This is the time of year that I think back on a dear friend of mine who worked with me for years and then, suddenly, passed away. Now as you read that, I don’t want you to go and get maudlin on me. I am a great celebrator of life. I think that one’s passing is just as much a part of our daily lives as one’s birth. The two go hand in hand, and the circle of life continues. So shake loose your sadness and sorrow as this story progresses and look for the goodness that is born from the loss of one who is dear to us.
I worked with Kirk Thornburg at Walker’s. He also started when they moved to the new location and because of a more extensive and varied cooking background he was admitted to the ranks of line cook faster than myself. He served as our sauté cook, meaning that all pasta dishes and every single vegetable that garnished a plate was made by him. On top of that, most of the sauces had to come from his station as well. Kirk was calm and collected, always, and never let the line beat him. My first time on the grill station I had him on sauté, and despite my wildly unfocused approach to the grilling of a New York strip loin, Kirk was able to follow my every step and all the food that we cooked together that night came out in tandem with very little waiting on the part of our customers.
In our industry, calm and collected is rare, but Kirk was unwavering in this. I saw him angry maybe twice in the four years we worked together, and both times he was angry at himself, not at anyone else. He felt that he could have done a little better than he did one night and it upset him, greatly. To approach the job with such a sense of self pride and standards, I was always impressed by that. The second time he was angry was because he had fallen behind on keeping up with the orders. It was entirely the fault of the grill cook (no, not me, not that time anyway) but Kirk would not say a word to him, instead taking the responsibility on himself and choosing to think that had he just been more focused he could have pulled the line together again. That’s all the angrier he ever got. He never threw a pan (something I am completely guilty of), he never broke into a string of curse words that would make a sailor blush (again, guilty on my end), and he never once threatened to murder a dishwasher (no comment). Kirk was cool. And this was the case in a job filled with decidedly uncool people.
As sauté chef at Walker’s it was your job to come up with the soup for the day and to make a pasta special if you had time. Kirk was always tremendously proud of his soups and would often take the better part of his prep to make the best soup he could muster. This would frequently leave him with little to no time to develop a pasta special and so he would usually skip it. One day, he was working on his famous green chile chowder and a couple of the servers begged him to please come up with a pasta special for the night. He didn’t want to because the green chile chowder was also a time eater and usually kept him busy right up until the last three minute smoke break before customers started filing in. But Kirk was also one who never wanted to disappoint. And so, with minutes to spare, and foregoing his smoke break, the servers stood in the circle at the center of the kitchen as all the station chefs went over what would be their special for the night. When it got to Kirk he described his soup and then said, “And then, you know, just a basic pasta.”
To which the servers replied, “What’s a basic pasta?”
“You know, just basic. Nothing complex or anything, just a nice basic pasta.” Kirk said.
Silence for longer than should have been tolerated. “What makes it basic?”
“It’s just basic!” He said, as loud as Kirk said things.
“What’s in it?” Leslie asked, because that’s always what Leslie asked.
“Tomatoes, basil, white wine, butter, little lemon juice, some parm to finish.”
Again, silence for longer than should have been tolerated, and then Nick said, “So…just basic then.”
And the Basic Pasta was born! And subsequently added to the early autumn menu for the remainder of Kirk’s tenure there.
What Kirk saw as basic was actually quite complex and beautiful. We had just gotten tomatoes in from our grower and so they were the most beautifully ripe, fresh tomatoes that could be found in the entire state. They were sweet and delicious and vibrant red, almost to the point of glowing. The basil was end of season basil, so much stronger and darker than early spring basil. The white wine was actually a nice buttery chardonnay that complimented the tomatoes perfectly. The lemon juice added some acid where the tomatoes had nearly none at this time of year, and then the parm gave it that nice nutty finish and an aroma like an Italian momma’s kitchen. All these things, combined with imported spaghetti noodles, made up his pasta special that became a Walker’s favorite for years. So, you know, just basic.
Kirk was always soft spoken and had such a good sense of humor. He was always able to find the humor in anything going on in the kitchen. Hambone, from my previous blog post, was singing the lyrics to his own version of Bad Company’s “Rock and Roll Fantasy” when Kirk admitted to him that he had heard the line “Here come the jesters; one, two, three” in his youth and thought the line was “Here come the Jetson’s, just for me.” Hambone loved this so much that he adopted the line and never sang it any other way again.
We wore chef whites at Walker’s, all stored in a linen closet below stairs and washed on premises; most of them were holey and ragged and barely any form of protection at all. But they were our chef whites, and we donned them proudly at the start of each service. One night, Bernie (a character for another blog) was working grill while Kirk worked sauté. The service had slowed and Kirk was leaning against his station staring out at the sea of smiling faces consuming the food he’d just had a hand in cooking. Bernie sidled up to him and, ever the prankster, took one of the aim n’ flames and set fire to the back of Kirk’s coat. When your stove or the pans you are cooking with burst into flames in this job, you call out to the unfortunate soul whom it has happened to and say, “You’re on fire.” This allows them to react and douse the flames wherever they may be. Well, as Kirk’s coat started to burn, Bernie called out, “Kirk, you’re on fire.” Kirk spun around and looked at his empty stove without pans and then looked back at Bernie, quizzically. To which Bernie replied, “No, you. You. Are. On. Fire.” Kirk shucked his coat and stomped it out and where most of us would have lunged at Bernie with a knife, Kirk just laughed and went outside to smoke; both literally and figuratively.
Another thing I always admired about Kirk was something that so rarely happens in this industry. Every night, before we closed the line, he would sit down and have dinner. And I mean physically sit down and eat. Most of us don’t eat anything at all and when we do we stand over the sink or a prep table and shovel it down our throats as quick as we can. Kirk had a reverence for his meal and refused to do that. He would throw together a pasta dish or a few scrap pieces of pork and once it was done he’d plate it, walk down to the end of the hall where we stored the onions and potatoes, and then he’d pull out our step stool we used to grab the rare spices, sit down, and silently eat dinner. Occasionally a server would join him for conversation or a passing chef would ask what he’d whipped up but almost every night, Kirk would sit down and enjoy his dinner. That’s a trait I wish I could have picked up.
Kirk had a form of epilepsy that had troubled him since he was 14. They never found a trigger for it, that he had ever mentioned to me leastwise, and he simply had to take his medication and hope that he’d be without struggle. In my fourth year at Walker’s Kirk had a couple of seizures during shift and a third before service one day that forced him to stay home. He confided in me that they were prevalent, but not a constant and that he felt like it was getting less instead of worse. I left Walker’s that year and of the original kitchen crew that opened the doors at Walker’s, only Kirk and myself remained. As I walked out the door that last night I said, “Kirk, we’re the last two that know what Tamara means when she says she’ll have a basic pasta for dinner.” He smiled and we shook hands and said our goodbyes. He later left Walker’s and then, after leaving his current job one night, he was hit head on by a truck and did not survive the crash. They do not know, but suspect, that he most likely had a seizure and was probably not conscious when the horrific event happened.
I was running Italia at that point and it was early autumn. When Tamara told me the news I went downstairs and rewrote the menu before service started and I added a pasta. It was bucatini noodles with tomatoes, basil, butter, white wine, and lemon juice. So…you know, basic. I called it Pasta Alla Thornburg which translates to Pasta in the fashion of Kirk. And to this day, you will generally find it on my menu when tomatoes are in season and basil is pungent and dark. It is an homage to my dear friend whom I had the great honor of working with for a long time at a place we both loved and called our own. And it’s because sometimes basic is the best, even if you only put it together three minutes before service and gave up a smoke break for it.
So this blog, and this dish, are in memoriam to Kirk. He will never be forgotten, not so long as there are tomatoes in the world.