23 December 2011
I met my sous-chef where all good chefs and sous-chefs meet: Petco. She had built a little fort in her cage at the Adopt-A-Pet event, only leaving it to nuzzle my hand. Needless to say, she was straight-up hired. While at the store, Ella and I began talking – her mostly – about how living behind a Shakey’s Pizza was not all that awesome; how eating leftover Mojo Potoatoes and meowing at people was; about how birds are fucking evil and should be hunted down and killed; and about how, as underrated as it is, the movie The Third Man is pretty fucking amazing. After leaving Petco, and contemplating my future over some mediocre bar fries, then some terrible bar tacos, then some more (made passable by my affinity for, and frequent drinking of, cheap booze) delicious bar tacos, I decided that Ella and I should partner up, and even perhaps start our own place for food and drink. “Why the hell not,” I thought. I was, after all, a cook at heart, and in a job I was pretty sure was dead-end; and Ella, aside from being a stray cat, had just been fired by Eric Ripert, at Le Bernardin, after consuming a full three-quarters of the food she was supposed to have been preparing.
The night before we started our adventure, and full of Escoffier-inspired brilliance and The Glenlivet, I cooked one of the best meals of my life for my buddy, Ali. Roasted bone marrow, crostini topped with a melange of marinated veg, and seafood etoufee that would make John Besh fucking weep. I was so excited for the new venture Ella and I were to embark upon. But, if I’m being being honest – and before you cast Drew Berrymore as the voice of Ella in this Disney movie – you should know that the first few months of our culinary partnership was, to put it mildly, more fucking contentious then the Boer War and Darfur, combined. “You’re short rib braising liquid is anemic, at best!” she would yell. “You’re scared of cooking protein!” she would scream. “If you can’t cook fish en papillote, then why do you insist on doing it?!” she would growl. This was not an easy cat with which to work. And all the while I kept wondering (because I’m single-minded and irony ignorant), “Will the Bengals ever win a fucking Super Bowl during my lifetime?!?!” I could see in her eyes, and in the liberal way she would use her seemingly Adamantium-made claws, that she was reconsidering our arrangement. Things were dicey, but I still knew deep in my heart that something special was happening. I loved opening our little place every morning. I loved seeing her come in to work, ready to start the day, with that special look of deranged and out-of-place superiority plastered on her adorable mug. She had been beaten down, but she was still all spit and balsamic vinegar and white truffle oil.
Our venture started off in a stand-off. I wanted to cook the things I had always cooked, and was comfortable cooking, but she was adamant that I try new things, and that she scratch and hiss at me when she, herself, happened to be uncomfortable. Soon enough, though, she started to rub off on me (mostly on my leg): I started cooking things I wasn’t so comfy with, like Japanese food, and more protein, and larger pieces of the hobos I harvested during the winter months. She, too, seemed to get more comfortable. Less and less would she savage my appendages, less and less did she tag my walls with slogans, such as “THE ICKEY SHUFFLE WAS A STUPID FUCKING DANCE.” She began putting up with my more whimsical dishes, even when they didn’t work, and unbelievably allowed the occasional caprice of making two different types of mushroom risotto on consecutive nights (and she even let me kiss her on her head, every once in a while). She did insist, however, that I begin baking. “It’s baking or the claws” she said. At this point she had taken to sleeping near my face, so I took stock of my options and bought some damn flour.
After years of toiling away at our venture, I knew that Ella was the right sous-chef for me, and that expanding to baking was a good idea, even though baking scared me more than conjoined clown spider twins who sing a Cappella pop songs. “You will most likely fail at this,” Ella assured me, ever so tactfully, “so you should start with soft pretzels, because I know you love them, and I happen to want one in twelve hours, which is when you will finally finish a batch.” And you know what? I FUCKING DID. Then it was on to French bread, which I mastered as much as anyone can master French bread. Then sourdough. Then yeast rolls. Then more pretzels – this time filled with cheese, because that sounded fucking awesome, and Ella demanded them.
Eventually, our little kitchen found its footing, and Ella and I were busy toiling away the days sauteing, braising, baking, and frying, and living a nice little life. She had seemingly given up on yelling at me – though the threat was ever-present whenever fresh food was not immediate – and she had even taken to not digging her claws into my arms anymore. During the halcyon days – which became eventually, and thankfully, years – we hung out out, she and I, in the kitchen, and came up with a damn good recipe for moules frites; a great plan for an Italian meal; a nice recipe for a basic risotto; and even managed a take-down of those fucking hacks, Guy Ferry and Sandra Lee (though the better nature of Ella’s angels were imparted unto me, because I really wanted to let them have it). After several years, we were a success! Our little kitchen was the best little place for good food and drink in the town, and even though we never had any customers, or a restaurant, we were happy. And if happiness is measured in pleasure taken while sitting in the sun as it sets on the California coast, smelling dinner being made, then we were, indeed, the happiest people that the sun had the luxury of setting on.
The last meal Ella “Chairman Meow” Who Dey and I cooked together was patatas bravas. She sat dutifully by, in her elegant stance, knowing all the while that I was putting way too much paprika in the sauce. That she didn’t yell at me should have been my first clue. Not much more than a week later, in a far less comforting environ as our kitchen, I was holding my little Sous-Chef on her favorite blanket, on a metal table, in a strange room, waiting for the veterinarian to come. Ella had gone into kidney failure, a pros-pos of absolutely nothing except cruelty and pain and unfairness, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Had I my wits about me, I would have played for her Beethoven’s “Emperor’s Concerto,” because that’s the song I hope to hear when I, myself, have to cross the bar. I don’t know if that’s the song Ella would like to have heard, but I do know that the last sound she did hear, as the doctor administered the drug to stop her heart, was my voice.