By Catherine Chen
When it comes to food, memory has a way of working with and on our palate. A meal is a meal. A meal is also an archive. Proust’s madeleine. The last meal on Earth. A warmth coursing through the body. A breeze. A sigh of relief. In both restaurants and home kitchens, memory exudes an aura that often translates as nostalgic or cozy. The memory might not belong to you, but it does not have to because when you take that first bite you realize that this is a taste you’ve always known. Thus fueled, perhaps, you begin to build a narrative associating details of the space in which you eat. Sounds from the kitchen filter in: laughter, running water, a screen door kept ajar. You eat, chew, swallow.
When I asked Martin Mendoza, head chef at Le Zie in New York City, for his ultimate dish, his answer was immediate: bucatini all’amatriciana. Warm, homey, and addicting, amatriciana is a quick pan sauce made with tomato and guanciale. “At Le Zie, we once made amatriciana as a special after we learned about an earthquake that affected Italy,” he explained. “We donated the profits from it to a charity, but what I always remember is that even after we ended the special customers would come in requesting the amatriciana. The ultimate dish does not need much. It just has to stay with you.”
I met Martin when we both worked at a small, upscale Italian restaurant in Harlem. No matter how long I have worked in a restaurant, I feel shy around chefs. I have been conditioned by reality TV to expect a chef’s archetype: he’s male and temperamental, larger than life. A narcissist. He has books, a media empire. He doesn’t talk, he yells. In reality, I am less likely to encounter this chef in his kitchens; he’s too busy traveling the world, promoting restaurants, monetizing celebrity chef culture toward new directions.
For someone like Martin, cooking is first and foremost a career. At eighteen, he left Ixmiquilpan, a municipality of Hildago in central Mexico, for New York. His first jobs were as a dishwasher. After that, he was a delivery boy for Chinese fast food joints on the Upper West Side. He sent money home. When he became a father, he provided for his own family.
“When I came to America, I did what I had to do. But I didn’t want to stay a dishwasher. Look,” Martin showed me his hands. Weathered and calloused, they had the texture of newly-laid asphalt. Dish soap, over time, strips the skin of its nutrients, rendering the skin more vulnerable to its surroundings. Water too acts as an abrasive.
If a restaurant's dishwasher calls out sick or decides not to show up, the kitchen’s potential level of output is immediately impacted. Tables receive appetizers but must wait an hour for their mains. Upset, they complain to their server. In the kitchen, line cooks complete ticket orders only to realize that the plates are not yet dry. Food runners are pulled off the floor to run the dishwasher or shine glassware. Meanwhile, managers placate the fussy patrons who will neither know nor understand that it is dishwashers who maintain the pacing, the heartbeat, of a restaurant.
But Martin wanted more. In time, he found cooking. He worked in food prep, then salad and
garde manger. He expedited food. For over twenty years, he worked his way up the restaurant hierarchy in casual and fine dining; in Italian, Mediterranean, American, Japanese, and Mexican restaurants; in all five boroughs of New York. No challenge, he said, was too daunting: “I like seeing what other people do because I’ll think let me learn this or I could cook this better and over time I become a better chef. It’s the same reason why I’m not upset if someone says I didn’t cook well. I just see how I can improve myself.”
But it is his sincerity that sets him apart as a chef. Day after day, in cooking, Martin found a way to communicate what mattered to him to the people around him. He was happiest when cooking for others, and the longer he cooked, the more refined his emotional language for food became. Put another way: Martin’s food is simple in concept, elegant in execution. He does not need to lean on trends or the nostalgia of childhood memory to create an impact because he understands the value of being present.
Being original or innovative was not a priority. Neither was becoming famous.
Are you hungry?
Have you eaten?
These were the metrics that mattered.
In the film Oxhide II, director Liu Jiayin and her parents make dumplings for dinner. In their one-room apartment, all activity has to be coordinated. Before they begin, her father, a leather worker, clears the table on which he has been working. While he wipes the surface clean, her mother enters in and out of the frame bearing tools and ingredients: Chinese chives, a bag of flour, a bowl. The camera never moves. At times, our visibility is limited to what the torso and arms are doing. At other times, new perspectives open up. You feel like you’ve crawled into the room on your knees to observe a private play.
What stays with you? From preparing the space, to folding dumpling skins, to eating, the film takes its time to document the family’s process. You slow down. You begin to notice what’s happening besides the meal. The family gossips about their neighbors. They make fun of each other. They are anxious about how the impending Beijing Olympics will affect their lives and the struggling family business, a leather goods shop. All the while, Liu’s mother washes the vegetables. Her father kneads the dough. Liu is goofy, an unhelpful source of help. When the family finally sits down to eat, they devour the meal, seemingly in minutes.
In centering the process of cooking rather than the food it produces, Oxhide II has us consider the ethical dimensions through which we understand notions of home cooking or authentic cooking. Like in storytelling, the intimacy of form affects the ways we talk about cooking and eating. On one hand, an essay about a childhood meal might center on the writer’s personal journey as they recollect the past and interrogate details within it for meaning. On the other hand, a restaurant with an open kitchen places line cooks under the gaze of scrutiny and appreciation because their labor cannot be ignored by diners.
Oxhide II combines formal and stylistic elements of both ends of this spectrum to relate a vision of authenticity that refuses sentimentality or coziness. Instead, the film offers the possibilities of “a droll humanism,” as Andréa Picard writes for Cinema Scope, the improvisations of a family making the most of what they have. Limited in space and resources, they create a meal rich with the intimacies of what it means to share in a life.
It is in a similar vein that I think of chefs like Martin who cook every day. Their reverence for food is less about achieving some platonic ideal in our current cultural imagination—food as fodder for TV spectacle, sport, and celebrity—than about doing, day after day, what’s possible and necessary.
Cooking is an ordinary space where ordinary work happens, even though the valuation of such work will differ kitchen to kitchen, city to city, individual life to life. An "ethnic" restaurant, for example, is often celebrated for its authenticity because both the menu and workers belong to that ethnicity. Another ethnic restaurant, though, might be celebrated for its authenticity because a white chef has traveled abroad to explore, claim, and import a set of rarely seen dishes.
Meanwhile, in much of the world women cook for and clean after their families because doing so is a woman’s social duty. And every day, in addition to leading the legal battles for decriminalization and legitimacy, working-class immigrants who run food carts are faced with the increasing costs of acquiring a permit, the consequences of policing, and municipal fining.
For most, cooking is a means to survival, and sustenance—not stardom.
At the restaurant, we looked forward to the days Martin was responsible for making staff meals. At its worst, staff meal is a cobbled mess of unused ingredients or leftovers from service, a haphazard remix of mirepoix and egg drop soup. One Sunday brunch, my friend Caitlin and I watched with envy as the chef on duty, oblivious to every hungry worker in proximity, flipped pancakes for himself.
On better days, staff meals are a platform for quietly extravagant cooking. By this I mean they will not be sold in the dining room. They will not be featured by the James Beard Foundation, Food and Wine, or Bon Appétit. They will not benefit from the machine of commercial acclaim.
And they happen regardless. In this space, Martin made the food he’d grown up eating, like barbacoa de res. Traditionally, barbacoa refers to the method where a large hunk of beef or goat is wrapped in maguey leaves, placed in a brick-lined oven dug into the earth, and left overnight to steam. The following day, the meat is uncovered: succulent, tender, and moist. Any liquid is reduced to consommé. A meal begins with a bowl of consommé, followed by tacos.
Slow-cooked meat has a unique warmth and flavor—it’s coaxing, gentle. I wrapped my tongue around a stringy piece of beef as if it was candy. I ate many more servings than I thought I should. Everyone did. That day we ate a little slower to appreciate every moment of it for the days to come when we did not have food to eat or did not have the time to eat. “Do you like it?” Martin asked, and it was the silliest question we’d ever heard. Pleased by our enthusiasm, he helped himself to a taco and headed back to the manager’s office to review his notes for the following day.
Catherine Chen is a poet and performer. Their work has appeared in Slate, Asian American Writers' Workshop, Mask Magazine, among others. Their chapbook Manifesto, or: Hysteria will be published in June 2019 by Big Lucks.