My mother was a cook; it was the one job where she could take her skills when my dad died young and make enough money to support our family. She loved cooking and was able to take that love and make an unexpected career of it. My mother, driven by need and shear determination, moved from the familial kitchen with ease to her first job in the large hectic kitchen of a high school kitchen feeding no less than 1500 people a day (This was back in the day when schools actually had actual kitchen staff and hot meals that didn’t come from a warming bag or a microwave).
When people would wax romantic about wanting to pursue the life of cooking for a living, she’d ask “Show me your arms”. If there wasn’t a healed burn scar or a scar from a knife cut done in a haste to get a dish out, she’d tell them to consider other employment. Her arms were a pattern of healed and healing burn and knife scars; a huge bottle of aloe vera always had a prominent place in our home kitchen.
She often told me—real cooks had scars, and those scars included the visible and the invisible. I grew up around these women and men who cooked in industrial kitchens, eventually working several summers with them during college breaks. It was hard, fast work that depended on impossible rhythms and the people who populated that world rarely had the patience for fools and people who couldn’t cope with feeding hundreds of people in a very short time. I once grabbed a knife from my mom’s station during a hectic summer camp job feeding several hundred campers and forgot to put it back. When people talk about the difficulties about working under their parents, I always say, “Well, yeah, but I bet your mother never threatened you with a knife during a lunch rush, because you stole it from her station”.
I learned valuable skills from these people—from how to chop garlic and onions correctly and fast, and how to work a meat slicer and not take my hand off in the process. I appreciated their attitudes and the weird sense of humor that they had about life and cooking. (I once was privy to a conversation between my mom and the other cook who basically did an entire spiel during a lunch prep on comparisons between making meatballs and handling um, certain parts of a male anatomy.)
My mom also liked the bad boys—the Johnny Cash’s of the world, so when Anthony Bourdain hit the New York cooking scene, she was a fan. They shared so many cooking beliefs; that garlic presses were evil and that you always needed to push your palate to new horizons. She passed in 2004, and when I finally read Kitchen Confidential, a few years later, I heard her voice many times in that book and the advice she gave me about cooking and eating out, from not ordering fish on a Tuesday and the importance of shallots and butter as cooking foundations.
Tony, like my mom, had scars both visible and invisible. My arms sport a few of my own from the hectic world of cooking. I have my own set of invisible scars that I have picked up as I move through life. So, when I heard about Anthony Bourdain’s passing last week, the loss was significant in a way that is hard to express. Because losing Anthony Bourdain is like losing my mom and all those people from those long ago summers of hot kitchens all over again. And when I cried over the morning news, it was for all of them, the battle scarred misfits of the kitchen.