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Friday, September 10, 2010

My Father, the Chef

My father worked at a restaurant for the first few years after I was born. There’s a grainy color picture of a young man standing next to an old man by a large restaurant window; the young man is holding a guitar and the old man has white chef’s hat. “He taught me how to cook,” says my father of the old man. I ask about the guitar that the younger version of me is holding—“sabe!” he says, which means hell if I know what that thing was doing in my hands. The younger me is filled with optimism and completely oblivious to the fact that his replicant would one day be writing about him; naive to my voice calling him “pa,” which is what I call my father. (Not “pah” or “paw”—I say “pa” in Spanish, so it sounds like a dying man’s attempt to say “please,” in English.) Then he starts on the “Chef” story once again…for the millionth time.

From the time I can remember my father has bragged to my mother and I about his days as a Chef at the restaurant in the picture. My mother has always challenged his claim—citing as grounds for reasonable doubt his unwillingness to cook for us. Whenever a meal would not meet his tastes, he would say stuff like: “When I was a chef I could cook that with my eyes closed” and so on. Once (once!) he made burritos for my mother and I: he cooked beans and meat, put them in a flour tortilla with cheese, and other things (chorizo I think), then baked them in the over. I remember my reaction: there was nothing extraordinary about them. My mother laughed. My father blamed the oven and the lack of tools and condiments. I was happy about them simply because they were filling. And those days—we still lived in the famous Gashouse—eating burritos was a luxury!

So in his story, my father is washing dishes a day after he arrives at my uncle’s house from Mexico. The restaurant is in Anaheim, near Disneyland. My uncle, his brother (not the perverted one from my mom's "affair" story), is the cook. One day my uncle gets sick and my father has to take over the cooking duties. He can whip up scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, hamburgers, and burritos like no other; people come from miles to eat his food. People ask for him by name. He loves the job and hopes to one day be a chef with his own restaurant and kitchen. At some point his friends and relatives remind him that without documentos it will be impossible to do those things. They also remind him that dreams don’t feed families, and soon he is forced to leave his beloved restaurant—he’s told that there’s good field work in the Salinas Valley. So he sends my mom and I back to Michoacan for a few years while he goes north, to Southern Monterey County, in the California Central Coast, where we will join him in the Spring of 1985, and where 25 years later he’ll tell me his Chef story for the millionth-and-one time.

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