Part Three of reflections on recent Italian travels. (For Part Two, go to Vernazza)
After a perilous and soul-affirming reunion in Vernazza, wifey-love and I (wifey-love is my dear friend C who currently lives in Genova) returned to urban living and its soothing familiarity. In the city, the main wrestling to be done is for that last size S t-shirt at H&M. I was excited to visit a new city, but mostly I was excited to see, touch, smell and feel where wifey-love had been living these last few months. Of course we had communicated on a near daily basis, despite the six hour time difference and her having a crappy T9 phone – remember the era of T9? No amount of texting, pictures or even face time on Skype, however, can capture the essence of a life, the smells of a city, or the warmth of its people. It was a real treat to walk the streets of Genova with wifey-love, to peek inside the courtyards of sumptuous palazzos and to discover the spot where she sits to enjoy the sunset over the harbor. And to eat at the restaurant where she has been apprenticed; to finally understand just what exactly she has been learning.
That evening we dressed ourselves pretty and went for aperol spritz on the harbor before dinner. We then made our way to the restaurant. Tucked high up on the fourth floor of a modern building overlooking the harbor, with expansive windows on both sides and a terrace, it is the kind of restaurant that invites you to sit and stay a while. The dining room is one square room, with no nooks or crannies: all the tables are in plain view of each other and eating is a communal thing. We all partake in it, why hide in booths or behind strategically placed pillars? This way, you can see what your neighbor is eating, perhaps get inspired, or strike a conversation. The tables are all made of solid wood, the kind one expects in the kitchen of a rustic Tuscan farm, with a thick tabletop. The chair are clear plexiglass, the kind one expects in a posh Manhattan eatery. And yet this odd marriage of colors and materials works perfectly. The kitchen is to the left and shares a wall with the dining room. Except that this wall is one large window that runs from the waist-high countertop all the way up to the ceiling. More than a peak into the kitchen, it is like sitting by the stage door and being able to see the flurry of activity backstage and the carefully controlled performance on stage at the same time.
We had a sumptuous five course dinner. Genova being a port town, fish and seafood are the prime ingredients around which meals are crafted. I am no foodie, but I am fortunate to have grown up in a family that appreciates food and in a country – France – that revolves around what’s for dinner. I have sat through many multi-course meals as a child and I had many an occasion to expose my taste buds to remarkable flavors – and make arbitrary rules such as no shellfish because one time there was a shrimp in my salad and I ate it before realizing and I don’t like being taken for a fool. The food was otherworldly, the flavors expertly married, the freshness of the fish crudo only equalled in my mind by a piece of tuna sashimi I once had at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. But more remarkable was the love that leaped from our plates. I could taste hours of sweat, love and tears behind every bite. In between courses, I peeked at the kitchen – the executive chef, Enrico, and five cooks each working at their designated stations – while wifey-love explained the inner workings of the kitchen, the stress when orders rush in, the relentless heat rising from the hotplates, the cramped workspace. Through the looking glass, I was treated to a ballet of frenzied yet controlled movements. These men never looked stressed to me, although wifey-love assured me they were, never moved faster than they needed to, never threw a nervous glance at the dining room. And as they stood hunched over the designated space for dishes ready to go out, plating food in slow, deliberate gestures, taking a second at the end to wipe a stray dollop of sauce or straighten an unruly asparagus, you could feel the love oozing out of their pores. Yes, this is their jobs and yes they work because they need the money, but I don’t believe for a second that anyone would choose this profession if it wasn’t because they love what they do. When food is prepared with such amore and reverence, it tastes heavenly.
And then I looked at wifey-love, who left the comforts of her American life to dive head first into an exacting professional kitchen, who has stood in a corner for the last two months making the same amuse-bouche dish day after day. She wanted to learn their craft, tap into their creativity, emulate their passion. That evening, for the first time since her debut as a chef, she sat on the other side of the looking glass. With every bite, she sent that love her colleagues had infused into her meal straight back to them, beaming with pride. I understood exactly why she had come to this place. For all its rigor and demands and long hours, it was a place suffused in love. And for a few hours, I got a taste of that love, down to the last morsel of molten Gianduja-infused chocolate cake.
How very fortunate am I to have a person in my life who settles for nothing less than glorious passion in all that she does.