In Charlottesville I stumbled into a short career as a chef. I was a Hoyns Fellow, a poet, a young intellectual in love with the world inside my head, a world of words, ideas and things.
Though I had good friends and teachers at UVA, I preferred town to the university district. There was still a working class feel to downtown Charlottesville back then; the rock stars and movie stars were just beginning to arrive, and the downtown was still rough, especially on the side streets around the old railway depot.
It was chance collision that landed me a job my cooking job. I knew a man named Sandy who owned a used bookstore downtown. It turns out, though I did't know it at the time, he also owned the C&O restaurant. Though Sandy owns two businesses in town I would not have called him an entrepreneur. He had a beard that he’s been growing since Woodstock. People said he had a PH.D in Romance languages, and a hundred other rumored pasts. The bookstore had over a hundred thousand titles, arranged loosely in ten small rooms. Sandy kept a list of what was sold on small scraps of paper, stuck on a spindle and cleared at irregular times. I was a regular in Sandy's bookstore and one day when I was checking for new arrivals in the philosophy room, I asked him for a job. All I needed was something to give me a little spending money above my English department stipend. A book stocker maybe?
“This is your lucky day. We need a cook at the C&O,” Sandy said. “Have you ever cooked before?”
“Shoneys when I was in high school.”
“That's good. We don't want someone with experience.”
There was only one spot where the warehouses and shops have given over to gentrification, the C&O, the small French restaurant across from the depot that Sandy owned. The C&O was named for the old rail line across the street. Rich people come into town from the county in their BMWs and Jeep Wagoneers to eat there. They’d mix nightly with the drop-outs like me who worked at the C&O, and pass the vagrants on Depot Street who shuffled around out front waiting for a handout.
My first day at the C&O the big wooden doors were propped open with a crate of empty Beck's beer bottles. A tall man in a green beret and a faded blue Mexican wedding shirt sat at a table in the hallway, smoking a thin brown cigarette and clove is in the air. He look up, and put down the pencil he was doodling with.
This was Spencer, one of the head chefs. He showed me the list he’d been working on. There was veal on the menu for that evening and said he’d compliment it with a sauce he called “Ray Charles.”
“We made that one up,” Spencer said smiling. “It's a cream sauce flavored with tangerines, Ray Charles' favorite fruit.”
Every day started out with a lesson. We’d head into the kitchen and pass through a low door, like a portal. It was Stuart's height, about six eight.
The C&O’s kitchen was tiny, about thirty feet long and ten feet wide, clogged with stoves and counters and a sink at one end. A woman in a long flowing skirt like a gypsy worked with dough in the center of the counter. This was Kate, the pastry chef. She made the torte of the day. She'd usually be finished by the time we got started, except on Wednesday when Kate made brioche for dinner rolls.
On the afternoons Spencer had something to teach me he’d flip through a big book called La Technique, stained from years in kitchens. There were short sections on everything from knives to trussing a turkey. Each technique was explained with great detail and then illustrated with black and white photos.
He handed the knife to me. It was beautifully balanced like a well-made poem, even I could feel that.
“First we have to sharpen the blade, to prepare it for the afternoon's chopping.” He took out a long round honing rod and ran the blade quickly up and down ten times. The blade made a steady keening sound as it traveling along the rod.