A few years ago I sent a friend of mine a text message to see if we could get together and talk about some business ideas I had been knocking around my brain. His reply was frightening.
“My sous chef is leaving for a week, how about you come work in the kitchen with me and we can talk while we work?”
I replied yes almost immediately, and then a pit formed in my stomach just as fast. I have spent some time in kitchens before that summer of 2015, but this was not your average kitchen. This was the best restaurant on Cape Cod, and quite possibly the best in all of New England. A seasonal place on the water which hosted two seatings per night that presented a local menu over seven courses that changed every day.
My fear only intensified during my drive up to Wellfleet for my first day. I was just hoping that I didn’t single handedly ruin my friend’s reputation in the span of a week. I had torn the muscle on my right wrist the week before while working on an oyster grant so overall I wasn’t wandering into Chef Michael Ceraldi’s kitchen in the best frame of mind or body.
I walked slowly from the parking lot to the back entrance of the restaurant, hoping against hope that the power had gone out or they just decided to skip this week of service, thus sparing me from slicing my thumb open, burning the kitchen down, or worse.
Just as I walked into the kitchen my friend smiled at me. Michael has this grin that is both devilish and disarming. He showed me the kitchen which was the same size as the kitchen of my condo, seriously.
“Where is the rest of it,” I asked.
“This is it,” Michael answered.
To realize that this place was nailing a pair of seven course dinners for 40 or more people every night from a kitchen the size of a farm table was stunning to me. Then I learned how they did it, and it was awesome.
“What’s the menu for tonight?” I asked.
“Hmm, not sure yet,” Michael answered.
This being two hours before service would scare most people, but not this merry band of kitchen wizards that I was now a part of. We prepped some items, I went out to harvest some sea grass, a local character came in and we bought his wild mushrooms, and just when I started to get into a groove Michael’s amazing wife summoned everyone out to the front of the house to go over the wine pairings for each course.
“You all are nuts, you know that right?”
“I almost forgot,” Michael pulled me aside ignoring my declaration of his sanity, “The Boston Globe is coming this week so, you know, try and smile.”
We ate together, talked about the menu, and then got to work.
I stuck to shucking oysters, cooking some of the seafood items, washing dishes, preparing for upcoming courses, reminding Michael that we had a gluten allergy at table six, and just generally trying to stay out of everyone’s way.
By the end of the week I was exhausted, the pain in my wrist wouldn't allow me to hold on to anything tightly, which I believe I still owe the man a few plates that I dropped, and we ended the week with a few drinks and some reflection. We never did talk about my business ideas, and we didn’t need to as the education I received that week was more than I could have hoped for when I sent that initial text message.
I thought of my week at Ceraldi the other night when I made pasta from scratch for the first time. I watched Michael do it a few times, and we had been given a very nice pasta maker for a wedding gift that was still in the box so I decided to give it a try.
Things are a bit different now. My bypass surgery has led me to a vegan diet so as I made my dough I imagined Michael and every other old school Italian in my family tree rolling their eyes at me with my egg replacers and tofurky sausage in my tomato sauce.
As I enter the final few weeks of cardiac rehab the thought of leaving the care of the nurses behind and entering the world without medical supervision doesn’t scare me, it excites me. I am looking forward to pushing my limits and seeing what I can accomplish not only in the second half of this year, but for many years to come.
Testing ourselves is how we grow as people. If we live in constant fear of failure we will never accomplish anything and spend our later years lamenting all the chances we didn’t take.
I am grateful for that week at Ceraldi. I am grateful I didn't burn the place down. Grateful that I can now identify a dozen different kinds of fresh herbs (I’ll tell the fennel disaster story some other time) and grateful Michael and I are still friends.
Let someone else take the easy way out. Go scare yourself, I promise it will put a smile on your face.