The first time I burned my hand in the frialator, I did as my boss Mike instructed and stuck my hand into the big metal bowl of cold, raw chicken and batter. It cooled my stinging fingers. I pulled out my hand, covered in a beige colored mud, the batter dripping into the bowl beneath. I marveled at the disgusting remedy.
The Korean Fried Chicken paid the bills. I cooked a lot of it on Tuesdays, standing over the frialator. I dipped two pieces in at a time by my fingertips, swirling them back and forth so they wouldn’t stick together.
Frying chicken sounds easy, but there’s an art to it. This fried chicken took days to prepare. It required an overnight brine, followed by a drying period on sheet trays in the walk-in; then a first fry, after being dipped in the batter mix, which consisted of different flours made from things you didn’t know could be milled into flour, bound with a mixture of water and soju, a potent spirit made from rice. It was fried in the one “large” fryer, which was only a little bigger than the other fryer, with just two baskets. This was not an industrial process.
Thighs took longer than wings. But timing the frying was also about feel, the look of the chicken cooking through the layer of batter. Eventually I could identify the finished dish by the smell, look and feel of each piece. Then the chicken cooled, and I sorted and packaged it before putting it in the walk-in freezer until it was needed on the line to be fried once more, before serving. This painstaking process gave the chicken an endless crunch and juicy interior.
There was always chicken to fry. For the most part, I enjoyed it. It was a solitary job. No one could bother the person frying. It was too important, I was good at it and I could go fast. My chicken rarely stuck and had an immaculately crisp, golden exterior. This time, though, I’d miscalculated as I was placing a pair of drumsticks in the 375 degree oil. The pain didn’t come immediately, but once it hit, it felt like a thousand bee stings on the ends of my fingers.
It was the first time I had hurt myself since starting at the restaurant—I’d had plenty of scrapes and cuts in my own kitchen, including a nasty cut thanks to a mandoline—but now I finally joined the brotherhood of cooks. Everyone in the kitchen had a scar from a hot pot or sharp knife, usually on the inside of the forearm, near the elbow joint. At one point, one of the more experienced cooks cut off the end of his finger while showing off how fast he could cut onions. He wrapped his finger and went to the hospital, blood dripping down his hand. He returned a few days later bandaged up and ready for work.
I’d seen a posting that the restaurant was hiring just a few weeks before. I knew one of the owners—we shared an affinity for hardcore music—so I reached out. Eventually I was set up with Mike, the chef de cuisine, to talk about a potential job; a few shifts here and there, so I could learn the ropes. At that time, I had little kitchen experience; I’d spent some time working in a deli, and at a sausage cart outside a music venue. But I had gathered plenty of book knowledge and had a keen desire to learn. I’d begun to dabble in food writing, so in part, the idea was that the job would inform my writing. But the truth was that I was looking for something else. I was heading into year three of being a stay-at-home dad, and in search of meaning. I had struggled at playgroups and other places where stay-at-home-parents went so they could socialize and their kids could play while being barely supervised. I felt the dagger stares and seemed always to be hearing the question: “What do you do?” I had no answer.
The judgment felt harsher than I could explain to my wife, a loving and caring partner who wants only the best for our children and me. She wanted me to take our kids to daily activities. I tried, but often failed, to explain the fear and panic I felt about this. I wasn’t like the few other dads that showed up; I didn’t want to join in and sing or dance. I wanted to do what I’ve always been best at: hang back and watch. It’s why I became a writer and a reporter. I tremble at being the center of attention and sometimes overcompensate to make up for the fear and get loud and panicky. At Christmas, opening presents fills me with dread. Often, I don’t know how to act. I stare blankly and try to crack my crooked smile, but end up just looking confused. When my wife announced she was pregnant the first time, I stared at her as if we were lost.
As gender fluidity and social norms around working mothers have evolved, it’s become OK for dads to stay home. There’s increasing talk of paternity leave. My father’s bosses, I know, wanted him back to work as soon as my brothers and I were born. Not too long ago, dads sat in the waiting room for the birth of their children, forbidden to be present in the delivery room. But I was able to sit next to my wife as she pushed two beautiful babies into the world with no painkillers. I could stand next to her and comfort her through that once-in-a-lifetime moment, even if I did faint the second time. Parenting, for the most part, has become more equal. It’s now an actual partnership, for many people.
According to a Pew Research study in 2018, the share of dads being the stay-at-home parent in a family with one parent at home rose to 17 percent, seven points higher than in 1989. But the lame dad jokes still pop up on social media and on television or the radio about how badly dads dress their kids, or how we can’t be trusted at home alone with them. I heard a mother once say that her husband was “babysitting” their children. The comedies with laugh tracks and jokes mocking dads oblivious to parenting and to their own kids are obsolete, but these ideas persist, especially among older people.
I once met a man in a restaurant bathroom in Florida while I was changing my daughter’s diaper. He stared at me for a moment, surprised at how I held my 18-month-old as I changed her on the counter. He told me how amazing it was to see me changing a diaper, because he had kids and had never done it. I was a little distraught at the absence of a changing station so I barely acknowledged his compliment, which seemed to me both back-handed and sad, as if he were intimating that he’d missed something in his children’s lives.
When I was laid off I decided to try freelancing. It worked, at times, but what it really did was prepare me to be a stay-at-home-dad. It gave us the leeway to afford a child on one salary. I could stay home with our kid and work from my home office. The money we’d be saving would far outweigh the costs of paying for daycare—the job of a local news reporter doesn’t pay well enough to cover full-time daycare. Plus, I could cook dinner, which I love to do. I’d finally get a chance to explore and experiment with my dormant cookbooks. That was the plan, anyways.
I’d anticipated that being left alone with a child all day would come with some struggles, but there was no way to be prepared for the crying—the endless crying—the long nights and lost days that come with caring for an infant. As our daughter grew, those things became routine. But I had moments where I lost it. One time at a rest stop I screamed into the air. Another time I cried on my kitchen floor. For the most part, though, I found I could handle it. The hard part became the other parents, in combination with the slow drip of my career, which was by now only barely a career. I’d lost my identity as a writer, because I was not writing. When people asked me what stories I was working on I’d often lie and say I had a few things I was digging into. Rarely, I told the truth, and said I was stuck in a malaise of childrearing and endless loops of hearing myself sing The ABCs or “Old McDonald”. Then we had our second child, a boy, and everything spiraled into a dark hole.
I saw myself as a failure. I looked at all the other successful dads I knew, working hard and bringing home a big paycheck. That was not me. I was writing only a few mildly relevant stories a year. So I decided to use the hours of cooking and years of knowledge I’d gained from hours of reading cookbooks and cooking magazines and watching obscure cooking shows on public television since I was a child. I spent my childhood watching my dad cook, and now I wanted to do it myself, in a real restaurant.
When I first sat down with Mike, we talked about what I wanted. What I was interested in. I told him I wanted to know what working in a restaurant was like. I wanted to use the experience to help me write about food better. And I wanted to get out of my house. I wanted to shed responsibility once a week to start. I wanted to peel and chop vegetables, break down chicken and learn how to make kimchi. Mike was a bit awkward in our meeting, his hair frazzled, pants hanging low so that the top of his boxers were exposed. He often forgot a belt and used plastic wrap tightly wound into a rope as a belt to hold his pants up the best he could. But he understood my plight. He’d become a cook in a somewhat similar fashion.
Mike graduated from college in Maine and was on the path to be a lawyer, like his mother. He went to New York City for law school, and returned home unsure of his decision. His mom set him up with a family friend who owned Strip-T’s, a sandwich shop in Watertown, a suburb of Boston far from their home in Western Massachusetts. Mike would go in on the weekend and work prep in the mornings in the basement of Strip-T’s. At the time, the owner’s son, Tim Maslow, had returned home from a stint at Momofuku Ko, the first crown jewel of David Chang’s restaurant empire.
Strip-T’s was transformed during that time. Maslow brought Chang’s influence to Boston. He took his dad’s legacy sandwich shop and made it something more. They started serving ramen and sandwiches with a special umami flair. They created a burger that’s still the best I’ve ever eaten. It didn’t have cheese. It wasn’t massive. What it had was a smoked miso mayo-like sauce that played perfectly with the fatty and rich meat. The bun was soft but didn’t get gross or soggy. There was a huge slice of pickled red onion that was grilled. It was fat, salt, acid and umami in one perfect plate. The restaurant closed in 2018.
Tim Maslow’s dad had opened Strip-T’s the same year Tim was born. Mike learned under Tim’s more refined tutelage.
One night a cook called out and Mike jumped on the line, earning his apron and a spot as someone other than the kid in charge of chopping vegetables and stocking the walk-in. He followed Tim Maslow to his first restaurant, Ribelle, in Brookline. Maslow earned the Best New Chef nod from Food & Wine Magazine in 2015. After Ribelle closed, Mike worked in and around Boston at some of the city’s most interesting and ambitious projects. His resume reads like someone trying to absorb every lesson he could about cooking, from open fire pit cooking to French-Canadian fine dining.
The best way to do this was to start off slow, Mike told me. We agreed on Tuesdays, a day my mother-in-law could watch the kids, and an 11 a.m. start time. I’d begin with minimum wage. I’d work a few hours at a time. I’d be a shadow. I’d stay out of the way.
When I first met Erin, at a different restaurant, she’d been standing behind a whole pig splayed out on a giant wooden cutting board, breaking the animal down. I had my daughter with me. My daughter looked at the pig and asked questions. That day she learned where pork and bacon come from.
Now Erin was the sous-chef at my new place of employment. When I arrived for my first shift, she grabbed a big box of oysters, a white-handled brush with worn orange bristles, and a few hotel pans, and set me up at the big wash sink. I had to scrub each oyster to remove the bright red beards and algae on the outside. These oysters came from Duxbury and were particularly dirty. I sprayed and scrubbed them, placing the clean ones in a new tray. After I washed each one, I looked them over and made sure I hadn’t missed a spot, which I invariably had. I washed all of them a second time.
I’d read a lot of books about chefs and their prickliness and desire for perfection: Anthony Bourdain’s account of visiting Lyon and hearing about the famed French chefs and their outbursts if there was a minuscule mistake; the endless amounts of Hollandaise sauce whisked by Eric Ripert as described in his memoir, “32 Yolks”; Joel Robuchon yelling every second of every day as he held his staff to impossible standards.
Cleaning oysters was comforting, because I could focus on being perfect. I had the time to do it and they didn’t wiggle away. I wanted these oysters to shine when they were put out in the big tank in the front of the restaurant. I went over them a third time making sure there wasn’t a speck of green or red. When I was done, I called Erin to ask her to check them. Even if I’d taken longer than a skilled prep cook might have, my oysters looked beautiful.
By the time Mike arrived, I’d started peeling steamed eggs for ramyun, Korean ramen. I hate the smell of cooked eggs, which reminds me of wet dogs. But I continued to peel faithfully as each member of the kitchen staff rolled in.
Mike arrived and grabbed me a knife and a green cutting board (for vegetables) and a box of daikon, a peeler and a box for the peels. He showed me how to peel and cut the large root, which was served pickled alongside the fried chicken. Each root was more enormous than the last. The soft skin on the outside peeled smoothly, relaxing me. It came off in clean sheets with no extra pressure needed. I wondered if cutting it would be the same. No. This was a battle. Where the outer skin is soft as water, the inside of a large daikon is like concrete. I had to split and sometimes quarter the large vegetable the long way and then cut it into even pieces about a quarter of an inch. My grip on the knife became more painful with each push. I needed to use my body weight to press through the daikon. A blister formed on the base of my index finger. The pain felt good and the work rewarding. I could see my progress and feel it. I finished the box, put the cut pieces in a large, white bucket.
There’s a legacy in our family of cooking. My great-grandmother opened a drive-in in New Bedford that her sons inherited. They specialized in “fast food” reminiscent of times before McDonald’s and Burger King; simple, quickly prepared, but made from scratch with feeling, love and care. They made hot dogs and hamburgers and a chicken club sandwich. They had french fries, fish and chips, and fried clams, of course, a New England staple. It had a family feel because it was a family place. My great-uncles ran it after my great-grandmother couldn’t. There was a waitress who worked there for 31 years. My great-uncle’s warm smile greeted people when they walked in the door. He has a charm and a laugh that bellies out from a well of joy inside of his soul.
I would go to the drive-in with my parents as a child, ordering a grilled hot dog with a grilled and buttered bun. I can see my mother sitting across from me in the booth, smiling, as regulars came and went. The restaurant stayed open for 48 years, closing in August of 1998.
My father worked there for a while. He had the unenviable job of peeling and slicing onions for the restaurant’s homemade onion rings, which weren’t battered but coated in corn flour and fried so the inside cooked to near caramelized, and the outside held a light crunch.
As a kid, I watched cooking shows on the local PBS station: Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Ming Tsai. When the Food Network became a thing, we’d sit and watch Emeril Lagasse yell “BAM!” on my parents’ bed as my dad folded laundry. The only other thing I remember watching with my dad that intently was sports, our family’s first love. But I can’t ever recall cooking with my dad. He mostly did it alone. He’d show me or let me watch the whipped cream whip. He rarely, if ever, let me cut vegetables or mix marinades. It was his time for himself. There was never enough room in our kitchen or on the counter. He got upset when anyone got into his space. If he’s cooking, he needs everyone “out of the kitchen.” He showed his love in the food that arrived on our plates.
I, too, often lose my temper when my wife comes over my shoulder and peeks at what I’m doing. This is not something I am proud of.
Since becoming a father, I’ve tried my best to let my children assist me in the kitchen. For my daughter’s second birthday, I had her help me make the pasta for her birthday dinner. She helped mix the eggs into the flour and knead the dough. We rolled it out together and she helped cut it into beautiful strands. She helped mix the sauce with the meatballs I made while she napped—no kid needs to put their hands in raw meat. She stirred the pork necks and sausage into the tomato sauce and we tasted it as it cooked and the flavors coalesced. It was a delicious dinner.
On my first Friday shift, the kitchen radiated frenzy. There was a new guy on the ramyun station, which was also responsible for steamed buns, cold noodles, and dumplings. He was struggling as the tickets backed up and orders stalled. The station required split-second timing, and fingers immune to heat. Steamed buns feel like fresh lava rocks when they come out of the steamer. Dumplings are lumps of fiery coal when they’re ready to be plated. Ramyun means burns from pulling noodles out of a pot of boiling water before they overcook, and hot broth spilling on your hands as you pour and mix. I had to help the new guy, though I barely knew what to do myself.
At one point I pulled the noodle basket from the boiling pot, its metal handle long exposed to the open flames and steam, burning my hand. I’d forgotten to use my towel. The burn stung my palm all night, but I pushed through. I stopped whenever I could to run my throbbing hand under cold water. But everything I touched was hot and reignited the pain. I also had to run food to tables when the waitstaff got backed up, and fetch supplies from the walk-in.
One of the owners of the restaurant was there to help me at the oyster case, thankfully. He helped me understand best practices for shucking an oyster without popping the belly, the juicy part of the oyster that carries much of its flavor and texture. After releasing the belly from the straight part of the shell, run the tip of the bench knife under the belly, releasing it from that side while also keeping its shape. When that’s done, smell the oyster for freshness—a bad oyster is a bad week for someone. Place the oyster on a bed of ice and go to the next one. It’s possible to refine this technique to perfection. Like changing a diaper.
I chopped the scallions that went on nearly every dish. I put away fried chicken and yu choy. I spread the leftover rice on large baking sheets with parchment paper; it would be transformed the next day into fried rice and bibimbap. By the time we closed the kitchen and started cleaning, everyone was sweaty and ready for a beer. But we still had an hour or more of wiping, sanitizing, sweeping and washing the floor. We had to prepare every station for the next day. By now, though, my hands had unclenched and the sweat finally ceased dripping from my bald forehead. The kitchen manager got everyone a pint of beer except for the new kid, who was 20. We sat on milk crates by the back table and reminisced about the night—how we’d been in the shit only a few hours earlier, the tickets coming in so fast the machine could barely finish printing one before the next started. We laughed about the orders we’d fucked up because there was nothing else we could do about it now.
The manager asked if I could work every Friday night. I couldn’t, but I told her to always ask. She started to refer to me as the kitchen dad.
I think about Anthony Bourdain often. In college I would sit with my girlfriend on her bed and we’d watch his show on the Travel Channel and talk about places we wanted to go. She was worldly; I was not. She’d been to Paris, and I’d been to Montreal once on a high school field trip. She’d been on tour with The Cars, working as their marketing person. I’d driven to South Carolina with my family twice. Once we’d barely made it out of our hometown before my father and I started screaming at each other.
Bourdain became a guiding light. As I got older, his presence grew. I read his book Kitchen Confidential the summer my son was born. The book’s style of language and its metaphors are now clichés. There is no bigger or more overused cliche than calling a kitchen a “pirate ship.” But I got to know the kitchen as something more like a therapist’s waiting room.
There was a divorced 30-year-old who’d already had three kids with two women; he was living in a cockroach-infested apartment and struggling to pay child support. His life story was baroquely complex, full of failure and “coolness” and drama. Everyone he knew was dying, or had saved someone from dying. The 20-year-old had left his family as a teenager to live with another family member; he hated everyone and everything, including his job. He was homophobic and drank a Monster energy drink every day when he arrived. He told other cooks to “fuck off” and avoided work at all times. Everyone hated him. Then there was the solid line cook who loved the soft serve ice cream machine, smoked weed before and after work, and lived in his girlfriend’s mother’s sun-porch. Also the 20-something, bald, lovestruck cook with his stick-and-poke tattoos whose moods shifted in the wind like a teenager’s. He fell in love with one of the waitresses. And, briefly, there was the young woman with a drug problem whose resumé included stints at Blue Hills and Per Se. She came in to work in the throes of a bad mushroom trip, puked in the trash can instead of working her station, and was fired. She loved to talk about sex and her struggles with her ex-girlfriends. She informed us one day at the prep table that any man who didn’t “eat a girl’s ass out was a pussy.” I was scared of her when she came to pick up her knives the day after she was fired. She was a talented butcher.
So I was the odd one. I’ve had a bank account since I was a teenager. I graduated from college and worked an office job, traveled outside of the United States and understood IRA’s. I had a house. My job was to try to keep people focused, or on task. I was the adult in the room listening to all their problems and trying to understand them from a distance.
One day the cook in charge, whose nephew had just started working with us, was seen vaping over the dish pit and in the walk-in. He wanted to show off to his nephew or something, brag that he could do anything he wanted. This struck me as the behavior of someone looking for guidance, rather than someone looking to cruise around the world in anarchy. The reason for the rebellion wasn’t to rebel, but to look a part. The young people in the kitchen where I worked seemed like high school kids trying to fit in.
I think about all of them often. Working together in such intensity together forges a bond. We communicated in cadence, repeating tickets back at the expeditor. We had our own code and interpreted one another’s moods.
My last shift at the restaurant came on a Tuesday in June. I’d told Mike over the phone a few weeks earlier that I’d be leaving, and he understood. We hadn’t worked together in weeks, because he had responsibilities at the company’s other restaurant. My own progress had stagnated, and I’d become disillusioned working with a crew of people who wanted to take short cuts. No longer did people wear aprons like they were supposed to. Someone didn’t show up, a recipe went missing, someone messed up a huge batch of sauce, or we were almost out of chicken.
I focused on making my final family meal as delicious as I could. I spent the day making potato pierogies. I mixed the dough, kneaded it and let it rest. I hand rolled it out and cut. I stuffed it with the buttery, creamy mashed potatoes I’d made earlier in the day. I melted butter and slowly cooked onions. I dropped fist-size Polish dumplings into a boiling pot of water and removed them when they were done and plopped them into the pan of warm butter and onions. They cooked and crisped. I bought kielbasa and pâte from the local Polish market.
It was going to be a busy night, because we had a Nashville-style hot-chicken popup stopping in. A line began to form outside. As soon as family meal was finished, I helped set up. I grabbed the bag of fresh oysters that had arrived earlier in the day, put them in the wash sink and started scrubbing. It was the last thing I did in that kitchen. These oysters came from Maine. They were cleaner than that first batch, easier to scrub. But I still took my time and worked them with the same beat-up brush. When I was done, I put them on ice and placed them in the walk-in. I took off my apron and went home.
My daughter and I have made pancakes and waffles from scratch. We’ve made buckwheat crepes and baked scones, cookies, bread, and buttermilk biscuits. She’s peeled potatoes and carrots, and helped me cut some softer vegetables. She’s melted chocolate and made brownies from scratch for her brother’s birthday. We’ve made pierogies, banana bread and kimchi. I love when she helps me, pulling up a stool or a chair to the counter or the stove. We may not always get it right, but the moment she sees what she’s made is my favorite part. Her eyes widen a bit, revealing the ice cold blue inside, and she smiles.