“What’s next”? I asked, weaving my way through the kitchen between two waiters hired for the party, Rebecca at one stove, and Mo loading a tray for the dishwasher. “That one,” Mo pointed with the spatula in one hand, sprayer in the other.
I ripped the aluminum foil off the pan and carried it out to the patio. The wedding was over, a wedding in a downpour next to the ocean, and I took the tray of skewered chicken out to the pu-pu table (pu-pus: appetizers in Hawaiian) for the hundred and twenty or thirty or forty hungry guests we were feeding at the reception.
“You’re a good priest,” he said, waving another spatula or fork or whatever he held in his hand that moment when I circled back for another tray. “I watched you.” I grinned and nodded. From Mo, born in Morocco and educated in Paris, that was quite a compliment.
I met Mo two years ago when I went to visit. “He doesn’t like guests in his kitchen,” my sister had warned us, we sisters who always gather in one another’s kitchens and cook, “And he doesn’t like to touch women. He’s Muslim,” she added.
Well, kitchens are second homes to me. I’d inched my way into his confidence by brief references to my years working in restaurants as a server and a bartender, but I didn’t force the issue. Little by little, he’d told me stories of working in four star restaurants, his face shining with the memory as he swiped at the counter where lunch was laid out for the workers. I’d offered a couple of times to carry things out to the buffet for guests’ lunch and I’d carried things back in after lunch. “Is this in the right place?” I’d ask as I put things away. He’d give a quick nod.
On this visit, on the first night, he made sautéed eggplant. “I remembered you sisters liked this,” he said when I thanked him. The eggplant he’d picked from the garden and cooked succulent in oil and garlic. Mo only worked breakfast and lunch, riding his bicycle home each afternoon, so one evening, with a bowl full of eggplant I’d picked from the garden, I’d done my best. My brother-in-law, who had cringed when he first looked in the pan, said at dinner it was good. The next morning, I told Mo and he refined my memory. “First you peel the eggplant, (I hadn’t peeled it – it was fresh from the garden) then you saute in olive oil with garlic,” he added. “How much garlic?” I said. Expecting exact from a master chef is not necessarily what you get. “Whatever you want,” he said, his shoulders shrugging in an interesting mix of Moroccan and Parisian. “Then you add water, some salt, and oyster sauce.” Ah. “That’s what Robert added and it worked!” I said. He beamed. Over the next few days I was in the kitchen a lot as preparations ramped up for the wedding. “Where’s the chicken to skewer?” He’d point with whatever he had in his hand, a knife, a spatula, tongs.
But the night of the wedding, the kitchen was bedlam. I’d changed my clothes from soaked to drier and warmer and headed straight to the kitchen. “What’s next” was about all I said. “That,” was about all he said. Later, as the young ones danced on the lanai, we carried dishes back to the kitchen, loading and reloading the dishwasher. “Thank you,” he said, several times. “You were so much help!” I felt adopted.
“I’ll miss you… and I’ll miss your kitchen,” I said a week later as I prepared to leave. He grinned. And told me how to make quinoa. “It’s the perfect food,” he said. “Best protein there is!” And then he told me a story about his father who was a surgeon in Paris and how he’d operated on someone and put them on quinoa and took them off bread. “White flour’s not good for you! You don’t have to rinse quinoa. It says to but I don’t. I put it in the pot with water and cook it until the little white tails come out. Add garlic or vegetables… chop up some onions and saute them. Put them in.”
And that’s what I do.