Making the Most of Office Lunch Hour

While this photo reflects the locale of my workplace, it’s an atypical view of the GG bridge. The bridge is beautiful from every angle, but this new perspective adds a higher-up look at something normally observed from below. I thought that resonated with this story in that we can be completely satisfied with something beautiful until we stumble upon the familiar from a different vantage point and it opens up surprise and wonder we didn’t realize existed.

A former coworker recently landed a new job. She wanted to take me out to lunch as a sort of “thank you” for ongoing moral support and casual mentorship. I was excited to celebrate with her.

After a year of joblessness that started with some needed time off, things evolved first to casual searching and a few side gigs, to an eventual full court press job hunt. But it all finally lead to the dream job she both wanted and deserved. I’ve been part of her cheerleading squad for some time so was really jazzed about her huge win — she is incredibly bright, hardworking and adorable.

As I hopped in my car to drive across town to the Embarcadero area of SF, I was reminded of a lunch I had with her early on in our friendship, when we still worked together. I reflected on that day as I trekked across town.

She suggests to me one day, “How about lunch tomorrow?”

Sounds great, I reply, and don’t think much else about it.

Until the next day. First thing in the morning. “We are still having lunch today, right?” she asks.

“Looking forward to it!” I volley back.

Around 12:30 she comes by my desk and tells me to come downstairs. “Lunch is ready.”

Huh? Ready? What does that mean? I thought we were going out…

I go downstairs and another business team is seated around a table, hard at work on some fantastic looking sandwiches I recognize from down the street. But at a table next to them, my friend is standing before two empty plates. She smiles at me and points to my seat.

I’m totally confused. I’m expecting to do the metaphorical coin toss to decide where we will eat today. Sushi? No, I had sushi yesterday. What about the Guatemalan place? No, probably too crowded at 12:30. On it goes until something sounds mutually unobjectionable. But another plan is clearly afoot.

I sit down.

She disappears into the office lunch room and returns with a host of some of the most beautifully arranged fresh vegetables: thinly julienned carrots, green onions, beansprouts…all sorts of stuff. And some paper-thin pancakes on a plate. And some dark, molasses-ey looking sauce.

She sits down, smiles at me shyly, and begins preparing: The. Most. Amazing. Spring-rolls. I. Have. Ever. Eaten. Unfreaking believable.

As she starts preparing, I ask her, “What the heck is this all about?” I turn toward the table next to me, quizzically. They’re all sort of gaping at the display of beautiful food before me; their eyes clearly wondering what the heck I had done to deserve this. The scene has attracted a fair bit of attention.

I look back at my friend for an explanation.

She launches into this brief but moving “thank you” for the support I have given her over the previous weeks. This is her way — the typical way of her Vietnamese culture, she informs me — to show appreciation. Through food.

Hey! I’m Italian. I get this. It resonates perfectly with me. I am happy.

But there is something very different here than the meals I typically prepare for those I care about. Way different. I am comfortable in the kitchen and love to cook. But I’m loud and frantic. Pots and pans clang, wine spills, flames spit up from the grill. More wine spills. It’s a spirited endeavor with similar impetus, but a much different process. Indeed.

Here in my office, I am watching my friend delicately, carefully…lovingly…prepare a work of art before me. And most undeniably for me. I had always thought my food prep was artwork, but now I realize it’s more like arc-welding heavy equipment compared to this. This here before me is fine art. And the artist moves with grace and deliberateness that draws unwanted attention to the artist herself. And it’s in this moment I am completely unraveled by the gravity of her gift.

I love to cook; I love to eat. I love to put on a little show during the whole enterprise. I don’t mind if I get a little attention, but people are really more interested in the food I am preparing than me who’s cooking it. The food is the star. But I find myself captivated now by the who, not the what.

I watch her hands work quickly, carefully, confidently. I track her almond eyes avoid my gaze, downcast slightly in calm humility. I listen to her describe the details of the homemade sauce; the advance prep she was busy with before this final stage of preparation.

I realize I am observing generations of graciousness. I realize I am — today, in this simple but glorious lunch — a recipient of generations of graciousness.

I look again at the group next to us. The whole thing is not lost on them, either. They’re looking at me with a mix of envy and silent congratulations for receiving the honor.

After downing a couple spring rolls, the “ceremony” seemed to conclude and we both began making and sharing the treats with those at the table next to us, laughing and eventually, clanging.

My friend taught me how to make spring rolls that day (okay, well, assemble them). But she really taught me a new depth of how to infuse love into food. Or any sort of personal creation, for that matter. I thought I was already good at it, but now I am aware of new dimensions I want to cultivate in myself.

But I know enough about authenticity to know this doesn’t come from a set of skills. It comes from grace and humility. Two things that I often find are far from my reach.

But I will keep stretching and reaching after those until I learn how to give that well.

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