When I met Misty Callies, my reluctant mentor, who inadvertently shaped me into the chef I am now, I'd left New York City, paradoxically, to escape from cooking. After soldiering through nearly 20 years in second-rate kitchens, starting as a 12-year-old dishwasher at a tourist restaurant in my Pennsylvania hometown, I had somehow gotten a spot in the master's program in fiction writing at the University of Michigan. So, in 1995, I packed a U-Haul and rolled into Ann Arbor to start a new, clean-fingernailed life.
I unpacked the U-Haul, registered for classes and immediately took a part-time job cooking to help pay the rent. When Misty hired me, she was grilling boneless chicken breasts for a U of M tailgate party, wearing a stained V-neck T-shirt. Not more than 10 years my senior, she was the tired, taciturn, slightly beaten chef of a perfectly decent catering company in a university football town where grown men wear maize-and-blue parkas and golf socks and will not venture beyond salmon and filet mignon, cooked to death and preferably covered with melted cheese.
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At the time, I knew nothing about academic fiction-writing obsessions like "narrative strategy" or "diction," but about food and cooking I thought I already knew everything—knives, burns, 20-hour days, gold leaf in Champagne flutes, ring molds, braziers, butter rosettes and blowtorches. Working quietly across from Misty under the fluorescent lights, I had, I estimated, nothing to learn from her. She was not French or male or wearing a toque or blowing sugar into fragile candy shells to be filled with mousse. She was, rather, assembling rigid, odorless domestic cheese platters for university functions. I had a 25-pound knife kit brimming with tweezers and Q-tips, fish spatulas and needle-nose pliers. I had cooked for the king of Thailand.