How an unexpected diagnosis changed one chef's perspective.
June 7, 2016
The unsung hustlers in the Bay Area’s restaurant world are too numerous to count. Kim Alter — who has made a name for herself mostly out of the limelight, running the kitchens of local heavyweights — is undisputedly one of them.
The restaurants on her resume, after two decades in the industry, stretch from California to Chicago and back, with stops at NoMI, Masa’s, Manresa, Ubuntu. She eventually landed in Daniel Patterson’s kitchens in Oakland; leading the team at Haven, and later, Plum. She is now a handful of weeks away from opening the doors of her own place — Nightbird.
But before all that, she was the smart, rebellious, only daughter of Diane Satchwell, a librarian, in Southern California.
Satchwell is that mom teenagers seem to flock to, the one who made pancakes at four in the morning for drunken prom-revelers, then confiscated their keys and drove them all home. She frames all the reviews Alter categorically refuses to read, and is an unabashed lover of tuna tartare, a fact that makes her daughter raise her eyes to the ceiling in comic disbelief. She apologizes too much — which has rubbed off on Alter, as such traits do between mothers and daughters — doesn’t want to impose, takes pride in hosting well. Like many people, she gets a kick out of watching a great restaurant flex its muscles; loves seeing Alter’s creations sail out of world-class kitchens.
She helped put her daughter through culinary school, visited every single restaurant that came after. She’s been there, Alter says. Constantly.
I was AP everything, editor of the yearbook. In my head, I was going to become a doctor. Then, I flipped: I didn't agree with someone judging my ability through a test or an essay, I didn't want to apply for scholarships. I just wanted to go to shows and I liked working in restaurants and thought it was punk rock, I guess, to be like, "Fuck it, I'm going to cook."
I started working in a four-star restaurant right away and it was the biggest kick in the ass. You obviously have a different mentality of what it's really like when you're eighteen, but it went from this fun thing to being like, you suck, hurry the fuck up, you're not doing a good job. Obviously you build yourself out of that, because you're strong and you get better, but it was hard just getting shit on for the first two years. I wasn't used to it. I had a sous chef who punched me in the back of the neck because I lifted a plate up and the sauce tilted too much. Honestly, if my mom hadn’t have sacrificed so much for school, I probably would have walked.
I didn’t tell her. I wouldn't ever want her to feel like she was responsible for that life. I always kept it inside; I only told her ten years later.
Satchwell had a secret of her own. A few years ago, unbeknownst to her family, she was diagnosed with Fuchs’ corneal dystrophy, a degenerative disease that wouldn't begin to truly take its toll until January of 2015. While her eyes outwardly appeared the same, her vision suddenly began to cloud. Outlines became muddied, softer, details blurred into swaths of color. It wasn't until spring of that year that she told anyone around her — Alter was the last to know.
I didn't know until she was almost blind. She's the type of person who would never use a [cane]; she would count how many steps it took for her to get to work from her house so she could be independent when she wasn't able to drive anymore. She hid not being able to see. She would use magnifying glasses when she wasn't around me. She still worked. She didn't want it to affect my life or the restaurant negatively, so she didn't tell me.
I’ve missed everything in life to cook. I missed my grandmother's funeral, I missed all my friends' weddings. I missed so much of her life because of restaurants. And now she couldn't drive anymore, she couldn't cut up her own food. If I was to sit in front her she wouldn't know who I was, unless I spoke, or she touched me. Once I found out, I went down to LA all the time to be with her.
Satchwell and Alter, a few months before Satchwell's vision began to fail.
By January of 2016, things were moving fast. Satchwell managed to nab a coveted spot on a list for an experimental surgery, one still being perfected and only performed by a handful of doctors in the world — but intended to restore sight. The back of her corneas needed to be replaced with healthy donor tissue, and appointments were made, then cancelled. This happened six times. Once, when the tissue was compromised; once a mere four hours before the procedure was scheduled; another because Satchwell had a head cold; twice when Alter was already en route from San Francisco.
All the while, work on Nightbird marched on, and the sudden, singular importance of visuals moved to the fore of Alter’s planning. If the surgery failed, if her mother was permanently blind, how could she open up her cooking to Satchwell's new reality?
When I'm thinking of a dish, I always think about what will it taste like first. I'm not going to add a chemical to it so it doesn't run. I'm not going to let it get cold because I want to plate it a certain way. I adjust how it's going to look to make it look beautiful, but the first thing is always taste. But if my restaurant opens and she can't see ... she was uncomfortable going to places she wasn’t familiar with. How could I make her feel better? How can I make this a great culinary experience for the average person, but also something special for my mom?
One idea for a course was something that you eat with your hands. It's still working out in my head, but something like nama yuba, when you pull yuba off soy milk in a warm pot. You can pick it up and move it in your hands, almost like cheese. Something blurry, that would just taste delicious. Another course was just all white, going into beige. Maybe a scallop, sliced thin with chamomile-cooked turnips, that might look like a flower to someone with good vision but a simple white circle to my mom. The original idea was going clean white all the way to the finish.
Increasingly, we expect restaurants to be personal; flawless but feeling operations where nostalgia is something you can sample for an hour or two. Whether Alter's ideas were abstract expressions of physical blindness or borne from a need to equalize the dining room for the biggest advocate she'd ever had, rarely is what's happening to the chef so immediately visible in the results; dishes shape-shifted week by week, according to the tone of the news coming up from Southern California. Suddenly, Nightbird had evolved into the thing she never thought she had: the story of the relationships behind her food.
I don't have that story about making dinner every night with my family, because both my parents worked. I grew up in Orange County. I ate McDonalds. My love of food didn't come from where most people's does, but people want that story.
We always talk about our voice, and I'm still looking for mine. This is going to be a big part of it, one moment in a very long story where I’m open and honest about where I'm coming from. This came out of left field, me just wanting to make something special for my mom.
Then, finally, success: surgery happens on-schedule in April 2016 and Satchwell's vision begins to improve, one eye at a time. The metaphoric threads in Alter’s menu deepen: bright pink rhubarb and vibrant flowers punctuate the softer shades on the plates. The food becomes a nod to the light at the end of the tunnel, reveling in sight. By June (as of this very publishing, in fact), Satchwell makes the trip to see her daughter clearly for the first time in over a year. When Nightbird opens, she'll see every creation sail out of Alter's world-class kitchen, just as she always has.
I was never given an opportunity to take time off because it was a sign of weakness. It's a sign of weakness if you call in sick. Having this year off was eye-opening. Ron [Boyd, Alter’s partner and fellow chef] and I went to Paris; I’ve never had a vacation before. You're always working. You need that time as a human to do your laundry, to go out to dinner, to be inspired, to regain everything that you need to go and see your friends, your loved ones. In the end, you're not going to be thinking about that fucking risotto you made. You're going to be thinking about your mom.
I was constantly thinking about how we fix her problem, rather than trying to understand what she was going through, which maybe would have been better. I couldn’t understand why the surgery couldn’t happen: why do they only do surgeries on Wednesdays? Why does it keep getting delayed? You get frustrated, and just feel like a jerk. She can't control this. If the restaurant needs to be closed for two days, then the restaurant's going to be closed for two days.
There's so many reasons why this job is incredibly hard — you need to have more humanity. You need to make time.