Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 6: How to change your life completely
Step one: watch Star Wars
For me, the first sign is when Darth Vader stops in the original film and says something like, “ I can sense something, a presence I’ve not felt since…” Obviously at the time we’re supposed to think it was Obi-Wan’s presence he could feel. But now I’ve seen the entire story, I like to think it was Luke’s presence he felt, and that a special connection with his son was still there within him.
I use Facebook for one thing these days and that’s the “on this day X years ago” page. I actually quite enjoy being embarrassed by the things I posted a decade ago that I clearly thought made me sound intelligent or interesting. I would list a few of them here but then the version of me ten years from now reading this would be doubly embarrassed and that’s not altogether fair.
A few days ago it showed me the memory of a trip I took to Budapest with my girlfriend of the time, wife now of course. Somehow that was eight years ago now. It was an important trip. And the food was just so good. Conspicuously fucking good I mean. I got back to London and started looking up how the hell a 28 year old might go about becoming a cook. That food just left me thinking, I dunno, “balls to marketing, I want to do whatever the people who fed me this week do.”
It was that simple.
By the Autumn of that year, 2015, I was working at “The Restaurant”. Culinary school followed a few months later.
The second sign is the iconic one. In The Empire Strikes Back, Vader offers to shitcan Palpatine and take Luke by his side to run the galaxy. For sure, Vader’s motivation at this point is probably a bit selfish, but I still think it’s fair to say he is demonstrating some complicated interest in his son at this point.
Now that I’m not a cook anymore, and have started writing this solipsistic rubbish for you recently, I’ve found myself trying to remember what I was thinking doing something as ridiculous as becoming a line cook at 28 years old.
I really can’t remember.
But memory works in funny ways. For every long sought after image, voice, or truth, something unfamiliar, un-called for comes rushing back.
I think really we have as much control over our memory as the individual starling does over the murmuration.
This week I remembered my mother’s kitchen. Now, I promise, I’m not going to spill some laboured tripe about hiding under the table eating scraps from the, I dunno, beef trimmings she dropped while hand-making pies or whatever. I don’t have such romantic childhood memories of food. The most evocative memory of food I have as a child is of how much I hated it. The flabby fat of roast lamb. The gristly bits hiding in a beef casserole. My hatred for these is infinitely more potent than my love of anything. How much can you really love McChicken sandwiches and salt and vinegar crisps anyway?
Well, quite a lot probably.
What I do remember of her kitchen is her copy of Prue Leith’s Confident Cooking. It was blue and white, I think, and the pages were held together by a shiny metal ring binder. And, whether it’s true or not, I remember her loving that thing. More than actual dishes, more than the sight of her cooking, it is that small cardboard binder I remember most. This would’ve been the mid-nineties. I don’t remember it any further on from that time.
The third sign is the most explicit and most beautiful. We are at the Return of the Jedi now and Luke has handed himself in to Vader on the forest moon. Luke, bless him, tries to convince his dad there is good in him. Vader replies that “it is too late for (him)”. But having ordered his troopers to take Luke to the Emperor, something important happens. Vader turns, he leans on a guardrail, and even though his face is entirely masked, the way he stares into nothingness is enough to tell us he may just be having second thoughts. Maybe there is good in him still after all.
One recipe my mother did make for us was moussaka. In having watched her make it so many times, I think this is the first thing I learned how to cook, without ever actually making it.
The way she sliced her aubergine and sprinkled each piece with salt. Table salt, from a fat, red cylinder. Laying each piece on a paper towel-covered plate until they bled out their lightly browning water. Meanwhile, the hot pan, laced with increasingly hot oil, ready for the frying. Some would emerge beautifully golden, others approaching brown, some spotted carbon black.
But none of that detail really mattered. What mattered to my mother was the béchamel topping. Hers would always be loaded with as much frothy egg white as she could get away with. This way, when it baked, it would soufflé to twice its size.
It is only in writing this meandering piece and looking it up for the first time that I discover “mousakka” shares no etymological kinship with “mousse”.
I didn’t like her mousakka at all back then of course. Didn’t like mince, didn’t like lamb. But that isn’t what I remember. The memory is of her cooking it. And of her, my father, and sisters sat around the dining-room table, the table that wasn’t properly attached to the legs so it occasionally lurched up on one side if someone were to lean too heavily on it. This is the memory. And somehow that is 25 years ago now. And I am 1000 miles away.
But this is the memory that came to me, not by design, but by the recollection of a small book by Prue Leith my mother loved.
And then Luke is on the floor. Palpatine is giving him a once over with a lick of finger lightning and it looks like everything’s gone arse over teacup. But then, the look from Vader. To his son, then to his wrinkly boss. The son again, and a final time to Palpatine, the ersatz father. Something is happening.
I have no memory of my mother’s folder of recipes after the nineties. Maybe it had been lost in a house move. We moved quite a few times in the nineties. Maybe she was just too busy with her new career as a teacher to enjoy taking as much inspiration from it as she once had. As she would have wanted had she the time.
But by then, in 1999, Jamie Oliver had spawned into existence. I was 12 and he was everything. He had an awesome flat. He had a girlfriend, he rode a little scooter around London, he had cool hair, and his classmates didn’t call him Miss Piggy and hide his clothes in the bin after gym class so he had to walk past the teacher’s lounge naked to get them back and fuck you half the boys at Hall Grove school in 1999.
So, yes, Jamie Oliver meant a lot to me. And I started cooking then too. And my mother liked that. She liked the Thai chicken curry Jamie taught me to make, she really liked his fish pie recipe, the one with boiled eggs, mustard, and spinach in it. When I made his creme brûlée flavoured with Bailey’s she made it clear no woman would ever be good enough for me. Sometimes my father got upset the curry was too spicy. Sometimes my sisters complained about there not being any meat in the roasted vegetable and pesto pasta I made. But my mother always loved it. And that was good to hear as a 12 year old. Cooking felt special. It felt important. Do it well and it felt like it could make anyone happy.
Jamie Oliver and my mother showed me that.
And then Vader picks Palpatine up, throws him into a big hole, and he is dead. Vader is Anakin again. He loves his son. Always had. We may not have seen that turn of events coming, but now it’s happened, and we think back to what we have watched, it isn’t really surprising at all.
One of the best things anyone’s ever said to me was when I told my friend Will I’d decided to be a chef. Despite the fact I’d only ever worked in marketing since we graduated uni together, he said he wasn’t surprised. He said he hadn’t seen it coming, of course, but now it had come, he wasn’t surprised. I loved him for that.
Everyone else had said it was a surprise.
I didn’t think of it then, but I suppose the fact becoming a chef made sense to me was enough to give me the confidence to do it. No, I didn’t have any chef friends, I didn’t inherit an inspiring culinary identity I was determined to share. I just knew food mattered. Not even I saw it coming, but I knew it made sense. A good friend of mine had even been kind enough to agree.
I suppose that’s the advice I’d give to anyone else who thinks of changing their life completely like I, in my modest way, did eight years ago. Does it really, deep down, make sense to you? Can you justify it to yourself? That’s all you need.
Let’s be honest, we can’t all be anything we might occasionally day-dream of being. I still want to be an astrophysicist every time I watch Brian Cox on TV. But I know, even at 36, that it’s too late for that. I could never convince myself it makes any sense.
But that won’t be the case for everything, or everyone. And who is to say it takes much convincing? All I needed was the memory of a mother who cooked and taught me how good it was to be cooked for.
There’s a reason it works for the story when Vader throws The Emperor to his death. It’s a conclusion we couldn’t have guessed at the start, but can’t imagine any other way once we got there. It just made too much sense.
Once I’d got there, I knew cooking made sense.