Odyssey of a Naive Young Cook

Odyssey of a Naive Young Cook


For five months at my first cool job—a cafe and bookstore in Brooklyn tastefully named after the ancient Greek poet and father of gastronomy—I improvised nearly every task I was assigned. When an attractive Greenpointer would come up to the counter to check out whichever obscure grocery item they needed (fennel pollen, guanciale, unshelled fresh chickpeas) and I couldn’t find it on one of the twenty unorganized point-of-sale tabs while also trying to converse, I would give in and select a random item of equal price. When a tattooed father with his baby dressed in beige would ask for a cortado (not on the menu), I would smile, pour half espresso and half milk into the steamer at once, and hope he wouldn’t taste my ignorance in whatever emulsion landed in the cup. When an unkempt millennial would ask me to describe the mouthfeel of a beer called “That’s What Happens When You Put Ketchup On A Hot Dog,” I would tell them it tasted like a smoothie (it did). 

I admit that my lack of concern for protocol was partially related to an exploitation of young adulthood. I had just turned nineteen and was beginning to master the art of knocking my age up or down three years in order to remain inconspicuous. But the brunt of my recklessness was a reflection of a small business run by a young owner with little managerial experience and a strong loyalty to intuition. The training for this position consisted of a three-hour shift in the dish pit and an opportunity to traverse the basement and “look for cool things.” 

My boss opened the shop in her late twenties with a tiny staff and an eccentric vision. Her mission was to create a space that was reminiscent of the bodega her Sicilian grandfather opened soon after touching ground on Ellis Island, but also infused with literary connections to food she explored through college as a poetry major. The store began as a bookstore of only food-related books (cookbooks, food writing, community cooking zines, vintage edition diet books, etc), with a tiny cafe in the way back that served drip coffee and classic Italian cookies. Within the first couple of years it was open, the menu expanded to include artisanal sandwiches, antipast plates, and du jour pastries while the clientele shifted from local Brooklynites to the fans of visiting writers, chefs, and artists who hosted pop-ups between the stacks. 

I stumbled upon the new job in early September, just a week after I made the decision to leave my role as a “sandwich artist” at a chain strategically positioned amidst the bustling Midtown flow of corporate lunch breakers. The posting for the new job was casual, an Instagram story shared by another restaurant I followed that wrote “seeking help at cafe; email us if you like to cook and read!” It was perfect. I had just begun to realize that my passion for food was actually something I could hone in on both in work and in school. Prior to this, my propensity to intellectualize flavor and spend hours pouring over the only two cookbooks in my house (a beat-up Joy of Cooking and Jessica Seinfeld’s bestseller aimed to trick children into eating vegetables) was nothing more than a private hobby. To a young tomboy and budding skeptic, an interest in cooking felt too feminine . . . too domestic. Yet my attempts to shun it away with soccer or skateboarding or climbing never stuck, and I continued to traverse through spice cabinets, shred potatoes at playdates, request chutney in my stocking, and suck on bouillon cubes before dinner.

I immediately sent over my skimpy resume and my boss got back to me to set up a virtual interview within the hour (likely because I lied in the email and said I had visited the store during an imaginary trip to NYC when I was fifteen and couldn’t stop raving about it). The interview ended up turning into a sort-of mutual schmooze, in which I poured my little chef heart out and she declared I was lovely. Sometime towards the end of the thirty-minute call, she mentioned that I would be working in the kitchen—a statement I clung to. I marinated in the thought that I’d soon be wearing clogs and a bandana, spreading out focaccia dough as the sun slanted and filled its dimples. 

During my first full shift, I determined that my role was actually a float. One of the four staff members, Jess, a twenty-five year old Wesleyan grad with a Sappho baseball hat, gave me a visual run-down of a singular sandwich before I was ushered over to the front counter to cover the iPad. 

“You have to make sure you don’t put too much lemon mayo on the bottom side of the focaccia because the pork has so much fat in it. Otherwise, the bread will fall apart and you’ll have to restart with a clean cutting board which is such a fucking hassle—”

“Jess, don’t worry about the sandwiches today. We’re going to train Izzy up front.” 

My stomach sank. At this point in my journey into selfhood, I struggled to speak to anyone remotely unknown, attractive, older, younger, my age. Strangers were decidedly cooler and better than me. Customers induced panic. The kitchen was safe, but I was far from it.

Shannon, the longest standing employee and handler of all logistics, had been working the counter ever since the store’s recent expansion earlier that summer. She had much more pressing things to do (ensuring all bureaucratic sides of the business were running), so I, despite my obvious lack of confidence, was the next-best delegate. Fifteen minutes before customers started streaming in, Shannon showed me how to unlock the Shopify app, scroll through a twenty-two page product list to find an item (the barcode scanner was broken and collecting dust in the basement), and type in a card number manually (the card reader decided when it wanted to work, which was once or twice a day at best). 

“If you need any help, I’ll be in the back on my laptop. Just yell ‘spaghetti!’ and I’ll know to come right over,” Shannon said as she patted me on the back before vanishing to the corner, out of sight.

The next six hours were brutal, but somehow I managed to stutter my way out of the questions I didn’t know the answers to and make up for it by bashfully disclosing that it was my first day on the job (I made use of this script well into my second month).
“I’m so sorry—it’s actually my first day, so I don’t exactly know the event schedule for this month but w-wa-wait, I can go double-check if you want? Um, Shannon! I-I mean, spaghetti . . . ?”


As the typical autumn bustle faded into a slow and cold winter, my role at the shop grew increasingly more transparent: five hours at the front counter, three hours in the dish pit. Holding conversations with customers never got easier, so I found solace in scraping dried rice from the bottom of pots and deciphering the scents that steamed from each deli container. On lucky days, one of the cooks would call me over to help stuff arancini rice with broccoli rabe or roasted pork and shape it into fist-size balls. A couple of times, I was called over to season the stock pot of tomato sauce and once, asked to stay late to fry zeppole for a supper club—little requests that were enthralling enough to make me forget how small I felt otherwise. All of my desperation over the unofficial demotion from cook to float faded at the sight of the Pollock-like spatter of tomatoes on the kitchen tile, the smell of wine-soaked rice enveloping our full-staff arancini assembly lines, and the sound of slurry-bits idly sputtering in the corners of the fryer basket.

Just around the six-month mark of my employment, I found myself passing time with two peculiar fantasies. One was a reverie, the other a nightmare, yet I felt unequivocally destined for both.


It’s a short-staffed Saturday that has left my boss with no choice but to call upon me to take over as kitchen lead. To her surprise, I know how to strip dried oregano from its stem, how to parboil tomatoes until the skins split, how to emulsify oil and garlic into a paste, how to pulse them all together but not too together to the point where the chili flakes are invisible and the tomatoes are liquefied to nothing. She waits until I am finished to tell me how sorry she is to have overlooked me for the cook position, and that she wishes she hadn’t somehow lost sight of what I promised I was capable of.

I’m in the middle of measuring out 120 grams of coffee beans when my boss taps me on the shoulder and ushers me down to the basement for a talk. She tells me that I am just too young and inexperienced to be working front of house, that I don’t have the confidence or the spirit to be the first face customers see, that she’s loved having me but it’s not a good fit. I tear up and tell her I understand, which is the truth.


It was a Saturday in May, just after I turned in my last final of the semester. I hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours, but I tend to crack my best jokes and feel blissfully suspended when I am sleep-deprived, so I chose not to take the day off. Muscle memory kicked in and the morning breezed by (I even complimented a customer’s overalls), until my thirty-minute break that I substituted for a power nap. My cheeks had just settled up against the slate countertop in the back of the cafe when my boss tapped me gently to ask if I could help bring in a delivery. I ran outside to grab the five crates of mysterious farm vegetables, happy to cut my break short for a chance to play produce roulette. I tore open the layers of vented plastic and discovered quite possibly the most exciting seasonal reaping of the year, ramps. My boss squealed at the sight, surprised by their delayed arrival and fearful of what would come of them if they weren’t cleaned and trimmed immediately. Before I knew it, I was standing in front of the 24-inch cutting board, knife in hand, staring down five bus bins of wide, flat leaves that seemed to be fading from green to brown the longer I looked at them. I had absolutely no idea how to start, but my hands had spent the whole day working for my mind anyway so I trusted they knew how to slice. I placed the knife a millimeter from the green/brown threshold and let my wrist do the rest, gliding along the veins and scraping away what was left. The farther away my brain seemed to get, the faster the ramp stack dwindled, and suddenly there they all were, green and barbered. I hadn’t noticed, but my boss was taking note of the whole endeavor.

“Izzy! You’re a natural! Where did that come from?”

I pretended like I didn’t know either. 

Later that evening, she asked me if I would be okay with switching from the front to the kitchen, beginning that Sunday. Fifty-two Sundays later, I was promoted from short-order cook to prep cook.

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