A little teaser...
I’m 18 and hungry when I get hired at Picholine, the fanciest of fancy restaurants on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I’m a freshman in college and dazzled by the chandeliers, the intricacy of their baubles, the plush rugs infinitely more comfortable to sprawl on than my dorm room twin.
Not that I’m sprawling. I’m a hostess, forbidden from cracking my knuckles or smoothing my hair in the dining room, which turns out to be more of a challenge than I had realized. I never know what to do with my hands. “Stand up straight,” the Maître D' hisses, and only then do I realize I’m leaning on the shiny wood of the host stand. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, the occasional Friday, I take the 1 Train downtown to Lincoln Center after class and change into my black pumps, the black blazer I leave in the coatroom. It smells of overripe cheese and Febreze.
At pre-shift meetings, we gather around table 44 to swirl gewürztraminer on starched linens, stick noses deep into glasses; discuss. “Rose petals,” a server says, his tie inhumanly perfect. “The first ones that fall, from a lush garden in high summer.”
“Lychee and honeycomb.”
“Pumpkin seeds, roasting in a hot, hot oven.”
“A Bartlett pear, not quite ripe, but getting there.”
I don’t know what to say, or what exactly I smell in the designer wineglass in front of me, but I feel giddy. The manic energy and knife-sharp focus, the boxes of heady truffles and sunshine-colored kumquats, the excruciatingly late nights, fur coats, basement arguments, VIPs, rabbit risotto, twinkly eyes. I’ve found my people, my place.
I am also hungry because this is what I eat on a “good” day: one apple, two coffees, maybe three, and a small frozen yogurt. I have a ritual: savoring a spoonful, sucking the spoon clean, repeat. Its saccharine tang awakens me. When the fro-yo is gone, I feel a pang of terror.
What I know about food: it brings me to my knees. It has me on the floor, jeans not zipping, not even close, mouth salty with tears. It keeps me up at night, planning canapés, menus for someone’s party, for summertime. Counting calories. Counting time. I am its lover. I am its prisoner. I work in food because I need to touch the oily rinds of cheese, scoop fatty rounds of gelato into balls, feel the cool skin of a bottle of Lambrusco, its generous pop. There is no other choice, no other path.
As a hostess, I stand and stand. My itchy heels sink into the supple carpet. I try to suck in my stomach as I watch the dance of the plates of sturgeon panna conna, jiggling just slightly, a perfect globe of Beluga caviar on top. Pink butter poached Maine lobster, draped in slivers of red radish. White chocolate semifreddo whipped into cumulus clouds. I witness beauty.
During college, then after, I work my way through restaurants, first in New York, then in LA and Philadelphia. Everywhere I go, I bring my deepest shame: I am at the mercy of my eating disorder.
I make a career in food, following its siren call. I work in humid cheese caves, nursing epoisses while it ripens into feety goodness, cook on a kitchen’s hot line for a sadistic chef, wait tables long enough to have server nightmares (I wake up panicked, rooting through my kitchen drawers for a wine key). I write descriptions for pancake boxes: “Ditch the diner for the fluffy flapjacks of your wildest dreams!”
My love affair with food is ecstatic, destructive, brutal. I lose twenty pounds and gain thirty, sneak baking chocolate in the walk-in, vow to never binge again, break my own promises so many times I lose count.