By Ed Staskus
“It took me awhile to understand the vibe that makes Liquids and Solids so special,” said Marla Gilman, a summer removed from her year working in the kitchen of the edgy gastropub in Lake Placid, New York.
“I was visiting friends in Keeseville and they kept talking about this great little restaurant,” she said. “You would love this place, my friends kept telling me. Their food is awesome. They kept talking about it, and so, finally, during another visit to town, my boyfriend Dylan took me to eat there. It was awesome.”
A graduate of the University of Vermont, the 25-year-old Marla began her college career focused on business and ended it focused on food and drink. “I took a farm to table class, just kind of randomly, where we read Michael Pollan,” she said. “That’s where the whole thing started. I realized I needed to re-think the way I was eating.”
She went from being conscious of food by counting the calories in her mouth to getting in touch with sun soil rain through the taste of what she was putting into her mouth. She learned to enjoy food rather than think about it.
After graduating from the College of Agriculture at UVM with a degree in Community Entrepreneurship and a minor in Food Systems, she spent the summer backpacking through Italy, Germany, and France. Her last stop was at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, where she had enrolled to dovetail with her traveling.
“I was on that side of the ocean, anyway,” Marla said.
The 12-Week Certificate at Ballymaloe, a one hundred acre working organic farm west of Dublin, is an intensive immersion-cooking course. Its track proceeds from fundamental skills to increasingly practical techniques, training its graduates to become ready-to-go cooks able to pursue a culinary career.
But, certificate or no certificate, it didn’t prepare her for Liquids and Solids.
“I was the first girl to work the line there, with the guys, with their raw, sarcastic stuff, and I was just this little girl from New Jersey who cared about local food. I couldn’t keep up at first. I didn’t talk for a while, at all. I just kept my mouth shut.”
It was at Ballymaloe that Marla cultivated her personal palette for food. “I learned to taste by eating. I simply ate a lot of locally grown fresh food. I learned the difference between something tasting alive and something tasting dead.”
However, since she knew little to nothing about wine, learning to drink took more patience. “People would talk about wine and I didn’t get what they were tasting. I couldn’t understand how wine could taste like apricots.”
One of her friends at the school came to the rescue. The friend parsed a book about wine, cataloging essential flavors, and filled the small holes of eggs crates with those flavors. “Anna blindfolded me and I had to smell each one and be able to say what it was,” she said. “It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. It pulled it out for me. I learned what I was smelling for.”
After returning home she wrangled work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Blue Hill in New York’s Greenwich Village, melding fresh local sources with inspired preparation, has been described as a go-to dining destination since it opened in 2000. Their restaurant at Stone Barns, opened four years later in the Hudson Valley, has no menus. Instead, diners are proffered a Grazing, Rooting, and Pecking bill of fare, featuring the farm’s best from field and market.
“I was obsessed with Stone Farms for years and years, so in the end I staged there. I mean, I worked for free,” Marla said. “A stage is usually a week long, but I wouldn’t leave. I ended up working there for more than three months.”
In the meantime, her boyfriend-in-waiting moved to the rolling farmlands of Keeseville, on the New York side of Lake Champlain, going to work for Fledging Crow Vegetables, an organic farm based on the Community Supported Agriculture model.
“Dylan and I had been friends for 6 years and were just starting to see each other,” she said. “I thought I’d like to move there, but not right there, where my boy was. I didn’t want to do that.” Instead, she made plans to move not too far away, to the Keene Valley, known as the home of the High Peaks in the Adirondacks.
“At first everything was just a thought in my head, and then, literally, within a week-and–a-half I had a place to live and a job.” The job was at Liquids and Solids.
“I shot Tim Loomis, the head chef and co-owner, an e-mail, and I just said that I’m friends with Dylan at Fledging Crow, and I ate at your restaurant, which I thought was amazing. Just curious, any work opportunities?”
A week later she got a return call. “Your resume looks awesome,” Tim said. ”We’ll be looking for someone soon and we’d love to have you.”
“Whoa, you don’t even know me!” she said to Tim, who she had yet to meet. “But, Tim is close with Fledging Crow. He buys so locally. If he could, everything would come from local farms. So, when they dropped the good word about me, Tim being trustworthy about his friends, when they said this girl is cool, he was pretty much OK with it.”
It was Marla’s first real job in a commercial kitchen. In a kitchen slightly bigger than a family van, serving hundreds of exactly orchestrated plates a night, she worked alongside the head chef, a sous chef, and a dishwasher.
“I was the pantry person, although we rotated the work. I would do sous chef some nights and wash dishes other nights, and the sous chef would do the pantry some nights. Tim was always Tim every night. He was the main man.”
At Blue Hill everything needed to be accounted for, from where ingredients were stored to the preparation and presentation of dishes. “I had to show them every cut I made, and if I wasn’t sure about something, they expected me to ask. At Liquids and Solids, the flavors are all high-end, it tastes so eloquent, and I was always asking, is this all right, is that cut OK?”
“Yeah, it’s fine, you don’t have to ask me,” Tim grumbled.
She wasn’t sure how to take the no-questions rule, although she understood he wanted food done as well as she could do it. Nor did she understand the organization of the kitchen. “The kitchen was so disorganized,” she said. The management of the pantry and walk-in made sense to those in the know, but didn’t make any sense to her, at first.
“It’s such amazing food, but we would forget to order chocolate chips for weeks and have to run to Lisa G’s, the restaurant across the street, to get some. The spices on the shelves were all shoved together. If there’s something on a shelf below where I originally put it I freak out. For me, a thing has to have a spot.”
At Liquids and Solids salt and pepper could be in any one of six places. “Tim always knew those six places,” she said. Everybody else read Tim’s mind.
When she asked where something was, she heard, “Stop asking me where things are.” She was expected to know, like the rest of the kitchen staff, who were more interested in what everything was for, that purpose being the end result. It was the plating of the food, and the appreciation of it in the dining room, that was the proof of the pudding of the kitchen’s organization skills. Electricity is organized thunder and lightning.
“Tim doesn’t call himself the head chef,” Marla said. “He will laugh at you if you call him that.” As Alton Brown of the Food Network has pointed out, a cook who calls himself a chef one day will probably make the worst food you have ever eaten.
“Tim’s food is so well put together you would think he has every little detail worked out. He does, in a way, but it’s a super laid-back kitchen. He puts a lot of trust in his staff.” She recounted days when Tim, on his day off, would nonetheless turn up in the kitchen and ask that she create a new offering.
“I’ll do something with it tomorrow,” he said.
“I was essentially the lowest person in the kitchen,” she said, “and for him to tell me to create something and have enough trust in me that I will apply it to a special that will be on the menu, that was really cool for me.” We are often made trustworthy when someone puts their trust in us. It is the glue of life, like eggs, flour, and breadcrumbs.
The kitchen at Liquids and Solids was not especially ready for her, partly by accident, partly by design. She worked on a small table on top of a lowboy fridge behind a wall. “They didn’t bring tickets to me, either,” she said. “They would yell out the order and I had to scribble it down, in the right order, for the right tickets. It was totally new to me and super stressful.”
Working in close quarters with the tight-knit Liquids and Solids crew unnerved her, as well. “They would listen to country stations, and the songs were all about sex, and they would make every inappropriate joke in the book,” she said. “I had no idea how to handle it. It took me a long time to realize it wasn’t real, it was just jokes, and appreciate that rank humor of theirs.“
In some kitchens saying ‘Sancho’ to a co-worker means someone is at their house being carnal with their husband or wife. The proper response is, “I’m not worried about Sancho.”
“There were never any hard feelings. It was just me having to adjust to that environment.” In the meantime, Marla was learning to work quickly and safely, be organized when preparing food, and stay responsible for holding up her end. “It was really hard for me at first,” she said. “I had pretty much never done line work before.”
Line cooks need to be strong, both physically and mentally. Anthony Bourdain, a long-time cook, has likened the work to being in the trenches of a war. They are the foot soldiers in any functioning kitchen. “When the rest of the world is relaxing you’re working harder and going crazier than you ever have before,” Marla said. She was compelled to do her best in the face of toil and trouble.
“I found out if you over think it you will drive yourself crazy,” she said. “You have an order board in front of you, you’re trying to coordinate with the other cooks, and working on something else in the oven, too. You have to train your brain to take all that in at once and not forget any of it.”
Memory separates what you know and don’t know. In a kitchen it’s like a rail yard with trains coming and going all the time, emptying out and filling up, working their way into and out of the yard. The kitchen swing doors at restaurants like Liquids and Solids never stop revolving as wait staff tack tickets to kitchen boards and deliver orders to diners.
“I can barely remember what I did two days ago, but in a kitchen I can have four things going in the oven, be doing six other orders at once, don’t forget about the carrots, plate those two desserts, oh, here comes a new ticket, which is a charcuterie plate and an oyster, write that down, and, Oh, shit! the carrots are still in the oven, grab them, and handle the heat without passing out. That’s strictly from my experience there.”
Two ovens and eight burners burning all the time were where liquids were brought to a boil and solids were baked, roasted, and broiled in the small kitchen. That’s why shouts of “HOT BEHIND!” are frequently heard in kitchens as pots of bubbling liquid are being moved.
“It was hot in there,” Marla said. “You’re moving faster with hot objects than you’ve ever moved in your entire life. It was easy to get upset, get angry, because we were moving so fast and it was so damned blazing.”
Except for Tim Loomis. “He was always moving fast, and sweating like the rest of us, but there was a calmness about him. His friends came into the kitchen all the time, shooting the shit with him. I always thought that if someone was talking to me I would freak out.”
It wasn’t all noses to the grindstone, however. “They are really good at having a good time in the kitchen,“ Marla said. “Sometimes I thought they shouldn’t be having such a good time, but they definitely knew how to have fun.”
One night in mid-July, on the third anniversary of the opening of the restaurant, despite it being the height of their busy season, they threw a party in the kitchen. A pick-up crew from Fledging Crow helping with the work.
“It was a great night while we were all still working, and then we drank a little bit afterwards.” The life of a kitchen is making lemonade from lemons. Afterwards it’s refreshing to have a gin-soaked lemon gingerini at the bar.
Over the course of her year at Liquids and Solids she grasped that Tim Loomis was sourcing and cooking food like what her teachers at Ballymaloe had recommended. “Tim’s cooking is fairly simple. It’s just picking good, fresh ingredients and doing it really well. We had a beet dish. It was just roasted beets with the skin peeled, with avocadoes and carrot and lime vinaigrette on top. It was so simple. I never would have thought of it. People loved it. Even beet haters loved it.”
Tim didn’t brainstorm his ideas verbally. When Marla asked him what inspired him, he said, “I don’t know.” She discovered he was being full of air with her. He had his own method whenever the menu was changing. “He would sit at the bar all day, talking to farmers, finding out what was on the horizon.”
She found out how many local ingredients he was using, the attention he paid to their provenance, and how good he was at seasoning them. “He came up with a sauce for fried Brussels sprouts that is awesome,” she said.
Brussels sprouts have been almost universally disliked for most of their history. Parents urge their children to eat the mildly bitter vegetable, saying, “If you keep trying, you will probably like them in the end.” One reason they are misunderstood is most people don’t know how to cook them. At Liquids and Solids, they were transformed into a godly creation that has become a staple on the menu.
“Tim’s mind works in a very different way than mine, and I think, from a lot of other chefs. Learning how to create his kind of food, his style, and his sauces was really special for me. That’s what was very satisfying about working there.”
But, when the winter of 2013 became the spring of 2014 Marla began to think she was ready for something new. One tip-off was her nightmares. Marla’s monsters came in the form of cremated duck and shriveled asparagus. “The hours were really hard for me,” she said. “You work at such a high energy until one in the morning, and I’d stay wired until three. When I finally chilled and got to sleep I’d have weird dreams, kitchen dreams of everything going wrong. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a panic.”
The work itself took a toll on her, too.
“I had back issues to begin with, and you’re always hunched over, on your feet, and my feet would be killing me. Your whole body just hurts. I don’t know how people do it for twenty years. I literally don’t get it.”
Many cooks suffer sore backs from repeated heavy lifting and bone spurs in their feet from constantly standing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics they are affected by more injuries than the average American worker. Falls on slippery floors are commonplace. Cuts and burns are common mishaps. Cooks suffer the highest number of work-related burns of anybody in any industry in the United States.
She also felt out of sync with her friends, especially her boyfriend. “I felt like I needed a normal schedule. I was getting bug-eyed, and I wanted to be closer to my friends and boyfriend in Keeseville, too,” she said. “When you’re a cook you never get to see your friends. Dylan was farming, so he was up at six in the morning, while I was working nights and living almost an hour away. I wasn’t aligning with that.”
As spring turned to summer she moved to Keeseville, taking over the Clover Mead Café and Farm Store, an off-the-beaten path eatery with fresh-from-the-farm flavors and creative food combinations, as well as artisanal cheeses and yogurt made from their own cows.
Tim Loomis bade her farewell and went looking for somebody new. “Our pantry cooker Marla is leaving us for something new. We need to replace her. As usual, an appreciation for punk rock, classic country, and 80s pop culture is useful, but not necessary.”
At the farm café in Keeseville, she is the menu planner, cook, and manager, as well as the face at the front counter. “Marla’s a great baker and cook,” said Clover Mead Farm co-owner Ashlee Kleinhammer. “She was excited about starting her own thing.”
“When you’re cooking you never get to see anyone enjoying the food,” Marla said. “You sweat and cut your fingers and burn yourself and then what you created just disappears. I wanted to see the satisfaction that people get from my hard work.”
By the end of summer, the café was beginning to meet its business goals and Marla was already planning for the next year, including adding meats from Mace Chasm Farms, a neighboring farmstead butcher shop, and beer from the newly opened Ausable Brewing Company down the street.
She still eats at Liquids and Solids. “I hate how far I live from it, but I drive the fifty minutes to Lake Placid because it’s so great,” she said. “I love the food there and I love going back.”
What makes the long drive worthwhile is she doesn’t have to sweat like a sailor, either, to get a plate of homegrown, subversively creative, and expertly prepared food. She doesn’t set foot in the kitchen. She leaves that to somebody else, although she has been known to stand just outside of it and take in the smell of liquids and solids being transformed into culinary fare.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.