Posted on August 16th, 2012
“Say man, where’d you get that spoon?” As much as that could be the beginning of William Burroughs book, it’s not, and I wasn’t talking about smack when I uttered it. Instead I was in the kitchen of a beautifully restored late-17th century home here in Portland (Maine!) helping my friend Chad out with a pop up dinner.
The guy is easily 6’3” but this spoon, which he was using to lovingly baste duck breasts in their own fat, dwarfed even his massive paws. It had a handle like a serving spoon but the head was almost as big as a gardening trowel, with what looked like a unique depth-to-width ratio. In a single, deft little stroke — a flick of the wrist really — he retrieved almost all of the liquid in the pan and ladled it back over the crisp, fatty skin on top of the breast. The economy of movement was remarkable. It was like watching a pelican catch a fish, or seeing one of those forest fire waterbomber planes dip into a lake and then drop its payload — up close. Except, instead of squelching flames and saving the homes of furry woodland creatures, he was inciting a riot of flavor within what had very recently been a living, quacking duck.
In an instant I remembered an Apocalypse Now moment in one of the kitchens of my past. There, in the flickering, red-orange light of the Tuscan grille a sous chef had leaned his sweaty mug close to mine, his eyes blazing. I could smell the PBRs from last night’s walk-in stash on his skin and what I guessed to be American Spirits (this was Portland, Oregon after all) on his breath as he spat his diatribe in my face. His delivery was spot on, imbued with the kind of machismo that makes a certain type of chef both the coolest dude in any bar and the biggest dick to work for… ever. “A good cook… a real cook,” he began, “needs only three things to do his job.” (I remember an emphasis on the ‘his’ that might have been more of a derision of my wilting FOH nature than of women in the kitchen at large.) “Knife!” he shouted over the din, raising his eight-inch chef’s knife up as if he had just retrieved it from some sacred stone. “Tongs!” came next, a bark issued from the back of his throat. “And spoon!” which upon hefting, he spun in his fingers like a drum stick and then held to his chest, shredding an air (or spoon?) guitar solo a la “Use Your Illusion” era G-and-effing-R — I think just to fuck with me.
This guy was obviously a complete madman, but at least I finally understood why I had witnessed a few near fistfights over said spoons in the kitchen at the end of long nights. The guys on the line were mostly well-behaved but didn’t necessarily need much of an excuse to get into it with each other, and the spoons — of which each guy had a couple, usually with a band of colored tape wrapped around the handle — seemed like something someone might get stuck over. It was best just to stand back as they packed up their knife rolls and scatter if the f-bombs started flying.
At that point, I thought that all such talismans of the behind-the-scenes restaurant experience were pure black magic. A spoon? Who cares about a spoon? Sure, they looked a little bigger than the average soup spoon, but it took seeing one in action up close for it all to come together for me. In a well-worn kitchen on the opposite side of the country, I got it.
I’m not sure, but I think Chad’s knuckles might have whitened a bit when I made my inquiry that night. He’s a veteran of many kitchens and I guess he’s seen his fare share of good spoons come and go. His answer was something akin to, “You just know a good one when you see it,” meaning of course that they aren’t something you can just go out and buy. Good spoons are born of the weird mix of silverware that passes through kitchens — odd vintages lingering in the backs of drawers, partial sets ordered by managers past, relics dislodged from any real, discernable place or time in the history of the restaurant. No one really knows where they came from, they just know when they’re there: maybe at a thrift store (if you’re lucky), in the hands of the unsuspecting FNG, or sticking out of the potato salad a your friend’s parents’ house.
When you see one, you’ll know. Grab it.