Upstairs, Downstairs

I love watching Downton Abbey.  The relationships and politics of the upper class and their servants are not only intriguing but offer a peek into the world of folks who depend on others for things that I consider basic adult responsibilities and those that serve their needs upstairs but are dependent on these people for their livelihood.  I love seeing how "the other half," as they were once affectionately called, lives though now they are clearly the 1 %, no halfsies about it.  This interests me more than most because my husband works as a private chef with many prominent New York families.  He is discreet, private, and unassuming so this is no exposéon how the other half lives.  No stories about spoiled kids, eccentric parties, or secret societies where some kind of sacrifice is made to the gods that got them all this loot, power, and privilege.  He would never divulge information, secrets, tales.  That is not his style.  This is a confession really, of how it feels to miss him when he is gone, knowing that we depend on the whims of his clients, by choice mind you, and that in between those spaces, we have carved out a lovely existence, a life I love and treasure, but that sometimes leaves me alone for longer than I'd like, exhausted, scared, silent.


My husband took on this gig for our family.  Restaurant offers began to come in when we returned from our two year stint in Barbados and for a time we considered them as well as other opportunities in the hotel industry.  Our stint in Barbados, that job, that company he worked for nearly did us in and we thought long and hard about returning to a lifestyle like that.  We are older parents with small children and neither of us wants to recreate the experiences we had as children with hard-working but distant fathers who missed out on our childhoods and couldn't find a way back to us.  So we decided on freelance work at least until the youngest is in kindergarten when we can both get back to work and pursue passions.  It's a choice, a privilege, I know, to be able to do this when so many others work and are willing to any way they can or must, but we made it together.  His reputation, his skill, his talent helped him find employment quickly both as a full time private chef and as a chef for hire for private parties and events. 


When he's working full-time, he gets up like everyone else, has a cup of coffee, packs his things and is off on the morning train.  I am home with the girls, getting them ready for school and then getting them to school before I have a few hours to steal for myself before I have to pick up the littlest.  It's enough time to do some errands, exercise, and/or write but not enough to put in a real day's work outside the home.  My hubby, on the other hand, will not be home any time before 10:30 pm.  Once he's out on a full time gig, there is no coming home early for a game, dance recital, dinner date, anything (except for the one time I was taken by ambulance to the hospital convinced I was having a heart attack, which was actually a panic attack.  OK, so it was an attack, but it was really my nerves and psyche, not my ticker.)  I have gone to conferences, had the stomach flu, severe fever and flu, neighborhood parties on my own with kiddles in tow, missing him, but knowing that this is best for us.  I have had the car jumped when the battery died in frigid weather, shoveled the driveway while the kids played inside, and had less than one hour to myself in weeks (due to the winter break when he was out of town for eighteen days), but still slog on.  Because his current job is freelance, meaning he is not a full-time staff member, there are days that he can and does choose not to go in. 


The private parties are more fun because he often works with another talented chef, a good friend, and they can speak French, talk politics and tell jokes while they work.  If he works alone, he is able to design the menu with the client and generally has more freedom to create and express startlingly good dishes.  These jobs bring in more money because they are one-offs and special so there is a flat fee and the coverage of food and other expenses.  Sometimes he is able to prep at our house, then drive into the city with the goods.  It makes the house smell amazing and I get to be with him though he is quite focused and doesn't say much.  I love watching him even if he is so lost in his own world that he doesn't see my admiring eyes.  His attention to detail, his professionalism, his truly unique talent are such wonderful assets to have, and he has never let himself down nor his clients nor us.


When Didier ran his own restaurants, he answered to his team, worked in tandem with them, but ultimately was the head of the kitchen.  Sure, there were customers,some of whom he knew quite well and welcomed a conversation, after shift drink, but nothing as intimate as being in someone's home, their kitchen, standing very near to them while you work and they discuss the day's business with each other in front of you.  In a household, no matter how good you are, you are beholden to the whims and fancies of the head of that household.  There are many families with whom he has fit in comfortably, seamlessly, able to prepare meals that are creative, delicious, and in their taste and preference.  With others, their confusion or lack of preference made it difficult to prepare and though he offered complete, thoughtful, well-considered menus he never felt certain that he'd give them what they wanted.  There is little more stressful for a chef than wondering if people like his food!


To many, the travel, the access seems intoxicating.  But though he does not live in the residence or take his meals down below, he is by no means a member of the family.  And while it seems that traveling via private jet to warm locales and living in the Hamptons for the summer (this time family in tow) are incredible perks, he often does not get to enjoy them fully because he is working.  I absolutely loved staying in the Hamptons this summer and was incredibly grateful for the provision made by his employer, even sent a hand sewn thank you card with a picture of the girls wading in the water at the edge of the bay.  The house was just lovely and peaceful and offered respite from our suburban lives but we saw Didier so little.  We might have run into him at the market after a visit to the playground or the beach, and were happy to be able to park at his employers' in order to swim at one glorious beach with a hefty parking price tag in order to see him on the drive in and out, but it could not be said that he was vacationing there with us.  His joyful moments were stolen in between shifts.


He has cooked for many well-known folks, but often does not see them unless they deign to come in to the kitchen.  Which some do, he has told me.  Often to offer thanks or delight in a particular dish, sometimes just to be a part of it, to have their coffee and talk to a new ear.  Some are gracious and remember his name and treat him and others with respect, and some less so.  This past weekend, he went away with a family to Florida for an extended weekend which then turned into an additional week.  He was asked if this was alright which prompted a call to me straight away.  I appreciated both but felt there was no way on earth that I would summon that man home even if I were desperate for him.  I never considered saying anything but yes.So there he is, still away and I am home for another week nursing this severe cold I've had since the flu and bronchitis left me.


I love him for the sacrifice, for the humility, for the commitment to us and our dream.  I also accept the role that's been made for me as keeper of everything, the guiding star of all that we are and all that we do.  For now.  We are two artists and have chosen a life a little different than expected and with that comes, quite obviously, the unexpected.  This man can cook his ass off and it has given us this place away from the restaurant scene, corporate hotel life, the politics, the game, and brought us to another level of the onion.  We've been allowed a stolen pleasure now and again.  But as "we" work in service, we are rooted firmly downstairs, able to see the 1% up close and personal, undoubtedly sure that we are not even close.  The commitment to our family, the emotional time, energy, and grace we are able to put in is worth more than ever languishing at the window dreaming of nothing because we seemingly have it all.  Because we are getting close to having it.  All.




(c)  Repatriated Mama:  Back to the Suburban Grind.


Life is what you make it.


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