The Chef’s Life

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

Sometimes, I miss the pirate crew who make up restaurant kitchens throughout America—a motley gang often comprised of chefs and waiters who are secretly filmmakers, actors, musicians, writers, and artists. I miss the way we’d finish a grueling shift, serving a hundred hungry diners, and we’d settle around the bar after work and talk about one day writing the great novel, or hear about the documentary the busboy is filming in his spare time.

From 1997-2008, as I wrote the stories which would lead to Children of the New World, I worked everything from line cook to executive chef, catered weddings, and lived the overworked, 60-hour-a-week life which is common to chefs. My jobs paid the bills, and I paid for my writing with sleep deprivation. I had gotten into cooking by chance. I was living in Portland, Oregon, at the time, working an awful job taking care of developmentally disabled convicts who had been kept out of prison because of their mental illnesses. I was being paid $7.25 an hour to keep felons from attacking people. It was a thankless, miserable job which was so emotionally draining that it left me no energy to write—so I finally quit.

My girlfriend at the time suggested I try cooking. I was always making extravagant meals at home, and I loved it. Down the street from where we lived, a small restaurant was hiring. So I went in for an interview, and within a week, the head chef was fired and I was suddenly given the executive chef position. Little did I know how rare this opportunity was. Suddenly I was in complete control of my own kitchen and creating the menus for the restaurant. In years to come, I learned that one doesn’t usually get an executive chef position from the get-go. And when I moved to Boulder, Colorado, I was sent back down the line and learned how to be a line chef.

Being a chef taught me a great deal about being able to multi-task under pressure. On a busy night, you’ve got the ticket machine spitting out never-ending orders, eight sauté pans sizzling, a dozen steaks on the grill, mise-en-place to prep, and waiters yelling special orders to you. It’s complete pandemonium. The writing life, in many ways, demands a similar amount of multi-tasking. On a daily basis, I find myself working on new stories, sending out submissions to literary journals, revising story collections in preparation for publication, giving interviews, working as an editor for the lit journal I advise, grading my student’s stories, and directing The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing—the non-profit creative writing organization I founded. It’s like having a kitchen full of orders, the ticket-machine constantly delivering new work. If it weren’t for my years as a chef, which trained me to keep track of a dozen orders at once, I don’t think I’d ever have been prepared for the multi-tasking inherent in the writing life.

Another thing I learned during my years as a chef was that many bosses didn’t care that I was a writer. You can walk onto a line and tell the executive chef: “Guess what, I just finished my novel” and they’ll say, “Good for you, we’ve got a ten-top that just walked in and they all want duck—get cooking!” So, I realized that, unlike pursuing a degree in creative writing—where peers and professors are asking you to produce work—the day-to-day life of the restaurant world doesn’t prioritize the writer’s life. And in many ways, this is akin to the daily demands of life—being a parent, working a side job, going grocery shopping, doing the laundry, etc. There are always plenty of things to do which can take you away from your writing. And so, I learned it’s always up to me to keep my writing alive.

In 2008, I was able to step away from cooking and devote my time entirely to teaching, writing, and directing the Martha’s Vineyard Institute. And this has been a great joy for me—there’s a real pleasure in only cooking at home for friends and family, and being able to devote my time fully to my writing. I no longer have to deal with the misery which is cleaning a flat-top grill, draining the deep fryer, and placating overly demanding diners. All the same, I miss the knives and the fire, the foul-mouthed chefs, the wait-staff sneaking out for smoke breaks or making out in the walk-in cooler, the wild crew of hopeful artists and cooks who cursed freely and bandaged their wounds after work.

I still cook these days. I like making big meals for my friends, hosting dinner parties, and putting on the apron whenever I can. This past summer, at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute, the fantastic non-fiction writer Matthew Gavin Frank and I connected over cooking. He used to be a chef as well, and has worked with some of the great chefs in America. At night, we sat on the porch of the faculty house and brainstormed ideal menus we’d like to cook. We’ve got a plan to visit one another this coming year, and create elaborate dinners which will challenge us as chefs. Apparently, Matthew Gavin Frank makes a delicious chicken liver ice cream, a combination that amazed me. Sometime this year, I’ll visit him up in Marquette, and hold him to the challenge; I’m counting on tasting that chicken liver ice cream. In the meantime, I’ll be brushing up on my own chef skills, and getting back to the culinary arts, which were a mainstay of my life for over a decade as I worked toward publishing my first collection.

Children of the New World Alexander WeinsteinAlexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. He is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories have received the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Millennium Prizes, have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and appear in the anthology New Stories from the Midwest. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University and leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe. His collection Children of the New World is available now from Picador.

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