By Hannah Howard

There are different kinds of chefs. Chefs who cook from their heart. They make satisfying things with walloping flavors. I met them everywhere, working my way through New York restaurants. I dated one of these chefs. He had broad, tattooed shoulders, moppy hair, shy eyes. I remember grilled nutella, banana, and fluffernutter sandwiches, the bread buttery and warm, devoured under the covers in the Lower East Side apartment he shared with a seemingly infinite number of rotating roommates.

Then there was Micah. Micah was obsessively gentle, deliberate with food. He would never think of eating a nutella, banana, and fluffernutter sandwich. Serious chefs are apt to sneer at vegetarians, to regard them with a pure and fiery hatred. Micah was the rare vegetarian and serious chef. Profoundly serious.

He came to consult at the cheese and wine bar where I worked, on an ugly corner in Hell’s Kitchen. He left for his dream job—to cook at Per Se. Almost a year had passed when he asked me out.

micah plating food Scoop Du Jour: Living, Loving, and Cooking with a Serious Chef
Micah plating food.
Image courtesy of New York Natives, Photographer: Hannah Howard

On our third date, Micah invited me to his apartment in Queens to make dinner. I brought the wine and DJ’ed his stereo. I asked if I could help cook.

“No,” he said, “I got it,” his laser focus directed at the cutting board.

The agnolotti he made for us were stunning, precise: military-neat rows of dough filled with sweet San Marzanos. I watched him as he pinched the eggy pasta off into identical satchels, twisting the ends.

He saw I was interested. “Do you want to make some?”

“Definitely!”

But I didn’t have a practiced hand. My pasta envelopes were lumpy and uneven. I thought they were sort of charming in their messiness. Rustic. He threw my batch into the trash.

He wasn’t mean about it or anything. We were falling in love, and it was a romantic and delicious night. We ate them—slowly, slowly—talked and talked, made love, talked more, smoked a joint, fed each other ice cream. I was wildly happy, but I mourned for my inferior, banished little agnolotti.

Micah was striking, tall-tall and thin but impeccably muscled. He spoke in a syrupy Israeli accent. On the streets of New York, model scouts would press their business cards into his big palm. Sometimes they would tell me, “you’re pretty too.” But I knew he was the pretty one. Surreally pretty. I caught myself staring, his sharp jaw, his cheekbones, his subaqueous eyes.

Our relationship began with a kiss to end all kisses, there were fireworks and the earth shook a little. We broke our dining room chairs, making love. Micah moved in. We didn’t want to stop holding hands.

At the start, there were painstakingly elaborate feasts. I came home to salmon tartar with sesame and hot oil, a whole plate of sushi art, rices and seaweeds and fish in gorgeous compositions. The best paella I ever imagined. Fat strands of parpadelle hanging from the kitchen cabinets, drying. He prepared breakfast for hours, whipping meringue to fold into buckwheat pancakes, or fashioning custard for marcona almond and apricot pain pardu.

sausage 628x510 Scoop Du Jour: Living, Loving, and Cooking with a Serious Chef
Image courtesy of New York Natives, Photographer: Hannah Howard

These were risottos and veggies and pancakes that would embarrass a perfectly decent cook. They were good, almost too good, freakish. They made me giggle with unbridled delight.

As Micah worked more and more, he cooked at home less and less. The pasta maker, once a trusty companion, languished in the closet. I understood. Micah and I had embarked on a dream. He had become the executive chef at the restaurant I managed. A beautiful, homey colonial house turned restaurant. It was a chance to bring his vision to life. Or our vision.

Micah loved with all his heart, with the fibers of his toes and eyelids, with each breath and all his gigantic, hurting heart. He worked the same way. Fiercely, tirelessly, wildly. He came in early to order the country’s most perfect zucchinis, which we found from a tiny farm in Ohio, and stayed after his last cook and dishwasher had bleached the floor into a pearly shine. His 12 hours days became 14 hour days, then 16. He stopped eating, and our boss, the restaurant’s owner, worried that his pants were falling off his hips.

“Tell him to eat!” she’d say to me. I heard the same words from our sous chef, our regulars, his mom. I told him plenty. I brought him frappuccinos, and they’d melt, forgotten. I carried slices of pizza to work in brown paper bags, sandwiches, old-fashioned donuts, which were his favorite.

Micah’s cooking, though, was cerebral. In a dish called “tastes, smells, and touches from the garden,” the waiter punctured a saran-wrapped plate to release “pine air.” There was “rainbowed trout,” a rainbow trout cloaked in a rainbow of paper-thin veggies: beets, carrots, squashes. It was showstopping.

salad 628x418 Scoop Du Jour: Living, Loving, and Cooking with a Serious Chef
Image courtesy of New York Natives, Photographer: Hannah Howard

A big part of me was proud. I gushed to regulars, reporters. This whiz-kid chef, the genius, my boyfriend. And yet, he was different here. Who was this boy I loved, throwing a plate at the bewildered dishwasher? Where was the joy in this, listening to Micah scream at the staff I trained with patience I didn’t know I had? Counting the register night after night? Folding mountains of starched off-white napkins?

I ate. Gougeres, buttery and soft and cloud-like, swiped through fresh-churned butter infused with the smoke from burning hay. Peanut butter mousse and almond macarons. Scraps from the short ribs, fatty and ethereal. Duck prosciutto we cured ourselves. Risotto laced with oxtail. Lobster poached in vanilla butter.

As Micah got thinner, his bones jutting into my thighs as we fell asleep, hugging, I got fatter. My jeans ripped between my thighs. No one wanted me to join Micah on TV because of the roundness of my belly, I was sure.

Micah insisted I was beautiful, I was perfect, but we stopped sneaking off places to kiss and kiss and kiss. We worked together, we lived together, and I missed him terribly. I missed the love letter author, in his imperfect, beautiful English. I missed the exuberant breakfast artist. I missed his adoration, his hands on my body, our shockwaves.

Before Micah, I loved to cook. And after. It makes me really happy, slicing away at a summer squash, or turning browning bananas into nutty, dense loaves. I delight in feeding friends and family lemony pasta and garlicky shrimp. I worked for a few months as a real cook in a real restaurant kitchen. There was a time I believed I wanted to be a chef.

Towards the end of things with Micah, there was a diet. I became skinnier, bought new jeans.

“How do you stay so thin, married to a chef?” customers would ask. “We’re not married,” I told them. Our days of shared feasts seemed a specter. I’d watch him in his kitchen, his kingdom, sweat on his brow, deep in concentration and fast in motion. His cooks loved him with fierce devotion. I watched and willed myself not to cry.

cooks huddle Scoop Du Jour: Living, Loving, and Cooking with a Serious Chef
Image courtesy of New York Natives, Photographer: Hannah Howard

The restaurant was making money, racking up accolades and awards. “You must be happy,” my waitress said, “in love! You’ve lost weight!”

“You must be planning to dump your boyfriend,” a jovial regular hypothesized, swigging a pilsner, also referring to my smaller body.

“No way,” I told him, smiling to show him the thought was ridiculous. Smiling because anything was possible, my waiters scurrying with his heartbreaking foie gras, his press-garnering lamb, the sun setting, the tables full and the night pulsing, alive.

 

Featured image courtesy of New York Natives, Photographer: Hannah Howard

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