Sunday, July 22, 2007

Who's Eating Seattle?

My husband suggested I give a little backstory. Here goes:

I was born in Ballard but my parents moved to Federal Way "for the schools." My sisters and I went to high school at Bellarmine in Tacoma. We'd been in public school before that so it was a little strange to be meeting kids who'd only been to private school. At the time I don't think I understood all the connotations of a private school education, I just knew that my new friends' parents had money. And they drank wine. And made pesto from scratch in the blender! So maybe only Mrs. Branson did that, but I was only 16 the first time I smelled it and it's one of the first food memories that really stands out. It was so aromatic and foreign. It was so "gourmet." My parents didn't and don't cook much. OK, my parents cook sometimes, but there's a difference between cooking because you have to feed the family and cooking because you can't wait to get lost in the chopping and the wonderful aroma of sauteeing mushrooms and onions. Somehow, I became a person who does the latter even though the rest of my family sticks to the former category for the most part.

So I went to UW for college and, though at the time I was crushed and I do mean crushed, the sorority I wanted to join didn't pick me. I became what the geniuses at UW refer to as a "goddamn independent." This was a gift from God. I ended up living in the dorms and then moved in with four other girls my sophomore year in a house off campus that we coined "The Shaft" because that's what we felt we were getting living there. It was a dump, but so much fun. And that's where I really started to cook.

I was horrid. I mean horrid. I had no cookbooks and no computer and no frickin' clue. I made caramelized onions using sugar (because caramel=sugar, right?), boxed macaroni and cheese with the exotic addition of curry powder (doesn't sound as bad as it was), and spaghetti sauce with sausage and vanilla. That last one wasn't throw-it-away-immediately bad. And so I started to cook. I had the idea that the longer you cooked a sauce the better it was, which was true with some and VERY false with others. But before you know it I was considering dropping out of college (psychology wasn't doing it for me) to become a full-time cook. On a whim I called on a pantry cook job for Il Bistro that I'd seen in the newspaper. I remember telling Sherri (Serino, who later opened La Medusa) that I had no experience but that "my roommates keep eating everything I cook." She took a chance on me and changed my life.

I worked for Sherri and her then-partner Lisa for a few years, getting my ass kicked by the guys in the kitchen, listening to the Mexicanos talk about their huevos and whatnot. It was an education. I learned on the fly. I was still really pretty bad for a few years, but then something clicked and I became decent, maybe even good. I cooked for Peter Neal at CaterArts for a few years (some of my dearest cooking memories, actually. what a f*ing fun kitchen that was) and worked retail to make ends meet. And then I got the opportunity of a lifetime.

I'd been bitching a few months earlier to my friend Steven about the state of restaurant reviewing in Seattle. At that point the Stranger was letting Riz Rollins (a music writer/DJish type) write about restaurants and it pissed me off more than it should've. To me it was the ultimate job and having him just sort of do it on the side seemed like a waste. I'm sure I'd gone on some classic Ali margarita-fueled diatribe about it to Steven. Anyhoo, the short version is that Steven ended up becoming the EIC of Citysearch in Seattle a few months after said diatribe. And when he was hiring he called me to see if I wanted to put my money where my (big, loud) mouth was.

Shit. I had to try to write a restaurant review. Actually, shit shit shit, I had to try to write three. So there I was, a broke retailer-slash-catering cook without a computer, trying to write restaurant review clips. I took about three weeks to write my clips (by hand!! seriously. I still have the originals) and then I faxed them to Steven.
Who the hell knows why he hired me but he did. I didn't even ask what the salary was when he offered me the job, I just said "YES!" as quickly as I could. And at the age of 24 I began writing about restaurants professionally.

OK, so what does a 24 year old know about food or restaurant criticism? Especially a broke one? Good point, so in the beginning I read entire books on, say, sushi or Spanish regional cuisines before my reviews. I remember reading Jeffrey Steingarten for the first time and just loving him. And of course Ruth Reichl, who gave me hope. She didn't seem elitist or snobbish...I could relate to her. I've read everyone from Calvin Trillin to Pat Conroy to Jim Harrison (thanks to my husband) on food since then. And I never get tired of it. Restaurants make me happy. The bad ones don't, but the really good ones more than make up for it.

I spent three years writing reviews here in Seattle. I sat across from my dad, kind of loving the fact that he rolled his eyes at the rose foam he was served at the Herbfarm. I got upgraded to the private room at Salish one night because I think they thought my boyfriend and I were getting engaged (we weren't, but that was REALLY fun, and no, they didn't make me for a reviewer. On the second visit my table got treated like complete shit. We didn't see our waiter for 45 minutes). I got to take my three favorite people to the Space Needle for $14 strawberry shortcake "cocktails" and horrible shredded Safeway-grade parmesan-encrusted steak. It was one of the worst meals I ate during my tenure, but also one of the most fun.

And then I convinced the powers that be to hire me as the restaurant editor in NYC. I'd spent some time there since many of my friends lived there, but this was a whole new ballgame. I took my parents to Il Mulino, an old-line (I mean, they opened like 30 years ago or something) Italian restaurant where the pork chop "special" was $75 and my dad waited in line for the bathroom behind Phil Donahue. I took my three favorite housemates to dinner at Tavern on the Green (they owed me...I'd taken them to AWESOME places so...they owed me) where my friend Beth had a roach in her drink (SERIOUSLY) and my friend Doug got our entire (very unfortunate) meal comped. I treated my then-boyfriend, now-husband to Le Bernardin (overrated and stiff), The Modern (one of my favorite meals in NYC) and Yasuda (good but we were not transported, which should happen for $700 for two). I enjoyed a three hour meal by myself at Masa. I spent $440 that night and I wouldn't change a thing about it. It was heaven.

I probably would've been in NYC longer than 2 1/2 years if it hadn't been for Ed. We met at a party. He'd been set up, so when we met he actually had another girl's feet on his lap. Ed lived in Jackson Hole and I had been trying to convince two friends to make a trip out there.
I eventually convinced the powers that be that Jackson would be a great destination to cover for work, and therefore got the go-ahead to head out to Wyoming to eat and write about it. Seriously, it never gets easier to believe that that was my job. So I went, we ate, we drank, we laughed, we hiked (on our first afternoon we saw a 6-point elk from about 40 meters. my heart stopped) and we kind of liked each other. We weren't tired of each other, even after four days. I moved out to Jackson to be with him eight months later.

We got married 5 months after that, and now we're the proud parents of a very adorable baby named Ruby Mabel. So I'm back, to live, play and eat Seattle.

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