I went to my own funeral this past weekend. It was a somber affair, me slipping through this mortal world, quietly seeking out signs of my joyous former life.
The mourners hugged me, questioned my whereabouts, wondered when we would see one another again and at the end of the day my memory was toasted with strong drink and winsome reflection.
I spent a year plus as Chef of the Loft at Soby’s. The Loft, a private event space, is akin to a very attractive two-bedroom apartment with an open rooftop, a comfortable living room, a dining room that can hold about 24, and for the right price comes with a handsome bartender and a talented chef.
Over the course of my year as that talented chef, we successfully hosted a wide variety of events, everything from harmonious business groups celebrating another great year to boisterous celebrations of future lives led. It was exhausting, rewarding work. It kept me on my toes and in the hum of the culinary world without having to tax my 50+ year-old short term memory with the rigors of cooking on a hot line.
In mid-March, when the world came crashing down, I took a voluntary two-month furlough and assumed I would return in three months. I was used to life in the fast lane, where every day at work finished with the smiles of strangers, pats on the back from CEOs, accolades from brides, and an aching upper body. And all that just screeched to a halt. The next day I stood in our back pasture, my body trying to idle, and convinced myself I would return to work, all this is temporary. I would keep busy, find projects, apply paint here, fix a fence there.
However, fixing fences and painting walls was not enough for me. It didn’t provide the creative outlet, the constantly evolving time constraints, the interaction with other humans similarly engaged in a dance with the clock.
When people say “I’m a people person”, I’ve found they’re usually disingenuous. When someone says, “I’m in hospitality”, I know exactly what they’re saying. They enjoy making people happy in a fast-paced environment. They live for the sights and sounds of a well-run restaurant, the chance to serve a $250 bottle of wine, the sizzle of vegetables in a pan of melting butter, the squirt of fresh cream on a peach cobbler, the anticipation of a guest as they watch you approach with a tray of frosty craft beer. These things cannot be had while painting a wall or repairing a fence. And as those things became further and further away, I felt part of me fleeing with them. Every day away my former employer became closer to making ends meet without their roster of events, and without their event staff.
Until Euphoria, our town’s food and wine festival arrived. The dinner I had planned a year ago, an evening cooking with another chef whose skill set, courage, and creativity I dearly envy, had long ago cancelled. I would’ve, too. Euphoria, however, was bound and determined to move forward and I didn’t have the heart to back out. So I spent this weekend at the Loft, cooking with another couple of chefs, both wonderful talents, both fully engaged in the evening.
Except the event left me hollow. Most of the restaurant’s staff kept asking me if I had returned. “Hey, look who’s back.” Some were excited to see me, even just for a weekend. The owner had good news to celebrate, the restaurant would have a busy, for 2020, weekend and there was even a wedding in the Loft on the prior Friday night.
My hopes buoyed. “A wedding!? Nice. How many guests were there?”
“Ten” was my answer.
My wife and I had a month earlier decided to leave town for a couple of years, however, I yearned for my former life and really wanted to be invited back. I wanted to hear those words from the boss, “Chef, think you could come back to work soon?”
Ten guests at a wedding was my answer. A Zoom wedding at that, where guests watched virtually, perhaps shed virtual tears and popped their own celebratory adult beverages from the comfort of their own backyards.
Ten guests at a wedding doesn’t get me an invitation to return to work. The shades were pulled down and I returned to peeling eggplant and portioning crab cakes.
In the Loft there were signs of my former life, a favorite spoon, a dimple in the wood, a label in my handwriting. Like wilted flowers on a tombstone, they were no longer evidence of love and attention but rather signs of mortality, of a former life, once spent sizzling vegetables in butter and making brides happy, now spent mending fences in the company of a few clucking chickens.
We are moving away for a couple of years, because why not. Maybe I’ll find meaningful work once we settle in. And perhaps, when we return, I’ll receive a text, or a phone call from my friends. “Chef, think you could come back to work?” And all will be forgiven.