I write because words are not ingredients. They don’t sour or wilt or shrivel in the back of a refrigerator. As a chef in Louisville, every day is a countdown toward the perishability of an ingredient. I measure time by the water content of fresh-picked lettuce, the expanding mold on a piece of KY cheese, and the mad scramble before the first customer pokes her head through our front door. Ingredients don’t wait for me; they have their own indefatigable march towards self-destruction. I merely exist to keep pace.
Words, on the other hand, will wait hours, days, even weeks in a state of unfinished thought without a shred of protest. Words wait for me to figure out how best to arrange them and how best to tell my story of how a Korean Brooklyn kid wound up becoming a celebrated chef in the South.
I write because sentences don’t get consumed in a frenzy of hunger. When I think about the time it takes to create all the personal dishes at my restaurant, only to see them disappear in a matter of hours, I’m overcome by a selfish melancholy. It’s so hard for me to watch that I removed the windows between my restaurant’s kitchen and dining room.
The permanence of a sentence comforts me. Every night, I expedite dishes as they leave my kitchen pass. My chefs execute a recipe again and again with a meticulous hand, but no two plates are ever identical. I am helpless against all the factors that can affect the outcome: the heat of the oven, the amount of sauce ladled onto a plate, the minute differences each time the spatula flips a piece of fish. It can drive a chef to the brink of insanity. But I have read the last sentence of The Great Gatsby a thousand times and it has never changed. I find profound joy in that.
Menus are like stories, and they can trigger great memories, but only if you partook of the meal. If not, they’re nothing more than a cruel reminder of a time and place that you missed. Books are different. I can go to a bookstore and find a copy of a novel written in the 19th century that transports me through my imagination. I can touch books and hold them in my hands. I can read them again or I can pass them on to a friend.
What I love most about cooking is also what causes me the most anxiety: that it is, by its very nature, ephemeral. A good meal is the most elusive expression of creativity because it exists for a brief moment in time and then disappears forever. You can’t record it, transcribe it, or otherwise hold on to it. By writing my story, I am hoping to capture the inspirational journey of my life and of my cooking, even as I struggle to remember last night’s dinner.