The other night my wife told me that I don’t write enough, anymore.
This is an uncharacteristic thing for her to say, as she spent many years with a man who stared for hours at his computer screen, polishing sentences, forcing her to read pieces, or raging at clumsy revisions from an editor who obviously didn’t understand what the fuck he was talking about. Obviously she’s right: I haven’t written much at all, and I do miss it. Perhaps she also misses the silence my writing allows.
This past week I decided to celebrate Christmas with my staff, as an excuse to have fun, and to bring us all closer together. I like to think we're like a family at the restaurant (albeit a dysfunctional one where a member occasionally disappears or needs to get bailed out of jail.)
I sat with my head chef Pi Bun at my side, the same man who helped my father hang the wood boards on the walls that, sixteen months later, are beginning to buckle from the humidity in Bangkok. Pi Bun doesn’t talk much, but communicates with me in much simpler, humane ways. A hug sometimes, a pat on the back others. Sometimes, after a crazy service, he'll hold my hand and quietly laugh. We don’t really need words.
Across from me was Eak, my sous-chef. Eak has been the focus of much of my ire and pride over the past year-and-a-half. He is my strongest cook and was the weakest link in my kitchen – a headstrong, reckless kid who once disappeared for nearly a week before crawling back, with bloodshot eyes, to ask for his job back. That day marked a turning point in my relationship with Eak. I was impressed – moved – by the fact that he could face me after behaving so carelessly. He looked me right in the eye and asked for forgiveness, and though I told myself a hundred times that I would never let him back into my kitchen again, I did. He has rewarded me with hard work, insight, and an attention to detail that is rare. Eak is very proud of his cooking, and I am proud of him.
It’s not all winsome tales of triumph over adversity. Staff come and go and every time I lose someone I care about I try to tell myself it’s just business. It’s just a job. Putting plates on a table, then taking them away. Making a dish the same way, again and again. But it feels like more than a job when you pour all of yourself into it, and expect everyone else to, too. And so each time I lose someone who is good, I take it personally. I wonder what I did wrong. I wonder if they’re happier working wherever else they might be. I’m not sure if other chefs or owners feel this way, or if they’d even admit it. But I suspect the ones that care, do.
The other night, as I sat next to Pi Bun and across from Eak, and beside my manager Chai – a Burmese man who went from delivering shoes to managing a restaurant in under a year – I felt a certain swelling of pride. We drank Black Label and beer and ate oysters with chili jam and talked about how we wanted to change things for the better. We made menus for Christmas and talked about service issues and smoking meat. And then I left them, to use the bathroom.
The rented toilet was located some distance from the beer garden, inside the husk of a forgotten restaurant. A few decorations still hung on the walls, and I sat there, tipsily staring at them, swimming in the lost possibilities of that place. In every failed restaurant or bar, there is a lingering whiff of the pain and frustration people must have felt. It hangs in the dead air, forever.
But as I walked back my cooks were clinking glasses, and they saw me and smiled. We finished the bottle and staggered home. The next day Eak was in the kitchen before me.