How A Chef Says “I Love You”


By Emma Kobolakis

Spoiler alert: she doesn’t.

Becoming adept in the kitchen means becoming attuned to a different language. Not the obvious commands of “Sharp!” or “Behind!”—those are easy enough for any fool to follow. Avoiding being stabbed or burnt is like winning a participation medal. Congratulations, you didn’t die. What I’m getting at is fluency of gesture and movement, more so than words. Because if you can dial in to what the kitchen is saying, you will find yourself talking back. And just like crawling before running, you have to master basic verbs before conjugating them into anything remotely romantic.

The economy of time in a small, hot space doesn’t lend itself to sweet nothings. Usually, it’s like being at a dance party where everyone is aggressively performing their own freestyle, and something is on fire. But there are moments. Heads turn at the same instant and mouths shout “two minutes!” in perfect unison, the knowledge of having ensured a perfect pickup almost enough to make one giddy. Turning again to catch the small smirk on the face of a chef that rarely smiles, and never during service, can make your heart flutter.

But how do you know it’s love? Sometimes, you know it’s love when Chef hasn’t killed you. Let’s say you turned off the walk-in fan for a moment's peace while taking the nightly inventory. Forget to flick it back on, leaving dead air to hang overnight and prompting a massive clear-out the next day, and you are single-handedly responsible for having artisanal, hand-crafted holy hell unleashed on your hapless cook comrades. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my professional life to have to step forward and take credit for the massive mistake that almost closed down the restaurant for the weekend, if not the entire week.

The fact that Chef's hands did not spring to encircle my neck as I confessed was pretty solid proof that she cared more about me than the prawns she had to toss. Either that, or she knew after such an incident I'd sooner commit ceremonial self-sacrifice than do something that stupid ever again. Accident or not, I had put the place I cared about in real danger. After Chef’s explosion of totally justifiable anger, my horror was only relieved after burying my face in her shoulder, encircled in a hug. You can bet I cooked my ass off that night. That’s love.

Or, she just peels you an orange. It can be that simple. Those sweet, fleshy sections going down like liquid sunshine in the endless summer that is the back of house encapsulate an entire relationship. One governed by mutual sacrifice and understanding. Words? What words? I have the world in my mouth.

Photos: Jose Espaillat & Chia Messina