Aki from Ideas in Food tapped me for the following meme:
My thought in this meme is food items or events that changed your foodie life. Not some “oh, it’s the first time I didn’t put jelly on a peanut butter sandwich and used bananas instead” sort of change, unless you truly feel that affected you profoundly. That’s the key - it affected you profoundly, in some manner. A moment you can look back at and say “that was a defining moment”. The questions are simple, the answers might be harder - an item, person, event, or place that had that effect on you, and why. They don’t have to be big splashy things - sometimes it’s something very small and simple that changes the way we view the world - the famed “butterfly effect” (and I’m not talking about the Aston Kutcher movie). So, to those who want to participate, copy this and pass it on (and, if you’re so inclined, do a trackback to the originating post). Here are your categories:
1. An ingredient
2. A dish, a recipe
3. A meal (in a restaurant, a home, or elsewhere)
4. A cookbook or other written work
5. A food “personality” (chef, writer, etc.)
6. Another person in your life
1. The ingredient would have to be venison. Among the many Foxfire (the books of Appalachian folk wisdom) inspired experiments, which concentrated mostly on the distilling of the always iffy dandelion wine experiments was hunting.
On the East Coast, at least when I was a kid, deer were elusive. The hunters could go out, spend all day in piercing cold and return with tales of having glimpsed a deer or two. Not like here, now, in Northern California where the deer are so stupid and trusting you could walk up to one and hit it with a hammer. Hmmm, it seems even the animals have their coastal differences. So, the return of the hunters with an actual deer was celebrated greatly, typically with the cooking of the tenderloin and the liver in clarified butter.
Sounds hokey, but that food was alive and vital in ways that no others were. I had lived in the country at various times and don't think I was particularly disconnected from the idea that food comes from living things, whether plant or animal but the venison made an impression on me that nothing else has.
2. The dish is definitely Chicken Paprikash, from the Joy of Cooking. Around the same time as the venison I discovered cooking. I was expected to do something around the house and lazy little bastard that I was, I figured cooking seemed the least work. Plus, if I cooked, I would definitely get enough to eat. Oftentimes, now when I have worked a particularly grueling 12 hour shift I laugh at the boy who thought cooking was a good way to get out of physical labor.
The paprikash was exotic, with it's liberal use of, well, paprika. Plus it had sour cream, another all-time favorite. Within the year, my favorite at home alone meal was a steak sauteed briefly, with a sauce of sour cream and mustard. And there was the spaetzle. Just the word was wondrous, amazing. The recipe was clear, easy to follow. The paprikash was delicious and I make it often to this day. The spaetzle however...I either didn't read the recipe thoroughly, or the recipe made no mention of needing to cool the spaetzle to prevent them sticking to each other.The spaetzle lumped into a large, sliceable mass and while edible, clearly was not the perfect accompaniment to the paprikash.
It was consigned to the fridge until we could figure out what exactly to do with it. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that very evening, the Hog Farm descended upon us. The spaetzle swiftly solved the dilemma of feeding a horde of hungry hippies.
3. A meal. Breakfast at Ella's on Presidio, February 1991. This meal is important not for the food, in fact I don't remember what I ate, but because it was a job interview.
As I approached graduation from culinary school I had the urge to live in the country for a while. I think it's a fantasy of many professional cooks to live close to the land, or the sea and pursue this bucolic life of farm visits, hanging out with your fishermen friends and working with all manner of amazing produce.
About 2 months from graduation I saw an ad in the Chronicle. "Creative cook needed for cafe in XXXX." Well, I knew I wouldn't get the job because I wouldn't even be available for 2 more months and if the ad was running now clearly they needed someone sooner. But I thought I would network a little and perhaps this person might remember me later, when I was actually available. I called and the owner of the cafe said she'd be in SF in a few days and could we meet for breakfast at Ella's?
After explaining my situation and talking with her through breakfast she said, "I think you'd be perfect for the job. I'd like you to come up and cook for the staff though before the offer is finalized." I again reminded her that I wasn't available until mid-April and she told me that that timing would be just fine. Knowing what I know now about the area, hearing me say that was probably a relief. Getting enough hours for an existing staff in February is challenging at times, much less bringing someone else on.
So it came to be I found myself here. The cafe owner was a horrible person and I was able to last a year. From there I became a sous to a man who has become a dear friend. I've left a few times and come back a few times. I'm here now.
4. Cookbook or other written work. This is a completely overwhelming question. The written word has been my salvation, my lifeline, my solace and my friend for my entire life. Trying to pick out one work that produced the butterfly effect would be impossible. What I can pick out are a number of works that have had a profound effect on me at various stages of my life. The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald, The Sea of Fertility tetralogy by Mishima, The Alexandria Quartet by Durrell, both Tropics by Miller, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, Money by Martin Amis, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Selby Jr. and that's just this Saturday morning's top of the head list. Works on cooking for sure include the aforementioned Joy of Cooking, The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc (the first beautiful cookbook I ever purchased, deliberated over for weeks, even dragging another culinary student with me to see it), and of course, MFK Fisher's Art of Eating, cliched though it may sound.
4. Food personality. Hmmmm, on one hand I'm tempted to say James Beard. I've always an abiding, deep interest in American food and he was certainly one of the first to validate and celebrate our native cuisine. His brownstone was in my old stomping grounds and I passed by it all the time long before I ever had any interest in thing culinary beyond providing enough sustenance for myself. Had I had different proclivities I probably could have provided enough sustenance by offering myself at a certain door on W 12th St. and I wouldn't be surprised if people I knew didn't do exactly that. But even though he definitely shaped the opinions of both myself and the nation there's another whose effect was more profound.
Jean-Michel Jeudy was an instructor at my alma mater. His course was Advanced Table Service, but his real subject was philosophy. He was French, a maitre d', in fact maitre d'hotel to President Mitterrand and everything you never expected that person to be. Warm, engaging, funny, human and genuinely caring about people. And passionate about service. His lectures about the obligations one has to a guest are compasses for me now. That he was able to inspire me at lectures that started at 7am is a testament to his oratory. He is now back in France, I believe in Strasbourg. I hope he is well and happy.
5. Another person in my life. Without a doubt, the GM. Having her as my muse, so to speak has made my life as a chef so much easier in so many ways. All her qualities which drive me crazy; her pickiness, particularly in the morning, her squeamishness about certain foods, her insistence on having exactly what she's in the mood for, have all given me a goal. She's the customer we cook for. If we have a menu that excites her and dishes that make her happy, we will probably make most of our guests happy as well.
Thanks Aki for inviting me. I'm not one much to pass these things along so I'll invite anyone reading to pick this one up.