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Kitchen confident: a painter turns to cooking as a refuge from work and a chance to live in the present.

I did not know how to cook anything until I was in my last year at CalArts. I read, in The New Yorker, a profile of a chef named Michel Guerard, who was credited with the invention of cuisine minceur, a lean alternative to classical French cooking. Something about his persona appealed to me. He made cooking come to life. Also, although I had no real experience of it, the idea of eating well appealed to my emerging self-image. It animated me. Of course, at that time and for years afterwards, I couldn't afford to go to restaurants. If I were going to have anything better than what the school cafeteria offered, I would have to learn to cook for myself.

I applied for a job as a kitchen apprentice at the Tarzana Country Club, a place in the San Fernando Valley with a faintly show-biz roster, a few aging female vocalists and their families. In the interview, the chef posed various questions: "When making vegetable soup, do you saute or roast the vegetables first?" I had no idea, I was transparently ignorant of even the most rudimentary things. Instead of throwing me out, the chef took pity on me. He said, "Okay. I will teach you. Come every day at seven in the morning" Over the course of several months, I learned the basics, enough to be able function in a restaurant kitchen. Many nights I came home with my fingers bandaged from cuts or burns, or both. The chef--Alfred Dobslaw was his name--was German, a very theatrical character. He had come to America to be a dancer. Before every dinner service, carefully knotting the white handkerchief around his neck, he would call out, "Showtime!"

When I moved to New York I had a job in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant on Irving Place. Not fancy, but one with a bit of glamour: Some reputed gangster types were patrons. It was there I realized how much I didn't know. The cooks were all culinary school graduates, and they saw me as the imposter I was. Unlike Chef Alfred, they did not take pity on me. They were ruthless, giving me the lowliest tasks, and were brutal in their criticisms. That job didn't last long, although I did have one small triumph. I was at the pasta station one night, when a waiter came in with an order for linguine with clams, one of the signature dishes. He was trembling. "Make it good," he said, "It's for the family." I knew what that meant. I executed the dish as I had been taught. After a while, the waiter came back in, looking relieved. "They loved it," he said. "They said to give their compliments to the chef."

Now, many years later, I think of cooking as a respite from all the other things I do. I mostly spend my time painting, which even on good days is full of uncertainty and doubt. Sometimes I leave the studio and turn to writing, which is concrete--an antidote to the uncertainty of the studio.

There are some times, though, when even writing is too full of unknowns. Then I go into the kitchen, because cooking requires living in the absolute, knowable present. I feel that here, finally, I know what I'm doing. I actually do know how to chop vegetables (thank you, Chef Alfred), and I can experience the satisfaction that comes from making something free from ambiguity.

ILLUSTRATION BY NIV BAVARSKY

David Salle is a painter based in New York. His latest book, How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art (W.W. Norton & Company), was published in October.
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Title Annotation:TASTE
Author:Salle, David
Publication:Surface
Date:Dec 1, 2016
Words:609
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