Momofuku and the Mysterious Link Between Line Cooking and Copy Editing

I just spent the day reading David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook. It’s a gripping, strangely humble narrative, plus some ridiculous recipes. Even though I will likely never cook from it, I highly recommend it. [Just reread. Silly me. Not rote restaurant mimicry at all. Will definitely cook from.]

But reading it triggered some strange responses.

One of those is that I just went down to eat some of the cold leftover Japanese pork with ginger from the fridge, and when I saw the can of sweetened condensed milk next to it, I wondered how the two would taste together. Not too terrible, it turns out.

The other, deeper response was just plain regret. Between this and another book I’m almost done with (the salacious and smartly written Cooking Dirty, by Jason Sheehan), I’m getting a lot of input on the professional cook’s life.

Seven years ago (!!), I was thinking that’s what I’d do. I had talked myself into a very part-time slot on the line at Prune. I was soaking up as much cooking knowledge as I could get without paying for it. I was cooking ridiculous, elaborate dinners for friends just to practice.

And yet, I didn’t fully commit. Gabrielle Hamilton could’ve thrown a couple more shifts my way, but I felt like I couldn’t quit my money-making job (freelance copy editing), so I could only work weekends.

I was too rational. And at 30, I was also already over the hill, really, and I already knew from bartending how grueling a full-time on-your-feet job can be, how all-absorbing restaurant life is, how crappy the pay can be. That kind of knowledge makes you a little more hesitant than someone just coming up, entranced by the heat and the knives.

Plus, in a side note of regret, I said one of the most stupid things of my entire life when I first started working there: “Well, I don’t really care much about making a perfect omelet, for instance.” This, to Gabrielle Hamilton, after she put me on the brunch line. What? Why would I have said that? I cannot fathom. The next couple of months I worked were probably just charity on her part.

So. The David Chang book talks a lot about the intensity of restaurant cooking. And the absolute, pure striving for perfection. This is not a world of relativism, of softy liberal “do what you like.” No. You do it right.

See, I am a horrible perfectionist. But I was raised by hippies. The tension tears me up inside. I know, intellectually, that it’s not cool to be this way (which is why I must’ve made that dumb omelet comment), and it’s a terrible burden to place on others. But restaurant kitchens are perfectionist heaven. They are about the only realm in which you can let your anal flag fly, and actually get rewarded. (The other realm, incidentally, is copy editing.)

When I was having my just-turned-30 identity crisis, I really did think about all this methodically. In the “pros” column of restaurant work, I noted the fact that it’s still perfectly acceptable in a restaurant kitchen to have a screaming tantrum. You can finally just fucking go to town on all the people who are disappointing you and not doing shit that’s up to your standards.

This is not so acceptable in a magazine office. Or really anywhere else that I had access to, career-wise.

The other great perk of line cooking, when you do it well, is that it’s pure flow. Pure body function, without interference from the brain. I have never been an athlete—this is the closest I’ll ever come, I imagine.

Writing and editing aren’t physical at all (unless you count what it does to your back and hands), but they do have the potential to be just as completely absorbing. Unfortunately, though, your brain makes up any excuse to get out of the zone and interfere, and you just happen to be sitting at an Internet-enabled computer, so all day you’re in a nasty little battle with yourself, and you just don’t get the adrenaline high and inner peace you have after a 10-hour restaurant shift.

But. Well. So. I didn’t make the leap. After I got gently booted from Prune, I worked somewhere else much crappier, and just lost the fire. It’s entirely possible I would’ve really sucked—never nailed a flawless perfect omelet, never gelled with a crew, always been the one, ironically, not doing it perfectly and getting yelled at.

Now I’m a home cook (and cookbook author promoting same), but home cooking is the opposite of perfectionist restaurant work. You work with what you’ve got, and if it doesn’t turn out, fuck it. Tomorrow is another three meals.

On the best nights, home cooking does get me into that state of flow. But it’s not working toward one perfect anything. And I still have no real constructive outlet for my screaming rage when other people fuck up completely simple things, and don’t seem to even give a shit that they’re doing so. Which some people might think calls for therapy. But I think maybe just calls for a different job. I’m still looking.

9 comments

  1. Peter says:

    Good-restaurant work is also one of the only high-pressure jobs that, even if not a complete meritocracy, you still need to be good to survive. The bad get weeded out. Everybody there can do the job. That’s a nice feeling when you’re part of a team.

  2. Nate says:

    “…I noted the fact that it’s still perfectly acceptable in a restaurant kitchen to have a screaming tantrum. You can finally just fucking go to town on all the people who are disappointing you and not doing shit that’s up to your standards.”

    That, my friend is exactly what I miss about the restaurant biz. I’ve been out of the restaurant business for almost 10 years, but every once-in-a-while, that nasty “JUST DO YOUR FUCKING JOB!” comes out and I can’t help it. Sometimes I feel sorry for the kids who work for me. Chances are, growing up in Fairfield County, they have never been spoken to in that way before…

    Well done again, Zora. You continue to impress…

  3. jen says:

    Wow, this is dead on: I always thought that my copy editor brain (attention to detail coupled with an absurd ability to multitask, cultivated at too many startups) helped me execute on the line like a CHAMP. The problem for me came when I got sick of using only one side of the brain — you don’t get more creative than contriving new ways to not burn your arms on the ovens when you’re that low on the totem pole. And I was broke.

    So now I’m back to editing/writing, driving adrenaline with need-it-yesterday deadlines, and baking cakes for all my coworkers’ birthdays. They love it…but I can still bitch them out when they’re sucking.

    PS: Seems to me you’ve already found a job! Cookbook author, duh. Fucking delicious indeed.

  4. AV says:

    Zora–Do you know what is delicious with condensed milk? Grated carrots. In Spain, for some reason, my neighbor and I would end up eating this for dessert pretty regularly.

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