Exactly one year ago, I was standing in front of my bathroom mirror, mascara wand in hand. My cell phone rang, a call from my oldest sister. She sounded panicky when I answered, and quickly delivered the news that our grandmother had a massive stroke the evening before. She was rushed to the hospital and there was no news other than that the whole family was very scared.
I had to make a decision pretty quickly. I was scheduled to go back to Pennsylvania two weeks later, and I debated rescheduling and leaving that day. But I had my first ever photo shoot for Eater Denver that morning, an hour after I received that phone call. I was going to my favorite restaurant in Denver, Fruition, to photograph my favorite dish. I remember laughing when I first got that assignment, feeling that it was very nice of my editor to trust me with such a great shoot right off the bat. I was also extremely nervous and intimidated.
I left the bathroom, sat in my bed and had a good cry. I was so scared and very alone. I felt the absence of my four siblings and the country between us more than ever that morning. But I also felt strongly that I should carry on with my day and wait for more news. I could do nothing to help, so why cancel the shoot?
I cried a lot of my make-up off on the way to the restaurant. I reapplied my lipstick and mascara in my parked car, literally put on my big-girl shoes, and headed inside. I needed to do well on this. I needed to push things aside. I opened the door and the restaurant was so calm and welcoming. Alex Seidel (chef and current James Beard Finalist) greeted me with a two-handed handshake and one of the most sincere smiles I’ve ever seen. He thanked me (!) profusely for taking the time to come down and was so accommodating that I could have cried all over again.
Halfway through the shoot, my nerves got the best of me and I mentioned that a) this was my first assignment for Eater and b) this was my very favorite thing to eat in Denver. He told me he would make his best version and that I absolutely must sit down and enjoy it once he was finished.
He slowly hand rolled pasta and explained to me the process of making cheese on their farm. He listed all the steps, literally from farm to table, to make the pork belly. He made not one, but two six-minute eggs, because “the first one isn’t good enough for your photos.” He himself set the table for me, complete with a linen napkin on my lap.
He sat across from me, watching me take my first bite and asked if I needed anything else. He then graciously answered all my questions about the dish. At the end, he said How did I do? as if he was the amateur in the situation.
I didn’t mention once what had happened that morning or what a mess I was. But his natural disposition early on a Friday morning was overly kind and attentive, the picture of hospitality.
I sit here a year later, scrolling through the hundreds of photos I’ve taken of different dishes all over Denver. My life has been so enriched by these meals and by the chefs who prepared them for me. I’ve entered kitchens happy, sad, stressed, overwhelmed, excited, lonely, intimidated, angry, impressed, and just about every other emotion. And almost every time, I leave with a happy stomach and an even happier heart.
Chefs care about what they are doing and they care about how they make guests feel. The people in this industry are generous and not in the way where they give more than is required. Their generosity overflows. They can’t help themselves. They are generous with their knowledge, with their words and time, and with their actual food.
Their faces light up when they talk about their food or the wine that pairs perfectly with a dish. They smile, literally to themselves, as they put the finishing garnishes on a plate and turn to show me. They take pride in what they do and want to help everyone appreciate food in a new way. They want their dish to make your day.
So many people think that food is just food. It’s just something to consume a few times a day and maybe every once in a while, you go out to a restaurant and have someone else do the work. But it’s so much more than that. Food is an experience. It’s an avenue to comfort and excitement, relaxation and warmth.
On that day last year, I needed all of those things. From a perfect stranger. I needed to be comforted and distracted from a really scary thing. Receiving that treatment on my very first assignment showed me the true hospitality that is alive and well in Denver’s restaurants. It’s the reason I wanted to be a part of the industry. A year in, I couldn’t be prouder to know and work with these people.