Preparing for a trip to Seattle, I found myself struck with a strange sense of melancholy, almost ennui. Nothing Baudelaire like, and nothing so existential as to wrestle with some Kierkegaardian notions of the world; I think between having my capstone project ahead of me, the uncertainty of employment come graduating in May, and the nature of the world we live in, there are some stressors in the back of my mind that, whilst running around doing readings or working on spreadsheets, they can stay in the back of my mind. But in the down time now, sitting, getting packed and getting preliminary work done of papers over spring break these thoughts have come rushing back in a way that is both frustrating and somewhat paralyzing.
It's times like this I return to the kitchen. Whether it was managing the kitchen at Stebbins Hall at Cal or working in the pastry department at Huckleberry, kitchens have been where I retreat to for calm. It's my other yoga, the mental space where everything becomes clear, focused, with purpose. When I start quartering fruit, crushing nuts, or compounding spices for blends, my mind goes into a mode set into me through Paul Bertolli's "Cooking By Hand", namely where does this item fit in the scope of a meal? In the scope of my home? My life right now? Will it accompany something I'm already making? Or is it a one-off experiment? Of course, this is preceded by another round of thinking done long beforehand -- namely when I go shopping, what do I bring home? I think to the world of advice in "Chez Panisse Fruit" and "Chez Panisse Vegetables" for tips and features about specific types of fruit and veg and the preps to extract flavor. While not one to take (lots) of fancy set up photographs of the food I make, I do think to the letterpress work of Patricia Curtan, and the unfailingly rustic, hand-hewn way she presents things. And I think of the connectivity between these works -- that in none of them you're being beaten over the head with preciousness and twee appliques. You're being given advice and kitchen banter the way that you'd hear between neighbors and friends.
I never worked at Chez Panisse; I've eaten there a half dozen times, and more than I can count at the restaurants and operations of alumnus from the CP kitchen -- especially Charlie Hallowell at Pizzaiolo in Oakland, and the Tartine After Hours of Samin Nosrat. But a lot of the things that come out of that kitchen -- especially the sensibility of "la famille Panisse" -- have come through in the spaces and people I have met through there, and through the books those folks have published, their online writings, and their openness in activity. A lot of my personal hospitality training and methods are gleaned from the my observations and interactions with the family at Chez Panisse, and they're things while commonsensical in mind are rare to be put into practice. Treating guests like family, and having a staff that does that too. Treating your work like a craft, and treating that as part of your whole person. And treating seasonality, cultivar, craft and a host of other things that sometimes get lost in this world (and sometimes get beaten over us with a stick) as something that is just at the core of a project, that inform how it runs, and are essential to the hows and whys and ways things are run as paying the bills.
That certainty of self is something that I admire about Chez Panisse, and its something that every time I enter a kitchen, I feel more and more. The cooks and authors of Chez Panisse have been my unintentional instructors, giving me the mindset to work in the kitchen; the service in their restaurants made me see what makes these places more than just restaurants but places of convivia and frankly, places you want to return to, that know you when you do, and are as much an extension of your home as can be naturally applied to the private sphere. Every time I go into a kitchen I feel those things come back to me. And every time I leave one I am reminded why it is I'm doing what it is I do.