I was a cook for years before I became a cook.
It happened a few months after finishing my apprenticeship, sitting at home an hour before I had to be in for service at a nice, upscale, but boring place. My girlfriend, more an arrangement of convenience than one of true love, was out of town, my apartment was scheduled to be vacated by the end of the month, and my fridge was empty. I decided to go for a drive, grabbed my helmet and jacket, and mounted the old 1100cc BMW I’d been restoring for a while.
The wind felt good, the early spring sun, high on the sky, warmed my bones and drove out the winter stiffness, and I rode. At some point the time to be at work came and went. I rode. An hour later, the German Alps in visible distance, I knew I could not go back. I called my boss who, it seemed, was more relieved than bummed, and left a message for my girlfriend about having to talk. Much later I’d learn that she got married that weekend, to her second boyfriend, so it worked out okay.
I cranked the BMW into dangerously high RPMs and aimed for the mountains.Hours later, when thirst and hunger set in, I realized the flaw in my plan — aside from a few bucks in my pockets I was broke. Flat, freaking, broke. A coke at a rest stop in the Alpine foothills, an overpriced sandwich, and first doubts set in. Shaking them off I spent what little I had with me on gas and another bottle of Coke, heading for Austria. Hours later, the cold of the first Alpine summit freezing my hands through the gloves, I found shelter in one of the free warming huts set up for hapless drivers stuck in snow storms and slept. I woke before sunrise with a plan: Italy or bust.
I left Austria at the Val di Vizze checkpoint, crossed into Bozen, and from there aimed south. The sun had barely risen when I led the BMW down the last serpentine road. Ahead of me was Lake Garda, the Lago di Garda, the sun reflecting in its waters, a sleepy little town called Malcesine waking up to another day of work. And I knew I was at home.
I found a place to work that day, a small seafood restaurant at the lake’s shore, run by an old couple and their daughter. Months later, sitting on the beach and watching the sun set behind the mountains I wondered out loud where I’d be had I not decided to ride that day. “Nowhere as cool as this,” the owner’s daughter laughed,then made me go back and deep clean the kitchen.
Three years later I fell in love with a house. Not “I liked it” or “I like being in it,” I was in love. I was 23 and had moved to the southern parts of England into a small town called Bedford, not far from Dover. There I lived in an old pub, long abandoned, above a cobweb filled dining room. For a brief period I contemplated cleaning it and reopening it.
I walked downstairs every morning before work and would dig around. I found old coasters from breweries long gone, glasses with names on them for the old men who drank there every night, old receipt books that showed how much everyone ate and drank and how much they paid for their lettuce and pigs.
I found a box with letters, written by the owner’s grandmother to his grandfather who fought in France against the Nazis, and I found an old polaroid stash from the late 70s, washed out and barely discernible, showing three kids and their parents opening the pub for what would be its last active run.
I found a letter of condolences to the husband about his wife’s passing. And a beautiful letter from his wife telling him not to worry, she’d be out of the hospital in a few days.
I was 23. And I fell in love with the stories, the history, and became obsessed with the world that is so close to us but so far, the bars and pubs, the restaurants, the things I had worked in for five years but never, ever, really considered important. I started noticing things in pans and pots that made me ask myself how a specific thing was changing over the decades and centuries. I found myself drawn to ghost towns and abandoned restaurants to talk to them and listen to them.
When you drive from Barstow towards Las Vegas, along the dusty roads, the highway begins to talk. It sounds like Morgan Freeman reading Hunter S. Thompson. Stories of the treks taken from one side of the continent to the other. Of the the girl who just waits to make enough money for Hollywood, the guy who drives a car up and down Route 66 in search for something that is in him all along, the lonely cowboys and slick salesmen. I can hear steel guitars and the echo of streamliner caravans passing forty years ago, hear the laughter coming from roadside diners that saw their last guests when Route 40 opened nearby, and see the hookers standing next to Roy’s Diner, waiting for customers.
The highway told me stories. The men and women I met only translated them into a language I was able to understand and tell others in. I am no Hunter S. Thompson and I don’t speak like Morgan Freeman, so I am just a bad replica of the real thing out there. But I love to listen to it.
Before my ride to Italy I was a cook. Trained, yes, but list- and emotionless about my work. It was a job, something I did to make money. I became a craftsman in Italy, developed pride in my work, aimed for clarity of lines and tastes. England made me an artisan, pushed me to think about my food and craft’s heritage and history. Barstow made me a story teller.
Once a job transcends into craft and from there into art, a door opens. Our craft becomes a canvas for something new and exciting. It never leaves, never fades into the background, but becomes the strong scaffold upon which new things are built. To some this means TV or book fame, to some it spells a future in advocacy or charity. To me it meant becoming a storyteller, using my craft, food, to tell stories of the road, from Italy to Las Vegas.
Maybe it is time for you to take the ride, to listen to the road, to allow your craft to become a canvas for something new. Maybe we’ll share a Coke and a sandwich on a lonely stretch of highway, just off a long forgotten town, at a gas station between Nowhere and Home.