Saturday, February 28, 2009

lenten journal: edible art

Some years ago, Ginger and I were in Paris and we attached ourselves to edge of a tour group walking through Notre Dame Cathedral, mostly because I wanted to pick up a few more pieces of useless facts and information to store in my brain. The guide was talking about the stained glass windows when we walked up, pointing first to the North Rose window that dated back to the original construction in the thirteenth century. She then pointed to the South Rose window and said. “This, however, is the new window,” she said, “which were installed in the fifteen hundreds.”

The new window was older than most anything of historical significance -- even in Boston, where we lived at the time. Good art has staying power.

For Christmas, my chef gave me an absolutely gorgeous cookbook – a work of art on its own terms – called Pork and Sons. Besides offering some amazing recipes, the book is beautiful because it is the story of a family’s relationship to food – pork, in particular – and because of the incredible images of the dishes described.

In my business, we think about how the food looks almost as much as how it tastes. Presentation is a big part of the picture, which is why (I have to keep telling Ginger) that we sprinkle “all that green stuff” on top of the dish before we serve it. I want the plate to offer a visual invitation even before you bite into it. Even in the heat of the dinner rush, we work hard to make sure the plates look good, to create edible art, which is intended not to last. The whole point of our preparation is for the customer to deconstruct and devour the dish. If we do our work well, when the evening ends the room is empty, as are our pans, and we have nothing to show for our work except the knowledge that we sent folks home full.

Of course, they will wake up hungry again tomorrow.

As much as I like making beautiful food, the memories of meals that hang like portraits in the gallery of my mind don’t revolve around what was on the plate as much as who was around the table. As Vanier says, “Food and love are linked closely” (35).

The hardest thing about restaurant work for me is I don’t get to talk to most of the people who eat my food. I do make a point of getting out in the dining room several times during the course of service, but I don’t get to meet most folks. One student comes in a couple of times a week with her boyfriend and orders the same thing. She gets the Roasted Chicken Marsala, but asks for only the sides of mashed potatoes and vegetables, and butternut squash on top. I have the squash on hand to sauté and serve, so I make the dish. After about the third time, I took the plate to the table myself and said, “I need to put a face with this food.” We had a nice chat and got acquainted a bit. Now when she comes in, the server simply comes into the kitchen and says, “Megna’s here,” and I know what to cook.

For now, the incidental contact will have to do; I pray it will not always be so.

I think I have spent a lot of my life praying it will not always be so – related to any number of things; I feel as though I’ve lived on the cusp of things, mostly moving and rarely feeling settled. That’s why, I suppose, these words of Henri Nouwen tucked away in my readings found me tonight:

When you pray, you profess that you are not God and that you wouldn’t want to be, that you haven’t reached your goal yet, and that you never will reach it in this life, that you constantly stretch our your hands and wait for the gift which gives new life. This attitude is difficult because it makes you vulnerable. (118)
When the artisans set the glass in the windows at Notre Dame, they knew they were building a house of worship. The building took so long to complete that the ones who started the construction were not the ones who completed the cathedral; it took almost two centuries. Whether working on the intricacies of the Rose windows, or stacking the stones for the walls, I can’t imagine any of them found it easy to grasp an image of what they were building together other than some abstract idea of a church. Once finished, it has continued to be a work in progress, requiring restoration and rebuilding due to the damage done by the wear and tear of the following centuries. Though the edifice stands as one of the most recognizable building in Paris, its art is not so much different than my nightly offerings: neither is ever completed.

We share one other thing in common (at least I hope we do): for all our effort to create something beautiful, the art itself is not the point. A restaurant is not a bad metaphor for church because the idea is to incarnate two of Jesus’ invitations: “Come and see,” and “Take and eat.” We spend a lot of energy in church making sure things are “right,” which is not all wrong, yet we have to check ourselves to make sure we have not lost sight of our calling to make a place for everyone – particularly for those who live at the margins of life.

In every kitchen where I have worked, the only person who has a meal prepared for them everyday is the dishwasher, the one at the bottom of the ladder. Regardless of how busy we are or whatever else is going on, we take time to feed the guy stuck at the dish machine. It doesn’t make his job any easier, I suppose, but it lets him know he is regarded and cared for. He’s one of us.

And it’s my favorite meal to make everyday.


Friday, February 27, 2009

lenten journal: a friend of time

We run a two-person line in the kitchen at Duke, which means I have one other guy cooking with me at dinnertime. As the year has gone by and we have developed more of a customer base, the two of us stay quite busy; Wednesday night we served 104 dinners. One of the ways we are dealing with our growing business is to teach Tony, our dishwasher, how to cook with us on the line, which falls into the time honored tradition of how one works his or her way up in the kitchen. The cooking lessons happen on the nights when Abel is working because Tony is newly arrived from Honduras and speaks less English than I do Spanish. Both my and Tony’s vocabularies are growing because two of the four nights Abel is not there and we have to communicate with one another.

One of the words I learned first was espera: wait.

Our roasted chicken Marsala requires us to wait until the pan is smoking hot on the stove before adding the oil (and waiting for it to get hot) and then the chicken. When the dish is made with patience, the skin browns and crisps beautifully, but if we don’t wait, it sticks and tears.

Espera. Wait.

When the tickets are stacking up and we are trying to get the food out, it is tempting to push a bit, but then we are left with offering less than our best work, mostly because we failed to add enough patience.

One of my traveling companions for this Lenten journey is a new little book by Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier called Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness. The title alone led me to believe it was a voice I needed to hear for these days. I’ve not been disappointed. In the introduction, John Swinton describes Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, as a gentle man and goes on to say,

Gentleness is a vital dimension of the kingdom of God (Matthew 11:28-30), but it is a learned skill that requires work and demands patience, slowness and timefulness. Such work means that we have to become “friends of time,” a patient people who recognize that “we have all the time we need to do what needs to be done.”
I am fascinated by time. I make time, take time, have time, lose time, waste time, save time, and spend time, but I’ve never thought of befriending time, or living with timefulness. What a great word. I couldn’t find the word in the dictionary, but I did find a reference to it in an online article that spoke of “yoking our awareness to the present moment.”

If I can go back to the kitchen for a minute, when the ticket prints, telling me someone wants the chicken for dinner, I make a choice. I can choose to let my sense of time be controlled by the little piece of paper saying they want dinner NOW, which leads me to rush the dish; or I can see the ticket as an invitation to take the time I need to prepare the dish well: taking a minute or two to get the pan hot, and more time for the oil to warm, and more time for the chicken to brown, and the sauce to reduce, until the dish that goes to the table does so with, well, timefulness.

As much as the latter choice seems the obvious one, I’m well aware of how hard it is for me to live timefully. Espera doesn’t come easy. Whether it’s the dinner rush or some other self-imposed deadline, I can quickly become consumed with The Task at Hand, and push time and everyone else around with the pugnacious impatience of a conductor determined for the train to leave on time at all costs. I know what needs to happen and I want it to happen now.

Time too easily becomes a force, rather than a friend.

As Vanier begins to tell his story, he invokes Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, focusing on Jesus’ words,
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
And then he says,
My life has been privileged enough that I never quite knew where I was going.
I laughed out loud when I read the sentence because it took me back to the parking lot of the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas many years ago. Ginger and I drove there after a family gathering in California because neither of us had ever seen the city. I was taking our bags to the car about nine in the morning and followed two people out for whom it was still the night before.

One said, “I tell you one thing: you gotta know who you are and where you’re going.”

“Well, hell,” the other replied, “I’ve always knowed where I was, but I ain’t never knowed where I was going.”

I was still thinking about them when I read this paragraph:
What makes transformation possible? Jesus says that when we’re born of the Spirit, we don’t know where that Spirit is coming from or where it’s going – there is a reason for not knowing. Transformation gives us the audacity to advance along a road of unknowing. At the same time we can’t be totally unknowing. There must be points of reference . . . .” (27)
I wrote in the margins, “I may not know where I’m going, but I know who I’m going with.” Grammar aside, I can see the transformational possibilities when I can remember the who more than the where. To be friends with time is to choose people over tasks, shared moments over schedules, passion over punctuality. When I have the wherewithal to live with patience and intention – to let the pans get hot, if you will – much less of life is left stuck and torn.

Espera. Wait.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

lenten journal: mirepoix

The word for the day is mirepoix.

Relax. I don’t have forty-odd French cooking terms to bend into Lenten metaphors. But I do have two. Mirepoix is the French name for the “trinity” of ingredients that serve as the foundation for most soups: onions, carrots, and celery. In Cajun cooking, you substitute bell peppers for the carrots. You can also add bacon or ham for some soups. The point is to create a layer of flavors on which to build the rest of the recipe.

I love making soups. For me, the idea behind the mirepoix has been inspiration to learn to think about layers of flavor, building from the foundation on up, that create something that is both familiar and intriguing. I was talking to another chef last week about this very thing and he said, “Do you make marinara sauce?” He then went on to say, “The next time you do it, roast a couple of poblano peppers, peel them, and then puree them into the sauce along with the tomatoes and garlic and basil. It adds something special.”

I have a chili recipe that relies on a can of Guinness and a square of dark chocolate to create layers of flavor that make the chili taste even more like it should. When I make mushroom soup at work, I throw in the rinds from the parmesan cheese (we save them) and let them stay in the soup the whole time it is cooking. The soup doesn’t taste like cheese and yet the hint of parmesan makes it more intensely and intriguingly mushroom, even as you try to figure out what else is going on as you taste it.

I had coffee yesterday with my friend Claudia who told me about her experience at a Japanese tea ceremony. I have never seen or participated in one of the ceremonies, so I may be taking things out of context, but what stuck with me was the phrase she took away from the event: one moment, one meaning.

We had a good talk about the power of being present in the moment and letting it mean what it means right then and I left thinking about the paradox of existence that affirms the truth of the present tense alongside of the layers of truth that make up our lives. A number of years ago, I wrote a short story about a man waiting to hear the results of some medical tests called “Waiting Room.” One of the paragraphs said,

Time stands on its head like a circus clown. We do not move forward, only up and down. We are every age we have ever been or will be in any and every moment, as if the moments of our lives happen simultaneously, though we experience them one by one.

I am fourteen at my brother's military funeral;
I am seven putting a tooth under my pillow;
I am twenty-eight and my son has survived the surgery;
I am sixteen pulling out of the driveway for the first time;
I am fifty-four holding my first grandchild;
I am thirty stretching to touch a name on the Wall;
I am nine going to the principal's office for cutting off Sally Jeffrey's pigtail;
I am twenty-five lying down next to my wife for the first night in our first home;
I am seventy-two being pushed down a colorless hall to a semiprivate room;
I am eighteen registering for the draft;
I am forty-five with my Christmas bonus;
I am sixty-one at my wife's funeral;
I am thirty-seven waiting to hear the results of my brain scan.
The meaning of the moment is magnified by the mirepoix of life, the foundation of experience that has simmered and shaped us with all that has come before and, in some mysterious way, all that we have yet to become. Whatever taste the moment leaves in our mouths is colored, at least in part, by how well the foundation was laid. In the short expanse of time in the doctor’s waiting room, I imagined the man suspended in the moment, with time stacked on top of itself, rather than stretching out in a line, each moment feeding the present where he hung between desperation and relief.

In his poem, “Live in the Layers,” Stanley Kunitz wrote:
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Live in the layers and one moment, one meaning are not so far apart. If I sink myself into the present tense, into the layers of the moment and ask, “What’s here?” rather than, “What’s next?”, I can begin to taste the flavors set down at the foundation of the world: life tastes like Love.

There is a recipe for mirepoix: fifty percent onions, twenty five percent each of carrots and celery. Peel the carrots and the onion. Pull the leaves off the celery. Dice everything small and as uniform as possible. Get the pot hot, add butter or oil, then the vegetables, and cook them slowly. I like to cover the pot to keep in the moisture that develops because I think it adds to the flavor. Though the best soups, I think, are made more from leftovers than recipes, I still begin with laying a good foundation, making sure that underneath it all is what I know is true.

“And so these three things remain,” Paul said: “faith, hope, and love.” The mirepoix of existence, if you will. (I suppose in this analogy, faith and hope would be the carrots and celery.) If I speak with the tongues of angels and have not love . . . .

For these days, I’m going back to a foundational flavor and reading again A Guide to Prayer for All God’s People, a wonderful devotional book that has left its mark on me. One of this week’s readings seems to fit here, from Why, O Lord by Carlo Carretto.
No, it is not easy to grasp that the only way to suffer less is to love more, especially in politics. At the risk of seeming weaker. Yes, at the risk of seeming weaker I shall not build an atomic bomb, I shall not give my enemy a whack in the eye to show that I am stronger, I shall not make war, I shall not squash my tomatoes and apples with a tractor to keep the price up, I shall not destroy forests to build factories, I shall not poison the sea.

If love is the rule of my politics and the thrust of my action, yes, I really shall suffer less and I shall cause less suffering in others, some I shall be loving more.
Yes. That’s how I want to flavor the world.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

lenten journal: mise en place

I don't come by organization easily.

I've never been one to know exactly where a particular piece of paper is, nor one who naturally finds a way to categorize life and collect things in an ordered fashion. I suppose I could compliment myself somehow by saying I'm a more organic organizer, but the truth is it takes me a long time to figure it out. We have lived in our house here in Durham for almost a year and the kitchen is just now beginning to make sense to me; I am just now beginning to figure out where things go. And I've chosen a profession that thrives on organization.

Go figure.

I've been working at the restaurant at Duke about a month and a half longer than we've owned our house, so I suppose it's no surprise that I'm finally figuring out a system there as well. You see, when you go into a restaurant and order a dish, whatever time it takes them to prepare and serve it is dwarfed by the amount of time it took to prepare to be able to cook the dish to order. If we want to serve our Brown Sugar-Dijon glazed salmon to you in a reasonable time frame (and we do), long before you begin to make your way to our dining room, we have cleaned and portioned the salmon, prepared the glaze, cut and roasted the seasonal vegetables (tonight’s were roasted zucchini, carrots, yellow squash, and radishes), and made the sweet potato polenta far enough in advance for it to set and then cut it into sticks to fry. All of those things are in containers and cold drawers, waiting for the ticket to come through that will call them into service and us into action.

And we have a term for it all: mise en place, which translated means, “to put in place.”

My work day at the restaurant right now runs from eleven in the morning to nine at night. Of those ten hours, six of them are spent getting ready. Sometimes six and a half, when there is a lot to prepare. The prep list is driven by the menu, each dish requiring six or seven tasks to get them in place for cooking. If we prepare well, the evening generally goes well, regardless of how many customers come in. Our well stocked mise en place means we are ready for the unexpected. Then there are the nights when we let ourselves believe we are well stocked when we know better, leaving one or two things a little short and, of course, by some strange intuition the first ten customers come in and order the thing we have nine of, sending us into a spin, trying to do that which we are no longer prepared to do.

And we know what the menu is.

Mise en place struck me as an appropriate Lenten metaphor a week or two ago because Lent is a season of preparation. When I sat down to write tonight, I began to ask, “Preparing for what?”

Yes, I know we are walking to the Cross with Jesus. Yes, I know we are getting ready for those dark days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Yet, as moving as Maundy Thursday services are for me and as palpable as the grief can be, we live on the business side of the Resurrection. Christ is risen. If I’m getting ready for something is it not something more than acting out the obvious? Perhaps, then, Lent is mise en place without a menu: getting ready for what we do not know.

If I have done my prep work well at the restaurant, I don’t have to worry about the small stuff and can concentrate on the bigger picture, if you will: on making sure the plates are excellent, my communication with the staff is clear, and that I have time to go out into the dining room to meet some of our customers. I’m preparing to free myself to see more than slicing and dicing, to see the whole instead of the parts.

When I am at my most distracted or disorganized is when life descends into details. Though it alliterates nicely, it sucks to live out. During January and February of this year, I wrote fewer blog posts than I have any months in the three years I’ve been writing, other than a couple of months when my depression had the best of me. For the first winter in almost a decade, I have not been depressed; in fact, I have felt more hopeful. My struggle, I think, is related to organization: I’m trying to figure out how to put things in place to be who I want to be. Many of the nights I have chosen not to write because I wanted time with Ginger (which is at a premium on our current schedule), or I chose to sleep (which is a health issue). I have worked hard to see a bigger picture and not be legalistic. My goal when I started writing was to write two-hundred and fifty posts a year, mostly because I wanted to develop the discipline of a writer. I am still committed to that discipline and I want to see a larger grace that allows for time to lay fallow, to do something other than keep up production.

And I knew Lent was coming when I would keep my yearly promise to write a thousand words everyday. I knew I was getting ready to, well, get ready: to put things in place. The menu I’m working with includes doing a job I love that has grown to be larger and more demanding of my time, investing in my marriage in a way that offers Ginger more than the dregs of my existence, writing this blog and some other things I want to be on paper, cultivating friendships both old and new, and growing to be more faithful in my life. This is the season for me to make my prep lists and do what I need to do to get ready for life beyond the Resurrection, for living out those days we call Ordinary Time with flavor and intention.

I’m grateful for the time to prepare.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

theological esperanto

I’m not sure when I first heard of Esperanto – high school, I think.

Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof invented the language in the late nineteenth century to foster international harmony. Rather than pick one language for everyone to learn, which might leave the native speakers of that language with an advantage or an attitude, everyone would learn a new one. Though it is still around and in use, Esperanto has never really caught on.

And it hasn’t really crossed my mind until Monday.

As I was driving to work, I called my blog friend, Jimmy, who is in New Orleans building houses. Jimmy lives in Oxford, North Carolina, where he is both a carpenter and a pastor – and a beekeeper. We got to know each other as Ginger and I were moving here and he has been both a source of information and honey over the past year. He has been deeply moved by the plight of those who are still homeless and hurting because of Hurricane Katrina, so much so that he decided to see if he could raise enough money to support his family so he could go to NOLA and work for a month building houses.

When he answered the phone Monday he was already on the job, and helping to manage three or four mission groups and Christian organizations who had building teams there. It has been a month; he is not ready to come home.

“I’ve talked with my family,” he said, “and we’ve decided that as long as I can raise the money, I’ll stay here.”

Now, he does come home from time to time – such as this week for his daughter’s playoff game. Still, his heart is in the Crescent City. As we talked, he told me about the different groups there and how some of the politics and theology have gotten in the way of their cooperation. Jimmy sees part of his calling there as building bridges between groups to maximize resources and help the most people. He is working to help people see the painfully obvious: love, or should I say, Love is not limited by doctrine.

Love, I suppose, is theological Esperanto.

And though it is our Mother Tongue, that which gave birth to us, it seems it is a language we have to learn how to speak, or at least open our hearts to hear. Thank God, Jimmy is shouting it from the yet unfinished rooftops of New Orleans.

We that have ears to hear, let us hear.

You can read the stories of Jimmy’s last month at his blog, Woodshavings. The link he put up some time ago where one can send donations is broken. I encourage you to leave a comment on one of the posts and ask him how you can be a part of rebuilding New Orleans and relearning the language we all know by heart.


P. S. -- Jimmy, the song is for you.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

finding my roots

It’s been a long time since I was an English teacher, but I am still capable of correcting mistakes, being bothered more than most by ones we, as a society, have chosen to let slide. “First Annual . . . ,” for example; it can be the first, but it can’t be annual until there is a second one. One-time happenings do not a tradition make. They may make us hopeful that we’ve started something, but the roots of tradition take time to grow.

That said, I’m hopeful I’ve begun a new tradition. Actually, the tradition already exists, I’m just hopeful I can become a part of it. Fishmongers, a local seafood institution, has a tradition of an oyster special on Friday afternoons: seven bucks a dozen. My invitation to join came when my friend Terry called yesterday afternoon.

“What are you doing?” he asked, which was an introduction to the more important question: “Would you like to go to eat some oysters?”

The answer to the second question was an unequivocal YES.

He picked me up a few minutes later, and before long I was digging into my first dozen, accompanied by a Newcastle Brown Ale. As luck would have it, Ginger was out walking with Lori, Terry’s wife, so I called them to inform them of our plans and they changed their walking route to meet us at the restaurant. The four of us had a great time together, and then the women headed off to finish their walk and Terry and I stayed to finish our beverages and continue our conversation. I came home happy and hopeful that it was only the first of many of my Fridays at Fishmongers.

I can feel my roots beginning to grow.

Two or three songs into the show last night, Joseph Shabalala, the founder and leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, spoke to the sold out auditorium about music and tradition. Ladysmith has been singing for forty-eight years, taking the harmonies that grew out of the suffering and hardship of the mineworkers and giving it life as a healing force.

“Tradition is like a tree,” he said; “the deeper the roots grow, the stronger the tree becomes, and the wider the branches.”

They sang songs with roots that grew deep, going back beyond the destructive violence of apartheid, back beyond the mines, back to Shaka Zulu, to what it means to be African, to what it means to be human. I thought about the tree that fills our front yard, which must be eighty or ninety years old and is the same tree that was planted even though it’s own existence is testament to all its changes. Whoever planted it all those years ago hardly could have imagined how it would tower over our little house any more than Shabalala could have imagined his singing group would grow to sing at Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Prize ceremony, or tour the world, or end up singing with Paul Simon. When they sang “Homeless” last night, they talked a bit about the collaboration, now over two decades ago, and then introduced the song by saying, “We are all homeless.”

And yet their songs called me home.

My deepest memories of Africa are musical ones. Sundays, as a boy, meant meeting at Matero Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia. The harmonies the guys brought to the stage last night were the same ones that sprang from our congregation each Sunday: rich, rhythmic, and relational. As they sang, I found roots I didn’t know I had, roots that run deeper than all the moves I’ve made, all the disconnects, all the rootlessness and homelessness I feel. As they sang, I could see faces – Wynnegood, Norman, Rebecca, Lazarus -- and smell the dust that swirled around the church, feel the breezes that blew through the open windows, even hear the rain on the corrugated tin roof that made it almost impossible to hear on stormy Sundays.

After all of these years, Africa has not let go of me. My roots, withered as they seem, remember with resilience and I find myself feeling like a prodigal reclaimed. In the same evening, strangers with songs and a new friend offering oysters both came to say I belong, which is a message I crave, over and over again.

The climatic scene in the movie Ratatouille comes when the grizzled old food critic tastes the little mouse’s signature dish and is pulled from his cynical self all the way back to the hungry hope he knew as a child that was satisfied by the same dish at his mother’s table. In a similar way, the harmonies took hold of my heart and pulled it across oceans and continents to a place in my childhood full of meaning and emotion. Though Zambia is not my home, I was reminded that I felt at home there and it has not let me go. It was less about remembering a place than it was remembering who I was. Who I am. My roots are deeper than I ever imagined; my branches wider.

William Cowper wrote

sometimes a light surprises the Christian when he sings
it is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings
when comforts are declining he grants the soul again
a season of clear shining to cheer it after rain
“I had a farm in Africa,” Isak Denisen began Out of Africa. I had several houses there myself, which I left long ago. But last night, Africa came and found me with melodies that broke my heart and healed it again, even as I walked out of the room resonating with memories and into the cool night of my new town.

Terry says Ladysmith comes around almost every year. Whether last night was a first annual event, I don’t know; I can tell you by the next time they come I will have eaten an awful lot of oysters.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

joy in mudville

Today is the day, baseball fans, when we hear the words we want to hear:

"Pitchers and catchers, report."
And if you want to know one of the reasons I'm a Red Sox fan, I give you Kevin Youkilis, who just signed a multi-year deal and still showed up early to spring training.

Go Sox.


Monday, February 09, 2009

goutez, goutez, goutez

I have a growing shelf of books about the experience of being a chef, thanks to my friend Mia who is kind to send one at every birthday and Christmas, and sometimes in between. This Christmas’ offering was The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn. The book has both interested and encouraged me.

I had to run an errand on the way to work one day last week and ended up with a few minutes in the parking lot before I had to be in the kitchen, so I pulled the book out to read for a bit. In the middle of the chapter I was reading, Flinn described the Chef making a consommé:

Chef carefully removes the clarifying ingredients and pours the consommé through a passoire. He tastes again with his spoon. Satisfied, he adds perfectly diced vegetables.

“Goutez, goutez, goutez,” Chef begins. “C’est tres important . . .”

Anne translates. “Always taste, taste, taste, as you cook. Chef Guillard believes this is very important. If you wait until a dish is done, then it is too late to fix the seasonings. You must taste everything as you go along, every ingredient.”
Thursday night it was Chef #2 and me in the kitchen again. Tuesday night I had made a concerted effort to approach things differently. I had a much shorter prep list for him and worked hard to frame things so I didn’t play into an adversarial relationship. He seemed more accommodating as well, and the evening went OK. Part of the change I made was to take the lead in calling the tickets as they came in and give him a more limited responsibility, and he responded well, leading me to rethink my assumption that the problem was his lack of passion; perhaps he was just struggling to keep up. Thursday night, we saw our first customer a little before six (we open at five) and our last just after eight – in between there were sixty-seven others who came, unannounced, for dinner. In that time frame, also, the printer in the kitchen became temperamental after we changed the paper and a couple of tickets got lost. One of our servers, in particular, became discombobulated.

Duke Dining Services sends anonymous students in from time to time to evaluate all the eating establishments on campus. (You can see this coming, can’t you?)

The server came back first to ask if a customer could get an appetizer portion of the Butternut Squash Ravioli. My answer was yes. Several minutes later, she came back with a ticket for said ravioli to be served with a medium steak. A crucial detail is I make the ravioli myself, but I can’t make them to order, so I freeze them. They have to be in the pasta water for a good four minutes to thaw and cook; when I pull them out of the water, I always press them to see if they are cooked before I drop them in the sauce to finish the dish. About the time we started the ravioli, six dessert orders came in, so I asked Chef #2 to finish the dish. He timed it with the steak, which had already been cooking, and sent them out together.

The ravioli came back. It was still frozen.

When the server returned, she said she had forgotten to write a Roasted Chicken Marsala on the ticket and needed one, as we say, on the fly. Once again, I needed Chef #2 to get it done. I was finishing the desserts as the dish went out. A few minutes later, one of our other servers came to tell me one of his friends was eating dinner with us and was doing an evaluation. I went out to see how their dinner had been and, yes, they were on the receiving end of all that I have just described.

Needless to say, we got a poor evaluation, which listed, among other things, that the ravioli was still cold and the Marsala was bland. I could hear the French Chef saying, “Goutez, goutez, goutez.”

My mind was full of woulda-coulda-shouldas. I should have gone out when the ravioli was sent back. I should have double-checked his dish before it went out. Then I moved on to the reality of our needing to send an order out every two minutes for two hours. Those things crossed my mind before I even got back to the kitchen. As I opened the kitchen door, I made a decision not to say anything to him about what had happened. Part of my choice was driven by my need to finish the inventory before I went home; part of it was I wasn’t up for a confrontation; part of it was I’d been in his shoes. I picked up my clipboard and finished my tasks.

We had had a good night. One table – a table with an evaluator – had gone bad. Next Tuesday, I thought, as we are getting ready for service, I will go over the evaluation and remind him to taste, taste, taste.

About that time, one of the other servers came in to tell me there was someone else in the dining room who wanted to speak with me. I went over to a customer seated close enough to the evaluator for him to have heard what had happened.

“I just want you to know,” he said, “I had the ravioli and it was amazing. The cinnamon pasta. The filling. I’ve never had anything like it.”

His order went out after the frozen one. While I was still doing desserts. And Chef #2 cooked it. I was grateful I had chosen not to speak to soon.

On Friday, I stopped by the used bookstore in our neighborhood because of a comment on my “Redemption Center” post that mentioned Flannery O’Connor. I got two of her books for about five bucks and came home to read the story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” which tells the story of Julian and his mother, whom he despises for her unwillingness to change with the times. The story is set in the South, in the thick of the Civil Rights struggle. Julian and his mother are white, and they are riding on public transportation, which means blacks are on the bus as well. When she embarrasses him by her actions, he comes down both angrily and condescendingly. When the story ends, he is on the precipice of what O’Connor describes as “his entry into the world of guilt and shame.”

Perhaps the parallel is a bit overstated for what happened Thursday night, still it strikes me that the entry into the world of hurt presents itself, sometimes, as a clear gateway and other times as a trap door. I had decided Chef #2 was low on passion and high on attitude; I watched and listened a bit longer and found he’s trying to adjust to an environment that may not match his skill set. He does have some of the attitude, but not for the reasons I assumed.

We are often offered opportunity to enter the world of grace, and take those around us along. As I learned again Thursday night, most of the time I find that door by stumbling in.Like the chef tasting and tasting along the way as he prepared the soup, I had managed to find some redemption in the evening by moving slowly and not over-seasoning my responses.

At least I can see that looking back.


Sunday, February 08, 2009


I spent yesterday sorting through
the stacks of papers – bills, mailers,
magazines, notes, bills accumulated
on the dining room table; some
required a decision of me; others
needed nothing more than to be
thrown away. I had to pay attention.

I understand more why archaeologists
have to dig through layers and layers
to find those who came before us.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

redemption center

About a month ago, as I was sitting in church, my mind bounced from one hymnal to another as we sang something familiar from our song book and the next thing I knew the song playing in my head was an old Sunday night favorite from my Baptist days:

Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it
Redeemed by the blood of the lamb
Redeemed by his infinite mercy
His child and forever I am
(The tune most people know is this one, but my favorite is Aubrey Butler’s version.)

I spent about a week working through a blog post on what the word redeemed means to me, starting with licking S&H Green Stamps for my grandmother so we could go together to the Redemption Center and turn them in for stuff. When I was in seminary, I used to drive by the an S& H Redemption Center and imagine lines of people waiting to be changed, in much the same way I wish, when I hand my parking ticket to someone and ask to be validated that they would say, “You’re awesome.”

Every time I have tried to write about all of this over the last few weeks, I get here and I don’t know where to go. Though I love the melodies, I have always struggled with the sacrificial atonement as it was taught to me because I never understood who needed to be satisfied. (A discussion for another post or seven.) Somewhere along the way in my life, the word took on real meaning for me because of a phrase in the King James Bible that occurs twice (Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5):

redeeming the time.

I always read the phrase to mean making meaning out of what was happening. I came back to the phrase and my vain attempts at writing about redemption after reading the article on Bruce Springsteen in the new Rolling Stone that called out at me in the supermarket line this morning as I stopped to buy cereal and applesauce on the way to work. As he talked about how he grew into his life as a rock singer, he said,
But if you learn to organize your desires and demands and shoot them into something that is more than just being you, you start to communicate. I wanted to be a part of the world around me.
Wait – there’s more.
All you want is for your voice to be part of the record, at a particular time and place. You try to be on the right side of history. And maybe some other kid will hear that and go, “Oh, yeah, that sounds like the place I live.”
At the risk of being overly quoteful, one more:
And the fire I feel in myself and the band – it’s a very enjoyable thing. It carries an element of desperateness. It also carries an element of thankfulness. We are perched at a place where we want to continue on – with excellence. That’s our goal. And all the rest of the stuff – we’re gonna figure it out.
Though I wonder if Fanny Crosby and Bruce have ever been mentioned together in a blog post before, I have no doubt she knew of the creative tension between desperation and gratitude that Springsteen so beautifully names. If the two were street names, we would know the address of the redemption center: that place where we continue on with excellence, figuring the rest of the stuff out.