Moves are funny, hellish things.
Halfway between packaging one’s entire life into a series of bags and boxes, and unpacking that life again somewhere else, lies a vast field of chaos.
Hello from deep in the deranged void of Just Moved To A Foreign Country. It is evening in France. I am tired, oh so tired, and very, very late sending this letter.
Much has transpired in the past eight weeks. Visas have been stamped, belongings carefully squirreled away, customs cleared, rooms rented. I have, as briefly mentioned at the end of May’s Night Letter, just hauled my expectant body across the Atlantic Ocean. I will be here for nine months.
What I did not allude to in said letter was why, or specifically where. The where: Paris. The why: to study — in French parlance — gastronomie. The second collection of whys (Why culinary school? Why Paris? Why now? — or to put it more crassly: “What the hell?”) is slightly more complicated. In fact, it felt sufficiently complicated to warrant a short essay, which I’ve included here.
Cooking, My Stupid Soul-Mate
I began cooking for myself as most people do, at eighteen, shortly after I moved away from home for the first time. In the tradition of college students throughout history, I ate stale leftover pizza and Kraft Dinner until shame and frugality compelled me to begin visiting grocery stores and preparing meals. It was fun. I liked exploring recipes, the thoughtful selection of dinner, the alchemy of watching raw ingredients transform themselves into complete meals, and the rush of pride and satisfaction when a new recipe yielded a complete dish. I cooked enthusiastically, regularly, but not skillfully.
I’m not really sure when cooking changed from an entertaining pastime to an all-consuming obsession, but I think it was at some point during my early twenties. At twenty-three in Indonesia, I remember meeting a surfer — this Irish guy — who was executive cheffing for some famous Australian restauranteur. He had just helped open a small cafe near my house. I remember my first visit, oblivious. I was only there for coffee. I ordered an egg sandwich as an afterthought. The dish, delivered so casually that in hindsight it was a little ironic, arrived unadorned, centered neatly on its small white plate. I took a bite. Chaos ensued. My mind was bewildered. It knew that I was chewing on bread but my taste buds were telling it that it was biting into a pillow covered in a caramelized, buttery, crunchy sheath. The soft eggs underneath effused egginess. No cheese, soft fatty bacon, creamy aioli, piquant sambal, a touch of rocket. Each ingredient was so fresh it tasted as if it had been harvested just for this sandwich. It was a masterpiece between slices. I left that encounter changed, although I didn’t know it at the time. To be able to create food like that seemed like a supernatural endowment.
Years later in Seattle, I was working for a gigantic tech firm (rhymes with “positron”) and desperately needing something to tether me to life outside the tech bubble. I was new to town, had made a friend who was a sous-chef at a hip, upmarket beef restaurant (the kind that has its own farm and runs a butchery program). One night, I asked him if I could help cook for a dinner party he was hosting in his tiny apartment. We cooked together for an entire day, me mostly trying to stay out of his way while cleaning, chopping, washing, and mixing; scrutinizing his every move out of the corners of my eyes. I was enthralled. He moved like a ballet dancer: careful, precise; never rushing, rarely stopping. By the end of the evening we had fed twenty, maybe thirty people — all strangers. Everyone was gushing, ebullient, fed, grateful. The rush of having been responsible for pleasure on such a scale was dizzying.
I left Seattle and big tech behind, but cooking followed me like a salacious shadow. I was completely ensorcelled — devoured anything I could find in the library or on the internet. The universe obliged and brought me into contact with more food people. I shamelessly emulated them, studied earnestly, spent evenings and weekends experimenting on my own. I learned about lactic-acid development and lava-cake theory and spherification and the Maillard reaction; dry-roasting and salt-curing and farce-meat. Learned that there are over 200 different varieties of asparagus, all of ‘em different. Learned the difference between Mirepoix and Sofrito. At one point, I even took a second part-time job doing entry-level evening work in kitchens — first at a small Irish joint, then at the wine bar next-door.
In hindsight, the social immersion and the learning of the basic patterns really opened doors for me. In a relatively short amount of time, I came to learn enough that I could go off-script, invent — say — an interesting recipe for bolognaise or ragu or ramen from scratch; look at a template and understand how to riff on it. Cooking became improv jazz; a new creative outlet, but one with a physicality that was tactile and intensely sensory, rather than the pure intellectualism of design work. It was revelatory.
Yet, the delta between my skills and ambitions was vast. My food was usually good, occasionally great, never exceptional. I felt uncomfortable — even a little guilty — about my infatuation. “I love food” is perhaps as uninformative and reductive a statement as “I love travel” (or indeed, “I love breathing”). Food, being one of the most universal objects of adoration on the planet, and food such an obvious thing to be loved, to be a reasonably adjusted human and to love food — even to be a self-proclaimed “foodie” — seems nearly besides the point. As my pantry began to resemble something out of a Réne Redzepi cookbook, cooking came to occupy a murky hinterland between after-hours pastime and professional vocation. I considered culinary school, but such a commitment felt so unfathomable that it remained mostly the domain of my daydreams.
Then I moved to the mountains: a land of bland produce, expensive groceries, and abundant distractions. I quit more-or-less cold turkey; decided to funnel my time and energy into other things. Had to acknowledge that there are only so many hours in the day and just couldn’t justify spending all of them in the kitchen.
Time passed. I cooked, I ate. But outside of the occasional dinner party I didn’t cook. Not much at least. I was missing the energy and ambition of the kitchens and people back in Seattle and Vancouver. It was convenient, because my career was demanding and I had been cooking so much that it had been impacting other parts of my life.
So I lost a few years. It was good. I was good. I had deep, difficult work to keep me occupied. I was learning how to show up consistently, put intention and discipline into my work, let go of my ego, trust process, and be accountable to long feedback loops. Much growth came from this period. I thought about cooking sometimes, wondered if I would ever get serious about it again. I kinda-sorta forgot what it was like. But the memory never fully disappeared.
Then at the end of 2022 I hit some rough concrete — lost my job, broke my elbow in a climbing accident, found myself burnt out, reduced to a smouldering pile of cinders — fertile soil for some soul-searching. I did what I usually do when life feels full of big, emphatic question marks: I took a long walk alone in a strange place, drank a lot of coffee, talked to strangers, moved my bones, ate everything I could find. It was balm for the spirit. I met more food people: service folks, a mezcal importer, a recovering chef, an upstart caterer. I thought a lot about how life is very long and very short at the same time and how “maybe later” is dangerous because it’s fuzzy and forces nothing, while conversely the accountability of “now” is a kind of insurance against the unknown desires and circumstances of a future self.
More than anything, with this flooding of stimuli I felt the urge to cook again; to truly and deeply engage with the craft and matter of food. I felt it despite years inert, despite committed relationships with other pursuits and another career. The compulsion was no weaker for having lain dormant for so long.
Here’s the thing: in a lot of ways, cooking is stupid. It's stupid in the way art is stupid. It doesn't solve big problems for the world. It's indulgent. It’s hard. The hours are long. The pay is shameful. But after so many years spent in a state of resistance in service of reason, more resistance begins to seem stupid too. To quote an oft-quoted aphorism: the heart wants what the heart wants.
So I decided to bring cooking forcefully back into my life, lest a future self look back wistfully on a lifetime spent sidelining such a powerful attraction; in Paris for no other reason than to plonk my butt down as geographically close to the institution of gastronomy as possible, and to do it in such a way that maximizes accountability and puts definitive edges around the effort (I can neither quit early nor prolong the effort without a great deal of cost and difficulty).
To say that this has been disruptive in nearly every way is an extraordinary understatement. Simply arriving at the starting line has taken an act of god. I’ve felt (am still feeling) all the feels: excitement, fear, anxiety, apprehension, doubt. Yet, on a fundamental level this also feels like a very right thing at a very right time; I have no kids, no debt, am single, have energy, motivation, a few shreds of humility. I plan to complete my studies in the spring. Beyond that: nothing. Not the tiniest glimmer of an iota of a plan. My mind and arms are open. As when navigating in the backcountry: climb to a high point, survey the landscape, choose a sensible direction, continue moving.
Of the writing: as ever, it continues. The work may suffer, get eaten by the dog, stuck in the printer, lit on fire and dunked in the toilet… but it will persist.
From the first iteration of these letters:
I don't have the answers, but I can share the questions, the process, the progress, the experiments, and the moments of “Aha!” as I continue to write and create and work it all out. It will be vulnerable, maybe a little weird. It might digress, it might ramble a bit, and it might mutate a few times before it finds its voice.
So in many ways, this episode is right on brand. I am still figuring out how to create in the service of others, how to apply serious rigour to that work, how to build a fulfilling, meaningful life on my own terms; how to navigate without a map. Sometimes to take a step forwards you have to take a step back.
Until next month,
P.S. There is a wonderful (short) essay by C.K. Dixon about changing careers called Climbing the Wrong Hill. The analogy doesn’t apply perfectly, but I think about it often. If you can relate at all to such stuff, I highly recommend it.