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Cocky Chef(4)

By:J.D. Hawkins

I didn't believe those stories, to be honest, but seeing him face-to-face, those keen eyes that sear through you like a cleaver, that hard, commanding face, those broad shoulders-it's clear Cole is a guy who knows what he wants, and doesn't settle for an inch less.

Besides, I've tasted failure too often now to mistake it.

Imagine the most exquisite, vibrant restaurant you can. Upscale, unique fittings built of reclaimed barnwoods, colorful works by local artists across the walls, gold embossed menus, a kitchen at the back just open enough to allow the rich aromas of seared meat and sautéed onions to fill the space. A restaurant that assaults your every sense with delights-touch, sight, smell. A rotating menu of seasonal ingredients and the freshest cuts. Hearty, savory soups where a handful of perfectly paired flavors fight for prominence in your mouth, peppercorn steaks that explode on your tongue, mint lamb chops so tender and aromatic you feel like you're dreaming them.

Now imagine that restaurant's elegant, frontier cabin design, sitting in the middle of nowhere at the end of a long, winding dirt road in Idaho. Just off a main road that has four drive-in fast food joints. Invisible for miles, so that even the locals wouldn't find it unless they plugged the exact address into their GPS. Think about who would be naïve enough to put that restaurant there. 

Well … me.

To be fair, it was the only location I could afford after spending so much on the restaurant itself. I figured people would pilgrimage there once word of how awesome the place was got out. But even the food critics couldn't be bothered to come out and see it. We had a few loyal customers, since most people needed to visit only once before they became regulars, and my sister Ellie and her husband made sure to stop by at least twice a week with their friends and colleagues, but it still wasn't enough to keep the business going. It didn't help that I kept the food cheap, stubbornly trying to prove the point that good food didn't have to be exclusively expensive, that for the price of a processed burger meal you could eat something twice as fresh, twice as healthy, and ten times tastier. Principles that strong can be hard to carry, though.

By the end of the second month there was so much food left over each day that even the staff didn't want to take any more home. By the fourth I had to decide whether to pay the suppliers or the waiters. When the head and the sous chef told me they'd work for free if I told them I believed I could turn it around, I knew I couldn't lie to them. We shut the place down the next day, and I felt like a part of me had been cut away, leaving behind just another woman in her mid-twenties with no job, bad credit, and the nagging thought that I might not be cut out for this business.

The whole thing left a scar that not even weeks of moping around started to heal. I had to couch surf at my sister's while I figured my next move out, and the huge debt of my cooking education weighed on me like a bag of stones. I wasn't helped by the fact that my boyfriend at the time, Nick, decided that a day after the closure was his cue to send me a break-up text. In hindsight, it was probably a blessing in disguise-it was clear Nick basically saw me as a meal ticket, and that what I thought was love was really just the comfort of having somebody around, though Nick couldn't even provide that in the end.

It's difficult not to define yourself by a failure that big. I started to wonder if maybe I really was just another average chef who needed a reality check. If maybe my ideals and ambitions should remain just ideals and ambitions. I remember seeing an ad for a fry cook at a cheap steak house and actually considering it, then crying my eyes out once I realized how desperate I'd gotten. I felt like my entire life plan had imploded, leaving me with nothing.

It was Tony who convinced me to move down to L.A. We'd met while studying under Guillhaume de Lacompte in France. As the only two Americans we clung to each other for support as the grumpy, pockmarked Frenchman ranted and criticized his students in what was more like a boot camp for nuclear war than a prestigious gourmet cooking course. During every lesson we'd approach the stations with the trepidation of a bomb defusal. We should have known it was going to be near-traumatic when Guillhaume's first words to us were: ‘Food is not a matter of life and death. It is more important.'

Returning to the US, while I spent a year preparing the most ambitious culinary industry failure in Idaho's history, Tony worked in L.A. at some of the hottest restaurants, switching between them and working his way up the ladder with the mercenary aptitude of a gun for hire.

"Listen," he had told me over the phone, just days after the shutdown of my restaurant back home, "come down to Los Angeles. Chefs can't walk ten steps here without being offered a job. Pay off your debts, make use of those God-given talents you've got, and then figure out what you wanna do with the rest of your life."