Mettā: the Forest Through the Trees
This one snuck up on me. After wasting too many years listening to “the powers that be” and playing by other peoples’ rules, I’ve spent the last two trying to turn my life and career into fulfilling, authentic expressions of my passions–for food, for travel, for words, for creativity. I’ve been trying to make up for lost time. But making up for lost time can warp time itself. The myriad projects; the professionally and personally enriching human connections; and the minute moments that make months of hard work worth it together all conspire to speed life up. A month disappears in a blink of an eye. Suddenly I am a year older. Some milestones can be crossed off the bucket list and countless opportunities have fallen by the wayside. Keeping score seems pointless; being grateful seems essential.
I opened a restaurant. It’s called Mettā and it’s already a month old. I know it’s ridiculous, but parenting metaphors abound. The truth is that I was so focused on last minute travel and getting writing jobs completed before Mettā was “born,” that I almost denied to myself that the restaurant — a tangible, solid home for our culinary ideals that requires constant love and attention — was coming at all. We had a rock solid team for this opening and much of the responsibilities that I usually expect to shoulder were captained by my teammates, which allowed for my last minute freedoms. I joke that I was like a girl who had a one night stand and casually admitted there was a chance she might be pregnant, all while going about her chores and incrementally losing the ability to see her feet past her protruding belly. And then Mettā was here and real and like any lovestruck (co)parent, I thought my baby was an absolute genius from the start.
There’s much strange symmetry about how Mettā came to be. If you’d told me six years ago, when I was taking a cooking class at French Culinary, waitressing at the Breslin and had just started The Lovage that this was where I was headed, I never would have believed it. And yet, six years ago, a little Northern Italian restaurant called Rucola opened a block from where I lived in Boerum Hill and I went in and wrote a typically naive and heartfelt blogpost that lead to meeting the owner, Henry. It was his first restaurant.
Then my ex and I sold Henry a bunch of our furniture and moved to Spain together for a fresh start. And soon thereafter, fresh starts not all having been created equal, I moved back…alone and without a home. I stayed on my aunt’s sofa for months, saving up all my pay from the Breslin, where I had been welcomed back as a waitress with open arms and where I spent ample time in the service hall, sobbing regretfully over my broken heart. But hard as those years were, I see now that I was already on my path (I was starting to write professionally at least sporadically and had identified the food sphere was where I wanted to be in some capacity…in several capacities, as it turns out.) The road was still murky but I was heading in the right direction.
Now Henry, Negro, Peter and I are partners. I could have met Argentine Negro in South America when I was there giving myself a perspective makeover, learning to enjoy life and trust myself again, but I didn’t; Henry introduced us in New York. If you’d told me I’d open a restaurant with my boarding school roommate’s hubby (Peter), I’d have laughed; and yet there’s no one else I would have done it with. There are a lot of ironic, mysterious wrinkles to how a project like this comes together. In this case, they are what make it a pleasure to come to work — to my work family; a phenomenon I observed in chefs and restaurant folks who I loved, but never fully understood until now. Oh my, what I have learned about giving and receiving feedback in this first month!
It’s not as though I feel I’ve reached my final destination, Lord no, not at all; I’m too fickle and full of wanderlust for that. But Mettā — with its idealist core, its sustainable sourcing that favors offcuts, its hearth where everything on our menu is cooked with fire, its hand-hewn ceramic lamps the shape of wasps nests — makes all those years of struggling and feeling at at sea have purpose. We were lucky and our early services at Mettā were busy ones, and I felt supremely grateful for all my years of waiting tables that guided me through the room to polish knives and restock the back bar with glasses — small quiet tasks that do more to keep a service smooth than talking to tables or barking orders.
Simply knowing to say “behind you” and “corner” made my heart swell because it gave meaning to the time in 2006 when I waited on a wealthy Upper East Side jerk, and he said, “Come on, Tarajia, why the hell are you waitressing? Isn’t your dad rich?!” or the time that mediocre famous actress who also grew up in New York and who knew full well that I’d gotten a great education, looked down her beaky, pore-less nose at me and cruelly said, “I’ve never heard a waitress use the word ‘interim’ before.” All those years. All those tears. So much time thinking I couldn’t find the path, not realizing I was on it.
Now we’ve made a little place modeled on the concept of loving-kindness (Mettā is the Buddhist practice of sending benevolence out into the world.) We have a zero-carbon footprint. I’m learning about weird and wonderful future-food ingredients like elecampane and ashwagandha. Our chef, Negro, insists we compost all food waste and so its picked up every other day and fed to Pennsylvania pigs. It’s a pleasure not a chore to get on board with Negro’s mania about sustainability. It helps me sleep better at night, gives me a sense of hope and confirms all my theories about things needing to be simpler, slower, adherent to older models. And so I reach willingly into the fish spines, short ribs, cabbage stems and oyster shells of compost buckets to extract a rubber glove or plastic straw when I see one (yelling over my shoulder at our guys to “Get with the program!”). I clean the toilets when they need cleaning. I wash the windows when the afternoon sunlight shows their streaks. I water our plants and fuss over them, fluffing their long cool leaves. C’est normal. When you have a kid, you do whatever needs doing, and, as it turns out, you enjoy doing it…especially if your kid nourishes people and makes them smile and plays African folk music in the afternoon light and smells of roasting lamb and palo santo. For a kid like that, I’d do just about anything.
Mettā, 197 Adelphi St., Brooklyn, 718.233.9134
All images by Katie June Burton for Mettā (except the one of me climbing on the windowsills to reach our plants…that’s mine.)