To say that I dreamed of becoming a chef or a writer since I was a little girl is to romanticize the simple fact that I was a shy kid looking for a place to hide so as not to be noticed. Early on, I learned how to make myself useful in the kitchen and I was happiest when I was given meaningful tasks. If I had to transition to the outside world, I carried a book and held it two inches from my face.
In college at Berkeley, I studied French Literature while I was supposed to be in Premed. I wish I had stuck to medicine and made my father happy but I got it into my head that I would make a better cook than a doctor. After I graduated, my mother gave me a one-way ticket to Paris where I went to cooking school. Her motto was “If you’re really going to do this, learn it from the best.” My mother was the smartest person I’ve ever known.
The kitchen remained my sanctuary. I cut my teeth in the damp basements of posh establishments, in the Dickensian underground of five star hotels, always in the company of pale, skinny, nervous boys. I kept my knives sharp, my head down, and my eyes and ears open. After long hours of being the reliable cook, I vanished with a book to recover from the burns, the tired limbs, and the chef’s tirades. If I could stay awake, I transcribed bits of conversation, descriptions of dishes, line cooks, waiters and diners, into my notebook.
Once I’d earned my stripes, I opened a restaurant—something a shy person should never do, but I love feeding people more than anything. Being a chef, running a restaurant, is like working in a hospital emergency room—you lunge from fire to fire. If you find your groove, the reward is immense, but the tension will break your back. Somehow, in those hectic days of live or die, I got married and had a baby. Suddenly, all that love hit me with its gorgeous, blazing force. I stayed in the kitchen until I couldn’t any longer. It was time to close the shop.
I turned to writing but this new struggle made the frenzy of the restaurant look routine. You need a big heart to be a cook but an open heart to be a writer. I had to learn to crawl out of hiding, to shiver bare and unguarded with every word – anything less was a lie. I took to heart the words of Stephen King “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” I found there’s great warmth in the naked truth. My memoir, Maman’s Homesick Pie, really a love letter to my mother, was published in 2011. In writing The Last Days of Café Leila, I recited this line from Robert Frost every morning. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”