I didn’t set out to become a cook. I simply responded to an urge that had been simmering somewhere low and slow until it boiled to the surface after my mother died. After caring for her for nearly a decade, and nearly thirty years of always doing what I should, I quit my secure job, sold my car, and hopped on a plane to Corsica. Just like that.
On the flight, a little album called Anxiety’s Greatest Hits—with songs like “What Comes Next,” “Killing My Career,” and “You Did What?”—played on repeat in my head. A bell rang, the seatbelt sign came on, the pilot announced that we were preparing for landing. I snapped out of it.
Out the window, tan and olive-green mountains emerged from the turquoise and saphire water below. Reflexively, my body softened, my thoughts eased. I took a breath. Even from high above, it was immediately apparent why the French refer to Corsica as L’Île de Beauté (the beautiful island).
The farm manager rolled up to the Bastia bus stop in a beat-up white and rust truck and beckoned me to hop in. Having worked in the fields that morning, he was still dressed in his patched work pants and dirty t-shirt, with an unruly ponytail of black hair. As we swung around hairpin turns, up and over the mountains to Saint-Florent, he spoke enthusiastically about life on the farm.
As we got closer, a valley rolled down from a crescent of jagged peaks out to sea, unfurling like a carpet woven with shrublands, red-roofed villages and farms. The region is one of the Islands’s most fertile. It’s name, the Nebbio (from the Latin nebula), conjures up the cloudlike mists that descend during winter.
I was drawn to this valley where the mountain meets the sea to work at Le Potager du Nebbio (the garden in the clouds), a farm with a “table à la ferme” (farm-to-table restaurant) run by a husband and wife team, Jérémie and Sophie Verdeau. There, fields wind their way though ancient chestnut, fig, and olive trees. The restaurant sits in a Mediterranean-style farmhouse with wide, arching doorways and airy open spaces that blur the boundary between outdoors and in.
I worked on the farm by day and in the restaurant by night. In the morning, I often found myself in the kitchen, preparing something for the evening meal. In the evening, I was always darting out to the fields to grab some last minute greens. I enjoyed moving fluidly between those two spheres.
In the kitchen, I started where everyone starts: with the dishes. Then I moved from chopping onions to plating to cooking. Before service began, we would crank up the tunes and start prepping, plating, cooking, cleaning. We moved around stations, swapping tools, recipes, and techniques. I found that I liked the dance of the kitchen.
The hours were long, the work hard, but after a few weeks, I could no longer imagine trimming myself back into the shape of my old cubicle.
“Tu es prêt à faire tes tomates?” (Are you are ready to make your tomatoes?) Jérémie asked one day, looking up at me without pausing his rapid-fire chopping. From the waist up, he was the authoritative, heavy-set French chef in a stiff, buttoned-up jacket; from the waist down, the laid back farmer in frayed work shorts.
I was standing on the threshold between the farm fields and the restaurant kitchen, covered in dirt and pollen from staking tomato plants all morning. But my French was still rusty so I thought I’d botched the translation. “What?,” I asked, seeking clarification.
“Your tomatoes!,” he cried in his thick French accent. I’d babbled on about fried green tomatoes the other day during a tractor-driving lesson: that it comes from the South where my family is from, how I make it in July with unripe tomatoes from my garden, that it uses up something that would otherwise be tossed away. I hadn’t thought he was listening.
“Oh, yes, yes. Of course! My tomatoes,” I replied, letting out a nervous laugh.
“Good, you make them tonight,” he said. Surely, I thought, he means for family meal, right?
“How many are we?” I asked.
“Thirty,” he replied. He wasn’t laughing. Thirty! He means for the restaurant, I realized. “But of course, there will come more; it’s Friday night.”
“No problem!” I said, my voice wavering with feigned confidence.
I checked the daily menu on the chalkboard just to be sure. There, in flourishing white script, was my dish: “Beignets de tomates vertes.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the fancy French translation of such a humble dish. At first, I was elated: I’m going to be making my dish! In a restaurant! Then panicked: I’m going to be making my dish! In a restaurant! For French people!
I attacked the bushel of tomatoes: I sliced then tossed them into a hotel pan. I mixed mounds of silky white flour and rough yellow cornmeal by hand. Jérémie’s wife, Sophie, showed me how to make an aioli that was as forte (strong) as the island and as spicy as she, with a rich golden hue from that morning’s eggs and green flecks of just-picked herbs from the garden: the perfect Corsican sidekick to my American dish.
Ten minutes before service, I served a plate to Jérémie. He was furious with my snail’s pace, but he approved the dish. As the orders started coming in, I finally stopped overthinking, started trusting my body, and gave in to cooking. I started moving quickly, fluidly, finally discovering the rhythm of the kitchen.
I noticed the first plates coming back into the kitchen. They were empty. One of the servers turned to me over his shoulder and said, “by the way, the guests say they love your dish.” I was relieved. But by the end of the night, I was battered and fried like my tomatoes: soaked in sweat, coated with flour, splattered with hot oil.
As the last guest shuffled out, I fired up the rest of the tomatoes for family (staff). We didn’t bother to use forks or sit down as we shared stories and savored the golden, crisp tomatoes with their tart, juicy centers. At that moment, with everyone huddled around the cast iron pan on a hot July night, the simple joy from feeding others came sharply into focus.
On my way out the door, Jérémie caught me and said, “You make whatever you want in my restaurant.” He meant it, but I knew I still had plenty of chopping and dishwashing left to do. That night, I collapsed into bed free of worry about What Comes Next. I realized that what I was doing Now felt right and would inevitably shape Next in ways I could only imagine.
Fried Green Tomatoes
Green tomatoes, sliced 1/3” thick
Oil, for pan-frying
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cumin
Dash of cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup milk
Bowl of flour (for dredging)
- Sprinkle the tomatoes with salt and set aside for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, coat a skillet with ½” oil and heat over medium-high heat.
- Mix the dry ingredients in a wide shallow bowl. Mix the egg mixture in a separate bowl.
- Working in batches, dredge the tomato slices in flour, dunk in the egg mixture, then coat with the dry mixture. Fry the tomatoes until golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels and serve piping hot with aioli for dipping (recipe below).
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, minced and made into a paste
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup grapeseed oil
- In the bowl of a food processor, process the egg yolk, lemon juice, Dijon mustard and garlic.
- Combine the oils. With the motor running, stream in the oil, a few drops at first then in a slow steady stream until all of the oil is incorporated.