RENDER

feminist food + culture zine

From a House Fire to an Oven Fire: Why I Left Grad School for a Restaurant Kitchen

CultureSoleil Ho

Photo by Jeff Kubina

"You do realize that this is extremely unprofessional, right?" The department head's face had taken on a surreal dark pinkish coloring. His fingertips sounded invisible chords on the surface of his desk.

The truly unprofessional side of me wanted to scream at him and throw MLA handbooks at his face. But instead I nodded, my mouth curved into an appeasing smile.

In the midst of my master's degree track, I left my studies and my teaching load behind so I could cook for a living. I quit because I lost sight of what it was all for – and by "it" I mean carrying on through below-minimum-wage teaching compensation; demographically homogenous course offerings and faculty; and the doom-and-gloom of budget cuts, mass firings, and curriculum reviews. I quit because I realized that my dream of a private office replete with tiny cacti and a box of tissues for my advisees to cry into was based on fantasies of a job market that would never exist for my generation. How could I go on bullshitting with my students about why precise MLA formatting was worth memorizing when it felt like we were all sipping tea in a house fire?

Simply put, the values of academia were such a bad fit for me that it didn't make sense for me to continue working within it. As a graduate student and teacher, I never felt valued, especially when I spoke out about misogyny, classism, and racism in my courses and among the student body. I could see everyone around me working out of love, out of a feeling that they were supporting a noble cause with their work, so my lack of love ended up feeling like a critical character deficiency.

Working at a restaurant has proven to be exactly what I needed. The beauty of blue-collar work lies in its transparency and practicality: everyone sees the illusion for what it is and revels in its deconstruction. When I see a $35 dish, I can see every part of its construction, from the dishwasher's towel drying, to the prep cook's mirepoix, to the expeditor's garnish-picking. I know how and where the illusion of fine dining breaks down into a day-to-day reality.

On the other hand, I have a hard time imagining the process by which a period on one side of a quotation mark took on a different meaning than a period on the other side of a quotation mark. Furthermore, I have a hard time explaining to anyone why switching the two can and should result in a docked letter grade. Many academics, especially the academic elite, too rarely seize the opportunity to acknowledge the nitty-gritty of labor relations in their field. For instance, it would be unimaginable for graduate departments to extend end-of-term cocktail party invitations to the building custodians, campus postal workers, and the other blue collar technicians that oil the academy’s engine, though it would probably make those parties much more tolerable.

Now when I work, everything feels so confrontational and real: the grill’s flames jumping up at my sleeve; the smell of hickory smoke floating off of a hot potato; the ache behind my knees after a long day. Every sensation furthers my craft.

My plan is to jump from one restaurant to the next, gathering up the information and knowledge that I need before I go out and do my own thing. My motivation now is similar to my motivation back when I entered my graduate program, though this time, I've decided to discard my claim on institutional power. To quote Arcade Fire, “I don’t want to live in my father’s house no more.” I no longer feel that bourgeois comfort and office life are the only means to my end as an artist, especially if possessing them means that I would have to sacrifice my mental well-being and perpetuate fucked-up values for the sake of not rocking the boat. All along, I’ve been searching for the most straightforward path toward a life of making art for other people, and I think I’ve finally found it in cooking.

 

Soleil Ho is a freelance writer and a garde manger cook at a busy and historic restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter.