Last fall, I moved from New York City to Europe to intern at a fine-dining restaurant, where I suddenly found myself struggling to blend in with a staff of highly experienced cooks, preparing the mise en place for a twelve-course tasting menu. I had always been an ambitious home cook, though I had never worked in a professional kitchen before. But my new desire to cook at this level was prompted by two converging crises: the pandemic and a bad breakup.
Just before the pandemic, I had moved out of the apartment I shared with a long-term partner. I spent the next several months — first at my sister’s apartment in Los Angeles, then back in New York in a studio sublet — mulling over the miserable details of the unexpected split: how he’d surprised me with his suitcases; how I’d vomited in the bathroom sink while he wept loudly on the kitchen floor. While telling me he was leaving, my boyfriend poured me a huge glass of water. He was always pouring me these unwieldy glasses of room temperature tap water; it was his first and last caring act. While we were dating, drinking them had come to feel like an obligation I resented. But each morning that I woke up alone, parched from draining so many tears in tissues strewn about the bed, I found myself wishing someone would come and hand me an over-filled, lukewarm glass of water.
Once I was single, the women in my life promised me I could take care of myself, but I wasn’t so sure. I was 31 years old, but felt like I had regressed to the maturity level of my early 20s. I kept leaving my phone in bathroom stalls and eating breakfast at four in the afternoon. I didn’t see the point in cooking for myself. Instead, I spent my time on dating apps, chatting up every “in search of something casual” skater boy and aspiring DJ I swiped across. I was naively surprised by how abruptly these conversations turned from sympathetic heart-to-hearts to requests for nudes. “Losing love hurts the soul,” one stranger wrote to me. “And I don’t want you to think I’m just another creep,” he continued, “but if you’re totally comfortable, I was wondering if you wanted send a pic of your boobs ; )”
Conversations like these made me feel alienated and unsafe. I was angry at my ex for stripping me of the safety of our relationship just as the world became a more threatening place. While all my friends seemed to be burrowing into the wholesome comforts of their home, baking sourdough bread and braising short ribs, I was alone, sexting strangers and eating the crusts of stale toast for dinner.
“I feel like a degenerate,” I confided in a close friend, who lived with her fiancé in Brussels.
“Cook dinner for yourself,” she suggested. “Parent yourself.”
“I’ll try,” I said. But each time I reached the produce aisle of the grocery store, I anticipated how the broccoli or spinach would rot in my fridge while I was preoccupied with anxious rumination. I missed cooking, which had once been a source of comfort and pleasure. But I struggled to do it on my own.
The end of a relationship that I had thought would lead to marriage and children made me rethink my entire life, and question how many of my choices had been made in deference to external expectations. I wanted, intensely, to become someone new entirely, a pull that felt both exhilarating and unsafe. I began fantasising about adventures that would take me far away from my phone and ground me in a sensory-rich routine — and, specifically, culinary escapades. I imagined working on a cheese farm in Italy, but a cheesemonger warned me I might not enjoy shovelling cow shit at 5am So I reached out to a friend who was head chef at a fine-dining restaurant in London. My dual UK citizenship allowed me to make the trip even amid the pandemic, and I could fund it through earnings from my freelance and part-time teaching work. It seemed like a great plan.
I drafted a cover letter for my friend to forward to contacts in the industry, careful to frame my interest in training at a professional kitchen as a career transition, not as the escape I was so desperately seeking. So even as I wrote, “I am prepared to work rigorously,” what I meant was: “Please provide the structure necessary for me to learn to care for myself again. Please fill the gaping existential hole that was exposed when he left me.” Soon enough, a chef, oblivious and ill-equipped to meet these immense needs, wrote back to me and invited me to spend a month learning in his kitchen. What could go wrong?
“Chef,” as the interns called him, was a bachelor in his 40s. Although I didn’t know it when I started working, he was notorious for flirting with the few women who found themselves in his male-dominated kitchen. “He’s running a fine-dining frat house,” another chef — a woman — later told me.
Chef had long, well-defined curls and tattooed arms. He exuded playful irreverence and maximalist joie de vivre. His decadence made for a gorgeously luxe, if ultimately problem-filled working environment. In the kitchen, a wood fire popped and crackled pleasantly all morning. Each day we listened to records — Ethiopian jazz, Italian disco, the Rolling Stones — while we prepared the mise en place. I would space out while doing repetitive tasks, like picking herbs or peeling quail eggs or zesting yuzu.
Chef’s levity only made his rare reprimands more intimidating. He did not believe in formality and hadn’t even bothered to read my cover letter. He was surprised to find I had come to him without any experience. One day I spent hours scraping the fat off chicken skins for an amuse bouche. Just before I cleaned my workstation, he startled me by putting his hand heavily on my shoulder. “This should have taken ten minutes,” he said sternly. But when the night was over, and the staff started drinking, he was friendly once again.
That night, Chef sat next to me on one of the dining room’s velvet couches and refilled my glass of natural wine. He offered me a cigarette.
“I think you are new to smoking,” he said, as I attempted to light the filter.
Chef told me I was “like a teenager,” in my “awkwardness” and “naivete,” but it was his brazen flirtatiousness that felt juvenile, if a little exciting.
During the daily hours of prep work, my mind often wandered back to my life in New York and the pain of my breakup. With my hands full of citrus or mussel juice, I would remember how I used to come home to my apartment in Brooklyn from a night out with friends. My boyfriend would leave the living room light on, and the bedroom door cracked. I’d take all my clothes off in the dark, waiting for him to stir. Whatever social uneasiness I had suffered while out was immediately soothed by his safe embrace.
Now, coming home each night from the restaurant, I felt deeply, entirely alone. And yet, it wasn’t all bad. It was a decadent sort of loneliness: my hair smelled of smoke, my legs ached, and I could still taste wild game. Aside from family meal, I rarely ate anything aside from the scraps of delicacies left out by the sink for the staff to sample: langoustine, five-week aged pigeon brushed with hay butter, a smoked oyster with milk-soaked walnuts. I chewed fresh focaccia discreetly under my N95 mask while labelling containers of leftover sauces. I licked spoons of fermented yucca juice and beef miso and kombu oil. In each drop, I could identify new, potent herbs: Bolivian coriander, Vietnamese basil, baby chervil, mustard flowers. Both my diet and my sleep schedule turned dysfunctional and indulgent. I was never home before 2 am, and then, so hyped up on espresso and adrenaline, it took me hours to wind down for bed. On my days off, I closed the curtains and slept deep into the afternoon.
The routine was short-lived: Within two weeks of my arrival in October, COVID spiked in Europe, lockdowns were imposed, and the restaurant closed. When I got the news that indoor dining had shut down, I sat alone in my Airbnb without a plan. I had nothing to do for the foreseeable future and no food in the apartment aside from stale rosemary crackers. I was at the convenience store buying a package of ramen noodles when Chef sent me a message on Instagram: “May I cook you dinner?”
“Is that a normal thing to do?” I asked him.
“Did I say something inappropriate?” he asked. He sent a blushing emoji. Then: “You’re alone in the city, you must need to eat.”
I was nervous about this dinner. Before leaving the Airbnb, I drank a bottle of dark Belgian beer. I remember approaching the restaurant, tipsy and shaky with adrenaline. I saw the lights on from across the canal. It was raining; it rained every day there. When I entered the restaurant, Chef was placing a fillet of turbot in a cast-iron full of melted butter. He had a white towel slung over his shoulder. He filled two champagne flutes and held his glass out to toast. The formality embarrassed me. It was probably good champagne, but I didn’t take the time to taste it — I downed it. Then I knocked the flute over with my elbow, and Chef quietly cleaned the shards of glass.
“We’ll switch to wine,” he said, bringing out new glasses.
We ate turbot in butter sauce and a salad with a lot of shallots. I pushed the shallots to the side of my plate. “Saving your breath?” Chef asked. He took my hand and stroked my fingers.
“Is it okay?” he asked me. I nodded although I wasn’t sure I wanted to be touched. When we kissed, I pulled away dizzy and disoriented. I looked at his face. His skin looked weathered and thirsty — it occurred to me to suggest a hydrating face mask. We both needed water, but there was only wine on the table. The thought crossed my mind that he, too, struggled to care for himself.
“Would you like some hashish ice cream?” he asked.
“I’ll die,” I replied.
“Then I’ll call a cab to my place,” he said. “Or you can take it home. As you wish.”
When the cab arrived, I had it take me home. Chef paid the driver for me and put me in the car. “At least you’ve eaten a proper meal,” he said.
“Drink some water before bed,” I replied in a rare moment of concern, and kissed him goodbye. From the taxi window, I saw him biking home alongside the canal, boy-like and rain-misted.The next afternoon, I woke up hungover, coughing from cigarettes, and feeling vaguely debased. I wasn’t used to the wet, early chill of a Northern European fall. I wanted to take a very long shower. I wanted to clean myself from the inside out and fill myself anew with something wholesome and warm.
But I wasn’t going to get that from Chef, who texted: “did you miss me alone in bed ; )” Repelled, I turned my phone on airplane mode for the rest of the day.
I never saw him again. I’d like to say that in the months after I left Chef behind, enduring lockdown in Brussels, I learned to enjoy my own company, but I didn’t always, or even often. I don’t believe we are made to be alone.
Still, I have learned to care for myself a little better. In Brussels, I cooked for myself again; it was an event approaching self-communion. Alone in my sublet, I ate a bag of entrecôte-flavoured potato chips and made pasta for dinner. I struggled to light the gas stove with a match, jumping back when I heard the clicking of the burner cap. I wondered how I’d managed to work in a professional kitchen without learning how to turn on a stove. Mundane struggles like these try my patience, but their resolutions fill me with new faith in my abilities. Eventually, I saw the blue flame.