I thought it appropriate to give you a public shout out for not only providing excellent subject matter for a story I wrote and read at the literary event Between Bites last month, but also for being the source of direction my life ended up taking.
As Steve Jobs so eloquently stated in his meaningful graduation speech at Stanford some years back: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.” Connecting my dots back to age five, I’d like to thank you for inspiring me, perhaps unintentionally, to become the person I am today. Playing your record and singing along to your song is my oldest memory, and one of only a handful of clear memories I have from my youth. It must have really meant something at that time.
Additionally, I find it exceptional that you’ve chosen to proudly maintain your identity while also incorporating fruits and vegetables into your lifestyle. I applaud your efforts of encouraging others to do the same and for setting a positive example. I would love to eat cookies everyday, but I realize now that’s not the best game plan for my health. If you, supreme cookie enthusiast, can balance what you love to eat with what’s also good for your body -- so can I. I pledge to follow your instruction once again. Looking forward to seeing how this dot connects back someday.
Anyway… below is the story I wrote about you, if you are so inclined to read it. Try not to get cookie crumbs on the keyboard as you scroll down. It’s hard to clean them out of the keys. Not spoken from experience… that’s just what I’ve heard.
I hope you don’t mind that I strapped a stuffed version of you to my bike at Burning Man last year. (Also - we should talk someday about that temporary desert living experience. I think you’d be fascinated by the culture and the creativity. And there are some very interesting cookies out there.)
Between Bites • October 19th, 2015 • Theme: Possession
Many would assume, given my chosen chef career path, that my first love is food. But really, it is second. It came about from my first, which is music…which came about from a furry blue monster.
Around the age of 5, I owned a Fisher Price record player - and while I had many plastic records to spin, there was only one that I played consistently. C is for Cookie, by Cookie Monster. It was the first song that I fell in love with. Sitting in my fuzzy one-piece jammie suit, and hanging onto my furry blue cookie monster doll, I would play the song over and over and over again. Each time, loving it a little more. A habit to this day that I still possess when it comes to music. When I love a song, I play it over and over and over again. Memorizing the words, singing along with the melodies, discovering all the nuances of the vocals and instrumentation not heard until you really start to listen, observing how the song’s meaning changes over time, and watching with wonder how it can become a piece of you.
But Cookie Monster’s song wasn’t the only thing that captured my young heart. I was enchanted by Cookie Monster. I would watch with great anticipation for the cookie climax in his Sesame Street segments. He would go about his day, taking us through a lesson in his unique, minimalist dialect. And then… something would stir in him. A small idea. With a slight tilt of his head, a small spark gleaming in his googly eyes, and the word would spill from his mouth. Cooooookies. And then - a passionate cascade of joy, cookie crumbs, and ahm nom noms as he consumed his beloved cookies with reckless abandon. It was like he was possessed by the power of cookies. And I was possessed by him, his song, and his passion. If I had a childhood spirit animal, it was definitely Cookie Monster.
That said, I also loved cookies. Around the age of 8, I made my first batch of chocolate chip cookies from the Betty Crocker cookbook. This created my second love... food. I would be sitting around my house, or doing homework, or playing with my friends when suddenly… something would stir in me. A small idea. A small spark gleaming in my less googly eyes, and the words would spill from my mouth. Let’s make cookies! Similar to music, when I love a food, I want to make it over and over and over again. Each time I made cookies, I loved it a little more. Learning the technique, memorizing the measurements, discovering all the nuances of mixing and baking not seen until I really started to watch, and observing with wonder as the process of cooking grafted onto my identity.
By the time I left for college, my plastic record player and furry cookie monster doll where long gone, I had my chocolate chip cookie game down, and my first love music took me on my first journey away from home. I enrolled in reputable music program as a vocalist. But I discovered quickly I wouldn’t get by on passion alone.
The pace of musical theory training was rigorous -- it was like math but with music, and I’m not very good at math. I struggled with the extreme competitiveness of my program. My folksy, alto voice never quite fit in my classical and commercial jazz music school. Square peg, round hole. My confidence shrank and I started to believe a career in singing wasn’t in the cards for me. After walking out of a ear training final in tears because I couldn’t write out the notes the teacher was playing, I regrouped and decided I would move to Chicago and transfer to the music business program at Columbia College. I figured if I couldn’t sing for a living, at least I would manage people who would.
To afford living in the city and paying for school, I needed a job and took the ones that worked with my class schedule -- which meant working in restaurants at night. Being on the service side of things shifted my perspective on human interaction, the money was good, and the unique service-based environment appealed to me. The people that work in restaurants are among the most interesting, fucked up, crazy, talented, kind, and beautiful people I have ever met. Lots of square pegs. School became secondary, and while I graduated with a degree, my focus became work. Music was still a love in my life, but my second was starting to slide into first place. Despite working in restaurants for 6 years, at 24 I was convinced I needed to get out of the industry and get a “real job”. So I took a job at a wine distributor. I figured that was a good segway out -- but really it was the gateway into becoming a chef.
For the first time in my life, I had disposable income and I spent it on cookbooks, farmers market ingredients, and restaurants, and spent the majority of my free time cooking. The wine job became secondary, and while I excelled at my job, my focus was on food. When my company got bought out by another distributor, I took it as a sign to jump ship and dive into culinary school. Much like Cookie Monster with his cookies, I was singularly possessed by pursuing a career as a chef and fully immersed myself in a new world of kitchen systems and culture. Music… took a backseat. It was still there, riding along with me, but I was so focused on the road ahead, I didn’t look back much.
After culinary school, I started an underground restaurant with my then boyfriend and our friend Josh. (You might recognize him as that tall bearded guy who I run Sunday Dinner Club and Honey Butter Fried Chicken with.) The three of us ran our business together for a few years, until we couldn’t anymore. In 2008, the boyfriend and I am parted ways twice in one year. First in our nine years of life together… and six months later, in our business as well.
At that point, Josh and I changed the course of the business, and I changed the course of my life. It was a rough time… but during rough times, you often find yourself looking back. And what I found waiting for me there was music.
It reentered my life in a passionate cascade of joy. Reunited, my relationship with music was different than before... but better. Downloading dozen of albums, attending dozens of concerts, and finding new friends with musical interests, music became a religion of sorts -- my therapy, my comfort, my church. I started singing again too, albeit just in my car or on very special occasions.
During this time, my two loves grabbed a hold of me and off we went to become the person I am today. I up’d my game as a chef, the Sunday Dinner Club community grew, and Honey Butter Fried Chicken was born. I went places I would have never gone. I met people I would have never met. I did things and saw things and heard things I never would have experienced if it wasn’t for my life driven by music and food. Both of them in the front seat, riding along as faithful companions.
Last summer, I went on a journey to Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Now that’s an entirely different story... but I’ll share a small detail from it that is a big detail here. While I was picking up last minute supplies at a Target in Reno, I wandered down an aisle in the kids section. On a high shelf, poking out behind a dozen Elmos and Big Birds was a patch of blue. I stood there for a few seconds, and something stirred in me. A slight tilt of my head and a small spark in my heart.
Time slow motioned as I reach up to the shelf, pulled down the furry blue doll, and held it up to my face. Cookie Monster. It was one of those strange and quiet moments where everything in your life comes full circle, and you see the connection to all of it and how you got to the present. Bicycles being the main mode of transport at Burning Man, and it being encouraged to customize your bike to your personal preferences, I strapped Cookie Monster to my handle bars, wrapped him up in blue LED light, and he lit my way as I navigated a week in the desert and one of the most profound adventures of my life. He now sits on my desk as a furry blue reminder of my roots and my wings.
So here I am -- with food and music still very much loves in my life. I have a big girl record player now and a good selection of vinyl. I'm lucky to have a successful career as a restaurateur and a chef. Through these things, and much to my surprise, I find myself recently possessed by a third love. Writing. It’s new, and while I know I instantly loved it when it came to me, we haven’t quite found our place together yet. But it stirs things in me. Small ideas. Small sparks. My love for writing came about from my first and second loves -- and I love that about it.
And what do I write about? The music and food in and of life and the people, places, things, and stories within. And Cookie Monster, whose passionate, playful spirit still sings in my soul.