Woke up half an hour late. Rushed to the Forest Hills T stop, at the southern end of the orange line in Jamaica Plain, en route to downtown Boston where I’d transfer to the red line to get to Davis Square in Somerville and walk the last two blocks to work. I skipped a shower and shave and only dabbed on some cologne. A European shortcut perhaps, but I didn’t mind. Compared to the grumpy faces of professionals in ties, pressed slacks, polished shoes, and hair coiffed just-so riding the T next to me, I appeared roughshod. I didn’t care.
The kitchen at Celia’s doesn’t requires a professional appearance. Basic grooming habits are expected. Snazzy dress attire isn’t. I stumble into the kitchen late, mumble apologies, and hear in reply from Kevin, the head chef, “ Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf is dead.”
I absorb the news of his death. He died yesterday. Hank was a regular personality that appeared on “The Howard Stern Show,” a program that Kevin liked to listen to on the kitchen radio as we cooked.
“Really? Wow. Dead?” It’s the best I can muster at the moment.
Kevin, who is part Armenian with black hair and a permanent five-o’clock shadow, has dark eyes that alternate from jokester to don’t-screw-with-me to a panther ready to pounce with his next rant, random tidbit of information, funny tale, or it-could-work idea. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans with a white apron secured around his waist, he begins the morning with coffee, a perfunctory glance at the newspaper headlines, and an ear tuned to the bratty rant of Howard Stern and crew. Dunkin’ Donuts, The Boston Herald, and Stern’s self-serving tirades fuel Kevin’s rocket as the morning passes into the second stage.
Food is my first and only thought. A piece of bacon, a slice of cantaloupe, or a chunk of cold barbequed chicken – anything to appease my hunger and kick start my metabolism. The rest of the morning routine is automatic and instinctual. I grab an apron and a couple of white towels soft as pillowcases. I lay a wet towel on the stainless steel worktable and set the plastic cutting board on top. The towel prevents the cutting board from slipping. I pull a 9-inch chef’s knife from the rack. My feet and hands move of their own accord. My mind hasn’t quite caught up yet.
Celia’s is a gourmet deli where customers can order and eat in or take food to go. Other than a set menu of sandwiches and a salad bar, the soups, entrees, salads, side dishes, and desserts are prepared and displayed in a refrigerated case. Each morning’s production begins by evaluating what hasn’t sold from the night before, determining if it is still presentable enough to serve, and preparing a new array of dishes. Beyond staples like grilled chicken and grilled tofu, Kevin and I prepare small batches of a dozen or so dishes daily to maintain variety and freshness. We have the freedom to create dishes based on what’s fresh and available.
My senses sift through the evidence of last night’s dishes. The vegetarian salad bar doesn’t show much damage. I note that the mesclun salad, alfalfa sprouts, and julienne bell peppers need to be re-stocked so I can make one trip to the basement and gather ingredients for restocking. Each trip saved means less wear and tear on the legs as I haul cases, cans, and trays loaded with produce and goods.
In the kitchen, the morning moves quickly as we operate on autopilot. I chop baby spinach leaves coarsely and toss them in a bowl with diced red bell peppers for color contrast. The trinity of olive oil, kosher salt, and black pepper comes next. In the reach-in, I spot sun-dried tomatoes and grab a handful. Their soft, wrinkled appearance and chewy texture plays against the sweet crunch of the bell peppers. Artichoke hearts swim into the mix. The other colors pop against the dull green. I toss the salad lightly and taste the artichoke’s tang as it complements the sweetness of the tomatoes, but something still lacks. I find a bag of red pearl onions; steam, skin, and cool them, and add the purplish bulbs into the salad. They punch up the taste and color with the right amount of pizzazz.
Kevin walks by and glimpses over my shoulder. I’m tempted to add something more to the salad. “That looks really good,” he says.
He doesn’t comment often on my dishes. I taste the salad again, add a dash of salt, and am satisfied. Kevin’s remark reminds me to let the food speak for itself. Simple ingredients combine to produce big flavor without much prodding. Thinking about my morning commute, I realize that often our best qualities become obscured by the image and airs we put on.
A customer at the deli counter asks me about the salad I just prepared. “How does it taste?”
I offer a sample and let the food speak. It doesn’t lie no matter how it’s dressed up.