The University of Minnesota is responsible for everything. If I hadn't been snowed in so many times during my sophomore year, I never would have noticed the Food Network, and none of this would have happened.
It started one frigid afternoon in the dorm lounge. I was sprawled across one of those oxidized-orange couches that exhaled an old, moldy smell every time someone sat down. The night before, Lisa Czarnecki, a corn-fed freshman I'd been dating for a few weeks, announced that she thought we should, "just be friends, y'know?" Staring at me from under the Brillo pad of bangs that has never gone out of style in the upper Midwest, she told me that I was a "really great guy," but that I just wasn't as interesting as Brandon Koplydowski. Brandon was the hippie on her floor who had spent the summer selling boot-leg Phish tapes out of the back of his van.
Now, Lisa Czarnecki of Dubuque, Iowa, was hardly my dream girl. But to be told that I was uninteresting by a girl whose most compelling feature was her third nipple was insulting. So when I woke up the next day to snow hurtling from the sky like spaghetti being thrown into a pot of boiling water, I didn't want to join my buddies building pornographic snowmen down by the river. Instead, I sat alone with the remote control, clicking through the channels and feeling sorry for myself. And then I paused on something called the "Iron Chef." After a few minutes, I pulled myself out of the upholstery and sat on the couch's edge as the competitors chopped and sizzled and dubbed voices described their masterpieces for the judges. Whether the chefs won or lost, they were all, at the very least, interesting.
From that day on, I was a foodie. I watched every cooking show there was, from vintage Julia Child to Mario Batali dancing through the Piedmont. I started taking Italian and did a semester in Rome my junior year, which passed in a blur of pizza, carciofi, and buckets of table wine. After graduation, I packed up my Nissan and drove east to get an Associate's Degree at the Culinary Institute of America.
Having never eaten at a New York restaurant (except the bar at Kennedy Airport where I got a hot dog on my way to Italy) before showing up in Hyde Park, I had a distinct disadvantage compared to many of my classmates. Most of us did share the same goal: to end up with a cooking show. But some of my fellow students already had agents. Many of them had culinary obsessions that they planned to use as hooks for their future stardom.
There was Julian, otherwise known as Blade, who always sharpened his knives under desks during class and could often be found in the woods throwing them at targets in the trees. Sierra was a vegan from Portland obsessed with legumes. Because of her accompanying flatulence problems, she never dated the entire time she was at CIA, even though she had a shiny coil of blonde hair that gleamed against her chef's jacket and a limber body that she constantly showed off by doing yoga on the lawn. There was the kimchi guy, the dumpling girl, the molecular gastronomy guy who burned his eyebrows off during an unfortunate chemical reaction, and Roberto, the son of a wealthy Mexican industrialist who always interrupted our professors' lectures to complain about CIA's cultural elitism. According to Roberto, whatever technique was being discussed had been ripped off from the food of his native Oxaca. It got annoying after a while, but it was entertaining to hear him lecture fancy chefs from Le Cirque and Le Bernadin about how the croque-monsieur was indebted to the tamale.
Although I never talked about it, I did have a pipe dream of my own. Ever since my dad and I went to Twins games at the old Met stadium and had our own Nathan's-style hot dog eating competitions, I dreamt of a gourmet hot dog stand. By the time I got to CIA, the dream had become more refined. I daydreamed about Boudin blanc sausages. Cajun style, not French -- filled with seasoned pork and spicy rice. Puffy rolls from an artisanal bakery. Grainy, tangy mustard and handmade catsup. Translucent ribbons of onions caramelized in butter.
I never shared my weiner dream with anyone at culinary school, and despite my comparative lack of shtick, I made it through. Then, like everyone else, I set off for the city. Like the other students without trust funds or Upper East Side townhouses, I ended up in Queens, where I shared a garden-level apartment in Astoria with three other guys. Each day we got on the train and headed for Manhattan with our chef's knives and resumes, and each night we sat at home, flipping through back issues of Saveur (the aspiring chef's version of porn), dejected. Inevitably each of us had spent the day getting rejected for sous chef jobs in favor of recent immigrants without high school degrees who could cook the pants off of us.
After a while, we started applying for jobs indiscriminately. Soon, my roommates had jobs -- not what they hoped for, but they were bringing in paychecks. Pete was cleaning fish at the gargantuan Red Lobster in Times Square. Sal worked a New Jersey family connection to get a job at one of the carbon-copy Italian restaurants on Mulberry Street. During the San Gennaro festival, he had to man the fried dough booth every night and came home with burns across his feet from spilling hot oil on his sneakers. And Vineet, the self-loathing Gujarati who hated all Indian food, ended up making naan in the tandoor at Curry in a Hurry on Lexington.
And then there was me. I interviewed everywhere from the chain restaurants in the South Street Seaport to pizza-by-the-slice joints up and down Manhattan. Then, on the day when I had $5.55 left to my name, I emerged from the subway at Ditmars Boulevard, turned on my cell phone and discovered two job offers: Mamoun's, the wood-paneled falafel joint on MacDougal, and Lifethyme, a hippie-dippie health food store with a huge prepared food business on Sixth Avenue.
Certain that I would be gainfully employed soon, I used my credit card to buy produce for a basic pasta primavera and cooked dinner for the guys so that we could discuss my options. Sal had been sufficiently scathed by his experience with zeppoli to warn me away from anything involving frequent interactions with a fry vat. "Besides," he said, twirling his linguine, "health food is hot right now. If you get experience doing that vegan, sustainable, raw food shit, you'll have a lot of options. We're talking Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, the whole nine yards."
The other two agreed. "Mamoun's is a place that everybody knows," said Vineet, "and there's stuff on the menu besides the falafel, but everybody's going to see it on your resume and think you were stuffing chickpea balls into pita all day long --"
"Which is the truth of it, tabouleh or no tabouleh," Pete interrupted. "You've gotta grab that Lifethyme job."
"But I haven't cooked much with a lot of their ingredients," I said. "Like quinoa? I'm never even sure I'm saying it right."
"And I hate Indian food," Vineet said. "Them's the breaks."
So the next day I walked into Lifethyme, past the wilted organic produce; past the steam table full of curried tofu, cold soba noodles, and hijiki weed; through the swinging door that separated the juice bar from the vegan dessert counter; and began my career as a health nut. From Jeremiah, the Rastafarian juice bar guy, I learned how to pulverize almonds into milk and recite the virtues of wheat grass to the Botoxed mothers who came in each day for their $11.00 Healthy Colon blend. From Miriam, the Zionist vegan, I learned how to use carob and applesauce to create pies, cookies, and cakes that tasted almost as good as the real thing.
But more often than baking with Miriam or processing with Jeremiah, I was chopping. The first and most important lesson of the Lifethyme operation, which I learned at the hands of Astrid, the kitchen supervisor, was that preparing steam table food requires lots of chopping. And shredding. And dicing. Onions, carrots, broccoli, red peppers, yellow peppers ... I spent entire mornings pitting kalamata olives for pasta salad so that no overly-litigious West Village customer could sue us for a broken crown. "This is why I put myself into hock for an associate's degree?" I thought as I chopped bunches and bunches of radishes. But, each night, as I read about the raw food craze, I re-convinced myself that my stint at Lifethyme would be a good career move.
Unfortunately, Astrid had it in for me from the beginning. I was almost ruined a few weeks in when she nearly spotted me eating a hot dog on Sixth Avenue. Even though Lifethyme wasn't a totally vegetarian kitchen, Astrid was a PETA-loving vegan and made it known to everyone on staff that being a vegetarian was a prerequisite to employment.
I knew the hot dog was a bad idea, but I was walking towards Lifethyme to confront another day of tempeh when I hit a dense patch of briny steam from the vendor on the corner of Tenth Street. My mouth started watering instantaneously, and I worried that I might not even be able to place my order without saliva spilling from my bottom lip. I was halfway through my weiner with sauerkraut when I saw Astrid's frizzy red head bobbing amongst the crowd. There was nowhere to hide, and no garbage can for the dog (if I could have forced myself to throw it away). So I took a deep breath, winced, held my weiner aloft and started shouting. "New Yorkers, we must say no to the animal-hating, artery-clogging hot dog. You read The Jungle in the eighth grade, right? This isn't meat, it's gristle and fingers and hooves."
The great thing about New York is that almost no one even looked in my direction as I ranted. But Astrid did. I even merited a nod of her severe chin as she passed. Then the hot dog vendor started hitting me in the head with his tongs. But I still had my job, and I even got to finish eating my hot dog. I would have been golden except for the root canal.
I'd been saving my spare change in a Café Bustelo can on the floor in the corner of the apartment since the ache in my tooth went from being every third day to once a day. I had no insurance, of course, so my dental options were limited. I thought about going to the student dentists at NYU until Vineet told me about his friend who went there for a filling and they drilled the wrong tooth. So I called every dentist listed in the yellow pages, and Dr. Feinstein was the only one I could afford.
In hindsight, there were many signs that I should have taken my chances at NYU. Feinstein's receptionist was willing to bargain with me over the phone. In his building near Port Authority, the floor directory listed Feinstein's services below those of the Honeysuckle Massage Parlor and a bail bondsman. The bathroom was a tiny converted closet with a toilet that never stopped running and no soap. But when Feinstein's obese hygienist led me to his ripped green-pleather chair, I sat down.
When Dr. Feinstein scurried in, his face was covered by a Dickensian eye shade. The thinning strands of white hair combed across his mottled scalp contrasted with the thick tufts of white hair bursting from his ears. My palms began to sweat, and I looked up. Many dentists have posters on the ceiling above their chairs; the dentist I went to when I was a child had a lush forest scene that I found very relaxing. Dr. Feinstein, however, had a National Geographic poster featuring lions ripping an antelope apart.
As Feinstein and his hygienist cleaned my teeth, they talked about the pathetic state of my gums and the Yankees. Then came the loading of the syringe, complete with a little Trevi Founain-style shot of painkiller into the air, before the plunge of the needle into my lower gum. And, finally, once the dentist started poking at my molar, there was the garbage-truck roar of his foot-pedal drill and the pyre of smoke pouring from my mouth.
After Feinstein snapped off his gloves, I exchanged my hard-saved $400 for a pink toothbrush and a magnet that said "Floss for Feinstein!" Then I looked in the mirror and discovered that the lower lip I could not feel was swollen like a B-list celebrity's after a day at the plastic surgeon's office. I took it lightly between my thumb and index finger and squeezed. Nothing. My lip did not even spring back into position after I let go -- the corner that I had pinched remained in a downward curl, like the sneer of an Elvis impersonator.
I walked out of the bathroom and approached the hygienist, who was inhaling a cannoli. "When can I expect the swelling to go down and the feeling to come back?" I said. Rather, that's what I tried to say; because I couldn't use my lips or my tongue, it came out more like, "Ennn nnn I 'pect da selling go doww ann feelie cuuuhh baaah?" She wiped some whipped cream off of her nose and furrowed her single eyebrow. "Oh dear," she sighed, poking my cheek with one of her long nails, "I thought he gave you a little too much. You're going to be numb for quite a while, sweetie."
As I walked out of the building, I felt other pedestrians' eyes swivel over to me, quickly look away, and then roll back again. In just two hours I had become a walking car wreck. For a while I covered my mouth with one hand as I walked, but that seemed to make people even more fidgety -- as if they thought I was going to vomit in the middle of the sidewalk.
I was supposed to work a full shift at Lifethyme after my appointment. By the time I got there, a thick string of drool connected my lower lip to my mandatory "Flaxseed! It gets things moving!" button. Astrid took no pity on me. "Gazpacho!" she crowed. "Summer means cold soup, chef boy. Get back there and start chopping!"
Astrid had already assembled the ingredients for me. From anyone else, this might be a kindness. From Astrid, it was the obsessive-compulsive's inability to let a subordinate control a project of any kind. Most of the time, this annoyed me, but that day, I was thrilled to face an organized prep table. It meant I could stop worrying about the possibility of trailing drool behind me throughout the store and focus on a few square feet of territory.
I faced my ingredients: a pyramid of garlic bulbs; crates of tomatoes, cucumbers, and red peppers; and, on the side, boxes of spices. Kosher salt, paprika, black pepper. And in the corner, a bottle of sherry vinegar. I was tempted to drink it.
After mopping up the lower half of my face and trying to push my lip into proper alignment, I got started. Perhaps because of my earlier ordeal, I enjoyed putting the soup together. For three hours I peeled and chopped multiple batches of vegetables. I'm sure the health inspector would have been horrified by the pools of drool that regularly accumulated on my cutting board, but I was careful to make sure that it never spread to the produce. When all the chopping was complete, I used our industrial-sized blender to puree the vegetables and then added a final golden slurp of olive oil. When I was finished, I had four perfect batches of gazpacho in industrial-sized silver tubs, covered neatly in plastic wrap, as well as a large bowl set aside for myself. Because somehow, despite my morning trauma, I was starving.
I sat at one of the long metal prep tables and began to eat. I was slow and careful at first, holding my lip in one hand as I spooned the smooth, cool liquid in with the other. But as my tongue began to wake up and register the occasional flash of salt, lemon, or avocado, I ate faster and faster. Even though it was chilly in the kitchen, warmth began to spread from my lip to my chin, down my neck, and to the top of my chest. I worried that the gazpacho might be too spicy, but I didn't stop slurping until my bowl was empty.
I strolled out of the kitchen to ask Astrid where she wanted me to put the gazpacho. When the girl Jeremiah was flirting with at the juice bar stopped talking and backed away from the counter, he turned around. I waved, and Jeremiah dropped the celery stalk he was holding. His eyes got so big that I expected springs to push them from his head, like in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. "Steve-o, man, what have you done," he whispered, moving towards me and looking from side to side. I shrugged and tried to speak, but my mouth still wasn't cooperating.
"Get to the bathroom quick," he said, "before Miss Thing sees you."
When I turned and started walking back to the kitchen, there was a trail of red splotches across the worn tile, but I assumed it was tomato juice. Only when I got to the bathroom and looked in the mirror did I realize what I had done. In my eagerness to enjoy the gazpacho, I had actually gnawed on my lower lip until it bled. From my bottom lip to the middle of my apron, I was covered in blood. My legs wobbled as I got closer to the mirror. There were bloody grooves in my lip from my own incisors. It looked like I had taken a cheese grater to my face to garnish some bloodthirsty risotto.
I hadn't even fully registered what had happened when I heard Astrid start to scream. Clutching a towel to my face, I went back into the kitchen, where she was waving her hands in the air. When she saw me, she did not ask if I was hurt, or if I needed help. She just yelled, "You bled all over my kitchen!"
Before I knew what had happened, I was on Sixth Avenue with my knives and my last paycheck -- still wearing my bloody apron. It's a miracle that I wasn't arrested as I crept to the train, or as I sulked through my train ride home. As I stared down at my blood-spattered lap and avoided the eyes of other riders, I examined the circumstances that had brought me to this humiliating point. Although I'd learned a lot at Lifethyme, I'd gotten away from what brought me to culinary school in the first place. (Not the getting girls part, though -- cooking in a health food joint was very good for that.) By the time I got to the apartment, I had returned to my childhood fantasy: the epicure's hot dog cart.
I got on the land line that I hadn't paid for in weeks and started begging. Cousins, college buddies, my parents. I even called my high school soccer coach. I started searching for purveyors and flew out to Kentucky to shovel manure with a farmer who my CIA professors described as "too crazy for Michael Pollan." I opened a new credit card just so I could fly to Mississippi and convince a Cajun sausage maker who had not been quite right in the head since Katrina to tell me his spice mixture.
Two months and the New York State vendor's licensing exam after my bloody departure from Lifethyme, I had a silver cart that I parked each day at the corner of Pine Street and William Street and sold my perfect sausages. The first six months were a briny nightmare of stolen merchandise, sore feet, and bad weather, but my clientele grew exponentially from the beginning, and in May I was featured on the evening news. Soon, I was able to hire employees and have several carts across the city. Then, I got backing to start selling the sausages in delis nationwide. A year later, my restaurant opened. I even got to go on Iron Chef. (I lost -- can't have everything.)
I don't work a cart anymore myself. I'm too busy with the back office stuff. But I'm thinking about branching out -- maybe opening a second restaurant. I'm thinking Spanish.
Maybe I'll call it Gazpacho.
-- Michele Host
Originally appeared 2009-06-15