He called himself a cook, which seemed like such a casual title for someone staffed in the kitchen of a Michelin three-star restaurant. But cooking was what he did, preparing another chef’s recipes as a steppingstone on the path to his greater culinary dreams.
We met years ago in a Flatiron bar as Thursday evening drifted into Friday morning. He had just finished work. I was heading home for bed.
“You’re leaving?” he said. “It’s so early.”
He seemed invigorated, but I think it came more from the rush of having worked a great day in the kitchen than any energy I brought to the encounter. And that was enough for me to stay a little longer. When I could no longer keep my eyes open, I zipped up my coat and he asked for my number. A few days later, around 2 a.m., he used it.
Have you ever been texted in the middle of the night to say: “Yo! Got the goods 2 make charcoal-grilled Miyazaki Wagyu w/Welsh onions & jus gras”? I hadn’t either.
I pulled myself out of bed and waited by the door. When he arrived, his arms full of groceries, I wondered if I could still be dreaming — a late-night date ripped from some forgotten romantic comedy. A date of eating when I wasn’t hungry and talking when I should be sleeping, all for the whimsical hell of it. Plus, the food was good.
That’s how he courted me: only after the kitchen had closed. A few times a week he would come over between midnight and 2 a.m., usually a couple of hours after I had gone to bed, and would stay until before dawn, cooking, eating and laughing. Then he would take his long subway ride from my Upper East Side apartment back to Brooklyn.
Only a few hours later, it would be time for me to go to work, which I could barely manage. I was exhausted to the point of being nearly delusional.
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A whole new activity had been added to my nights while my days’ activities remained the same. I would wake at my regular time (though there was no more need for breakfast), shower, dress and head to work, taking the subway from 82nd and York all the way to Chelsea Market, where I would sit at my desk from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., fact-checking Zagat guidebooks while dreaming about the restaurant-quality meals being made in my own apartment.
Though the city was filled with blogging foodies, I wasn’t one of them. I fell into my job at Zagat as a means to an end, a way to pay my bills so I could write the things I wanted to. Every day I logged on to my computer and scrolled past the username “achlumsky,” belonging to Anna Chlumsky, who had worked the same job as me for some months and whom I now watched every Sunday night on “Veep.”
“She had other dreams, too,” I’d think. “I’ll get where I’m meant to be eventually.”
That “eventually” was pushed further away the more time I spent with the cook. Being up with him at all hours made me too tired to do anything beyond work, sleep and eat. At the same time, seeing him was exhilarating as we invented ways to get to know each other while the rest of the world slept.
Soon he was teaching me how the meals were made. I stood in the warmth of my growing feelings and gaslit stove learning to heat my pan to a temperature the Michelin Guide deemed acceptable for a two-inch-thick cut of prime beef. None of my friends were dating like this. It was a rebellious engagement, like two children up past bedtime.
Whenever the cook visited, he would arrive with new abrasions on his arms — damage done by open flame, the greatest hazard of his job. One night, a particularly bad burn stretched all the way from wrist to elbow.
“You should put something on that,” I said.
“But it’s going to scar.”
“Scars are good,” he said. “They’re reminders of what you’ve done.”
“Yours are a little misleading,” I said. “You look like you’ve seen hand-to-hand combat.”
“I have. Every night in that kitchen, I fight for what really matters to me.”
“No,” he said. “Not a job. I’m going to open my own restaurant. Where I’ll do my own menu. It’s going to be my place, my hang. I’ll stand in my own kitchen, tell some other dumb kid what to cook, then I’ll look at these scars and remember everything I did to get there. But maybe you don’t get that. Maybe you only understand jobs.”
It was a crushing blow. Of course I understood; I had dreams too. But I was sacrificing mine for a guy who wasn’t compromising on his. We were doing everything on his schedule, which left me too exhausted to do anything else. I didn’t think I had a choice.
I wondered if it all could flip if I were to insist. We could meet on my lunch breaks, in his off hours. He could be the exhausted one, staying up during his only opportunity to sleep. I could keep my free time by taking his.
A few times I tried to push for a change, but it never worked. After we had been dating on his schedule for months, he picked up a second job at another restaurant. With him working seven days a week, we tried going out during his break on a Saturday, but he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
“How’d you meet your last girlfriend?” I said.
“She was a cook, too?”
“Oh,” I said. “So you hung out when the restaurant closed?”
“Yeah, when else.”
I walked him to the subway as the sun rose over the East River. Stepping into the morning light, I saw him anew, and he must have seen me the same way.
“You’ve got a couple scars,” he said, pointing to my knee.
“Just from falling off my bike,” I said. “Not from pursuing my life’s quest.”
That night, I sat down to write. And when the cook texted to see if I was awake, I didn’t answer.
A few days later, I asked if he could meet before work instead of after, but he didn’t respond. As my schedule straightened out, our worlds untangled. I tried calling him one last time on some odd Tuesday afternoon, but there was no answer. And I felt relieved. I began to pour myself into my own dreams again, as strait-laced as it was. I returned to going to bed at a normal hour and sleeping through the night.
My time with the cook had changed me, though. And in the restaurants, coffee shops and taco trucks I passed every day, I saw another world. Yes, the chefs were central, uncompromising in their visions and discipline as their loved ones adapted to their rules and schedules — no easy task. But that was only part of it.
Orbiting each chef is a universe of so many others. Some, like me, simply seek a means to an end in their particular industry. They sacrifice their potential for “normal” Friday night dates and weekends with their families in order to pay their bills. In order to feed the rest of us during our time off.
Last March, when restaurants closed their doors because of coronavirus, I thought of the cook (and the new hostess girlfriend I imagined for him) closing up an empty dining room. After, they would go home and make a 7 p.m. dinner for themselves for the first time in their lives together, before going to bed and falling asleep at a reasonable hour.
How suffocating to be forced from one schedule to another without any warning. Without making the choice. How hard to have the brakes slammed on the road that mattered most to him.
Every day I walk by restaurants in my neighborhood and see all the ways they are adapting for our benefit. I see the makeshift takeout windows, the tape on the ground showing customers how to line up six feet apart. I see the ingredients of their recipes being sold like groceries. I see chairs stacked on tables with signs that say “No Seating” and the gloved and masked employees who had been lucky enough to be kept on payroll.
All visible wounds from the battle we’re waging against this virus. Some will eventually heal, but not without scars — this time, an unwanted reminder.
I think of all the dreams that are ending and those that will never begin. I think of all the sacrifices being made and wonder if any of it will be enough. And I feel grateful for the cook, his dreams and even the sleep I lost for him.