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Illustration by Sarah Feng

I Love Line Cooks 

If I had stayed at Alex’s house for longer than three hours, I would have married him. He had a pierced ear and a pierced nose and a shitty tattoo of a goat on his chest. He studied geography. He had a passion for imported foods. He loved the New Orleans episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” as ferociously as I did. He was, of course, a line cook. 

Line cooks and I have always been wildly fond of each other. Never chefs. Chefs aspire to lead. Line cooks aspire to be led, satiated by the thrill of smoking American Spirits on break (after ripping off the filters) and working at divey brewery/grills called Copper Brothel Brewery or Culinary Dropout (real names). Anthony Bourdain is their god, even if they have no idea that he wrote books before hosting a TV show. Line cooks understand that they occupy the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy: a blessing in my eyes, because it means they lack a pseudo-macho attitude. They are sensitive to love and to finding a place of belonging, which they find in their kitchens and in their walk-in freezers, among their stock pots and meat cleavers, with sous-chefs breathing hot down their necks. The world tells them they’re in a dead-end job, but they’re proud to be there. Their misguided optimism rubs off on me. 

My first line cook was Esteban. We were sophomores in high school. He was proud to sling chicken tenders in the fryer of a cowboy-themed restaurant, but wasn’t cognizant of food for its artistry or its cultural semiotics. He’d never eaten bratwurst and never heard of Oktoberfest, a celebration oddly important to my Lithuanian-Mexican family. He needed to be enlightened—he came over after school one day to lose his bratwurst virginity. We ate the brats quietly while avoiding eye contact. Esteban didn’t want mustard or sauerkraut on his, just ketchup. The following spring, our teenage romance fizzled when he refused to prompose to me because he had a shift scheduled on prom night. 

I graduated high school and went on a date with James, who I met on Tinder. James was a brief vice. “You’re overdressed,” was the first thing he said to me as I arrived for dinner. (We split some new-wave bruschetta with goat cheese and pepper jam and slobbered on chicken and steak skewers. He paid, but not without declaring “I want head.”) He hated his dad and high school. He loved “American Psycho,” but not as much as “Ratatouille.” He loved being a line cook at a nursing home. He was equal parts charming and alarming. I should have said no when he asked to drive me home, but his tender bravado was a siren song—where else would I have found a shrimpy boy in a fuzzy purple sweater who so proudly told me he had a Latina fetish? I got in his car. I had to hear all of his haphazard teenage cook monologue vomit. 

Instead of driving me home, he cruised aimlessly down Miracle Mile, a street known for its abundance of prostitutes, and awkwardly attempted to hold my hand. Eventually he stopped at a McDonald’s so I could pee. When I returned to his car from the bathroom he handed me an oblong black foam sleeve and muttered something about how its contents would make me “feel safer.” I unsheathed a machete. I kept the machete under my seat as he drove me home. Was he planning to kill me and then decided against it? I wasn’t sure. I kissed him anyway.

College was my rehab. I was surrounded by men primed for Congress and Goldman Sachs, not Peter Luger Steak House. But then I turned twenty, returned home to Arizona for the summer, and the trifecta was complete—I met Alex. Alex cemented my affection for the unruly, the cast iron, the line cook. We spent (probably even less than) three hours together. When I stepped in from his porch, he told me that he’d actually been to New Haven before (and had the pizza). He dumped his laundry basket on the floor of his bathroom and frantically pawed through the carnage for his Frank Pepe’s tee shirt. He tossed it to me, and while shoving socks and jeans back in the basket, warned me that it probably smelled gross and sweaty because he wore it to work that day—but then he glanced up to where, upon toss, I had already instinctively shoved my nose between the screen printed cotton folds. 

That night it was revealed that he too was a child of divorce, and grew up in the same town that hosted the Target parking lot my parents used as a weekend custody exchange spot. His bedroom was decorated with ticket stubs from my favorite local indie movie theater, and a poster with 2020 tour dates from my favorite band, PUP—the exact same poster that hung on my bedroom wall, that I bought at their concert in Phoenix. He had been there, too. (Did we not hear each other’s voices over the rupture of sludgy bass lines and grating guitars? Was there a time when we were both in the Target parking lot, contained by the respective cars of our single parents? Were our Arizonan brains ever beside each other in a pizzeria in Connecticut, befuddled by clam as a topping? How had we not seen each other so many times before—how were we lucky enough to find each other now?)

We met, ceremoniously. Without reuniting, we soon left for our respective study abroad programs. I went to Prague, where I was sickened by the thought of him drinking tequila and dancing with other girls in Oaxaca. We texted once since we both left Arizona, when I pathetically said Alejandro how is Mexico followed by This is Chesed btw idk if this sent from my czech number haha. My weak stomach was worsened by pork knuckles, cheap beer, pickled sausage, sour bread—flavors that could only be brewed under the chokehold of late eighties communism. Bourdain said the Czech Republic had “obviously a long way to go to catch up with” the culinary prowess of its European neighbors. I didn’t care that the food was usually briney in taste and beige in color—I wanted to tell Alex all about it. Only he would understand the geopolitical significance of pickled meat. 

I saw him everywhere in Prague: in cold slabs of meat (Alex was in charge of the charcuterie station at work), in the portrait of Gorbachev that was chiefly displayed at the end of the Museum of Communism (Alex owned a shot glass adorned with a picture of the perestroika prince), in a gorgeous Belarusian model named Alex who approached me outside a grisly biker bar (Alex’s name was Alex). 

I had to do something else. I took a FlixBus during the penultimate weekend of my program. I spent nine hours searching for bratwurst in Berlin. 

There were beer gardens, flea markets, the Berlin Wall, and not a single bratwurst in the supposed mecca of bratwurst. At 11 p.m. I resigned to eating from a storefront plastered in a beachy sunset wallpaper—Sudanese street food. I ordered something with the German word for chicken in its description. It was a pita pocket with chili oil. It burned the absolute shit out of my throat. 

I had never loved a food that hurt me so much. 

For once, I ate something so wonderfully antagonistic I didn’t even think about telling Alex. It was just me, Berlin, and the chili oil battering my sinuses. 

I never saw Alex again. Maybe I could think of him like my pita pocket—maybe I would end up at an international street food fair someday, and maybe I would crash into my pita pocket like an old friend, but I warmed to the likelihood that I would not, that I only had that night on the street with tears in my eyes and burnt lips. There are a billion meals I will love. There are a billion line cooks left to make them.

Chesed Chap is a junior in Pauli Murray College.

Illustration by Sarah Feng
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