Talking to me now, you wouldn’t know I grew up on fish sticks and take-out. My parents, how do I put this nicely? Cannot cook. At all. Mom’s specialty was cabbage in the slow-cooker with no seasoning and dad had a decent BBQ chicken that he would scorch on the grill from time to time. But that was about as far as my culinary horizons reached. Once the divorce was final, of course it became worse. Mom worked hard, and it was easier to pick up chili spaghetti with cheese for us a couple of nights a week than preparing something that wouldn’t sate our spoiled mouths anyway. Dad was king of Wednesday night dinners at Steak n’ Shake. Chicken fingers, cheese fries, and chocolate milkshakes are nothing to complain about when you’re 12. I knew no better, how would I?
My life in food service began at the tender age of 14. I worked for the local rec center concession stand while the kiddos played baseball and soccer. After 2 years, I was in charge of the grill. Burgers and hotdogs. I was proud of this. This was the first lesson I received in cooking. Meal-wise, I once again was the victim of my surroundings. Walking tacos nourished me in the evenings after school, not home cooked meals. Once I turned 17, I could work at a REAL restaurant. Making tips, instead of $75 a week. (I made about $150 a week at the diner.) More cheeseburgers, more frozen dessert, more fake chili. I turned 19 and knew it was time for something bigger, something more grown up…something with alcohol. A friend of mine had been in culinary school for a year and had been offered the pastry chef position at a local independent restaurant, Madison’s Bistro. He said he could get me a job there. I started a week later.
Naiveté is underrated. There are only two days of training? I need to memorize the wine list? I have to POLISH SILVERWARE?! What kind of place is this? I was on another level. I was working with real chefs and restaurant “lifers”, the ones that smell like cigarettes and don’t put up with a 19-year-old’s attitude. I learned a lot. Mostly, I learned what real food is. You can’t serve lamb chops if you don’t know what they taste like. You can’t discuss the delicacies of the oyster with guests that “order them everywhere we dine” if you have never tried one. And to the boys in the back of the house, I owe all of my appreciation to you. I wasn’t necessarily a willing participant. I wasn’t even curious. I had lived a life full of bland food and was, like so many other middle class Americans, ignorant to the richness that existed on the other side of that expo line. Continue reading “Tough Love or A Professional Kitchen Introduction”