I stumbled upon the position by accident, having parked in front of the establishment which is part retail store, part take-out restaurant. I entered the shop that day and swallowed hard at the beautiful dried sausages laid out on a glass board, the shelves of ripe cheeses, the clear case filled with colorful ceramic dishes holding prepared foods made with the freshest ingredients. Toss in a delightful chat with one of the owners, and the words “Are you hiring?” slipped out before I knew I was going to say them. In the end, I accepted a position because the idea of working at a place like this has lived in me for ages—even though I was clueless about how physically hard it would be to stand on my feet, lifting heavy dishes and cuts of meat over eight-hour stretches. After two months, I still come home more tired from one day-long shift then after a full 40-hour week at my old office job.
But with this gig, so unlike all others I’ve had, I perform my work with a connection to the product that makes selling it second nature. The chef was trained at the Culinary Institute of America. He worked for many years opening restaurants for a celebrity in the epicurean world whose name, if you know anything about the restaurant industry in the United States, you’d recognize. On occasion, I witness him, eyes staring off in space as he concentrates on developing a dish, seeking the perfect ingredient the same way sometimes I search the air for just the right word. Bottom line, as I discovered with Brussels sprouts recently, this man can cook the you-know-what out of anything.
However, that's not it by a long shot. His wife is an eager partner who imparts her knowledge and passion about the cheeses she sells with a focus on quality and customer service that compels people to purchase. As a result, in the short time I’ve worked there, I’ve come to recognize regular customers who return, always smiling, always eager, thrilled at the experience and choices that are offered in the little shop. This may sound simplistic, but while working there, serving up this luscious food amidst such an upbeat environment, I can actually feel myself helping to make people happy.
All this is a long-winded way of saying that in spite of the ache in my hands and the bones that throb after every shift, I am positive about this new venture in my life and have learned to listen to the suggestions of the owners.
So, when the chef recommended that I read food writer, Ruth Reichl, I went right out and purchased Tender at the Bone, one of four auto-biographical books she's written. If you've never heard of Reichl, according to this bio that I lifted from her blog:
“...she was the restaurant critic of the The New York Times, (1993-1999), and both the restaurant critic and food editor of the Los Angeles Times (1984-1993). As co-owner and cook of the collective restaurant The Swallow from 1974 to 1977, she played a part in the culinary revolution that took place in Berkeley, California.”I had no idea about all that. I recognized her name as the former editor of Gourmet Magazine.
Sadly, other than an occasional dentist office visit, I was never a reader of Gourmet, which met its demise in 2009. Since my own cooking revolves around comfort, the name of that publication intimidated me. Now I have an idea of what I missed. All I can say is that if you want to read a well-written, humorous and sometimes gutsy memoir by one of the country’s most respected food writers, get this book. Reichl won numerous James Beard awards (something like an Oscar in the food world) for food writing. After reading Tender to the Bone I know why. She writes in a wry, self-deprecating manner while painting word pictures that capture the essence of her experiences. Take this:
“We went down a few steps and found antipasti winking and glistening on a table in the front, as beautiful as jewelry. There were eggplants the color of amethysts and plates of sliced salami and bresaola that looked like stacks of rose petals left to dry. Roasted tomatoes burst invitingly apart and red peppers were plump and slicked with oil. Great gnarled porcini sat next to tiny stewed artichokes and a whole prosciutto was on a stand, the black hoof and white fur still clinging to the leg.”No word of a lie, I was hungry after I read that.
Then there was this, which she wrote about her first experiences in the restaurant:
“When I was in the restaurant I felt grounded, fully there. While my muscles ached from the hard physical labor, my mind strained to anticipate problems. When my shift was over I was often so tired I could not walk the six blocks home.”Ding, ding, ding. Sound familiar? Skip back a paragraph or two. But here’s what really got me. Toward the end of the book she writes:
“That fall I decided to become a caterer. Fate intervened. When I got back to Berkeley, I was offered a new job.Imagine that. She's one of the best known food writers in the country, and if you take her at her word, she didn't plan on writing as a career. She fell into that job, almost the same way I've stumbled into mine.
One of the Swallow’s steady customers had become an editor at a San Francisco magazine. He called me and asked, ‘Can you write as well as you can cook?’ I said, I wasn’t sure, but that I had always liked writing. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘how would you like to try out as a restaurant critic.'”
Hmmm. Granted, she started a lot earlier, but maybe there is hope for me yet.