Frites are not usually a memorable dish. Although a restaurant's ability to fry slivered potatoes is a surprisingly dependable metric of its overall quality, the dishes that leave the deepest imprint on a diner's mind are usually bigger and bolder. But the frites at Cafe Presse are, for me, an all-time favorite, in part because they are associated with certain memories, but also because they are stupefyingly delicious.
Try as I might—even during one of my occasional flirtations with healthy eating—I cannot not order them. They walk the razor's edge between external crispiness and internal tenderness with a remarkably consistent grace.
What makes them magical? According to Jim Drohman, Presse's owner and chef, it's because of simplicity, not sorcery. The frites at Presse are made with good Washington russet potatoes, blanched in peanut oil at 325 degrees, and then cooled on sheet pans in the walk-in fridge. Proper cooling, he says, is key. Before going back in the fryer for finishing, they must be thermally perfect.
"You see a lot of people who blanch the fries, toss them in water, pull them out, and fry until crispy," he says, warning that the crispiness that results from this method is fleeting. "Within moments, they go soft."
When you order a bowl at Presse, Drohman's pre-blanched frites are removed from the sheet pan in the walk-in fridge and fried to perfection in the same oil they were blanched in, at 350 degrees. A few flips in a bowl with some kosher salt, and those Washington russets are fully transformed into the face-meltingly delicious frites Presse's customers know and love.
When I ordered some in early March, they were noticeably orangish. I e-mailed Drohman to ask what gave them that hue, and was surprised to learn that their color changes by the season.
"This time of year, most potatoes have been in cold storage since the fall (just like when grandma used to have a root cellar to keep the fall harvest all winter long)," he explained. "Because of this, much of the starch in the potatoes has, over time, converted to sugar. The sugar browns more quickly than starch, giving a frite that is a little more orange-brown."
In the summer, when the potatoes are fresh from the ground, their sugar content is lower, yielding a pale golden color. What doesn't change, Drohman says, is the way the frites are made. He's always made the frites according to the method he learned as a cook in France—"The only good way to make a frite"—and always will.
As for the mayo the frites are served with, it's mysteriously silky and flavorful, a marvel in itself. I can't help but ask for two ramekins of it with every bowl of frites I order.
"It is made pretty much like a standard mayo," says Drohman. "Maybe what you are tasting is that we season it with lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and ground mustard powder, which I think are the traditional seasonings in France but maybe not what other people are using?" Adherence to these simple methods is the only trade secret when it comes to the mind-bogglingly delicious frite/mayo combination.
"That's all there is to it," he says. "It's one of those things, like our roasted chicken, that sort of typify what we do. We don't do anything complicated, we just follow all the steps that are necessary. It's good quality food simply prepared."
I've spent many of my happiest moments in life beside a bowl of Cafe Presse's frites, sipping lukewarm coffee, reading, and waiting for my best friend Peter to get off work so we could go skateboarding.
He was a host at Presse, but was soon promoted to a server. He was one of those people who's impossible not to like, despite the fact that he often spent his breaks doing tricks on his skateboard in full view of his tables, frequently sat down next to his friends mid-shift to have a few bites of whatever they were having, and generally adhered to restaurant decorum as little as possible. His mischief was easily forgiven because everyone loved him precisely for being so mischievous. He was too puckish to be angry with, he knew it, and he used it to great effect.
I was scandalized the first time he sidled up next to me at the bar and began casually helping himself to my frites, but I soon came to enjoy it. As with most things in life, he knew he could get away with it. He skated by on luck and charm. And he certainly skated. When I worked early mornings at a hotel, I would get off work exactly an hour before he did, so two or three days a week, I'd hoof it up to Presse, grab a coffee and some frites, and wait for him to get off work. We'd hold court at one of the tables in the back dining room while he did his paperwork and had his shift meal, gossiping about the latest in skate news and planning our next four-wheeled adventures. Those afternoons, munching frites and waxing poetic about Gino Iannucci's nollie backside heel flips, were some of the best of my life.
I don't know how you become best friends as opposed to just good friends, but I had the feeling he was becoming my best friend. At the very least, we were two snarky, opinionated peas in a pod who'd been skating together since we were 14. As our friendship progressed into adulthood, our conversation evolved into a sort of paralanguage. We could have each other in stitches with a carefully mispronounced "dude" or a raised eyebrow. Most of our friends eventually outgrew skateboarding, moving on to more mature hobbies like keggers, majoring in philosophy, and whatever else white kids from North Seattle do to squander their privilege—but he and I stuck with it, growing even closer in the process. He was the type of person I could imagine being friends with well into our golden years.
From my experience, male friendships tend to be a little buttoned-up, emotionally speaking. Peter rarely expressed his affection. He was the confident, cool one; I was the sensitive, socially awkward one. He didn't need anyone's approval, and so he didn't feel the need to offer anyone his. He had grown into a fantastically talented skateboarder, and I often felt like I couldn't keep up.
Once, between one of his double shifts—a morning behind the counter at a skate shop and an evening slinging plates at Presse—he came down to Belltown to skate with me on his precious three-hour break. We made it about two blocks up Second Avenue before we found an old garage with plywood floors that sloped up to an enormous bank of paned windows.
After a few exploratory grinds on the windowsill, I botched one horribly. My feet fell out from under me, throwing my weight forward and my arm directly through a pane of glass. I punched through it, shattering it. I stood there for a second, marveling at the sight of my arm sticking out into the alleyway behind the building, before pulling it back to reveal a deep gash, with white flecks of exposed body fat quickly disappearing into an enormous effluence of blood.
Being poor and unable to afford the deductible on my insurance, I freaked out. Peter, ever the cool customer, kept it together.
"Hold your arm over your head," he calmly instructed me, as we ran over our available options. I couldn't afford an ambulance ride, and we had no illusions about a cabbie kind enough to let me gush blood all over their backseat. This left walking. Peter snatched up our boards without hesitation and marched us toward Virginia Mason, the closest hospital. We power walked several miles through downtown and First Hill, looking like extras from a bad postapocalyptic movie, before finally reaching the emergency room.
When a doctor came in to see me, brusquely informing me that she'd be injecting lidocaine into my cut and then giving me stitches, I lost it. I'm afraid of needles. The most painful part of an injection is breaking the skin, and injecting directly into the open wound would skip that step, the doctor explained, but the idea of it was unfathomably disgusting to me.
"No fucking way," I told her.
She gave me the kind of look only a jaded ER doc can, and said simply: "Fine. I'll give you 15 minutes to think about it. And if you still can't handle it, you can leave, because we need the room." Peter coaxed me into letting her treat my wounds, patiently pointing out the obvious fact that bleeding out was a lot worse than the sting of a needle.
When the doctor returned, Peter sat on the opposite side of the bed, chatting incessantly about skateboarding-related ephemera to distract me while she prepared her tools. I felt a little bit of tugging and some light pressure here and there, and then, after 15 minutes of Peter and I discussing the latest bit of profit-driven chicanery to infect our beloved subculture, I was whole again. His diversion had worked perfectly.
After my stitches, Peter's three-hour break was over, and he walked me back to Presse, where he sat me down at the bar with a bowl of frites, a bowl of mussels, and a Stella. As I devoured the bivalves and beer, I realized something Peter would never say: He cared. He cared enough to give up his three hours of skateboarding to walk me through my strange, neurotic journey of laceration. He valued skateboarding above all things, and for him to put anything above it was a big deal.
Though taking care of an injured friend might seem like a basic thing, I wouldn't have put it past him to keep skating. What's more, I'd never seen him in such a patient and sensitive state as I did there under the fluorescent lights of the exam room. Given the opportunity to be the caring, expressive friend he usually wasn't, he rose to the occasion.
As I pensively swirled the last few frites around in mussel broth with my left hand—my right arm being completely ensconced in gauze—I kept thinking about how sublime they tasted. And I realized, with certainty, for the first time, that Peter and I were best friends.
One morning in December of 2011, I found myself suddenly awake at 3:55 a.m. Unequivocally awake. Though it was not so odd to be awake five minutes before my usual 4 a.m. alarm—I was working the opening bellman shift at my hotel job—I remember it as an eerie moment. I looked at my phone's blank screen, not reaching for it, just looking at it. I suppose I am succumbing to the temptation to retroactively ascribe some supernatural quality to the moment, yet I can't help but feel that I somehow knew.
Almost immediately after I set eyes on the phone, a text message popped up from my friend Tosh. It read, "Call me as soon as you get this."
Peter had recently moved to San Francisco. At around three in the morning, he drove his motorcycle into a guardrail on the I-80 interchange, flying over the side of the elevated freeway to his death.
After Tosh delivered the news, she implored me to come to her house, where our close friends were gathering to mourn. But I couldn't. I was gripped with the intense need to be alone. Or, at least, alone with my grief—I still had to go to work, putting on a pleasant face for hotel guests and going on coffee runs for my coworkers.
I got on my bicycle, put "Tha Crossroads" by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony on repeat, and made the long, cold ride to work. I rode from Ravenna down through Eastlake completely alone—it was, after all, 5 a.m. on a Saturday—singing along to the Thugs' fatalist funereal jam and hoping that this was an appropriate way to grieve. I didn't know, of course, that doing anything is the most appropriate way to grieve.
Once I got to work, I tried to wipe the tears out of my eyes, took a couple deep breaths in the locker-room mirror, and put on my best customer-service face. I spent the next eight hours cheerily retrieving valeted rental cars, making inane small talk, and sneaking off to sob uncontrollably in the stairwell.
What struck me wasn't so much that I felt insane with grief, but the way in which I felt insane. A normal person, I thought, would have called in sick, told the desk staff what had happened, and taken the day to wail in the company of friends and family. A normal person wouldn't have been ashamed to let people see their pain, instead of intermittently retreating to the hotel stairwell to cry in private. A normal person wouldn't have tried to pretend everything was okay.
Dressing for work, diligently doing my morning exercises, preparing my usual bowl of oatmeal, and remembering to take my insulin (yes, despite being diabetic, I still have a fear of needles), I felt like the psycho killer who calmly washes their bloody hands and then steps outside to grab the morning paper and comment to the neighbors about the lovely weather. I know now that what I was doing—compartmentalizing—is actually normal.
I felt, and still feel at times, literally crazy. As bizarre as all the trappings of mourning seem to me, the prostration and the performance, I felt crazier for not participating more vigorously in them at the time. In retrospect, it would have helped. For the last five years, I've generally kept my feelings about Peter private.
To be fair, any display of grief is, by nature, somewhat silly, something of a cartoonish gesture, this essay included. But a display of grief still does one important thing: It forces you to acknowledge your grief. The act of communicating your pain at least requires you to assess it. My avoidance of mourning to the best of my ability was my way of putting off pain.
Instead of learning to navigate the new reality of Peter's death, I built a wall around it. I convinced myself that I'd acknowledged it, accepted it, and even begun to make peace with it. At first, this falsehood was easy to believe: I kept myself maddeningly busy with work, complicated romantic relationships, and a renewed vigor for skateboarding—my best attempt to honor his memory. But trying to contain a problem instead of address it is basically Donald Trump's immigration policy, which is to say, a disaster.
I found myself outwardly optimistic and sunny but slowly coming apart on the inside.
Now that I'm actually getting around to tearing that wall down—I finally swallowed my misguided pride and started seeing a therapist a little less than a year ago—I'm wishing I hadn't built it in the first place. I could have spent those four years trying to make some sense of this cosmically unjust incident, trying to clean out the wound instead of just poking it occasionally to see if it still hurt.
Apparently, I didn't learn a thing from that evening Peter and I spent in the ER. I am, even still, more afraid of the stitches than the prospect of bleeding out. My therapist assigned me a simple exercise: Set aside 20 minutes a day to sit and think about Peter. There were no guidelines beyond this. She'd rightly discerned that I had been avoiding the subject.
Though I somehow found hours every day to impassively scroll through Instagram, I could never seem to find that 20 minutes to spend thinking about Peter. After a few weeks of failure, she dropped it to five minutes. Still no dice. After four years of purposeful, dogged avoidance of the issue, I'd become too skilled at it. Thinking about it, acknowledging it, and feeling it was something I easily and automatically avoided.
But that is precisely why the frites at Presse retain such an outsize place in my culinary consciousness. They are one of the few Peter-related things that can catch me off guard. I certainly don't go to Presse with some sort of potato-based grieving ritual in mind, but I always go to Presse with a crispy, delicious bowl of frites in mind.
When I'm there, nursing a hangover over some cheap bubbly, catching up with an old friend, or spending a quiet hour alone reading, I am lulled into a false sense of security. It is then, absentmindedly eating frites, that memories of those happy afternoons with Peter come rushing back. Every bowl, every moment spent reflecting on his death— letting it wash over me, as they say—is one brick removed from my wall.
Perhaps now that I've written this essay, I won't be able to trick myself so easily. I've returned frequently to Presse since he passed, and I'm sure on some subconscious level I've been aware all along that most of my meaningful grief occurs over a bowl of frites. But I doubt that acknowledging the phenomenon will cause it to cease. Good food—food as simply and perfectly executed as Drohman's frites—takes hold of you, often without your permission. The best thing you can do is let it.