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  • Pietro Buttitta

A brief chef's biography

This is a rare personal post from 2012 - you have been warned.

I hate eating and I hate food. Sometimes. I am getting over it. The best way to learn to hate food is to work in a restaurant. Fight with the owner, the unappreciative clientele, the low pay and the servers. Have food become the means to pay the mortgage, the student loans, the credit card bills that went to electricity and a car you rarely drive anyway. Let the subtle tide of creation and exploration become the whimper of quotidian drudgery. Separate the soul from craft, trade in the excitement of the push for the torture of the grind, and watch your personal life fade away at the same time which is no small part of the equation and the dilution of taste.

I did not always hate food. In fact it has been a fascination for most of my life. Why a ten-year old would be obsessed by glistening oeufs en gelée and terrines encased in perfectly egg-washed puff pastry will never be known, but a visceral embryonic connection was there. I grew up on a vineyard in the Russian River AVA as well, and at a young age I knew my Carignan from Colombard. I was more than a million miles away from food culture, large broken family, never eating anything worth remembering, but there was this odd spark. Moving out and on meant the liberty to try Thai food for the first time, garam masala-ed failures and toxic burned bechamel. Ten years too late the food fascination got the best of me, and after a lifetime of self-imposed austerity my soon-to-be wife realized that not only did we have a food connection, but I had a serious intimate relationship with it that just wasn't quite normal (she is a great cook too by the way.) I had temperature control in my bones, an almost erotic yearning for technique that bridged science with philosophy and aesthetics, and the physical connection to organic objects that merges both into a momentary being, and then disappears. It was never about eating, it was all about crafting. This why I am not a foodie; I lost weight working in restaurants.

When I made the transition into kitchen work my culinary obsession blossomed. Science and craft gel well for me, and that is still true at this moment today in the wine game. Right brain left brain. Every spare penny went to the cheapest damaged copies of the cookbooks that I read like novels. I remember hours spent puzzling over Michel Bras' book. Like most aspiring fine dining cooks I remember having all of Trotter's cookbooks at one time and then their cold austerity and bold caution slowly made them fade away. I remember the first time I looked at one of the El Bulli books and I remember when Susur's book came out - I even sent a letter asking for a kitchen position under him at one point.

Somewhere, between application number 42 and 50 someone finally gave me a job, and I still count my first chef as my friend today. I said I would shut up and eat shit my first year and I did. When I was told to do something wrong, I did it, though I was grumbling. I was also reveling in the bizarre semi-meritocracy of kitchen life. It was kind of like college, but not so much. In my first year cooking I managed to receive a James Beard Scholarship and for my school internship I set up my own paying gig with what would shortly be a 1-star Michelin restaurant in Napa Valley. Then they hired me, and then gave me a raise. I really wasn't bad, and I was moving fast. Had I been a driven enough cook I would have probably stayed, but I was married now and had to go home. This gradual acclimation to distance in a stressful marriage set a dangerous precedent that would shape my future.

When I returned to Portland life was in slow motion. Cooks were hacks, slow, lazy, whatever. Insular, uninformed and just not really disciplined. The general level of execution was very low. I wanted to be on sauté every night. I loved tearing through an impossible prep list then gliding through 150 covers in an evening. But so few kitchens flowed like that. Growing restless and bored I took a wage cut to work with someone who spent five years with Gray Kunz and then Bouley. Kunz is God. If you don't know what this means you are missing part of this post. Half the pay for a minimum of 70 hours per week. Eventually I had to quit because I could not afford to eat and my wife hated me. It was the best food I ever made, under the worst human being with the most gifted palate I have seen. I was learning but it was true injustice from every angle. Food was not pleasure but intellectual edification, but then I had to go home.  I was already old, and while everyone else closed down the bars I biked home through the dark to an angry wife and a house I could not afford. Sleep, repeat.

I can't emphasize the difficulty of that last bit. To be learning, creating with pride but totally miserable inside was wrenching. This is where food really started to become struggle, internal versus external, spousal obligation and all that stuff. This is the quintessential kitchen conundrum. Outside the kitchen life was a struggle, treading water financially and emotionally while in the kitchen the treading was of a slightly different sort, but it was mytreading. I floated for a bit, then my first chef came to the rescue, hired me back, gave me a free hand with the menu and I recreated every dish from the last year's culinary adventures, and I made them better. I got even. I made oxtail and foie gras ravioli better. Squab? Better. It was cross-cultural. Steroidal harira, melting and buttery sake kasu sablefish, tomato air and Wuxi pork belly. I became somewhat happier with my work life anyway, and for a little while I had a bit of movement and hope. I began avoiding home, stopping at the bar and sneaking a cigarette here and there. When I got there I would start thinking about the next menu and specials so I would always be ahead of the game. As a child of divorce I tend to be over prepared, born wearing pants. I was between worlds. Doing more at work meant neglecting home, and they were pretty much all six-day weeks. They had to be.

A few more jobs, a few more stages. I yelled at "chefs" for putting vinegar or tomatoes in aluminum pans. I threatened my fourth chef over his shitty plating. When he told me his customers did not like "clean" food I fucking flipped, not because I care about the drooling knuckle-dragging customer, but because his slovenly laziness diminished the discipline that was mine. When close enough was good enough, anyone could do it. Brunoise should be brunoise, none of this four millimeter shit. There are all sorts of stories I could tell about people you know about in Portland. The lies, whining, backstabbing are everything that could be dreamt of involving all the big Portland players. Some of them lied to my face in their backwater pomposity, and I am dying to tell you their names and stories. I was getting to know them and I had the fortune of a memorable name. Three years in I took a sous chef and pastry chef position, still climbing the ladder and I wanted the executive position. I was still hungry, and I needed more money as my home life was still drowning in debt, but I was bouncing off the ceiling constantly, wanting to do more, better, harder in a dour kitchen. It was a difficult setup in an odd spot with a ragged crew. After several serious conversations with others chefs about jumping ship and really pushing fell through and a chronically ill wife who could not work I approached meltdown stage. Struggle at work, struggle at home. My own head was killing me. I didn't have the balls to make my own way. So I ditched.

What was I ditching? Well, I was avoiding the reality of ending a personal relationship of five years. Food wise, I was ditching the fact that cooking had become arguments with the owner's chain-smoking wife over menu items, food cost percentages and sending non-salaried cooks home on slow nights. I was ditching a kitchen culture that over and again just was not gelling into a cohesive unit that pushed - it was all grind. What I found interesting and compelling was not what sold. I was ditching that I was in a corner and not finding any way out. Food was work. The kitchen was a black cloud of pessimism. It felt like not moving upwards but making a series of lateral jumps. One of the worst aspects of the hidden kitchen world is the amount of dysfunction it can contain. A good team is a rare thing of beauty, the type of unit you read about at Alinea. A bad team is a series of half-trained slackers going through a revolving door frequently, and you can't do it all yourself. Those of us with personal problems such as boundary issues and faulty work/home balance (guilty) tend to burn out anyway by failing on the human side of the equation, and this affects a kitchen too. One day, with a phone call, I decided to go to California for two months to help out with harvest. It was that or jump off a bridge.

In California I reconnected with sunlight, my old friend the grapevine and enough excitement and hard work to keep me active. Though I hated the circumstance of dipping a toe into a failing family business (my family's dysfunction makes any kitchen look glowingly healthy) I enjoyed it, and the culinary background was a definite asset in the winery and also in the vineyard. I could do this, and had that feeling in my bones that I could make it better and make it succeed. The two months provided a bit of a reset. When I went back to Portland I went back to work in the kitchen but my focus was shifting. I could still go through the motions - three busy months solid on grill and not a single piece of meat ever came back, but I was elsewhere. I went to work in a wine shop. It was not great, but it was a starting point. I was also feeling the personal need to upgrade my people skills and expand the horizon socially, and a (gulp) sales position forced me to open up and gain some confidence. I actually made some lasting friends out of customers. Shortly after I was back in California 65% of the year, cutting down walnut trees, planting, trellising, making sales and making wine. Life at home remained the same. It was 2009. Things continued, some got worse and some got better.

I'll save the rest of the story for later, but there is an element of failure and success that is clear and it is the topic of discussion. I burned out on food, and I am in the midst of divorce. The irony is that ending one path has forced me to reexamine and reevaluate the other. I refuse to end both.

My wife has been quite open about our impending end in her blog, she is a fantastic writer and can be found here and here. We had the intellectual link, and I am still proud of it. It hurts to end that part as I have become much more comfortable thinking of myself as artsy-fartsy in some ways, and that awareness is largely her doing. Though I get a bit queasy discussing these things publicly it may be time to leverage technology into resolving my own struggle and possibly assist others.

So, dear reader, maybe you have struggled with cooking, with crafting and creating food. Maybe the stable mirror of your existence has departed and the flavor of life has dwindled a bit. I admire those who cook for an empty house. Maybe there is a simple fix for you, like cut your hair, get a mani/pedi and move on. Maybe you just need a new cookbook. This is no joke. I fought buying the Alinea cookbook for years. The technical aspects of modernist cuisine were mysterious and unpublished (with the exception of El Bulli) when I was coming up, so it was in a away also the end of an era. It came out when I exited cooking and I felt that it was not for me anymore and it was part of what was now a different path. I did not want to go there. It became symbolic of my failure in so many ways. Sure, it was still easy to dazzle a house party but that inchoate spark was missing, that lovely concupiscent dialectic had died. No one saw it but me, and its absence was like sleeping with a hooker, everything was just going through the motions mechanically. Could have been fucking sewing. The right book at the right time could have changed this.

What I see now is that for me the balance is all, and it comes to a grinding halt if it is forsaken. Sure, there are those few gifted visionaries who tirelessly churn forward and find success, but the price can be very high for mono-minded-mania. It feels wonderful to push at all cost with laser-like focus and shut the world out, but that is precisely the cost. Somewhere, somehow, one forgets to enjoy eating. The craft becomes impersonal labor, reified as ideology, cathected failure. It ceased to breath for me. I developed the peculiar habit of not wanting to eat my own food. In fact, even today, the thought of it makes me nauseous. Consumption became utterly unrelated to production, and I am not a classy guy. This isn't snobbery as I still drink Keystone and eat freezer pizza with vigor. No, this has been a philosophical failing, a misunderstanding of the the nature of things, an internal failing demanding an external perspective.

In short, I forgot - or am only coming to see now - that cooking is a relationship too. Relationships require different things at different times, sometimes some distance and silence, sometimes cautious nurturing and caring. Then there are times that for all the drama, storm and stress all that is needed is a sweaty three-way in the elevator. I ordered the Fat Duck Cookbook too...

When cooking became struggle it had lost its essence as something to be shared. It fell into the dichotomy of being either a cold product or an ego-invested stand against kitchen corruption. The adventure was gone, the R & D phase so essential to forward movement evaporated because that tender care and concern no longer existed. Food can be just recipes just like it can be just a pay check. I half think that every cook should take some time and go watch their patrons eat their food. We are only part of the equation; there is a whole other world on the other side of the pass. Much like music or some other form, a sense of enthusiasm somehow pervades and persists through the object. You know a kitchen without energy or drive the second the plate hits the table, whether at a restaurant or at home. There is eating and cooking for sustenance, then for fulfillment. Fundamentally, when pride dies, food dies too. If you no longer believe it can or should get better, it won't. It is your dithyramb.

So what now? Well, I am reconnecting with food. Slowly disentangling all those painful threads of guilt, failure, duty, scarcity and self abnegation and hoping to find an equilibrium of abundance. Enjoying only the execution part will not be enough to sustain it. At the most basic level that sense of wonder and excitement that culminates in creation is a large portion of the goal, but not the totality. There is the unique possibility at this moment to cook very little in a very focused and controlled way, a few things a week, and actually share them with visitors in our winery's tasting room and reestablish that communal link of sharing and hospitality. We can explore historical elements as well through regional pairings. The technical aspect of execution is unlimited. I will focus on new areas, like charcuterie that had been marginalized in the past. The wine pairings will hopefully become more creative and adventurous or they may be historically informed and sanctioned, who knows? We like rustic as much as high minded. We like the basics, but should not be afraid to pull out the calcium chloride or kappa carrageenan, bake some bread or crack open that dusty pastry book. The wine will be better for it at the end of the day if all the cards are played right. I also will get to reconnect with an old friend in a wisened and hopefully steadily passionate, yet measured way. And, the work will be documented here so that I can spare you some failure and maybe share some success. Stay tuned...

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