I’ve been writing this post in my head for more than a month now. Not to get all psycho-babbly on you, but I’m one of those people who becomes gripped by paralysis the second the perceived need for perfectionism stares them down. Couple that with an admonishment from my Dad (an excellent writer himself) that I must get this post right, must show people what living in the Middle East is really like, and you’ve got a recipe for lots of thinking, musing, and not much actual writing.
You see, for the past few months I have been working as the only woman in a kitchen, surrounded by a group of young chefs who can’t speak English, creating some new recipes for the menu of a popular Amman restaurant. As I reflect on living in Amman for just over a year, the time I spent with these young men has to have been the most rewarding and eye-opening since I’ve arrived, and an apt way to reflect on my time here.
I have been so incredibly lucky in being welcomed to Amman. My dear husband has a large group of friends who have offered advice, hired me for gigs, and introduced me to several people involved in the restaurant scene here. Our social cup runneth over! On top of this, my mother-in-law has included me in all manner of Circassian ladies events: pool parties in the Jordan Valley, Circassian music and dance performances, baby showers, dinners in the countryside. Through her I’ve been made privy to a culture that few who even live here get to experience.
And now, over the past couple of months, my work at the restaurant has introduced me to a whole other aspect of Jordanian life that I feel so lucky to have witnessed and am certainly a richer person for it. Now first, I must explain that everything I’m retelling you that these chefs have told me could be wrong. I’m the ultimate unreliable narrator as we’ve communicated almost exclusively in pantomime and Arabic – wild gesturing with knives and whisks in hand to talk about everything from politics and religion to why my hollandaise broke. I think I’m a pretty good interpreter though and my Arabic has dramatically improved. Still, I speak to everyone in the feminine (to most people’s delight and amusement) because that’s what is always spoken to me, and like a kid learning a language I’m simply repeating what I’m told.
These are not young men who grew up watching the Food Network and Hell’s Kitchen and then decided that being a cook would be cool. There is none of the cool-kid, I could be a celebrity chef, watch my knife skills attitude that exists in every other city I’ve worked in. Most likely cooking was a good job that paid the bills and didn’t require any special education, while providing an on-the-job meal each day and benefits (depending on where you work). These guys follow recipes, portion proteins, and organize the walk-ins with less intensity and competitiveness than I’ve ever seen in a professional kitchen. I am guessing that because labor is so cheap here, restaurants can afford to hire more cooks than any of the other kitchens I’ve worked in. There are myriad stewards, and pastry chefs, and salad preppers, and butchers, and even one chef dedicated to making family meal for the 100-ish employees each day. It’s distinctly Middle Eastern in its urgency, by which I mean there is none, which is both alarming and charming.
I should have known this would be a different kitchen in so many ways because the first thing that struck me as I followed the executive chef and walked down the stairs into the prep kitchen that first morning was the pastel colored prayer rugs tucked haphazardly into the railings. Chanting from the Quran comes from the Chef’s office’s computers, is a few of the chefs’ ringtones, and the large hallway turns into a makeshift mosque several times a day as the men face 11 o’clock (or Mecca, really) and bow, up and down, one of them leading the prayer each time. I’ve flung open the supply room door on many occasions, only to find a chef kneeling on his rug having missed the main prayer group. Immediately I get embarrased and quiet and want to leave them to what I perceive to be an extremely private and solitary activity, but prayer is a public act here. It’s likely my own lack of faith that makes me feel like an invader every time I catch site of someone expressing their devotion. However, it’s as common an act here as shaking hands or eating a meal. I’ve been at parties where women pass their prayer robes from one to the next as they take a moment to face Mecca, say a few words, and reflect. While I don’t necessarily pray when the haunting sound of the call to prayer echoes through the air five times a day, I have come to use it as a reminder to pause and be present, to reflect on where I am in my day, to be thankful for all I have.
These men I’ve been working with are devout and kind and proud of their work and their heritage and their families. I can’t imagine a chef ever waltzing into a kitchen anywhere else in the world like I did and being treated so well. There wasn’t ever a feeling of “who is this old lady and why does she seem to think she can tell us what we should be cooking?” Instead, they asked me so many questions about the things I was doing, ran and fetched for me, wouldn’t let me clean my own tools or workspace, wouldn’t let me carry anything heavy, all the while proudly showing me photos on their phones of dishes they’d made for parties or events or at other jobs, or asking me to come taste dishes they were working on. The family meal chef, a sort of awkwardly big man who sweat a lot and was clumsy and the butt of many a joke (I think) would always call me over to show me what he was making that day….usually traditional fare done on the cheap and not particularly appetising. He was terrifically proud.
The main chef assigned to help me, Chef A, let’s call him, showed me so many photos of his little girl. He proudly told me of his Palestinian heritage and asked me if I’d ever been down to the Ballad, downtown, where he lives. I had been there I told him, loved visiting the souk, the vegetable and fruit market, and he was so very pleased. While I prepared a duck one day he told me about the ducks and chickens they keep at his house for food and then as he sang along with an Arabic singer crooning from his pink Samsung phone, he told me about how his father, a bus driver, had met this singer in Lebanon back in the day when buses could actually drive from one country to the next in this region. There was so much I wanted to ask him about his life: his wife, his family, how he came to be a cook, and he told me so much about himself that I simply couldn’t decode, but one day in particular he seemed a little down and I asked him what was wrong. I think he told me that he was tired of doing the same thing day after day and he dreamed of returning to Palestine. There the figs are as sweet as honey he told me, and they’re as big as soccer balls. He’d like to go work on the land, work outside….why can’t the Jews and the Arabs live side by side he asked me (he placed his palms together and moved them back and forth). My eyes welled up and I wanted to say something reassuring or profound but couldn’t in either Arabic or English.
There’s something about putting on a chef’s uniform that equalizes us all. Yes, different colored aprons might designate rank within the kitchen, but when I put on my white jacket I feel the same as all these men and I think it has the same effect on them. I’m no longer the American, but a chef just like them (albeit one they treated with kid gloves). In fact, it was jarring to see them in their street clothes at the end of a shift. In their torn jeans and Timberland boots and shiny puffy jackets they became the guys on the street I see jumping on and off of the public buses or driving like maniacs, who stare at me like I’m a unicorn just because I’m blonde and occasionally shout at me from a passing car. Many of us are now friends on Facebook and I hope that just maybe I was able to change their ideas of what Americans are, just like they changed my mind about the kind of men they are.
Everyone from the cheeky Egyptian dishwasher who told me I was always welcome in his country to the shy little prep cook who always smiled and said, ah, Chef Sally whenever he saw me, to the head pastry chef who regularly brought me sweets he’d made and blush as he handed them to me, made me see Jordan in a new light. I would have loved to have been able to be friends with these men, but sadly, here, that wouldn’t be appropriate. Here we are from different worlds and these worlds do not mix. I doubt these guys could even afford to eat at the restaurant they cook at or would even want to. There are two distinct strata in Amman and while I’ve been welcomed warmly to both, there’s only one I get to live in (and I don’t get to choose).
I’ll never forget each and every one of these guys and am sad my project is finished and it’s unlikely I’ll run into them again. To the pot-washer who stood at a sink cleaning dishes for hours every day who always smiled his toothless grin at me like I’d asked him to dance instead of clean my sticky spatula. To the steward who told me in English “I think you are just too good! Too good!” when I had the audacity to try and clean down my workspace. To the bread chef who shouted “I make good bread!” when he finally mastered my sourdough recipe. To the pastry chef who came to ask me about my burnt finger every morning for a week after I’d hurt it. To the pizza chef who winked at me from across the room. To the butcher who put any meat I’d asked for in front of me like he was presenting the king with a trunk full of jewels. To all of them who worked with a smile on their face every day, I am humbled.
So as a I mark a year in Amman there is much I have learned about myself as both a person and a cook. Here are a few:
- I’m faster in the kitchen than I thought I was…or perhaps I’ve become faster because all I seem to do is cook these days. There’s not much to distract me from the kitchen here in Jordan, so I spend most of my time there and it’s improved my skills and speed.
- I’m a baker deep down – who knew?!? My desserts have been raved about and I’ve taken up bread baking with gusto. My baguettes and sourdough boules are better than anything I’ve ever bought. So baking, once a nemesis of mine, is now a satisfying skill.
- If you can’t buy it you can certainly make it – has become my motto. I make my own spice mixes, drinks, almond milk, bread, sausage, pickles, ricotta/creme fraiche/buttermilk, cured salmon, nut butters, preserved lemons, and on, and on. Thank goodness for the internet, my enormous kitchen, and a little extra time on my hands to experiment with it all.
- If you can’t make or buy it, improvise – if I was missing an ingredient for a recipe before I just wouldn’t make it. These days I’ve become much more experimental, substituting all kinds of ingredients and generally winging it. I know so much more than I ever thought I did. Living here has boosted my confidence in the kitchen because I know my stuff and how to make things work.