We met online. It’s certainly the most convenient way to when you work nearly fifty hours a week on a consistent basis; two days off, split shifts, nine till sometime past three then a quarter past five till late — sometimes very late. That doesn’t leave much time to find someone the ‘normal’ way, it doesn’t leave much energy to wake up on those two days off let alone be charming to someone who, with some hope, may find me interesting. Francesca and I laid eyes on each other awkwardly at a bar I used to frequent when I was a student, a typically irreverent place for a student bar that, despite the eclecticism of its customers, I now feel out of place at. As someone who spends most of their time within the confines of a kitchen, places that essentially act as sovereign states with their own social traditions, being socially inept outside of them is as natural as sharpening a knife. Maybe I am socially inept because I work in kitchens, or maybe I work in kitchens because I am socially inept.
The gin quenched our nerves and we spoke sporadically. I was attracted to how she listed Joseph Conrad as one of her favourite authors and her ambitions to become an airline pilot — I do not know how any man could not be attracted to that. I thought of how she also sought the confines of a workplace, a life outside of the normality of standard working hours, relationships or any sanity in taking an easier route. She told me she feared living without doing something she loved and we sat comfortably within each others silence as the night grew and conversation slowed. Time soon passed from the cold November air of our first encounter and we approached a dating milestone of eating out at a restaurant. Naturally, I bore the responsibility of choosing the restaurant we would dine at. As a chef, such decisions are usually mine to make as the belief my knowledge and experience supplants the opinion and tastes of my fellow diners.
I took her to a restaurant called Jive on Exchange Street, Norwich – a graveyard to many failed restaurants. Places get designed, fitted, branded and open before soon closing; then they get redesigned, refitted, rebranded and reopened for only the same to happen again. There is currently some consistency in good restaurants and cafés along the street to jointly stave off the threat of closure. The restaurant, or kitchen and bar as they’ve called it, perhaps to suggest a departure from the traditional understandings of a restaurant, sits in the grave of a former bistro that was known for its fish cookery and was decorated like a grandmothers living room. Now the black door is decorated with illustrations of luchador masks and it’s obvious this reincarnation from its former life has been drastic. The wooden stairs that lead up from the street are studded with copper pennies and we walk up towards the music.
The inside is barren, like grandma’s living room was gutted by fire, stripped out and new tables and chairs brought in without ceremony or respect for the dead. Bare walls, bare floorboards and bare brick; concrete and wood, metal and leather, glass and paper. The only decoration is a piece of wrought iron welded into the shape of a cactus. We’re shown to our table by the window and look down onto the rain-slicked street before ordering cocktails of tequila and mescal, even though we no longer need alcohol to quench any nerves, and Francesca is presented with a strange drink of hideous sapphire blue. The menu is printed on a large piece of paper that takes up most of the table which I instinctively dislike but the items printed on them are reassuring. There is obvious pedigree behind the words. The waiter could only understandably be described as ‘hipster’ and suggests a taco of beef skirt steak and roasted bone marrow, whereas Francesca chooses tacos of buttermilk chicken and the vegetarian option of butternut squash. By then we were happy with each others company and conversation and, drinking our cocktails, content in our new relationship, safe in the fact that nothing else much mattered.
Our waiter returned and placed our meals down. The bone lay across my plate, halved and roasted, almost malevolent in its pure nakedness. It’s all there on the plate, animal, vegetable and mineral. Grain, meat, blood and bone — the very idea and evolution of human consumption. There’s primal delight in bone marrow, sweet and gelatinous that gives depth to the steak, the onions, the chilli and the corn taco. Not a delight from any gastronomic pretentiousness or intellectualism but pure hunger and greed for eating because I know this is the kind of thing the chef wants you to order. It was the simple joy of eating, and eating with someone, that seems most important. We didn’t bother with dessert, as far as I am concerned South America isn’t known for its puddings so I typically save such treats for when eating European cuisines. We pay and leave and I feel the inevitable satisfaction of being fed, as if a meal with a beautiful girl is all it takes to impatiently extinguish the stresses and strains of my working lifestyle and set the world right. We walk down Exchange Street, past the other restaurants and the ghosts of other restaurants too and she looks at me as if she were a drawing by Schiele. I’ve felt hunger for many things and for once feel relieved of many of them.