that, is 17 hours a day. I'm the head chef."

"So, basically, you're at the restaurant all day?"

"That's right, six days a week. And half the time, I end up stopping in to check on things, or deal with some emergency, on my day off."

I have respect for the hardworking man or woman, even if it appears to the outsider to be overwork. I used to be convinced that achieving a fulfilled life requires balance, whatever that is. But I've come to understand that balance is relative to the temperament of the individual; one person's overload is another person's smooth sailing. It's astonishing to observe my various certitudes fall by the wayside, one by one, over the years. As I get older, the mystery of life seems to expand rather than shrink.

"Your restaurant seems pretty popular. How many covers do you do on a busy night?" I was showing off a little bit with the lingo. In the restaurant business, a cover refers to a single customer ordering a meal.

"Well, maybe 175 covers, which is nothing compared to the last place I worked in New York City. It was a fancy Italian joint, and we could do 750 on a Saturday."

"How long you been up here?"

"I was recruited by the owner to come up and run this place about six months ago. He knew I was good, but I don't think he knew what he was getting into." He paused to chuckle at that thought.

"How so?" I asked.

"On my first day on the job, he says, 'Jim, take a few days to get the lay of the land, see what the staff is capable of. Then, slowly, you can start shaking things up.' So I go into the kitchen and, within three hours, I'm screaming at the cooks. This went on non-stop for a week or so. Finally, I begin sending staff home for a few days without pay. That did the trick, I'll tell ya. Now they're doing things right."

"Where did you learn your skills?"

"I did 21 years in the Navy. By the end, I had 400 people working under me. That's cooking, man."

We turned onto Industrial Avenue, the wind blowing with a ferocity that actually made the vehicle shudder as we moved through space. The last of the autumn leaves, shriveled to pale versions of their October glory, were holding on for dear life. Alas, this pitiless November gale sounded the death knell; faded brown and yellow leaves skittered across the road like ghostly confetti.

"So," I said, bringing my attention back into the cab, "you've already bought a house and took a tenant?"

"Yeah," Jim replied. "I'm renting out the whole house. I thought I was gonna live out there, but it makes sense to be closer to the restaurant. So I took an apartment on top of a nearby bar. My boss is friends with the bar owner, so I got a great deal on the place. I really don't need much space, anyway. I just bought the Essex house as an investment. I figure I'm going to be here at least 10 years, until I'm about 55, and then retire."

"Man, that's great if you can pull it off. What do you think you'll do then?"

Jim let out a sigh and scrunched up his already thickly creased face. "I think I'd like to travel to Ireland and Sweden. Or maybe I'll buy a tiny Fiji island. Apparently, there's a slew of 'em that are privately owned. Yes, sir, I'll establish my own little kingdom."

"The Nation of Jim," I postulated. "Sounds appealing. I mean, if you're Jim."

We laughed together for a bit, and Jim said, "You know, the truth is, I'm a cook. I've been doing this my whole life, and I'll probably be doing it until the day I die."

That was remarkably honest, I thought. And, for this guy, checking out over a hot stove in the middle of a dinner rush, saucepan in hand, would probably be way preferable to keeling over on some beach in the South Pacific.

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