My Favorite Food Critic
I often describe Kyle as my best friend, though that isn’t really an exclusive club. Everyone who knows us knows there’s something different about this “best” friendship. There’s no platonic term for someone bigger than a best friend. I’m sure some language somewhere has one, but English leaves me fumbling for something greater.
We met in the cafeteria queue during my junior year at an uber-conservative missionary kids’ boarding school in Columbia, South Carolina. He was a new kid as an incoming senior. He had all the confidence of a wet cat. I ran the potential social consequences of saying “hi” to this kid through my high-school psyche-“God, what if I say “hi” and then he thinks I’m his friend and then other people think we’re friends and then I’m stuck dealing with that in the first weeks of being an upper-classman?” Maybe it was a desire to do the right thing. More likely it was an assessment that he was safe. I introduced myself and met a charming, sarcastic, funny, intelligent new friend. The weight of his character has shaped the person I am and am still becoming. I want to be like him when I grow up.
He was my “prom” date that year- though at a school that bans dancing, rock music and physical contact between boys and girls, it was really not much of a prom. It was a first choice for neither of us, but as is often the case, the wild card made the game more interesting.
This relationship has many layers, but among the most interesting is the food connection. I can’t remember the first time we connected over food. It’s just always been there. I think the first time he cooked for me was when he made babootie at my parents’ house. We’ve stood nervously over a turkey we were determined to spatchcock, each poking the other, saying, “You do it. No! You do it!” We learned- in a very uncomfortable way- that really hot Thai chilies don’t lose their heat in the digestion process (figure it out). We’ve slurped ramen and flirted with waiters and eaten things that have made us gag, pucker, pant and moan.
We’ve dined at many destination restaurants over the course of our friendship. The experiences all follow a familiar pattern. We’d hear about someplace thrilling and promising, set aside the cash for the extravagance and book the reservation. We’d then show up with the eager anticipation of 13-year old girls at a Justin Beiber concert. Five minutes after being seated, Kyle would start carping about waiters who poured water from the wrong side, salad that was tossed too long ago and serving pieces that should have been warmer.
I was nervous as hell the night in 2002 when Bill, Kyle and I drove up to Napa Valley to dine at the French Laundry. At the time, French Laundry was the pinnacle of American dining. I was ecstatic that we’d scored the French Laundry reservations- thanks to Kyle’s efforts, inevitably. Yet there I was pulling into the unassuming gravel driveway of this foodie mecca thinking, “Well, now I get to see how the French Laundry comes up short.” Secretly, as much as I adore Kyle, I was kind of reluctant that he was our dining companion that night.
It didn’t. It is still the celebrated culinary moment of our relationship precisely because it DID live up to the hype. We still talk wonderously about the dishes we enjoyed that night and the perfect tone and execution of the service. It was that moment that made me appreciate Kyle’s standards.
Kyle isn’t looking for flaws, he’s looking for beauty and skill and surprise and greatness. When he coughs up the hard-earned cash for what is supposed to be an elite dining experience, he does so with the expectation of the extraordinary. No matter how great the lead dancer is in Swan Lake, if one of the other dancers is plonking on her toes, you’ll be hard-pressed to enjoy the brilliance of the other performers.
There have been many times when Kyle has criticized a dish that I’d tasted and thought was good. I’d then take another taste and realize that he was right. The dough was too sweet or the sauce was too viscous or the plating so fussy that it alienated the eater from the dish. I learned the value of absorbing the entire experience of dining.
Before learning to cook, I just wasn’t paying enough attention to what I was eating: I wasn’t focused on what I was eating enough to really even enjoy it. In order to really be able to taste and appreciate food, you need to know how to cook it. It’s about understanding. Unless I knew how to cook, my enjoyment of food would always be limited by my ignorance of it. We can all enjoy a concert, but a musician- even an amateur one- will always enjoy it more. The musician can appreciate the talent and discipline that go into making great music. She will also hear the mistakes that will go un-noticed by the non-musician.
Kyle turned 40 this week. I’ve been thinking a lot about how grateful I am for his friendship and how it has influenced my life. When it comes to food, learning the difference between great, good and crappy food has added so much. Because of Kyle I understand why dishes are awe-inspiring or utterly forgettable. I pay attention to what I do and don’t like about everything I eat. When I cook I think about the experience I want to have when eating the dish: aiming for clean and pure, or hearty and filling, or possibly the unexpected. Ingredients are just tools in my endeavors to fulfill culinary longings.
So cheers to you, Uncle Kylie. Thanks for the laughs and inspiration, the patience and forgiveness. Thanks for making my life so damned delicious.