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On Reinvention and Rolling Carts

I cook for a unique nonprofit and benefit corporation called Eat for Equity where we ultimately raise money for other nonprofit causes through community feasts and catering. 

Our kitchen happens to be housed in a church basement, and there are certain days where I feel like a lunch lady—not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

But the institutional setting—windowless, cinder block walls, monstrous appliances—mean that I constantly have to snap myself back into a reality check about our ultimate goal, lest the atmosphere defeats me. 

Most days, a dull ache somewhere deep in my lower back follows me around. It follows me around the basement and into the walk-in where I inevitably have to lift cases of chicken and eggs, slick-waxed boxes of cabbages and beets. It follows me to the dish pit, where rondos caked with meat fond mock the steel wool that tries mostly in vain to defeat it. It follows me into the bathroom where I sit on the toilet, not doing anything biological, just relishing the five minutes off of my feet that throb inside my clogs. 

This backache is as much a part of me as my back is a part of me, and without it I probably wouldn’t even feel like myself. I accept it as I accept a windowless kitchen. Not everything in life is designed for your personal gratification, and the sooner you accept this fact, the easier life will be. 

Inside of this kitchen, rolling carts populate the room like random grazing livestock in a field. Sometimes they’re over here, sometimes they’re over there, sometimes they cluster in groups like they’re having an office water cooler chat. I try to keep them organized in the hallway, but like trying to herd cats, they have a mind of their own.

I love/hate these rolling carts. The dull ache in my back is grateful for them. Forty pounds of pork and six dozen eggs and 20 pounds of cheese can be easily ferried from the walk-in to the stoves. A dozen hotel pans of frittata and eight platters of cut fruit can be elevatored to the guests upstairs with almost no lifting. 

But when I’m behind a rolling cart, I sometimes start questioning my life choices. How did I get here? A stainless steel rolling cart piled with baked eggs cannot possibly be a good look, and no detail of this had anything to do with my childhood dreams. 

I’ve spent the past 20 years of my life flitting around the food business. I put it that way because up until very recently, I was never convinced that I belonged here. That I was welcome in this white, male-dominated place that fascinated and terrified me. For years, I accepted any position, no matter how low the pay, or how abysmal the circumstances. I was in the room, and for that I was conditioned to feel grateful. I believed, no matter how qualified or overqualified I was, that I should feel grateful.  

And I was grateful. I met my best friends, my most regrettable lovers, had the best parties, and somehow learned some stuff in the meantime. My 20s and 30s sailed by, and when my feet were throbbing, sometimes still in my filthy Crocs, I wrote stories and articles by the light of my computer at midnight. And it was a very, very good time, even if it wasn’t the best living. 

But most of my friends and colleagues are on the wrong side of 40 now, and I’m not the only one who seems to be—more than occasionally—questioning life choices. With every dull ache and rolling cart comes a reminder that the dream may not be coming. Or like a rolling cart banished to the hallway, it may have already passed us by.

I used to dream of a restaurant of my own, where the space practically reverberated with my personality. The first time I watched “I Like Killing Flies,” the documentary on New York City’s late misfit chef Kenny Shopsin (RIP) I practically ached with envy. The milk dispenser needed to be propped up with a bag of rice or it would leak. There were no parties of five allowed, ever. The point is, a person—a chef—could cultivate an atmosphere, and with it a tribe, however small, that was his and his alone, if he had a few dozen square feet to seed, and to feather, and to nurture. 

For me, it was never even particularly about the food. It was about the tribe. 

Each day, in minuscule ways, I try to take ownership of the basement kitchen. I wash the sinks so they gleam clean enough to bathe an infant. I try to find a better place for the rice. I attempt to keep the rolling carts corralled.

I look around me on a given day and I realize I’ve cultivated my tribe. A band of my own misfit chefs, who I love with ferocity. There is a place for the rice. 

Rarely, if ever, has this business landed me anywhere I set out to wind up. Some days that feels tragic, and other days it feels like grace. 

You can find your tribe in the damndest places. Even in a church basement, on the other side of a rolling cart. 

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