Closing The Book On Critic-Turned-Cook

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[Illustration: Robyn Lee; other photographs: Leslie Kelly]

Time to 86 this critic-turned-cook. Stick a fork in me; I'm done.

A reader recently gave me a gentle nudge, pointing out that it seemed as if I had strayed from my original mission of working in professional kitchens. He/she noticed I was writing more about my personal culinary adventures. True that.

It's been a while since I've punched a clock, donned an apron, and spent a day on my feet. I make dinners for my ever-appreciative and very generous neighbors a couple of nights a week, but I am no professional cook and I never will be.

Here's why:

I'm too old. A friend pointed this out the other day. Not in a mean way. But, damn, take a look in any kitchen and you'll see that most of the bodies moving with the speed and agility of ballet dancers belong to people in their 20s. You can be earnest and on time, and you can bring a great attitude and work ethic to the table, but it takes strength and stamina to go the distance. Even when I was working half days at the frat house at the University of Washington, I walked to the bus stop after a shift feeling beat up.

Plus, it's nearly impossible to make a living as a cook. At least that was true for me, coming in at minimum wage. After losing my source of income when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for which I wrote reviews, went down in flames, I was in shock, then in mourning. My husband also worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, so our household took a double hit.

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Me in the kitchen at Alpha Sigma Pi, and Darlene Barnes.

We tried not to freak out. He enrolled in a masters program and has retrained as an elementary school teacher, following a long-dormant dream. And I tried my best to earn some dough in professional kitchens, first working for Tom Douglas, then later doing shifts at Shultzy's, Crow, Betty and Delancey, before I landed my favorite prep cook post of all, spending a quarter in the kitchen at Alpha Sigma Phi with the uber-talented Darlene Barnes. Talk about a good education.

By that time, though, it was clear I couldn't pay my hefty mortgage on a prep cook's pay, so I started freelancing. It was a constant hustle, but I tried to take assignments only if it involved eating or drinking. At one point, I think I had a dozen projects on my crowded plate. Welcome to the working world of the 21st century, right? I'm working twice as hard and getting paid half as much. Wait, make that three times as hard and getting paid peanuts.

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Me and Tom Douglas.

Yet, in between all that hustling, I get to do such fun stuff. No longer having to wear disguises and be the stealth food sleuth, I get to attend restaurant openings and wine tastings. I am invited to take incredible cooking classes and go to book signings with famous people. I get to hang out and talk with chefs and cooks. I no longer miss being a critic.

And it looks as if all my hard work is going to pay off big time. I can't spill the details just yet, but I have a dream assignment coming right up.

I'll still be writing occasionally for Serious Eats, too. I am so grateful to my editor, Robyn Lee, who always makes my posts look so delicious. And I truly appreciate the readers who take the time to comment. This is a rare place for civil discourse on the web, a welcoming community of serious food lovers.

I've learned so much during my critic-turned-cook experiment. There's no doubt I have a whole lot of new techniques up my sleeve. But the most valuable lesson was being able to bear witness to the incredible efforts of the talented ladies and gentlemen who work their buns off putting out great food.

Spending time in the kitchen has made me a much more appreciative diner. I bet it would have made me an even sharper critic. Maybe all critics should spend some time in the kitchen?

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