Some years ago, Ginger and I were in Paris and we attached ourselves to edge of a tour group walking through Notre Dame Cathedral, mostly because I wanted to pick up a few more pieces of useless facts and information to store in my brain. The guide was talking about the stained glass windows when we walked up, pointing first to the North Rose window that dated back to the original construction in the thirteenth century. She then pointed to the South Rose window and said. “This, however, is the new window,” she said, “which were installed in the fifteen hundreds.”
The new window was older than most anything of historical significance — even in Boston, where we lived at the time. Good art has staying power.
For Christmas, my chef gave me an absolutely gorgeous cookbook – a work of art on its own terms – called Pork and Sons. Besides offering some amazing recipes, the book is beautiful because it is the story of a family’s relationship to food – pork, in particular – and because of the incredible images of the dishes described.
In my business, we think about how the food looks almost as much as how it tastes. Presentation is a big part of the picture, which is why (I have to keep telling Ginger) that we sprinkle “all that green stuff” on top of the dish before we serve it. I want the plate to offer a visual invitation even before you bite into it. Even in the heat of the dinner rush, we work hard to make sure the plates look good, to create edible art, which is intended not to last. The whole point of our preparation is for the customer to deconstruct and devour the dish. If we do our work well, when the evening ends the room is empty, as are our pans, and we have nothing to show for our work except the knowledge that we sent folks home full.
Of course, they will wake up hungry again tomorrow.
As much as I like making beautiful food, the memories of meals that hang like portraits in the gallery of my mind don’t revolve around what was on the plate as much as who was around the table. As Vanier says, “Food and love are linked closely” (35).
The hardest thing about restaurant work for me is I don’t get to talk to most of the people who eat my food. I do make a point of getting out in the dining room several times during the course of service, but I don’t get to meet most folks. One student comes in a couple of times a week with her boyfriend and orders the same thing. She gets the Roasted Chicken Marsala, but asks for only the sides of mashed potatoes and vegetables, and butternut squash on top. I have the squash on hand to sauté and serve, so I make the dish. After about the third time, I took the plate to the table myself and said, “I need to put a face with this food.” We had a nice chat and got acquainted a bit. Now when she comes in, the server simply comes into the kitchen and says, “Megna’s here,” and I know what to cook.
For now, the incidental contact will have to do; I pray it will not always be so.
I think I have spent a lot of my life praying it will not always be so – related to any number of things; I feel as though I’ve lived on the cusp of things, mostly moving and rarely feeling settled. That’s why, I suppose, these words of Henri Nouwen tucked away in my readings found me tonight:
When you pray, you profess that you are not God and that you wouldn’t want to be, that you haven’t reached your goal yet, and that you never will reach it in this life, that you constantly stretch our your hands and wait for the gift which gives new life. This attitude is difficult because it makes you vulnerable. (118)
When the artisans set the glass in the windows at Notre Dame, they knew they were building a house of worship. The building took so long to complete that the ones who started the construction were not the ones who completed the cathedral; it took almost two centuries. Whether working on the intricacies of the Rose windows, or stacking the stones for the walls, I can’t imagine any of them found it easy to grasp an image of what they were building together other than some abstract idea of a church. Once finished, it has continued to be a work in progress, requiring restoration and rebuilding due to the damage done by the wear and tear of the following centuries. Though the edifice stands as one of the most recognizable building in Paris, its art is not so much different than my nightly offerings: neither is ever completed.
We share one other thing in common (at least I hope we do): for all our effort to create something beautiful, the art itself is not the point. A restaurant is not a bad metaphor for church because the idea is to incarnate two of Jesus’ invitations: “Come and see,” and “Take and eat.” We spend a lot of energy in church making sure things are “right,” which is not all wrong, yet we have to check ourselves to make sure we have not lost sight of our calling to make a place for everyone – particularly for those who live at the margins of life.
In every kitchen where I have worked, the only person who has a meal prepared for them everyday is the dishwasher, the one at the bottom of the ladder. Regardless of how busy we are or whatever else is going on, we take time to feed the guy stuck at the dish machine. It doesn’t make his job any easier, I suppose, but it lets him know he is regarded and cared for. He’s one of us.
And it’s my favorite meal to make everyday.