I started cooking when I was about 18.
I’ll be really honest: it was at Panera. I wouldn’t even really call it “cooking” — it was assembling. But it was a job, I was between high school and college, and I enjoyed it. I didn’t get into my first real kitchen until I was 23, frying chicken wings and making cheesesteaks in Richmond, Virginia.
I’ve known there is no glamour in all of this from the beginning, and I’ve learned a lot since. What rotting pork smells like; that if you leave a bag of fish guts outside in the sun, when you open the bag to see what’s inside, it might just kill you; that if the grease trap gets backed up during service, you pop the top off and get as much as you can before any guest knows what’s going on. I brought all these lessons with me when I moved to New York to help (my now fiancée) Sarah Simmons fix some problems at her (now our) restaurant.
What I didn’t know when I moved is that one day I’d be taping a garbage bag to my arm and picking up the brown demon some human had exorcised in front of our storage room at Birds & Bubbles in broad daylight.
Now, I don’t know New York like some. I didn’t grow up here. I didn’t cut my teeth in its kitchens and I don’t know if I’d even call myself a New Yorker. Maybe I never will.
What I do know is that I love New York. I also hate its guts.
I love that I can walk 10 or 15 minutes and be sitting in a great restaurant, run by great people, eating great food. I look forward to my walk to work every morning through the East Village, grabbing coffee or an egg and cheese on a roll and just wandering down Ave A. The Green Market is an incredible spot to rub elbows with some of the industry’s most talented people while you buy tomatoes or corn.
When I travel, I miss the noise and bad attitudes. I miss getting so worked up about the dumbest things — like people walking two or three wide on a narrow sidewalk — because it makes everything else seem easy and trivial. Those who find success amid the saturation here have earned it with so much blood and sweat (and tears and tears and tears and tears), that what gets spit out on the other end is profoundly unique and striking. There’s nowhere in the world like it.
I currently run the day-to-day operations of Birds & Bubbles, which is located in what we publicly describe as the Lower East Side, but which is definitely in Chinatown — the last hold-out in Manhattan’s never-ending commercial and residential property grab. It’s losing the battle. One by one, buildings are renovated or torn down, and something new, shiny, and incredibly expensive replaces it. This is a story familiar to most major cities, and it means the same thing in New York as it does everywhere else: rents are out of control. The dining bubble is bursting, and every restaurant, no matter it’s fame or chef, is on the chopping block. The changes are continuous, and ruthless.
Those changes come with their own price. We pay in unreliable trash pick-up or product deliveries, never-ending construction, and people shitting —quite literally— on your business. We deal with neighbors who hang illegal bird feeders on the fire escape of the building, despite multiple complaints to the landlord, which results in an unstoppable downpour of bird shit, rendering our lovely patio useless. We deal with no-show rates sometimes as high as 50 percent of our bookings. Or, perhaps today will be a city-sponsored shakedown with whatever new “permit” or “regulation” they deem necessary, but don’t actually inform you of until you been issued a ticket for not having it?
There’s a theme here: something to do with being shit on. If I was typing this on my phone I’d probably just fill this entire sentence with poop emojis. It’s emotionally destructive. It’s a fairy-tale nightmare.
The duality of these feelings is exactly what I love about the city. The pace and passion of the people that make their living here is incredible; I have never met more interesting, talented people. New York brings that out of you. It turns you into your best self. It decides who succeeds by first making you so irrelevant and ubiquitous, so that only the truly talented and hard-working emerge.
I may not drink a lot, smoke, or find myself preoccupied with any kind of recreational drug use, but goddamn do I love the punishment New York deals out to me every day. It shows you the true nature of life: a lot of really incredible things, sandwiched between a few really terrible things. It’s a shit-show. It’s amazing. I’ve become a better leader because of it.
Maybe that’s what makes a New Yorker a New Yorker: the tortured satisfaction in attempting to make something of yourself in a city where 8.5 million people are desperately trying to do the same. New York City found me when I needed it most, pushed me in the direction I needed to be pushed, and spit me out on the other side, proving that up until this point in my life, I had been in fact selling myself short. It taught me that if you can suck it up, you come out stronger, hungrier, and able to accept failure by looking it in the eye and telling it to fuck off.
Then you pick up the shit, and go back to work.