Chef de Partie

Memories are tricky business for the recently introspective.

Having spent the majority of our lives programmed to use our minds as a resource – to drill into them and extract information like ore and natural gas, which is then smashed and burned to some greater end. We are hesitant to break rank. No amount of therapy or meditation makes it any easier to live inside a memory, to swim in its details and let every color and sound sweep over our bodies without actually doing anything with the material. It is anathema to the productive citizen, heretical to the common order of things: remember, dissect, implement, learn, store, and repeat.  The cadence of the cycle beating like a drum down the hallway of time – your straw hut burns down so you build of brick, brick crumbles so you smelt steel, planes crash into steel so you take a Valium three times a day with water.

But when I try to remember, only the useless information floats to the surface. I remember Miguel, a self-taught beat-boxer and father of three, hunched over the sinks with yellow gloves up to his elbows. The kitchen – all stainless steel and white tile – fogs with the steam of boiling water and resounds with the clash of metal, culture, egos, and impatience. I can find the symphony of pots and pans, the elegant dance of sharp knives across the backs of silvery fish. Names, faces, odors, and particular quirks of the Primadonna staff come to me in the night, reminding me of happy times, hard times, fast times. I can organize these thoughts, alphabetize them, then shuffle the deck only to reconstruct them just as before with added clarity. Sometimes I see stains that looked like this celebrity or that, plating which stood out against the hundreds of similar orders dished, or the beaming faces of countless tourists who, “just had to meet the chef.” If hard pressed, I could name the Christmas Eve 1996 special – something beef, maybe with new potatoes and carrots. But this act of recall is masturbatory, lacking in even the slightest use when I seek meaning in the noise.

This person or that likes to remind me that a sharp memory is often tied to emotion – perhaps you aren’t invested in remembering what happened, Chef. This person or that is often very well intentioned, typically a friend or associate who has nothing but the best interest in my recollection. I like to remind them that investment takes capital, and I am emotionally impoverished as it were. If it were as simple as borrowing emotional currency, perhaps I would have taken a loan out years ago from one of these pure souls who seek only the best for me now that my mind has betrayed me. As I understand it, the terms and conditions when borrowing from a trusted friend and true ally are almost always favorable to the would-be sentimental entrepreneur.

There are other factors at play of course – selective memory, repression, self-preservation. Nasty, biting little bugs crawl between the cracks in your memory and eat away at your sanity in the name of self-interest, borrowing from the vividness of your high school graduation to weave opaque webs across the night your restaurant burned down. You fight them on several fronts, hoping a battle won at the East will free up reinforcements for the Western push. I focus on my first kiss and the taste of Christina *****’s lips, tinted purple with artificial grape. Lists form in my mind – every car I’ve ever owned, my favorite bands as the compare to the amount of merchandise owned, the order in which my grandparents died, the order in which I wanted them to die, the order in which I want to die (body first, then mind, then spirit). The exercise is meaningless, exhausting.

I want to remember the rum for drinking and the rum for dousing the counter tops, the latter of which runs down the sides of my pristine prep stations in sticky, dark veins like roots seeking the dark of the earth. I wish to speak clearly and confidently about the position of the clocks hands, bent lazily at four o’clock with a half dozen rotations to go before the lunch crew rolls in with hungover smiles and dirty hands. There is no memory of walking past the back room, where Miguel is sleeping one off on a cot because he had a fight with his woman and the staff drinks free on Sunday nights. There is no shimmer remaining which shows me marching directly out the front doors, wiping rum from my hands, and wishing – for a moment – I would have brought a jacket because November is cold, whereas Primadonna is now very, very warm. I pray for the confusion of spark and flame, the sound of shattering glass and the care with which smoke climbs across the skin of a building when it isn’t in a rush to get anywhere.

Instead I remember the weight of a good knife, and I remember to curl my fingers ever so slightly to protect the tips when chopping anything fine and delicate. This I am allowed, because it is important to learn from our mistakes.


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