Every chef has a dish they prepare when they want someone. Simple fresh pasta, a top grade steak, perfectly melted grilled cheese: each plate reveals the kind of comfort they seek.
I was served a burger — a rare, juicy burger. So I should have seen the heartburn coming.
I didn’t understand all the fuss about burgers until I met this Chef. Once a picky eater, I harbored a dark childhood secret of ordering plain “bun-cheese-buns” at fast food restaurants. My former taste buds would have never imagined that one day I would be eating, drinking, and sleeping with a chef.
The first time we had dinner, the Chef ordered the burger and a few other plates to share. My mind was still catching up to how I had arrived there that night when he asked me to go have sex with him in the bathroom.
A few nights before, he had come into the restaurant where I was hostessing. He must have just finished working at the restaurant across town and was there to unwind with his kitchen buddies and a stunning blonde that resembled Scarlett Johansson. He was composed and tight-lipped, always looking a little bored or discontent. I could hardly picture him barking orders to his kitchen crew, let alone have anticipated his bold invitations. Yet, behind the calm exterior, I could sense some kind of frenetic energy. I could also see his leg twitching beneath the bar. I’d met him briefly at a party a month before and knew that he was a bit of a celebrity chef around town. I found a moment when he was left sitting alone with his drink, walked up to him and said, “Hey, I’m Melissa. We met at that winery party.” He clipped my introduction, quickly but calmly, “I know who you are.” It suddenly became clear that he knew more about me than I thought. What I expected to be a casual, obligatory “hello” turned into an intriguing start to a nuanced, but overtly suggestive conversation. The hot blonde returned to the bar and I pardoned myself. I didn’t think too much more about it until he came back the next night. And then the next.
Back at the table, our food arrived and I watched him pick up the burger and poke at the bun, testing its buoyancy, noting its girth. I was surprised he ordered a burger since it was the most popular item on his own menu. I imagined his clothes smelled of meat drippings, his hair of mayonnaise. He explained that it was smart to research how chefs who made a decent burger were doing it. He was testing the competition, an exercise I would later learn either validated him or propelled him to be better. I had never dated someone who seemed so resoundingly self-assured. Then again, I had never dated anyone who drove a Lexus and could order wine confidently. I don’t remember what we talked about that night, except that I kept thinking, why did he choose me? I was a recent college graduate who was working three part-time jobs and living with 21-year-olds I’d met on Craigslist. I didn’t own nice clothing or know anything about fancy restaurants. It seemed improbable that this could really go anywhere.
That night, he dropped me off at my place above the tire shop. We made out feverishly, trying to satisfy a different kind of hunger. I eventually gathered enough willpower to leave his car and make it up my stairs. I looked in my mirror and saw a disgusting smile on my face, one of those smug smirks when you’re drunk on a dangerous feeling that you know should be stopped at once. I moved my things into his apartment six weeks later. I was a little hesitant to tell my parents and friends. I wasn’t moving in because I knew the Chef was the one for me. I was moving because I was practically living at his place, and moving in meant not needing my toothbrush on me at all times or having an extra pair of underwear spill out of my bag at inopportune moments. Plus, it was easy to say goodbye to my place above the tire shop. It was only when I was unpacking my things that I became acutely aware of the fact that he had lived with not one but two other girlfriends in this very apartment. It was highly probable that I was just another body moving in to keep him company until he got bored with me, like he must have with Scarlett Johansson. Regardless, I was so caught up in the feeling of being an imposter, I was willing to take a chance. I began hanging out with his quirky collection of restaurant friends every night. I tried my best not to abuse the preferential treatment I received when I came into his restaurant. I also tried to shut out all the mean things I imagined people were saying behind my back about our relationship. The feeling of being special outweighed any worries I had about what other people thought. We would get priority seating and attention every time we went to a restaurant where his friends worked, always receiving a free appetizer or dessert. I would go home some nights and get sick from the sheer richness of animal fat and wine. We were overdoing it all the time. And, honestly, it tasted really good.
Eager to make a bigger name for himself, he ended up quitting his job for a glamorous one that eventually fell through. With newfound time on his hands, his social connections continued to thrive, but his nights became later and later, his mornings foggier and foggier. Once I found him in the living room, asleep on the couch, with a half-eaten Big Mac falling out of his hand. I didn’t mention it the next day. I knew he didn’t want anyone to tell him to stop. He didn’t want to hear that the way he was living was hazardous, that if he kept it up he was headed straight to the bottom. A part of me knew that if I didn’t change my lifestyle, I would be headed right there with him. But we both couldn’t stop the momentum of eating and drinking ourselves stupid every night. The hangover would fade by mid-day, and we’d be ready to go again as the sun went down.
Luckily, it didn’t take a catastrophe to snap us out of our indulgent habits. The cleansing process began when a private chef offer dropped from the sky. I quit my office job to go live with the Chef for six months of traveling and cooking on rural farms, opting for adventure at the small price of my sense of self. Living in the middle of nowhere was the quickest way for me to see that I was sacrificing part of my youth for an adventure where I was just a supporting character, someone whose name you wouldn’t stick around to see in the credits. I suddenly found myself living a story that I didn’t want to be in anymore. With nothing but free time on my hands, I decided to write my own story. A drama set in the restaurant industry sounded like a million dollar idea. There is plenty of drama between wait staff and customers. Unfortunately, no matter how much television I watched or how many instructional books I read, I wasn’t happy with my writing. I couldn’t capture the parties full of attractive people who worked food jobs to sustain their poetic lifestyles, the people that refilled waters and cleared plates by day but talked obscure literature by night. The plotline wasn’t gripping enough — loverboy chef duels rival perfectionist chef. Had I managed to split my boyfriend into two opposing nemeses?
After only two months of trying, I gave up. I stopped both stories — the screenplay I was struggling to write and the version of the story I was living. I returned home, leaving the Chef to cook for the rich couple alone. It’s only now, years later, that I realize I had assigned myself an impossible mission. Trying to accurately depict this indulgent time in my life was like trying to describe the taste of that burger — you kind of just had to be there. A screenplay could never embody the feeling from which I was so reluctant to sever myself. No words could convey what it was like to be held in the Chef’s fixed gaze or pinpoint the exact mix of elation and terror I felt driving tipsily home together. No script could explain what it was like in the early hours of the morning, drinking gin, listening to music, letting the booze and soft noise pull us into the moment. I now clearly see that what I really wanted was to capture the magic and intrigue of my time with the Chef and his world. I needed to convey to outsiders how out of control everything was in order to process it myself and, ultimately, let it go.
Melissa Wong is the co-founder of New Women Space, a project incubation and community event space in North Brooklyn. She is driven by the desire to make meaningful connections between people in a time of beeps and bops. She has worked for an array of hospitality businesses, and has supported creative communities like Kickstarter and SoundCloud. Melissa has roughly 1.4 new big ideas each day and decided at one point to house them in two digital homes at Take This Idea and Medium.
Header image courtesy It’s Not Personal
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