Other People’s Kitchens by Bryan Washington

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Photo: Javier Zayas/Getty Images

For the past year or so, I’ve cooked in other people’s kitchens. Washing their dishes and the rest of it. Pays more than you’d expect but it’s still not very fucking much.

The first time in someone else’s home is the hardest. The scents are always different. I never know where to step. And of course the bathroom’s hardly ever in the same place, but if this virus has shown us nothing else it’s that people can get used to anything. The first few months, I didn’t know to ask for head counts. Or masks. Or any of the other things I check in on now. Didn’t even prod about test results, and of course we were months away from a vaccine — I just assumed that my customers weren’t sick because they always made sure I wasn’t either. And these were the money Zip Codes: River Oaks, West U, Montrose.

Stupidity.

Then other cooks at the company I work for started popping positives. After the first few died, our boss started poking us about signing liability waivers. But even if our gig wasn’t exactly public, it was just another risk: In the end, you were still behind four walls. You still worked with people. The biggest fucking hazards of all.

And of course I had to take the jobs I could get. Gas isn’t cheap anymore. You can’t live in Houston without it. Before this gig, I took shifts at the tech store that’s hoarding all of our data, down by the Galleria, and I’d worked at this family doughnut shop in Alief a few years before that — but that family went bankrupt. And the Apple store started cutting my hours. My boyfriend told me not to worry about it, because he said jobs come and go, and his company had only made gains since the beginning of the pandemic, but then his gig promoted him and said promotion took him out to the Bay which left me broken up with and horny and broke, with a new half of the rent to account for.

So a friend put me onto the cooking gig. At first, I was only subbing in for someone else. I’m not a pro or anything like that. But, a little absurdly, it wasn’t long before they moved me onto their roster full time.

A tiny capitalist blessing.

I’ve been saving for an electric car or a few weeks in Hokkaido — if the borders ever reopen to idiot Americans — but cooking six nights a week means it’ll still be a few years before that happens. Even with my rates, as overpriced as they are.

I ask my customers for everything up front, before they make their reservations. If they give me problems, I cancel quicker than anything. Sometimes the extra cash isn’t even worth it.

Lately, I’ve been working the same set of houses. My regulars. Some folks ask for a week’s worth of food, but most just want enough for the night — they’re paying for the experience.

One family off of Kirby only eats kale salads with poached shrimp and broiled chicken. Another couple with this kid, living right down Shepherd, prefers Thai-ish menus with like half the spice. Some folks won’t touch egg yolks for anything, and others have hang-ups about fish, and plenty of people are lactose intolerant but quick to tell you they aren’t. If there’s an accommodation that someone’s looking for, I just add it to their tab. The check clears either way.

There was one family that asked for a temaki party. I brought the crab and the tuna and the nori and the rest of it, but they insisted I use their rice, brown and whole grain, which still makes no fucking sense to me but it also meant I could pocket the bag that I’d bought. Another couple I cooked for wanted chicken and waffles, but after I’d set down their plates and said Bon appétit, the husband took off his mask right in front of me and said it didn’t smell the way his mother’s did.

I’d have to make it again. Or he’d refuse to pay past the deposit. His wife looked mortified, but she didn’t say shit about it — and I get it. Who wants to find another partner in this mess, let alone some fucking man.

So I picked up his plate and said Aye-aye, and I made it again, tripling every spice into indiscernibility.

My rates are simple: You can pay for one meal for two people. Or I can cook for three. Or I can cook for a family, or a gathering, but I cut it off at six — too many bodies, and I can’t tell who was around when I arrived. You get folks wandering in and out of the kitchen, around the house, dancing offbeat to the music and breathing up all of the air. It’s more trouble than it’s worth. There’s a singles package too, where I cook for one person, and even though that’s the most expensive by far it’s also the most popular. For a minute, I added a little bit to the rate every week, but my bookings only ever increased. Loneliness is a pandemic of its own.

One time there was a lady whose place I showed up at, and before I could unpack my knives or anything else she told me that she’d already picked up dinner. There was a massive box of takeout noodles in black bean sauce on her coffee table. Good stuff, from out in Bellaire. She asked if I could just sit with her, and that was all she was looking for, because she hadn’t sat and eaten with someone in months, and I was spooked a bit at first because that’s how all of those murder podcasts start but then this lady started eating, and I joined her, and eventually she turned on a movie and we watched it over beers.

This woman ended up tipping me the most I’ve ever gotten. It all went to the travel fund. And it was nice to think that things like that could still happen, even now.

Then the next house I went to was this straight couple who seemed nice enough, laughing and smiling and complimenting every little thing I did. But eventually I noticed that they weren’t really eating. And that’s when the guy told me that the food was nice, but what they really needed was a third. Then he started coughing, and I bailed. Wasted an entire week’s worth of food on the counter. You really never know.

The last house I passed through was another singles package, for a guy about my age. I was already booked for the week, but he wanted a late-late reservation. Most people don’t send their photos, but he did. And he was cute. And a little chubby, which was a plus. And maybe he looked a little sad in the picture, but I figured why not. We live in a sad fucking time.

When he opened the door, he was scruffier than in the photo, and I told him that and he laughed. His place was pretty sparse, all plants and wood tones and an overstuffed bookshelf. But I didn’t spot a statement piece. His television sat on the floor. He stood beside me the whole time I prepped, watching. And then, once I’d started slicing the beef, he asked if he could help.

Usually my thinking is: Go fuck yourself. It’s a safety hazard. A client cuts their nose off and says you’re the one who passed them the knife. They trip and bounce their heads across the counter because you distracted them. They stick their hand in the drain. A mystery allergy surfaces from the ether and you’re the one who should’ve warned them.

But before I could say anything, this guy goes ahead and grabs a peeler from his counter and starts skinning potatoes. He made it through three by the time I looked up.

You’re a chef, I said.

No, he said, smiling. I just live alone.

Doesn’t mean you’re not a cook.

Well. I’m not getting paid for it.

That doesn’t mean as much as you’d think, I said, slipping the beef into some broth, simmering it on the stove.

While the stew bubbled beside us, the guy asked if I wanted to smoke outside. I don’t usually accept things from clients, but again — he was cute. And I’ve learned to never turn down pot. You could see the entire park from his balcony, over the bayou, and into the backyards of the neighborhoods I worked in, where the houses probably had someone just like me dicing cucumbers and pulling spinach stems.

If you had a telescope, looking past the horizon, you could probably see my place, too. It was foggy and humid, with a muddy Houston skyline. But we’d only just entered August. The worst was yet to come.

The guy beside me puffed, looking out at the view. And then he turned to me, grinning.

No offense, I said. But you seem pretty normal.

Like not a creep?

Like financially.

Oh, said this guy, and then he laughed.

I just mean that what I’m doing isn’t cheap, I said. And most of my clients are rich. Or they’ve got rich parents.

Sounds about white.

Exactly.

Not me, said this guy. Just thought this would be a nice way to spend the evening.

With a meal?

With someone else. It’s hard, you know?

I do.

The two of us smoked, passing his vape pen back and forth, leaning over the railing. And then a funny thing happened: The guy asked if I thought things would always be this way.

I looked at him, blinking. Then I told him I didn’t know.

But this is life too, said the guy, smiling.

Yeah?

Yeah. It’s different. But it’s still happening.

I looked at his face for a moment. He really did mean it. When he finally caught my stare, he grinned.

Then I heard the oven go off, and neither of us moved, and he said we really should go back inside, since he was paying me and all — and I laughed. But it felt funny. Because I’d forgotten, just for a second. And why would I have been there otherwise.



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