At 15, I washed dishes at a fairly fancy restaurant. When I was promoted into the kitchen at 16, it was my ticket to a world of food I’d never known before, to taste dishes I could never afford if I had been on the other side of the pass-through window.
I learned about large-batch prep, and making things from scratch. I’d spend a whole afternoon making the week’s seafood-filled phyllo squares, or spring rolls, or soup. I loved making desserts, and I indulged my sweet tooth everywhere possible. But my greatest newfound love was also, coincidentally, my greatest nemesis: Caramelized onions.
I was so sensitive to cutting onions. I’d be bawling and bawling, unable to even see my knife from the tears. I’d stop to clean off my face and then have to re-wash my hands before trying again. And they had to be cut just so. Even through a veil of tears I couldn’t rush the task.
The other cooks told me I’d get better, I’d get used to it. When the prep list was circulated, those caramelized onions had my name on them. I was determined to harden up, that one day I’d just just breeze through that massive batch of onion-cutting like a real pro.
The other cooks gave me tips. Breathe through your nose. Put a piece of bread in your mouth, and breathe through the bread. Or simply, cut faster. I tried them all, and I bawled and bawled and bawled. The onions always destroyed me.
But once those jerks were all cut up, the magic finally began. I got to pull out the giant cast iron pan, the pan that took both of my hands firmly gripped to lift it onto the element, and fill it with onions. It would start with a hiss and a sizzle, until the initial frying was over and they’d start to soften.
My sniffly nose would clear and my eyes would dry up, and I could focus on holding my post. The trick was to have something else to do, but only halfway do, while tending the onions. The onions always had to be the priority. Every few minutes I looked over to make sure nothing was burning, and every few look-overs I’d give them a gentle shuffle around in the pan to ensure they cooked slowly and evenly and all took their turn in the hot spot.
With lesser pans I could give the contents a quick one-handed flip. With that cast iron beast, tossing them was out of the question unless I wanted to rain onions on everything else. So I stirred them, carefully, with a wooden spoon.
Once each and every precise slice of onion was fully translucent, it was easy to become impatient, but the same steady calm was needed. Chop a few tomatoes, maybe, then check on the onions. Turn the heat down. The process can’t be rushed.
(I did hear that one of the cooks did tamper with the process, and added brown sugar to hasten the browning and sweetening. These caramelized onions were over-sweet imposters, I was told, lacking in the quality and genuine flavour of their patiently tended cousins. I swore to never cheat on the onions, and let them take all the time they needed).
The hue would start to change ever so subtly, from translucent gold to golden brown. Stir again, be patient. Refill the roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts, then back to the gas range to check on my chameleon charges. They’re coming along, still, slowly.
I could not consider then done until the whole pan was filled with the colour of true caramel. Suddenly, from one moment to the next, they’d be the perfect hue, and the consistency of overdone spaghetti. And in the end, what started as a giant pan heaping with these weepy beasts would barely yield a thin layer across the bottom.
These onions were culinary gold to me. So sweet, so rich, and so simple. They were decadent in their compounded volume, an onion the size of my fist reduced to a few tablespoons at best. The only ingredients needed were bitter onions, often with a side helping of tears, and loving labour. Simple, yet impossible to recreate through any other route than time and diligence.
Every time I faced a mountain of these harsh white orbs, I knew that in a few hours, I’d be on the other side, peeking through my reddened eyes while tasting a rare sweetness. I’d delicately transfer the golden threads into a one-liter container labelled C.O. They wouldn’t be tossed around haphazardly like the sliced scallions or chopped parsley, but meted out carefully into a few choice dishes. They were onion royalty, despite their alternately cruel and humble origins.
There was nothing that felt worse and nothing that felt better than making those caramelized onions. Even with another decade and a half of practice, it’s exactly the same every single time – Except now, at home, my pan is a little smaller.