To The Restaurant That Ruined Mother’s Day Surprise: I love You.

The year was 1998 and Anthony Bourdain had just become the executive chef at Les Halles over at Park Avenue, New York. 

Nine years later, he would release his “noxious, highly successful” bestselling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, out into the world. Skip the fish special. Chicken “bores the hell out of chefs.” Did you know bread gets reused? Bourdain blew the whistle on the food and hospitality industry’s dark underbelly, and we thank him for it and all the work that followed thereafter.

Food, to me, has always been a language that harbored affection. When we aren’t very good at expressing ourselves, we turn to the comfort of a good meal. This way, leftovers are always “I am thinking of you.” Instead of “I love you” we say, “I bought you your favorite snack.” When I was attending University, I remember standing at the bus terminal in anticipation of the meals my mother waybilled—her signature sticky humba and lumpia shuttled in plastic containers so I could have a taste of home a hundred kilometers away. 

Cooking by Vitaliya Yankovskaya

“In the roof of my mouth, I search my mother’s cooking for her past. What were mealtimes like in the home she grew up in? What did she hate? What couldn’t she get enough of? I want to know—where does my mother go in her memories to become the daughter again?”

Since moving back, I’ve enjoyed her home-cooked meals every day. Her hair in a ponytail, shoulders pinched in tension as she minces the garlic and onions. The heat of the kitchen hisses and she raises an arm to her temple, wiping the moisture away. Did she always know how to cook? Will she teach me her favorite recipe one day? There are questions I want to ask but so easily forget as soon as she slides the bowl of warm chicken curry in front of me, “Eat.” How did my mother learn to mother like that?

In Morgan Neville’s documentary exploring the life and legacy of Bourdain, we see a clip of a young Anthony in what feels like a Super 8 film, decked in his shiny chef uniform, playfully remarking, “It’s why all chefs are drunks… It’s because we don’t understand why the world doesn’t work like our kitchens.” 

Women are expected to occupy the domestic culinary space as a default setting, but for all my fondness for eating, I am an awful cook. I watch how my mother does it, my grandmother, and now my brother. My mother has carved out her instinct for flavor through years of cooking for the family. It is a labor of love and life that requires precision, thought, and care. According to science, the relationship between our sense of taste and smell is closely bound to our memories. 

Food is about experience, someone once told me. In the roof of my mouth, I search my mother’s cooking for her past. What were mealtimes like in the home she grew up in? What did she hate? What couldn’t she get enough of? I want to know—where does my mother go in her memories to become the daughter again? 

Mother and Daughter by CJK

“As I grow older, I realize that I like my love tactile, expressed. What I once shunned for being cheesy is really just love without the shame of being declared.”

Our family approach to celebrations involves practicality, privacy, and [at times, too much] rationality. We pride ourselves on being a “no fuss, no parties” household. But sometimes I think it doesn’t hurt to be ceremonious, maybe a bit theatrical, with celebrating the people in our lives who are worth celebrating.

As I grow older, I realize that I like my love tactile, expressed. What I once shunned for being cheesy is really just love without the shame of being declared. 

Material things can be extensions of our regard for another person. Sometimes, it is the only piece of our affection that can be plucked from the abstract orbit of our feelings and presented as a gift, a way to say: Yes, I’ve been paying attention. Surprise parties take a lot of planning and careful thought, and while these things don’t necessarily capture the depth of our love, they are a way of celebrating it.  

Bourdain’s memoir is a freewheeling, bitingly witty, and honest account of what goes on behind the curtains in the hospitality industry. But it wouldn’t be Anthony Bourdain without imparting the wisdom of being open and generous. After all, aren’t we human beings simply trying our best? Be polite to your waiter or waitress. “If he likes you, maybe he’ll stop you from ordering a piece of fish he knows is going to hurt you,” Bourdain writes. You are in cahoots with this person against a billion-dollar industry that doesn’t mind you paying the price so they can be more cost-efficient. Bourdain suggests a bit of intimacy there. 

“I read and reread. Sorry, we already made your order. But it’s not for today. It’s a surprise, you see? For Mother’s Day? Sorry, we already made your order. I tried changing the tone. Gave it a gentler inflection in my mind’s voice. Sorry, we already made your order.”

But sometimes irreparable damages are made. Lapses of judgment can occur. In my case, I had given my faith, yet the thing that could hurt was still served up. 

I texted the local restaurant. “Hi, ****! Apologies for missing your call. I think there’s been a mistake. My order is actually scheduled for tomorrow.” It’s only a slight mix-up. They’re busy people. Nothing that can’t be fixed, right? I waited for their reply. Ten minutes whizzed by, which turned into half an hour. I made a call and the person on the line suggested it was likely my fault because I…booked the order too early. And because of that, they got confused. 

By that point, my expectations were close to nil. When they finally texted me back, it read rather coldly: “Sorry, we already made your order.”

I read and reread. Sorry, we already made your order. But it’s not for today. It’s a surprise, you see? For Mother’s Day? Sorry, we already made your order. I tried changing the tone. Gave it a gentler inflection in my mind’s voice. Sorry, we already made your order. 

But through the glaring insincerity, I could make out the words: “We don’t really care. It’s not our problem anymore.” Or maybe I was just a fish in a mad frenzy. Perhaps, in my eyes, everything had become bait. In any case, it didn’t matter—what was said has been said. It was no use. They pushed through with the delivery, which took another half an hour, and I tried not to feel slighted or betrayed. It was no use either. 

“In an industry that built itself by giving people a place to commune, a place to feel safe enough to have a meal—is being indifferent and callous the new revolution? Was I asking too much from the person on the other end whose name I didn’t know?”

What was a dutifully planned Mother’s Day surprise was now reduced to another meal in a sea of thousands. But hey, at least we have dessert! At least that one didn’t come out half-baked. 

I read an article once about an actor who had this neat little practice. Whenever he wanted to change his behavior around a certain person, he would think to himself: I love you. I love you. The actor was never named in that article, and if he was, I can’t remember. But I think he was on to something because whatever started in anger always ended in shame. 

Sorry, we already- I love you. I love you.

Whom you would change you must first love,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “and they must know that you love them.” For many of us, life is hard enough already and we could do without the airheads who think the world owes them special treatment. But what about politeness? In an industry that built itself by giving people a place to commune, a place to feel safe enough to have a meal—is being indifferent and callous the new revolution?

Was I asking too much from the person on the other end whose name I didn’t know? Sorry, we- I love you. I love you.

mama by Elly Ayling

This isn’t a hit piece and I’m far from being a critic. Throwing tantrums and demanding to speak to the manager never jived with me. In David Phelps’ essay about Kenneth Koch’s poem, One Train May Hide Another, he writes that how a thing hides itself is how it equals itself. “In a poem, one line may hide another line,” and in an article about order mix-ups and subpar customer service, I wonder what it is that I am hiding. 

Honestly, I’m not sure what this piece is for. If it’s a Mother’s Day article, it’s a very bad one, I must say. 

I don’t really love the restaurant that ruined my Mother’s Day surprise that way. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to blurt out an I Love You to them. But to the person I want to say it to the most, I hesitate. It takes me an entire essay to try and say those three words, and even then, I choke up. My love shrinks into the space occupied by three boxes of bombolones, a day too early and mostly untouched, sitting in the buzzing cold of the fridge.

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