Wrote this in the spring of 2010 for Honors.
The Best Chef in Pittsburgh Doesn’t Wear Socks
My name is Drew Stanley Robinson. If you saw me walking by myself down the street about six years ago, I doubt you’d try to talk to me, let alone approach me one-on-one. But it’s cool, I understand. I’m used to it. I stand about six two, with the broad shoulders and charismatic smile of my father and the short, wavy brown hair I inherited from my mother. I mainly wore clothes suitable for playing basketball, like tee shirts and black mesh shorts, and a sweatshirt, so I didn’t look that intimidating, nor was I unclean or threatening in anyway. I just wasn’t the type of kid you wanted to talk to, or even see, on your way back from the market on the corner of French Street and 48th Avenue. You were above me, and I knew it. That was the way things worked.
When you don’t have a whole lot going for you, you don’t expect much. It’s generally easier that way.
My father’s name is Russell Robinson, and my mother’s is Michelle, though she took back her maiden name, Cameron, after leaving our opinionated father and his “dull” family, as she called it, for one with more “pizzazz.” What she found was a drug-addicted boyfriend who toured the east coast with his makeshift band of guitar-playing college dropouts, whose zealous schedule invariably led her to pick up a severe case of bronchitis. It got so bad that she had to be brought to the hospital, and her outrageous medical bills, combined with the fact that she was still too unhealthy to actively maintain a job, meant that she couldn’t afford her new pizzazz-filled lifestyle. At the time she lived not too far from us in a halfway house. I can still remember the day she called me to say that she had become a permanent resident of the shelter, and to tell me that she was afraid to come back to us, in part because she thought she might get into another argument with our father, and in part because she didn’t know how Evelyn and I would feel about her after she basically abandoned us.
Evelyn, my little sister by five years, was a smart girl with beautiful eyes and an unbelievably friendly demeanor. She was always happy, no matter what happened. Some nights, when there wasn’t much food to eat in the refrigerator or the pantry, I would make what I could for her and my father. She never once complained. I wished she had a better future in store for her, but I knew from experience that her options in life were as narrow as mine.
I walk up the short set of stairs to our building, carefully stepping over the empty beer bottles, uncollected mail, and leaves in the same pattern as I always did.
Hey, world, meet the Robinsons.
Our apartment was on the first floor of this decrepit cement building in the heart of Pittsburgh. I guess it would have been considered state-of-the-art about forty years ago, when the place had been built, but now it looked like just another eyesore of a building.
I kicked off my shoes by the door and trudged into the kitchen barefoot. It sounds like something out of one of those commercials, you know, the ones with the benign Christians holding a child from some nameless third-world country, pleading with you to donate money so that this child could have shoes to wear? I know socks aren’t as necessary as shoes, but this sort of stuff was happening here. This was my life.
See, our father had made a list of things that could be taken out of our lives to make living more affordable for the family. We generally couldn’t afford anything in terms of extras, so besides our television that got three or four channels and a few books for my sister and I, our apartment had this air of a temporary home, like the unfamiliarity of a motel room. This is how it’s been since our mother left: deathly quiet. Our cramped apartment, once filled with the sounds of round-the-clock arguments, was now only filled with the sounds of our dad snoring on the living room couch and Evelyn singing to herself as she worked on homework in her room.
I really don’t know what was wrong with my father. He wasn’t an alcoholic, and he had even quit smoking. I think he was just apathetic about all of it. Life, I mean. I don’t know. I kind of was too, as much as I hated to admit it. Nothing in my life really interested me. During my freshman year, my homeroom teacher asked me if I was having suicidal thoughts, but she had no reason to worry. While I was largely convinced that my life was rapidly heading nowhere, I found it fascinating how worthwhile life proved to be for those around me, the people I saw everyday and in the newspapers and on the television. I just wished it had something worthwhile for me.
“Okay, class,” Mrs. Davies said. “That’s it, pencils down. I’ll have your exams graded by next Monday.” I was always one of those kids who were never great at taking tests. I studied hard every night the week before all my important exams, but I’d always freeze in that wooden desk as sharp pangs of claustrophobia and doubt began to permeate my chest. If school is about continuous learning, then why are we penalized if we don’t know everything about something for a specific test? I needed a real school, a place where I could learn things at my own pace, things that interested me.
But that would’ve meant finding things to be interested in.
Unless one of us had something else to do after school, which was rarely the case, I would leave as soon as the last bell rang and head for the courts down the street with Michael, Keenan, Antoine, Rich, and Jessie to play basketball. None of us were good enough to play for our school teams, but we could all hold our own against each other. Besides, basketball gave us something in common.
We usually played two on two, and since Antoine and I were slowest getting on our shoes, the other four took the ball out of Keenan’s bag and started playing straight away. Michael and Rich matched up against Keenan and Jessie.
I casually mentioned to Antoine that I wished I had enough talent to go pro, so I could get a taste of what having a real life was like.
“Hah, that’ll be the day,” Jessie shouted from across the court, effortlessly crossing the ball over between her legs over and over again. “C’mon, even I’m better than you are!”
Antoine noticed that Jessie’s words had hit something deep inside me that the rest of them didn’t see and walked over, putting his arm around my slumped shoulders. “Hey, man, it’s cool. None of us are gonna be big-shot NBA stars anytime soon, so why worry? Hell, I don’t even know if I’m finishing high school or not, ‘cuz my dad wants me to get a full-time job at some warehouse his buddies told him about.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I quietly replied.
Antoine called in for a sub, and Michael came out to give up his spot on the court.
He said, “Our history teacher, Mrs. Davies, told all of us about this place that you can go in the afternoons and hang out, look at a ton of art, sit on these nice benches, and take classes. … Ahh, what’s it called… the Bidwell Center? Yeah, it’s the Manchester Bidwell Center. Mrs. Davies showed us some pictures of it on a slideshow, and it looked like a real first-class facility. The sort of place I’d never seen before.”
“Totally. It’s actually really cool how they just let people from wherever come in and paint or sculpt or just do whatever it is that they wanna do.”
Rich came over to get a drink of water from his sports bottle. “You guys talking about that fancy art place? It’s nice, man, maybe even too nice. My friend said he felt outta place when he went there last month, but whatever. It looks like an interesting place, and they give you free food!”
I sighed and picked up my sports bag. “Yeah, I guess I might go check it out. I’ll catch you guys later.”
As I walked away from the court, I listened to the sound of the ball bouncing against the asphalt until it trailed off behind me, fading away into the distance.
I had no idea what to expect, or even what not to expect.
The Manchester Bidwell center was huge. The open foyer possessed the spaciousness of an airport terminal, but all the familiarity of a private library. The mission statement on the wall, decorated with gold lead and deep red stone, explained that the building was for the use of everyone in the community, from any social standing, race, or walk of life.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel like this was a place meant for wealthy families to congregate, or even sure high school kids who knew exactly what they were doing. I had never been anywhere as fancy as this. I was afraid of accidentally knocking a priceless vase onto the ground and having it shatter or something. I ended up sitting on this really nice hand-carved bench and staring at the artwork that adorned every wall. If another person made eye contact with me, I averted my eyes to the floor as fast I could. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
I had no interest in working with paint or clay or metal, so what was I doing here?
Michael was right. I did feel out of place.
During maybe my fifth or sixth visit to the center, I arrived and sat on the same bench as I usually do. It was apparently an open house day, because the main lobby was filled with twice as many people, and maybe four times the sculptures and canvases as usual. Amazed parents talked amongst themselves and gaped in awe at the works of art created by their children, who proudly stood next to their pieces, showing them off like a salesperson selling you an item that you just had to have.
I didn’t even notice it at first. But then I felt the tears start to well up in my eyes. I gulped hard and looked around at all the kids, parents, and instructors in the lobby, every single person with a smile on their face. I realized that at this point in my life I really had nothing to smile about. I’d spent so many countless years wandering around, and being irrationally optimistic about everything in my own life, that when I finally put myself in a position to get a fresh start and failed, I felt hopeless.
I couldn’t let anybody see me like this. I turned around and sprinted down the hallway as fast as I could. I turned left towards one of the outermost wings of the building, raced past a brick wall under repair, and sidestepped into an empty classroom. I had no idea where I was going, and I didn’t care at that point. Anywhere but here– anywhere but my own life.
I thought I just needed to stop to catch my breath and collect myself, but there was no way I could have stop the tears from coming. My defenses just caved in. I lay there for about an hour, crumpled on the floor and crying my eyes out. A street-hardened kid without the “street” and the “hardness,” which, of course, left just a kid.
I couldn’t let anybody see me like this. Vulnerable.
The hardest thing was my unwillingness to accept the fact that I needed a place like this in my life. Yeah, that’s it, I craved a place where I could be accepted, and that scared the shit out of me. It was like exposing every nerve in my body to an electric shock that could strike at any moment. I would learn later that exposing my feelings and bearing my true self like this was the first step towards becoming not only a stronger person, but also in realizing that I was a person with something worth living for.
The next time I even set foot into the center, maybe three days later, I think I felt as insignificant as I’d ever felt in my entire existence. Looking back, I guess that really wasn’t necessarily the worst thing ever; feeling like you’re at an all-time low makes you willing to try anything to get back that control you once had over your life. I would leave for the center at around 4 pm, stand around in the richly adorned atrium and look at all the paintings and sculptures by people I could never dream of one day being, then walk the mile or so back to our apartment a little after 6 pm with silent tears streaming down my face.
But that was the thing. I kept coming back. I didn’t know why I kept coming back, but something inside my head kept telling me to. I don’t know what it was, divine intervention? My conscience? Maybe it was just my emotions begging to be dealt with. Who knows.
I guess that, when it all came down to it, I really wanted something at the center to work for me, to be something that I could say was “mine.”
Two and a half weeks after I experienced my breakdown in that abandoned room in that unfinished hallway, nothing had changed. I came home from the center a little later than usual that day, maybe 7 pm, and went straight home like always. I wasn’t hungry at all, so I heated up a frozen pizza for Evelyn, told her to put her dishes in the sink so that I could do them tomorrow before school, and slowly walked the apartment’s lone, narrow hallway to my room. Exhausted from the potent combination of a day at school, an afternoon of basketball, and an evening of unrequited emotions, I fell unto my unmade bed and into a deep, restless sleep.
Ten years ago, I was sitting atop a folded quilt next to a big pot on the countertop, my back to the bright but mellow August sunshine that shone through the thin, dusty green curtains that adorned our kitchen windows. It was my birthday, August 27th, and I had just turned 7 years old. The remnants of a makeshift birthday party were scattered on the linoleum floor. Confetti and steamers fluttered idly in the breeze created by the battered, droning air conditioner down the hall. My mother was sitting at the table with two year old Evelyn, the two of them singing and humming as they kneaded homemade dough to be baked in the oven later that afternoon.
My father and I were head of the soup department. While he added the broth mix and prepared the potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, celery, and leeks, I worked the faucet and added the spices. I asked him inquisitively, “Which of these little things should I add, Daddy?”
“Whatever you want to add, buddy, it’s up to you,” he said, ruffling my hair and flashing that charismatic smile that I would later learn I had inherited from him.
My mother saw my face light up as, and said, “Drew, seeing that smile of yours has always made my day.”
And we were all just helping to make the family meal, laughing and beaming as we did it. We weren’t seeing ourselves as underprivileged or feeling bad for ourselves. We were a whole family, enjoying the day and each other’s company and being alive, and that’s all that really mattered.
I awoke with a start, the sentimental dream fixed in the space behind my eyes and in front of my brain. The last happy memory I had of my parents together, of them happy… of any of us happy.
And the cooking… I’d forgotten how much fun I had had throwing spices into the soup at random, always eager for the whole family to taste my original recipes. After our mother left our father, I insisted that I take over the cooking duties from my mother, because I liked to see the smile on Evelyn and my dad’s faces as they ate well-prepared food after a long day, no matter how inexpensive or unsophisticated it was.
I arrived at the center the next day determined but shy and reserved. I waited until the crowd of people around the instructors had dwindled down considerably before I approached one of the women standing a little off to the side. Her nametag read Celia Suarez. She was this tiny middle-aged Hispanic woman who couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, with long brown hair all the way down her back. The giveaway that she was probably a cooking instructor was her impeccable white smock and the toque blanche perfectly placed upon her head. I guessed that if anyone in the building knew anything about food, it would be her.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Suarez?” I mumbled at the floor, unable to keep my head from hanging. “Do you guys have a kitchen program around here?”
“Certainly, just follow me,” said Celia, gently putting her delicate hand on my sinewy back and leading me along one of the longest halls in the building. “Manchester Bidwell’s culinary arts program has some of the best facilities around.”
The main kitchen was absolutely beautiful. There were no other words that I could think of to describe it. There were at least ten rows of counters that held all sorts of sinks, stovetops, broilers, cutting areas, graters, and mixers. The faint smell of herbs hung in the air, although I didn’t notice anybody else in the kitchen making anything. Rows and rows of fluorescent lights hung high overhead, which gave everything a glorious white shine.
Celia must have seen my curiosity boiling over, because she began to walk towards the door. “So… I’ll just… leave it to you, then-”
“Wait!” I wheeled around, still unclear about what I was supposed to do in this brilliant maze of food and unfamiliar machinery. “What should I… y’know, do? Cook?”
“Anything. Why would I tell you what to make when it’s your first day in the kitchen? It should be your own experience.”
And with that, Celia left me. Alone in the kitchen.
I’d never spoken to her in my life… and she trusted me.
I decided to make soup first; it was one of my favorite meals, despite its simplicity, and it was relatively easy to make. When I went to look for some of the ingredients that I wanted to use in my soup, however, I realized that Celia hadn’t even given me a proper tour of the kitchen. But I managed to find everything, surprising myself with what little time it actually took me. I quickly realized I had a natural instinct for knowing where spices, refrigerated goods, and oddly specific kitchen instruments would be located in a place as big as this kitchen was.
I must have stayed there until midnight, making soups and trying new methods of cooking, like grilling and sautéing. Some other students of the center arrived about an hour after I did, and the massive kitchen gradually filled up with the sounds of dozens of pots and pans clanging together. At first I was nervous that they might identify and label me as an outsider, but they treated me like I belonged there amongst them. That evening Celia came in a showed us how to prepare a soufflé, and I even helped this girl bake a cake for her grandmother, who was celebrating her 95th birthday in the hospital.
I left that night feeling an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, and pride in myself. Celia had helped me find my calling, something that I was truly passionate about, and my thoughts about the world and my own potential were beginning to shift. I realized that all I ever needed was the opportunity, and the will, to accomplish something meaningful with my life and, lo and behold, it could be done.
I came in the next day and strode straight to the kitchen, when I saw Celia walking down the hallway in the opposite direction as I was. Our eyes met for a brief instant, and she grinned. She knew I found what I’d been looking for.
By my eighteenth birthday, I had been cooking for the center for about seven months, and I got more confident with every dish I expertly created. On Mondays I made chicken parmesan and grilled sirloin steaks with sautéed onions and peppers. On Tuesdays I made cold cuts pilled high with cheeses and breads whose names I’d never even heard of until about a month ago. When Wednesday rolled around, I was left to make desserts, cakes, pies, and pastries to be piled high in the cafeteria for the other students to devour. Thursday was pasta night, so I alternated between fettuccini, spaghetti, and penne, using a variety of sauces and herbs to mix it up every other week.
My favorite day of the week was Friday, though. Celia said I could make whatever I wanted, and I curiously asked her what type of creation she was looking for, whether it be a starter or an entrée of some kind. Even if it shouldn’t have, her reply stunned me:
“Drew, I think you’re the best damn chef in Pittsburgh, and I’m not just saying that, either. Whatever you want to cook— make it. I’m serious. Let your heart guide your imagination, and your hands will follow.”
That was the first time in my life that I had ever received that type of recognition, and my heart was bursting with accomplishment and, finally… happiness.
Not that fake happiness that I felt when our school’s basketball team won the regional tournament, or when my Dad actually quit smoking, but real happiness, the kind I hadn’t felt since those days in late August, sitting on the kitchen counter and throwing oregano and paprika into my father’s soup as my father, mother, and baby sister laughed and laughed.
There I stood, towering in front of the diminutive Celia Suarez, my thirty-nine year old mentor at the center’s culinary arts program, with the biggest shit-eating grin on my face, and I couldn’t help it at all.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Six years later, I was the sous-chef for Oliver’s, the finest restaurant in St. Oliver, a town just outside of Pittsburgh, and one of the most prestigious in Pennsylvania. Evelyn, the president of our high school’s National Honor Society, was a senior. Now I’m not gonna lie and pretend like my mother and father magically got back together, as much as I would have liked it to happen, but they were talking on a fairly regular basis, and making each other laugh, which was a good start. It was almost like they started to bond over their pride for their only children, which just keep Evelyn and I constantly motivated.
I had invited my family and Celia to our restaurant for dinner, eager to serve them some of the best food I’d ever prepared. They’d eaten some of my creations before, but never at Oliver’s, so this was a huge treat for them.
I reserved the center table for them and everything. I made sure to expertly arrange everything in its place, from the ornamented silverware and the folded cloth napkins right down to the scentless candles and the flower arrangement for ambiance. When I finally started to organize ingredients and cook their dishes, I was so overwhelmed with nervous excitement that at first I thought I’d forgotten how to make something as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich.
That changed as soon as I picked up the multipurpose knife and placed some ingredients on the cutting board. My fingers seemed to turn the dials on the stove to the perfect temperatures, and everything I placed onto their plates looked like all those dishes I’d seen in the pictures I studied and learned from at the center. Once I was thoroughly satisfied with my creations, food that had never even been introduced in Oliver’s menus, I left the clang and clatter of the kitchen to personally deliver their plates out on a shining metal cart.
Celia was telling a story, and the whole table was alive with humor and this incredibly positive energy as I wheeled around the four of them, putting plates here and there like I had rehearsed it a million times; a starter in the middle, an extra dessert for Evelyn, wine for my mother and father and Celia.
As I was going to leave them to eat their meal, I noticed that the whole table was looking me expectantly, like I was somebody instead of nobody. I taken control over my life, with the help of Celia and the center, and my perspective on life had undergone a total transformation. I was in the driver’s seat and loving it.
“Well, enjoy guys,” I said, trying to hide the look of confident serenity that was slowly spreading across my face.
My mother took picked up her fork and looked up, catching me attempting to stifle my happiness. “Don’t you dare try and hide that smile of yours, Drew,” said my mom, her eyes glistening with pride, and with what I perceived as dignity. “Seeing it’s always made my day.”