More Than Cooks Are We

© Disney/Pixar

I didn’t go to college to scoop ice cream, but lo and behold, not three months after graduating magna cum laude, there I was behind a serving counter. For nearly two years, I supported myself by scooping ice cream. I was full-time, making some change above minimum wage, desperately staying afloat by surviving paycheck to paycheck. I had graduated with aspirations of becoming a playwright or a comedian. I was neither. A man pointed at me at a comedy show we both attended and shouted: “Ice cream girl!”

That was me.

My peers were doing better. They were consultants and educators and researchers. They were in law school. They were nuclear engineers. And when we’d gather for reunions, be it around the holidays or Thanksgiving or when they’d pass through my city, I’d keep my mouth shut. When they asked about work, I’d talk about the minimal freelance I was doing on the side.

“Don’t you, like, work at an ice cream place?” people would ask.

“Oh yeah,” I would answer, as if I had forgotten, and then I wouldn’t say any more. To myself, I’d repeat, your job does not define you, your job does not define you until I believed it.

Ratatouille (2007) is a film about opposites: a rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) who can cook and a cook named Linguini (Lou Romano) who cannot. In a series of mix-ups (hey, it’s a Pixar film), the two make an unlikely duo who team up to find a place in a fast-paced Parisian kitchen at a restaurant called Gusteau’s. Both are hiding: Remy, from his family and friends, whose legacy he fears, and Linguini, from his heritage and where he really belongs in the world. Together: they are a brilliant cook. Together: they could be anyone.

Remy’s curse in this film is not that he is a rat but that he is so swayed by his love of food. He has to cook. It’s what he’s meant to do. Everything about it brings him tremendous joy. Scooping ice cream did not bring me joy, necessarily, but it helped that I loved ice cream. I’ve nursed a significant sweet tooth since a young age. It could be worse, I’d remind myself, I could be in a food job with a food I hated. People used to ask me if I grew sick of ice cream.

“When I finally stop loving ice cream, there will be a much bigger problem,” I’d tell them.

*

This is what it’s like to work in the service industry: you’re on your feet, you’re standing, you’re sweating, you’re sticky, you’re always talking and you’re always dehydrated. When the shop is closed, you’re not done. You stay late and you clean for at least an hour. You wipe everything down and you do dishes and you mop. You lock up the shop. You go to bed. It starts all over again the next day. You have no weekends. Every day might as well be the same day.

“We are artists, pirates. More than cooks are we,” Collette (Janeane Garofalo), another chef in the kitchen, explains to Linguini, and it’s true. “Horst has done time,” she explains, pointing out other members of the kitchen staff. “Larousse ran guns for the Resistance.”

No one who works in food service is just a waitress, just a barista. It’s dismissive and silly to say they’re all failed English majors, because they’re not that either. They’re musicians and actors; they’re activists and volunteers; they’re mothers and fathers. For every college student trying to make an extra buck over the summer, there’s someone with a culinary degree asking you to sample their homemade strawberry peppermint ice cream.

It wasn’t that I became one of them; I was always one of them. But I acclimated to the culture. We’d get out at 1am and hop on bicycles to a local bar or coffee shop and talk about the night’s work. We had something to say about every flavor. We talked about customers. It became the language I was most fluent in.

At Thanksgiving, I would see my high school friends and we’d talk about our lives and our work. I kept quiet, for the most part, interjecting every now and then to talk about my comedy. One of our friends came a little later to the bar. “What’d I miss?” he asked, taking a seat across from me.

“Fran’s talking about comedy,” someone said. “She’s a famous comedian now.”

“Famous comedian?” this guy laughed. “Won’t that get in the way of her professional ice cream scooping?”

I left. I stood up and I grabbed my purse. “I have to go,” I said briskly.

*

In my first viewing of Ratatouille, all I could see was Paris. This was the city, I thought, where you go to become a writer or an artist or a cook. In Paris, everyone is creative and no one struggles. It’s all cobblestones and arches, cheese and bread. Film does not help this image of Paris. On screen, Paris is a fantasy world.

I saw Ratatouille in theaters the year it came out. I was 16. I am very much a child of the Pixar generation. I don’t think I’ve missed a single one in theaters and I understand each film they produce to be something of an experience, something so much more than just a movie. At the age of 16, I had not yet been out of the country. I hadn’t done anything. I just liked Pixar movies.

I wouldn’t go to Paris for another year, but I would watch Ratatouille in the theater as a high school student and I would get goosebumps up and down my arms. To me, this was Paris; lights and food and creativity. It was a sneering sense of humor and high culture. I was taking high school French and I was understanding bits and pieces of words in the film. I laughed at the in-jokes: the couple all in black, fighting and screaming, and in the next scene, kissing. I knew, or at least I thought I knew, what it was trying to say about the city of Paris: anything could happen there. You could be anyone. You could do anything.

*

When I say I supported myself on my ice cream paycheck for two years, I’m stretching the truth. I was self-sufficient with a full-time job for those final six months. I was a 9-5er just like everyone else. I was finally in my industry, writing and doing comedy, and still there I was every weekend, scooping ice cream.

I wasn’t actively keeping my ice cream job a secret from my new coworkers, but I also wasn’t forthcoming. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of having the job: I was ashamed of how much I liked it. It was startling that working my dream job didn’t do it for me, at least not right away. I still needed the standing and the sweating. I needed ice cream glued to the length of my forearm and having to ask if someone wanted hot fudge on that.

When I inevitably did quit my ice cream job—close to the two year mark, if only because for the first time since graduating, I desperately wanted a weekend to myself—it was a huge fanfare. I asked everyone I knew to come see me scoop on my last day. I wanted to be recognized and to be seen at that job.

“It’s like you’re graduating,” someone told me as I served them some passionfruit frozen yogurt, “magna cream laude.”

I’ve been out of the service industry for nearly three months now. The weekends are good. I get more sleep. I can feel my upper body strength waning without the constant churning motion, but it’ll be all right. I still go out for ice cream all the time. I love it. I never got sick of it. At the end of Ratatouille, food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) is ultimately won over by his love of food. We eat for a reason. For Ego, it’s a memory of his mother. It’s a comfort. I have an emotional connection—mostly positive—with every single flavor I ever scooped. I can still name them all.

I took some friends from out of town to brunch recently, and watched a waitress weave in and out of tables, carrying plates up her arm.

“I should get a waitressing job,” I mused aloud. “I’m sick of my weekends.”

“You must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from,” Chef Gusteau explains to Remy. A week after I left my job in food service, I got an ice cream tattoo. I define my own limits. It’s who I am.