Tough Love or A Professional Kitchen Introduction

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.

I have to polish wine glasses too??

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.

work boredom
First work selfie, circa 2006, entitled “Work Boredom”. This is the only photo I can find from this era, I was too busy drinking and playing darts after work.

I remember vividly, while foodrunning during a Saturday night shift, the guys overcooked a dinner in a moment of chaos. Perfectionists that they were, “overcooked” meant by a minute. They weren’t serving something less than flawless. If you’ve ever worked in a professional kitchen, an extra plate of food does not go unnoticed. Servers become vultures. I watched and did not participate. Chris, the young cute cook that didn’t say much, asked me why I wasn’t hastily chewing with the rest and I replied, I don’t like crab cakes. “Really? Crab cakes are so good! Where have you had them that you didn’t like them?” I sheepishly told him, nowhere. I had never eaten a crab cake. It was as if the air went out of the room. “WHAT?? You don’t like them but you’ve never had them? What are you, 6?” The others chimed in and  I was instantly humiliated, reproachful, then immediately in agreement. This 23-year-old man was the first person to hold me accountable for, not my lack of knowledge, but my lack of interest. It wasn’t that I didn’t like something, that would have been fine. I wasn’t even trying. 

I love crab cakes. Crab legs, crab dip, crab filled ravioli. I love my steaks rare, my pork chops medium. I love herbs and compotes and the smell of homemade soft pretzels. Parmigiano Reggiano off the wheel, toasted pine nuts, saffron. Buerre blanc, German mustard, baklava. Elderberry infused vodka with aged prosciutto. RED WINE. The simplicity of butter and fresh bread. I relish in it all. (I even love food words that mean something else!)  No more chemicals, no more cornstarch, no more crock pot cabbage. That small, embarassing, moment in time was to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Years went by. I learned not only proper serving etiquette (the seam of the linen napkin should never show, different wines called for different glasses, don’t smell like yesterday) but dining etiquette as well. I learned how to properly time my tables as not to rush them. How many questions to ask when a guest orders a martini. How “guest” is what you call patrons, not “customers”. These were taught to me by my peers and though second nature to them, it was eye-opening for me. I had no idea places like this existed! Fine dining to me was the Tour of Italy from Olive Garden (which is still the bomb, don’t get too excited). I was in on the secret that the wealthy have known for ages. Just like cooking, dining is an artform. It was exciting.

Brian, an ex-chef from Madison’s whom I owe much of my knowledge to, was a sous chef at a new restaurant opening in November of 2007. One night, at a neighboring bar, myself and the other servers were playing darts and sipping on cheap beers. Bran appeared and spoke to a couple of my coworkers briefly and departed. I thought nothing of it at the time. But a month later, two members of the waitstaff and one cook had put in their notice and were off to bigger and better things. (Madison’s closed a year later, tax evasion.) I followed suit.

Chef Anne, originally from my hometown, moved to New Orleans in the late 1980s to further her blossoming career. She owned her first restaurant at 27 and rose to fame quickly. She worked for Emeril along the way as well, writing for his show and cookbooks. In 2002, she won the James Beard Award for “Best Chef, Southeast” for her restaurant, Peristyle. She was serious business. Personal reasons led her back home and in 2007, she opened Rue Dumaine Restaurant and Bar (named after the street on which Peristyle stood in the French Quarter). I didn’t have enough wine knowledge to join the waitstaff at Rue, but I was invited to host and run food. After 3 years, I was asked to wait tables and eventually, I became an assistant manager as well.

It was like starting all over. What I thought I knew about the restaurant business, was outdated. Our skills needed sharpening. Every shift, before we unlocked the doors, we had a meeting to discuss the specials for the night (they changed every evening) and this was when I learned the most. We sourced locally and I learned about our neighboring farms and gardens. I learned what a quince was; how to prepare a quail; when to add citric acid to butter to stop it from browning. Running food for so long improved my own personal cooking skills as well. It was an “open kitchen” so no only could the guest see the action behind the scenes, I could as well.

Cooking from scratch like this is impressive. Every drop of every ingredient was masterfully handled. Flavors I didn’t know could coexist, were living harmoniously together. French cooking, wine regions, classic recipes; all on the syllabus. This was my classroom and I, the attentive pupil. My husband, then boyfriend and co-lover of all things edacious, and I started to follow the work of esteemed chefs all over the country. Chef Anne made us care about the craftsmanship and hard work put into each and every plate she served. She refused to compromise. We used linens to carry plates so there wouldn’t be any fingerprints. I had never even thought about that kind of thing. But she did. And she made me care more about my job and what I was providing these strangers with night after night. Every night is a show. And the show must be perfect.

Henry and I would geek out about new approaches to cooking and how beautiful a plate of scallops could be. Living in a small city didn’t stop us from finding new places to eat and drink and talk and fall in love. Many weekends have been spent in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus. All with their own food scene and all with something new and exciting to offer. Every vacation we have revolves around dining in some way. After a vacation, its the restaurant that impressed us the most. When you cook like that, when its perfect, a part of your soul goes into the food. That’s what you can taste. The smallest bite can remain in your heart and mind forever.

Though Rue Dumaine is in my past, it is never out of my mind. When I taste a perfectly stirred cocktail or experience service that would put my 19-year-old self to shame, I think about Anne and her attention to detail. She opened up for me a new world, and that’s not something you ever forget.

Peristyle in New Orleans. RIP.

Last year, Henry and I were married in the French Quarter, about half a mile from the now closed Peristyle. We walked by it a few days later and felt like we had walked home. If that doesn’t say something about what food can do, I don’t know what does.

That has all led me here. To this piece of work I’m calling my blog. Maybe no one will read it but, that’s OK. Because I want to remember every single wonderful part of my life and if I can share anything with you, it’s this: We get one shot. Don’t fuck it up.

Killin’ it at our wedding, New Orleans-style.

Like an overzealous scholar, I want to know everything. And I hope to share what I learn with you. I’m no recipe-writer but I can wax poetic about an onion for days. (Still wondering what this blog is about? Me too. Mostly essays about food, traveling, and how to make the most of your little time on Earth. There, that sounded good.) Leave me a comment and tell me what you want to hear about! I am ready to talk food.

This is a good size first blog post, I’d say. I would write more but, I have to prepare dinner tonight for the other half. Because unlike my parents, and their parents before them, I DO know how to cook. And I’m savoring every bite.


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