Sacred Valley Sky Lodge

As I gear up for my next trip, I am guiltily reminded of just how much I dropped the ball in blogging about Peru. Like always, I took hundreds of photos and constantly jotted down interesting things, people and memories...but then I came home, got back to the daily grind, and that motivation to share and reflect evaporated. But this particular part of the trip was so extraordinary that it is worth posting about, even months after the fact.

Run by mountaineers, Sacred Valley Sky Lodge is dedicated to providing unique excursions. Ours began by getting picked up from our hotel in Cuzco and driven a couple hours away to the base of a formidable rock face. Standing at the base and squinting upward, we could barely make out our accommodation for the night - pods (think the fanciest, most tricked out portaledge you can imagine) anchored by cables some 500 meters above.

Donning harnesses, helmets and gloves, we began climbing via ferrata (i.e. hooked onto a metal cable and gripping what are essentially large metal staples stuck into the rock). We reached the pods just as the sun was setting, and settled in while we waited for the guides to return with dinner. In the meantime we marveled at the panoramic views of the valley and the amenities - ridiculously comfortable bunks, purified water, an eco-friendly toilet. 

Over the course of the next forty-five minutes, our guides came in and out to serve us a multi-course - hot! - meal for which they'd partnered with a local restaurant. Dinner included pumpkin soup with various condiments, quinoa with chicken and roasted tomato, salad, and a brownie with passionfruit sauce and pomegranate seeds. Drink pairings were passionfruit juice and red wine. Oh, and we had real silverware and glasses. Elated, but tired, we slept well that night.

In the morning we had breakfast at a makeshift table erected on a platform resting on top of an adjacent pod before getting ready to head down - this time by zip line. It was my first time doing so, and quite possibly the closest I'll ever get to flying.

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Via ferrata.

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Our pod.

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Zip lining down.

See more photos here.

The Bedside Dispatches

[Repost from June 16, 2015]

Around Thanksgiving of last year, my grandmother decided to stop taking all of her medications. Between the diabetes, the blood thinners, the Parkinson’s, and God knows what else she didn’t divulge to us grandkids, she had been taking some fifteen to twenty pills a day. It was a Big Deal; a decision with untold consequences for her and the rest of the family.

Had she lived 560 miles north, in Oregon, perhaps she would have opted for assisted suicide. But in California, where she’d resided for most of her life, the only option she had was to wait or, as she put it, to “let nature take its course.” It sounds poetic and dignified that way but, in reality, the last days are anything but.

***

I remember crying when the test results came back with the Parkinson’s diagnosis, several years before the present but many months after the tremors first started. (It had taken my mother and her siblings a long time to convince her to see a neurologist). We had recently said goodbye to my other grandmother, but mostly I was stricken with the sheer unfairness of it all.

Not long after losing their own mother, an older sister and her lewd husband brought my grandma from Manhattan to California thinking that their father would comp the transportation costs; he didn’t, and grandma was promptly ditched at an Oakland orphanage. Realizing that no one was coming back for her, she started working as household help and did well enough in high school to attend the University of California Berkeley, where she met my grandfather.

Married life brought grandma immeasurable happiness and prosperity, but despite such hardship early on she’d been dealt the trump card of bleak prognoses: an incurable degenerative disease. Sometimes I wished she had cancer instead.

***

“But Parkinson’s isn’t fatal,” people said to me on the rare occasion that I spoke up about her condition, as if not being able to do the things you once loved to do and, eventually, eat or talk weren’t a big deal. There is no coming back from a degenerative disease. Modern medicine can mitigate and perhaps delay the symptoms, but they will get worse. My grandmother didn’t have it as bad as some do in the early stages, but she had read the literature; she knew the hellish half-life she would eventually be reduced to and she didn’t want it. 

Others seemed to think that it was my duty to change her mind, convince her to go back on the meds and prolong her life a little. But to what end? You cannot help a person who doesn’t want to be helped. (I know from the multiple false starts in behavioral cognitive therapy it took me to finally overcome an eating disorder). These same people are part of the group that doesn’t fully grasp the concept of quality of life until faced with the abject lack of it. To try to force her into staying alive longer just for our benefit would have been selfish.

Besides, I had already seen my paternal grandmother go through the motions: losing driving privileges owing to an accident covered in the local paper, being deemed unfit to live alone and then, after taking too many falls, requiring full-time care and moving from senior apartment complex to nursing home. Bedridden, wheelchair-bound, confused about which year it was and even who we were when we visited — for most of the time that I knew her she was a mere vestige of the woman she once was.

With access to advanced technology and medicine, we are obsessed with quantity over — and sometimes in spite of — quality. We automatically assume that a longer life is a better one. My paternal grandmother was 97 when she passed away, and during the last several years of her life she’d frequently say, “I never meant to live this long.” If I had asked any of the other three elders who shared a room with her in the nursing home, I’m sure they would have said something similar.

***

I was in China when my parents broke the news about grandma’s decision, and several days later I was back by her side to assist in the hospice care efforts. It was a confusing and difficult time trying to reconcile the sweet, generous optimist that I grew up with, versus the frail, withdrawn woman who dozed on the couch all day and whose routine (formerly waking early, gardening, sewing and running the household) had been reduced to watching Charlie Rose at noon and otherwise flipping between news channels. 

The grandma I knew had a healthy appetite and would stock the fridge with things you liked if she knew you were coming, and so in the beginning I convinced myself that she was depriving herself on purpose. After all, with assisted suicide off the table, self-starvation seemed the next logical step. But then I read the pamphlets provided by hospice and realized that it was an inevitable part of the process.

Pretty soon she would take in nothing at all. Pretty soon, she would fall asleep and not wake up again. But in the meantime we all had to watch her grow ever thinner and weaker.

***

Whenever grandpa asked if he could do anything she’d say, “I wish there were a button I could press so I could just end it all.” She was almost petulant in her desire for it to be over. How could she know, how could any of us know, that even without all the meds it would be a matter of weeks and not days?

When, the second week of December, a beloved sister-in-law passed away, she said, “Oh, I wish it had been me. She had so much more to live for.” Tears stinging in my eyes, I wanted to grab her bony shoulders and scream, “What about me? What about us?”

I hated myself for being frustrated with her; she was dying after all. And what are weeks of difficult, child-like behavior compared to years of birthday and christmas gifts, handmade dresses and happy memories?

Whoever first said that love conquers all was, at best, delusional.

***

We all offered to help — turning her, transferring her between sofa and wheelchair, adjusting pillows, but at first she would only accept assistance from my grandfather. I get it; sixty years of marriage breeds an intimacy so strong that it diminishes the awkwardness of being sponge bathed and changed, but as I saw him don a back brace and lose his balance (not while holding her, thank God), I began to worry about him almost as much as I did her. I couldn’t imagine ever reaching that level of closeness with another person.

Who will take care of me when I am infirm and unable?

My mother often says that old age emphasizes “essential” personality traits (mostly, I believe, to explain her own father’s many eccentricities), but I preferred to think that my grandma had already departed this world, and that the figure that grandpa wheeled into the kitchen every morning (still alive, to her chagrin and my relief) was just a shell that would soon be cremated and reduced to ash. I tried to love her as best I could, but she had changed.

***

I would sit with her in the living room, almost afraid to look at her for fear that I wouldn’t see the barely perceptible rise and fall of her chest. The nurse said that her heart was racing to maintain a resting rate, which we all knew wasn’t sustainable. She hardly spoke any more, and when she did it was only to ask for something — a sip of water, a change of channel.

Some days I made excuses to stay away. The monotonous blare of CNN and BBC made me more informed of current events than I’d been in months, but her complete disengagement from her surroundings stung. And it pained me to see how small she had become. With all her fat and muscle tissue wasted away, she developed a bed sore — a combination of chafing and sitting too long and her sacrum tearing through the fragile skin that caused her great pain.

***

Against all odds, she made it to Christmas, and then New Year’s. She was too weak by then to protest against people other than grandpa helping her.

What’s harder to change: a baby or an elder? Our eagerness to help, matched only by our fear of failure, led to clumsy ineptness. A frantic, disorganized mess. 

***

By January her once plump figure had truly diminished to wrinkled skin hanging off the bone. And she was always cold. “I’m sorry for all the trouble,” she’d whisper as we finished up.

“No,” I found myself saying as I pulled the blankets back over her, “I’m sorry.”

She looked like a child in the XL twin hospital bed that we set up when the combination of bed sore and sitting became too much, peering over the covers at the TV. It was hard to tell if her eyes were open and if she was asleep or not, but as I leaned over she’d sense me, give a small smile and say she was fine.

Trepidation crept up every time I checked because I knew that there would soon come a time that she wouldn’t open her eyes, wouldn’t smile again, or have a witty response at the tip of her tongue. In hindsight, a sharp mind trapped in a useless body seems the cruelest kind of imprisonment.

***

I think she would have laughed to know that it ended with a bowel movement. She asked us to change her, but her stomach was still clenching, so we waited. And then she was cold, so we covered her back up. The convulsions proved too much for a body with nothing left to burn, for not long after I tucked her in she stopped responding and began panting for breath.

Truthfully, it was an awful noise like a sound effect from The Walking Dead, but my fear retreated when I realized what was happening. I worried that it would take hours, but the movement, the breath — everything — ceased about thirty minutes later.

I just hope it didn’t hurt.

***

She had tried to say goodbye months earlier, that night I first left for Asia, but I was stubborn and refused to believe that it would be The Last Time. So I hugged her and gave her a kiss — I remember her cheek being damp with tears — and I said, “Don’t worry, I’m coming back.”

I wish I could remember what exactly it was that she had told me moments prior, something about achieving success in everything that I do, because that was it. Our last real conversation.

***

I held her hand the whole time, and when it was over my uncle made the appropriate phone calls. First the hospice nurse, who came and called the time of death and filled out some paperwork, and then the morgue, who sent two men in dark suits and wool coats. What a strange job it must be to wear fancy clothes and wait by the phone for tidings of death, then give canned words of comfort while asking if the deceased has any metal in her body — a pacemaker, maybe? They filled out more papers with answers we gave numbly.

I pressed my lips to her forehead one last time, then stood back as the men lifted her onto a gurney, zipped her up and took her away.

Ruby Doshim Lai (b. July 26, 1929) passed away in her home, surrounded by family, on January 10, 2015. 

Tales From the Inca Trail, Part 3

On the third day we had a 4 am wake-up call (a throwback to my days as a baker) with a planned departure at 4:30, but in the night one of our group had come down with a nasty stomach bug. The guide went tent to tent asking for medicine, and I gladly parted with my small bottle of Immodium tablets that I, thankfully, hadn't needed.

At dinner the night before, our guide had gone over the plan for day three many times, breaking it down into sections: up from the campsite to the ruins of a lookout point, then up to the pass, down 3000 steps, lunch at Wiñawayna, passing through the checkpoint by 2:30 pm, one hour trekking to the Sun Gate, another hour to Machu Picchu, and hopping on the last bus just after 5pm to take us to nearby Aguas Calientes, where we would stay in hostels. But, of course, nothing ever goes completely according to plan.

Shivering in the darkness broken only by the beams of our headlamps, we followed our guide single file out of the campsite and onto the steep trail, too sleepy to talk. The incline wasn't terrible; I was more concerned for the stretches to come, which our guide had described as "Inca flat" (making undulating gestures with his hand). In addition to making the last bus to town, the goal of the early departure was to be able to see the sunrise from the first ruins, but it was far too misty and foggy. Nonetheless, the mountains were spectacular, and the haze only lent an ethereal, mystical quality.

Dawn...or something like it.

Dawn...or something like it.

Onward we pressed to the third pass, where we'd been promised cell phone service to get in touch with our father. My brother called him, and learned that mom had suffered a combination of altitude sickness and dehydration, but was doing much better. They would be waiting for us in Aguas Calientes. I Instagrammed the first of many photos. We joined the rest of the group for a brief respite but, unlike others around us, ours had opted to set up for breakfast a bit further along the trail. 

From the breakfast point to Wiñawayna, the trail* passed many other ruins that begged to be explored. Our pace put us somewhere in the middle of the pack, and even though we'd thought we were making good time, we dared not dally too long. We later learned that we had barely missed the cut off for seeing Intipata, the last and loveliest of the ruins, for the group not far behind us had been told to skip it and go directly to the lunch spot. 

Sayaqmarka.

Sayaqmarka.

Qonchamarka.

Qonchamarka.

The terraces of Intipata.

The terraces of Intipata.

Lunch was a welcome yet slightly stressful affair, as the slowest trio in our party had yet to arrive and time was ticking. Our guide seemed calm but I noticed how he kept checking his watch. Indeed, for the first time, we were encouraged to eat quickly, and by the time we had all donned our packs again it was past when the checkpoint was supposed to close. Our guide used a walkie-talkie to communicate with someone at the station and, thanks to my moderate proficiency in Spanish, I could immediately tell he was trying to persuade her to keep the checkpoint open for us. It worked. But, still, we were behind schedule and still had two hours of hiking to go.

Onward we trekked, occasionally pausing for snacks, water and photos, but with the pressure to make the last bus to town bearing down every more heavily. Finally we came to a brutal set of stairs so steep it was like a ladder carved in stone. This must be it, I thought, we're at the Sun Gate! For the first time I was glad that I didn't have poles because I could go up the stairs on all fours - the only method that seemed safe when the hefty pack on my back threatened to make me topple backwards. I reached the top before my brother and his girlfriend, and therefore was the first to realize that we were not, in fact, there yet. 

"Are you fucking kidding me?" I couldn't help but yell at the gorgeous scenery.

Hitting the trail.

Hitting the trail.

View from the Sun Gate.

View from the Sun Gate.

Empty Machu Picchu.

Empty Machu Picchu.

Fortunately the Sun Gate was quite close and, for the first time, we caught a glimpse of Machu Picchu. But, once again, we had precious little time to revel in our accomplishments thus far - we still had a bus to catch. The anticipation of finally reaching Machu Picchu was reinvigorating; particularly the prospect of snapping photos of it devoid of tourists, as the park would be closed by the time we arrived. 

It's hard to sum up what it felt like when we finally stood at the end of the path overlooking the famed city. Exhaustion, exhilaration, wonder, and pride are just a few of the sensations that come to mind. When we got to Aguas Calientes not long after, and Cuzco a couple nights after that, I found it hard to readjust to civilization. In just a few days on the Inca Trail I had become so used to the silence, the mountains, and the stars at night; the feeling of simply being engulfed by nature. Months later, now that I'm back at home in the Bay Area, which is full of traffic and light pollution and people interacting through the medium of technology rather than face to face and still saying things that they don't really mean, I long for the simplicity of myself and my backpack making our way through the world. 

*By this point the trail was maybe 2 feet across, with no railing insulating trekkers from a very steep drop-off.

Tales from the Inca Trail, Part 2

The porters woke us at 5 am, rattling the side of our tent and offering a choice of beverage (coffee or coca tea). (Nothing like a hot stimulant to get you going before dawn)! We had forty minutes to get ourselves together and head to the mess tent, so that the porters could start breaking camp, after which we downed a hasty breakfast and ultimately hit the trail by around 6:30. Thus began The Climb.

For reasons relating to end-of-rainy-season mudslides, our guide had decided it best to forego what is usually the third night on the trail and condense the journey into two nights and three days of trekking. But, even so, anyone in our group (okay, maybe not the girl who caught a stomach bug on the second night) would tell you that the second day was the hardest. For the first two hours we hiked upward through "high jungle" (picture dark, damp, lush forest) before emerging onto a small plain that housed another campsite, and second breakfast. (Hobbit life ftw). It was a welcome break, but we knew that the next stretch would be even more challenging.

Dead Woman's Pass

Dead Woman's Pass

Ascending from the campsite, the path was steeper and completely exposed to the elements, which included alternating bursts of intense sunlight and misty rain. Recall the most difficult, burning leg exercise you've ever done in your life and imagine that lasting for hours. Oh yeah, and with a thirty pound pack on your back! Squinting ahead, we could just make out the nipple on so-called Dead Woman's Pass (by a stretch of the imagination it resembles the profile of a woman lying on her back), which is where the path descends in endless stone steps laid out by the Inca. Hearts and heads pounding from both the altitude and sheer exertion, we weren't the only ones having to make frequent stops.

Finally we made it to the top, a victory made slightly bittersweet by the overwhelming fog that ruined what ought to have been spectacular views of the valley on both sides. Regardless, we gratefully dropped our packs and snapped some pictures before setting off into the white mist. On the way up I had given myself encouragement by thinking that going down would be easier, but in some ways it was perhaps even more challenging. The steps were steep and uneven, making my legs quiver and turn to jelly. My pace outgrew that of my brother and his girlfriend's (they had trekking poles; I didn't), but in waiting for them it became apparent that stopping on the stairs was harder than continuing. Not to mention that by that point I really had to urinate. Call it an extra spring in my step.

Campsite where we spent night 2.

Campsite where we spent night 2.

The others reached the campsite not longer after I did, and even though we had leisure time between a late lunch and dinner, everyone was much too exhausted to socialize. I think we all slept well that night.   

Tales from the Inca Trail, Part 1

Back at the end of March, my family (parents, older brother, older brother's girlfriend) and I embarked on one of our most arduous adventures yet - hiking the Inca Trail from its beginning just outside the town of Ollyantaytambo, at Kilometer 82, to Machu Picchu. At 43 kilometers, the three day journey through the Andes also comprises hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of meters worth of elevation change. I would even go so far as to say that it made our nighttime trek up to the summit of Mt. Fuji seem like a casual stroll in the park by comparison, even though all of us are reasonably (perhaps even remarkably) fit.

As per the tour agency's guidelines, we arrived in Cuzco two days prior to trek departure in order to acclimate to the high altitude. Having lived quite close to sea level for my entire life, I was concerned about how the change would affect my body. I noticed how I tired quickly and more easily, simply by going up flights of stairs and wandering around Cuzco's historic center, but other than that had no symptoms of altitude sickness. The night before we were meant to leave, as we all stuffed and zipped and tightened the straps on our brand-new 60L backpacks, it began to dawn on me just how woefully unprepared I was. From the wardrobe of performance outerwear I had tried on but hadn't ever actually worn, to the gadgets and products hastily purchased via Amazon Prime mere days ago, I had a brief premonition that I may very well soon be suffering like Cheryl Strayed did at the outset of her Pacific Coast Trail journey as humorously and viscerally detailed in her book Wild. At least my hiking boots fit and were somewhat broken in.

Anxiously we waited in the lobby of the guesthouse, until a bus rolled by at a quarter to five in the morning, headlights bobbing along the dark cobblestone street. It pulled to a halt, and a man with a clipboard came to the door, checked our names against his list and led us to the coach, where we joined a small group of sleepy trekkers and porters who would comprise our team. After collecting the rest of the group, the bus wound its way up and out of Cuzco toward the small town of Ollyantaytambo, about two hours away, and whose modest main square was already crammed with the buses and vans of other tour groups also stopping for breakfast and last-minute purchases. (I bought a sunhat that I would later regret not wearing, when I wound up with a sunburned scalp and forehead).

Everyone gearing up at Kilometer 82.

Everyone gearing up at Kilometer 82.

The porters.

The porters.

Re-boarding the bus, we pressed on via unpaved roads so narrow that when we passed vehicles going the opposite direction, I half-expected to hear the screech of metal on metal. At Kilometer 82, we stopped and disembarked with all our things, put on the first of many coats of sunscreen, and donned our packs. I watched the porters, local farmers approximately my size and stature, take on loads that made ours look like a joke in comparison. (I would later learn, through our guide and by observation, that the porters carry double the weight that an average trekker does yet goes about three times the speed).

In the beginning everything went well - the pace was moderate and we stopped for frequent breaks, allowing our guide to offer history lessons and, I suspect, to buy the porters more time to set up for lunch. It was challenging, particularly when the path began to veer sharply upward, but not overly so, and the scenery was unparalleled in beauty and grandeur. "I want to see mountains again, mountains Gandalf!" I thought.

Those mountains though...

Those mountains though...

Pack animals on the trail.

Pack animals on the trail.

Trail near the lunch spot.

Trail near the lunch spot.

After several hours of trekking in the hot sun, we reached the campsite designated for lunch. The crew applauded each one of us as we entered the site. They had erected a large mess tent with folding tables and stools, where we sat and were presented with a three course meal followed by hot tea. Satisfied and slightly sleepy, our guide granted us "siesta" time before departing for the site where we would make camp for the night. I sprawled onto the grass, gratefully removing my shoes and wool socks, feeling confident for the first time that I could do it. 

Then our guide hurried up to my father saying, "Your wife is asking for you." And everything changed.

Frantically we put our shoes back on and followed him, to where my mother lay on the ground, abrasions on her hands and face, bruises blooming on her cheeks. Two women from a different group had found her, face down. Apparently she had taken a wrong turn coming back from the bathroom and fainted. One of the women was an ICU nurse, and had already rolled mom onto her back and tended to her wounds by the time we arrived on the scene. It was strange to see her so disoriented, weak and having trouble breathing, when just minutes before she'd been her usual chatty self at lunch. 

Thank god for the ICU nurse because all of us - even my father, an experienced nurse himself, was far too shocked to be able to do much. The nurse did everything that she could, but quickly found that the emergency medical equipment was insufficient; the portable oxygen tank leaked and the blood pressure monitor was faulty and failed to give a good reading. But one thing was clear: mom couldn't continue. As I knelt behind her, supporting her upper body to a somewhat upright position so that she could drink water, I couldn't help but think of the fate that had recently befallen a college classmate's father. (He was hiking in Patagonia with his wife when he had a sudden, fatal heart attack). I was scared, more so than I'd ever felt before, and I realized that I care more for the lives of the people I love than I do for my own.

A rudimentary stretcher was produced, which the porters affixed to two wooden poles on either side, and padded with the sleeping mat mom would no longer need. Carefully they placed her body on top, covering her with blankets and securing her with the bright, multi-colored textiles that local women carry everything from babies to firewood with. By now she was cold and her eyes were fighting to stay open. It was decided that two porters and the assistant guide would carry her back to the trailhead and procure a vehicle to Ollyantaytambo, accompanied by our father. She would get medical attention, and then our parents would meet us at the end of the trail in Machu Picchu. The lead guide turned to my brother and I and asked what we intended to do. 

We glanced uneasily at each other, thinking the same thing. Mom didn't want us to stop on her account, but if there were something seriously wrong with her, we'd never forgive ourselves for leaving her side. Plus, in the event of an emergency, there would be no cell phone reception until reaching the third pass two days hence. This time, I thought of the time that I was abroad in China and learned that my ailing grandmother had decided to stop taking all her medications, essentially resigning herself to imminent death. Up until now that was the only ever true moral dilemma I had ever faced.

Exiting the campground, the stretcher bearers took the left fork, back the way we'd come, while we took the right, which led onward. It pained me to watch my parents going back to Kilometer 82, knowing how excited they'd been for this trip. I recalled the smiling selfies they'd texted in weeks prior of them training and doing practice hikes, and wanted to break down and cry. It wasn't fair. Things weren't supposed to happen this way. For the next two hours the three of us walked in subdued silence, wondering if we'd chosen the right path. By the time we made it to camp, darkness had begun to fall and most of the tents had been claimed. I purchased a much needed beer from an entrepreneurial local.

By the end of dinner, the porters who had carried mom returned, saying that at a rest stop a local had volunteered to take her the rest of the way down on the back of his motorcycle. I wondered how she had managed to sit, seeing how feeble she was. My parents and the assistant guide had found transport back to town, and that was all he knew. I thanked him, then returned to our tent and eventually descended into restless slumber.

See more of the Inca Trail here.

 

In Pursuit of the Stars

On October 21st, Michelin released its list of restaurants that had earned the coveted star rating for 2016. Despite having maintained one star for the past several years, the restaurant where I work was nowhere to be found. Confusion amongst us cooks was rampant, especially since - just a few days earlier - the executive chef had brandished the unmarked black envelope containing the red invitation to the gala celebration and lifted a toast to all our hard work. But, alas, we found out the hard way that the letter is not proof of making the cut; the only way to know for certain that your restaurant has earned the distinction of the Michelin star (or stars) is to see its name in the official press release.

Just a day after the new Michelin guide dropped, the John Wells' film Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper, made its debut in New York City. Despite a strong cast and autumn release date, indicators of an attempted awards season run, the dramedy centered on a recovering drug addict and world-class chef making one last stand to prove that he's still got what it takes has been almost universally panned. Sure, the writing is noticeably weak at times, but this pales in comparison to everything that the film gets right.

The elegant cinematography is on par with that on which the acclaimed Netflix series Chef's Table is built - closeups of the deft work of skilled hands, and ingredients whose freshness practically drips through the screen. A lot of screen time focuses on presentation and plating, which, while paramount in distinguishing fine dining from other restaurants, probably bores casual viewers removed from the industry. And while Jon Favreau's Chef did a decent job portraying the camaraderie that exists in the kitchen (and not to mention scored well with critics), Burnt takes it a step further, offering full immersion into the sweat, adrenaline and pressure that pervades work on a hot line. Such is the attention to detail that the co-worker whom I watched the film with exclaimed, "They even showed a cook labeling something! You never see that in food movies."

The overall effectiveness of the film is slightly muted by its reliance on archetypal characters (addict seeking redemption, ex-convict, femme fatale, etc.), but it still has plenty to say about the current state of the industry. Chef Adam's (Cooper) initial skepticism of, and later reliance on, sous vide (a method so ubiquitous it’s invading amateur cooks' homes) is a running joke. While cross-cutting between Adam's kitchen and that of his rival Reece’s (Matthew Rhys) exposes an even more contentious divide between "old-school" cooking and molecular gastronomy. (I've never even been close to setting foot in El Bulli, but I'd guess that Reece's laboratory-like kitchen was inspired by it). The front-of-house's obsession with identifying potential Michelin inspectors may be laughable to some, but I can confirm that, at establishments frequented by such clients, we take it quite seriously.

Losing a star, or failing to get one when you think you deserve it, is not sad or unfortunate; it's tragic - devastating even. I’ll never forget the look on one sous chef’s face after the executive chef confirmed the news. (Granted, it was bound to be more poignant for him since the press release also stated that his previous place of employment had earned their second star). Particularly at the fine dining level, cooks are driven almost entirely by passion. Why else would we work ridiculous hours that most people deem impossible in environments rife with verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse for such little pay? It's not a job; it's a a livelihood.

Some critics thought that vying for a three-star rating was a weak premise. Certainly, many cooks and chefs would not openly admit that they strive for the accolades and the prestige of a Michelin rating, but the titles do carry a lot of weight that inspires them to work harder, longer and better. Others took issue that there was only one female cook, meaning that the film utterly fails the Bechdel test. But unfortunately, as a female in the restaurant industry, had there been more than one female cook it would have seemed grossly unrealistic. In this way, perhaps Burnt is merely an instance in which critics are unable to extrapolate beyond the limits of their own personal experience; fine dining or no, anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen would give the film more merit than what it has received.

Or, the film might be better interpreted as allegory. In food and in cinema, no one ever sets out to create a bad product; rather the creatives in both industries keep plugging away and hoping that people will notice, because success is so tightly coupled with public opinion and critical reception. Yet what of the tastemakers who critique the restaurants and the movies? As a writer specializing in film, I’m constantly aware of the homogeneity of opinion - particularly at festivals, where journalists seemingly compete with each other to get their iteration of the collective consensus online first. We parade around as independent thinkers, with our badges bearing the name of our respective media outlets, but come press time no one wants to be the lone dissenter. Perhaps the culinary world is not so different.  

Today marks the last day that we can call ourselves a one-star Michelin restaurant; once January rolls around, the rankings proclaimed back in October go into effect and the Michelin inspectors start doing the rounds again, gathering evidence for the 2017 guide. 

“What does it mean?” asked a younger cook, as part of a confused flurry of texts in the aftermath of the press release.

It’s dangerous to define oneself by a title like the chefs in Burnt, whose ambition threatens to swallow them whole. And even though the film is a dramatization of the industry, the truth remains that adversity draws the distinction between those who are driven and those who merely want to ride on others’ apron strings. Some cooks have already left or are planning to leave our kitchen, not because of the loss of the star, per se, but simply that turnover in restaurants is inevitable. I plan to stick around, however, so that in ten months’ time when the 2017 guide comes out, my co-workers and I will be celebrating.