On Loss, and the Power of Food to Heal

Often we talk about the restaurant industry, and it's understood that we mean the line cooks and chefs, servers, restaurant owners, farmers, purveyors, bussers, dishwashers and so on. Less so, peripherally, the media that covers them.

But we forget, or we ignore, or we overlook the fact that the industry lives and dies by the diners, the customers, the people around the table and perched on the bar stool. They're the regulars, the guy the bartender knows by name, the woman who comes in with her children for lunch once a week. They're the people that take the time to ask, hey, what's your name? to the farmer at the farmers market. And they're the people who return to buy food from that farmer time and again, even in winter, when all the farmer is selling for months on end are Brussels sprouts and apples and potatoes. They too should be considered part of this thing we call "the industry."

Loyal. These are real relationships, the kind my line of work largely disallows; being a restaurant critic, I cloke myself in anonymity, I have for years. With very few exceptions, I don't have friends who work "in the industry."

But I am friends with some of these other industry folks: the restaurant industry's best customers. Boy, am I. My friends, though they work in fashion, marketing, IT, or stay home with their kids, my friends can eat. My best friends are eaters, they love a good, long meal and a good glass of wine. And they are cooks. Man, you wouldn't believe it. Some of the best cooks I know don't work in restaurant kitchens.

Today, one such dear friend's husband passed away. It was sudden. It is devastating. And of course, because it's our common language, I am trying to heal her with food. Earlier this week, I sent a note to my friend's favorite restaurant, Delancey, in desperation. I broke through the invisible wall between critic and restaurant and I called to ask a favor, as her friend. Could you cook something for her? Anything, really. I wanted her to know that she was cared for by the people she might've thought were only waiting on her. I wanted her to feel loved, and included. I knew that knowing they--her people at Delancey--were in this with her, in her grief, in her deep sorrow, I believed that it would help.

And because they are marvelous and generous and human, they said of course. Yes, of course they know her. And yes, they knew him. They knew their usual order by heart. Yes, and when, and how much, and no, we'll bring it to the hospital ourselves. And  thank you for letting us help. Because that's how everyone feels. How can I help?

Thick chocolate chunk cookies with sea salt. Cheeses and pickles, soft pretzels. Gazpacho at the height of the season. Some marvelously good cous cous. (And when do you ever get to say that about cous cous?)

Rachel from Montana (an old friend of my friend's from when Rachel worked at Delancey) brought us much-needed ginger beer cocktails. "Hooch" she called it. Do you know that they took care of her the way they would've taken care of one of their own, of someone "in the industry"? I was humbled. I am humbled.

And proud. I am proud that I work, if not in, then on the outskirts of a community that speaks to each other and cares for each other through food. We are not "in the industry," neither of us hangs out with chefs or counts waiters or bartenders amongst our close circle of friends.

Instead, we are the people sitting at the table delighting in the magic that the cooks and farmers and waiters produce for us. On the worst of days, like today, we are the beneficiaries of these true bonds of those real relationships.

I tell you with deep sadness that we lost a father, husband, brother and son today. In the coming months my friends and I will cook many meals, we'll prepare foods that he would've loved, foods that will bring her some small comfort, food that, let's hope, the kids will tolerate. One day she'll be ready to go back out, to eat again in a restaurant. Her heart will heal, in part, through meals. But we will all feel his absence at the table.