My car crept up the mountain, zig-zagging first left then right on this rainy Spring morning. The thick fog sat on the mountains like huge bolts of gray organza, the tips the only thing visible. The whole world looked draped in a ghostly snow.
Parking the car, I discovered I was completely alone. First one arrived. The rain drifted down in soft splatters and the rocks crunched under my feet. Feeling the need for quiet to not disturb the magic, I tip-toed, taking pictures of the beautiful valley landscape which lay before me like the English moors. I heard a sound, and turning my head discovered a fox frolicking in the grass far distant. He wasn’t afraid, jumping ahead and then to the side, moving forward some, giving me a glance before bouncing around again. Then he stopped and moved into the brush. I continued to click photographs of the early blooms in the Montalto gardens, waiting for the most important food experience of my life to begin.
I had answered an email request for volunteers last April. Would I be interested in helping out chefs from Chez Panisse, The Inn at Little Washington, as well as world-renowned chefs Alice Waters and Scott Peacock? They needed help preparing the Monticello Founder’s Dinner.
Um, not really. Instead I’m going to allow my visceral fear of meeting one of the founders of the Slow Food Movement and the close friend and historian for *THE* Edna Lewis to cower me into a fearful ball under my bedcovers and pretend this request never happened. I’m going to let my stage fright anxiety rule my life and stay home and file my nails. OF COURSE I’M INTERESTED! What time, what day? It could’ve been my wedding day slash honeymoon and I would’ve called the caterers and cleared my calendar. When do I start?
To say I was self conscious upon their arrival is a complete understatement. I was a stuttering, shaky, nervous hot mess. I wanted to throw up. So completely self conscious about NOT appearing nervous, or worse, cocky, like I knew my way around a kitchen and no one would tell me what to do. More than anything I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way.
The looks I received from these cooks confirmed my suspicions. Here were several established, some famous, chefs tasked with creating an entirely local, and artisanal 6-course meal for 300 people and on top of that, they would have to teach this local podunk hillbilly volunteer the lay of the land. To say I was a greenhorn would be to put it lightly. It’s one thing to write about food, quite another to be plopped down amongst chefs from The Inn at Little Washington and Chez Panisse and be expected to hold your own. And more importantly, not get in their way.
I knew things would not start well when they asked me about my knife kit. Um, I don’t own a knife kit. Sure, I’ve got my favorite knife at home, a chopping/paring does-it-all wonder knife I got at TARGET, but a knife kit? Nope. All day long every time I asked to use a knife, the looks I would get from the chef I was borrowing from amounted to, “If you screw this knife up, my LIFE, I will fucking kill you.” So there was that added pressure. I felt like I had somehow bullshitted my way past the Top Chef entry tryouts and here I was in the finale. WAAAAAAY over my head.
I washed dishes, stripped rosemary off the stem, prepped blancmange moulds, wrapped huge steel bins for transport, loaded produce into refrigerators, all the while with a smile on my face and a, “Yes, Ma’am, Yes Sir” on my lips. I wasn’t some Lily Pulitzer housewife here for autographs and pictures to brag to my friends over chardonnay lunch. I was here to WORK. By the end of the day I was determined if not to actually be included in the group, to at least earn begrudging respect just from the sheer amount of my energetic (if not green) output. Ignorant but willing to learn.
I made myself as indispensible as possible. Every request was answered with yes. Even when it meant unloading trucks in the pouring rain, or washing pots and pans for the 12th time because the sink was full. Because that’s what you do in a kitchen. Wherever and whatever is needed so the end result turns out well. It was gratifying to notice how throughout the day, reactions to me softened. Their hard faces when they found out I was “one of them” (a blogger!) softened into a “Well, at least she works hard.” I was thrilled. And very grateful.
It actually took me a long while to sit down and write about this experience. I’m not sure why. Physical recovery was one factor, I swear it took a week before I felt any semblance of normalcy and all the aches, pains, and fatigue began to dissipate. Another part of me felt maybe it was all just a fantastic dream. I tend to dream vividly, maybe my subconscious had just created this scenario where I was actually helping award winning and established chefs prepare an actual meal and do it successfully and without dropping anything and looking like a total ass.
Probably more than anything I just needed some perspective, to allow the experience to marinate in my mind a little, to acquire more flavor and depth. To be able to look at it from a distance and by doing so, record what still stood out in my memories. Because those things are what was truly important.
With this much time and distance, I find the day’s details have softened into still images. Four people breaking down 22 lambs in four hours, across a huge steel table. The precision of their knives. Beautiful, methodical, food art. The smell of the rosemary and thyme as they came off the stems into the bucket. The way all that herb prep turned the tip of my thumbnail black, and how it was black for a week, reminding me that yes this day had been real. The grainy feel of the sugared raspberries against my index finger as I dove in for a taste to make sure it was just right. The sound of the rain on the pavement as an assistant and I loaded produce into the outdoor refrigerators, the soft “thump” they made every time they shut.
The fatty smell of the lard tubs as I washed, wiped and labeled them for transport. The smell of apple permeating the kitchen as the paté de fruit baked down into its extreme essence. The fibrous feel of the rabbit meat between my fingers as I broke it apart and placed it in the pan for confit. The feel of the hot water as I washed dishes and the memories of all the kitchens and all the dishes I have ever washed in restaurant kitchens flooding back. The feeling of being a real part of something important. That feeling of being part of a team.
The laughter and good-natured insults the kitchen staff and chefs threw at each other. What it felt like for me to individually wash, dry, and wrap 300 bay leaves. The four kinds of local butter that were tasted to determine which one was the best. How Mona Talbott set the table for lunch for Alice Waters and admonished everyone that neither Splenda nor plastic glasses must appear ANYWHERE in sight. How the chefs tested recipes, then retested again and again until the taste was exactly, perfectly correct. How at the end of the day, when I had nothing left, no energy, so tired I couldn’t even remember where I’d parked my car, Chef Christopher Lee from Chez Panisse put his hand on my shoulder and thanked me. “You were a huge help today.” Wow.
All day I kept waiting for Padma to appear and say, “Please pack your knives and go.” But they let me stay. And after agreeing to wash pots for the 13th time, they didn’t want me to ever leave. I was one of them. For a short, too-short a time, I was part of an amazing kitchen team. I’m so thankful. And I’ll never, ever forget it.
Note: No, there are no food pictures from that day. ‘Cause guys, with all the work we were doing, there just wasn’t time…