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Breaking Down the Animal

March 16, 2013 | Frank Bonanno

There was this old German instructor at the CIA—patient and kind with big, meaty hands and quick, calloused sausage fingers. He took great care in his professional appearance, crisp ironed chef whites, neckerchief, tilted toque—and he clearly loved what he was doing. He was a chef who inspired his students, passionate, engaged, teaching us the mother sauces and seasoning just so, verbally clarifying, gently guiding.  Perfect stocks. Impeccable knife skills. Watching him could be painful, though. Even the exertion of rocking his blade across a cutting board caused him to break out in a sweat. He labored to carry his girth across the room. You could practically hear his hips grind when he walked, both knees completely shot, his back bent from decades of lifting pots that, if raised now, racked his breathing and strained his arms. Such a great instructor, a great cook, but his body was just tired.  Tired from a penance in 100 degree kitchens with poor ventilation. Tired from straining eyes to read impossible penmanship in inadequate lighting. Tired from standing, hunched, over flames and steam and spices and chemicals from morning to midnight.  So tired.

Like every job, cooking works away at your body. That man who seemed so old, so tired: I’m roughly that age now.  I don’t feel old, I don’t feel tired, but my body has paid a hefty toll for the work I love.

This job, this life of understanding and preparing food is, at its most basic level, a function of health and well-being. Food fuels us. In a profession of concocting that fuel, there is no sitting, no leaning.  We work among fat and salt and flavor, and if we are doing our jobs correctly, we are eating all day long—rarely meals, mind you, but a spoonful at a time of every sauce, spread, starch, protein, spice and produce. We are doing this in ten hour increments, with the random weight of 100 pound stock pots, and 20 quart mixing bowls, and, during service, under the duress of tickets coming in clicks—click, click–from the POS system, servers verbalizing special orders, click click, expeditors asking questions about plating, click click, small mistakes and the attempt at perfection and diners watching an open line. Click.

Stand, bend, lift, roll, stir, taste. Compose. Repeat.

I exercise twice a day, sometimes more, to keep unhealthy demons in their pots. I take Pilates and, in fact, offer my chefs Pilates to coach them through the physical rigors of their jobs.  Straighten the spine; work in alignment; sneak out for cardio whenever you can.

Exercise, I say. Treat your body as though you are athletes, I tell them. Drink less; sleep more. These words heartfelt, from the voice of a herniated disc, tendonitis, hip replacement by year’s end.

I love what I do. I will cook through the pain of 30 years in kitchens. Each of us, every one, works through a pain to find our joy.

Just this month my doctor sent me home for two weeks to rest my medicated spine. For nine days, I tested recipes on my family each night sneaking to the restaurants to cook something, just for a moment even, in spite of his instructions.

Food comforts me in the middle of the night. Writing about food and diagramming plating gives me means to reflect; meditating on food calms me. Cooking gives me energy.

A perfectly executed dish—one in which the plating is stunning, the protein tenderly rendered, the vegetable seasoned just so, each bite in thoughtful balance—that is profound joy for me. I could name you each time I have executed a perfect dish because that joy  doesn’t come along every day, or even every week. It is a joy I work for all the same because, when it happens,

I am truly happy.

So I will stand, bend, lift, roll, stir, taste, compose. Repeat, until my body makes it impossible to repeat any longer.

And then I will dream of the meals I used to make.