Category Archives: Eva

Kitchen Life

It’s just past midnight on a cold Sunday and Soomin Lee, 22, is standing in his kitchen in Peter Cooper Village, sipping a tall glass of whiskey and making an extravagant version of macaroni and cheese. He is slim, tattooed, and baby-faced, with a red bandana holding back his long, shaggy hair. Sweating slightly, he begins emulsifying his rue (thickening a sauce by adding milk). Besides his faded black sweatshirt, tight blue jeans, and impish grin, Soomin looks like a stereotypical chef: Briskly and almost violently lifting, shifting, and whirling the large pan over a high sparking flame, he mumbles to himself, wiping his brow, tasting and stirring repeatedly. Suddenly, he drops the pan and begins darting from one corner of his kitchen to the next, rapidly dicing an entire onion into tiny identical cubes, reaching his hand into boiling water to try grab a noodle, popping it into his mouth while simultaneously pouring wine and milk and butter into the sizzling pan.

Soomin doesn’t measure—or even seem to think—before he adds one ingredient after the other. “I eye it out” he explains, “that’s thing about the professional kitchen, you tend to repeat yourself so much that you memorize the recipes, and then you stop fucking referring to them. At first it’s all chemistry, it’s a science. Plus we’re constantly tasting, all day long. But [we] learn to just know when its done.” Cocking his head to the side, he pours the sauce into the bowl of steaming noodles. “But judgment and timing is one of the hardest things to learn” he admits.

He pauses to gulp down the glass of whiskey, wink, and examine his work. “Oh yeah” he shakes his head and moans, “Look at that glaze! Look at that pure sexiness. That is one fucking sexy sauce.”

I sit beside friend Hawk Donofrio, 21, and watch in awe as Soomin adds his final touches to the meal, then pours two glasses of red wine (and another large whiskey for himself) and serves us in one swoop. “Dude!” Hawk exclaims, “It’s like you have five hands!” to which he simply chuckles and responds, “Dig in.”

Rather than sit with us, Soomin jumps up onto the kitchen counter, bowl in hand. But he doesn’t eat immediately—first, he studies both of our expressions as we take the first bite. I hum in satisfaction. Hawk smiles, shaking his head slowly, licking his lips. Soomin smiles shyly, lowers his eyes,  and begins to eat.

Soomin Lee is the youngest and most inexperienced cook in the four star French bistro, Bar Baloud, located on 64th and Broadway. But this hasn’t stopped him from moving up in the culinary world: he has been promoted twice within the past six months, offered three jobs (with double the salary to encourage him to leave his current position), and is presently collaborating with an international business owner to open his own restaurant within the next five years.

But he has been interested in food long before he went to the Institute of Culinary Education, (ICE) on 23rd between 6th and 5th avenue. His earliest memory is of eating a fresh oyster on the beach. He was four when he first lifted a pan. “My grandmother is from old world Korea, and she would have to cook for the family,” he says, “so she taught me how to cook when I was a very little kid. But she’s old fashioned, and it wasn’t really ever a plan for me to eventually become a professional cook or a chef. [But] I kept experimenting all through childhood, and would always cook for myself and for the family whenever I could…”

“She hated when I made dumplings,” he continues, grinning “it was a woman’s job, a time to gossip and talk with the other girls in the family. But I started really enjoying learning about [cooking] and practicing, and I’d get addicted to recipes, and eventually it turned into this career, which I love.”

Suddenly Soomin’s features change, sharpen; more seriously and with emphasis, he adds “I love physical jobs: I was a messenger, a drummer, I worked in a printing press. I love the idea of applying myself to something that has such direct effect on people, gives them such pleasure. And at the same time I get exactly what I want out of it, and it’s very rewarding. And I love cooking. I love creating through it. I think it’s an incredible medium.

Glancing up at me, almost nervously, he continues “And it’s craft before its art. But I really like the idea that you can apply [art] to it. I mean, you eat with your eyes, your nose, even your ears. And in that respect I think its one of the greatest potential art forms.”

He believes that experiencing cuisine involves more than the food, but the service, the environment, and the atmosphere all of which are, according to Soomin, “meant to give you bodily pleasure, in every sense.”

Still, kitchen life is hectic, consuming, and dangerous. Cooks endure grueling 10-12 hour shifts without breaks, 6 days a week. Pay is low: Line cooks typically make $19,000 to 25,229 a year, sous-chefs and executive chefs make between $25,000—50,000. Bar Baloud, owned by the legendary Daniel Baloud (“the God of contemporary French cooking in America.”) is particularly hectic. Soomin describes the pressure of his job with a mix of exasperation and conceit. “Everyone knows we put up the highest numbers…” he explains, “It’s the craziest place on the planet! Well—as far as restaurants go.”

Today, Soomin completed a 14 hour double shift, severed his right index finger to the nail, and is running on less than four hours of sleep. He begins work tomorrow at 6 A.M.  Nonetheless, he is oddly energetic and upbeat. “I got tagged today!” he says, a manic energy flashing in his eyes. “Wanna see?” Before I have time to answer, he rolls his sleeves up and reveals the latest “tag,” or burn, among a jagged array of light pink and deep brown scars. One ropes wildly around his entire wrist, another forms a perfect crater of cauterized flesh just below his elbow. He pokes at the bleeding knife wound absently and mumbles, “I should probably get around to super-gluing this one closed.”

But Soomin doesn’t seem to mind the way his arms look, claiming ” it’s part of the job.” Many of the burns originate from the same kitchen-ware and are therefore identical in location, size, and shape. Because of this, a chef can often spot another chef almost immediately. “But “Most people probably think I’m some sort of nutso masochist…” he giggles. “I’m lucky it’s only my arms, not my face or my balls yet.” (Often, coworkers burn their lower regions when accidentally leaning into flat plates that reach 670 degrees) Later, I overhear him telling Hawk about a female pastry chef who “smoldered her face” and never looked the same.

The worst injury he’s seen in the kitchen? “Once a chef severed the major tendon in his thumb when he was sharpening a knife carelessly” he pieces his thumb with an imaginary knife, “The knife went right through him. He just went into the emergency room, but he severed it so cleanly they couldn’t put it back together, and he still can’t use his thumb.”

Another time, a cook cut the entire tip of his pinky finger off, straight through the nail. He refused to go to the hospital, insisting there was no time. Instead, he threw the severed flesh away, heated a metal spoon, disappeared into the hallway, cauterized the wound, and got back to work. “Because we’re fucking busy” Soomin says simply and with hint of pride. “It’s like, do that, or get fired. Your choice.”

Physical injury is not the only downside of the job. Psychological melt-downs are not uncommon, especially at the infamously chaotic Bar Baloud. Two weeks ago the head saucier of five years suffered a mental breakdown and never came back in to work. On Monday, Soomin’s AM station (in charge of making cold dishes, soups, appetizers and prep) was serving 400 people. Halfway through, “some new kid screwed up and just broke down. Crouched on the floor in the fetal position and cried like a baby.” Soomin raises his eyebrows, pausing for emphasis, and takes a heavy drag from his third cigarette. “And everyone’s just running around this kid on the floor, you know? We don’t have time to stop and take care of him.” It’s hard to tell whether Soomin feels guilt or disbelief as he lowers his voice and adds: “And then Chef reaches down, takes the cell-phone out of his pocket and calls the kid’s mother. When she picks up, Chef just goes, ‘You wasted 60,000 dollars of college tuition on your son. He’s never going to make it as a chef. He’s fired.’ And hung up.”

He may not break down publically, but even strong-headed Soomin admits he isn’t impervious to the stress. His symptoms mimic those of a war veteran: He is jumpy, hyper, tense and angry. It usually takes him several hours and a few stiff drinks to wind down after work. Even on his rare days off, he worries about the kitchen, estimates how many customers are coming in, and calls to check in on coworkers. At night, if he can sleep, he wakes up sweating and feverish, frantically chopping imaginary beats and carrots in his bed.

So what exactly appeals to a cook like Soomin?

Part of it is the impermanence of the position. In the back of every cooks mind, there is a common goal to make it out of the kitchen, open up a restaurant, and finally put personal vision and creativity into his or her work.

“For now, I’m a cook, not a chef.” Soomin says, stating sternly “But like my chef Damien said to us the other day: if you’re not here to open up you’re own restaurant one day, the doors upstairs. You can fucking get out. Because we’re all here to start or to continue or finish our time serving somebody. So we can finally open our own place. And that’s why you’re a chef. Because you have to know it in order to run it.”

Ultimately, however, it’s his zeal for food and dedication to his kitchen that drive Soomin to succeed despite all obstacles. It’s a lifestyle and a passion most people will never fully be able to understand, but to Soomin, the pain and anxiety are worth the sense of joy cooking brings him. He believes firmly in putting love into everything he makes: “Love for the food, love for the art” he says. “And also love for your kitchen, because really, whether you like them or not, at the end of the day [they become] your family.” To him, compared to all other careers, professional cooking takes the most toll but reaps the most rewards. “The great thing about this is that it’s a very specific kind of happiness,” he explains, “because I’m detached from the people that I’m making happy. I can be an asshole behind closed doors. In the end you’re doing it for people that don’t know you exist, people you’ll never even see….I’ll never see them taste the food but I know exactly how they’ll feel when they do. And I love that.”

Of course, like most young adults, there are times when Soomin doubts his choices and his future: “I miss being in a band, I miss performing…I miss sunlight” he murmurs, smiling sadly. “But I know I’m going to become a chef and open up a restaurant well before I’m 30” Then, for the first time in our conversation, Soomin hesitates, wavers. “And that’s asking a lot, that’s asking a lot. That’s pretty bold and risqué thing to say.”

A moment later, he returns to normal: crooked smirk, eyes full of mischievous charm and beaming confidence. Almost to himself, he says, “But that’s how I do it—I fucking go until it’s done. I’m going to be the best. Just give me a few years.”

City in the Sky: The Secret World of NYC Rooftops

The average New Yorker doesn’t give much thought to what goes on above the frenzied city streets: peering up, distant rooftops reveal occasional tufts of green, bits and pieces of illegible neon murals, sagging, archaic water towers, rain-warped gargoyles and elaborate façades. Separate, shrouded, and private, they are seemingly disconnected from the chaos below. But recently, New York City rooftops have formed a vibrant, budding metropolis of their own; activists, artists and entrepreneurs are rapidly transforming the once bleak and dangerous spaces into restaurants, gardens, clubs, farms and even vineyards.

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NYC Economy Plummets as Crime Soars

An inebriated homeless man is arrested on 9th street and avenue A after allegedly attacking a woman in public. He proceeded to lie in the middle of the street until his friends dragged him back onto the sidewalk. Although no one was seriously injured, crimes in neighborhoods all over New York City have been hit by a spike violence, robberies, and rapes in the past year alone.

In the past three years the nation-wide economic decline has reached an all-time low, causing an increase in the amount of street violence throughout many NYC boroughs. According to recent NYPD statistics, “Murders jumped 24.7% to 111 from 89 during the first three months of 2007 compared with the year ago period. Rapes were up 13.8% and robberies rose 4.5%”

Budget cuts have also left the Police Department with just under 37,000 officers— the smallest force in 15 years. A recent NY Post article claims that downtown Manhattan is the most targeted area:  Since 2008 assaults in Greenwich Village have increased 43 percent increase so far, the East Village has seen a 27.7 percent rise, and the Lower East Side has experienced 30 percent hike in assaults.

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A blog about upcoming events and new artists in the city: http://wearethunder.com/

Tent City

signSince it’s foundation in 1850, Tompkins Square Park, (located between 7th and 10th street, borded by avenues A and B) has always been a gathering place for artists, poets, immigrants and activists. Now, despite it’s well-groomed gardens, inviting lawns and recently renovated playgrounds, Tompkins has managed to retain its edgy atmosphere to natives and newcomers alike.

The park was utilized as a gathering place for violent riots and protests throughout the 1800’s and in 1936 Robert Moses designed the modern layout of the park in order to divide and manage crowds.

Anti-gentrification riots continue today: Protestors gathered outside of Tompkins in the “Die Yuppy Scum Rally” which took place in 2008 (photo by Michael Clancy)

By the 1980’s the park became synonymous with the city’s decay and social issues. It was, in many ways, the epicenter of homeless life, drug abuse, violence and various forms of high-crime.

Changes came in the summer of 1988, when The Tompkins Square Park Police Riot erupted in response to the mayors attempt to clear the park of homeless people. In the early 90’s, Tomkins closed for a two year period of renovation.

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East Village neighbors confronted police officers in Tompkins Square Park on Aug. 6, 1988, to protest a 1 a.m. curfew. (Photo by Ángel Franco)

With its reopening came new curfew hours and increased police activity, as well as “family friendly” additions such as basketball and handball courts, a public pool, a dog run and chess tables.

Many feel the remodeled park has had a positive impact on the neighborhood.

“It’s beautiful now” smiles Stephanie Sweet (some names have been changed upon request), 46, “But oh god, when I was a teenager? It was druggy, dirty, there was a lot of glass, bottles, needles. It was dangerous and daring to walk through it at night. We used to go in there when the bars closed and hang out. Even after they put the fence up, we climbed over them. It was just a cool place to hang out, it still is. But I was glad they changed it by time I had my daughter, I was glad that they cleaned up the park, made the children’s area safer…”

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These days, sunbathing and relaxing on the lawns is a popular activity

As a woman you couldn’t even sit there and read a book without someone harassing you. Now, look at it—girls lying there practically naked, sunbathing!”

Still others, like Rom Romburger, 40, feel the change has introduced a sense of injustice and displacement. Revealing a gap-tooth grin, he says “Alphabet City? No. This was Needle City, man, this was Tent City.”

As a teenager, Rom would hang in the park with a group of older artists and musicians. “I was a total tag along,” he admits, “but we used to just jam and drink all night. No one gave a shit about anything then” he laughs, “We all thought we were gonna be famous, y’know?”

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A Tompkins Crust Punk: In 2008, the NYPD Crust Punks were banned from their honerary bench in Tompkins

East Village poet Albert “The Sponge” Prichart, 50, has been homeless for most of his life, and recalls a time when the park was both a “sanctuary and a stage”. Sitting on “his” bench in the shaded southern corner of the park, Albee sips a beer out of a brown paper bag and chuckles, “In my time, this was a place of music—danger, too. First they took the band-shell down, then the riots—then one day I woke up and I didn’t know where I was anymore!”

Bloomberg’s (Expensive) War on Graffiti

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Since the late 1970’s the New York Transit Authority and Police Department have been waging a suspiciously quiet yet expensive “war” on graffiti. According to Getting Up: Subway Graffiti in New York, the State has invested over $150 million in graffiti removal and prevention over the past three decades. In the 1980’s the “Vandals Task Force” or “Vandal Squad,” was established as a separate, specialized police unit, and by 1996 the official “Anti-Graffiti Ordinance” (http://www.anti-graffiti.org/localrol.htm) was introduced.

Beginning in October 2004, Mayor Bloomberg’s community affairs unit began the most intense and public graffiti crackdown yet, expanding the Vandals Task Force and establishing new laws, programs and regulations.

Despite the amount of time, money and effort invested in this endeavor, Bloomberg’s website only offers a brief and vague description of the “City-wide effort…to keep New York beautiful” emphasizing clean-up projects but failing to address other graffiti-related problems such as urban decay and gang violence.

In 2004, Bloomberg passed a law that banned the possession of “an aerosol spray paint can, broad-tipped indelible marker, or etching acid…with an intent to make graffiti.” In 2005 he revised the 1996 Anti-Graffiti Ordinance, stiffening pre-existing penalties, introducing new regulations, and raising fines for both writers and vendors. For example, minors must have a signed permission slip to purchase materials or create indoor work. Fines now range from $100 to $1500 dollars depending on the level of damage and previous arrests. The mayor also changed the legal age to purchase graffiti products from 18 to 21, and introduced what graffiti writers call the “three-strikes-your-out” plan: three arrests lead to an automatic and permanent felony charge.

Recently, a “centralized intelligence database” has been introduced, which identifies and tracks known graffiti vandal’s tags. This helps The Vandal Squad build long-term cases on writers rather than making immediate arrests, greatly increasing jail time.

Bloomberg has made graffiti a public issue by introducing “community cleanup” projects which provide neighborhoods with kits “of up to 26 gallons of paint, 26 roller sleeves, and 12 roller frames” to paint over graffiti. He has also added the Task Force to the 311 system, categorizing all graffiti complaints as “urgent.” According to a recent New York Times article, Taking Aim Again at Graffiti Tools the number of calls has jumped from 2,661 in 2004 to 7,407 calls in 2006.

In addition, The NYPD developed a reward program funded by the Police Foundation. Rewards of up to $500 will be given out to anyone providing information leading to the arrest and conviction of graffiti vandals.

Consequently, graffiti arrests have been rising steadily, beginning with 1,237 arrests in 2003 to 2,962 arrests in 2008. In the past six months alone there have already been 1,583 arrests. The automatic fine for graffiti is $500, and incarceration can surpass five years in prison.

The mayor’s Quality of Life program also handles illegal dumping, rodent infestations and the removal of homeless individuals from illegally occupied areas.

According to the City Council, New York City agencies spent about $13.5 million for paint, labor and equipment to clean up graffiti in the last year alone.

NY Ink

“Hold still!” shouts 27 year old tattoo artist Isaac Adams, slurring slightly in a heavy Philadelphia accent, dirty blond hair tucked absently behind one ear, eyes swollen and glazed, following the buzzing needle. Michael Aurello, 23, looks down, wincing, then back at the wall.

In a slightly a softer tone, Isaac adds, “I haven’t slept in two days, man.  So hold still. Please.”

A look of panic crosses Mike’s face.

“Is that blood? Oh god I can feel the blood dripping!” he half giggles, half whimpers, biting his beer bottle.

“Stop being a pussy” Isaac laughs, “It’s just ink. We’re not even at your shin yet. We’re just in the muscle. Wait ‘til we get to the shin” he pauses, dips the needle in some ink, takes a drag from his cigarette, and adds in a bored tone, “Do you want a free tat or not?”

Isaac, like many tattoo artists, is self-taught and almost completely covered in tattoos, (“how else are we supposed to learn?”). Born in West Philadelphia, he left home before he was 18 and has been traveling the country since, sometimes squatting, sometimes renting large spaces with fellow tattoo artists. Currently, he works at two tattoo shops, traveling between Philly and New York every couple of weeks. He also works out of his home or brings his set of equipment to other people’s houses. For the most part, he and his friend’s lives revolve around their art—they trade pictures of their work, practice on one another, and host massive tattoo conventions.

Although his style is “classic” and simple (pin-up girls, skulls, monsters) it extremely developed, and he has spent years training in several “genres” ranging from classic Japanese imagery to Henna, as well as faces, characters, letters and scenes. “Each style has a history, a set of rules” he explains with a shrug of the shoulders. “It’s important to understand them all if you want to be taken seriously.”

But Isaac’s quiet and stubborn, and very difficult to get a straight answer out of.

“What’s it feel like getting a tattoo?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I’m always drunk when I get ‘em. Wanna find out?”

A few moments later, I try again.

“Is it true that red dye causes cancer?” I ask.
“Fuck ‘em.” He says.

Wiping blood and ink from Mikes leg, he mumbles, “It would be nice if someone in here coughed up some dough…I’m going to need a beer after this.”

The room goes silent.

“You’re all assholes” he laughs, shaking his head.

But he keeps working. His eyes are fixed, his mouth parted slightly. Occasionally he asks that a cigarette be placed or removed from his teeth. Mike’s tiny room swells with onlookers, beers clink and spill, a bong is passed around, but Isaac barely moves or speaks for over two hours. He’s been working non-stop running on little to no sleep. This is his fourth tattoo in two days. His motivation?

“I love it. It’s all I want to do. And these are my boys.”