This one is going to be from a place of frustration. I learned today that I didn’t get a job that I really wanted. I thought it would be a good fit, and I was looking forward to that new-thing, this-is-going-to-change-everything feeling. “You only like the beginnings of things,” as Faye Miller tells Don Draper.
So I’m a little busted up about that. Yesterday was a bizarre Waiting For Godot experience while I was waiting to hear, and I think subconsciously I knew that even if I got the job it wasn’t going to be the easy, fairy tale version of that story anyway, and so I feel more tired and empty about it than sad.
All that being said, I’ve had some amazing experiences in the last few days that I haven’t had the time to process or reflect on, so this post is going to be a little raw, a little messy, and a little stream-of-consciousness.
A Stranger Walks Into Town
A few days ago I got a text that my aunt was coming into town for a job interview. This was the first I had heard that she would be in town, and the first I heard that she might be moving into town. We had a very nice two day visit, in which I got to show off my new city and the things I’ve discovered in it, and she got a chance to get used to me, the “a and not-a;” both the same and different person that left California and knows things and knows things that she doesn’t know sometimes. We had two fantastic meals together, best meals in a long time for both of us.
I have been avoiding being a Salt & Straw person for years, but ever since going with Jesus Christ and his friends a few weeks ago, I’ve been dying to have people in town to visit with. I love their Strawberry/Balsalmic/Cracked Pepper ice cream so much, and its going to be a temptation forever for me to just get the same flavor every time (for example, this time I got an Almond Ganache that was delicious, but I’d rather have had the Strawberry). My aunt was overloaded with consumer choice, and the takes-everything-too-seriously focus on radical quality that is Portland’s stock in trade, but I was pretty amused too. After walking around 23rd, Washington Park, and stopping over at Powell’s, we went to Pok Pok.
A five minute wait for Pok Pok! Oh, truly the stars were aligned for us. It was delicious as always (I used my aunt being from out of town and married to a guy that hates fish to order the fish sauce wings). Their basil drinking vinegar was super delicious too. I’d never sat in the upstairs area, and it makes me wonder just how nuts people thought Ricker must have been when he remodeled the house that’s under there. We had a delicious dish of spicy fiddlehead ferns that I thought was so cool, both from a produce perspective and conceptually, as northwest fusion food.
The headphone jack on my phone is busted, and the road noise in the blue club van is nothing compared to the asthmatic vacuum whine of the engine. Given the choice between peaceful solitude and the unyielding chatter of talk radio and podcasts, I choose the chatter every time. The steady flow of ideas, arguments, and the New takes me away from the stupid waste of my day, from my cheap uniform, from my body completely.
The road to the school I’m visiting is filled with the windy switchbacking roads that remind me of the highway between Santa Paula and Ojai. There, as here in Washington, newcomers pull off as locals whiz by at breakneck speeds. Every turn was a surprise, as the road is enclosed inside the tall cathedral spaces under the pines.
I drive around one corner of the road and find a view so beautiful that I have to pull over in my rattletrap van to take it in, just for a second. I feel a little foolish, pulling off in my blue exclamation point of a van (LENTS FEED AND SEED, reads the peeling sponsor logo on the side), but I figure that anybody that notices is probably proud that their backyard can create such a reaction. The bruised and brooding sky is all gray light, light gray highlights and dark gray shadows play in the gray clouds and are mirrored on the surface of the gray water. It reminds me of a church, or else it reminds me of Ingmar Bergman reminding me of a church. There are old, stylish concrete pylons holding up the highway above the dramatic drop into the Gorge, and the cliff face is held back from sweeping away the road by rusted chain-link nets.
The school I was visiting was Canyon Creek Middle School, connected directly to the beautifully named Cape Horn-Skye school (in Skamania County, no less, another great name). I was curious later about the name of the school, because of the hyphenation (both for the spelling of “Skye” rather than “sky,” and also because it was pretty unusual to me that a name would be hyphenated with a place name). When I looked it up later, I found out that Cape Horn-Skye is the last incarnation of the two Skye Schools, which pioneers organized and built on the leading edge of the American frontier.
I’ve been fascinated by the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table, from the filmmaking team that created Jiro Dreams of Sushi. We live in an incredible age of documentary film. I’m just spitballing, but I imagine that part of the reason it is so good is that:
- We are at the end of an incredible growth period as documentarians have borrowed styles and techniques from feature films, and in some ways leaped past them.
- There’s an understanding on the part of the subjects that there is a potential for something great to come from the project, meaning that the right team can get very open and vulnerable (and, to be sure, media-savvy) subjects to cooperate.
- Digital video equipment has become better and smaller and faster and cheaper, meaning that there is a possibility of getting footage from smaller places, like a kitchen during dinner service.
I’m fascinated by the way that each restaurant, each service, each menu, is conceptual art. Like anything else, most of them do fall into types: fast food, casual Mexican, upscale American bistro. But each restauranteur or chef makes choices about how the kitchen works as a team, about what the relationship to the food is, to how the relationship is with the customer. I love hearing chefs talk about the choices they make.
It makes me think about classical music (I don’t usually, I gave my ears a break after graduating college and ever since it’s something that I know I’ll come back to listening but I don’t think its the kind of music that I want to make). What if each orchestra made unique decisions about the relationship between the conductor and the players, or the orchestra, the venue? What if musical institutions made their brand on reinventing and exploding standards, like Massimo Bottura, or an opportunity to educate towards a better future, like chef Dan Barber?
The other thought I had was about the kitchen brigades of the featured chefs. For (not very hard to understand) reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about work, excellence, and shared purpose. One side effect of the radical second person perspective of these documentaries, in which nobody but the featured chef and one or two others—critics, associates, or family members—is allowed to speak, is that the supporting cooks and chefs that make up the kitchen become silent acolytes, bowing at each station, intoning the mantra of “Yes, chef” (or in Dan Barber’s kitchen, more creepy, a slower and full throated “Yes”). Even the radical closeups of food and hands means that the people attached to those hands blur into the shadowy background. I kind of get it. Restaurant work has always struck me as the worst kind of repetitive (maybe not the creative side of it, but for sure the cleaning and prepping side of it), but I understand finding yourself in a place where excellence is chased beyond all human proportion and every day is a real opportunity to figure out something new, and never wanting to leave. I was once talking with a friend, a tremendous musician and all around good guy, who had just started at an organic farm. This friend was commuting by bicycle just to get to a transit station where he could get a ride to work, for fairly low pay. He was explaining that one of the couple that owns and runs the farm made lunch every single day and all of the workers ate together, and how that one thing makes him want to stay forever. “It’s the most humane workplace I’ve ever been in,” he told me.
A Stranger Walks into Town, Part II
On our second evening, we went for a late dinner at ClarkLewis, my favorite restaurant in the city. We were one of the last tables seated, and my aunt was Into It. The menu sent her into overload, as she wanted to ask about every ingredient of every dish, appetizer and cocktail. Fortunately, we were matched with the perfect waiter, a thin, ropy man in his ’50s with a city drawl that unfurled at its own pace. He was full of helpful aphorisms. On the tagliatelle: “Pasta…is pasta. As for me, when I go out, I order lamb.” On the delicious looking Pimms and gin cocktail: “You know these kids keep thinking they’ve reinvented the wheel. I’m fifty-four years old. I’ve already lived through the razzle-dazzle. It’s not rocket science—you start with your base spirits, add a nice mixer, then some bitters and a garnish. I’m sure it’s a nice little sipper. But as for me, I like to try the base spirit, and if I like it, I order a shot.” She had lamb, I had a delicious sturgeon. Both were the best thing I’ve ever tasted. We finished up with dessert at Pix, and I had the best frothy cheesecake confection with basil ice cream. I love aromatic food and drinks, herby and delicious.