Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Everything In Its Place

I recently had dinner with my friends from culinary school.  It was small group of us, exchanging war stories and proudly showing our burns.  Looking at my forearms, I noticed for the first time that most of my scars had faded.  My skin was smooth and the big red splotches that used to decorate my hands and forearms were gone.  My callus on my right hand from cutting pounds of fruit daily was barely a nub.  My kitchen wounds, it seems have been replaced by new woes:  a constant stream of spit up on my sweater, sore nipples, a sad breast pump that sounds like its dying every time I use it.

I'm always asked if I miss working in kitchens.  The answer is a definitive NO.  I miss the camaraderie of working with a dynamic and creative team of individuals challenging ourselves to a better dinner service or a more perfect plate.  I miss the exhilaration of clearing a board of tickets on a Saturday night.  I miss the banter and dirty jokes amongst cooks.  I miss making brioche daily and cutting a warm slice and smearing it with nutella and eating it with a cappuccino.  And I miss that shift drink.  The cold glass of beer or that lovely Riesling, I'd drink while I scrubbed down the kitchen relishing the kitchen's sudden quiet.  I think back now to my time in restaurant kitchens as an amazing ride where I learned how to get the best out of everyone on my team, how to lift 50# sacks of flour without hurting my back, and how to multitask and organize my day (something I still do).

The skills that made me a good cook like making time lines, to-do lists, and multitasking under pressure, also make me a good mom.  The "FIFO" or "First In, First Out" rules of restaurant kitchen's walk-ins also applies to my breast milk and leftovers.  I'm also pretty good at recycling leftovers into new dishes or making food out of a seemingly empty refrigerator (see previous night's leek and tomato crostata with pine nuts).  And while I'm no longer terrified by a visit from a New York Times food critic, I do experience some agita over whether my daughter will actually eat what I'm giving her or if we will engage in a battle of wills to get her to eat anything other than grapes.

One of the first things that you learn in cooking school is the term 'mis en place.'  It basically means "everything it its place," so for a dinner service the salt is always in the same spot so that you can turn around with your eyes closed and find the salt which makes you a more efficient cook.  As a mom, I strive to to have my mis en place together every day.  It's just different mis en place.  The dirty clothes go in the bin, Bean's princess costumes go in the basement, HT's diaper cream goes in the middle pocket of diaper bag, my breast shawl on top on diaper bag, pacifiers on dish drain, etc.  I get so mad when my husband doesn't put the diaper cram in the right slot in the diaper bag because then I spend extra time fumbling through the bag while my half naked baby rolls away, smearing her path with poo.  I tried to explain this phenomena with my culinary school friends and I felt like I was speaking another language.    I thought poop stories were funny in every language.

None of them had kids.  None of them wanted kids and my day to day life seemed both uninteresting and alien to them.  I live in a town where 3/4 of the moms stay at home and we share stories of poop and pee, lack of sleep and favorite playgrounds.  Yes, I talk about current affairs, politics, the weather, movies that I want to see (but probably won't), but kids dominate our conversations.  Our lives echo each other.  Everyone's story is familiar "I worked in X, took some time off with the baby, realized we outgrew our apartment in {insert Hoboken, Jersey City, Brooklyn, Upper West Side, Upper East Side} and then we decided to move to Jersey."  We are an unoriginal lot, and yet I've found great strength in commiserating with these women.  Sometimes, when you are so wiped out from being up all night and then getting up and doing it all over again, it's unbelievably comforting to see a mom friend with mismatched socks and zombie eyes because you don't feel so alone in your suburban existence.

As I tried to articulate this sentiment to my culinary friends, words failed me.  My one friend asked me in all seriousness, if I regretted having kids because it derailed my career.  If I could do it all over again, would I?  I was floored by the intimacy of the question, and shocked by it because by far, my kids are the greatest part of my life.  Easily.  No question.  They are better than any awesome dinner service.  Any shift drink.  Any white truffle shaved on anything.  They remind me every day to be a better person.  They give me strength and hope.  Kids make you less selfish.  Watching HT's giant smile splash across her face in the morning when she sees me or when Bean comes careening into my arms after preschool is the best feeling in the world.  I watched Bean help a little girl stumble through the pumpkin patch.  She held her hand, found the little girl's mommy in the crowd and steered her there while comforting her the whole time.  I just watched, amazed at my little girl's confidence, but also at her kindness and empathy.  I had a hand in that.  My actions, large and small, have helped form Bean into a caring, smart individual and is so much more rewarding that my former culinary career.

At some point, I'll return.  Hopefully, I can find some version of it with better pay and less hours away from my family.  Until then, I'm happy to wipe boogers and butts and cook for my family.  They might chuck it on the floor sometimes, but more times than not I get a "This is delicious, Mom!" And my only regret will be the dirty dishes.

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