Most people in today's society know someone who is food obsessed. The proliferation of the internet and television channels devoted to the pursuit of perfection and dare I say gluttony have created a culture that at one time was amongst the fringe of societal norms. We all had a family member or a friend who took things to the extreme when to came to gustatory quests. For me there are two glaring examples that exemplify what I am talking about. I knew this one guy in college who lived life on what he called a "chowder scale." Anywhere he was, if New England clam chowder was served, he ordered it and methodically logged his experience. This was so he could remember where the best chowder was. One dimensional? Yes, but I can relate since I once drove around France for a week looking for the perfect cassoulet. My father would be the other example that comes to mind. His voracious appetite for all things tasty and satisfying are part of the reason I chose to cook as a career. Now he's taken a lot of flak for living his life in a shall we say, hedonistic way, but I admire anyone who lives on their own terms my Father being no exception. So how do I fall into this category and what gives me the right, no, gall to author another book about the same rehashed trollop? Well, that's where the book comes in. You'll get insight into some awesome recipes and get to hear some pretty fucked up stories along the way. Each chapter is geared around certain recipes and I have listed have a a story or an anecdote, or some twisted essay that go's with them.
Food is mad, food culture is mad. The people who work in the restaurants you frequent are some of the most depraved individuals you will ever meet. There are emotions triggered by eating. Wait! I said there are emotions triggered by eating! Ever see a girl giggle as she bites into a chocolate cake? The feeling of satisfaction when having something as simple as miso soup. The ritual and provinciality of the "slow food" movement as well as the surprise and acceptance of a familiar chain establishment, all of these are food borne and emotion driven. Also all of the people who work in these establishments, this industry, this global enterprise that touches everyone. I'm going to tell you about all of the crazy, reliable, awesome, stupid motherfuckers I've met. I'm also not going to sit here and toot my own horn, well I might a little. Since the reality is that I'm good at what I do but there are a lot of people out there who are better. I will say that I'm better than most and that can be chalked up to my fanaticism. Listen if you suck at something, and you work incredibly hard at getting better daily for years, then your going to get better. This is where I'm meant to quote my old man saying some story about Albert Einstein failing constantly until he was older in life, but I wont cuz it ain't true. I will say the both Albert and I are dyslexic, and to know that there was another person out there who saw life through distorted lenses and persevered is promising. I don't want you to think that every "line dog" is a nutter. That every front of house manager is a randy bugger that fucks anything that walks, most are but some aren't. There are good, sane, well behaved people in this industry too. These are the smart ones, the ones who learn and survive. The ones who don't go out and decide to get drunk and follow that with a good old fashioned night of coke snorting. The ones who don't roll into work with hands trembling from the DT's from partying. The ones who can still tell the difference between Cesar dressing and aioli since their taste buds aren't mired in a film of blow, booze, and butts. These guys, these are the ones you usually see on TV. Oh they will wax poetic occasionally about the flash in the pan talent they have seen along the way fizzle and burn out like a comet. They will use it as fodder to instill discipline in their teams with tales of careers that could have been. But these booze hounds and partyers. These trend setters. These guys and girls who don't give a shit. These people, they are they stars of the industry. They are the heartbeat who sweat it out nightly and get shit on when things go wrong. These guys leave the shift with burns and covered in so much sweat you could literally wring out their t shirts. These guys just cranked out all that awesome food you just made an idiot of yourself for, and they didn't get paid shit. They are the
reason you really became part of this industry, because when you make the transition from cook to Chef it becomes a lot scarier.
My foray into the path of a culinarian began at an early age and I received constant inspiration from my grandmothers and my surroundings. On my English side I had Jewish heritage that relayed the feeling of family and community. Regarding food it was central european inspired, heavy on the sauces and proteins. It was warm and unctuous, it was memorable and exotic to me; it also relied on religious significance something that was to play a recurring theme in my life. On my Italian side I had the same feeling of warmth and community but food wise it couldn't have been more different. I have vivid memories of my grandmother "Alda" a short, stout lady with closely copped blonde curly hair and a smile that would light up a room. Even when she was angry she was smiling! My memories of her are of being in the kitchen all day, really, all day.
I maintained a pretty simple routine throughout my youth. Jewish food on the weekend, British food circa the eighties (whatever that was) during the week, and Italian food on holiday. All of it authentic and all of it memorable in its own way. Then my parents got a divorce and things got a little weird for a while. During that time I lived two different sides of the food ladder. While at my Father's it was mostly excess. I prided myself on eating my way through almost every premade item in the grocery store, not only that but I ordered out constantly from almost every place imaginable, and in new york city that's a lot of places. While at my mom's it was a very different scene. She had married a junky looser that hated my brother and I. It was pretty much as close to poverty as a child should have to endure. Lunches consisted of a five dollar bill to buy some hot dogs. At a dollar a pop that's two dogs each. We split a soda. Change always had to be returned. Dinners were fed to us begrudgingly. Never ever did we go out. After dinner, after my stepfather was feeling sated, he would then proceed to kick the shit out of us. I don't remember getting beaten but my brother assures me I did. I guess that's what happens, you block shit out. There was one, bright, shining star that emerged from that dark period. I developed a love and understanding of the basic vinaigrette, and a love of a simple roast chicken. Those things, those tastes those smells, those beacons of regularity and hope, those fed much more than my hunger. It was about this time that my father started to broaden our horizons. Chinese food had always been a staple growing up, but now we were experiencing more exotic versions such as dim sum. Additionally sushi made its initial appearance, as it did across most of the US as did Indian and most other asian foods. I also began to pick up the nuances of cooking.
Adolescence brings change, and that meant the continuing refinement of my palate. High school brought the realization of what I enjoyed eating, and cooking. I started experimenting. I started cooking basic items. Pasta, roast chicken, stir fry's, mac & cheese, tuna casserole, you know teenage junk that feeds the fire and keeps you going. As times got better the quality of the food I ate did also, but somethings never change. Having grown up in New York City I had an affinity for the "slice" of pizza and all other things New York like Chinese food. Deli sandwiches started to play a bigger role as I began to discover classic haunts such as carnegie deli and stage deli etc.
Then came the college years. The years of ramen and stovetop for dinner which, was the only meal of the day. Things were tough then. I was not authorized to work in the US so I was getting a weekly stipend from my father that would sometimes show up, sometimes not. When I say stovetop for dinner I mean stovetop stuffing sandwiches, roast stovetop, and worst of all, cold stovetop. When I did have a little spare change I gorged. I went to all the places that served big, steaming piles of shit for cheap. I would dream of endless stacks of flapjacks and Chinese buffets. I longed for the overwhelming feeling of excess that was so typified by Monty Python "one thin wafer mint." Let me tell you what hunger breeds and does. Firstly it never goes away. When you don't get enough to eat and you have that feeling of "want', which isn't exactly right its more of a constant pang like tiredness coupled with anger, it consumes your every move. Every extra second is spent thinking about what can I do to get some food and turn that feeling off? Now you never want to seem needy around friends, you always want to give off the air that everything is alright, but it isn't. Secondly it breeds contempt, jealously and isolation, it makes you have all sorts of fucked up dreams and desires. Thirdly and most importantly it clouds your judgement and makes you tired and easily agitated. Seriously, check out somebody who has been on a weekend long bender, they are much happier after eating. So. College comes and comes and seems like it's never going to end. I spent six almost seven full years trying to graduate. Oh, I forgot to tell you I also discovered the cocaine. Rather, it discovered me. It is the bane of the chef, but more on that later. So, fucking finally I'm out of college with a bullshit degree and the long awaited endowment of working was bestowed upon me by the immigration service, what to do now. Hmmmm.
I moved to Utah and landed a position as a “lodge attendant” supervisor. Being a ski bum, “King of the janitors” as I called myself. Night shift, ride all day, work, then party all night. Thats where my career began in food and beverage in earnest. At deer valley I met those career “line dogs” and chefs. Those seasoned grizzled vets that served fare far above their exterior demeanor and dress would lead you to believe. These were the great, hairy, cigarette puffers who plated exquisite food worthy of any major urban area. Deer valley, nice. I dined on the leftovers of the rich and famous, I knew for sure. I wanted to create. People do a lot of drugs in resort towns. Every one is on vacation so they want to party, and you live there, so you MUST know where to get the stuff, and you do, because all your friends are dealing to make extra money. So, you end up being a partyer by default because you live there, and you didn't move there NOT to party, right? Subsequently when your friends show up all they want to do is party, and it becomes a vicious circle of constant partying.
I went to visit some friends in Tahoe and before I left Utah my boss said these words to me “ Alex, I'm from California. You are going to visit Tahoe and come back here and quit.” I told him he was mad since I'd never been to Tahoe before and had no clue if I would even like it. He told me I would and I'd be back to put in my two week notice........ and he was right.
Management skills. Management skills and a college degree are how I got into food and bev. While I was in Tahoe I was promoted to department head of the facilities staff at Kirkwood Resort. After unsuccessfully negotiating the political mine-storm of being a person in power, and after learning janitorial, budget writing skills, p&l analytics, and labour management techniques I bade a fond adieu and moved on. Eventually, after a bunch of insignificant positions doing insignificant things such as heavy equipment operation, downhill snowcat operator, I landed a position as Food and Beverage director of a piss ant little ski hill, the smallest one in the area actually. This place had a reputation of being a bit of a hippy throwback ski hill. It was trapped in a time warp. Funky, drugged out culture. I had no business taking on this role other than a raw desire to succeed, and I did but at a big price. I essentially partied my way out of a job and out of town. Oh, and in the process I had snorted my way out of a marriage. Well, my ex and I did it together. Credit where credit is due. Luckily I was handed a way out by my Savior father. I was given a golden opportunity.
It was painfully apparent that the criminal justice degree I had taken so long to earn was not going to serve me as needed. If I could do it over what would I do? Go to culinary school, so I did. Here I learned the basics in classic tutorial form. Le cordon bleu, sorta. I enrolled at western culinary institute, and while I was there it was purchased by LCB and they proceeded to summarily fuck it up. I took full advantage of this era of rebirth and reinvention. I discovered a new city and new friends, and in the process discovered the culinary mecca that is Oregon. I discovered obsessed chefs working with techniques old and new perfecting their craft. I discovered the last affordable city on the west coast, portland. Farmers raising heirloom varieties of crops that I didn't even know could heirloom! I reignited the culinary loves of my youth and also realized that they had set me apart from my peers in school. I drew on those memories to propel me through school, and at age 32 surrounded by much younger students I DID reinvent myself. I shed the skin of the drug addled mountain freek and made the transformation to Chef. I ate, I drank and I studied, I got my mojo back.
A funny thing happens after you graduate, you have to get back to work, quickly. The strong economy that had driven the country for so long was starting to wane, restaurants were closing, chefs were out of work there was a transformation afoot in the industry. This would be one those rare transformations that occurs every thirty years or so, food is all cyclical. Chefs were out of work I say! The economy hit the skids, and one of the first thing that people cut back on is dining out, and I had just re-entered the job market, yay. Now shit gets crazy, right from the get go. Boom! Right into the industry! Sous Chef, time to pucker up.........