What I learned from Chef

Last week on one of my favorite blogs there was a posting about Anthony Bourdain’s experience at French Laundry. Watching the video, its easy to become wrapped up in Bourdain’s poetically described wild awe of Chef Thomas Keller. If Anthony Bourdain, an accomplished Chef in his own right, can be so giddy about dining in a famous restaurant, eating the food of an admired Chef, somehow I felt less silly about my so-excited-I-could-scream-like-a-13-year-old appreciation for experiences with Chefs who have inspired me.  Most women have fantasies about meeting George Clooney (ok, I’ll cop to that one too), but my culinary crush is topped with Eric Ripert -you don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate his biscuits.

It made me think about the chefs who have inspired me. Not because I worked for them (although I did work in the front of the house in some of their restaurants), but because in one way or another they influenced my outlook on food. Some of them are named chefs, some aren’t. Some were close personal friends, most I have never personally met. What they all have in common is that they changed me…and they probably don’t even know it.

Late in college, my boyfriend was a Chef. Joey was wild and passionate and hot tempered. He was filled with thousands of food ideas and tons of hubris. Everything a Chef should be – it  made living with him difficult, but I stayed for the dinners. While we were dating, he graduated from the much ballyhooed Culinary Institute of America (C.I.A.). Its oldest and most established

Meatloaf...the best meal I ever had

location in Hyde Park is akin to Hogwarts school – filled with tradition, grand hallways and towering dark wood covered ceilings.  Class rooms portend success: inspired dinners, fawning critics and of course, a self-titled cookbook. State dinners have nothing on the pomp of a C.I.A. graduation and with a slice of the apron strings, ironically starving Chefs are sent out into the world. The dirty secret about graduating from the C.I.A. is that it doesn’t exempt you from doing your time, and in those days, that time was only worth about $8/hour. Joey, who had a big mouth, ironically, was just beginning to find his culinary voice,which meant some tumultuous employments. My meager income as a college student and his inconsistent employment of said $8/hour jobs meant one thing: we were broke.   But we made do. He made the most inspired meat loaf that I have ever had;  moist and flavorful, occasionally even spicy. It was nothing like the dried out, gray meatloaf from my youth. From Joey, I learned that great food doesn’t have to be expensive food. Great food comes from the heart, it comes with passion and it comes with a commitment to making the best food you can make. Period.

Distinctly, I remember where I was when I read Chef Keller’s French Laundry. At the time, I wasn’t much of a cook – more of a eater than a cooker was I – but I had worked in many restaurants and already been inspired by food. In this book, Chef Keller recalls the first time he killed and dressed a rabbit; each cringe inducing detail of screaming rabbits and breaking bones serves as a reminder from Keller that no food should be squandered. I read and re-read that passage.

“Because killing those rabbits was such an awful experience. I would not squander them. I would use all my powers as chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful. “

He was so right when he said that it was easy to go to the store and purchase meat, but if you have to kill it yourself, you never forgot its value. Though I won’t be dressing rabbit or any other game anytime soon, I did remember that as a child, when I caught a fish, if I wanted to eat it, I was required to clean it; from club to guts.  Today when I go to the store to pick out what’s for dinner, I always remember Keller’s story. I try to buy enough for us to eat, and no more. I go to the store several times a week so that our food is fresh, but isn’t wasted by sitting in the refrigerator or freezer too long. Keller is an inspirational Chef to many, but to me its more than his food that is so remarkable.

Phoenix in the early ’90’s was generally considered a culinary wasteland. The streets were littered with chains and fast food;  dining out in Phoenix meant one of two things: steak or Mexican food. Christopher Gross changed all of that. His was the first formal dining room in Phoenix, Christopher’s featured heavy velvet, red, drapes, damask covered chairs and plush carpeting, all designed to snatch up every conversation and hold its hushed tone to itself. The cuisine was French inspired and a wine list deeper and wider than the Sonoran Desert. The other side of the restaurant, The Bistro, with its marble floors and private booths bustled with successful bankers, entrepreneurs, and politicians, each strapped to their 5lb mobile phones, seeking a two martini lunch with girlfriends – wives went to the formal dining room. Phoenix had never seen anything like it nor Christopher Gross, the James Beard winning Chef. When I took a job there, I didn’t know enough to be terrified of a Chef, but by all accounts, he was the captain of the ship named Temper Tantrum. Working the front of the house allowed me liberty to enjoy the magic of formal dining; free to envy the girlfriends with their Louis Vuitton during the day and the wives with their diamonds in the evening. I saw the supple depth of Osso Bucco and the delighted faces of  the diners; I could smell the cacophony of scents from the open air kitchen; I watched the legs fall gracefully down the glass from a legendary French red.  From Christopher Gross and his restaurant I learned that dining can (should?) be an affair. But I learned something else from him. During Thanksgiving, the staff went to the local shelter and fed the working poor and homeless. And for the P.R. machine that he was, there was nary a sniff of a story. It wasn’t for P.R., it was Noblesse Oblige. It was my first exposure to people who didn’t even have enough money to eat. Such a stark contrast to the supple environment of Christopher’s and Christopher’s Bistro.  I learned that homelessness and hunger are real problems in our country. I learned that some people were grateful for whatever they had to eat, and they didn’t know or care about the Chef.

Among other things, I believe, that part of what separates a Chef from a cook is the passionate ability to see the world through food, to express love and passion, fear and power through food. Like a painter selects his brushes, a Chef carefully selects his knives, like a sculptor selects his clay, a Chef selects his produce. Chefs just lay it all out there, with no place to hide. Each diner’s plate delicately-if democratically- created whether you are a food critic or celebrating your 8th grade graduation, each meal presented with love, even if the diner doesn’t return the respect. Imagine, if your passion were on display for everyone to see and critique. Is it any wonder they have a reputation for attitude and temper?

When presented with Do we take a moment and wonder, as we do when we see a Monet, “what what is (s)he thinking when they created this?”  A restaurant is the home of a Chef  – most likely spends more time there – and as a host, has tried to create an experience, for you and me, a place for us to escape. We both critique and idolize Chefs…but do we listen to what our food is saying about its creator?

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About Tara DeWitt Coomans

An aspiring cook and an accomplished eater, Tara is inspired by the world around her and the food on her plate. "When you can't jump on a plane and take a vacation to an exotic destination, chances are you can whip up a dish or go to a restaurant that will take you there." says Tara. She often eats out at a restaurant after trying to accomplish a given dish at home. None the less, she enjoys food and what it says about the human experience. Tara is a full-time freelance writer and blogger. She specializes in writing about food, cooking and travel. You can find her in the kitchen, on the plane or at her computer.