Survivor, Italy: One Wild Month as an Unpaid Prep Cook

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My interest in Italy was first sparked by the movie The Godfather. Part I, of course. When Mike meets with Salozzo and police commissioner McClusky in an empty Italian trattoria with plans to kill them both, Salozzo turns to the police commissioner and says, “I’m going to talk to Mike in Italian for a moment.” I leaned in at what I thought would be a pivotal moment—the raunchy underbelly of the movie, the secrets among blood brothers. They spoke, and there were no subtitles. No subtitles! I was crestfallen. I had probably missed the most critical part because I lived a squalid English-speaking existence. I resolved to learn the language and see the movie again, only to find out what he said had just been filler. Why I oughta…

Okay, I might have also learned the language because I studied abroad my junior year of college in Bologna, Italy. I traveled with friends, I had an Italian boyfriend, I learned to cook, I was all play and no work. This clearly had to continue. I returned after graduation. I taught English, I worked as a bartender in an Irish pub, I took a two-month cooking class.

I became good friends with the cooking school owner and over the next few months we chatted about men over tea and planned grandiose business adventures. I tutored English to her distracted son, who preferred Bob Marley lyrics to Shakespeare sonnets. I organized American cuisine evenings for my Italian students. They were surprised to learn that hamburgers were not on the menu, and I was surprised that they ate what I made for them. I purposely challenged their rigid guidelines for food pairings: I mixed butter, pancetta, and onion with milk and potato for New England clam chowder; I paired salmon with a mango salsa; I rolled chicken and papaya in a lime cream sauce; I threw a raw egg onto a Caesar salad, and they suspiciously eyed how much pepper I was grinding on it; I made my grandmother’s recipe for cheesecake. Everyone was encouraging about my cooking attempts, but a glaze in their eye implied that my Anglo-Saxon blood just wouldn’t cut the prosciutto with real genius. I had to get serious.

Enter Chef Vincenzo. He often moonlighted sophisticated evenings at the cooking school, preparing course after course for some of Bologna’s most well-manicured wives. The school owner had asked him to employ me (for free, mind you) as a favor, and I quickly began to wonder who was doing who what favor. I spent the month of July in a small kitchen off the coast of the Adriatic sea, dodging sexual slurs and the chef’s shoes, hurled during “in-the-weeds” rants.

In a country where an American sitcom literally translates as “A Blond Girl for Daddy” (you’ll never guess which one), I had been offered up into the biggest arena of machismo that exists: the kitchen. We worked 17-hour days. I quickly learned multiple slang words for female genitalia and my vocabulary degenerated into a series of unrepeatable phrases. They couldn’t provide me with a uniform that fit for two weeks and I was spoken to at chest level.

The hotel, where the restaurant was situated, ran out of bed space and I was moved with the other kitchen concubine, Tamara, a Sardinian, to a sweltering room across town in the house of a 60-year-old signora. She quickly asked us not to shower when we came home at three in the morning because of noise. After a full day of kitchen gymnastics, I suppose she thought we could just towel off with our sweat socks. We were given bicycles—with no brakes—to make the trip back and forth, weaving among tourists and trying not to mow down toddlers.

Worst of all, we were severely understaffed. Mirco, second in line to Vincenzo, was a sweet thing under all the sarcasm, but after being yelled at by “Chef” all day it only took one beer after work to set off a spar with Tamara. Michele and I played referees, exhausted by conflict. Michele was young and wide-eyed, and he could make ravioli faster than an Italian mother could slip second helpings onto your plate. And, oh lord, Tamara. I quickly realized she was quite insane, not to mention a pathological liar. Perched on the hotel roof late one night, she recounted a friend’s death after he had been hog-tied by local Sardinian thugs, friends of her “millionaire” boyfriend who owned a discoteca. Her friend was apparently killed for “being annoying.” She often said she could “smell men” and abruptly fell in love with Michele, who feared her greatly. When she wasn’t shelling fava beans or scrubbing pans, she was gorging herself on crème brûlées and running off to purge them in the bathroom.

But despite all the times I fought the urge to walk straight out the door and surrender myself to the sun and sea along with all the bloated tourists, the laughter kept me going. Sometimes it felt as if we’d sucked helium balloons for lunch and coasted on pure delirium; or maybe we were laughing to keep the crying at bay. Some nights we’d pile into Mirco’s Fiat and speed to his parents’ house in nearby Rimini on some miracle of adrenaline. We’d collapse on his terrazzo, sipping pirated wines from the restaurant cantina, warming up Romagnola flat bread and laying it with slices of cured prosciutto so thin you could see through it. Tamara would begin to slur flirtation after the first glass, tossing compliments like playing cards.

And Vincenzo wasn’t so bad once he calmed down. One night after a chaotic banquet we all climbed onto the stainless steel counters sipping a heavenly Cabernet and eating the leftover eggplant lasagne on house plates with linen napkins. I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This was why I had come in the first place. Good food makes people happy. Good friends seem like better ones and difficult people soften like water on a sponge. Conversations are light as soufflés and you find yourself licking your teeth to make the flavor last.

On the last day of a very long month, I congratulated myself for having survived, despite the bets the staff had taken the first week. I clutched my stained little notebook like a prize for what I had endured. In it I had scribbled all those “unwritten recipes” over Vincenzo’s shoulder as he drained lobster bisques, tossed pasta in the air with a flick of his wrist, drizzled lime-green olive oils, and sprinkled his fresh garden herbs over every heavenly creation.

Collapsing into my boyfriend’s Deux Chevaux car with a sardine-can roll-top,
I suggested lunch—at any other restaurant.

Apr. 17 2010 |
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