by Katrin Dohse
Katrin’s work appears in episode 9 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour, which originally aired on January 4, 2019.
It stood in faded sharpie on a disintegrating piece of masking tape– eye level when I worked the sauté station in my first kitchen. It was always there: a silent observer above that raucous line. Banging pans, dropped plates, screaming poison ivy welts protesting like fire when the steam from the pasta pot touched them, server yelling, chef yelling, me yelling, freight train thundering past on its way somewhere more important than rural North Carolina.
It was always noisy.
I could always look up.
“This is a love story,” it would remind me, “A love story.”
It wasn’t my own story–of tired resentment and sore shoulders–that I was supposed to be telling. My life was small talk compared to this. Here in front of me was the subtle life of the radishes swelling underneath black loam. The feeling of tension, of loss, of frost threatening cotyledons and the sensual push of those first shoots growing to the rhythm of rain and chickadees. It was a song, an odyssey of the meek overcoming what seemed inevitable.
It was a love story. I just had to let myself speak it aloud.
And what else but love could have kept us going? At almost 60 hours a week, I was working the least out of our crew and still had enough time to sleep between shifts. I was naïve but hungry, and enchanted by the fast-paced grace of the kitchen. Luck and a well-timed vulgar joke had gotten me this job despite my lacking any real experience. It seemed that here the only requirement was an idealist’s insanity and I had that in excess.
It seemed that here the only requirement was an idealist’s insanity and I had that in excess.
It was never perfect. Like any proper love story there was a fair share of heartache mixed in. A field-row’s worth of just-picked spring greens pushed a hair too far back in the refrigerator where they froze into a slimy pulp; the sudden and unexpected loss of a good friend, followed by another only a year later; and the constant fight with aging kitchen equipment. All of this mixed in with the inevitable drama of a staff that spent nearly every waking moment together. It brought complexity to our dishes: sweetness always served with a note of something unexpected, bitterness always complimented by the delicate.
The fine thread that held everything in our little restaurant together was our owners’ passion and a mutual respect between the cooks and the farmers. If an early hail storm shredded the tender new growth of turnips, we would take in the tattered crop and make slow greens or sauce, overcoming the destruction of the leaves in the precision of the cooking method and leaving only the sharp bright taste of new growth for the guests to savor. When the summer was favorable we were presented with the best of the crop, heads of crisp lettuce weeded so carefully that not a single grain of silt was trapped between the leaves. We served them dressed but whole– the image of the farm they had come from.
It brought complexity to our dishes: sweetness always served with a note of something unexpected, bitterness always complimented by the delicate.
Our single-minded focus on telling the story was exhausting but there was no time for tiring, so through burnt fingers and cuts we endured. The bustle of the kitchen was only a reflection of the persistent cycle of our farms. It wasn’t the type of place built for ego. Our selves were unimportant our hands were the heroes, there to translate what came in from the fields into a language that others could understand. Sunburned shoulders after a long harvest day, bare skin resting against warm earth– a salad of bitter greens, sweet tomatoes, lardon vinaigrette. We seasoned with memories and experience- mixing them in with the flavor of the produce. Each dish was tasted, adjusted, and re-tasted before being sent out with bated breath and the hope that we had managed to present a little bit of the summer in between the vegetables– an exquisite glimpse into the story that surrounded us.
Original artwork by Katrin Dohse.