This Valentine's Day, I will be alone. As couples kick off a romantic weekend together, I will be catching up on work and household chores, cooking dinner for one, binge-watching Korean dramas, and eventually tucking myself into bed alone. For the past few years, I have spent the day of l'amour by myself.
Am I single? No, I'm just engaged to a cook.
My fiancé Drew is one of about 2.3 million line cooks in the country who will spend one of the busiest days in the culinary world working exceptionally hard to ensure Valentine's Day is once again a romantic and memorable dining occasion for countless couples who want to express their love.
I didn't meet my fiancé as a cook. When we first started to date, he was working as an analyst at one of the many finance firms on Park Avenue. But in our first text message exchange, he had already admitted a strong desire to trade in his secure, well-paying job for a bustling kitchen.
My initial dates with Drew revolved around food, including several of them where he would cook for us. And watching him in the kitchen gave me a sense of his passion that he expressed so early on in our relationship.
"You're a natural," I groaned in pleasure after Drew gently placed a tender morsel of galbijjim into my mouth from the dutch oven. The pot of beef short ribs, carrots, and potatoes had been simmering for several hours and had warmed the house with its rich and savory aromas. "You need to be cooking for a living."
"You think so?" He asked after returning the cover to the cast iron pot. I could see his eyes were sparkling from the compliment.
As our relationship began to progress, it was even more evident that finance wasn't Drew's passion or a long-term career for him to pursue. He was disinterested, often dragging his feet to the office and less inclined to settle into his position. Drew was more focused on finding new restaurants for us to eat at or planning out the next meal to tackle in the kitchen.
Several months later, on a muggy August evening, Drew and I found ourselves grabbing a bite to eat at Kelley & Ping, a bustling Soho noodle shop close to his then apartment. After placing our order, Drew announced that he had something significant to share with me.
"I'm going to quit my job," he said quietly while fiddling with his plastic chopsticks. A mixture of resolve and apprehension lined his face. "I'd like to start cooking for a living."
Throughout dinner, I peppered Drew with questions about this radical change. Would he go to culinary school? Would he be OK with working long hours and making significantly less money? What would happen if his newfound direction didn't work out?
"I actually care about what I'm doing," he stated. "What does it mean to me that I help so many strangers make more money? When I'm in the kitchen, I am directly in control of what I create. Whatever I cook is for that person and that person alone."
What Drew said left a lot for me to consider over our dinner of various rice and noodle dishes. We finished our meal and soon left the restaurant, returning once more to the humid and cobbled streets of Soho. But before reaching the subway, I stopped Drew in his tracks to finally express my own thoughts.
"You need to do this," I blurted out. "You need to pursue your passion. Whatever you need, you have my support."
Curiosity filled Drew's face as he took my hand into his own. "This could change us, though," he slowly admitted. "Are you OK with that?"
I found irony in his question and his unspoken fears about how our relationship could be affected by the career change. As a transgender woman, I had experienced my own insecurities about how my gender identity would impact a relationship with a guy. But Drew had come into my life and made it abundantly clear that my authentic self wasn't a barrier to our relationship. Rather, it was one of the many aspects that he both loved and treasured about me.
Now, I was in a position to demonstrate the same kind of unconditional love and support that he had shown me. I gently squeezed Drew's hand. "We'll figure it out. Together."
"I'd like that," he said, somewhat relieved. "I want to do this with you at my side."
A couple of days would follow until Drew finally handed in his letter of resignation. And after some consideration, he decided against enrolling in culinary school and instead began searching for work as a stagier, or someone who works for free in exchange for learning about new cuisines and techniques.
As a Korean adoptee, Drew was drawn to the idea of cooking where he could learn more about the culinary side of his heritage. And so he reached out to Hanjan, a Korean restaurant styled after joomaks, the historic travelers' taverns of Korea. We were first introduced to Hanjan from celebrating our first Valentine's Day together at the restaurant.
Drew nervously emailed Chef Hooni Kim and expressed his desire to stage at the restaurant, making sure to be upfront about his lack of experience. He pressed send, closed his laptop, and shook his head. "I'm not going to get a response."
I rested my head against his shoulder and offered an encouraging smile. "At least give it a week."
Within that week, my then-inexperienced boyfriend would accept the chef's invitation to stage in Hanjan's prep kitchen, where he would jumpstart his newfound career, learning how to clean squid, butcher whole chickens, and prepare kimchi. The work was repetitive and far from glamorous, but Drew was grateful that someone took a risk on him. He was intent on learning as much as he could during his few months at the Korean restaurant.
By chance, Drew had also been introduced to Chef Dan Kluger, who at the time was executive chef of both ABC Kitchen and ABC Cocina. Despite possessing only a few months of experience, Drew was surprised to receive an invitation to trail, or interview at the James Beard Award-winning ABC Kitchen. He was doubly surprised when Chef Dan offered him a job on the spot.
Drew would later go on to cook for Chef Wylie Dufresne, known for his imaginative and technically-driven dishes, and Chef Mads Refslund, a leading proponent of New Nordic cuisine who had been one of Noma's founding chefs.
Unlike his time in finance, Drew was now jumping out of bed eager to get to work and learn. And after coming home from working a 12- or 13-hour day, he would set aside time to study new recipes and cookbooks before going to bed for a few hours so he could do it all over again.
In the very beginning, I had no idea what I had truly gotten myself into. Drew would come home sticky from working all day in a piping hot kitchen, and smelling profusely of seafood or freshly peeled garlic, depending on his prep list. But soon, a variety of cuts, burns, blisters and bruises began to appear on his hands and arms.
One late night after coming home, Drew proudly thrust his hand in front of me. "Look! Look at my hand!"
I immediately jumped back at the sight of a burn on his hand that had blistered to the size of a golf ball. "Oh my god!" I shrieked with a mixture of fright and disgust. "We need to get you to the emergency room!"
"You should've seen it earlier when the sucker was this big." Drew excitedly motioned with his unscathed hand.
My frantic gaze kept switching between Drew and his swelling burn. "Aren't you in pain? This looks bad."
"I'm fine," he said, grinning. "I've seen worse on other cooks and they kept working right through it."
I hurried out of the comfort of our warm bed, ignoring his carefree attitude. "Just stay put so I can find something to wrap up your burnt hand." I rushed to search for the rudimentary first aid kit buried somewhere in the hallway closet.
"Trust me, babe," he happily shouted at me. "This won't be my last kitchen injury!"
I rolled my eyes. "Thanks for the reassurance, bro," I muttered to myself while scrambling to unearth the kit in our disorganized closet.
Since then, we have accumulated a handsome collection of band-aids, finger cots, creams and salves to bandage up his war wounds. But despite the menial work and various injuries, Drew's enthusiasm to cook and learn as much as possible has never wavered. The kitchen had transformed the love of my life into a new person filled with curiosity, confidence and ambition.
Perhaps even more surprising for me was that I would learn and grow as well. I picked up an entirely new language largely spoken by those in the kitchen. Words and phrases like mise en place, hydrocolloids and PPX started to mean something to me. My palate had become more open to sampling new and different dishes. And I quickly gained a strong amount of respect and empathy for those who worked alongside Drew in the restaurant.
Over the years, the two of us have made adjustments to how we approach our relationship.
For myself, I have learned an entirely new approach for expressing my love to Drew. Despite cooks being constantly surrounded by food, there is little time for them to actually eat throughout the day. So I often stop by Drew's restaurant to drop off a sports drink and something quick for him to eat before or after his dinner service. On a recent birthday, I surprised Drew and his coworkers with a catered meal by Korilla before the restaurant opened for dinner.
There's also the occasional late night when I pick Drew up at the restaurant so we can go home together. It's worth losing a few hours of sleep in order to watch him walk out of the kitchen and witness his weary, crumpled body spring back to life when he sees me waving from the restaurant's bar.
Drew has made his own changes to how he demonstrates his love. He wakes up with me -- sometimes on four or five hours of sleep -- for us to spend time together before I go to work. He has also kept his promise of keeping date nights alive, even though it can be an infrequent event due to his schedule. And after coming home from work, he always gives me a kiss goodnight before slipping into bed and falling asleep.
But then there are parts of our relationship that we are still figuring out. Gone are the days when we could spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays with our family. Drew is in the kitchen cooking for those who eat out. And while we have enjoyed a holiday together here and there, it's more common for us to celebrate them either a few days before or after its actual date.
Vacations are also tricky to plan for. If a cook or chef takes time off, everyone else in the kitchen is affected by their absence by either taking on a double shift, working a six- or seven-day week, or a combination of the two. So we mostly go on vacation when Drew is in between jobs -- and even then, he can't escape the allure of experiencing new food.
During that precious time off, I try to make his vacation even more memorable by surprising him with reservations at places like Alinea and Benu, where he has been humbled to receive a tour of these revered kitchens and meet the very chefs who fuel his passion to become a better cook.
My heart always bursts whenever I see Drew so happy to be surrounded by fire, knives, and other cooks driven by the same maddening desire to work even harder than before. I can see the determination in his face too when he's bent over at his station completing an order with laser-like precision. And yet, this path that I actively encourage him to pursue is what occasionally brings my fears to life.
For those like me who are in relationships with cooks or chefs, we are jokingly -- and perhaps begrudgingly -- bestowed the title of chef's widow to describe how little we actually get to see of our loved ones. I've grown somewhat accustomed to attending parties and gatherings without Drew at my side. I also had to reorient myself to spending a majority of my evenings alone.
The time apart and the physical and mental strain from the kitchen doesn't leave us with very much to give at the end of the day. And there are times when I wish Drew was with me to catch that new movie, hear the joke told by a friend, or just spend time lounging at home. On my worst days, I struggle to see how our future plans of exchanging wedding vows, building a home together and planning for a family will fit into our lives.
It's no surprise that we have argued about how to balance the demands of his job with making sure there's enough time for us.
"Do you think we'll make it?" I once asked, sitting in the passenger seat of our car. We had just returned from a late-night run to a local pizzeria, and an argument ensued about the increasing lack of time spent together.
Drew slowly pulled the key from the ignition and leaned back into the seat. The smell of spicy pepperoni and melted cheese lingered inside the car. "I understand why you're upset," he acknowledged. "I don't hold it against you. Honestly, I would feel the same way you do if the tables were turned. I sometimes get scared that cooking will leave me alone."
I wasn't sure of what else to say as silence overtook the car. The hot pizza and our uncomfortable conversation had steamed up the windows.
"You know, we have a song," Drew abruptly confessed.
I was surprised by the sudden change of course. "What? We do?" This was news to me.
"It's Your Song," he explained. "For some reason it frequently comes on when I'm in the kitchen getting ready for service. It always reminds me of you."
I recounted Elton John's lyrics in my head and could feel a tear slide down the side of my face.
"I know this is hard," Drew began, reaching across the car to take my hand into his own. "It's hard for me too. But I want you to know that you're always with me. I take you with me everywhere that I go, especially when I'm in the kitchen. I don't think that I could do this without you. That's why I will always put you first."
"I'm all in," I shakily said, feeling even more lines of tears stream down my face. I paused to clear my throat and then said more firmly, "I'm all in. That's my baseline. I want to keep making us work."
I'm not sure if anyone or anything can ever really prepare you for all of the trials that come with loving someone who cooks for a living. I also know it's not going to get any easier as Drew continues to advance in his career. At the moment he's gearing up to join the opening team of a new fine dining restaurant, and both of us already anticipate even fewer hours together than before.
But I keep putting one foot forward, because I know Drew is worth it for similar reasons of why he chooses me. The experience has made our relationship stronger. And as we both promised, we continue to keep tackling these challenges together. Because I chose this life as much as he did.
Cooking is a prominent extension of how Drew expresses his emotions. So when people ask me why Drew has chosen this path, I almost always suggest they go eat at the restaurant where he is cooking.
And while it's true that I won't get to spend Valentine's Day with my fiancé like everyone else, it makes me proud to know that so many will have the chance to experience the kind of love and passion that goes into his cooking. The very kind of love that I receive from him every day.
So once again, I will be going stag on Valentine's Day, and I am OK with that. Because after such a long night, I know that Drew will eventually come home and give me a kiss goodnight before wrapping his arms around me and falling asleep.