The first summer job I had was busing tables in a Thai Restaurant, though by the end of the summer I was taking orders too. I would work the lunch shift from noon till two, constantly refilling glasses of ice water at tables of civil servants on their break, walk home, and return as the dinner rush was starting. It was the summer our house was sold and I was back in Ottawa after my first year of university on the west coast. I had wanted to stay in Vancouver. I was disconsolate at seeing the same shabby streets, and I hardly saw the rest of my family. Never before, it seemed, had we all worked so much– my sister as a cashier at an art supply store on Bank Street, a coveted position for a high school student, my dad as the in-house framer at the rival Loomis & Tooles further towards the Glebe, and my mother setting up her little tables of jewellery nearly every day at the Byward Market.
After my lunch shift, I sometimes walked to meet my sister on her break in one of the food courts frequented by the government workers. We took to having glasses of chardonnay late at night when I came off my later shift, trying a different wine each time, trying to memorize the ones we liked best. Or one of us– my sister or myself would visit my mother so she could use the washroom or find an iced coffee. My dad would help her tear down after his shift at work. When I came home at eleven my mother had my dinner still warm for me, the stove light on through the warm July evenings. We were like weights attached onto the ends of a mobile, spinning around a shifting axis.
It had taken me a few weeks to find that job, after a friend of a family friend had heard someone’s daughter was looking for work. I was paid a pitiful wage, but had a share in the night’s tips that increased as the weeks progressed. The wait staff were all Chinese, though the impatient head cook could yell in several dialects– Hakka, Cantonese, Mandarin. The head waiter, a younger man who I later found out was a filmmaker, almost never smiled and was constantly correcting me. Halfway through the summer he abruptly did not appear again, and it was assumed he was involved in some film project. The second in command, a middle-aged man with a chipped look about him, spoke to me in Cantonese. He was often so busy with mixing drinks, adding bills and taking phone orders that I soon began conveying orders to the kitchen, written on slips of paper, and carrying out blue dishes of curry fragrant with basil, rice, ginger chicken.
In an old coffee burner, the urn was filled with the outer leaves of lemon grass stalks and filled with water. It was flicked on at the beginning of the night, and served in teapots with tiny, thimble sized glasses. Like the giant pot of yellow chicken curry on the stove, it was never empty. I was allowed to help myself to as much as I wanted to eat of it, and I dipped bowls straight into the thick coconut milk. I learnt all kinds of tricks in the kitchen, where I loved to linger. When a patron sent back her soup one night as too salty, the chef poured a little out and topped with hot broth. I finally acquired a taste for spicy food, mellowed by coconut milk. Each week or so one of the kitchen staff– a university-educated woman from mainland China make the paste for green curry in a small hand-blender. Lemongrass, basil, garlic, ginger, lime leaves, coriander, fish sauce, soy sauce, basil were whizzed together into a fragrant cacophony. When an order came up, the chef tossed in beef or chicken or shrimp into a sizzling wok, a generous spoonful of the paste, and then coconut milk until it bubbled and thickened.
Tonight, as my rice settled down, I stirred in pieces of basa fillet into leftover curry. And more basil– you can never add too much basil. Bok choy from the Korean market that let go of its water, easily. It is important not to let the fish overcook, but simmer very gently until it makes a little bit of broth. I tell people now that I’m quite particular about my Thai food because of that summer job. But maybe it’s actually something else I’m particular about. When you take your first taste of summer, the flavours should not be overwhelming. The flavours of discontent and delight should slowly magnify against the dulling effects of the heat. Later you cannot remember anything except the empty places it filled inside you.