When I was eleven years old, the local bowling alley and movie theater were torn down to make room for a mall expansion called “The Village.” The mall, up to that point, had been a typical suburban mall in Canada, albeit a large one, with a bulk grocery store and two department stores, a tailor and a drug store. The Village brought Whole Foods, Lululemon, and multiple Starbucks. Over the next fifteen years, the mall changed over from primarily Canadian clothing stores to high-end American ones, and became a shopping “destination” for tourists. If it had been large in its first incarnation, it now rivals Disneyland.
Somewhere in the middle of this transformation, they opened a Cactus Club, one of a chain of “upscale casual” restaurants. At the time, it was planned as the flagship location, a massive, multi-million-dollar affair with an original Warhol on the wall. (They have since built even bigger, flashier, more expensive locations). While under construction, the restaurant held a hiring fair, accepting huge numbers of applicants with the veiled intent to weed them out during training—for smoking in uniform, for having unclean nails, for failing written tests.
I was seventeen, with no work experience or cooking skills. And in many ways, it was the perfect first job. We were trained before the restaurant was open, as the dining room was still being fitted with lights and speakers, wasting extraordinary amounts of practice food. We were given $300 chef jackets, made of heavy, fire-retardant material, with the restaurant logo stitched over the breast; I would later buy flimsy imitations in the working-class neighborhood stores that sell scrubs and construction vests, sometimes for as little as $14. We were trained from written manuals on every aspect of the job, from price breakdowns to clothing to the proper method for discarding mistakes. We closed the restaurant at two in the morning, scrubbing the walls in teams, and I’d sleep for a few hours and then stumble to school. I worked at several restaurants over the next five years, usually two at once, and nothing was ever as difficult as that— staring up at the clock, the specter of high school on its face.
Food service is a line of work I just fell into and got stuck. I never had trouble getting a job as a cook— after Cactus Club, it felt like I could wander into any restaurant and get hired— but could not find work doing anything else, including other service and retail jobs. What I really wanted, at the time, was be involved in editing or publishing. At one point, I asked my mother to lend me money so I could accept an unpaid, 40-hour-per-week internship at a small publisher, and being the wise woman she is, she refused. “That’s not an internship,” she said. “That’s exploitation.”
Peter, the protagonist of my novel For Today I Am a Boy, initially becomes a career line cook by a similar quirk of fate. An upscale restaurant opens in his town as part of a new commercial development; his town, however, suffers the economic storm in a more usual way, and the restaurant (and the development) fails.
Peter fits into the world of kitchens for some of the same reasons I did. The culture of large, hierarchical restaurant kitchens— intense, physical, high-pressure, male-dominated spaces – promotes a self-aware, over-the-top performance of masculinity, akin to drag: men playing men, amplifying “manliness” to parody, sexuality to absurdity. This can be dangerous and detrimental to women in kitchens, particularly those in coveted, salaried chef positions, but it can also be strangely comforting if you struggle with gender and gender performance, as I did. As Peter does, in a much more extreme and complex way. In the big, jocular kitchen of his youth, everyone is playacting as a man, and so is he.
Smaller kitchens indulged a different part of my personality: an antisocial, unreflective passivity, a reluctance to lead or take risks. When I was alone in a kitchen, physically separate from the servers, I could slip into the repetitive, mechanical motions and disassociate completely. If my shift started at 5:30 a.m., I’d “wake up,” so to speak, around ten, with no memory of the last several hours. Somehow I’d cleaned, opened the restaurant, and made dozens of orders. I can easily imagine surrendering to that side of myself, the part of me that likes the comfort of routine, who takes what is given without asking for more, who does not dream. How many strange twists and lucky breaks it took for me to become a writer— an entrepreneur, chasing a foolhardy dream.
Peter, a true follower at heart, whose upbringing and nature means he’d rather suffer than disappoint, faces the same possibility, of a wasted, unexamined life. But Peter’s dreams cannot be denied. They are more essential to happiness and well-being, and come with greater risks.
I realize I write and talk about Peter as though he were a real person, mapping our similarities as though they were outside of my control. As though our lives were interwoven, rather than one springing from the other. Because that’s how it felt. Imagining the strange twists and lucky breaks that might allow Peter to overcome, to live authentically, has been the strangest, luckiest one of mine.
Kim Fu is the author of the novel For Today I Am a Boy. She has written for NPR, Maisonneuve, The Rumpus, The Tyee, The Stranger, Prairie Fire, Grain, Room, and Best Canadian Essays, among others. She is the news columns editor for This, a magazine of progressive politics now in its 47th year. Fu lives in Seattle with her husband and their many computers.