I love to feed people. Always have. From my first forays into baking with something I called “grit cake” (exactly as terrible as it sounds) to my work in restaurant kitchens and dining rooms, I’ve been inexorably drawn to the heady blend of passion, hard work, and tenuously controlled chaos that is the restaurant world. As a little kid, I always wanted to visit the kitchen when I ate at a restaurant with my parents. And as soon as I turned sixteen, I got a job as a busser and hostess at a restaurant in my hometown. I quickly insinuated myself into the kitchen, where I learned how to make stock and creme brulee and acquired basic knife skills.
I worked in restaurants throughout high school and college (and have ever since), but never considered restaurant work a viable career path: It was simply something I was doing on the way to a set of fancy-ass letters beside my name. Sure, it suited my personality. Yeah, I liked it. But I’d always held the (in hindsight, half-baked and ridiculous) notion that my vocation had to be socially redemptive (in a weirdly narrow sense), as well as entailing a certain degree of prestige (or, at the very least, be perceived as noble. Pssssssssht!).
Cue a crisis that’s by now a well-worn cliche: The idea of finding work in my field (cultural anthropology) was patently laughable. The crushing debt-burden, opportunity cost, and bleak employment prospects inherent in grad school made me reconsider my plans to reenter the blissfully rarefied realm of academia.
Gnawing uncertainty about my future coincided with the arrival in my life of a new roommate who quickly became a new friend. Driven, talented, and brimming with crazy-eyed passion, Madelyn Kenney is a force to be reckoned with (one day, the bread-loving public will know her name. I’m sure of it). She has a dream and a good head on her shoulders, and aspires to greatness in a niche of the food world (artisan bread baking) where old-world apprenticeships still happen. So what does she do? She writes to bakers she admires. Asks for an apprenticeship. She is fearless in her determination to perfect her craft and follow her heart.
This may sound simple and obvious; to me, it was a revelation. I started to think that maybe – just maybe – I should listen to my own heart (even as its stirrings sound at times like the ravings of a gourmand in his cups). So I followed Maddie’s example: I wrote a letter.
I chose Vif, in Fremont. Why? Look at their website, and the first thing you’ll see is the definition of their name: It’s a French adjective, meaning “alive, bright, lively, vibrant, spirited, smart, warm, stirring, perky, yearning, lusty.” All things that good food and drink should be. All things that I aspire to be.
The food and the space reflect this philosophy. A bright interior, all windows and light and clean white walls, a polished concrete floor, rows of seductively gleaming bottles, and an orderly open kitchen. Bright and cheerful even on a gray day. Lovingly-sourced wines and coffee, food that is beautiful and enlivening, even as it’s simple and wholesome. An unhurried, neighborhoody feel, utterly free of gimmicks. Not precious, not sly and hip: just unselfconsciously earnest, unabashedly happy. Real.
Beans with escarole and a soft-poached egg. Chicory salad with shaved parmesan. Currant scones. “Probably-quince” rugelach. Coffee. Wine. The beans are Rockwell beans grown on Whidbey Island, but that’s not cause for fuss. Neither is the house-made almond milk, nor the moist grey sea salt in place of familiar bright-white Kosher crystals: It’s just what tastes best.
The biographies of Vif’s owners, Lauren Feldman and Shawn Mead, struck a resonant chord. Both have long histories and varied backgrounds in food and wine. The loving zeal they bring to Vif is palpable. I wanted to learn from them. I wrote them a letter, stuffed it in an envelope with a resume and a handmade card, and dropped it off.
To my amazement and delight, Lauren and Shawn invited me to come in and spend time at the cafe: That’s how I came to be in Vif’s kitchen yesterday morning.
I didn’t know what to expect when I showed up for my stage, knife bag in hand. But Lauren gave me a tour of the kitchen, handed me a recipe, and set me to work making rhubarb streusel cakes. Then I made almond milk. I formed apple galettes and sauteed mushrooms destined for inclusion in a fritata. Throughout these tasks, Lauren issued gentle guidance and suggestions. Even though I was nervous to be a guest in someone else’s kitchen, she made me feel at ease and met my minor blunders with gracious patience.
At the end of my short, cushy work day, the women of Vif gave me lunch: Luxuriant gruyere melted over sweetly piquant peppers between slices of toothsome Columbia City bread, crunchy and golden with butter. Tomato soup with fennel, dill, fergola, and a judicious dollop of yogurt. Grilled cheese and tomato soup, done just right.
Thank you, Lauren and Shawn, for the opportunity to take part in the loveliness you’ve created!