This is a book I wrote… or a series of stories from the Branch Newsletter put in a book like order. It’s free, unless you think it’s worth something… if you do, feel free to donate here, pay what you think it’s worth. Or share it. Or, better yet, tell an editor or a publisher how much you liked it… You know something like that. 🙂
(set your own price)
Smoke and Errors
How to Fail in the Restaurant Industry Until You Don’t
(stories from the Branch Newsletter)
Chapter 1. A complicated crisis.
I don’t know if my business will still be here next week. At the time of this writing there are any of a dozen different serious crises that could destroy the last four years of blood, sweat, and tears that have made the Branch Restaurant what it has become. Another slow week and we’ll miss one of two payments, either to HST, who will freeze our account, seize whatever they can get and prevent us from paying any other bills, or to our mortgage company… who, probably, wouldn’t do anything right away, but they could, and that would set a very bad domino at the front of a long line of other bad dominos into a forward falling motion–you know, like that HST I mentioned, or PST, source deductions… payroll, our liquor license renewal, or any of a number of other creditors including our families, our friends… purveyors, artists; all of whom expect and often need for us to pay them… Or the walk-in refrigerator could stop working, or the stove… The health unit could decide our grace period for putting in a new kitchen floor was over. Or I could get run over by a bus. We don’t see too many buses in Kemptville these days, but, you know, it could happen. Everyone always throws that ‘run over by a bus’ line into the string of worst case scenarios; I wonder how that started? I know why it’s there; it’s a placeholder, a reminder—‘it could be worse!’, ‘You’ve got your health!’, or more to the point…’quit complaining! Life is short, get on with it!’
Recently a flurry of comments responded to the Ottawa Citizen’s Food Section editor Ron Eade’s blog about the sudden closure of Benitz’s Bistro, a chef-driven Ottawa restaurant manned by Chef Derek Benitz and his wife. I met Derek only once, at a Savour Ottawa food event—and I recognized him immediately: he had the same wild, harried look I see sometimes in my own eyes, usually right as the latest bus is barreling down the ramp towards me. I do not profess to know him and I do not write this as any sort of defense; this is just my emotional reaction to the piece as presented in the Ottawa Citizen’s ‘Omnivore’s Ottawa’ blog…But, like I mentioned, it was a Savour Ottawa event where I met him, and that means that he was on my team, a local foods guy, a guy with values, someone else who is out there trying to change the system. Turns out, we are alike in more ways than one…the fact is that I gasped as I read the article, airing out the Benitz family’s dirty laundry—knowing that my own story would read, depending on how it was written, with just as much seemingly salacious detail…the unpaid bills, the personal failures, trials and errors that seemed to err more than try…Whatever catastrophe finally pushed Derek and his business past the point of no return, I haven’t got a clue, but I do know this; ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I….’
My dad was an entrepreneur; that’s where I got the bug. Even before he opened ‘Samuel’s’, his namesake restaurant, the place where I fell in love with this, with my industry, (and, perhaps more importantly, his last business…) he had a string of other ventures, including, you guessed it, a bus station. That idea, getting run over by a bus, resonates in a strange way to me—Some folks, when they hear that, probably picture a bus from the outside, from a distance—I was so young and at such an exploratory age when we had the bus station that sometimes it feels like I was born on one. Like a bus is in my DNA. I don’t just picture it…I hear it rumble, belch, and hiss, I smell diesel, the sooty smoke, I remember standing next to the wheels when they were so tall that I couldn’t touch the tops. I remember crawling through the luggage compartments, unlatching the whole back end to reveal the gigantic motor; I remember the antiseptic smell of the on-board washroom, the fabric and vinyl seats, the ashtrays in the armrests at the back, the bus driver with his giant movie-screen-sized windshield. But mostly, I remember my Dad, the boss of the bus; conducting a symphony of bus; choreographing a ballet of bus. Yeah, I could get run over by a bus; in some ways, I already did.
In 2006, it occurred to me for the first time that I might actually be able to open my own business. I got run over by a bus when the first dozen attempts at financing fell through, then in October of that year I got hit by another bus when we actually opened our doors. I got run over by another one on our first busy night, during the blackout, again when the Hydro company threatened to shut us off because of a stack of mis-mailed bills, when I had to fire someone for the first time, when a cook unplugged the meat fridge overnight, when the health inspector showed up during a busy lunch, when we over-prepared for an Ottawa festival by a factor of ten and got stuck holding the bag…. When I got my first complaint, when I got my first review which implied (mistakenly) that I served grapefruit! (…it was grape chutney, Anne; the grapes were from our own vine out back!) Honestly? I’ve been hit by, knocked down with, run over by, and sent to the back of the bus in some way or another every week since we opened.
But every time, I have gotten back up. We did find financing, we survived opening, busy nights and blackouts, we passed health inspections (with flying colours, in case you’re worried…) and have paid our bills, paid our bills, and paid our bills; sometimes late, sometimes on installments, and sometimes with little more than promises and hopes. But when push has come to shove, for four and a half years, we have rolled up our sleeves, gotten back up and we have done what had to be done.
And more. We started a thriving Farmers’ Market; we host three or four charity events every year. We provide an income and stability to our employees and their families. We manage the upkeep of a piece of local history, our 160 year old stone and timber building in the heart of downtown. There is nothing farther away from staring at the grill of that oncoming Greyhound than reading our customer comment cards that say: ‘excellent, excellent, excellent, amazing, 10 out of 10, best meal ever!’ Or, ‘we love it here!’
And we have managed this entire project in line with our values. I set out to open an organic and local foods restaurant, a business that did minimal impact to an environment that is even more stressed out than me—And, four and a half years later, we still buy local and organic as much as or more than the day we opened—more than almost anyone you know—Our meats do not come from factories, our vegetables taste fresh from the field because they are, and our pantry is stocked, floor to ceiling with certified organic foods. We still use natural, biodegradable cleaners, recycled and compostable paper goods, and we don’t even have a dumpster because most of our waste is either recycled or composted…In addition to those local, small farmed and natural meats, we include lots of healthy, vegetarian and vegan options, we use mostly whole grains and we even control portions of salt and fats, easy to do when you prepare almost everything from scratch—and you don’t even have to ask us about MSG or trans-fat because there is none here. We don’t have to add veggies to our kid’s meals, they already have them.
For now. Today, we are here; tomorrow, I may get run over by a bus.
Which brings me back to Ron Eade’s blog and Benitz’s bistro. The comments on the blog were what really got to me. They ranged in scope from impassioned defense to cruel accusation, and, in all truth, having nothing more than a passing recollection of the chef in question, I cannot say where the blame should lie. But here is what I imagine: Derek had another slow week. Fewer customers came in than the week before, fewer regulars returned, fewer new people saw the sign or the ads. A bill was put off, because there wasn’t quite as much money as he thought there would be. He worked harder, he made the food better, he tried a new approach, but, whatever it was, it didn’t take. He had another slow week, he put off another bill. A piece of equipment broke, it slowed service, it made his work harder, but there was no money to fix it, so he plugged on, worked around it. The slower service turned a few people who were on the line about his restaurant around—they told a friend or two, and Derek had another slow week. Each of these things became a domino in a row, the bills, the broken equipment, the slower service, and as each one of those dominos lined up, he tried new things, he crossed his fingers and he hoped. He stuck to his guns, he worked on the delivery, on cutting costs, on keeping people happy…But one day, he put off one bill too many, or maybe something else broke that he couldn’t repair. One day the bus ran him down and he couldn’t get back up.
Was this a personal failure? Should he have fought on against all odds? Sure. I have this conversation with myself every week, and if I didn’t keep saying ‘Yes! Fight on! Find a way!’ then this adventure would have ended in defeat long before this day…But does that make him a villain? No. Fraudulent? Again, no. Our culture is littered with stories of winning against all odds, of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, of turning lemons into lemonade….To have quit any sooner than was absolutely necessary would have been his, and would also be my end. As long as there is a chance that this company can turn itself around, I will keep trying. As long as people keep turning up, keep encouraging us to succeed, keep thanking us for doing what we do, I will keep on fighting, I will keep on trying.
My Dad showed me how to put those buses in line. He taught me how to be not just a business owner, but a good one, a fair one—but in the end, a restaurant took him down. Restaurants are bigger than buses, and meaner; just ask Derek Benitz, or, I’m sure 99 out of 100 restaurant owners you could meet. Margins are slim, diners are fickle, trends and tastes change with the wind and season. And how many newspapers have a ‘Haircut Reviews’ section waiting to pounce on the first barber who tapers unevenly or fails to provide a perfect bob? Restaurants are hard work; they are demanding, intense and unforgiving.
My restaurant may not be here next week. It probably will, and every instinct has told me not to tell this story, this truth, to let you see behind the veil…. But I get tired when I see good guys like Derek lose the fight, like my brother, like my dad. I don’t want to be one of those guys or gals. I made it past the first hurdle; I didn’t fail, like 23% do, in my first year, and I’d like to not be one of the 60% that fail in the first five….The fact is that I love this place. I love the work, I love the response, I love the people, I love being able to effect change by the simple fact of existing and I love that I don’t have to be like McDonald’s, The Keg, or the Olive Garden to do it. I love that I can depend on local farmers and not buy from big, industrial suppliers like the others. But if I’ve learned anything, if stories like Derek’s have taught me anything, it’s that I’m not going to succeed by laying down in the ditch, waiting for the trouble to pass, I’ve got to get out in front of that bus and make the driver stop and let me on.
So here goes. Tomorrow, I really could get run over by a bus, so it’s time for me to quit complaining and to get on with it. So what, pray tell, am I trying to say? How about this: if you value your local and local foods restaurants, visit them. Frequent them. This is not an easy business; fun, yes, but not easy. Come to the branch; buy something this week or next. If you can’t come, send a friend; if you can come, bring a friend. We want to succeed. We want nothing more than to offer you a little home away from home; a friendly, smiling face, and a great meal grown and raised by the good people all around you. If you value that in us, if you value that in any restaurant, then support us. Support all of us; give us a chance to get on the bus. Honestly? Give us a chance to drive the bus.
And that is what I really want to say.
For My Mom:
I love quiche. There, I said it. I loved it before I heard the expression “real men don’t eat quiche.” Admittedly, I hid my love for a short period after I heard that phrase but eventually I outgrew the need to prove my manhood by meeting some silly ideal propped up by someone who had obviously never tried my mom’s quiche. My mom makes a spinach quiche that will stop your heart dead in its tracks. Perfect flaky Crisco crust, layers of onions and bacon, Swiss cheese, and a custard of eggs, spinach and cream cheese. She sprinkles on paprika for color and bakes it just right. In my considerable experience eating her quiche, she’s never made a dry one, an under-salted one, an over-salted one or a runny one. It is always just right. And I’ve never seen her use a recipe. She has one, mind you, she made me a copy when I moved to California, seeing as how I wouldn’t be able to eat hers out there. I couldn’t bring myself to do it though. Oh, I’ve made my Bruce variations, Vegan ones with olives and tofu, vegetarian ones with smoked peppers and fried breadcrumbs to replace the bacon. Even now, back in the omnivore world, with good organic bacon and the finest cheeses in the world at my fingertips. I still, rarely if ever can bring myself to make mom’s quiche. And no, it’s not just my fear of Crisco; there are plenty of good organic non trans-fat shortenings available. There’s one ingredient I don’t have and can’t replace. You know what it is. Mom’s love.
You’ve all tasted it; if not mom’s, maybe dad’s…maybe your favorite aunt or granny. I don’t know who cooked that magic meal for you. But somebody did. For me it was my mom.
Earlier this month I went back to Texas to visit my family. My folks laid out a spread from the moment we arrived and tried to take us to every restaurant, BBQ joint, taco stand, kolache house or burger and fries pub that they could to impress us with Texas’ greatest asset. We were groaning and shopping for bigger clothes but couldn’t say no; it was too much, but too good. At one point, I told Nicole, this is how they show us love. It was a simple true statement, but I didn’t realize until I said it out loud how true it was.
Our first great relationship in our lives is with our parents; by bringing us into this world there is a tacit agreement that they will provide food and shelter, keep us warm and not let us shoot our eye out with a BB gun. Parenting is nature’s original charity. It is, although potentially rewarding in increasingly theoretical ways (the statistical decline in the percentage of children taking care of aging parents being an example), and will always be a huge investment with no guarantee of return. Well, other than the overwhelming sense of relief and accomplishment most parents seem to feel when their teenager finally moves out of their house. Parenting is, by many measures a series of gifts; food, shelter, clothing, bicycles, slinkies, Legos and puppies, as required by the child, over time. But food, or nourishment and the ability to grow, is the first and greatest of these gifts.
If survival is the body of our primary instinct then parenting and procreation are its legs. In my mind, it is no coincidence that we associate these two primary human biological functions with the mysterious and difficult to precisely define word (feeling? emotion? concept?) love. And just as parenting is so tied to the providing of food, it is no coincidence that our love for our mates is also characterized by rituals that revolve around eating. Think about it: “Dinner and a movie?” “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” “Bringing home the bacon.” Meeting the parents over dinner, the wedding feast… Food and love are so closely tied together in our nature that it is impossible to separate them.
While I was in Texas I got to see my niece and nephew who are approaching 3 and 5. They are beautiful, intelligent and boisterous little spoiled brats; manipulative, aggravating and impossible not to love intensely. Food is the ultimate bargaining chip with these adorable monsters. A well timed ice cream or ‘eggy’ can mean the difference between a world of love and a world of pain. I’ve definitely noticed in my own relationships how most fights begin with hunger and end over a decent meal. Food and love are built of the same biological stuff.
When my mom bakes a quiche, she brings something to it that no McDonald’s deep fryer can ever provide. Charity. An open heart. An honest and careful desire to provide sustenance to someone to whom she made a quiet promise many years ago when she realized she was about to meet a new and lifelong friend. Man, I love quiche.
dollars and senselessness…
My granddaddy was a dentist; he worked in the Astin building in downtown Bryan, Texas, my home town. We used to watch the Christmas and July 4th parades from the windows of his upstairs office—I remember back in the 70s, when I was just a little kid, downtown Bryan was still ‘where you went’ when you needed something. You parked and walked, and within a few blocks you had the Woolworths, the Parker-Astin hardware store, a pizza parlour, shoe shops, men’s clothing shops, women’s clothing shops, hat shops, a barber shop, a library, restaurants…There was a community there, and tagging along with Dr. Enloe was a good way to meet and see every member of it. By the mid 80’s, it was a ghost town. Two out of three shops were empty, folks had moved out to bigger stores on bigger streets with bigger parking lots. Dr. Enloe had retired, the parades moved uptown and the barber looked bored. You see, that was right around the time that Wal-Mart came to town. I’m thinking about it because Wal-Mart has just announced that it is planning to begin construction, starting this spring, on its long rumoured Kemptville location.
Back in the 80s, Wal-Mart was still saturating the various media with prevarications about its ‘commitment’ to ‘Buy American’ a commitment which I notice it has not committed to anytime recently, especially as by about 2005, somewhere around 60% of the stuff they sold was imported, mostly from China…according to one study, in 2004 alone, Wal-Mart spent over 18 billion dollars on Chinese products. That means that if it were an individual economy; they would be China’s eighth largest trading partner, bigger than Russia, Australia, and, you guessed it, Canada. According to the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), “Wal-Mart is the single largest importer of foreign-produced goods in the United States”, their biggest trading partner is China, and their trade with China alone constitutes approximately 10% of the total US trade deficit with China as of 2004.
Apparently, Wal-Mart has sent as many as 1.5 million jobs to China; you know, decent jobs, factory jobs, middle class jobs. Not the kind of ‘greeter’ or ‘cashier’ jobs they offer in their stores, jobs that pay minimum wage and lock a person into the lowest possible economic bracket for life (or at least for as long as the often brief term of employment…), especially given this company’s famous and well documented anti-union stance and what seems to be a complete and utter disdain for anything resembling a job benefit…Wal-Mart sells its stores to communities by promising jobs. Hmmm. Here are some interesting statistics: a 1994 study done by the Congressional Research Service concluded that “for every two jobs created by a Wal-Mart store, the community loses three. Jobs that are retained by a community are often merely shifted from local businesses to the giant retailer.” In another study, a fella named Kenneth Stone, who is a Professor of Economics at Iowa State University, found that some small towns can lose as much as half of their retail trade within ten years of a Wal-Mart store opening. They don’t bring jobs, they just shift them around.
I used to live with a Wal-Mart employee, and her stories used to make me cringe… she said that every morning they would do cheers, even sing ‘Wal-Mart’ songs, like a cult, you know, morale building stuff… What a great place to work, right? At least until she was sent home mid shift every time she approached 28 hours in a week, the magic hour at which she would have become a full time employee, and thus been eligible (after a year!) for the modest health insurance package that such employment status required. She knew of no-one, outside of management, who was receiving any such benefit, and it’s probably just as well, with a $1000 deductible, the presence of the insurance would have been all but invisible to a person of her age, health and financial means. Wal-Mart is not a good steward of its people.
These days, I live in Kemptville, and we are not immune to the fallout of the carbon economy, the desire for bigger parking lots for our bigger trucks have already moved much of the major business from downtown to the highway, as seems to be the way of the world these days. But one of the things that attracted me to this town, one of the reasons I wanted to be a part of this community was that we still had (have…) a vibrant, beautiful, and even functional downtown area. It’s not at 100% occupancy, by any stretch, but it is still a vital, functioning core to our town. I can still shop, eat, go to the post office, the bank, I can buy books, clothes, gifts and hardware all within an easy walk from my home. The parades still loop down Clothier Street to Prescott, and we watch them from upstairs window of our Heritage building that hearkens back to a time when horses would have pulled the floats.
I realize that so far this article makes me sound like a xenophobe, like someone who doesn’t believe in the market or in competition. This is simply not the case. The fact is, I have always accepted that this concept, this thing, that we have collectively agreed to call ‘the market’, whatever it actually is, is one of, if not the most compelling forces on human behaviour that exists. I even believe that it might be something even deeper, something more intrinsic, like some kind of manifestation of our base needs in the world. People need to eat, to have shelter and clothing, and since prehistory we have hunted, we have gathered, and farmed, we have done what it has taken to survive, we have protected our own by providing for them, and even when we had enough, and when those we care for had enough, we hoarded, because eventually (we instinctively knew) that someday, we might no longer have enough. These base activities when practiced in the modern world become dollars traded for goods and services, the collection of dollars has replaced the collection of foods and firewood, the need to protect became the act of collecting and exchanging dollars through corporate and market based prophylactics that have absolved us of the direct responsibility for what we have done to collect more and to hoard. We are compelled by these base instincts and desires, and we act.
The question then becomes, is the market all that we are? Are we nothing more than slaves to our most basic motivations? I contend that we are not. There are, and have always been other factors that affect our behaviours, factors like love, compassion, empathy, free will and choice. A corporation is an excuse to behave badly, by its very definition it protects its participants from risk, and it absolves them of direct accountability, of blame. If these other instincts, these other factors exist and therefore do affect our behaviour, it stands to reason that other institutions must also exist (as the market exists to express our base desires) to embody them and that through them, we can act on those better angels in our hearts and minds. My feeling is that those institutions are exactly what we would expect them to be, things like the government and its mandate to regulate and pick up where the market leaves off, trade unions, churches, charities, service groups, even extended groups of family and friends. I don’t doubt the power of the market; I simply refuse to accept that it is the whole of who and what we are.
We don’t always do what is best for ourselves—given food we will sometimes indulge too much, given wine, we sometimes drink beyond our fill; we are humans and to be human is to accept that there is both base desire and a higher calling—when my pants get too tight, I know it is time to slow down. I hope that I will decide in time, but who knows? Wal-Mart is the grand expression of our most base desire, our need to collect, to conquer and to hoard, no matter the cost… it is the love handles of our culture, it is the desire to indulge taken to such bloated extremes that it no longer has a view of its own belt. I believe in the market, but I also believe in knowing when it is time to say no to a second serving, when it is time to temper our greed, and when to think about more than what is easiest and fastest and cheapest, and to start to think about what is best; best for me, best for my community and best for those who I love.
Kemptville has three grocery stores, a health food store, four hardware stores, and several other small retail stores and shops that will be dramatically, instantly and permanently affected by this new beast, this Godzilla that will not stop until Tokyo is burning. Many of these stores have been locally owned for generations; when you spend your dollar with these folks it stays here, in Kemptville, it doesn’t shoot off to Bentonville, Arkansas to make sure the Walton family will have even more billions of dollars to not give to charity (less than 1% in 2005!). Wal-Mart will come in with predatory pricing (a new Wal-Mart will charge as much as 17% less in a new area than in one where its act of economic devastation is complete,) it will bring unsecure and low paying jobs to replace the secure and better paying jobs that it will destroy and within a few years, our sweet little downtown will, sadly, probably look a lot like the one in my hometown did in the years after its arrival there, and it will probably look a lot like the downtowns in thousands of sweet little towns all across North America still do. That is, unless we decide not to let it.
The last time I visited Bryan, my old downtown was a sight to behold, new shops, new stores, new clubs and restaurants had sprung up to fill the empty storefronts from those years after the Wal-Mart came to town… folks in the government, folks in the neighborhood, the old businesses that didn’t want to move, and lots of smart, forward thinking people had gotten together and decided to fix the place up. Incentives were used, not to bring in an instrument of destruction this time, but to rebuild and re-imagine what that downtown could be. Now it’s a beautiful, vibrant place, in many ways it reminds me of downtown I remember from tagging along with Dr. Enloe. It was a long road to recovery, but it worked, and I don’t think one person in Bryan would say it wasn’t worth it. The way it worked was through community—people getting together and deciding that it was something they wanted and then going out and doing it.
I don’t presume that I can stop Wal-Mart. No more than I can presume that I can stop myself from sometimes eating a second slice of pie. But I can, and we can, sometimes say that enough is enough. I don’t presume that I can stop Wal-Mart. Not alone. I can hope and help to curb its effects on my new home, I can warn and I can share what I have seen. We can take our energy, our ideals, our dollars and our votes and we can go downtown, pick up some trash, encourage a friend to open a shop, patronize it, send other folks there, patronize the other shops downtown even if it costs a buck or two more, we can join a community group, participate in the BIA, in a theatre group, in a church group, shop at the farmers’ market, we can build a strong community and together we can keep it alive. We can elect a mayor and a council who want to keep the heart of the community alive, who will fulfill the mandate that their institution has as a sacred duty, to think not just about the base and greedy desire to increase the tax and revenues, but rather to take the best care possible of the community that has elected them and which has given them the dollars which they already have. That means accepting that things like Wal-Mart will come, but not incentivizing it, not paying out of pocket to extend services, not giving any tax breaks or easy zoning changes…It means growing, but growing smart, not just growing for its own sake. And if you really want to be a part of real change, you can do what Nicole and I have done for the last several years, you can make the easy, quick and simple decision to shop somewhere else.
One of the best things that ever happened to me was losing everything when I was 17. My family home was engulfed in flames in the middle of the night, a couple of weeks before Christmas. Firefighters never could figure out exactly what happened, except that it started in the furnace, speculation pointed to a fan malfunction. It didn’t seem like one of the best things that ever happened to me at the time, of course; instead, it seemed incredible, beyond imagining, surreal. I didn’t lose everything either, not really, but I’ll return to that later. I was woken by my mother; I recall that it took more than one attempt to wake me and my brother as well…the deep sleep of innocence and youth being what it is. It took us a while to clue in that it was an actual emergency wake-up, as opposed to the usual “emergency” wake-ups that usually ended with us trudging off to school or church. Even after I got out of bed the strangeness of the situation seemed to blend seamlessly with the dreams I was shaking off. My memories of that night are fragmented, spiked with moments of clarity and mixed with long vague patches of smoke.
I remember trying to wake the neighbors to call for the fire trucks, by ringing the doorbell once and waiting, only to be pushed aside by my mother who rushed over to ring their bell repeatedly and furiously while pounding on their door, officially signaling that the rules had changed. Politeness, the law, was suspended temporarily with the martial law of justifiable rudeness in its place. I remember having to choose what I would take (a trench-coat and a briefcase full of adolescent poetry). I remember being able to see my sister’s closet on the back of the second floor burning from the street out front. I remember my father salvaging our Apple IIe computer, a prize possession in those days; I remember the dog sleeping through much of the fire in her doghouse out back. I remember being sent to our neighbor’s house to sleep and instead staying up singing the Talking Head’s song ‘Burning Down the House’ and laughing at our precocious sense of ironic detachment, giddy and stupid from the adrenaline overdose. I remember my mother, without makeup, in her nightclothes, sad, scared and as strong as I’ve ever seen her. My father, all action and no talk, after seeing to our safety, defying the smoke for at least three trips back inside the house for things he suddenly realized we couldn’t leave to chance. I remember brave firemen throwing a family heirloom antique desk out of a second story window in a bizarre, unguided and prescient act of preservation. It’s one of my sister’s only things that wasn’t completely lost.
I lost my first vinyl record collection. Silly what you get attached to—I think I was most upset about losing a candle bottle which had been the result of hours of wasted time moulding the wax into interesting patterns by choosing colors, turning candles, and directing the flow of wax as I fell asleep watching it for months. It was worthless, but somehow irreplaceable. My family lost some pictures; my mother and father lost some of their childhood talismans, and a family bible. As I mentioned, my sister lost almost the entire contents of her room. My brother lost some things but was and is a stoic and refused to complain. We all lost our home. It was rebuilt, different, but similar, but the old building is and will always be gone. We lost furniture, of course, and clothing. Even some things that seemed to survive were damaged by the smoke and disintegrated in the ensuing months. We mourned, at first, and felt a gap, and moved on as people do. But we didn’t lose everything. We were insured. We had a supportive community. We replaced all the things, even the emotional attachments which broke free of their moorings, in time, docked on the shores of new possessions.
Later, on the morning of the fire, I remember the church, our community, arriving, the pastor and his wife at first, then the church, as a group, arriving with hands to help and ratty clothes on, scrambling through the muck and salvaging what they could, our neighbors and friends, ankle deep in ashy mud. I remember the soggy crumpled Christmas tree and crushed presents and how strange it all looked with the sunlight streaming through where the ceiling used to be. I remember that the fish survived, and how important that was. Everyone survived. I remember a miracle; my mother’s wooden box of love letters from my father was less than ten feet from the origin of the blaze and opened to reveal not a single singed page. I remember coming home to my grandmother’s house within two days of the fire to find a room stacked from floor to ceiling with donated clothes, canned foods and household goods. I remember my school collecting hundreds of dollars for us.
I was confused and gracious. I had never been on the receiving end of charity, and did not (and still do not) fully comprehend the degree to which a community is capable of and even desires being good to one other. I have had my share of personal struggles with the dogma and philosophy of the Baptist church; but one thing is for certain, I was a Baptist that day. Specifically I was a full-fledged member of the First Baptist Church of Bryan, Texas. Unless you are a member of a community that joins together in times of need (and I hope that you are) you’d have a hard time understanding. That day was not about dogma or philosophy, It was not about ‘whether or not to help’ it was about ‘how to help.’
Speaking of the church, there is a bible verse, that instructs the reader not to ‘lay up treasures on earth, where moths and rust doth corrupt’ (colorful language, that), whether or not you lend any credence to the source, it summarizes a very valid philosophical point. One shared, knowingly or not, by every society that has ever engaged in acts of charity or, for that matter, in any actions that result in the banding together of people to help equalize the quality of life for others in their community. It is a philosophy of setting aside, at times, that very human compulsion to collect, store, accumulate and pack away material goods for oneself alone, and instead to share, to help, to give and to help share the burden of those in need. It’s not as simple as ‘greed is bad, charity is good’, in fact, if it weren’t for the instinct to accumulate, there would be nothing to share. It’s simply the importance of remembering that too much greed is bad, and that a society that doesn’t share, ultimately loses its reason for being.
The fire was, in its own way, one of the best things that ever happened to me. I can feel my mom cringe when I say that, but it’s true. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it had not happened. Standing on the lawn that night I saw everything we owned going away and I HAD to learn to say, “Oh, well, so much for that stuff. It’s gone.” Learning that lesson has given me a huge head start in life. I learned early and definitively that things could be lost, and that things could be replaced. I learned that communities can and do come together. And most importantly, I learned that community is more important than things.
So yes, I had a McJob. Not proud, but it makes me one of (depending on who you ask) as many as 15% of the North American workforce. I guess it comforts me to know that one out of eight of you probably served at the altar of Ronald at some point in your working life as well. Life, however, is about choices. And though many of us have worked at a McDonalds at some point in our careers, few of us have chosen to stay.
My first restaurant ‘job’ was at Samuel’s Fine Foods—my dad being the Samuel in question, and with our family making up a majority of the staff. The restaurant was dad’s dream—he had wanted it for years. It was a tough road, fraught with challenges, but he loved the very idea of it. He wanted a fine restaurant, beautiful, a celebration of quality and excellence, and with Samuel’s, he had it. The restaurant embodied many of his ideals; as a good Baptist, he chose not to serve alcohol, he didn’t open on Sundays, he also chose the best before the cheapest, and the food was real, made from scratch. Ask him about it today and he still smiles at the memory. I, too, remember that restaurant with the fondness and idealism that only the frosted filter of childhood memory can reproduce. We served orange scented ice tea in heavy goblets and things like juicy steaks, chicken crepes with sherry cream sauce, and huge slices of my mom’s amazing cheesecake. It was, by far, the best food in the world. The building was an old, majestic home, converted for business use. It had chandeliers and wooden floors and we filled it with antique tables and chairs, floral print china, multifold linen napkins and cut glass crystal stemware. There was another person in this story: a guy who became my hero, our restaurant’s chef. I followed him around like a loyal pup—to me, he was an outlaw and a priest; his motorcycle, the leaping flames, and the razor sharp knives were all the forbidden and the beautiful accessories to the palate pleasing sculptures on heavy china that he sent out to be shown and enjoyed in the gallery beyond the swinging kitchen doors. His world—the kitchen—was mystical and inviting. My parents had me bussing tables and refilling glasses; but I was enchanted, I begged the chef to let me learn. He offered me the pit—the dish pit—and I faced a choice: work out front and refill glasses or scrub and scrub and maybe someday learn his magic art. I chose, and I scrubbed until the pots shined. And finally, eventually, he did teach me a little. I was enchanted, and in some ways, I still am. But his cooking was only one thing—he was a talented chef—in the end what I learned most from my parent’s restaurant was from my father. It was how one earns, and deserves, respect.
My parents’ restaurant didn’t make it—neither do most restaurants, I have come to learn. This is sad. Most restaurants are an act of passion and faith, and it sad that such noble intent usually ends so poorly. It leaves us all poorer. Our challenges overwhelmed us—a lack of visible parking, the oil bust, banking issues, and other things… few people who are not small business owners realize what a razor’s edge those of us who are walk in order to open our doors every day. Profit can be an elusive prey, the public’s taste a fickle friend, the bills must be met, the employees paid, and the last one paid, if there’s anything left, is the boss. This is fair—providing jobs and building networks of suppliers are acts that benefit the community; they are noble intentions, and, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished; but it is fair—for in the end, if it works, we also stand to gain the most. A successful business is not just a source of profit—the community it supports also rewards its founders with a more valuable commodity than the money in the bank, it earns them respect. And succeeding in such a difficult business? Perhaps even more so. I’d venture that most small business owners, whether they realize it or not, choose this life because they are seeking this respect, more than even the money.
Respect is a valuable asset. It is hard to come by and easy to lose. But, I should be clear; it is not the respect of others, rather, it is the sense of self respect that is most dear. We are all faced with choices, and the choices we make in business are no different from those in life: how we treat others, whether or not to be good neighbours, whether or not to give of ourselves when we can… Those choices, ultimately, are how we earn the right of self-respect.
Here’s where the subject gets tricky… as a lifelong left wing advocate for fair trade, for employee rights, for the environment, for health care, for charity, and with the sincere belief that a community must stand together to be strong—my choices, though slightly different from my father, are nonetheless imbued with my own sense of idealism. Which is why it pains me to admit that some of my feelings in the three years we’ve had this business have made me (like many before me, I’m sure) feel conflicted. I’ll be honest, and perhaps even more honest than I should be, when I say that I sometimes struggle with fair pay and benefits when we can afford neither for ourselves. I’ve even occasionally balked at the money we’ve collected for charity when we could not, sometimes, pay our own bills on time. In those moments, sometimes, I’ve even caught myself empathizing with what I always considered to be ‘the opposition’ or ‘the other’. As I walk that razor, I feel a temptation (but not an attraction) to, well, not try quite so hard. To make a choice and run the restaurant that lots of folks seem to want. A restaurant with cheap food; consistent food, you know, with coca cola, with fries and ketchup. The things McDonalds serves—turn and burn food. Junk food. Drive through food.
A few years after Samuel’s closed, my second restaurant job was at McDonalds. I was informed that I had this job by my juvenile probation officer. He wanted me somewhere where he could keep tabs on me during the day while my folks were at work and I, for reasons that I hesitate to go into (it involved some bad choices…), was not in school. I was 16 years old. There was no mysterious outlaw priest in this kitchen. In fact, by the end of my first shift I was, in effect, a head chef, working the burger station by myself—preparing food that was served to our small percentage of our company’s well documented billions and billions of customers. I steamed buns; I dropped frozen hockey pucks into a machine that was essentially a flat grill sandwich, pushed a button and retrieved the cooked results when the timer blared. I used modified caulk guns to dispense ketchup, mustard, and special sauce. I placed pre-portioned quantities of frozen fries into baskets and pushed more buttons. Over time, I learned how to not sweat the unannounced appearance of busloads of school kids, and eventually I learned other things, like that both 5 minutes late and 5 minutes early were transgressions punishable by public humiliation and possible loss of privilege. McDonalds was like a prison camp. Most of us were miserable, but had to be there—the rules were strict and the pay was low, the managers were only months older than us, and the work was as mind-numbingly anti-creative as could be imagined. Trust was nonexistent, to the point that we were forbidden from handling the burgers that were thrown out for being 20 minutes too old; in fact, the managers were invested with the duty of counting those burgers, in the trash can, to make sure that they were not redirected to the tight, polyester pant pocket of an employee’s uniform. They were then taken, at the end of the shift, supervised, to a dumpster which was kept locked. That was just the trash. The rest of our employed minutes were watched just as closely. Employee breaks were letter of the law—fifteen minutes, OFF THE CLOCK, every four hours, 16 minutes was a criminal act, and punishable. Don’t even consider forgetting to clock out. The food was…what food? I never peeled an onion, sliced a tomato, shredded a head of lettuce…All these things arrived, prepared, numbered… Once I was asked to cut a hamburger in half; I had to use a plastic knife from one of the individually wrapped cutlery packages out front.
I shudder now at the memories. It was like being in a war. It was five months of my life when… I learned a lot. McDonalds was very, very good at the one thing that eludes me the most now, consistency. It eludes me for all of the reasons I was so miserable then and struggle so much now. Every day I face the fact that what some customers seem to want most, seem to crave and require of me, is that I provide exactly what McDonalds was so damn good at preparing: a consistent, uniform and tightly controlled product. That today, tomorrow, and six weeks from now, they can walk in, say ‘the usual, Joe’ and get exactly that product that they have gotten so many times before. I have been quoted as saying that consistency is the enemy of the good, and it’s true. This animal urge for a consistent product may have served some important function at a pre-modern point in our evolution, presumably to insure our safety in a diverse world—after all, two mushrooms with just slightly different gill structures can mean delicious… or death… but what function this instinct serves in modern man is difficult for me to fathom. I try to avoid this whole issue by explaining that we are ‘consistently good’ or some such thing, but again and again I find myself being drawn into keeping ‘signature items’ or offering a ‘bar menu’ of easy favourites to satisfy the masses. And every time I do, every time I train an employee to press this timer or use that ¼ teaspoon measure, I find myself slouching towards McDonaldland.
You see, no two onions are exactly alike. No two onions should be exactly alike. Onions, like people, are living things, as are all of the plants, delicious animals, and even the yeasts that ferment our wines and cheese. It is this life, this heart, this soul that feeds us and sustains us. To not acknowledge its presence, well, is to ignore the very core of the idea of sustenance. To treat the ingredients without respect for their individual characteristics is to deny our connection to this vast network of life that is what we are. Consistency and conformity in food is acceptance, even the advocacy of conformity in life and spirit. We do not celebrate consistency in humans (that’s called fascism), so why do we require it of our foods? I am mystified and baffled by this urge. But, sadly, not even immune to it. To me, McDonalds, and all it represents, is such a dark and wicked, soul-less place. But in all honesty, here I am, as human as the rest, with the memory of a McDLT on my lips and knowing that the McRib was a preformed press meat, and still craving its blend of sweet tangy barbecue sauce, onions and pickles. Why is this urge still here?
We yearn for our past. We long to stop time in our happiest moments and savour the lingering sweet taste of youth. The frosted filter of memory works on us all and dilutes our anxieties, polishes the rough edges, and reminds us only of our glory. It helps us to ignore or gloss over the unpleasant truths about things like how and why our food is so cheap, so uniform, and so consistent…and things like why our best attempts sometimes fail. I remember my parent’s restaurant as a paradise—but an honest retelling will admit that some of my dad’s idealistic choices helped to speed his restaurant’s decline and that ultimately, the paradise collapsed when the chef, my ‘hero’, ran off with the night’s receipts and the banks came knocking on our door. We lived lean for years after that, bankrupt and almost beaten. And like it or not, it was during those years that McDonalds always paid my check with the same timeliness and efficiency that they required of me. My heart pulls me to Samuel’s but my head, well, Ronald, sometimes it pulls me to you.
So if my head is right, if the ‘customer is always right,’ why struggle? Why not succumb to the machine? Sysco or Tannis will, no doubt, sweep in today, if I call, and they will be happy to fill my orders post haste with a ten percent discount across the board if I am willing to give up the fight, quit trying to serve local and small farm organic food, if I am willing to order exclusively from big agri-business factories that have done their diligence, commodified, and sucked all the heart out of everything they do in order to provide a cheap, consistent product.
Well that’s where we come back to the question of respect. You see, if I make that call, if I ‘give up’, then tomorrow, I’ll have to admit that the respect I sought to earn wasn’t for something I believed in, but for something, well, less than noble. I’ll have to face the fact that my success was gained not by investing in my community, but by giving up on it. I guess it all comes down to a simple fact. Life is about choices. Some folks choose the consistent. I consistently choose the variety, the individual, and the good; things with a live heart & soul behind them. And, if I’m lucky, well then maybe I’ll even be consistently good.
My father faced similar choices and his restaurant failed. But in the end, he chose right, he did the right thing, and he left with his well-earned self-respect intact.
So yes, I had a McJob. And I had a hero, and no, it wasn’t the chef, and it wasn’t Ronald McDonald…it was the guy I still, and will always, respect: my dad.
Mom liked Frank Sinatra. Dad liked Hank Williams. That left Rock and Roll up for grabs. My brother and I split it down the middle: he got the heavy metal, and I got the pop. Oh yeah, we were all allowed to appreciate each other’s choices, but let’s face it, at some point, around say, age 13 or so, there comes a time when a kid needs their ‘own’ music. My parents were not unaware of the Beatles; they were, after all, alive from 1964 to 1970 when the Beatles were shaking up the cultural landscape like a 7 Richter point earthquake… they just weren’t a ‘part’ of it. Which is good, because, as I mentioned before, that left it open for me. I think it started, officially, with a posthumous Lennon original ‘Nobody Told Me There’d be Days Like These’ and its accompanying video on MTV, a solo Paul McCartney song ‘Take it Away’, and a Thompson Twins cover of the Beatles classic ‘Revolution’. Martha Quinn, one of the original veejays, summed it up in a 30 second song intro, ‘…song was written by the Beatles…band comprised of John Lennon and Paul McCartney…’ After having Martha’s help in putting 2 and 2 together, remembering those late night snippets on the oldies station of ‘Blackbird’, ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Let it Be’, I slowly, cautiously, began to fall head over heels in love with this band. As luck or fate would have it, my next trip to Half Price Records and Books yielded a treasure I have not encountered in the 20 plus years since. I bought, that day, a copy of no less than 6 different Beatles albums (on vinyl, of course), all at regular (‘half the cover’) price. I have not walked past the B’s in a record shop since and have yet to replicate, or even observe the opportunity to replicate such a score. The plumpest and juiciest fruit in the bunch was an immaculate copy of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that in less than an hour, armed with little more than a decent set of headphones and a stick of Jasmine incense, completely changed my musical taste, in fact the way I listen to music, to this day.
Before that spin, I never knew that music could be so completely immersive an experience. It seemed like more than just music, it seemed like I was getting to know these songwriters and performers on an intimate level. In retrospect, such coherent (arguable, I know) emotion from such young men was almost like permission to experience strong feelings myself. This was a timely message for a boy entering adolescence, and I did not take it lightly. In the ensuing months, the Beatles edged out other interests to become not just ‘my music’ but ‘my thing’. From my stringy curly attempts at the moptop haircut, Lennon specs (clear glass, non-prescription…it was the 80’s), to a wardrobe pulled in whole and in part from each respective Beatles era, a favoritism for madcap British humour, a burgeoning and encyclopedic knowledge of Beatles trivia, lyrics and song orders, my love for all things Beatle became an obsession. A Beatlemania. It seems a bit odd now, heck, it seemed odd at the time that an 80’s kid would become such a complete fan of a group which had reached its creative peak 3 years before his birth, but having walked these many miles in these Beatle boots, I now know that I am far from alone and am, in fact, not even among the inner circle of the most obsessive of the ‘young’ fans.
Other young dudes were easily as obsessed as I was, but with other forms of arcana. I was a Beatles geek, but my cousin had a box of baseball cards from which he could spout off endless bits of statistical information; another cousin was a car nut and spoke fluently, years before his chance at a driver’s license, about the importance of horsepower and torque ratios. We all found our ‘thing’ and we all, I think, gained something from it. The baseball cousin is still rattling off his numbers in a successful government job and the car nut has moved from hot wheels to hot rods, finding his pleasure and escape in the fast lanes of life.
For me, the Beatles had a strong message. Humour, hope, love, general positivity, optimism…all these excuses to smile…they were more than just a warm and cozy blanket. With well-rehearsed musicianship and lyrics which at their best were poetic and at their worst were at least a fun foray into some dynamic of wordplay; with fearless emotion, and fearless intelligence, and all accompanied by unequalled success, they showed a kind of cultural leadership that few others have even aspired to. They had a grace in their success; I still see Ringo get choked up in interviews, emotional and grateful for the life he has led.
John was ‘my Beatle’. His acerbic wit (my favorite collective Beatle trait) was the model for the others and in most biographies he is understood to have been, for at least the early years, the ‘leader’ of the collective. But at some point in the late 60s he did something few other public figures have done. He transformed. We, as a species, do not often allow our heroes this luxury. Very few television shows would survive a switch from comedy to drama, pop stars a shift from rock to country, sports stars a shift from football to hockey, politicians a shift from left to right; but right at the height of their fame, that’s exactly what John Lennon did, and essentially we, by proxy, as a culture did as well. Lennon’s shift was not as clearly delineated as the above examples, but it was just as extreme.
Early John Lennon was funny, yes, ambitious, yes, but also cruel, jealous, more than a little sexist (‘Run for life, if you can little girl…’), and publicly, at least for the most part, he was non-political. But in ‘68 or so, all that changed. The public Lennon became not only political but hyper-political: outspoken on issues ranging from the peace movement to women’s rights. He began to feel, I believe, that he had a responsibility to use the public voice he had been awarded for the causes he came to see as important. Celebrity is an amorphous cloud and is often only gently tested for the fear of losing it. John Lennon may have had the biggest ego alive for his blatant disregard for his chance at the loss of his fame, or he may have just not cared. I think it was the latter, I think he changed. Whatever may have led him to his particular road to Damascus is certainly a topic for discussion (Yoko? Drugs?), but the fact that he transformed is difficult to dispute.
I think that this was important to me and to us as a culture for a couple of reasons. The lesson I took was that if I identified a flaw within myself (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.), that I did not have to cling to it like some Shakespearean tragedian. The fact that our culture still accepted and rewarded Lennon with attention after his changes also taught me that life would go on if I were to change.
We could use a little of that leadership in the world right now. Day after day I read articles where politicians parse words in sleazy attempts to escape the label of ‘flip-flopper’ or worse. I say it’s time for politicians and public figures to quit being so married to mistaken ideals and to stand up and say “I was wrong”; to step away and admit a mistake and move on.
While some may disagree, I am glad that celebrities now feel free to use their public personas in causes which move them (so much so now that it has become a cliché) because every one of those voices is a shout compared to our whispers, and though it is sometimes hard to understand all the shouting at least some important things are being heard. Bono’s work for poverty elimination and third world debt forgiveness may seem shrill in the present, but every step he helps the NGOs he speaks for and with to take will be treated kindly by history. It’s easy to laugh off political comments by Matt Damon, the Dixie Chicks or even Jessica Simpson as silly or misplaced, but they inevitably are speaking for a group that almost certainly would otherwise go unheard. When it comes to political discussion, the silence of dissent can be deafening, and our world can only improve by allowing every point of view to at least be heard.
I would say that John and Yoko’s sometimes silly, but always heard campaign for peace gave heart and courage to a generation of protestors and helped to end the Vietnam War. Though some may have wanted another course for that storyline, the bleeding stopped and the boys came home. Now here we are again facing another generation of angry hawks who think that we can kill our way to peace, and for all the bluster and talk on the 24 hour news networks, the comedy shows, the Rock and Roll arenas and even on the campaign trail, the clearest and most eloquent voice for peace, is still heard loud and strong even while it is nearly 28 years silent.
Fired Up and Fired…
The way I heard the story, Donny had paid for his first restaurant by selling cocaine to professors at Texas A&M in the early 80s. It was, I’m sure, just mythology, but I was 18 at the time, a bit of a wild card myself, and, far from slanderous, it made him sound like some sort of counterculture anti-hero, like a pirate, a buccaneer, an outlaw. The job was amazing. I came there from Red Lobster and from McDonalds before that, all told, less than a year of my life, but my first year in the industry (outside of my folk’s place, which had been gone for several years at that point…). Donny’s restaurant, ’La Taqueria’ (the taco factory), was the Tex-Mex joint where I ended up spending my second. It was cheap, fast and spicy and was marketed directly to 70,000-plus college students, most of whom lived within walking distance of our tiny, walk-up window with a patio and seating for maybe 30 or 40 folks inside. We sold tacos, burritos, enchiladas, fajitas… and margaritas and beer, LOTS of margaritas and beer. The guys and gals who worked at ‘La Taq’ (as we called it) were college kids as well; part-time, on their way somewhere else: to other jobs, other lives, the military (A&M is home to a massive ROTC program, locally referred to as ‘the corps’), maybe even to bigger and better kitchens… The restaurant was housed in a run-down old home; the kitchen was divided into four areas, a prep room, a walk-in refrigerator, a tortilla factory and ‘the hot line’. The line was in the foyer of the old house, a literal hallway filled with five or six large gas appliances, cranked up to full fire, and at peak service (this place was very busy) at least four cooks. In Texas. Without AC. It was a HOT line.
I never really knew Donny, the owner. He was more myth than man from where I stood. He hired me and interviewed me, and I saw him from time to time wandering from building to building in the neighbourhood… He had started his miniature empire with a burger place kitty-cornered across a parking lot from our location (The Deluxe), and when I worked for him, he was spending most of his time at ‘Café Eccell’ his new, somewhat nicer place across the street. Lots of the folks who worked with me had worked for Donny for years, moving freely among the three restaurants, and those that knew him well seemed afflicted with an earnest loyalty; they knew, unlike me at the time, that this thing he had created was a special sort of job. That a creative space that made everything from scratch, working with real ingredients, in a loose, casual atmosphere was a bit of a gift… It is, in fact, the exact kind of job I’ve been looking for, and more recently, looking to create, ever since he fired me. Not that I didn’t deserve it…
I was hired as a prep cook, and my first job was frying cornchips. I would stand over the fryer for two solid hours a morning, rotating quartered fresh corn tortillas through the grease, and frying them until they were crisp but intact…not burnt, not chewy, just… right. There was no timer for this, no premeasured quantity, just the learned art of the light but not too light touch… I would then turn the crisp chips out into buckets, salt them and bag them. Much of our business was selling fresh tortillas and tortilla chips in bulk for takeout and walk-up customers. I stood next to the flour tortilla maker, Steve, who would produce hundreds of tortillas from scratch every day out of what seemed like a bit of magic to me, especially after the year previous which I had spent removing pre-breaded and pre-measured frozen foods from plastic packaging and placing them into deep fryers for mechanically pre-determined periods of time. Steve weighed out each batch of ingredients on a triple beam scale, like the ones we used to use in science class, then mixed it in a giant 20 qt. mixer; he then cut, rolled and flattened each ball of dough with a series of practiced motions and a couple of purpose built machines, finishing each batch of a couple dozen flatbread masterpieces by flipping them in a precise ballet that involved attention, focus, an offset spatula and a flat-top grill. I seem to remember that the occasional ball of tortilla dough ‘fell’ into my fryer, found its way into a bowl filled with a little cinnamon sugar (kept around for precisely this purpose), and emerged as a perfect doughnut…Mmmm. The back room was populated with older Mexican ladies who mothered the rest of us and taught us the simple visceral pleasure of fresh guacamole on a warm handmade corn tortilla, food fit for a king. Maybe a god. I also remember that they would sometimes sequester a section of the flat-top to toast up a handful of ancho chilies before grinding them and sprinkling the resulting flakes onto fruit or their tacos at lunchtime. I learned how to work at each station in the back over the course of a few months, even that mystic art of scratch tortilla making under the patient instruction of my sensei, Steve. I could also never forget the incredible task of standing on a step-stool over a steam kettle filled with twenty gallons of bubbling pinto beans, armed with a 3 foot paint stirrer on a power-drill, whipping in handfuls of lard to produce enormous quantities of that Tex-Mex staple: refried beans. I remember what still seems like must have been a dream, the regular job of removing stems from a 10 pound sack of jalapenos before feeding them into a ‘buffalo chopper’; an action that literally required the use of an old-fashioned gas-mask like the ones you’d see on Hogan’s Heroes. I remember making guacamole, queso, chorizo, flautas, carne guisada, pollo asada, salsa, salsa ranchero, salsa verde and marinating pounds and pounds of chicken and beef skirt steak. Each new job was a rung on a ladder leading one place, and once I learned each station in the back, mastered each level in order, I moved up to the next, and then the next, and at the top? I eventually found my home, a place I have lived for most of my adult life since: that sweaty, noisy room, that blast furnace, the place where everything happens, the place where all of that prep ended up on its way out, through our hands and through a window, out to the rest of the world. The hot line. My first real hot line. Eventually, I found that space and I fell in love.
I think that I’ll have a hard time trying to explain the rationale for loving line cooking to someone who has never done it. It is not easy, but it is certainly fun. First I’ll explain what we do… OK, start by imagining that you are cooking supper. OK, now imagine cooking supper for 30 people or maybe 50 people. Now imagine that everyone, all 30 or 50 of those people, wants something either just slightly different and/or completely different from the person next to them. Now, imagine that they are all in a really big hurry. OK, now add to this, the people (3 or 4 of them) telling you what each of these people wants is young and attractive, yes, but also just slightly, how shall we put this? From down on the more ‘dramatic’ end of that long, wonderful spectrum of human personalities… and that those 3 or 4 ‘dramatists’ are also not necessarily emotionally prepared for the fact that when they tell you what each person wants that you may not be able, THIS INSTANT, to give each of those people exactly what they want. OK, are you starting to picture it? Now imagine that the entire event is happening in a room that would blister the skin off a bell pepper. Yeah, that’s kind of what we do. Every day. Like I said, it is not necessarily easy. But, believe it or not, it is also fun. The fun, as you can probably imagine, is not in the work, it is in the successful execution and, perhaps more accurately, it is in the buzz. There is a state that a line cook, in an ideal setting, achieves; an adrenaline high that comes on in the busy times on a well-stocked and organized line that is a feeling that is satisfying like few other experiences… I have never been a sports guy, but I imagine that ‘the zone’ described by athletes, or the ‘runner’s high’ might compare. I’ve had similar experiences jumping off rope swings or cliffs at swimming holes, racing around a sharp corner on a motorcycle, or even eating habanero chilies, and I suppose a skydiver would probably know what I mean, but I’ll probably never know that for sure (I crave adrenaline, but hey, you gotta draw the line somewhere!). Heck, maybe everyone has these moments in their work, the moment where everything is awake, alive, when you reach for something the moment it arrives, when everything is right where you put it, when everything is exactly how it is supposed to be. That is what line cooking is like when you are busy and well prepared, it is living in the moment, a pure moment; it is like living in a dream.
I’ve already mentioned Steve, my mentor and teacher who made the tortillas. He actually called me ‘grasshopper,’ a joke that was way funnier in 1989 as he taught me how to place the dough balls into the cutter, how to test the dough’s readiness by poking or with a couple of quick slaps, feeling for the give and listening for the sound of what he described as a ‘nice, firm ass’. He was also my ride to work fairly often, and my boss, sort of, along with pretty much everyone else who had worked there for longer than a year or so. But ‘the guy’, the kitchen manager, the chef (but don’t call him that, at least not back then) was a short, strong, eagle-eyed, motorcycle riding, ex-ROTC officer named Gil. This guy was one for whom the term ‘alpha male’ was invented. If no one had ever said he was the boss, most of us would have just assumed he was anyway. Gil, when I knew him, or as he explained it to me, anyway, was at low point personally. He was not in school when I met him, nor any longer in the ROTC. What he told me was that his entire life before La Taq had been on a clear path towards being a pilot; it had been his only dream, but after so many years spent in single minded pursuit of this goal, he had been blindsided by academic ineligibility. He told me in confidence that he had sometimes sacrificed his academic efforts by focusing on the harder work of mentoring the younger cadets, by throwing himself into his duties as an officer, and having known him, even ‘served under him’ as it were, I could certainly be comfortable taking him at his word. But for whatever reason, the loss of his dream had broken him down; he was drinking a lot—but we all were (it was college after all!), but he was also AWOL and officially, on the run. The way I remember it (probably a bit glorified and exaggerated), he never used his name on paperwork, he deflected strangers with obfuscation and misinformation, and he even avoided driving his unregistered motorcycle on the main roads. In the kitchen at La Taq, however, he was the confident leader he had been so rigorously trained to be, he was running the show, but outside of that world, he was a ghost. To me, he was an extension of Donny, the owner, a cipher, a man of mystery, an outlaw who, in Gil’s case, was actually even ‘on the lam’…
I don’t know if it was prescience, good delegation skills, laziness or what, but one day Gil handed me pricelists from three different purveyors and a highlighter—sat me down at a patio table and told me to go through them and find the best price for each product on the three lists. A managerial job, the kind of job I didn’t have again for years. It made me feel important, necessary. One day I was chopping tomatoes, striving for a perfect cut, he leaned in, said ‘go faster, don’t worry about perfect, that’s how they’ll know these were cut by hand instead of some machine,’ a piece of advice I have repeated a hundred times over the years and that honestly informed my entire philosophy of rustic versus fine cuisine. Every completed batch of salsa, guacamole, queso, corn tortillas, or whatever was a cause for celebration in the kitchen at La Taq; we all tasted everything, nothing went out without a passing grade—a ritual I have earnestly tried to enforce at every kitchen since. Lessons I learned from Gil still guide my hand to this day, he was a hero for me, it kills me to think that he was just a 25 or 26 year old kitchen manager at a fast food Tex-Mex joint, and yet he’s still one the very few guys whose leadership I strive to emulate some 22 years later as the owner of my own, much, much more complicated restaurant.
La Taqueria was a fun job, there were dozens of stories I heard while working there, a few of which I lived through myself, about cooks sleeping on the patio to avoid being late for a shift, about wild and crazy parties after work involving every member of the staff and stretching into the next day’s shift. Water fights that became coordinated attacks. It was a crazy place, it was fun, and it was, as I said, very, very busy, and in my mind, in my memory, it was not in spite of these antics, it was because of them. Those smiles on our faces were what those lines of people really kept coming back for, our good food, sure, it would not have worked without that, but it was our collective, infectious positivity that was what really kept us winning. And at the center of it was Gil, even as a tragic clown, he was still the clown at the center of it all that seemed to enforce that culture of smile.
I threw all in. I wanted to be like Gil; hell, I wanted to be like Donny! I wanted to settle into the space they’d created and make it my new, permanent home. I bought a motorcycle that year. I graduated from high school and moved out of my parent’s house. I had decided to ‘take a year’ before figuring out what to do about college. La Taqueria, for me, at that time, was enough. I mean, I also had the band… We were playing shows and I was enjoying it, we were starting to get a name, some of the La Taq crew had even started to come out to our gigs. I was having fun, lots of fun in fact, and, of course, I was partying a lot, (college!), but in my case, well, it showed. I was often late to work. Like many of my co-workers, my bosses even, my breaks were too long, and too, well, relaxed. Things were getting all around lax at La Taq, and I guess Donny didn’t feel like he could punish his fiercely loyal long time crew. But me he barely knew, at less than a year of employment, I was still ‘the new guy.’ That’s how slow the turnover was at La Taq. And then one day, I got called over to the office, I was handed a printout of my hours from the last few months with nary a single ‘on time’ arrival. I couldn’t argue with the proof. I found it strange that none of my managers or co-workers had not been summoned over as well; hell, my ‘manager’ had been my ride to work for much of this time… But it didn’t matter, I knew what it was really about. And I knew that he was right.
I have to admit that I was furious. Not because I didn’t deserve it. My ‘anything goes’ attitude towards the job might have been my misunderstanding of the over-casual culture but in retrospect, it wasn’t what was making the food good or what was helping Donny pay the bills… No, I knew that the reason it was me, specifically me, was for very good cause, for a moment a few days prior when Donny had been present as a buddy and I clocked back in from a slightly longer than usual ‘smoke’ break. When the redness in my eyes and the smell on my shirt told him where I’d really been. I knew he knew, (he was a pirate after all) and there was not one damn thing I could do about it. I was furious that I was fired, all right, furious at myself.
I loved that job, I still imagine it to be, no doubt glossed over by the filter of youth and time, easily one of, if not the best job I have ever had. And the fact is that I blew it.
For twenty some-odd years since that day, I have followed that passion that was sparked on that hot, sweaty line, chasing the adrenaline buzz of a busy lunch rush like the ones I learned to love there with a junkie’s fervour. I have even wrecked my body to some degree, trying to keep working at a line-cooking station that most guys my age have left behind years before. I have spent 2 decades trying to live up to an example set by Gil, the tragic clown, the young rebel, the outlaw, when, if I am honest, I should have been trying to live up to the one set by his boss.
Don made a tough call that day. I did some math when I started writing this and figured out that he was roughly the age I am now when I worked for him. Funny how that works isn’t it? Funny that it took me 20 years to realize that when he let me go, he was doing me a giant favour. I’m not saying that I grew up overnight, but I definitely never made a habit of taking my job for granted again. And though I don’t think I ever quite replicated the joyful energy that I felt working there, I think that has more to do with never getting to be 18 again than with anything that he or I did wrong. I did, at least, get to work there, and that is something that I will never, ever forget. Even through the lens of age, I don’t know how he did it. The loyalty he nurtured, the environment he fostered, even the tough calls he made, at least in my case, he was definitely right. And as to that rumour I heard? I don’t really think he was a cocaine dealer, maybe a little weed or something, (he definitely knew what it smelled like) but you gotta admit, it does make a good story.
The army caught up with Gil, as they do; he eventually did his tour and from what I hear, after that he went on to chef school and then on to run his own restaurant somewhere in Indiana. Steve, my teacher and friend, now teaches 5th graders… how cool is that? His patience and skills at teaching me the art of tortilla make me sure that he is exactly where he belongs. And Donny? He ran restaurants on that same corner in College Station corner for the next 15 years before cashing out and retiring… and I’m sure that lots of folks will never forget the worlds of joy, community, and taste that he helped to create. I should be so lucky and smart as to accomplish the same.
I mentioned last month that the story was ‘to be continued,’ and the story this month is the second part of a three part story addressing that ongoing set of changes. You see, La Taqueria was more than just the place where I fell in love with line-cooking and it was more than just the first and only time I ever got fired. It was also the place where I fell in love with artful, made from scratch, Tex-Mex cuisine. And it was not just the first and one of the best cooking jobs I ever had, it was also the place where I learned that making the tough call, the ‘not so fun’ call was not always the wrong one. The branch is on the verge, as you may have guessed, of making a couple of those tough calls, as well as some of the fun ones. But I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for part three to find out just exactly what those calls will be…
I learned how to make love in college. Professor Charles Gordone said it in the plainest language possible, and it suddenly made sense. He said making love to a woman is not something you do in the bedroom; it is something you do all day every day. It is how you look at her, how you talk to her, how you breathe around her. Wow. That’s what I call teaching.
I never set out to be a college theatre major. I was involved in theatre in high school: I took it as a fine arts credit 2 years in a row, studying its history and structure, and was cast as an actor in a number of plays as a member of the extracurricular club. I even participated in a couple of local theatre productions as a bit player, doing mostly character work, playing several roles in a single play or basically any role that involved heavy makeup, difficult costume changes or funny accents. I found the whole process great fun. Theatre productions become micro-realities with all the folks involved sharing story arcs literally behind the scenes that begin, peak, and end, usually in parallel with the production. It is a safe world for creative types, where acting out is the expected, rather than the punishable, behaviour and where the short and transient friendships can feel as deep and as plausible while much less threatening as the ones on the outside. My high school theatre teacher, Dr. Doug Street, was a hero to me, as a student of all things 1960s, his pedigree was impeccable. He had lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the right set of years and had even played drums for some psychedelic rock outfit. He was the real deal; where other high school theatre groups were learning Shakespeare and Broadway musicals, we were studying Mamet, Beckett and Ionesco. I, however, was probably not his favorite student. These days, I would have been quickly diagnosed as ADD and doped up with some exotic cocktail to keep me on the straight and narrow, but back then I was just what folks liked to call a “problem child.”
Three times, Dr. Street gave me a chance to play a large role in a student production and for both the second and third of those times I let him down by failing a class (not his) and becoming “academically ineligible” to perform. I didn’t get any more chances. He liked me though, and enjoyed my writing. He even gave me a gift of a book of Leonard Cohen’s poetry; in fact, I only found out years later that this talented poet was a musician (and a Canadian!) as well. In remembering Dr. Street now, I am surprised to realize how much he may have affected and influenced my life (San Francisco, Theatre, Cohen, Canada… a handlebar mustache…). Teachers are like that.
As a burgeoning wannabe rock star in those years I also followed Jim Morrison’s lead and read pretentious literature such as Nietzsche, Sartre and Carl Jung of which, I can now admit, I understood only a fraction. When I (finally) graduated high school and, after a break, decided I should probably go to college (you know, just in case the rock star thing didn’t work out) my inexplicable commitment to my pretentious reading list made me think I should pursue the discipline of psychology… after all, who could be better equipped to tackle the academic problems of the intricate workings of the human mind than a troubled, creative, angst-ridden, Jim Morrison wannabe with a short attention span?
So anyway, I guess just to have something else to do while failing my Introduction to Psychology course, I took a theatre class as a fine arts credit.
Dr. Charles Gordone was not a typical professor. I can say that with some authority as I spent the next two years of my life trying to soak up everything I could from the great man. I still know that walking into that class on a whim was one of the best things that ever happened to me. He was not Dr. Street, who, for his pedigree should have been the more flamboyant of the two, where Dr. Street had been studious and careful; Gordone was a bundle of energy and a character through and through. He was a flashy dresser on a conservative campus (Texas A&M), a proud black man with a white wife who had sought out a small town, probably BECAUSE he wanted to raise eyebrows. He was a courageous quick thinker, a fast talking street smart mixed race superman from Cleveland who had MADE IT in New York (as America’s first Pulitzer Prize winning black playwright) then spent the next 30 years telling his story. I am one of the lucky ones who got to hear it. And be taught.
The class that caught me was a method acting class. As a ‘veteran actor’ I figured the class would be a breeze. Fat chance. Gordone ran us through the paces and no-one got to sit down until we had given him something real. There was crying, real anger, and real exhilaration. A duet scene I performed for a final grade in that class is still marked in my mind as probably my only great performance, all done under the driving constant rapprochement of a dedicated teacher. I followed his first class with another and another, scoring well enough in each that it became logical for me to switch my major to theatre to take advantage of my finally well positioned GPA. But by the third semester I was busily failing Introduction to Theatre as well.
Gordone was a fierce mentor. He spoke of nurturing the creative spirit as a duty. He would not let the small group of us who followed him from class to class get away with anything less than our best creative effort. And he kept talking along the whole way. He talked about fearlessness and love of beauty; he talked about racism and stupidity; he talked about the great people he’d known and his pride. And he talked about love. He gave me the little nugget above that has carried me for all these years as a grateful student.
I never got that Theatre degree. I’m pretty sure that not everyone is suited for college life or is meant to have a diploma that says we learned what we supposed to (or jumped through the hoops we were supposed to.) But neither did Dr. Gordone. According to what he told us, his degree was awarded for achievement. And trust me, he earned it. To my knowledge, he never published another play after his Pulitzer Prize winner “No Place to be Somebody”, but his art lived on, lives on, in those of us he taught.
He once told us a story about how he, a savvy urbanite, had ended up in Texas; he said that he and his wife drove south until they saw cows, then parked and started looking for work. I’m sure it was a bit of an exaggeration, but it was obvious that he had intentionally chosen a challenging environment in which to settle so he could feel like he was making a difference. I can’t help but identify with that decision sometimes as I look around our small town, and think of the challenge we have taken on.
Teaching is a noble profession. I’ve got two teaching parents, a sister and a grandmother that taught. We are all lucky to have people who are willing to share the gift of knowledge with us and who affect us in ways we may take years to understand. I never did get that theatre degree, but I was lucky to have met and learned from Dr. Street and Dr. Gordone, both of them, as theatre teachers made me a better chef, a better artist and better man.
Dr. Gordone died in 1995. When he taught me, jumping around the classroom with an energy I envy now, he was already nearly 70 years old. He only gave the audiences of the world a small part of his great work, but to those of us who had the honor of being his students, he gave the rest.
The Soup Recipe You Requested…
Food, but more wet.
Mom’s soup was simple. If it was in the fridge, it was fair game: maybe some cans of stuff, maybe some stuff out of the freezer, , chop it up, cover the whole thing with water, adjust the spices, and it was perfect, every time. Leftover chicken or turkey? Boil it for a bit and take out the bones, well, at least most of them. Bean soup? ‘Add some of that salt pork from the freezer.’ ‘How much?’ ‘Oh, you know, some.’
You start with an onion.
I first made ‘proper soups’ at Gizmo’s, a bar and grill in College Station, Texas. I worked there while I was in college for about 7 or 8 months. It was owned and run by a couple of sisters who had gotten tired of cocktailing at other bars and decided to start their own. They were Yankees, as we called them, Northerners misplaced in our Southern Town, and they were also city girls with sensibilities that set them apart from the other folks in Northgate, College Station’s bar district. Case in point, they played and allowed only jazz on the stereo (the other bars on the strip played only two kinds of music, yep, that’s right: country and western). They decorated with trellises and fake flowers, unlike their competition, there was not one single oil sign, hunting trophy (or, for that matter, any other creative taxidermy experiments) or even a wooden Indian to be found. It was not exactly fancy; it was, after all, a bar, and there was no shortage of neon lights, ashtrays, paper napkins or casual drunkenness. But it aspired to be a bit more. We had no fryer, no pizza oven and no chargrill; we served sandwiches, from a broiler, bread and dips, even steamed vegetables (!) with cheese sauce, and, of course, we served soup.
Laurie and Marsha were in dire need of stepping away from the bar (at least 12 steps away, one would hope) when I met them, and ran this dive-y little jazz bar as one would expect from a couple of waning moons; it was graceful and sloppy, fun and dangerous, exciting and scary. In the evenings, as a 19 year old and the ‘kid’ in the kitchen, I was a mascot of sorts—brought out and shown off, fed drinks and encouraged to entertain. In the mornings, however, it was all business. Laurie, thanks to a long and steady diet of white wine and menthol cigarettes, was creatively past her peak, but had, while ‘up North’ learned to make soups the old fashioned way. Her recipes were explicit, precise, and ‘from scratch.’ We made broth and chopped vegetables; we layered aromatics and sweat them; we made roux and used wine judiciously (at least for cooking…). We added the broth (or the stock) to the sweated vegetables and/or the translucent onions, brought it to a simmer and then added the roots, followed, in 20 minutes or so, by the softer vegetables, and then, eventually, the greens or the cabbage—with the herbs coming last, just before service. Grains were added according to their cooking times, pasta was added to the pot before service, never to the whole batch. Meat was browned just before adding the aromatics, set aside and later returned to the simmering broth. Salt and pepper were added in bits throughout and adjusted at the end to taste… Once, while waiting for Laurie to teach me how to make a roux to finish a gumbo, she spotted an older biker at the bar who was immediately hauled off of his stool and coerced into the kitchen; ‘Chopper’ was an old Cajun from the Bayou and, while stirring the flour into the oil with a long wooden spoon, he carefully explained to me that a proper roux, when finished, carried the same hue as the skin of a mulatto woman. Why, specifically a woman, I never quite understood, but the image stuck, and I think of it every time I make a roux today.
I came to work one day after a break and found the building empty. My last paycheck never came. At the time, I was, understandably, a little peeved, but in hindsight, those lessons in soup and the image of Chopper the Giant Cajun Biker stirring a proper roux in that tiny kitchen more than covered for the lost wages.
You add the broth.
I wasn’t very poor growing up, but I wasn’t very rich either. We were comfortable, but not flush. Mom says dad always came through in the pinch—the bills got paid, no-one went hungry, but, well, let’s just say that wastefulness was never an option. Food, to me, is never just simple nourishment, nor is it ever just a medium for creative expression. It is both of these things, of course, but it is also always something more. Food is life. And not metaphorically (though it is a rather tidy metaphor) food is, literally, from life, to life, through life, it is the Eucharist, the host and the wine, the body and the blood. We live only through the consumption of life, and some day, when our time comes, we will become food for something else. Food willing. This is a spiritual truth to me. Given this truth, I find it unfathomable that food, good food, is ever wasted—I feel that food, that life, is a gift and one not to be trifled with, it is something that deserves respect and that it should never, ever be wasted.
In stating this I am all but confessing to being something that we cooks call a ‘trash can’ cook. This title is a dart thrown by some who would disparage a style of cooking that creatively redirects what would otherwise be wasted into another use rather than making one of those ‘proper soups’ I learned to make at Gizmo’s. Things like Mom’s ‘end of the week vegetable soup’. Yesterday’s leftover shepherd’s pie as today’s beef chowder, last week’s stir fry as yesterday’s hot and sour soup. Well, frankly, I don’t consider that barb an insult; I will accept that badge of honour and wear it with pride. If a ‘trash can’ cook is someone who doesn’t believe in wastefulness, someone who has a creative spirit, someone who sees life and chooses not to waste it, well, then I am Oscar the Grouch and welcome to the kitchen in my can.
Add the vegetables, meats, and other foods in order of their cooking times.
Soup has always been a peasant food, a meal of thrift. The word ‘Chowder’ comes to us from ‘chaudiere’ the French name for the giant cooking pots in the village squares in coastal France where the fishermen, the working stiffs, were welcomed home with a bubbling stew to which they added the bycatch of the day. Stews, curries, hot pots, pho, every culture has a tradition of using the trimmings creatively to stretch the lifespan of a meal, to use the whole animal, to re-use what would otherwise be lost. Most ‘proper soups’ evolved from these bubbling cauldrons, these products of thrift and ingenuity, these meals that were built not from recipes but rather, from whatever there was to be found. Comforting restoratives. Restore-ants, as it were. It was a concentrated meat broth developed in France that lent its name to the storefronts where it was offered, giving us ‘restaurants’ as we know them today.
Taste and adjust.
I don’t really use a recipe for soup, but I don’t really not use one either. I start by looking around, seeing what is available, what is good, what needs to be used, and then I start with an onion, brown the meats, sweat the aromatics, add the broth, the vegetables and taste and adjust. Just before serving, I add the garnish, the herbs, the pasta… I allow it to simmer, I let the flavours mingle. And I do not waste a single drop.
Pumpkin Soup with Goat’s Cheese and Cranberry Coulis:
Try this with one of the many pumpkins or winter squash’s available darn near everywhere these days! It’s a fun addition to your Thanksgiving table or even in mugs as a warming tonic for an Autumn picnic…
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon sunflower seed oil
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
¼ cup minced fresh sage leaves (less if dried)
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice: cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, ginger, etc.
1 medium pumpkin or winter squash, about 1.5 pounds, peeled, seeded and cubed
2 litres vegetable stock or water
2 cups Hall’s or Barkley’s apple cider
Goat’s chevre from Clarmell Farms or Fifth Town Artisan Cheesemakers, enough to garnish
½ cup Upper Canada cranberries
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
For the Soup:
In a large soup pot, sweat the onions with the oil and salt until transparent; add the garlic and spices and sauté for one minute. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the squash is soft enough to pierce easily with a fork or paring knife (about 20-30 minutes). Blend soup with an immersion blender or in a blender or food processor until smooth, adding more water or stock if necessary. Garnish with a dollop of goat’s cheese and the cranberry coulis (recipe follows). Enjoy!
Combine ingredients in a small sauce pan and bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for five minutes, blend and serve. For an interesting garnish, cool and pour into a small squirt bottle and use the squirt bottle to make designs on the soup!
My first Chef Checks
When Chef Jason left Cenare, he gave me a pair of chef pants – he’d outgrown them, they were still in good condition, and he didn’t need them anymore. It’s odd that I remember that, but they were my first pair…Cenare (che-na-ree), an Italian restaurant in my home town, was my first ‘real’ cooking job. Well, second actually, if you count the 3 month gig at Ferrari’s another Italian place that qualified me for the job at Cenare. I don’t count Ferrari’s, I did my best to forget as much as I could about that sad, dirty, ominously quiet restaurant—let’s just say that it was the kind of place where an 18 year old kid with no experience could be promoted to head cook in 6 weeks. And no, that’s not a compliment to my precocious talent…What I learned there was mostly what not to do, but at least having the experience, however dubious, of working in an Italian restaurant on my resume did help when I applied to Cenare, a real restaurant: a place with a chef, a reputation, you know, a place with customers… Cenare was an “authentic” Italian fine dining restaurant. It was “authentic” to what you’d expect from an Italian joint in a medium to small Texas town in the 80’s; but we’ll just say it wasn’t exactly the cuisine I encountered when I finally travelled to Italy a few years later. It was, however, that particular, comforting, Americanized Italian food that so many of us enjoy, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, manicotti, linguine with a clams, picatta, Marsala… Caesar salad. Food fried in breadcrumbs, layered in red sauce and smothered with cheese. It was rich, hearty, delicious and popular.
Cenare had been around for about 10 years by the time I came to work there, and in those days, the kitchen was still an old-school boy’s club. The guys who worked there were career blue collar cooks; regular guys that could hold a hot skillet without a mitt, could handle a 20 ticket rail without flinching (that’s cooking dinner for 20 tables at once…try it some time, it’s a gas!), and could throw out a banquet dinner for a crowd of 30 in the back room, all at the same time… It was tough, hot, fast work, and we took all of our cuts, burns, and screaming managers with a smile. We knew that no-one wanted our job and that knowledge was an immense source of power. Cenare was an old-school boy’s club, the kind of kitchen I haven’t seen much of in the days since—there was drinking and smoking (I still smoked back then, we’d move about three feet off the line to a spot by the back door… it’s hard to imagine smoking in a kitchen now, it’ seems like a scene from a movie…), gambling (poker nights… football pools), and all the competitive games that guys in groups always seem to create for ourselves… we would move the trash can back two feet at a time to see who could hit it from the farthest distance, we would line up to see who could cut onions fastest, mushrooms, peppers, clean shrimp—nothing was just a task, it was a game, a contest, a chance to prove ourselves. We were young, strong and invincible, and as long as the food came out fast, looked good and tasted good, no-one could tell us what to do. Well, except for Chef Jason…
Until then, I had worked mostly in fast food, making sandwiches, McDonalds, a short stint at Red Lobster, a taco shack, and, of course, there had been the years in my parents’ restaurant, before I was old enough to appreciate it, as well as that 3 month thing at the other Italian place, but Cenare was, as I said, my first ‘real’ restaurant experience. It was a cooking job where I came to see cooking as not just a part time job to get me through college, but as a possible direction, a possible career. It took me a few years to finally make that decision, but Cenare was certainly the place where it began.
After I had been there about a year, the old Cenare died. Chef Jason, the source of our power and prestige, the quarterback who had carried our team to first place for a decade… left. He took a job at, I believe, a Chili’s, possibly an Olive Garden, something corporate, something with security, insurance. It was a shock. The owners were flummoxed, confused, nervous. I mean, the cooking crew was solid, good even, but the chef had been the key player, and as long as he had been running the plays, everyone knew what could be done; they knew, without question, that the food would be good, fast, and consistent. When he left, all of us 2nd stringers started getting the eye; who was going to step up? Who was going to carry the ball? Who would not only be a good cook, but would also lead? Ultimately, it was no-one.
I am proud, prouder than I was about my “promotion” at Ferrari’s, to say that I was given some of his duties, some of the most fun parts, anyway. I was handed a box of indexed recipes and as a “creative” type, asked to take on the job of selecting and presenting our popular daily specials. I was moved from the pantry and pasta stations to Jason’s old station on the ‘hot’ line, where the real action was: doing sauté, the station that is still my favourite some 18 years later. I didn’t get stuck with the stuff I later came to understand was the real meat of his work: the sourcing of products, the inventories, the scheduling, the ordering, the day to day work that a true chef must master in order to enjoy his moments at the stove. It was, for me at that time, just about an ideal situation. I had a place to be creative; some, but not too much responsibility; I was stepping into the shoes (…pants? No, that sounds weird…) of a popular chef, working his old station, cooking for his regulars, some of whom had been enjoying the product of his practiced hands for as long as 10 years, all the while with none of his burdens: the stress of the bottom line, covering for the dishwashers vacation, making sure that the toilets were scrubbed. It seemed ideal, and for a young cook, it was. Ideal for me, anyway… but for the customers? For the owners? Well, these things even out over time I suppose… for me, it was year of learning in the best way I ever got to experience, learning by complaint.
Complaint might be too strong a word; constructive criticism might be more accurate. You see, when I moved to the sauté station, when I moved to Chef Jason’s old spot, the expectation game changed for me. I was no longer answering to the chef, my finished plates no longer passed by his watchful eyes; his stern (but fair and honest) voice no longer corrected my mistakes and oversights. I was instead answering to another boss, the same boss I am answering to today. You.
At some time or another, all of us who eat in restaurants are faced with a similar dilemma: whether or not to complain about a poorly executed meal. Sometimes the decision is easy: a hair, or worse; a Band-Aid, a bug—perhaps a little gross, but easy. These decisions make themselves for you; “I have the evidence right here, please correct this error.” But as we all also know, other situations are not nearly as easy to decide… a steak too rare or too cooked.(“do I really want to wait 20 minutes for a new one?”) or a flavour combination that doesn’t appeal or really work (“nope, I don’t actually like mussels with mangos and raspberries”). These are the times when we face the tough choice, do we complain, or even just comment? Do we spoil a cook’s night or do we let slide (“Overall, to be fair, it was still pretty good”) Do we swallow our opinion and blurt it out later in a bitter online ‘review’, or do we just say it? Say to our server, “Hey, that was good, but it wasn’t the greatest, the tart flavour just didn’t grab me.”
As a business owner, I want you to have a perfect evening, perfect service, amazing food, the music just so, the temperature in the dining room is good, the memory is pleasant, evocative… and most importantly, I want you to leave happy, plan to come back and tell everyone you meet about what a great time you had. After all, I’ve got to make a living! As a chef, in addition to these things, I want the food to be hot enough, seasoned right, presented in an appealing way, to be fresh. All good chefs also want something more; to communicate a creative ideal. For me it is that of local and organic ingredients prepared with a spirit of honesty, generosity and imagination—I want to not only feed you, but to make you think about where, how and why this particular food came to you at this moment, in this particular way. And finally, as a diner, and a hungry human like anyone else, I also want to be fed well, to feel a sense of value, but most importantly, to get the sense that someone back there really cares what just came out on that plate. So should you complain? Comment? Well, for me the answer is yes. But first, let me tell you why (and how):
I was lucky to have a crack at Chef Jason’s old customers…lucky in a way that few cooks ever get to experience. They were regulars, they were opinionated, they were comfortable and they weren’t in a hurry. When I did something that wasn’t perfect, or was ‘too creative’ or was under seasoned, over seasoned, over cooked, undercooked, they sent it back, they told the server, they might even come back and tell me themselves. They wanted things a certain way, had (rightfully) come to expect a certain level of quality and were happy to let me know when I missed the mark. I should be fair (…to myself, I mean, hey, it wasn’t all bad!), most of the food I sent out that year was approved, eaten, and complimented, but it was the food that didn’t succeed, or was even “just OK,” and the fact that the folks were willing to let me know, that made it easily my best year of school in all my years of cooking.
My taste isn’t your taste. No taste is exactly the same, but good food is like the US Supreme Court described pornography, “you know it when you see it,” –or in this case, taste it; but no chef worth his salt (or lack of it…) should be allowed to get away with serving poor food night after night without anyone saying anything. Now, often, this does tend to be a self-correcting system—over time, people just stop coming back to a restaurant with bad food, but what about food that is just OK? Sometimes, price, location and service will keep mediocre food alive for years beyond its due date. What I’m saying is that I suspect that culturally (and this goes for both Canada and the US, and possibly, from my understanding, our mutual grandmother Great Britain, as well) we are too easy on bad and mediocre food; not wanting to come off as boorish or rude, we err on the side of caution and give a pass to most meals without comment.
But this is only half the story, the problem is also that when we do finally complain, we are so rude that it fosters resentment instead of dialogue. What made Cenare so positive an experience is that I was nurtured by complaint; the comments were constructive and honest and when applied became the foundation of my growth as a chef. They were never pissy and bitter, and they always came with second and even third chances. And the best part was that when I did start to hit the mark, they stopped being Chef Jason’s customers and started to become my own…
My fellow cooks (and servers, and pretty much all professional restaurant folks) are probably white knuckled and anxious reading this…Am I seriously giving a pass to complain? Am I offering permission for anyone to be ‘that customer?’ We all know the one: ”The water’s too cold…the plate has a smudge…the baseboard is dusty… my food is too, umm, flavourful…” (…that last one was an actual complaint!) We all know the one, and no, I’m not advocating for the fussy, high maintenance, impossible to please customer to become the norm. I’m just saying that if we considered food to be a dialogue, over time, if we brought more (constructive) complaint into the culture, we would all benefit with a little bit better food.
As a business owner, I want your experience to be amazing, because frankly, word of mouth is my only effective form of advertising. If you don’t tell us what is wrong, (and, I might add, before you pay the bill and get up to leave…) we have no chance of correcting it. If you leave unhappy and complain to other people instead of us, we’ll never know and we’ll never get better. As a chef, I am still learning every day, and one thing I’ve learned is that if I can bring a picky customer around, a person who (rightfully) expects quality and value…if I can please an individual palate, then I can create a loyal customer for life. As a chef who is trying to share a creative ideal, how can I ever bring you around if you don’t enjoy the experience, if you don’t let me know? And finally, as a diner, when I face that choice of whether or not to comment or complain, you might be surprised; usually, I’ll let something go, an obvious accident (things happen…) doesn’t bother me. With an experience that shows that people don’t care, with a truly awful meal? Honestly? I, like most people probably just won’t go back. But when someone is trying, even if they are failing badly, but it is obvious that they care…well, it’s only right to let them know; they deserve the chance to improve just like I did, and, I hope, still do.
A working class hero is something to be…
The sandwich shop is the only job I ever went back to. I first got the job in college, and it was the perfect college job; the owners were a couple of childless hippies who adopted the entire crew as a surrogate family and as a social circle; they took it upon themselves to teach us all how to work hard, and, well, how to party just as hard…OK, maybe it was the perfect college job if you had slightly less than lofty ambitions, but it seemed perfect to me at the time. The owners were, perhaps, a bit messed up personally, but as managers, they were outstanding. It was a small shop, but even after over twenty years in this industry, when I look back, it was the cleanest and most efficient place I have ever worked; it had the best morale, the highest rate of loyalty, and to be honest, it offered some of the most fun of any job I’ve had. I left it when I left college. I left college because of ‘personal reasons’ which is to say, I had learned how to party a little too well and it had fouled up both my first marriage and my college ambitions, much to my parent’s disappointment (if you can call a pissing away of a few thousand bucks ‘disappointment’ with a straight face). I, like many young folks in my privileged position, screwed up.
After college came a couple of years in Austin, where I tried to finish sowing my unsowed oats, and where I embarked upon an honest attempt at a music career. In retrospect, that, much like my college career, was more honestly described as skipping the hard parts (practice, touring, promotion, ‘homework’) and going straight to the parts I felt most suited for (parties, shows, and, well, did I mention parties?) I continued to cook through those years, graduating from sandwiches to fine-dining Italian and eventually vegetarian cuisine. I seemed able to get a little farther down that road even in spite of myself. But, finally, in an act of ironic, intentional rebellion, I ended up in another boozy, ill-advised marriage that was also destined for much of the same success as my life had rewarded me prior to that point. She was from West Texas, and when an opportunity came to live on a farm out there for next to nothing, we jumped at the chance to ‘play redneck.’
When we arrived at our dirt farm (I can’t imagine what else we would have harvested; stones? Mesquite? Cactus?), I did give the local restaurant a once over, if not a fair shake. It was owned by a former Dairy Queen franchisee who had expanded his ambitions into a family dining establishment that was both informed by his experience in fast food and a perhaps a little, but not too much, more. I applied, half-heartedly, but didn’t want it, and decided, for fun, to try something new for a change. Most of the men out there were oilmen, mainly because the land and climate yielded little else of value to be exploited as a trade. It was a small town, and if you didn’t work on the rigs, in the fields or on the derricks, chances are you made your money off of folks who did. And so it was that, I, in an act of hilarious ironic intent, a long-haired cook, an environmentalist, a musician type, a vegetarian even, ended up working (for a couple of weeks, I thought) as a welder’s helper.
I quickly found out that ‘welder’s helper’ is a bit of a euphemism like saying ‘washroom’ instead of ‘shit-hole.’ My status as a newbie and a city boy did not make my life any easier, and these flaws were only compounded by the fact that most of our days were spent crammed together in truck cabs driving from job to job listening to America’s latest (at the time) invention of dubious value, right wing talk radio. I still have scars from the holes I bit through my tongue. This is not to say that my life was completely miserable. Working among men has its moments, when the tensions start to ease and the humour comes out, and when the fear of the unknown or ‘the other’ is supplanted by the familiarity of shared experience. There were, working as we were in areas rarely visited by civilized folks, moments of startling beauty; we once saw a herd of wild deer numbering in the hundreds, and stopped to watch this rare sight in silence with a profound sense of privilege. In time, I (almost…) seemed to become accepted as one of the crew. Personal stories among these fellows were rare, but over time the welder’s story began to emerge.
His family had lived and worked on this dry, difficult land for generations. When the oil came along, his father had learned to weld (a trade he passed on to his son), but only to help cover expenses for the family ranch. Hard work was rooted deep in the bodies of these men like knots in a twisted log. In his family (unlike mine), education was not considered work, but a frivolity for the weak willed and the lazy, and ambition was all well and good as long as it didn’t interfere with the chores. The man I worked for had eased away from the family ranch and pursued a career of welding, even becoming a foreman and leader of his own crew, but in keeping with the family tradition, he had done this with little more than a seventh grade education. I recall that a portion of every day we worked together was spent with him agonizing over a calculator assembling the numbers required by his contract, his brow deeply furrowed as he used fierce determination to bridge the divide between what he needed to do and what he had been taught.
In all honesty, I didn’t really like him; my true (but mostly hidden) self was too far removed from his experience. He did not drink, he did not discuss politics, books, or even films, he did not seem interested in music, and his work was his life. His tough exterior was betrayed by his sensitive fascination with the natural world, and had he discussed this, I might have liked him more, but no verbal admission of this passion ever seemed to pass his lips. Outside of work, his wife and children were his only priority, a fact that, also unspoken, was understood. I was not in a place to appreciate these priorities, nor did I see myself heading in that direction and I didn’t get it. He was a gruff, knee-jerk xenophobe, and I was a rock and roll freak. I didn’t like him.
But even so, the ‘couple of weeks’ of work stretched into a couple of months, and as my comfort level among the roughnecks slowly grew, I left the occasional messages from the local restaurateur unreturned. I was not feeling creatively challenged by this new line of work, nor was there any glimpse of a future I could take pride in (oil work for a former environmental activist?) but the money was outrageous, much more than I’d ever made cooking, and though the work was hard on my body, it was easy on my brain. Maybe even a little too easy; which is probably why I was shocked the day we drove past the rocks.
Texas A&M was the university in my hometown where I had wasted my parents hard earned money. It is an internationally recognized math, engineering, science and agricultural school. So, naturally, I had majored in Theatre Arts; a department that existed here with the sole purpose of filling fine arts credits for students pursuing degrees in ‘more practical’ areas of study. And, in case you didn’t get it, Theatre Arts was not a practical course of study.
I was required to complete a science credit for my degree, and in keeping with my flawed logic, I chose a course that seems to have sounded both easy and equally as impractical as the rest of my schooling; Geology. To this day, I have not got the slightest idea why I chose such an odd course; I did not collect rocks as a kid, I did not have an interest in mountains or volcanoes beyond that of casual appreciation, I love the natural world and rocks are, I suppose, just as nice as anything else in that genre, but why someone interested in food would choose the one science with probably the least to offer in that area is beyond the scope of my memory. It must have been my hope for an easy ‘A’, I can’t imagine what else, except perhaps… fate… that would have motivated me.
You see, back in the oil field on the day in question, we drove past some rocks; well, actually, it was a row of bubble shaped hills. Hills, which I recalled from my Geology course, as being formed when lava shoots formed long tunnels that almost, but didn’t quite, push through the surface of the earth. It was an odd fact to remember, and one which I casually mentioned out loud. The welder, to my astonishment, immediately stopped the truck and began to quiz me intensively, and then, after a few minutes, astonished me yet again when he impulsively decided to end the work day, turned the truck around, and drive an hour out of our way to another interesting rock formation where we stopped again and the quizzing resumed. I was humbled. I had spent months alongside this fellow, watched him struggle with numbers, show casual disdain for things I considered to be of high importance (like music, film, books, politics or philosophy), I had seen him express little or no interest in any culture beyond the oilfield and ranchland that surrounded us. And I had, frankly, written him off in my head as a simple man. And then he had done what I, in my self-centered universe, had never expected a simple man to do. He had surprised me.
You see, I had lived these past few months, years even, in a sort of ironic fog. I had accepted, even rationalized my journey through the world of the ‘blue collar man’ with a laugh and a self-righteous sense of superiority; knowing that I was ‘among’ them, but not ‘of’ them. It had started when I dropped out of college, and been expanded when I moved to Austin. I drank cheap beer and wrote comedic country songs, I drove an old truck because it looked the part; I’d even rented a trailer home, because it was cheap, sure, but mainly because it was a campy cliché. But the western shirts I wore were from an upscale thrift store and my leather belts had somebody else’s name on them. I was a pretender, an interloper, and even the oil job and the farm were part of the play that the Theatre Arts major was performing in his head. But then, in a truck on highway in West Texas, the entire character was shattered. The whole play fell apart. I realized, in a moment, and with a startling clarity that I was a punk, a lousy little punk, who had hoped to walk in this world unnoticed only to be betrayed by his own lack of true worth.
The welder was no simple man. Had he been born in my family, where education was valued, he may very well have studied Geology, not for an easy ‘A’ but for interest and fascination. But my parents had given me an opportunity to have an education, and I had pissed it away. In my shoes, he would have graduated, he would have made my (I guess ‘his’ in this iteration) parents proud, in the same way he made his (actual) parents proud with the life he had actually lead. A life that wasn’t what he wanted to do, but what he needed to do. But me? I had failed at college and, these days, had even turned my back on the only career that had stood any chance of redeeming me…cooking. Cooking was the career that had paid for my lifestyle when my parents help had run out, the career that was my creative outlet; that meant something to me, the career that could actually not just pay my bills but that could probably save my soul. The only thing I’ve ever done of consequence besides fail at college (and vacuum cleaner sales, but that’s another story…) was cooking. And instead of keeping at it, focusing and getting better, I was slogging through crude oil and pretending to listen to Rush Limbaugh with a man who was still, for all his shortcomings, a better man than me. Me? I was just a lousy pretender; I had never done what I needed to do, just what I had wanted, and in a moment I realized that if I ever really wanted to be someone worthy of respect, the fact was, I had a lot of work to do.
I snapped out the fog that had followed me. I left the oilfields that week, went to the little restaurant in town, accepted the position he had offered, gave it my all, and helped bring a few special meals to some folks in a small town; and yes, in spite of myself, I managed to learn a few things as well. As the fog lifted, the marriage, with its ironic core, dissolved into mist. When we split up, I left, but I didn’t go back to Austin, not yet, that was where the irony had begun to take root—I went back to my home town, my college town and tried to start again. I went back to the sandwich shop and tried to do it right this time, and learn how those owners had become such good managers, paying attention to the work this time, not the parties, because this time, it counted. It was the only job I ever went back to, because this time, I needed to go back and do it right.
A City of the Violet Crown
Something about the quality of the sunlight in the spring always takes me back to Austin. In 1894, O. Henry, a poet and an Austinite, referenced what some have said was this quality of light, calling his home ‘the city of the violet crown.’ Most people think he was referring to the summer sunlight’s bright, almost violet glow; but some have speculated that he called it that as a satirization, a reference to the fact that Austinites of that day, in their desire to be a center of culture, described their budding city as the ‘Athens of the South’. Athens, Greece, as you may you may know, has long been considered the center and the origin of world culture, even the birthplace of civilization. It is also said to have a violet crown for the incredibly mundane reason of the presence of a great deal of mauve tinted marble on the Acropolis hill. But I swear, whether or not it was just hubris, honest desire, or even just willful stubbornness (…a decidedly Texan trait, I might add…) but when I think of Austin, I do think of Athens, of culture, and for whatever reason, I do recall, with startling clarity, an almost mystical purple glow hovering above it exactly like a violet crown.
Austin is a beautiful city, situated on the Balcones fault line; it has three lakes within the city limits as well as the sprawling grandeur of the Texas hill country that starts at about Lamar Avenue and rolls westward like the waves of a sandy limestone ocean all the way out to the west Texas desert. It is a green city, in both the literal and more recent definitions of the term, forethought and planning have kept it so. Laws were passed to protect trees in the old neighbourhoods, meaning that parking lots are often gerrymandered through thickets of post oak; huge tracts of land were protected and made into the broad green belt that encircles and holds up the downtown as well as forming the numerous and pleasant parks that connect throughout the city to create a second, silent Austin for pedestrians and cyclists who almost never have to fight city traffic for a bike lane. It is a city full of youth: a major University fills a large, central bit of downtown real estate, in addition to a number of smaller colleges, and, thanks in part to this, the businesses have developed a quirky, fun and creative subculture all their own, catering to that vibrant spirit. Austin’s official motto is ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’ and its unofficial one is ‘Keep Austin Weird’, a nod to that well defined culture that distinguishes the downtown core. It is also a wealthy city; the state capital is seated here, always a good source of cash flow for those lucky enough to be so geographically and politically inclined; and its youth culture and reputation for fun and quirky cool has also attracted a big, cheesy slice of the high tech business pizza pie. Though it is not perfect, (traffic congestion has always been a challenge) it is still one of the most livable cities in the world, attracting a broad spectrum of talented, creative people who come from everywhere to help keep its unique spirit alive.
I probably first saw Austin as a kid with my folks on a road trip to visit my aunt and uncle. I seem to remember the Capitol building and its unobstructed views and the exit for the LBJ library. I also remember the way that the upper and lower levels of the I-35 interstate highway split into four separate roads that run in parallels; two over and two under, through much of downtown. Driving on the lower levels is a bit like driving through a scene from a 70s sci-fi film, especially at night, where, in the eerie glow of the streetlights you feel like you’re shooting forward into some kind of giant yellow columned and starlit covered corridor. We didn’t have any highways like that back in Bryan.
The first time I really saw Austin was in high school, when a friend and I pulled the classic ‘I’ll say I’m staying at your house, you say you’re staying at mine’ ruse and, unlike in the movies, actually got away with it (…‘til now, I guess, sorry Mom…) We drove, ecstatic and slightly intoxicated by our courage, through the cool fall night to attend a Halloween party at the home of a friend who graduated the year before and had moved to Austin to live—as if someone could actually do that! I’ll never forget that night in Austin, the first of many and varied trips over the next few years to visit friends and to experience culture in that beautiful city that was just an hour and half drive east from where I lived. It seemed like so far to drive at that age, and so, so much closer now in my memory. Austin, to us, was where you went if you were a kid like me; you know, ‘different.’ I didn’t play sports, I played music. I didn’t wear boots and I didn’t rope steers, instead, I grew my hair long and, you know, got accused of being queer. I wrote poems; I liked books, not trucks. I ate vegetables; I did not ‘fit in.’ For us, for the weird kids, Austin was our light at the end of the long miserable tunnel that was the life of an oddball teenage Texan. It was our prize. The Austin of my youth felt like an entire city that was built for me, for my people; I felt that even just walking down the street I could and probably would have random encounters with strangers that would feel more meaningful than all of the polite, but ultimately frustrating, high school conversations that I’d ever had. I know it’s just nostalgia, but…
I didn’t move to Austin right away; several of my friends did, it took me a bit longer. I had a few things I had to work through first, and that’s another story. It took me a couple of years, but then one day a friend, a former bandmate, came over from Austin to visit me in Bryan. I was living alone, recently divorced (you know, the other story,) very sad and feeling very isolated. I’ll never forget the way he asked me ‘Why the f*$# are you still here? Why don’t you move to Austin? That’s where the rest of us are!’ It all came back, all the visits, the road-trips, that Halloween party, the sunny afternoons in Zilker park, the original Whole Foods market, Mother’s Café (an actual vegetarian restaurant!) Suddenly, for the first time in my, at that time, short adult life I felt like I might, just possibly, have a home…or at least a chance at one.
I spent much of the next four years in Austin, cooking by day, trying my best to survive in the competitive, glorious, and joyfully noisy music scene at night. When my car broke down, I was amazed to discover what people who grow up in cities know by instinct, that a bus pass and a bike are as good as a car for almost any need, even in the car culture ground zero of Texas. After a couple of jobs trying to build on my experience in Italian cuisine, I realized that I didn’t have to—I could cook what I actually ate (vegetarian at the time…) and even make a living at it. I lived on the flight path (…you would have had to be there…), played in a band, and even found and lost love a few more times, as youth will have us do. Like many who live in Austin, I saw so much great live music that I became stony in the face of quality that would send shivers up my spine today. I ate well in a wonderful food city: tacos and BBQ, Vietnamese and Thai, my first tastes of sushi, of Pho, of habañero chilies, of good coffee, of homebrewed and of craft beer, of finer wines, even of anything organic, were all tasted there. I became a film buff: I discovered, with the expert tutelage of the good folks at a shop fittingly called ‘I Love Video’, how to mine the depths of a director’s or an actor’s career. I became a music nerd in earnest, with the help of the folks at Sound Exchange and Waterloo Records. I learned how to dress myself, carving out a fashion sense aided and abetted by the thrift stores, secondhand shops, and the excellent examples of my many well-dressed friends. In short, I became myself; I became the Bruce we all know today.
I moved away from Austin in the mid-nineties and spent a few years in San Francisco. I even travelled to Europe and, of course, Canada… Over time I found a great deal of what I started looking for all those years ago in Austin, and then, I got a chance to do something very interesting. I got a chance to move back. Nicole and I landed in Austin for a year and a half before we finally settled back here in Canada. It was and still is weird, wonderful and welcoming. It is still a place where art and culture create a magnet that pulls on the hearts of a thousand small town misfits. It is still, for me, a place that I will always feel at least a little bit at home. I got a chance to go back, and when I did, I think part of me hoped to recapture some bit of that magic, that sunshine, that taste of youth that had so sweetly seasoned my memories of Austin. But instead, I had a job. A life, you know, a bunch of things to do….
You see, for all of my spit-shine and polish on those early years in Austin, they were not the best days of my life. To be fair, the fact that they were not my best days was never Austin’s fault. Austin is a wonderful city, a beautiful city. But living for days on end in a state of hangover followed by drunk followed by hangover, with the metallic taste of bourbon, cheap cigarettes and Lone Star beer lingering like acid reflux in my sinuses; living in hovels or sleeping on couches, occasionally having to pick up extra shifts at work just for a chance at a staff meal; finding love, sure, but losing it again and again and wanting it so badly, aching for it for so long…I feel like those days, when I’m honest with myself, that even while I was being shaped and molded, that even while I tried so hard to live a full and storied life, I was almost always discontent, searching, hoping and looking for something…They were heady days, sure, ‘days of wine and roses,’ they were good days, fun days, but there were plenty of bad days too and no, when I’m honest, knowing what I know now, they were not the best days of my life.
The best days started with Nicole, the eloquent answer to that deep and anxious question posed so starkly by my heart, ‘will I ever find true love?’ The best days continued when I met Abigail, our daughter and, strangely enough, the same answer to the same question. Those Austin days were exciting, fun at times and certainly full, but these Kemptville days are surely the best.
But that is my story, not Austin’s. There was and still is something there, something important. Something tangible, something so sweet, and not just what was baked into that nostalgic batter; there is something to be found in what lies beyond and through that giant yellow columned and starlight covered corridor. As I have grown older, I’ve come to realize that the Austin that I go to on these bright spring days is no longer to be found on a map at the junction of Interstate 35 and Highway 290; it is, instead, a place in my heart, a place in my mind, a place in my spirit. It is the place where my dreams came alive and where my hopes took flight; a place where that misfit kid, where that young and lonely divorcee could go…a place to hope for, a place to belong. When the sun shines in the spring and for whatever reason, I see in its light that violet crown I feel, even if just for a fleeting moment, that sense of hope, of belonging, of peace, and that, that’s my Austin.
I’ve also been lucky enough to discover that my Austin fits in my suitcase. Austin did not become the place that it is by accident. Lots of people over lots of time built the culture that has become the magnet. People who needed a place to go, to be together, to feel included, all moved closer and closer together until something happened, something clicked, and then, after it did, they fought like hell to keep it. I guess, in a way, that is the story of any town, but it is not the story of every culture—just the good ones, just the ones worth keeping. I’ve taken a little bit of Austin with me everywhere I’ve ever gone. I’ve even, I hope, brought some of it with me here. In a way, the Branch is my Austin now: smoky barbecue, enchiladas, live music—even a chance to sit outside in the sun, in the spring, on the patio. We’ve brought, I hope, a little bit of that Balcones beauty to our little town in other ways, helping with arts and culture wherever we can, be it by helping to start the Farmers’ Market, by hosting arts shows, historical society meetings, movies, charity events, or even, at times, by sitting on committees or in meetings with other folks, like-minded and otherwise, and by trying to remind them that there is more to a gathering of people in a municipality than just a momentum of years; that there is an important lesson in the hard work of creating the kind of place, the kind of culture that makes people want to not only come here, but to stay; that makes them want to come back year after year, that makes them want to call it home. Kemptville is on the precipice of a lot of growth, a lot of change, and we all have a great opportunity, and maybe it’s not as simple for us as saying: ‘Keep Kemptville Weird’ (…although, there is something to be said for that idea…). But maybe, as we grow, like those folks back in Austin who had the foresight and audacity to call their city a new Athens, maybe it’s time for us to seriously consider the kind of culture we want to create, the kind of community we want to have. We can have a cookie cutter, big box store economy like so many other Ottawa suburbs if we want to—and we may if we aren’t careful: no downtown to stroll through, giant houses on small lots, chain restaurants and stores… Or, if we are bold, we can build on the kind of community that is already growing, that is already here; the small quirky businesses, the green space, the trails, the wealth of arts, of local foods…we can choose to support each other and we can work together and build the kind of oasis, the kind of magnet that will make us sustainable, strong, interesting and the kind of place that I think most us would like to call not just a bedroom community, but a living room and maybe even a kitchen community as well. We can, if we want, make Kemptville into our Athens, our Austin; not the physical one, but more like the one in my suitcase. Our sunshine daydream. A place to hope for. A home.
When I think of that mystical glow, that violet crown that hangs above the Austin of my memory, of my heart, I can’t help but think that the reason it exists is not just a simple flaw in my recollection or even some weird spectral phenomenon explained by a trick of the light. It is there because of people like you and me, people who needed it. It is there because we crowned her, because we decided that it should be. That crown exists, that violet crown. It is real over Austin, and it is real outside my window over Kemptville today. And it is there because we put it there.
A Trip Back Home: Part 1
I have mentioned in the past that my first serious cooking jobs were in the world of Italian cuisine — in retrospect, they were my second, really. My first serious cooking jobs were in the family kitchen: peeling onions, measuring out cumin or browning meat for the chili, basting granddaddy’s brisket with his rich, tomato-y bbq sauce, heating up tortillas or cubing avocadoes for the fajitas… Italy may have been my first professional home, but I’ll always come back to Texas. I learned Italian – American-ized Italian cooking, anyway – at a couple of different places: Ferrari’s, a ‘meh’ place that was long past its prime, and Cenare, a great place, busy and exciting, that I’ve written about in the past… But I went on to learn a great deal more in subsequent years—at one point, sitting with Sante Losio, an Italian wine merchant who had helped to organize Millennium’s first (only?) White Truffle Dinner, I was told ‘Bruce, You must go to Italy, it is your home’.
I did, too. I visited for a month or so in 2003, and he was right… and wrong. He was right because Italian cuisine is very natural for me; my love of local, fresh and handpicked foods, care, attention to detail with traditional preparations, knowing the farmer, knowing the field… the hedonism, the sincerity… the wild mushrooms, the local cheese; even the chaos of the markets (which made it clear that my wife Nicole would probably never call Italy home) was something that was daunting at first, but then, quickly became second nature, even a kind of giddy fun… He was right, it felt very natural to me, wine with lunch and afternoon naps are just so civilized–but he was wrong too. Italians drink espresso in the morning. Espresso is fine, but seriously, don’t you just want a cup of good ol’ North American drip every once in a while? And don’t say ‘Americano,’ that watery concoction just doesn’t pack enough punch. I’m not arguing in favour of or against pasta; lord knows I love pasta, but doesn’t a potato deserve a place at the table on occasion? And how about a bowl of chili? It’s not that I don’t love Italian cuisine—I do, I really, really do—it’s just that, well, I’m Texan. I like grits more than polenta (trick question, they are pretty much the same thing)…I like okra more than eggplant (but I do love eggplant, I just like okra… more… OK, bad example…) I like tamales more than ravioli (there we go!), I like brisket more than osso bucco… It was how I was programmed, from even before I was programmed, and it is how I will always be.
Years ago, in Austin, I worked for a brief stretch in a mediocre Italian restaurant… I came there right after moving to Austin and was hired as a lead cook, essentially a ‘chef de cuisine’, right out of the gate. The sauces were boring to me, I was coming from a fast paced ‘a la minute’ kitchen; but at this place, everything was canned, pre-made, cheap, underwhelming. The owner, I’ll call him Adham, was hardworking and honest, doing his best, and (this will become relevant)… Lebanese. I tried to understand what he was doing; there were dozens and dozens of mediocre Italian restaurants in Austin, but few, if any, Lebanese ones, either mediocre or amazing. While his Italian food was just OK (if not worse), he would prepare schwarma and falafel at home and bring it in for us to snack on and it was amazing; the flavours of his home-cooking were wild, exciting, outlandish. But the sauces we were instructed to serve the customers? Tomato. Cream. Alfredo. The one exception was his diavolo—a typically spicy sauce from southern Italy; in his version, it was amped up with an almost… how can I describe it? Lebanese? Yeah, that’s it… flair. I kept asking him, ‘Why Italian? Why not serve Lebanese?’ He never really answered, but I know he was afraid; no one else served Lebanese, he was just trying to play it safe.
I didn’t last long at this place (come to think of it, neither did he…). There weren’t very many customers, and there were even less happy ones, but while I was there, in a nearby neighbourhood, a Lebanese restaurant did open—one that is still there today, some 20 or so years later. As the first of its kind in that area, it was immediately lauded, folks came from all over the city to enjoy it, and to this day I can’t help but wonder, what if Adham had just had the guts to do something that seems so simple in hindsight; to quit trying to be something that he wasn’t and, instead, to cook what he knew? Would that success have been his?
When I wrote the first Branch menu, I brought all of my experience to the table. Sure, I knew fajitas and steak, but I also knew stir-fries and spaghetti. I wrote the menu from my years of line-cooking and chef-ing experience, from my travels, from my reading… I wrote it, I thought, with the intention to provoke, to share the food experiences that had shaped me… I carefully considered the best meals of my life and sought out how to interpret them with local ingredients. In short, I set out to cook what I knew. But over these last five years, something else has happened: it seems that the menu, with the help of my local friends, customers, and family, has taken on a life of its own.
I, as you may have noticed when I am outside of the kitchen, aspire to, at times, well… write. As such, I have often found myself reading words, advice, and wisdom from other writers. There is an anecdote I have heard from more than one novelist describing the act of writing a novel as something along the lines of ‘creating the characters and then letting them act, setting the stage, and then waiting to see what happens…’ This menu, once designed to appeal to a global palate, has obviously, over time, become its own actor. At first, by year two or three, about half of the menu had escaped my original design of its own accord and gone down to Texas. By the time of this writing? As much as three quarters has found its way south to my mesquite and bluebonnet covered home. Sometimes, much like the authors I am quoting, I don’t even feel like the author anymore, just another character on the stage that I helped to set. It is both exhilarating and terrifying…
The real thing we are talking about here, of course, is courage. Adham, my Lebanese friend, feared the rejection of his home-cooked specialties and went with what he deemed to be a ‘safe’ alternative. I have also faced those fears, even as I created a menu that I knew was provocative and hardly seemed safe at all, in the end, I realize now, I have been playing safe by sticking to meals that I knew, from my experience, would sell pretty well, would make people happy, would be easy for me to make, and would be, by those criteria, safe… Not to say that I have not ever ventured out of my comfort zone…But I have rejected any push to ‘pigeonhole’ myself, to get ‘locked into’ one type of food… but, unlike my Lebanese friend, not out of fear, but out of, well, hubris.
My weakness, it seems, is not fear, but rather vanity.
In the end, Adham and I face the same demon, rejection. I fear rejection, not from my customers who by sales numbers alone have made their preferences clear, but from another more inscrutable audience; critics, compatriots… my chef peers… I fear rejection not for the food itself but for leaving the world of constant provocation, for letting go of that part of myself that co-authored the cookbook, that part of myself that knows that my hand can prepare a perfect hollandaise, that my mind can invent a new combination of flavours that will excite and incite, that, given the capital and the opportunity, I could foam, gel, sous-vide and flash freeze my way into any critic’s heart. Adham feared the much more tangible rejection of a business failing. I fear failure only if it is not on my own terms…
Adham’s business failed. His fear held him back and he had courage, but he had the wrong kind of courage and it killed his business. I, too, have shown a kind of courage in my convictions, a willingness to take chances, to experiment, to explore; but now, after these last few months, I have realized that it is high time for me to muster up another kind of courage. The kind of courage, and here things are going to get a little heavy, but bear with me, the kind of courage that it takes for a baseball player to hang up his glove… The courage that it takes for a player to do the right thing for his team, to stand back, to stop trying to be the star and to become the coach. I have a great crew; they are talented, capable, and nothing makes me more proud than the fact that I have helped to shape them. What they need is not to be on the same team as a star, but a job that will support them and their families; they need a restaurant that is not the success of a man, but the success of a team; a team that will go on and win championships with me as a coach, and, later, a team that will win when they become the coaches themselves.
Now that is an awful lot of sports metaphors coming from someone who may, every couple of years, catch the Superbowl, but rarely much else… (one of my ‘teams’, the crew at ASTI, used to tease me for my lack of sports knowledge by telling me stories about how a player had spiked the javelin in the end-zone, slam-dunked the field-goal and gotten a home-run…) I am getting used to the idea, that of all the meals I have prepared, the most successful moments of my cooking career were not the yuba and white truffle bresaole at Millennium’s White Truffle Dinner…or even the Tongue & Cheek entrée at a New Year’s Eve dinner at the Branch… they weren’t even publishing a cookbook, cooking dinner for Alice Waters, being reviewed by Anne DesBrisay or Michael Bauer, being quoted in national magazines or even appearing, briefly, on the Food Network or any of a number of local TV morning shows… my finest moments were when Libby called me to ask whether or not she should take the job at Chez Panisse, when CJ made it through his first full shift at ASTI without a screw-up, when Heather ran out of ketchup last weekend and knew how to make it on the fly…When Wesley ‘killed it’ on Sunday’s buffet… My biggest successes have not been what I have done, they have been what I have been able to teach other people to do… What I have helped them discover within themselves…
Courage is not writing the perfect menu, it is writing a good menu and then letting it become what it needs to be. A restaurant does not need a chef with a stack of gold medals and accolades; it needs hungry customers who are willing to buy what it sells. Success in business, I have come to realize, is not measured by how much I help myself; it is measured by how many others I am able to help.
When I wrote the first menu for the Branch, I wrote the menu that I wanted to cook. I came from Texas and went far and wide, learning as I went. But I started in Texas, my first meals were there, and what I learned from cooking Texas food informed and informs everything else I have done. But when I wrote that first menu, I wrote it for me…Italian has always been prominent, of course, as has Thai food, Jamaican, Californian, French, Modern, vegetarian, even ‘nose-to-tail’. I wrote a menu that was designed to challenge others but that was mainly, if I’m honest, designed to keep myself entertained. To play it safe. That’s a great way to get attention, but it’s not a great or an easy way to succeed… But as I have written it, and even more importantly, as it has evolved and started to write itself, it has taught me something profound… It has taught me that I need to go back to the start…
Our Daily Bread…
In the first three years of the Branch, I made every batch of brown bread at the restaurant except for one. That day, I had help from my good friend Rob Matthewson, who those of us locally know as the gentle giant genius of loaf behind Grateful Bread, the bread consortium that has anchored our local farmers’ market these past three years. He and his equally storied and infinitely interesting wife Shelley just moved on last month to the West Coast, for work, but also for family, which is also how I found myself here, so who am I to judge? Just a bit sad, that’s all… But anyway, this story is about bread, so we’ll talk about all that stuff some other time. This story is about bread, about baking, and about my favourite baker.
I guess my first experiences making bread were my grandmother’s Parker House Rolls, a recipe in which each yeasty, white ball of dough was dipped in melted butter before it was packed together in Corning ware, then risen and baked. The effect, though guilty in hindsight, was mind expanding in practice. My mom complained that her mother in law had never mentioned the second package of yeast on the recipe she wrote out, and that had she not spied that sneaky addition over her shoulder one day, no-one would have ever known. That might be why no-one else’s rolls ever came out quite as good, but I think we all suspect it was more than just that. The most critical ingredient in bread, I have come to discover, is the baker. When she baked those rolls, it was her way of showing her love.
I moved back to my home town from West Texas in ’93 or so and was lucky enough to find a job at a little scratch bakery, Brazos Blue Ribbon, that was operated by a couple of ex-hippie types who probably just wanted a place to buy whole grain fresh bread and muffins themselves and couldn’t find anyone else doing it. They had a wide selection of loaves, pastries, kolaches, and cookies and they served sandwiches and soups for lunch. I was hired as an assistant baker, which meant I never got to see lunch; lunch time, for me, was now in the middle of my night. I arrived at work every day at 2 am and left work at about ten, at least for the six short months that I managed to survive that schedule. Maybe it was as a result of these long, late hours, but the head baker there was insane, good insane, I mean; he was a hilarious, huge, jolly, loud, heavy metal singing madman, and at 2 o’clock in the morning, I was his only audience and his biggest fan. He taught me like Obi Wan taught Luke, with a pile of clichés, aphorisms, cleverly mixed metaphors and the occasional near backhand (which I probably deserved…) I was told to use my hands to mix the dough; ‘spatulas are liars!’ I was trained to taste the dough, to ‘think with my hands’, to ‘bake with my nose…’ I was no baker when I came in, I had mistakenly believed that 5 years of line cooking would qualify me for some kind of high speed ascension to that goal; but, by the time I left, I was, although not quite a baker, at least not quite as foolish as when I arrived. He was a great teacher, he loved what he did, and it showed. So why did I leave? Honestly? I wasn’t ready to give up sunlight; I don’t think I ever will be. Baking, as a profession, asks a high price from those who it calls.
Rob is not a baker by profession (…yet?). He worked here in Kemptville in some capacity for the government; he told me about it once, it was something to do with measuring water levels, analyzing drainage from wetlands, that kind of thing… I’m not really sure, the fact is, when I talk to Rob, it’s usually about bread. He loves bread, he loves baking… when he’s not at work (or practicing his clarinet), it’s likely that he’s baking. He always reminds me of that jolly baker from Brazos Blue Ribbon, he has that same big presence, the same quick smile and twinkling eye—and I don’t care what he gets paid for, the man is, and will always be, a baker. He understands, naturally, instinctually, what it took me so long to learn about bread, about why bread is not pure science or pure art, about how good bread is craft, plain and simple, about how your hands know more about baking than your head, and that your heart and nose are just as critical to the process as your mixer, your oven or your timer. Baking bread is about patience and care. It is about good humour and generosity. It is about love and, if you do it right (and he does…), it is about changing the way people think about every other bite of food they take.
Rob has given more to this community than just some tasty loaves; he is one of those good, generous people who come along and just can’t seem to help but share. He started, a couple of years ago, giving classes on baking to anyone who was interested, he dreamed up the whole idea as a charitable act…the classes, or workshops, were, I believe, actually a ruse to get a dozen or so extra hands out to roll dough for bread for a Salvation Army Food Bank fundraiser (I may have my facts wrong, but I believe it was for one of our Mother’s Day brunches here at the Municipal Center). The idea caught on, and soon, these workshops (again, not to be confused with free labour…) were given several times a year, baking bread for Christmas food baskets, again for our Mother’s Day brunch, for a free community Thanksgiving dinner, or, really for any event or even person that needed an extra bit of sustenance to be broken and shared. I noticed once that at the workshops, and with the free loaves of bread, he gave out a recipe on a little piece of onion skin paper along with an idea, a prayer really, a request that the holder of the recipe would bake it with others, and that in exchange for this loaf, in lieu of payment, that they would do this same giving again, for other food banks, for other friends, for anyone who might need a warm loaf of love. Luckily, at the very first workshop, the friendly friar of the leavened loaf won a convert, my sister-in-law, and really, one of the world’s all-time greatest people, Denise Busby.
Now with all due respect to Rob, who was the reason I set out to write this story, within the first two or three lines I, and really, anyone who has bought bread at our exciting little market over the last few years, probably knew very quickly where this was going to end up. Denise is the kind of person who just seems to do well at most anything she tries; over the years that I have been lucky enough to know her, not only has she been a record breaking manager for a noted office supply company in the heart of Ottawa, she has evolved into a master hobby gardener, a photographer of immense talent, the most patient wife her incredibly lucky husband could hope for, and, on an incredibly personal note, the greatest aunt I could ever imagine for my, for all of our, little girl. She also, thanks to Rob’s workshops, and a great deal of that natural instinct like both my Grandmother’s and his, has become a phenomenal baker. The first year of the market, Rob alone was the baker, but starting in the second and continuing with the third, Rob was joined by Denise as a fellow ‘Grateful Bread’ baker. As often as Rob has been at the market of a Sunday, Denise has been there as well, at first with breads she learned to bake with Rob, but later and lately with scones, cookies, and even breads made with her own recipes. I am, I admit, a very picky person when it comes to the quality of food (hey, it’s my job!) and I can honestly say that during the market season, her Chipotle-Cheddar Bread is one of the greatest pleasures of my daily life.
Bread was one of the first things that we humans learned to make. Almost every culture has a bread of some kind, flour and water, maybe some other stuff, a leavening agent, some time of work, some time of rest. Bread is what we share, when we share. It is the most basic of sustenance, and, as a symbol, it speaks to the core of who and what we all are. It is the first thing we serve at most restaurants, because throughout our cultural memory, it has become an act of welcome so common that to not offer it would be out of place. Early on we learned that all of the bounteous harvest our farmers’ market’s amazing vegetables would bring people out once, but that it was the bread for which they returned.
I’ve learned a lot about baking over the years; I learned about tortillas, the bread of Mexico, from fellow cooks and older Mexican ladies at a taqueria in my home town, my first job outside of the stifling world of fast food. I learned about thin crust pizza dough from a skilled chef at Romeo’s in Austin where I baked in a wood fired oven, and I trained intensively through those dark nights at the Brazos Blue Ribbon, teaching my hands how to feel for when the dough was just right. I have learned that sometimes it’s about a second package of yeast that someone forgot to mention, and that sometimes it is about no yeast at all, just patience and courage. And I have learned, after all that, that all the knowledge in the world will only produce a pretty good loaf of bread.
Thanks Rob, it was always a pleasure to bake and to break bread with you, and I hope to do it again soon. You’ve given a lot to this community, more than we ever could have asked, Vancouver Island is lucky to have your big, generous heart in its midst. I understand why you moved to be close to family; that is, after all, also what brought us here.
I hope that my bread, the one I’ve made every batch of save one, is half as good as Rob’s, half as good as my grandmother’s Parker House Rolls. I’ve tried to shape it, learn it, understand it, infuse it with all the meaning, heart and soul that I can, and every time I make it I think maybe, maybe this time, maybe I’m getting close. Bread is more than just flour and water and yeast and salt. It is family, it is being together, it is sharing and it is love. And for me that means that on the last weekend in May, when the time is finally here at that first market of the season, I’ll be right there in line again, waiting anxiously for that first loaf, for that first taste of Chipotle-Cheddar from Denise, Abigail’s Aunt Denise, my favourite baker.
Smoke, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the brisket. Part One:
Granddaddy made his own barbecue sauce. Or so I believed, more likely, Grandmother Ruby made it and he added a stick of butter and a couple more shots of Tabasco. A family event at our grandparents’ house usually meant one thing, barbecued brisket. By the time we got there, granddad would have already been tending the brisket for a number of hours, so I can’t relay his exact method, but after a number of conversations with my father, my cousins and some of Granddaddy’s friends, as well as years of my own experience, I can now make some assumptions. First, either early in the morning or late the night before, he would build a wood fire in the pit with post oak or mesquite, then let the coals die down, and then set his brisket on the far side of the pit. The pit was made from a 50 gallon oil drum, it had welded-on legs, handles, hinges and a stovepipe and it was split sideways, so it could open up like a giant clam, it may have been painted at some point, but it was black from years of smoke by the time I saw it. It was fitted with a rack across the bottom half, like any other barbecue and it included little sliding doors on the bottom and across the top of the stovepipe to control the airflow through the main chamber when the lid was closed. No Texan needed that description as these contraptions were (and in some places still are) as plentiful as heat and sun in our yards in the summertime, which is to say, well, plentiful. Robb Walsh (a Texas food writer) called them Texas Hibachis, a description I like now but wouldn’t have remotely understood if you’d used it at the time. A Hibachi is a tiny grill for charcoal grilling used in Japanese cooking. When I was a kid, I probably just assumed Japanese people ate Chinese food, as I didn’t encounter Japanese food more exotic than ‘teriyaki chicken’ (with the ubiquitous canned pineapple ring) until my early twenties. Since everything is bigger in Texas (just ask any Texan) a fifty gallon drum is a Hibachi the same way a guitar is a Texas mandolin. When my granddad cooked a brisket, it took total attention. He was the pit boss, and it was his show. By profession, he was a dentist, but in the summers I remember him two ways, in his coveralls in the garden or perched on an aluminum lawn chair next to that barbecue pit, chewing on a fat cigar and tending the brisket. His method was unique; it involved a regular basting with his barbecue sauce until the sugar formed a kind of crust on the meat. In retrospect, it wasn’t perfect, but it was perfect for us.
Barbecue can be source of great pleasure and great debate with Texans, some would claim that there are as many different barbecue styles as there are Texans, but there are some universal truths. Barbecue, in Texas, refers specifically to the slow and low cooking of a cut of meat. Cooking meat, or anything else for that matter, on a grill over direct heat is called grilling. You may grill foods in a barbecue pit, but that’s kind of a coincidence, like figuring out you can use a hammer to not only hammer a nail but also, say, to crack an egg or perhaps to open a window. Texas barbecue almost always refers to beef. And it almost always refers specifically to a cut from the front quarter of the animal found near the leg called the brisket. The brisket is whole and untrimmed and when cooked, is sliced against the grain. Brisket is also the cut of meat used to make Pastrami and Montreal style smoked meat. Barbecued brisket is served sliced warm in Texas with a sweet, spicy and vinegary tomato based sauce, known far and wide as barbecue sauce. This distinction is important because apparently some folks make a non-tomato based sauce, and still try to call it barbecue sauce although most Texans aren’t sure why. My granddad’s barbecue sauce had a list of over twenty ingredients of which I’ll share two, tomato paste and orange peel. Tomato paste to make the point about a tomato based sauce, and orange peel, because I thought it was weird and kind of cool. After I got the recipe, I liked to imagine him peeling an orange and throwing it in the big bubbling pot like a mad alchemist, but later, after he died, I found a McCormick’s spice jar in his cabinet, dry and ancient, that read ‘orange peel’ which dashed that fantasy to bits. If it had ever actually smelled like orange peel, I’m afraid it was many years before I opened it.
Along with barbecue the food, there is also barbecue, the culture. When you leave the Texas Hibachi in the yard and go out to get barbecue, you venture into the very pinnacle of Texas culture, the barbecue joint. A barbecue joint has a about a 90 per chance of being a guy’s name. Luther’s barbecue house had the best sauce, Tom’s had the best meat. Some other place had the best sides, it was probably called Jim’s or Rufus’s or something. And these were all joints. They were kept clean, sort of, but no money was wasted on decor. Cast off street signs, old beer cans, hunting trophies, all mixed up with red-checked plastic tablecloths and Sears picnic furniture. The smell of smoke and meat. No money was wasted on cutlery or dishes, either. Barbecue is best served on butcher paper on a tray with onions, sliced cheese, thick slices of fluffy white bread and pickles. Tables were carefully set with a stainless steel napkin dispenser and a plastic bottle of barbecue sauce. You pay by weight. Barbecue joints offer choices like sausage or chicken or a combination. Family meals, that kind of thing, maybe a grilled cheese sandwich for a kid. Sides were usually simple things like slaw or potato salad, but if you were lucky, maybe something hot like fried okra or a big buttery ear of corn. But the most important thing was the brisket.
Maybe that’s why my biggest act of rebellion was becoming a vegetarian.
Stay tuned for part two….
Smoke; part two, the lean years…
SCENE: A household in Texas in the early 90’s, a son confronts his parents with a startling revelation:
SON: “Mom, Dad I’ve got something to tell you.”
FATHER: “You’re gay?”
SON: “No, worse…”
MOTHER: “Oh my god, Sam, he’s a vegetarian!”
There are a lot of things that can go through the mind of a cook or a butcher whose profession involves the handling of meats daily and often. I’m sure I don’t speak only for myself when I consider the speculation involved in the quartering of a chicken or a rabbit, when the mind wanders to a pet cat or dog, or the way a knife passes through a meaty joint of pork or lamb and considering one’s own cut-ability. Perhaps even more disturbing are the thoughts that creep in when handling the less blatantly obviously animal of the meats, for instance opening a case of four layers of six ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts, twenty-four to a layer, each identical piece separated into its own little plastic tray. What kind of world produces such cases upon cases of these disturbing ‘protein delivery systems’, and what is to be said about the consumers who demand it? These can be weird and terrible thoughts, and they inevitably lead to a black sense of humour among cooks. I used to love the way the fat trimmed from the chicken breasts looked like giant loogies; the waitresses, however, were not nearly as impressed. No doubt, some Sigmund would describe this as some sort of coping mechanism, which is fine, and I would hope we could all laugh in the face of our own darkness, but not too much, and not to excuse it. All things considered, we are meat and our rationalizations for consuming it will always be tempered by that honest truth. In the early nineties, my response to this philosophical hypocrisy was simple: I quit eating it.
My first wife’s father was a rancher; it was his first and third career. In between, he was a civil engineer. His first career, because he was raised with it, and his third, because even after years of schooling and years of well-paid high level work in engineering firms in Dallas, he couldn’t get it out of his blood and returned. In the city, he heard (herded?) the cows in his sleep, mooing for him to come home. Or something like that. He was a good intentioned man, which is not to say he was a good man. Cattle were something he thought he understood, unlike the employees at the big firm or even his own family. He worked with the cattle like he would have approached an engineering question: with a desire to produce the most beef per acre at the lowest cost. Dogs and cats on the farm were treated with the same callous disregard for health or hardship and were only allowed their share of the food when their usefulness (as mousers or herders) warranted it; they certainly weren’t allowed inside and affection (or a trip to the vet) was out of the question.
Maybe my ex-wife’s inheritance of this attitude of disrespect for animals was what lead to our demise– our last big fight was about the fact that I shelled out a pile of cash to save our dog’s life without consulting her (how many marriages have cell phones saved?), but probably not, as we were headed apart anyway. But it is no coincidence that my exit from that animal-hating family put me off the meat industry for a while. When people ask me about why I became a vegetarian, I usually crack wise about getting thin to pick up chicks after my first divorce or crack sincere about how I was always a lover of the environment and animals and life in general and couldn’t reconcile that with my experience of the meat production industry from within. Well there’s actually a partial explanation within both of those reasons and in the story of the rancher above, and in the meat cutting story in the previous paragraph. None of us do anything for just one reason, we do things for one just reason. To me it all goes back to one little lie. One day in the field with my father-in-law I pushed the punch into the calf’s ear for a tag and felt the large animal shudder with pain, and my father-in-law said the following:
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt them.”
They say that one of those stages of addiction (or is it grief?) is denial. And we are addicted to the consumption of meat, without question. There are millions of us who satisfy our itches with booze or drugs, but there are billions and billions of us who satisfy our itches with a Big Mac. The only way we can collectively justify that industry created by our addiction to cheap meat is to hide it on the fringes of our vision. We don’t see the killing floors on our televisions or in our grocery stores; our feedlots do not offer guided tours. Our meat comes to us on sale, pre-cut and pre-cleaned on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in cellophane, and we buy it without ever looking at the guts, brains or the eyeballs of the animal from which it came. We collectively deny the animal’s pain. When I lost my ability to deny it, I had to confront it, and I had to quit.
But wait, isn’t this supposed to be about barbecue? Now you’ve got us addicted to eating food? That’s like saying we are addicted to air! We have to breathe don’t we? Well, to that point I must ask, how quickly would our lives change if we had to pay for air? Bet the cheap stuff would go quick and somebody would figure out a way to market second hand smoke to children (“Keeps you alive for a few years for under 99 cents and it comes with a free toy!”) In other words, there are right ways and wrong ways to do everything. There is always more to the story than meets (meats? Sorry, that was completely uncalled for…) the eye…
Stay tuned for part three…
I am not a competitive person. Which is what you say when you are, in fact, a sore loser. When I was a kid, my brother was just enough older than me that he was always physically two steps ahead—a condition that has a tendency to level out eventually, but also one that can be a source of much anxiety through the younger years. Our neighborhood friends were also his age (and size), so in the games that boys play…soccer, football, baseball, basketball (I suppose it would have been hockey had I been born somewhere a little less, well, Texas-y)…I guess you could say I had a tendency to lose. I was probably fine with this for a while, I honestly don’t remember, but eventually, it started to tick me off. Loss after loss became a source of manifest frustration. Screaming tantrums, crying jags, the whole bit. Little kid frustration at the fact that the world didn’t seem to work the way it did in the Disney sports movies. I wasn’t upset that I was losing; I was upset that the whole thing seemed so unfair.
Being the runt made me agitated, and I say that I was not competitive, but I was actually the worst of the bunch. But losing time after time made me hate the games, made me throw up my hands and eventually walk away in disgust. Finally I just quit playing, if anyone asked, I just said I wasn’t competitive, I found other outlets, comfort zones where physicality wasn’t critical; books, music, things like swimming or theatre, places where I played alongside rather than against.
Business is not a comfortable or un-competitive space. Even before I was a business owner it had become manifestly obvious that competition, even ruthless competition, was a fact of business life. Just like big kids dominate little kids, big fish swallow small fish, corporations will feast on small businesses. Only the biggest, strongest or sometimes the most creative, quickest or smartest survive in the big game—unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean the best.
Being ‘non-competitive’ in my youth gave me some perspective. It helped me distance myself and observe—it helped me to look for the merit in things that existed beyond the usual benchmarks, the trophies, the material successes.
As a restaurateur, for instance, my obvious goal in a purely competitive mode would be to become McDonald’s, arguably the most successful ‘restaurant’ concept in history. Money, power, market share…it’s all there. They are the Superbowl champs of food. And they are also a blight upon the land. I feel no love for this monstrous beast—It has leveled rainforests in its quest for cheap meat, it has created an entire industry where genetically modified corn fattens grass eaters beyond reason in concentrated toxic spaces that have made me, at times, question whether or not humanity has lost its soul. And then there’s what they’ve done to the cattle (wait for it…). But seriously, McDonald’s is all plastic and disposable in a world where every indication is that plastic and disposable will eventually choke the life from our oceans, our land, and, inevitably, ourselves. This competitive edge has brought them fortune, but we have all lost much for their gains (even as we have gained much from their fries…) All because they are very, very good at winning. It is as if they have successfully mastered the sport of feeding us our own feet, the better to keep us from walking away from this destructive path.
What would be an alternative? Is there one? Or is competing so aligned with our nature that we are trapped into this Sisyphean game forever?
When I lived in Oakland, California—I was down the street from an awesome coffee shop—they used to make an iced mocha with chocolate ice cream that would kill you dead on the spot, and then restart your heart at double speed all in the space of one quick gulp. Let’s just call it delicious. One day Starbucks decided to open a shop on the same stretch of road. Next door. It’s vicious. I mean, my little coffee shop was good, but not so good that it could afford to share a small market. It was pure predatory behaviour—That Starbucks didn’t need to succeed, it just had to outlast…I’ve got a dozen stories like that, and so do you. And the fact is that there is a twisted logic to it all, that is to say, when the object is to win at all costs, anything goes.
Are these corporations evil? No, just good competitors. A positive case could even be made for McDonald’s, Starbucks or Walmart; these guys are huge and generally irresponsible, but when they do make a choice on the side of angels, it can have massive effects… McDonald’s has implemented programs certifying and only using slaughterhouses that kill humanely, has had positive effects on millions through charitable actions such as the creation of the Ronald McDonald houses or their sponsorship of the Special Olympics; Starbucks has made choices like providing the options of Fair Trade or organic coffee, even turning these formerly fringe products into household words (without necessarily always being the best at choosing them…) Even Walmart stands poised to completely inflate the market share for organic foods, albeit at the very real risk of diluting the meaning of that word to the point of meaninglessness. The point is that when a corporation is a good citizen, its impact is on a scale that few small businesses could ever hope to achieve.
So why do I despise these places so much? If we are hardwired, if it is inevitable that we compete, and if, within the competitive world there is always going to be a winner, why can’t I just accept it and move on like everyone else seems to have? Maybe it’s because I am a sore loser. I can’t stand to see that smirking jerk in the winner’s circle with the babes and the trophy, knowing full well that he cheated his way to the top; it is the unfairness of the game that irks me most. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because I know there really could be a better way. I feel like the corporate big kids all acknowledge it, with these charitable acts, these nods to environmental responsibility or to social justice. They realize that some large part of our success as humans is contingent upon the interconnected nature of our actions.
When it comes to how I spend my dollars, I always prefer the quirk to the quick, the creative to the consistent, the human to the machine. Give me greasy spoons and mismatched forks over McStyrofoam™ any day. I love to see the kinds of restaurants where people sit and talk and feel like they own the place—and I don’t feel any sense of competition with them, even when they are next door. Little restaurants like the ones we’ve got (and have sadly sometimes lost) around our downtown are special, as are the bookshops, bead stores, thrift shops, yoga studios…we are blessed with a host of real and worthy businesses around here. The kind of spots that are worth supporting and the kind that deserve to win—even though you can also choose cheaper, faster and less thoughtful versions of anything they sell at franchise version of the same around the corner or up on the highway. Maybe what I like is that these little places exist in the same way that healthy people and ecosystems work, with diversity, interconnectedness, care and love.
When I was a teenager, I met Bob Atkins at his house long before I entered his homey little health food store—he had two beautiful daughters about my age and I was lucky enough to spend enough time with them to at least meet dad (if too unlucky for much else…), and though they were cute, but it was on my first trip to the health food store that I really fell in love. Rows of bulk bins, bags of flours, seaweed, tofu, sprouts…I had never found such an array of strange and wonderful delights—I felt like a young wizard in an alchemist’s laboratory. Brazos Natural Foods had the particular smell that I have since come to associate with every health food store: that blend of incense, musk, patchouli, yeast and garlic, that rich, savoury scent which I have found again and again in my life, in tiny shops and in giant groceries, scattered throughout a hundred small towns and sprawling cities, in Canada, throughout the U.S., even in Europe. It is a particular and comforting scent for me and every time I smell it, it always feels like coming home.
One of the things that attracted me to Kemptville, in fact to the area in general, was that every small town around here supports at least one if not more of these quirky little health food shops. It was a big factor in helping me have the faith that this community could also support an organic foods restaurant. Kemptville has a particularly nice one, Nature’s Way, which I have shopped at regularly since moving here, and where I am now known well enough that I am always greeted by name by most of the staff, a gaggle of sweethearts who genuinely care about the health of this community (and who definitely care less about me and more about my baby daughter…). I’m not going to say anything rude, but I couldn’t help but notice that recently a local grocery store, which although Independently (oops, sorry!) owned is still part of a much larger entity, which also happens to be practically next door to our little shop is adding a ‘store within a store’ health food area…and, well, I’ll just say that I’m a little peeved. The grocery store doesn’t need that market segment to survive, at least I don’t think it does, and, well, I guess the whole thing just feels fishy to me. It seems like that predatory, anything goes, play to win sort of nonsense that made me such a sore loser in the first place. Part of me says ‘Well, think of the positive, think of all the folks who would never go to a quirky little health food store who will now be exposed to organic foods, maybe even for the first time.’ But part of me, that sore loser side, sees a problem on the horizon for a cool little shop that deserves to win but has a big brother that’s always going to be a little stronger and a little faster.
I mentioned earlier that big brothers don’t stay bigger forever. There came a point for me where I certainly could no longer use that excuse in my losing to mine. Not being competitive is a nice idea, but compete I do, every day, for the hearts and minds (and especially the stomachs) of a small town outside of the city—knowing full well that the big kids can do almost everything I do faster and cheaper—but also knowing that they can never do it better or with more heart. They can smirk and strut in the winner’s circle, but they also have to try to sleep knowing that they cheated to get there. And they also know that someday, sore loser or not, I’m not going to be quite so little anymore. And neither are you.
I applied to Mother’s Café and Garden when I first moved to Austin, at the time, I was a vegetarian, and they were Austin’s most successful and longest running vegetarian restaurant. I was cooking to support my burgeoning and inevitable music career, had been for a while, and it seemed like a good fit. For whatever reason, they didn’t hire me, so I went back to cooking Italian; pasta sure could pay the rent (at least until the music thing took off). I took a job at a cheesy little strip mall Italian joint, it only lasted a few months, then I applied to Mother’s again. They didn’t call, again, so I took another Italian job. I was getting rather good at cooking noodles. This new place was a big clean new operation; the executive chef took me under his wing and I learned a lot. But the new chef de cuisine wanted to bring in veal (I was a bit more squeamish at the time)… and, well, I applied to Mother’s again.
Mother’s, to me, was a sort of Mecca (one of a few, it would seem…) The people who worked there looked cooler, more urban and hip. The guys in the kitchen wore bandannas, shorts and t-shirts instead of chef coats; they had visible tattoos and wacky facial hair. Loud punk rock could always be heard when the kitchen door opened. They looked like a merry band of pirates. It was like a cross between music and cooking. Also, the place was always busy, so it looked like a challenge. The food was real, and I could eat anything on the menu, not to mention learn how to cook it… The third time I applied I actually got an interview. John Silverman explained his philosophies, I explained mine. I’ll never forget that at the end of the interview he said “basically, what we’ve found is we like to hire people who are positive, who have a positive attitude…” then he looked at me, “do you think you’re one of those people?” Dead serious. I’ve used that line in a few interviews I’ve conducted over the years and have found that it is a good way to initiate a commitment to positivism with a new employee right from the start. It also helps the way the restaurant operates from the top down. If the dishwashers smile, the cooks smile, the servers smile and so do the customers. Most people go to a restaurant to have a good time and a smile is big part of that system. Mother’s Cafe was always a good time.
He hired me that time. I took a pay cut, shifts I didn’t want, the work was harder and dirtier, and I was never happier in a kitchen. Busy restaurants tend to form a kind of team spirit that pulls everyone together. Those of us in the know always joke that the camaraderie is like that of soldiers who have gone through a war (although, admittedly, there is a much smaller chance of an IED or a roadside bomb). I worked at Mother’s for two years, as a night cook, a brunch cook (now that was a war story!) and finally, the dream job, as a lunch cook. In Austin, Texas, the land of music and partially employed musicians, a lunch shift is pure gold. It means that you can pay the bills, eat, and still practice with your band in the evening and play shows on the weekends. It took nearly a year of waiting to get the spot, and every single lunch cook was a musician. Spontaneous jam sessions would regularly break out in the walk-in refrigerator with pickle buckets and wire racks serving as improvised percussion instruments.
John did the hiring, but Cameron Alexander was the kitchen’s guy. He did the ordering and such and would work shifts to fill in for cooks who needed time off (for, you know, tours). The menu was fixed (and an institution unto itself), but Cameron and I started a dialogue about daily specials early on which somehow turned into a going concern. By the time I left, I regularly wrote and prepared a number of specials for both Mother’s and her sister restaurant (the West Lynn Café). It was a position of creative leadership in a kitchen that had no formal leadership structure. I took the responsibility seriously (when I wasn’t thinking about my music career) and discovered, to my surprise, that I genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to be creative in my work environment.
I was going through a tough time. Music, my first love, was dissolving in my hands. Everyone I knew was a musician, and no-one was making a dime at it. Almost all of them were better than me, and I felt like I was just taking up their place in line. For that and many other reasons, my life was getting generally complicated, and in an effort to become more centered I was seeking wisdom, as many have, in books about Eastern philosophy. It was in a book about Buddhism that I came across the idea of choosing a ‘path’ or a ‘way’. It just clicked. What had music ever done for me? Had it fed me, sheltered me, kept me warm, bought me a beer? (O.K., maybe it had bought me a beer…) Music was a creative outlet, sure, and creative people need outlets (trust me, danger ensues). But cooking had not only taken better care of me, physically, but recently (thanks to Mother’s), cooking had become a creative outlet as well. In a sort of improvised Buddhist riddle, I asked myself which of these two disciplines I would choose if I had to give one up to follow one ‘way’, and the answer seemed clear. I loved music and still do, but simply put, cooking has been a much better friend to me. I decided to simplify my life and become a cook first and musician second.
Within a year, thanks in no small part to a letter of recommendation from Cameron, I was a Sous chef at one of America’s top vegetarian restaurants in San Francisco, California. Seems cooking also moves a lot faster than music…
Smoke, part 3, Why Organic?
Travelling and being a strict vegan are a great combination. If you want to starve to death. In case you don’t know, a vegan is sort of an executive vegetarian, eschewing not only animal meat, but all animal produced products as well, including; eggs, cheese, milk and in some cases (like my own, at the time), fringe animal products like honey and even wearing leather. In 1994, I was a couple of years into the vegan thing, and dead serious about it. But after about a week on the roads of America with a rucksack, a very light money belt and a little more than a sense of adventure, saying no to free food became, well, silly. I tried sticking to the salad bar in Vegas, eating lots of trail mix, finding Chinese restaurants in obscure places where the soy protein was supplemented by a healthy dollop of vitamin MSG. I even lived for days at a time on bread dipped in olive oil. After a while though, the vegan thing definitely started to wear thin. Traveling alone is not easy when you are young and poor. Traveling alone when you are love social contact as much as I do AND you happen to have weird food restrictions can be scary as hell. Which is, of course, why I was doing it.
‘The Journey’ is a time honored tradition, at least according to Joseph Campbell, in which a person can test one’s self, and find out if the structure of his or her belief system can actually stand up to the rigors of reality, kind of like Luke Skywalker following Ben Kenobi, or Superman slipping off to the South Pole… As a literary device, or even as a teaching tool, ‘The Journey’ is the story of a person who takes a risk, goes off on their own, and comes to terms with some piece of knowledge, which transforms them. For some, it is the move to college, joining the military, fishing in Alaska, or the ubiquitous backpacking trip to Europe. For me, it was a giant move to San Francisco, to work (somewhat ironically) in a vegan restaurant. It was a little strange, realizing that I was losing my religion while I was on the path to Mecca, but it was definitely what was happening.
I kept thinking, on that trip, about how some of my core values; things like friendship, family, community and sharing, were starting to conflict with some of my other values; things like not doing harm, or honoring life (by not killing it to eat, for instance…). I even started to feel a little selfish for the times I had turned up my nose at food that had been offered to me with good intentions and love. I knew, in my mind, that my snubs were not meant as insults, but I was also beginning to understand how easy it would have been to interpret them as such. It’s easy to think about these things when you’re hungry.
I did move to San Francisco, and I did go to work for the vegan restaurant. I even managed to maintain a vegetarian and mostly vegan diet for another couple of years. You see, and this is hard for me to admit, the last few years of my vegan life had become a sort of exercise in ‘more vegan than you’ posturing for me. My incessant thirst for knowledge had forced me to face the nasty truths about the presence of animal byproducts in so many places in my life, and each new bit of knowledge became on one hand another restriction for me, and on the other hand, a weapon in my arsenal of how much better I was than those around me. It was a manifestation of my own insecurity. Part of my transformation, on my (capital ‘J’) ‘Journey’ was that bit of realization. I have never lost my belief in eating healthy foods, or in my desire to feed healthy foods to others; what I lost was the religious fervor and the deep rock solid belief that I was right.
Most vegetarians have at least a passing familiarity with the concept of organic agriculture, now much of the world seems to be waking up to it as well. During this time, I became more and more familiar with its nuance and meaning. The restaurant where I was training purchased much of its food directly from organic farmers. Over the years of working there, I got to know and like them and I began asking simple questions about how these small farmers managed without the chemical pesticides and fertilizers used by the factory farmers. The answers were surprising. Instead of pesticides, they relied on biodiversity, or the keeping of many different and different types of even the same crops (‘the bugs won’t get all of them’), which, you may note, is the same system used by Mother Nature. And instead of chemical fertilizers? They used compost, sure, but also manure, bone meal, blood meal, even fish meal. In two words, animal husbandry. Many of these small farmers kept animals for their own food, and knew volumes about both meat and livestock handling and especially how much well-cared-for animals made for better health for the farm. As a practicing vegetarian, and a vegetarian chef, charged with the work of bringing strict vegan meals to a passionate clientele, I was horrified. I mean, how could a responsible vegan eat organic food? And where did it go from there? What was next, eating only wild harvested foods? Air-itarianism? I was thinking myself into a corner and I knew I had to reassess my ideals. It may sound silly, but I honestly felt like I had to choose between organic and vegan. I guess I was transforming.
There was one other important part of the transformation that lead me back to barbecue. Forgiveness. Much of my overwrought thinking and philosophizing were the products of my single minded ambition. Like many ambitious young men with good intentions, I was determined to be pure and perfect. To fix myself. Like some sort of religious zealot, I was driven to achieve some sort of higher state through constant and unflagging self-discipline, but all of my experiences were leading me to an inevitable conclusion: I was never going to get there. And neither is anyone else. It is the same mistake being made everyday day by factory farmers and war hawks with their ideals of a perfect, pure, neat and ordered world. The same mistake. We are never going to conquer nature, least of all our own, and we will always fail if we try. Oh, we won’t stop trying, and we can easily be better people, and being good to other people around you has a tendency to draw people who like to be good and be surrounded by good people to you (get all that?) But we will never be perfect. And the only way to be happy is to realize that and forgive it. To say, ‘I tried, I’ll keep trying, and that’s worth something, but this time, I didn’t make it.’
I guess it all really started on my trip to San Francisco. You see, I ate a pancake in Vegas. I knew it had eggs and milk in it. It tasted pretty good, it was free, and I forgave myself (later) and began to accept that I will keep trying to do the right thing, will keep trying to do the best things, and that in the end I’ll fail sometimes, and things will still turn out pretty good either way. And after years of arguing with myself over the political, environmental, and spiritual implications of a meat based diet, I came to some honest conclusions. You see, I like meat, I like the way it tastes, I like the people who raise it responsibly, and I like the idea that when I purchase it, I can choose to purchase responsibly. I like that when I do, my impact is probably a lot more successful form of activism than my holier-than-thou vegan rhetoric. I like that when I purchase it, handle it and cook it I both have and take the opportunity to treat the whole animal with respect and with gratitude.
A couple of years after my trip to San Francisco, I found out about an organic barbecue joint in the suburbs of Oakland. Nicole and I went there for my birthday and enjoyed some of the best brisket I have ever eaten; I asked the guy, ‘Why do you use organic beef?’ He said, ‘I work here and eat here every day, and so does my family.’ Sounds like a good enough reason to me.
Texas Style ‘Slow-Enloe’ Beef Short Ribs
In Texas, my home country, we do not rush the cooking of beef; our signature barbecued food is whole smoked beef brisket, which spends as much as 18 hours in a smoker at about 200 to 250 degrees F, a.k.a.; slow and low.
This recipe (which feeds about six people) is for a similar cut, the ‘braising’ or ‘short’ beef rib — a cut which the butcher at a local abattoir described to me as ‘old-fashioned.’ I guess that means that it ain’t diet food. It is similar in that both the brisket and the braising rib have a lot of connective tissue and fat, the elements that make a braise or a slow smoke work so well.
Over time, at low temperature the connective tissue (or tendons) actually melt and turn into gelatin, which is that magic, mysterious ingredient that gives slow-cooked meat the amazing ‘sticky’ mouth feel that we associate with everything from pork ribs at the local Chinese restaurant to the demi-glace at the finest French bistro. The fat, which is critical, works as a slow baste, melting and helping to keep the meat moist throughout the long process. Sped up, the tendons seize and become gristle, the fat melts too quickly and becomes a frying oil, either flaring up and becoming dangerous or (depending on the cooking method) actually frying the meat and creating a different product altogether. When you do take your time, however, this ‘old-fashioned’ cut really shines!
A good smoker or barbecue pit and wood, charcoal, or even (in a pinch) propane and smoking chips; this chef does not recommend propane, (I don’t care for the flavour) but should you have no choice, make sure you have lots of well-soaked wood chips in an aluminum pan or in a pouch of foil with holes punched in it.
Much has been written on the process of smoking, so we’ll assume you have the ability to figure this part out, but the key points are indirect heat, and mostly closed heat dampers to keep in as much smoke as possible, and choosing good wood for flavour.
Ingredients to serve 6
– 5 pounds (2.25 kg) Aubin Farm’s beef braising ribs
– 1/2 cup (125 mL) ‘Steve’s Spicy Coffee’ barbecue rub (recipe follows…)
– 1 to 2 tablespoons (15-25 mL) salt (a good sprinkle…)
– Texanadian Barbecue Sauce (recipe follows…)
– Root Cellar Slaw (recipe follows…)
The evening before lunch, or early in the morning before dinner, light your barbecue pit or smoker, then, coat the meat with the rub and the salt and let sit for about an hour, while the coals burn down. If you have a thermometer, when the internal temperature of the barbecue is about 250 degrees F and you have good smoke, the coals are ready; rake them all to one side of the pit. Place your ribs on the far side (not directly above the heat) of the grill, close the lid and allow the smoke to do its magic.
Make sure there is constant smoke by feeding more wet chips or chunks for at least the first couple of hours. Also watch the temperature closely, being careful to never allow it above 250 degrees F. You can even switch the meat (covered) to an oven after the first few hours and get some sleep. Most Texas BBQ pit masters will remind you that a good lager in ample, steady supply is essential to this process and I will not diverge from that philosophy in this recipe. As Lone Star is not available here, I would recommend Beau’s Lug Tread as a more than suitable substitute. The ribs will need at least eight and as many as 12 hours of steady, slow cooking; you’ll know they are ready when the bone lifts out of the meat without effort. Serve the pulled meat on buns with barbecue sauce and Root Cellar Slaw.
A quick note on choosing wood and two-stage smoking:
I learned how to smoke meat with mesquite, a resinous wood that when, used judiciously is one the world’s finest seasonings, but can also result in an acrid creosote flavour after too long with too much smoke. As such, I learned a two-stage smoking process — a few hours of smoke followed by either wrapping the meat in foil to finish cooking or even removing it to an oven for the last few hours.
These days, in an attempt to achieve a genuine local product, I use a wood blend that includes maple, apple, white cedar and sometimes black walnut. Including some resinous woods like the walnut and cedar reminds of mesquite, in that you can get a stronger, better smoke flavour, but it can also lead to the same problems; if you are using just maple or oak, don’t worry so much about over-smoking or wrapping, but if you, like me, want that deep flavour that only a resinous wood will provide, just plan to be judicious and ease up on the smoke after the first few hours.
Steve’s Spicy Coffee
I took a batch of this rub to the cottage a few years back for a barbecue, but early in the morning on the day of the barbecue my groggy (… hung-over …) brother-in-law mistook it for the coffee and brewed us all a big pot. Ever since, we can only refer to it as Steve’s Spicy Coffee in honour of his finest hour. (Thanks for being such a good sport, Steve …)
– 1 cup ground, dried medium spice peppers such as ancho, guajillo, or chilhuacle.
– 1/4 cup (50 mL) freshly ground coffee beans (decaf, if you must…)
– 1/4 cup (50 mL) brown Sucanat, or brown sugar
– 1/4 cup (50 mL) ground cumin
– 2 tablespoons (25 mL) dried oregano
Mix together, use as needed. Store excess in an airtight container and use as you would a chili powder or a Montreal Steak Spice, etc.
Texanadian BBQ Sauce
‘It’s the Maple Syrple!’
– 1/2 yellow onion, sliced thin
– 2 teaspoons (10 mL) canola, or sunflower oil
– 1/4 cup (50 mL) ‘Steve’s Spicy Coffee,’ or your favourite chili blend
– 2 cups (500 mL) canned Utopia tomatoes and juice
– 4 tablespoons (65 mL) Utopia tomato paste
– 1 cup (250 mL) maple syrup
– 2/3 cup (175 mL) Barkley’s apple cider vinegar, or other cider veinegar
– 2/3 cup (175 mL) tamari soy sauce
Chop onion and slowly caramelize in frypan over medium-low he
at in the oil. Add spicy coffee mix, then remaining ingredients, and simmer 1/2 hour. Blend.
Root Cellar Slaw
Weather-wise, we locavores in Canada are being drawn back outdoors to barbecue — but what veggies do we eat today? Boiled turnips again?
How about taking those turnips, those beets, even the cabbage, carrots and onions from the back shelf of the root cellar and making this delicious, quick slaw?
– 3 cups (750 mL) shredded mixed roots such as carrots, beets, sunchokes and turnips
– 3 cups (750 mL) shredded cabbage
– 1 small onion, sliced thin
– 1 tablespoon (15 mL) salt
– 1/4 cup (50 mL) Barkley’s apple cider vinegar, or other apple cider vinegar
– 1/4 cup (50 mL) honey or sugar
– 1/4 cup (50 mL) sunflower or canola oil
– 2 teaspoons (10 mL) dried dill
– 2 teaspoons (10 mL) dried parsley
– 1 teaspoon (5 mL) chili flakes
– 1 teaspoon (5 mL) toasted caraway seeds
In a large bowl, mix together veggies and salt. In a small saucepan, bring the remaining ingredients to a boil, pour the hot dressing over the veggies, stir and cover for five minutes. Then uncover, stir again and enjoy!
Go Ask Alice…
I didn’t hear about Alice Waters until after I got to San Francisco. It was a little embarrassing at the time, but in retrospect, it seems appropriate. I wasn’t supposed to be dating, but anyway, there I was, talking with a girl I’d met… well… in a bar, and telling her about my crazy decision to move out to San Francisco (on a bus, with just a rucksack) to become a chef. She seemed impressed, and then said in that knowing mix of world weariness and mild condescension which is unique to big city folk, ‘Oh, you must have moved out here because of Alice.’ I didn’t know it yet, but she was right. My urge was to say ‘Of course’ for fear that a mere legal aide might realize she knew more about this mysterious and apparently important figure than an actual (if a bit naïve) aspiring chef, but (thank goodness) I was honest, and as a result she ended up loaning me a copy of the Chez Panisse Café cookbook.
By the time I actually met Alice Waters, briefly, a few years later, I was finally and well aware of her influence and symbolic sainthood as the de facto founder of ‘California Cuisine.’ I had also thought long and hard about what I would say when I finally met her. My opportunity came after having the honour of serving her at a ‘Farmer’s Market’ dinner (five courses, each centered on the product of a single farm) with Eric and the rest of the Millennium crew. She and Cecelia Chiang (whom Alice has described as ‘the Julia Child of Chinese cuisine’) had attended the event as the guest of Millennium’s apparently well connected and always lovable owners (in addition to being the best possible advertising for the vegan diet), Anne and Larry Wheat. After the meal, Eric and I were ushered out to hold court at the table, but before I had a chance to dazzle her with my charm (or pester her with my shameless hero worship, whichever you prefer), she leaned in close with a conspiratorial smile and said ‘Slow Food. It started in Italy, we’re bringing it to California, look it up, read about it.’ I had finally met the inspirational queen of West Coast Cuisine, and she had high jacked my chance to praise her with a teaching moment.
To read about Alice Waters is probably not unlike reading about a Joan of Arc or a Mother Theresa. Her ability to stay ‘On Message’ in the numerous articles and books written by and about her is impressive. From the reader’s perspective, she seems to live the life of a food puritan, always knowing the provenance of every pear, the story of every stonefruit, the very chicken which begat the egg. She sets an example in her every action, or so it would seem. I am fascinated by the disconnect I seem to feel when examining such people; it’s almost as if it would be sacrilege to report on a shortcoming, because they are so important symbolically to the communities for whom they speak.
My first ambition was to be a preacher. I was raised in the Baptist church and I had an excellent pastor, Dr. Dick Maples: a wonderful teacher, a genuinely nice man and a good shepherd. The good Doctor’s charisma was buttressed by his knowledge and wit; some of the best comedy timing I’ve ever been a witness to was in the Sunday morning sermons he delivered. Dr. Maples was also the man I went to in my teen years when I realized I was losing my faith. He was patient and did not judge me. He answered the questions with the best of his theology, pointing out the most positive parts of his faith, and often even changed the subject to the politics of the day, about which we were both pleased to discover that we shared many views. He didn’t push me or browbeat me; he just focused on the positive and tried to be a good example.
Chez Panisse was founded on the principle, inspired by a trip which Waters had taken in France, of serving only fresh, seasonal, local food, and nothing else. The menu was a fixed price, the staff was well paid, the space was crafted by artisans, and the food was prepared by hand. These days, we’ve all heard of such restaurants, or restaurants that have aspired to such goals, but at the time, it was a revolution. The once humble converted home in Berkeley still serves its fixed price dinner nightly in the downstairs dining room with its open kitchen and has even expanded to include an upstairs Café with a more diverse menu, and another stand up Cafe (Café Fanny) a few blocks away; all of which have stayed true to a vision of local, seasonal and organic foods.
But Alice’s Restaurant started as an idea not just to reinvent the restaurant industry (which it has), but to change the way people think about food, or about their relationship with food, with each other, and in actuality, with the planet itself. In fact, it is safe to say that if you have heard of organic food, Chez Panisse is a likely reason. It was not ground zero (but it was close) for the organic movement, environmentalism, or the fair trade movement or even for the sense of community awareness that typified the West Coast youth politics of the heady decade from which it sprang. But it was an institution that brought those philosophies together under one roof with an ambition rarely seen outside of a church, a nonprofit group, or a political party. As such, it did become ground zero for a retooling of the industry for which I have felt my calling: the art and lore of breaking bread, of life through food, of giving and sharing at the hearth and at the table.
Alice Waters is rarely described as a great businesswoman (it took seven years for the little idea to turn a profit, and even then it was under someone else’s hand) or even as a great chef, a title she herself has eschewed. In fact, she was once famously criticized by a prominent French chef who said, ‘That’s not cooking, it’s shopping,’ a quote I have heard her repeat as high praise. Even the night I met her, she was late for the dinner and even answered her cell phone during the meal, an irony not lost on us as Chez Panisse was also famous for being one of the first restaurants to require diners to turn off their cell phones. She is not a saint, as she has often been described, but a human, with all of the flaws which that condition entails. But in the same way Dr. Maples deftly steered the subject away from the Spanish Inquisition or the fate of Ghandi’s soul in our discussions, I rarely dwell on Alice’s shortcomings when I think about her importance as a symbol.
By living her principles and pursuing her dreams to the best of her ability, Alice has helped to create a movement that has gone from California Dreaming to the fastest growing sector of the food industry in North America, and is quietly but assuredly changing the world in the process. But even in recent interviews she has not once rested on her laurels. Her new projects include a foundation, a prison garden program and an idea inspired by driving by a public elementary school in her neighborhood called the Edible Schoolyard Project, which seeks to share her principles with a whole new generation of eaters through hands on involvement in the production of their own school lunches. If that won’t change the world as we know it, then I don’t know what will. Alice is not a perfect person, but she is a perfect inspiration.
Slow Food, a movement started in Italy in 1986 to protest the building of a McDonald’s at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome, has grown to become an international advocate for traditional foodways and recipes, biodiversity through heirloom seeds and livestock varieties, organic and small production agriculture, even wine and cheese-making; or, in more general terms, an advocate for the preservation of the pleasure of taking our time and appreciating life, food, and the act of sharing. Instead of dividing its membership into producers and consumers, it uses the terms producers and co-producers, thus implicating all of us in the process of change. As she predicted when I met her, Alice Waters did bring Slow Food to the US; in fact, just this year she helped to coordinate the largest celebration of American food in history; her ‘Slow Food Nation’ event boasted an attendance of 50,000 people in downtown San Francisco around a victory garden in the Civic Center Plaza.
I had a chance to dine at the Café during my San Francisco years. It was a treat, so simple that at first glance it seemed almost unimportant; but under scrutiny revealed many truths: care, attention to detail, sincerity, honesty, belief in the product and its importance. A chicken dinner became a little prayer on a plate. Ultimately, I did not become a preacher, but I did follow my heart. I did listen to that still and quiet voice inside me that said, ‘go forth and do good works.’ I often ponder the nature of what it means to be good. I think, in my heart, it is to think in terms of the community over one’s self. It is to do what is best before what is easy. I never did become a preacher, just as most boys never become astronauts or firemen, but I did find my faith, and through the organic movement and our restaurant, my voice. As for Alice Waters, I mentioned that I had thought long and hard about what I would say when I finally met her. I would have said thank you.
On the inside flap of the Chez Panisse Café cookbook, Alice is quoted as saying: ‘[We had] an ideal: to create a community of friends, lovers, and relatives that spans generations and is in tune with the seasons, the land, and human appetites.’ That ‘delicious revolution’ sounds pretty good to me.
Molecular Gastronomy Domine
Alice Waters let me down this week. It’s not the first time, won’t be the last, I’m sure. I was listening to a riveting episode of a podcast called Freakonomics Radio entitled ‘Waiter, there’s a Physicist in My Soup!’ The podcast revolved around the no longer quite so new trend of ‘molecular gastronomy’ and the work of physicist/cookbook author Nathan Myhrvold, whose monstrous tome ‘Modernist Cuisine’ will be hitting the shelves sometime soon. Alice, it seems, was brought on to ‘balance’ the conversation but she, I must admit, left me wishing for more.
I first encountered ‘modernist cuisine’ while working in San Francisco, when I started to hear rumblings on the fringes of the culinary world about a Spanish chef, Ferran Adria, who was making waves, winning awards, changing the game. At first blush, I was enamoured, he seemed to represent a next logical step for folks like me, folks who wanted to push the creative boundaries of high end cuisine. Millennium, where I worked at the time, also relied heavily on unusual techniques to translate our vegan concepts for a mass audience. I read about Adria’s deconstructionist ideas and began to incorporate them into my own dishes—rethinking everything from tamales to bouillabaisse…I found myself asking “what is it about this dish that makes it specifically ‘this’ dish?” and in the answers, often, I found lots of room to play.
I also read about Heston Blumenthal, owner of Britain’s The Fat Duck, perennial ‘second best restaurant in the world’ (placing, for many of the last several years, just behind Adria’s ElBulli in the British magazine Restaurant’s prestigious annual poll) and another proponent of high concept technique. Other names appeared in connection with this movement, Herve Thís, Nicolas Kurti, José Andrés, and my personal favourite, Harold McGee, a food scientist who made a name for himself by debunking old wives tales (like the one about how searing the meat ‘seals in the juices’) with a combination of accessible writing and meticulous attention to detail as well as to the scientific method.
I liked these ideas about deconstruction, about re-imagining what was possible with food, even about pulling techniques from one discipline (like pastry or Asian) to another. Savoury ice creams and sorbets became common (at least in our world), foams and whips, intentionally broken emulsions, layering hot, cold, raw and cooked foods in new ways to achieve unusual and even incredible results. In many ways what we were doing was adding value to ingredients, providing a justification for our prices in the same way that our choice of plates, linens, décor and even our music helped to ease our patrons into a more ‘high dollar’ kind of mood.
In the next few years, I read about and was a witness to even more elaborate techniques; flash freezing with liquid nitrogen, sous-vide cooking (poaching foods for hours or days in a water bath inside vacuum sealed bags), dehydrators, vacuum infusions, using blowtorches and various chemical reactions with calcium chloride, sodium alginate and other pharmaceutical sounding ingredients to achieve new textures, new flavours, and new presentations. Edible printing on edible paper, smoking a chocolate cake in a pipe…The weirder the idea, the more likely it was that one of these molecular gastronomy types had tried it.
It was fun, but over time, I had to ask myself, “Is this real food? Is this important?” It certainly felt important, to be a part of the ‘new cuisine’, but the more closely I examined it, the less important it seemed. My chef, Eric Tucker, always kept a good head on his shoulders about that stuff. He liked to cook pretty close to the mark—he had a wild streak, for sure, that would come out at wine pairing dinners, for New Year’s Eve or for other special events; and he certainly indulged my whims and those of the rest of the kitchen staff, investing in foaming canisters and the like, things like agar gelatin and xanthum gum; but Eric was, at heart, a farmers’ market kind of guy. He liked the best produce around, the most unusual and fun ingredients, new varieties of basil or peppers, white asparagus from this guy, stinging nettles or wild cinnamon cap mushrooms from that. He favoured ethnic preparations, traditional dishes with a history of comfort. Where I found that I reveled in the possibilities of experimenting with various meat substitutes to replicate or expand on the meat dishes of fine cuisines, he seemed to seek out traditional recipes that had never had a meat component to begin with, or if it did, it was something we could easily replace with a minimum amount of distraction.
I also met a lot of farmers in this period, working with Eric, and as his sous chef, I found myself fielding several calls a day from various purveyors, farmers, producers, foragers, characters and even outlaws. Eric would have a line out on huitlacoche, an edible fungus that grows on ears of corn, and months later would receive a call and have to drive to a parking lot in the suburbs to trade brown paper bags of infected ears for wads of cash like some kind of mid-level drug dealer. Shifty types would appear by the dumpster late at night with some weird variety of peach they had scaled a fence to secure. These farmers and foragers had no interest in molecular gastronomy, they were interested in botany, maybe a bit of biology; it was a science, to be sure, of a different sort.
I also discovered some other chefs who were adding value to their food through entirely different means. Technique, yes, but technique informed by a combination of traditional methods and the new science. Chefs like Alice Waters, Patrick O’Connell, Paul Bertolli and Thomas Keller. Chefs who added value the way Eric did, by shopping well, seeking out the best of the best, and also by honouring the generations of technicians who had gone before.
Molecular gastronomy is exciting and fun and is not going anywhere anytime soon; as long as there are people out there who are willing to pay for a value added experience, for flash and bang, for a bit of excitement. But my interest in its merits, over time, has certainly begun to fade. As it has, I feel, with the gastronomic community as a whole—this past year’s winner of Restaurant magazine’s prestigious best restaurant in the world award was a restaurant named Noma in Copenhagen that specializes in the ultra local and the pure. Noma’s Chef Rene Redzepi is an almost literal bridge between the two worlds I am attempting to describe; he has trained with both Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller. His award, in my mind, marks a fork (knife and spoon?) in the road of our collective culinary journey. His restaurant points to a path that doesn’t lead away from this new cuisine; it leads through it.
I believe that some of the techniques and approaches pioneered by molecular gastronomy will stick; some already have; food and cooking, after all, is science. In that regard, it’s just a new name for an old idea. Many of the grand techniques developed by great chefs over time were simply the best science they had to work with in their day or were the result of the same experimental techniques of trial and error (and/or happy accidents) that drive mainstream science today. Escoffier would have welcomed a physicist in his kitchen in much the same way as our top chefs do today. But I don’t think that molecular gastronomy will subvert, supplant or replace our existing cuisine as a whole, either.
So how did Alice Waters let me down? Alice, in a word, is a highly important symbol for the organic and local foods movement. Some would say that she has been the engine of change. Yet when she spoke on this show about her love of simplicity, of her annoyance with high concept technique, she honestly came across as a Luddite. And possibly even a little bit dotty. I, at first, blamed the edit—the hosts of the show have worked with Myhrvold in the past, and I can’t help but feel that this episode, while fascinating, was also a bit of a plug for his upcoming six volume widely acclaimed (even before being published) new encyclopedic treatise on all of the techniques developed so far in this new and fascinating world of high concept ‘modernist cuisine.’ Myhrvold was certainly the focus and Alice just didn’t read as well in this show. I felt annoyed that she didn’t ask (or didn’t get to ask…) what seemed to me like the most important questions, the ones that keep me up at night, the real reason that I don’t think molecular gastronomy will be changing the way we eat on the whole anytime soon. The questions that I would like to ask are these: “Is all this important? Does this really matter?”
Does tapioca starch infused seaweed caviar help to feed the hungry? Does smoking chocolate cake in a pipe help to clean up the environment? Does three-quarters of the world living on less than two dollars a day in any way benefit from seawater foam or bacon ice cream? I don’t know. Granted, those folks aren’t eating at Chez Panisse either (Alice Waters’ famous culinary Mecca), but at least some of the food science that I associate with the movement she has come to symbolize, the science of organic and sustainable farming, of biodiversity, of local foods, of clean, healthy and community building food sourcing, of finding harmony between our food choices and the things in which we believe; at least those ideals have a chance of changing something more than how exciting our expensive meal will be tonight. I guess that’s why I felt like she let me down. But that’s OK, because I can always just ask those questions myself, right?
You know what? So can you.
You are what you read…
Abigail turned one this weekend and my folks are in town for that and to help celebrate Nicole’s folks’ fiftieth (!) wedding anniversary…. Among Abigail’s many gifts were several books; she’s generally too young to appreciate them yet for any qualities beyond, say, flavour or texture, but she will, soon enough, and for now, the colours and pictures do seem to draw her eyes, and the pages are already fun to turn. The birthday morning I noticed another gift, this one to me, while sitting on the couch with my mom and a cup of coffee, both of us chatting and… reading. You see, in my family, we don’t just ‘like to read’ we READ like crazy; there are books, newspapers and magazines everywhere you look. Our lives are storied and lettered to the point that it is a perfectly natural act for a conversation to go on hold while I ‘just finish this page…’ or to walk around one of our houses and see an open or bookmarked book in more than three rooms, thus outnumbering the actual number of people in the given home (unless you count Meg, my parents’ Chihuahua.) The gift my folks gave me is that love of the word, that life alongside, that ability to think on the page and to escape, to imagine, and to learn.
Music was my big dream in my late teens and early twenties, and at that point in my life you would have found my bookshelves stacked with biographies of my favorite musicians; trade and music entertainment magazines littering my coffee table; and other books just mentioned by the musicians I favored (thanks, Jim Morrison, did you actually finish Thus Spake Zarathustra? Really?) I also found a love of theatre and its trappings in college and my shelves filled with plays by the increasingly more literary but probably less likely to be staged fringe of modern, absurdist, and surreal playwrights (I’m not exactly sure what career that degree would have brought me, but based on the few staged plays of Beckett, Pinter, or Ionesco that I did manage to attend, I’m fairly sure it would have involved some incredibly tiny and just more than slightly uncomfortable audiences…)
It is telling that when I realized I wanted to be, not just a cook, but a chef and artisan in a food tradition, one of my first acts was a yearlong (circa 1996) decision to put aside all other reading. I did not read novels, I read food and cooking memoirs; I did not read music magazines, I read food trade magazines; I did not read plays, I read cookbooks. I immersed myself in the literary, philosophical and practical world of cooking words. I am not claiming that this choice alone would have made me into a great cook or a chef—that path is only blazed through a forest of cuts, burns and many long, hot days at the stove—but it did give me an edge. It gave me a language to describe what I did, a sense of camaraderie and kinship, and a means to communicate.
Reading does not replace learning, it colourizes it. It fills in the gaps; it makes learning more fun. In my first year of college I, unsure of my eventual vocation, took introductory courses in a number of different disciplines—through that experience I determined a pattern. Each of these courses offered a vocabulary; each spent a class period covering a word, a term, a group of phrases; they were teaching us how to speak the sacred tongue of Anthropologese, or, say, a dialect of Psychology-ican. In some cases, the learning of another language was literal, as in Latin for the sciences or Spanish, for, well, Spanish…But in others it was more subtle, English using English to describe English, or words we knew that meant a new thing in the context of our new (potential) discipline.
Kitchens are no different. Once through the swinging door, you are in the ‘back of house’ you are grabbing ‘half-pans,’ ‘firing tickets,’ ‘counting covers,’ ‘plating four-tops,’ ‘eighty-sixing’ items, or even ‘digging yourself out of the weeds.’ Words and phrases appear unannounced; for instance, in our kitchen at the branch we use a loft space for the storage of dry goods, and within a couple of months of being open it became ‘the sky’ and the ladder to reach it became the ‘flight’ (as in ‘flight of stairs’) When open, the ladder blocks one of our hand sinks, a condition that led to the perfectly logical mnemonic couplet ‘when you sky at night, don’t forget to remove your flight’ a bit of nonsense that is completely sensible in context. Our small silicon spatulas became ‘jerries’ for no reason other than that ‘jerry’ is easier to say than ‘small silicon spatula’ 300 times in an evening service. A girl from New Jersey introduced me to the term ‘wazzing’ for blending, and a friend in San Francisco gave me the Yiddish word ‘schmutz’ (which I’m fairly sure has an unpleasant definition…) to refer to any pasty concoction with a smear-able texture like that of hummus or peanut butter. These terms travel from kitchen to kitchen like viruses and eventually, as a whole, become the lexicon of our daily life. Our language.
I feel very lucky that I love to read. It has helped with all of my choices, helped me find context for my interests and it has made me a more complete person. Usually, within a few minutes of meeting someone, I can tell if they are readers as well and have a foundation on which to build a common bond. I sometimes feel like the readers out there are like Harry Potter’s wizarding friends with the non-readers making up the Muggle population—I would be slightly worried about that comparison offending the humourless, but I doubt that a non-reader would even get it. Or be reading this. See what I mean?
My year of cookbooks didn’t just help me learn how to be a better cook; it helped me begin the process of thinking about cooking, eating, and food as a whole philosophy. Cookbooks by Alice Waters and Deborah Madison helped me find food philosophy. Books by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser lead me to older books by Rudolf Steiner and even Escoffier. I spent time with Harold McGee and Julia Child and Peter Mayle; I learned at the bench with Thomas Keller, Paul Bertolli and Patrick O’Connell; and I travelled the world on a plate, with books about food from every corner of the globe. Through these discoveries and adventures I became informed, not just about how to be a chef, but why. I came to understand that eating is more than just sustenance, but also a way to relate to the world. Cooking, as a trade, came through my work, practice and effort, but my reading filled in the gaps, my reading is what gave me the confidence to be a chef.
Abigail may only taste her books right now, but I do hope she develops that taste–it has certainly made my life sweeter.
“So you wanna be a rock and roll star?” Yes, Roger, I do. In fact, I was about 90 percent sure up until about 1996 that no other job would do. It didn’t seem (at the time) all that unrealistic either…I’m not the most talented singer or songwriter or anything, but many of my heroes had achieved (in my mind) the nebulous prize of stardom not with talent alone, but with the right combination of talent, charisma, determination and sheer luck. I had determination in spades, a measure of talent and an admittedly self-perceived modicum of charisma, and luck? Luck can happen to anyone, right? So I figured I was a cinch. Pop stardom, in my theory, is about anticipation…It is the ability to look around the corner, guess what people will want to hear in six months, then work night and day perfecting it. If you guess correctly, the world will be waiting for you…and if you guess wrong? Well, you can always try again. I gave it a whirl. In those days, I used to wake up wondering how in the world I could be the one, the one voice in the crowd that would be heard. I used to fill every moment of down time chewing on lyrics in my head, trying to write the line that would stick, the phrase that would attack and keep on attacking until every last ear had been consumed. I tried so hard to say what people wanted to hear. Me and the boys had a band, and we tried real hard…you know the story. Jonathan quit, Bruce got married…here’s the twist: Bruce got divorced and tried again, this time with a sense of urgency.
I moved to Austin in 1992 with intentions of regrouping the band that had formed the centerpiece of my high school pipedreams and finishing the story we’d all started to write all those years before. The core members had moved there and were still heavily involved in music. We had some talent, but more importantly, we had chemistry. I’ve jammed with people everywhere and everywhen since those days and have come to realize how precious a commodity that was. Chemistry is that magic thing that happens when you’ve got a few people jamming and something clicks, suddenly, you’re out of the moment, it’s like another person is there jamming with you, you know what everyone else is going to do, when they’re going to do it, and it all sounds good. It sounds like hoodoo, but once you’ve had it, there ain’t no going back. Every time I played with Kevin and Brandon from the first time back in high school I felt that feeling.
I’ve sometimes described music as an affliction, a recurring disease that attacks me anew every few years. I forget it’s there for months at a time and then one day, WHAM, I’ve written a whole song and am dragging out my guitar and dusting it off to figure out the chords. These days I actually practice regularly just so I don’t have to build my calluses back up when the mood strikes. But back then it was like a state of being. All I wanted to do was sing some how, some way, every single day.
I had another ace in the hole, as well. Kevin Allen, my guitarist and best friend in those days, was (and is) a bona fide guitar hero. This character would be sitting on the couch practicing guitar when I left for work in the morning and would often still be there, practicing when I got home eight hours later. For the record, he’s still playing; his band is recording their 6th full length record and in a successful 10+ year career, has toured just about every corner of the globe.
When I moved to Austin to regroup, it was on Kevin’s invitation. He called me up, out of the blue, and asked me to come up to Austin to jam. I was at a low point, and his invitation sounded like the hand of an angel intervening to save me from harm. As we started to get to know each other again, a lot of that familiar chemistry came back. We grew into a five piece, and one day, practicing on the porch, we borrowed our landlord’s name (Odus Krumly) and we had a band again.
Brandon, ever the oddball, suggested that we try a new direction, eschewing our punk, pop and psychedelic roots and forming a real country band. None of us had ever performed, or even regularly listened to country music, but growing up in Texas, all of us had been raised on the stuff. The idea was to try something new, to challenge ourselves and to stretch. Since country music was also not near and dear to us (at that time) we also felt no obligation to treat it with any respect. Our approach was brash and comedic, but as we delved deeper into the history and technique of the genre, it was eventually tinged and then filled with respect. I realized that what I originally thought of as witty parodies were actually quite true to a thread of country music that celebrates a smart-alecky turn of phrase like few other types of music, and that my voice was actually well suited to the style. As I often say, Texan is my first language. What had started as a parody became a journey of discovery and soon I was seeking out early recordings by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Bob Wills. I was also thrilled to find many of those artists in my father’s record collection, a discovery that brought me closer to someone I’d sometimes had trouble relating to in those years.
I always think back on those days with fondness. It all seemed so right. The songs were fun and fresh, the timing seemed right, and the dream was coming alive.
So what happened? Well, we still had to practice. We had to get shows and record demos. We still had to do the hard work of being musicians. This is what many people who have never been inside this world never see. Music, good music anyway, is hard work. I thought I had the will and determination, but then I started to listen to another voice in my head that was questioning my choices. I started to think about not what to say that would make me popular, but what to say that would make me feel good about what I had just said. And then one day it just stopped, the songs dried up. I had nothing left to say.
In 1996 I made a decision to devote my energies to cooking. I’ve written before about how I was discovering that cooking could also function for me as a creative outlet, but less than a year after leaving Austin and moving to San Francisco, something else happened. I began working with a cool guy, another former musician with a sense of humour and an oddball demeanor. We started talking about food in new ways and playing with ideas in a familiar way. We were jamming…and we had chemistry. Eric Tucker, the chef at Millennium taught me a lot more than how to be a good chef; he taught me that cooking could be just as fulfilling and just as creative as music had ever been. Within a couple of years of working together, we did a spot on the Food Network, published an internationally released cookbook and “played gigs” (read: catered for high profile events) in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. We had more than a few brushes with various types of celebrity, cooking for movie stars, musicians of note, even political names. I was actually living out my rock star fantasy in the cooking world, something I’d never even imagined…who knew? When I first started cooking the closest thing we had to a celebrity chef was Julia Childs, hardly an adequate predictor for the likes of Ramsey, Bourdain, Legasse, Flay and numerous others that were setting out to make chefs into household names in the years to come. My brushes with this culture were bizarre and comedic, with Eric and I laughing at the culture the same way the guys in Odus Krumly laughed our way through our Country Music, it was fun and fresh and our dream was coming alive.
When the time came, I outgrew Millennium, the same way I’d outgrown the music scene in Austin. Another relationship with a special chemistry beyond what I could have imagined became and still is the best jam session for me yet, with my wife, Nicole. These days, she and I have settled in a small town south of Ottawa and started our own band. The Branch is a special place for reasons all those other jam sessions could never have touched. We are saying something we think is important; that thing that I could never communicate in my songs is at the very core of what we do here, supporting local foods, organic farmers and the importance of community. Doing not what we think is popular, but what we think is right. And just as everything is starting to settle into place, the music is back in my life again as well, less like an affliction this time, and more like an old friend.
In 2006, ten years after I’d written a song any better than a two line jingle, it came back. I was doing laundry one minute and the next thing I knew, it was two hours later and I was putting the finishing touches on ‘Walkin Sam’, a song for my father, the guy whose music collection had finally helped us mend the troubled relationship of my teenaged years. The song is about charity, goodwill and community and finally gave voice to the things I couldn’t seem to say all those years before. I’ve been writing regularly since then, and it’s good to be in a place where that feels right. At The Branch, in my cooking, in my writing and in my music, I can finally say what I need to, not what I feel like I have to.
Music, cooking, writing, all these things are connected for me. They are creative, special; they help me to reach across what is small in physical space, at times, but can be an incalculable distance when measured in understanding. The food is a way to give nourishment, to show care; the music, a way to provide joy; the writing, a way to let other people know that they are not alone…that someone else has thoughts that tumble through their head, has stories to tell and hopes and dreams to share. And that chemistry, the jamming, and the music that comes when it’s working…to me, when you hear that other person, when you feel that magic, like I do almost every day at the branch, that’s just how you know it’s right.
One of the things I was looking for when I moved out to California was a mentor. I haven’t mentioned that to too many folks before now, but I did, honestly, have that exact thought. I had cooked with lots of other folks before that point, but, well, I had just never been all that impressed. I guess it was a mix of my ego, the confidence of youth, and, perhaps, bad luck…But I had never found anyone who was ‘so much better’ than me that I felt like I needed to listen all that closely to what they had to say. I have stated in other of these ‘newsletter stories’ that I was a bookworm, and that trick had allowed me the keyhole through which I could view a world of more exotic, more intellectual approaches to my freshly chosen trade. But, to date, I had never met anyone who embodied the ideals and skills that I was seeking to absorb. I needed a chef, a real chef to bring me over that hill, to take me under their wing, to nurture my obvious talent…Instead, I met Eric Tucker. (Insert winky-face emoticon here)
I should not discount the fact that I learned much of what I know from other cooks and even chefs—John and Steve at Romeo’s, a kitschy Austin Italian joint, come to mind. John, who taught me to blacken chicken, had learned how to do it directly from Paul Prudhomme, the inventor of the technique; and Steve, who showed me the ropes on our wood fired pizza oven was a quiet, patient tutor whose first job was as an executive chef overseeing the menus of the multiple restaurants in the Comida Deluxe chain. The consulting chefs who helped open the Brazos Brewing Company taught me how to make a hollandaise and Jason at Cenare gave me my first pair of checks and taught me how to sauté. Habib at Mother’s taught me patience and perfection as well as how to make a perfect hamburger bun (believe it or not, it involves jumping up and down…) There have been a number of generous teachers over the years who have each helped to teach me how to cook, but only one made me a chef.
When I went to San Francisco, I went to become a chef. I had some names in my pocket, not many, mostly from a (pre-internet) book of vegetarian restaurants for travelers that I had picked up at a discount book store. It was a little out of date, but accurate enough for me to know that If I wanted to work in high end vegetarian cuisine I had about three choices in the US; New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. My first thought had been, of course, cooking school, of which I could find only one that fit my (at that time) meat free agenda, The Natural Gourmet Cooking School in Manhattan. Exactly one weird, exhausting road trip later (it involves an ex-girlfriend, a night of debauchery in Washington D.C. on July the fourth, an awkward stay on the floor of an apartment on the Lower East Side, witnessing the death of a pedestrian in traffic and, finally, a conference at a school smaller than my parents’ house that involved graduates discussing jobs they had gotten that paid less than my current wage…) I decided that I was either not interested in cooking school, was too late for it, or, maybe, that I just wasn’t ready for New York.
San Francisco had more pages in the book than New York anyway. It had the Greens Restaurant, an institution whose cookbook stood as one of the most important textbooks in my self-designed curriculum, and it contained a brief passage about a little place in San Rafael (just across the bridge from downtown) that sounded like my perfect choice: Milly’s Restaurant, a gourmet vegan destination…I was, at the time of planning that next step, a vegan, and as such, was obviously enamored with the idea of finding myself settled into a cozy little gourmet vegan spot in the wealthy neighbourhood of downtown San Rafael…
I had also heard about Millennium from my boss in Austin, he knew a former employee who had moved out to the city and found a sweet job waiting tables at a chic veggie place right downtown, Millennium wasn’t in my book, however, so I set the thought aside. I arrived in San Francisco by bus, early one morning and checked into a youth hostel that became my home for the next 6 months(!) I quickly discovered that the cash in my pocket did not translate well from Texas dollars in to San Franciscan, and began schlepping my handmade single page, friendly, interesting (I hoped) resume to whomever would receive it. The Greens took a copy, but never called. Several other places did, but my big disappointment came after an hour long bus-ride into San Rafael, an ill fated trip that would have been quickly avoided by a high speed internet connection today—Milly’s was gone. The one that was my first choice, my great hope…Just plain gone. No sign to mark its passing. I ended up at Herbivore, a brand new restaurant in the Mission district—Vegan, yes, which was nice, but mentor-less and too casual for what I had hoped to find. I was managing other cooks and writing recipes for this new job within weeks and found myself, yet again, unimpressed with what was on offer to be learned. Then, one day, wandering around my neighbourhood, I found Millennium by chance. Its sign made no mention of its vegetarian credentials, only my nagging memory of the name from my former boss’ mention drew the thought to mind—It was a scant three blocks from the youth hostel where my rucksack had found a semi-permanent home all while I had spent 3 or 4 months slogging vegan fast food two neighbourhoods away.
But there it was, ‘Millennium Organic Cuisine’, a sign I later found out had been a compromise borne out of a fear that even in downtown San Francisco, no-one would darken the door of a vegan restaurant unless lured in by less jarring words. The apologetic tone ended at the sign. Once inside, Margaret Mead’s famous quote adorned the mirror in the lobby “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I ventured in, just for a look at first…and was amazed and hooked, even before I tasted my first bite. I knew as I read the menu that not only had I found my mecca at last, I had found my mentor. It was enough, all apologies omitted, words written by a chef for foodies, not compromised language for the unenlightened. It described a host of wild and exotic foods, ethnic preparations, traditional techniques that should not have been found on a vegan menu…Odd eclectic, exciting stuff. In short, Eric Tucker’s food. Within the week I had returned for a taste, I decided then and there that Millennium was why I had moved there and that I would not rest until I had a job. My resume was filed, my follow up calls made. I became a nuisance until, out of pity I was sure, Eric finally called me in to help with a catering job. It was the foot in the door that I needed and for the next two or three weeks I would drop by or call and see if anything else had come up. It did, it turns out, within just weeks of that first visit, a lead line cook left, a perfect position for me, and it also turned out that I was not underqualified (as I had feared) but, in fact, over…Most of the cooks in the Millennium kitchen came there through, of course, the externship program of the very same Natural Gourmet Cooking School in New York City that I had decided for many reasons not to attend—entry level positions are easy to fill if you have a long list of people who are willing to work for college credit…As the food was unconventional, in house training was almost essential to fill lower level positions, as such, most of those jobs were filled by most of these green and eager folks just moving up the food chain. My timing, it would seem, with a long resume filled with line cooking experience was kind of providential, an experienced line cook was not what most of these cooking school graduates were in any way qualified to replace.
Luck had repaid me it seems, in more ways than one, Millennium was, in turned out, a sister to Milly’s in San Rafael, Eric had moved to the Bay Area from New York after a stint at the Natural Gourmet to work for Milly’s, like me, he had come to that school with experience but, unlike me, he had decided that it was worth it and to stay and attend. On graduating and moving to San Rafael he had quickly moved up through the ranks at Milly’s, apparently taking over the kitchen within a year or so. When the folks behind Milly’s decided to move into the city, Eric’s position as head chef of the new venture became a condition to the investors. Millennium went forward and Milly’s, along with its founders, eventually fell to the side, and those investors, Anne and Larry Wheat, took the reins instead. Basically, I had finally found what I had come out hoping to find.
At Millennium, I finally felt challenged. There was never an easy ride there, every cook came to the table with ideas, every cook was qualified and competent and trained and every menu was an exercise in pushing a boundary. At the centre of this firestorm of creativity sat Eric Tucker, quiet, unassuming, childish, prone to wild mood swings but unquestionably the unmoving centre of it all.
Eric did not teach me to cook. Most of that I knew before I walked through the front door. He did not teach me how to boil a noodle or how to smoke a block of tofu, although, on occasion, he may have guided my technique or made a suggestion. Eric taught me how to taste. How to take all those techniques and ideas and to put them together in a bowl and to taste them. His method of teaching was ’no.’ Or, more often, ‘not quite.’ Like a good bandleader from my days in rock & roll, he would bring in his own ‘songs’ or recipes and teach them to us as needed, and then he would take our ideas and help us craft them. I remember bringing in an idea for a cactus gumbo, it needed another element, ‘a roux?’ I suggested…’how about toasted cornmeal instead?’ he countered. Minutes later I had my best recipe to date with the aid of his one simple idea. He had a knack for taking a good idea and pushing it to the next level. Eric taught us to cook by never accepting something as being just ‘good enough.’ At times he drove me crazy, his repeated refusal to even attempt some of my ideas felt like censorship, but, in retrospect, it wasn’t my name on the menu. And, to be fair, I was getting more ideas past him (or more songs on the record, if you will,) than any of my co-workers were. So much so, that within the year I made sous chef.
‘Chef’ is a funny word. I think of it like ‘poet’, it’s something that you cannot call yourself. Chef, technically, just means chief, or boss, in this instance, the boss of a professional kitchen. At one point, I, like most people thought it was a name that was applied to someone who is a really good cook—I now know that although cooking is important, maybe even the most important part of a chef’s job, it is only the tip of the iceberg. A good chef must be an efficient manager of goods, ordering, receiving, organizing an inventory; a good chef must be a hard worker, setting an example for his or her crew; a good chef must be a good listener and a good teacher, Eric knew and, I’m sure, knows some critical piece of data about every person in his employ, a favourite song, a joke that always gets a smile, which word makes them cringe…A good chef must inspire people to try new things, to expand their horizons. Lots of people are chefs these days, ‘personal chefs’, ‘bbq chefs’, ‘top chefs’, ‘T.V. chefs’, and, I guess, by my rule of that title being one that only others can bestow on you, that they have as much right to that word as anyone else. But when you are like me, unschooled, never having gone through a formal apprenticeship; that word means much, much more. Eric, when he promoted me, gave me that title for the first time. In my mind, he literally made me a chef. For that I am forever grateful.
Eric is not perfect, he, if he’s reading this, is cringing, he’s one of those guys who doesn’t do well with praise. So to balance I’ll admit that he wasn’t always the best communicator (neither am I) kitchens are high stress places and we all drop the ball. He is the best cook I’ve ever worked with, but even he will admit to a baroque streak, a tendency to keep adding elements until the plate is within moments of being completely overwhelmed. He and I used to laugh with manic glee as we rushed to assemble these monstrous incredible structures of flavour, texture and form in time for dinner service. Eric is imperfect alright. And fun. There are a thousand stories of colourful histories we concocted to dupe the newer and/or more gullible members of the staff in order to keep ourselves entertained. But never (…well, almost never,) out of cruelty.
He’s also…too far away, and Nicole and I miss dropping in on him, there is not one time I can recall that he couldn’t make me laugh if he really wanted to. And these days, for reasons I’ll omit, there are days when I wish I could find some way to be there for him as well.
Eric had a successful run with Millennium’s first cookbook, so much so that they asked him to write another. Eric honoured me and showed his true colours by inviting me to not only help with the new book, but to also share a full writer’s credit, something he was in no way obligated to do. Eric not only gave me my dream of being a chef, he gave me my dream of being a published author as well.
In 1995, still in Austin, I still wanted to be a rock star, maybe a writer. At New Year’s I decided that I was tired of fighting for too small a niche in too competitive of a scene, I knew I loved cooking and that I could, if I applied myself, make a go of it. A year and a half later, I was the sous chef at one of the top rated vegetarian restaurants in North America. Don’t ever let anyone tell you there is something that you cannot do.
Eric Tucker came from New Jersey, he went out to San Francisco in 1992, a few years before I got there, within a year and half he was the chef at the restaurant where he had come to train. This year, the restaurant that came out of that one, the one that he helped to start and still holds on course with his steady hand is 17 years old. I know now that in restaurant years that is the equivalent of about one million. I went out to San Francisco to find a mentor, instead I found a chef, my chef, and I found a friend. Thanks, Eric.
Global Flavour, Local Color
“Bruce, you must visit Italy, It Is Your Home.” Those words came to me from an eccentric and charismatic gentleman of great taste named Sante Losio. I met him through his company, Fiume wines; he was importing great organic, Italian wines and our restaurant, Millennium, had one of, if not the largest, best, and most thorough exclusively organic wine lists in North America. On the evening in question he was enjoying his first vegan fine dining experience, and like many new diners at that restaurant, was learning that vegan and fine dining were not mutually exclusive terms. I was asked to join him for dinner as the most logical liaison between our food and wine list. While working as Sous chef for the restaurant, I had also been enjoying the “job” of learning about wines and specifically our particular wine list, even to the point where a great deal of decision making had become my domain. In fact, it had been my suggestion that we take our list, which had well represented organic selections, that last step to becoming a specifically organic themed list. I even wrote the mission statement which they still use:
“Millennium is committed to providing the highest quality epicurean experience with a minimum impact to our environment. Naturally, this mission extends to our wine list. Many people are unaware that wine made from organically grown grapes is not a new product that exists only in fringe markets. “Organic” is simply a new name for an artisanal farming method; in fact, the great winemaking regions of Europe would not have survived the centuries without the practice of sustainable agriculture. There are many names on our list that may not be familiar to you, but even more surprising will be the names that are. Many of the world’s top wine producers are coming clean about “clean” farming and this list will grow to include the finest of their wines. To the best of our knowledge this is the most comprehensive completely organic wine list on earth which, in our opinion, makes it the best wine list as well.”
Of all my accomplishments in the industry, outside of the branch, I am probably the most proud of that achievement. As I have written on this blog and as I wrote in “The Artful Vegan,” Millennium’s second cookbook of which I was a co-author, bringing the knowledge and understanding of organics to any larger audience was, and is, my life’s work.
Sante Losio is a fellow traveler in this journey; his commitment to organic wines is deep and heartfelt…an emotional act by a rational man. Sante, his heart, and his family are from Italy. When I share the anecdote of our meeting with friends, I imitate his rich Italian accent, but cannot reproduce the gravitas or the intention behind the words. For Sante to tell me Italy was my home was for him to claim me as one of his own, a comrade, a brother in arms.
When I was buying wine at Millennium, Italy had over 54,000 hectares of organic vineyards compared to a few hundred in the entire U.S. Italy is also home to a movement called Slow Food, a name which speaks for itself. Though I am not Italian, outside of the vegetarian world, the majority of my fine dining training is in Italian kitchens; I am proud of this experience and feel (I hope fairly) that it gives me an insight in to at least a small bit of Italy’s culture. In my experience, the Italian cooking tradition values flavour over presentation, freshness over technique (without diminishing the importance of presentation or technique) and quality of the basic ingredients above all else. Italian chefs are brand snobs, quick to ask which canned tomato or tinned anchovy were used, which prosciutto, which parmesan… This is to say, I don’t think it was my technique that impressed him. I think it was our ingredients.
Millennium could be described as an extension of the farmer’s market. Our produce was some of the best in the world. Northern California has a long growing season, rich soil and an even richer recent history of organic farming. From the 60s to the present, what started as a handful of environmentalists ‘returning to the land’ has turned into a giant industry where small farmers are celebrated and elevated to positions of honor in a thriving food culture that values variety, flavor, freshness and a loving hand over the thrift, travel-ability and consistency of size and color that seems to govern the majority of the North American vegetable business status quo. And in that market, Millennium, a vegetable-focused restaurant, was monster; we bought directly from farmers and producers who were at the very top of their game, and, thanks to the unwavering leadership of our chef, Eric Tucker, were toe to toe with the top restaurants in California when it came to one on one farmer/chef relationships.
In my experience most people have forgotten or never experienced the difference the qualities that good local organic vegetables bring to food. I’ve heard people who taste these foods say ‘it tastes like something I had when I was a kid.’ And it does, it tastes like a memory of how good food used to be.
After meeting Sante, I was invited to participate in the first Italian Organic Wine Conference (a precursor to EcoWineFest) in Los Angeles as a judge. Our visit also included a dinner that paired these wines with a five course white truffle dinner. White truffles from Alba in Italy are one of the most prized foods on earth, often costing thousands of dollars per pound. If you’ve experienced them, you know why, if you don’t, I can’t possibly explain it. As a result of this event, and our meeting, Millennium was asked to participate in a series of dinners in the San Francisco area also featuring white truffles with a five course dinner and wine pairing of our own. I’d love to share that menu with you, but all I remember are a yuba braciole (it’s a long story), an Italian Merlot by Fasoli Gino, and a porcini flambé, which we presented in the dining room with bright, giant leaping flames. I also remember the overwhelming aroma of truffles seeping in and out of every pore of my being. I was so elated by the evening that I, to this day, value it as the single greatest cooking experience of my life.
When preparing for a wine pairing dinner, in this case a wine and truffle pairing dinner, there is a creative or brainstorming session that precedes the event. We smell, taste, discuss, imagine and relate. We open our minds to ideas that help us deepen our understanding of the wine and of the foods involved. What food makes this wine better? What is about this wine that makes this food better? We are creative, yes, but here’s the thing, we must also look to tradition. We want to explore something new, but to do that well, we must also look back to the classic pairings and learn; there’s usually a reason some wines are never paired with some foods as well as a reason why some wines are always paired with others. To not acknowledge and learn from that would be to pretend that we, like the industrialist posing as a farmer, knows what is best without regarding the importance of what has gone before.
Millennium often offered dinners that paired excellent wines with our unique food; it was a great way to not only showcase our creativity, but to celebrate a small winery, which usually meant celebrating both a farmer and an artist (two of my favorite things) at the same time. The synergy of wine and food, combined with the opportunity to create something new by their combination is also one of the most satisfying aspects of the trade of cooking. I remember each of these events fondly, as they were, more often than not, also a milestone in my personal journey.
Another milestone came when I finally followed Sante’s advice and visited Italy. Nicole and I spent three weeks in 2003 visiting Venice, Milan, and working on small farms in Tuscany and Piedmont. We were in Tuscany for the olive harvest and our hostess graciously treated us to a taste rivaling that of the white truffle, a fresh pressed olive oil at the source. I’ll never forget that flavour or the sweet herbaceous smell produced by burning the pruned branches from the ancient olive trees mingling with the salty Mediterranean air. We watched the sunset over the sea each night and worked each morning in a grove that had been tended by human hands for longer than the entire history of the country of my birth. Later, in Piedmont, we spent an entire day peeling chestnuts for a chestnut butter that, when it was finally ready, made the hours of burnt fingertips being torn by stubborn shells seem nonexistent.
Thanks to Sante’s advice, I had learned something about Italy by visiting. I learned that it is a place where tradition and an understanding of food are crucial. The farmers of an area know how to make the best products that can be produced by their patch of soil, because they’ve had generations of trial and error to sort it out. How egotistical it is for us to think our “industrial” farming could be superior to the techniques arrived at in this manner! The followers of traditional foodways know that the best drop of oil is the first, that the chestnut butter will be worth the work, that the best wine is made from a certain local grape, and that the cheese from this cow on this hill will need this much salt and that much time to age.
After visiting Europe, I came back to Canada with a vision; an idea of an old world restaurant in the new world. The branch is not an Italian restaurant. I do make fresh pastas and breads; I’m even curing my own prosciutto. But I also serve recipes from around the world: North America is not the old world, it is a melting pot of cultures and to not acknowledge and celebrate the wealth of recipes we have to choose from would be just as silly as eating at a McDonald’s in Paris. But we can acknowledge the old world and its tradition in another and perhaps more meaningful way: in our ingredients.
As I said, the branch is not an Italian restaurant, but I do serve spaghetti and meatballs, a dish which is at once Italian and new world, almost a symbol of the place at which those two worlds collide. My spaghetti is not Rusticella D’Abruzzo, arguably the world’s best product of that class; rather it is organic and Canadian, and still excellent. My tomatoes are not from San Marzano, they are Thomas’ Utopia, an Ontario company. My meatballs are made with local beef and my cheese is not from Parma, it is from the Oxford Mills Creamery, about 10 minutes from the restaurant’s back door. It is a simple dish, exactly like you’d find anywhere and yet nothing like one you’d find anywhere else; it is not expensive, and in many ways it is the perfect expression of my philosophy: simple, honest, local, comforting, at once traditional and completely new, and prepared with love and care.
When I met my business partners Brent and Jenn Kelaher, I knew I needed to prepare a meal that would show them that I had the chops, and that partnering with me would not be just some crazy idea. I could have wowed them with one of the baroque vegan presentations from my cookbook; I could even have presented white truffles with a porcini flambé. But instead I served them…you guessed it, spaghetti and meatballs. Nearly two years have passed since that meal and we are all still pushing forward and sharing that vision with whoever cares to see it. It is a vision of new world food with old world care; a bit of tradition with a dash of creativity, or, as we like to say, global flavour and local colour.
Later this month, I am excited to announce, we will be presenting our first wine pairing dinner with Featherstone Vineyards, an Ontario winery that seems to share our vision. They are an insecticide and pesticide free vineyard (unless you count Amadeus, the vineyard’s falcon and in house pest control system…). They’ve even taken the gutsy move of cellaring some of their wines in Canadian oak. I’m looking forward to celebrating their courage and craft and to enjoying an evening none of us will forget.
I still appreciate what Sante said, and value our friendship, but these days, in retrospect, I think he got it just wrong…what he should have said was “Bruce, you must visit Italy, learn from it, and bring it home!”
Maple Roasted Duck with Cornbread, Sausage and Walnut Stuffing
My wife and I have traveled a great deal and have often lived far from family. When Thanksgiving comes (American for me or Canadian for her), we still like to celebrate but don’t often have the need for a whole turkey. Stuffed roasted duck is a great way to make a special meal for the two of us without having to redirect six months worth of leftovers. The recipe calls for cornbread; I’d like to recommend making a big batch of a sweet apple cornbread for breakfast (served with butter and sweet molasses) earlier in the week and using the leftovers for this recipe. If you prefer a lighter meat, try the stuffing with a Cornish hen for a fun take on the tradition, and serve them one to a person, adjusting cooking times to the smaller birds. For the restaurant, I use ducks from Ian Walker at Mariposa farms; his ducks are available at Aubrey’s Meats in the Byward market.
1 small to medium duck, fresh or frozen and thawed (1.5-2 kilograms)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried summer savoury or 2 tablespoons fresh
1 / 2 cup maple syrup
carrots, turnips, whole small onions or brussels sprouts for roasting (optional)
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups duck, chicken or vegetable stock
1 / 2 onion, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 cups leftover cornbread, cut into cubes
1 / 4 cup ground or sliced sausage meat, cooked (use your favorite sausage)
2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves
1 hardboiled egg, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped toasted walnuts
1 cup milk or stock
Preheat an oven to 300 degrees.
For the stuffing, sweat the onions and celery with the oil and salt until soft, about one minute. Combine with the other ingredients and set aside for ten minutes to allow the bread to absorb the moisture from the milk or stock. After resting, drain off excess liquid.
While resting the stuffing, wash the duck and pat dry with a paper towel. Trim any excess fat from the cavity and skin from the neck area. Prick the skin of the breast several times with the tip of a knife. Tuck the wingtips under the wings, secure with string if necessary. If the giblets are included, set them aside for another recipe or chop them and add to the stuffing. Season inside and out with the salt, pepper, savoury and maple syrup.
Stuff the cavity with the cornbread mixture and seal the opening with a bamboo skewer or toothpicks. Place the duck, breast side down, in a roasting pan and roast, uncovered, in the oven for one hour, or until the skin on the legs begins to loosen. If you would like to roast vegetables with the duck, chop and add them plus any desired seasonings to the roasting pan after 30 minutes of the cooking time.
Remove the duck from the oven, raise the temperature to 400 degrees and flip the bird breast side up. Return the duck to the oven and continue roasting for 10-15 minutes until the skin on the breast reaches the desired crispness. When ready, remove duck (and vegetables) from the roasting pan from , arrange the bird on a platter with the vegetables, place somewhere warm, cover and rest for at least 10 minutes. While the bird is resting, drain off some of the fat from the roasting pan and use the flour and and stock to make a gravy with the remaining fat and drippings, seasoning to taste. Serve alongside the duck and Cranberry Crabapple chutney.
Cranberry Crabapple Chutney
If you are tired of cranberry “sauce”(read: “can-shaped jelly”) from a can, try this quick and easy version this Thanksgiving! At the restaurant, we often serve a seasonal variation of this recipe with a selection of local cheese.
12 crabapples, peeled, cored and roughly chopped, about 2 cups
1 package (500g) fresh cranberries, about 2 cups
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon whole brown mustard seed
1 / 2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspooon ground allspice
1 small hot chili, minced (optional)
1 / 4 cup rice wine vinegar
1 / 4 cup turbinado sugar
salt to taste
Soften the crabapples in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, drain. In a small saucepan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the ginger, mustard seeds, cloves and allspice and sizzle briefly. Add remaining ingredients, including the softened crabapples and lower the heat. Stir often, cooking for 15-20 minutes. Serve cool or at room temperature with roasted duck or turkey.
Rustic Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Sage
Growing up in Texas, my family’s Thanksgiving was never complete without a casserole of sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows…I have outgrown the marshmallows but still love the sweet richness of a sweet potato (sometimes sold as a yam) on this day of family and memory. For this Italian country recipe, set aside ideas of perfect looking, exact-sized pillows of gnocchi. These dumplings are charmingly rustic, delicious, and very easy to make. Substitute winter squash such as butternut or pie pumpkin for a different twist.
2 medium sized sweet potatoes
1 cup flour
boiling salted water
4 tablespoons butter
juice and zest of one lemon
1 small bunch sage
oil for frying
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
salt and pepper to taste
Rub the sweet potatoes with salt and oil, pierce the skins with a fork. Bake the sweet potatoes on a separate pan in the same oven as the duck; or alternately, bake in a 400 degree oven for 35-45 minutes.
While the potatoes are baking, fry the sage (leaves only) for just 2-3 seconds and drain well. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh out of the skins into a mixing bowl; mash the flesh, work in the eggs and then the flour to form a thick batter. Do not overwork. Drop a spoonful of the batter (like you would spoon cookie dough) into boiling water a few at a time. If the gnocchi break apart in the water, add a bit more flour to the batter. Cook the gnocchi for about three minutes or until they float, remove with a slotted spoon and cool. Reserve a few teaspoons of the cooking water for the sauce.
In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium high heat and cook until it just begins to brown. Add the garlic and sauté for thirty seconds. Add the gnocchi. If they stick to the pan, use a splash of the reserved cooking water to loosen. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then add the lemon juice and zest.
Serve immediately. Garnish with a generous pinch of the fried sage.
To Everything, There is a Season
Back in 2001, Chef Eric (Tucker, from Millennium in San Francisco) and I went to a big food event in the Civic Center plaza; for an hour or so, we wandered around various booths in our chef coats, trying to look important enough to get free stuff. One of our stops was a booth for Ten Speed Press, the publishers of The Millennium Cookbook, Eric’s first book (and later, The Artful Vegan); the folks were friendly and loaded Eric down with cookbooks, ‘Here, you take this one, this guy is good’ he said, handing me a copy of Gordon Ramsay’s A Chef for all Seasons. I devour cookbooks, and was pleased to have this hardcover and artfully designed one to add to my collection. Later, I was also pleased to discover that the format followed a unique pattern, arranging recipes by season instead of by courses. The photography was stunning, the recipes engaging, straightforward, and fairly modern, but, as I recall, it was his near political advocacy for ‘in season’ and local food selection that was the most enticing feature.
Later I heard a story about the character of this chef that took some of the shine off of the jewel, the now famous account of him physically removing food critic A. A. Gill from one of his London restaurants. As a chef, and someone who has lived in fear and awe of critics (the civilian oversight of our profession) for the better part of my career, the symbolism of such an act was powerful. It certainly didn’t mesh with the clean lines and austere presentations that were shown in his book. More stories followed. The temper, the larger than life ego, the passion; the very public character we have all come to know. Ramsay apparently started out as a professional football (or soccer, as we call it here…) player. It would seem that he brought that rough and tumble competitive spirit with him to his new profession; his breakout television series (which I haven’t seen) chronicles his quest to achieve the world cup of fine dining awards, three Michelin stars. Later series have put him in the role of the bully coach, tightening the screws on the underperforming players in an attempt to get a winning game out of them. And finally, in one of his most recent roles, the unfettered hooligan, the armchair quarterback, given control of the entire game. He is, what we in the profession call, ‘a screamer.’
Kitchens are very high stress environments, sometimes, (such as in the case of severe food allergies or in the poor stewardship of chemicals or the potentially poisonous effects of mishandled meats or rotten foods) we are actually holding life and death in our hands. Now, to be fair, we are not doctors, firemen or paramedics, or as one critic put it recently, we are not saving the world (not all of us, anyway). We are not required to earn diplomas to serve our wares, yet the facts remain: if we fail to be careful, sanitary stewards of our duties, we may do harm, even severe harm. That thought terrifies me every time I see a brigade of untrained high school children manning the line at any chain restaurant, even a doughnut shop. When I hear the tales of dangerous and deadly mistakes that occur as a result of our blind acceptance of such a system, I am only surprised that it is only as infrequent a story as it is.
I worked for a screamer once. I’m sure we’ve all had awful bosses at one time or another, if pop culture and the movies are to be believed; a tough boss or drill sergeant (or coach) is not only acceptable, it is of vital and critical importance in our process of becoming good people. But every once in a while, that line is crossed from being tough to being abusive. Kitchens, as I stated, can be very high stress environments, and the farther you move up the food chain, the higher the stress. The screamer I worked for ran a very high end restaurant kitchen. Her tirades were famous within our four walls and unknown outside them. Her ability to berate was legendary—and the terror she invoked in every person within earshot was unmatched. But the fact is, she wasn’t that good. She demanded and commanded respect though her bellicosity, but even the dishwashers knew she was overcompensating. She was good enough; she rigidly maintained the status quo in the kitchen while the executive chef who trained her (and trained her to scream) poked his head in once a week before touring the dining room and taking credit for her (and our) work. But the screaming was a device. In her mind, she was keeping us all on the straight and narrow; she probably even saw herself as a friend and mentor, but she was often guilty of the failings for which she attacked us. To be fair, most of us were ambitious, egotistical shits who had taken the job at this exclusive, well reviewed restaurant to pad our resumes and (hopefully) get a leg up to a better job. We all had nothing to gain from serving anything but the best product we could assemble and it showed. Basic food-handling philosophy, such as the ‘first in, first out’ rule were the ‘first out’ the window as we scrambled over the tired old product to tear into today’s delivery in order to get an edge over our competitor…oops, I mean our co-worker’s presentation. Expensive, rich, and heart-clogging ingredients were crammed onto every plate as a substitute for creative, thoughtful or even skillfully devised ones. In fact, technique was very low on the roster of priorities in that space, edged out by the greater good of guaranteed results. Creativity was suspect, forward thinking was discouraged, and waste was a price paid for elegance. She brought nothing of value to that kitchen other than a semblance of order; she knew this, we knew this, and her terror of anyone else finding out required her to keep the world at arms length. So she screamed.
Whether it is the fact of our duty to handle food safely, or even just to keep a handle on our jobs (or our Zagat ratings, or our Michelin stars…), kitchens can be very stressful places; but even the most jaded restaurant lifer would agree that in few other professions would such bad behaviour as is seen in this one ever be tolerated. Now, in that ever present interest of full disclosure, I have, on (hopefully rare) occasion, fallen prey to the beast within and screamed my way out of a situation I couldn’t earn my way out of. I feel no pride in this. In fact, that dark side is my profession’s (and my own) most disgusting feature. When I scream, I remember that other chef, her tirades, her iron grip, but ultimately, I remember that she was screaming to compensate for her own shortcomings. I repeat, I take no pride in my temper, and no joy; but I do take some comfort in the fact that in my worst moments, I am always careful to not be personal…no such claim could be made about the onscreen antics of chef Ramsay. And when my head cools after such a rough night or shift, my first priority is to seek out anyone who may have gotten in the path of my invective and to clear the air, to breathe deeply, apologize and remove the weight of all that stress. My screaming boss never took these steps, and if Ramsay does, it is certainly excluded from the final cut of his shows, to all of our detriment. And in a perfect world, we never would have been cornered into such a response in the first place.
You see, I have also had the distinct honour of working for seven years with a guy who in all of those high stress, top of the profession, intense moments, never (to my memory) lost his temper or personally berated a member of his staff. Eric Tucker was a hell of a chef and I try my best to pass on the lessons of his even keeled temperament to every crew I’ve worked with since, admittedly, some days more successfully than others…but such is the nature of the beast.
Gordon Ramsay has had a wonderful season. His books top the charts, his numerous restaurants rate quite well, his television series have had a good run. He is even taking over a cooking school. A few years ago there was another successful television star who was raking in the rave reviews, a guy named Dave Chappelle. At the top of his game, his brand of race-based stereotype skewering humour had propelled him to the sort of ‘do no wrong’ kind of popularity that is not unlike Ramsay’s current run at the goal. Then one day he stopped. He is quoted as saying he felt that some of his sketches were ‘socially irresponsible’ that he felt like a prostitute, that people were laughing at him, not with him. As a chef who takes no joy in the dark side of our profession, and as someone who sees and appreciates the deep spirit Ramsay’s written work has evoked; a love for the season, of local foods, and most recently, of a return to the ritual of family dining and togetherness…I can only hope that someday soon, he too will have his own ‘Dave Chappelle moment’ and realize that for all of his good intentions, he is glorifying the worst of who we, the brother/sisterhood of chefs, can hope to be…
Mario Batali, a fine chef who seems quite capable of keeping a cool head has recently banned Ramsay from all his restaurants in response to personal attacks made by Ramsay regarding him in the press, in response, he said, to criticism Mario made about his food. Ironically, when chef Ramsay evicted that critic in the famous story that introduced me to his less than thoughtful nature all those years ago it was, as he said, because criticism of his food was one thing but personal attacks were not acceptable. Batali has turned the mirror to Ramsay, and given him the treatment he has offered others, nothing more and nothing less. It’s time for the rest of us to do the same.
Beer, a love story:
I don’t drink as much as I should…well, at least not as much as I should if I still want to be considered an ‘expert’ which, I guess, at one time I sort of was. But when I do, like most folks around here, it’s usually a beer. My first beer was a Heineken, of all things, shared between at least three of us boys, stolen out from one of our parents’ stash, and furtively gulped down in the woods out behind the house. Like most folks, I didn’t quite get it at first—but, there it was—a new experience. It wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t quite get the appeal either. When I got older, drinking beer with the guys was sort of ‘something that you did’ and I latched on to Budweiser—I appreciated the red label, (red was my favorite colour!) and, of course, the cool chef at my restaurant drank it. It was my ‘favourite’ beer, because, well, everyone needs a favourite, right? Then one night, at a party, a friend produced a Guinness.
I’ll never forget that first sip—bitter…rich, intense. At first taste, I was not a fan—I thought, fleetingly, that it might have been a joke drink—you know, like you’d find a fart scented perfume at a novelty shop or something. It was too much—it reminded me of when the soda machine at work broke and you got a cup of undiluted syrup…It reminded me of a coffee from a gas station that had been stewing since yesterday morning…It reminded me of hot tar. Then I had a second sip, and I began to recognize that all those big flavours were there on purpose, and that they even fit together in a sort of weird architectural balance—a structure—by the end of the bottle, I was hooked. I still love that beer—although, I have to admit, it’s no longer quite as devastating to me as it was that first time…it’s a context thing. That bout with Guinness lead me on a long quest—It opened up a world to me, flavours that I’d never before encountered—the world of the art of the glass…
We had a pizza joint in my home town, Double Dave’s, which offered an ‘alternative degree program’ (…it was a college town…) where one could earn diplomas and degrees in the beers of the world. My brother was an employee for just long enough for the two of us to earn our doctorates, that is to say, we tried them all—an invaluable experience for a couple of youngsters and one that has shaped my tastes in the years since. Most of the beers they had were, I know now, fairly mainstream, the ‘Budweiser’ of their respective countries; but luckily, a few were good introductions to the world that was just starting to open up to the average consumer back at that time, the world of ‘craft beer’.
A few years later, I was lucky enough to work in a brewpub in my hometown. I was on the opening crew and got to work with a selection of beers made for us alone—we were encouraged to be creative and to try to use the beers in our cuisine—it was awesome, I took every opportunity to quiz the brewmaster and spent my breaks spying on the brewery and hoping for a chance to play. It was invaluable for me to see, first hand, that beer was something that could be made—it sounds silly, I know, but it’s true—when you see something done, it makes it possible, not theoretical. It makes it real, it’s the same with cooking—you can read all you want, but until you see it done, it’s just a theory. We were busy at the start, but it didn’t work out, they had a bad chef and an owner with no experience and they failed within 2 years, I was gone in just a few months. The beer (and the experience), however, was wonderful and it’s really too bad it didn’t live on…
By the time I moved to San Francisco, I had begun to flirt, even start to get serious with ‘the other beverage’. Wine, to the average male Texan in those days was generally considered a necessary evil at an event, you know, so the girls would have something sweet to drink; but in the years between that first Guinness and through my gradual ascension into finer dining, I had come to understand that it was actually quite a bit more. So much so, in fact, that it is generally accepted that culturally, wine is the only important beverage in a fine restaurant setting. Imagine that bottle of Bud on a white tablecloth; you’ll see what I mean…And accept it I did, especially once I found the ‘college with a thousand classrooms’ that is the California wine country. I learned in earnest, especially at my work, where my professors brought the class to me, and for at least an hour or two a week I was treated to tastings of some of the world’s best organic wines, the wines that made up Millennium’s incredible (and the world’s largest) exclusively organic wine list. But through it all, I never lost interest in my first bottled love—beer—in fact, I learned even more, thanks to a fella named Captain Jack Fecchal, B.L.F.
Captain Jack was an oddball when he came to work with us at Millennium; it was by way of Italy, where he had attended a cooking school, and Colorado, where he apparently attended an Ultimate Frisbee school. Colorado was, and still is, ground zero for the US homebrewing movement. In fact, just weeks after President Carter signed the bill that legalized it, a couple of guys named Charlie Papazian and Charlie Matzen launched the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) in Boulder, Colorado on December 7, 1978 (happy birthday, AHA!) with the publication of the first issue of Zymurgy magazine. Captain Jack had apparently minored in this fairly recent but grand tradition at his Frisbee school, and by the time he got to California, he brought his knowledge and the tools of homebrewing with him. I was lucky enough to brew my first few batches with him on his elaborate 10 gallon system made up of converted kegs, propane burners, plumbing supplies and recycled angle iron, all welded together into a giant contraption that brought tears to the eyes of his roommates, especially when they realized that it wasn’t going to just ‘go away’, as they had earnestly hoped. We brewed several ‘all grain’ batches, the most difficult style, which means that we actually did the serious lab work of converting starch into sugar over low heat for long periods before applying yeast to ferment. I was glad to have learned this method, but was also a little happy to later discover that there were easier methods involving extracts and partial extracts that brewed some reliably tasty batches with quite a bit less time and work; I (and my wife) was also a bit pleased to discover that giant contraptions were not, necessarily, critical to the success of the batch. Beer was fun.
Wine, however, was where my brain continued to lead me, and my ‘expertise’ in that field continued to grow; I was even invited to be a judge at a prestigious wine event in Los Angeles—I was one of many judges, granted, but I was honoured, nonetheless. Beer was still a hobby, not a serious pursuit, and though it did occasionally appear in our restaurant as a feature, or in a serious trade magazine in some article or another, it was not ever something I allowed myself to believe was ever quite as important as wine. Beer was for fun, wine was for work.
I never really understood why wine culture was so much different than beer culture, but I did (and do) think about it a lot. Wine has a reputation, among ‘regular’ folks as being a snob’s drink—something that has bothered me since day one. It is, after all, just a beverage, just a way to lubricate social interaction, to relax, to consume the same drug that beer delivers, but by way of grapes instead of grains…so why all the fuss? Why does wine get ritual where beer gets games? Why does beer get neon lights when wine is lit by candles? Why does wine require a jacket when beer gets a t-shirt and blue jeans? It really does just come down culture.
When Nicole and I travelled to Europe, I went as a wine enthusiast. I was excited to experience wine close to the source, to see the old Chateaus and vineyards, to taste and to explore. I was also fairly poor—we were not going on a wine tour, per se, we were going to experience what we could, but also what we could afford. So we bought cheap, Budweiser cheap. We bought what was on the shelf at the corner stores, and I was pleased to discover, we bought quite well. At first I thought I was just lucky—after all, I had tasted literally hundreds of wines at this point, and how cool was it that with wines that were averaging in price around 3 to 5 dollars a bottle, how lucky was it that we kept scoring with completely drinkable bottles of regular wine? Everything else around us, hotels, restaurants, coffee, was more expensive than home, but bottle after bottle presented cheap but drinkable wine! I, at first, like I said, felt lucky, but as time went on, I had to admit, I started to get a little annoyed.
You probably know what kind of wine 3 or 5 bucks would get you here. You probably also know how much it would cost you to buy an equivalent amount of cheap, yes, but also entirely drinkable beer. It didn’t take long for me to figure out why wine is a North American snob drink and why our mainstream culture prefers beer.
In 2004 and 2005, I was lucky enough to attend the Book and the Cook Festival in Philadelphia, as an author (co-author of ‘The Artful Vegan’, 2001 Ten Speed Press) and as a cook alongside my old friend and mentor (and fellow beer enthusiast) Chef Eric Tucker. We reunited those two times to prepare a five course dinner paired with the beers of Philadelphia’s treasure, The Nodding Head brewpub. The Nodding Head is co-owned by a group that also includes Monk’s Cafe, easily one of the most important bars for the true beer enthusiast in North America—and it was there that we found the beer bible, a menu including over 200 beers—some available nowhere else in the world, and it was also there, under the excellent tutelage of the owner, Tom Peters, that we attempted to taste every one of them. Or something like that; it gets a little fuzzy. The important part of the story is this—we were in a hallowed hall of beer—surrounded by the best of the best—and the most expensive bottles were still well under 50 bucks. Try finding that with wine…Try finding that with anything; the best of the best just doesn’t have a good habit of staying that far under the dollar amount of the average person’s single days’ paycheck.
It’s a cultural thing; I guess, when I thought about it, I started to understand. In Europe, where drinkable wine is cheap, and I do mean cheap, the ‘average, regular’ person can afford to enjoy a glass or two, without making it a special occasion. But here, for those prices, the fact is that we often get undrinkable swill (sorry, North American wine industry, but you know it’s true.) Here, the ‘average, regular,’ person is going to choose a cheap, perfectly drinkable beverage that doesn’t break the bank. I appreciate wine, good wine, and I really appreciate great wine, but the fact is, that until all those ‘average, regular’ folks come on board, the culture of North America is going to continue to prefer their beer. And , well, maybe if I drank a little more, I’d have the time to find those rare and often rumoured ‘great, cheap wines’, but since I don’t (…and since we’ve got Beau’s right here!), for now, anyway, I’ll probably just have a beer.
The Giant Puffball and the Sacred Grove
Last week, the branch kitchen was invaded by a monster: a giant puffball mushroom, easily twice the size of my head, came rolling in, being pushed along by a regular customer who knew that I would appreciate it. Puffballs, when very fresh, are a tasty treat. They are a bit unusual in texture, but are excellent at picking up marinades, as their flesh acts almost exactly like a sponge. I enjoy grilling large slices of it, like a steak, finishing it in the oven and then, since it has little flavour of its own, serving it with a bright spicy sauce. For this one, we used seasonal local tomatillos and chilies for a salsa verde. My reason for favoring this particular preparation for puffballs (as a steak) is a holdover from my vegetarian days, when mushrooms were my meat. My love of wild mushrooms began a few years back, when I was working in California.
Millennium Restaurant, the vegan Mecca where I earned my stripes, is a unique place, and at its center is a culinary mad scientist named Eric Tucker whose incessant curiosity is overshadowed only by his senses of wonder and of humour. I have often said, to those who will listen, that only twice in my life have I been seated in a restaurant, read the menu, and said, “I completely understand what this chef is trying to do.” The first time was in 1996 when I sat in Millennium’s dining room and was astounded to find that someone else did not think vegan food had to be boring, staid, or one dimensional. Descriptions jumped off the page; each dish seemed to contain twenty different elements and to be bursting with ideas. Lotus root pickles, smoked tofu, miso glazed eggplant, seitan medallions…I had been cooking vegetarian food for several years at this point and searching incessantly for a kindred spirit who believed, as I did, that vegetarian food could leap off the plate and attack the diner, that it did not have to stay in the world of careful banality, that it could be good, good for you, good for the planet, and wildly creative all at the same time. I had found my man.
Within a few weeks of that meal, my relentless pestering paid off and I found myself employed at what for me, at that time, was my dream job. To Eric, vegan cuisine was not different from any other kind of cooking. He approached it as an exciting, innovative high end cuisine from which one had simply chosen to subtract all meats and dairy. He never considered it to be a hindrance; in fact, if anything, it was a challenge. He thought of his cuisine as being like an ethnic cuisine, and in the same way that a Chinese restaurant does not apologize for its lack of hamburgers, he never apologized or felt shorted for the choices Millennium had made in regards to the use of animal proteins. One of the results of this creative and innovative approach to cooking was a new way of looking at the world of ingredients that would often serve only as a props or a bit players for the main course in a conventional restaurant. An example of this was in the examination of the world of chilies. That which could have been simply a seasoning or an ingredient for someone else became, under a culinary microscope, an entire exciting obsession that revealed the capsicum families’ incredible variety; from the sun-ripened red bell pepper’s almost sickly sweetness to the habañero’s heat of near psychedelic intensity, chilies that were bright with every color of the rainbow, and chilies that had textures ranging from steak-like to brittle, even chilies and peppers whose broad array of aromatic qualities is rivaled only on the spice routes of ancient India and the Middle East. Chilies were not the only ingredients we studied whose special qualities were revealed to blossom under closer scrutiny. We also explored the worlds of meat substitutes which came from millennial-aged traditions in Asia and plumbed the depths of the spice rack and the fascinating world of many other heirloom vegetables, grains, oils, and even wines, beers and spirits…
But as amazing as all of the voyages of discovery were, the most fascinating, by far, was the Kingdom of Fungi; aka, mushrooms. Mushrooms are interesting for a number of reasons: for vegetarians, especially vegans, they are a vital source of necessary B vitamins which are not found in plants. This is because mushrooms are not, in fact, plants; they exist in their own kingdom, neither plant nor animal, but rather, having features that are actually a bit of both. This biological kingdom includes not only mushrooms but also yeasts, the magic creatures that bring us not only bread, but also those wines, beers, and spirits we were talking about earlier. It even includes molds, a much maligned and misunderstood set of creatures that while often being the very symbol of blight, are also the source of some of our world’s most interesting flavours. But the kings of this kingdom are undoubtedly the mushroom: the mighty fruit of the mycelium, a world that can bring years of new joys and pleasures, a world whose gateway is the little white button, that once pushed, can carry you from the satisfying earthy meatiness of a portabella, through to the cinnamon perfume of the chanterelle, down into the incredible beefy flavor depths and satisfying texture of the porcini, even all the way to an ecstatic place found far beyond simple food– the world’s most sought after culinary/mystical experience–the truffle.
Our wild mushroom purveyor in those days was a woman named Connie Green; a character who on the one hand was obviously an efficient and urban businessperson, but on the other, much like the product she peddled, shrouded in a sort of mystery and magic. Something about her persona carried an aura of secret knowledge that brought to mind gypsies or a ‘twig in the hair’ priestess from some ancient pagan rite. Yet somehow, she always seemed down to earth and quite capably modern. Her world was not a simple, hippy-dippy world of woodland creatures and fairy tales; in fact it would be more accurate to say that she lived not in, but rather on the edge of the forest. The mushrooms she brought came to her through a community of pickers who were described at times as shadowy or mysterious…strange, nameless fanatical types who camped and picked and lived in the woods for months at a time—and while Connie regularly met with these folks and dealt with them on their own unusual terms, she also answered phone messages, sent out regular and professional faxes and order sheets, and appeared on our decidedly less than mystical doorstep in the urban wilds of downtown San Francisco without fail, always with the requested fungi in hand, fresh, well cared for, and professionally packaged. I appreciated her attention to business, of course, but to be honest, it was the world to which she seemed to hold the keys that really fascinated me. Somehow, through this weekly exchange of modern arcana for mycological treasure, I became at first interested in the world of wild mushrooms, then fascinated and finally hooked. A new and exciting obsession began to emerge from the forest floor of my imagination and I found myself looking more closely at the strange bits of knowledge that seemed to be sprouting everywhere around me, from the lawns and wooded parks of my neighborhood, to the pages of my cookbooks and magazines, where once overlooked mentions of mushrooms now seemed to pop up like a fairy ring on a grassy field the morning after a rainy night. I eventually went so far as to purchase and start memorizing a field guide, in fact, the field guide for California mushrooming, it was a bible of sorts, under the title ‘All the Rain Promises and More’ by David Arora.
Once a year, Connie and one of her contemporaries, Todd ‘the King of Mushrooms’ Spanier, offered an opportunity for interested amateurs, mostly cooks and the like from various San Francisco area restaurants, to join them in a hunt. When that opportunity finally came to our restaurant, I rushed to be first in line. A bus was rented, a time (very early) was set, and the foray was on. That hunt, my very first, was in one of the primeval Redwood forests that still manage to cover some small part of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. I will never forget tramping through those cool damp woods under Connie and Todd’s careful instruction, seeking the elusive ‘mush-rumps’ on the thatch-y humus bedding which was the floor of that quiet, bright, and pine scented cathedral. That sacred grove, where for one perfect morning, I wandered smiling and fulfilled, seeking and finding treasures in the mist, and I did it all with the contentment of a true and natural creature, while time slowed, crawled and finally stood completely still. I will never forget the elation of my first finds, Boletus Edulis, known in the culinary sphere as the porcini or the cêpe, and in the mushroom hunting world, as the King Bolete. These rich heavy mushrooms are the lions of the mushroom world, unparalleled in their unique combination of both weight and flavour. In addition, we found chanterelles, also considered to be a choice find, even preferred in some circles to the King Bolete. The ‘chanties’ were big and golden, fat and strongly scented with cinnamon, frankincense and musk. That day was easily one of my finest moments; it has inspired a lifelong passion and has given me reason to return to the woods again and again from California, throughout the Pacific Northwest, in Colorado, Texas, New Brunswick and Ontario, as well as many other places, even in the mountains of Italy and France. I rarely travel without a mushroom hunt in mind. It has turned me into the type of person who smiles when it rains, smiles knowing what treasure the rain will bring. I was, and still am, hooked. Of course, there is one other reason to remember that day (I was at the time young, single, and definitely looking), for I was accompanied by not only a couple of my fellow employees from Millennium, but also by a beautiful intern who had arrived to work with us from Ottawa, Ontario (of all places) just the week before.
The second time I sat down in a restaurant and said “I understand exactly what this chef is trying to do” was here in Kemptville at Amanda’s Slip, the restaurant that preceded us here at 15 Clothier Street East. Again I was right, and the work there turned not only into a great learning experience, but when AJ (the previous owner and the chef in question) got ready to move on, it turned into not only a home base for my foraging forays, but a home for myself and that beautiful intern, now my wife, Nicole.
So now you know why when the puffballs, or for that matter, the boletes, morels, chanterelles, candy caps, almond, russula, honey, hawkwing, lion’s mane, hen of the woods, or any of a thousand other varieties of wild mushrooms come rolling along, I smile. I love the taste and the smell and the excitement that only a wild mushroom can bring…but mostly, I love the magic of a place in my life, my memories of all those cool damp mornings, but especially of one morning, a perfect morning I spent wandering, seeking, finding and falling in love, one fine morning spent, and spent well in a sacred grove.
The Grease, The Egg, and The Man in Black
We knew we were moving, but we didn’t know how. Then Nicole handed me the article. A guy in the south of the city was running his diesel engine on recycled vegetable oil. Nicole and I are not the types to leave a big footprint on this earth; we often buy recycled and used products; we share or use public transit and always have; we don’t see the point of the big box store spell that seems to hold most of the world in its thrall. Moving across country, possibly to another country, was going to be a challenge to our ideals, whether we liked it or not, on at least some level. Crating up our worldly possessions and transporting them was bound to be costly, involve the burning of fuel, the organization of pick up and delivery at both ends, and to top it all off, we didn’t even know exactly where we wanted it to end. Recycled veggie oil pushing the whole adventure seemed like a perfect compromise, and I immediately became a convert.
Within a few weeks of reading that article I was throwing myself completely into the new project, reading books and researching ‘SVO’ (Straight Vegetable Oil) conversions on the internet. I was also lucky to meet a fellow traveler who had successfully taken his converted Volkswagen Rabbit across much of North America, making the pipe dream seem like less of a pipe dream, and more of a pipe line (couldn’t resist it…). Now, this was several years ago and there are a couple of details to note here. One was that a key to our strategy was using recycled veggie oil; I am no longer convinced that biofuels can save the planet; but seriously, recycling cannot be all bad. And another was that I would be doing the conversion myself. Now, I am not an auto mechanic, I am a chef, but by necessity, and coming from a family of do-it-yourself Texas jimmy-riggers, I have managed to pull off a few interesting mechanical feats. Not enough, mind you, to seriously consider it a vocation, but enough that I have managed to develop what is probably a massively disproportionate sense of overconfidence in matters relating to such things. Success, even modest success, can be a dangerous drug.
The first task was finding the truck. We scoured the want ads for weeks with no luck and then one night, browsing eBay, I found the truck. It was described as being in decent shape, a former commercial fleet vehicle (regular maintenance, right?), and the current owner had purchased it in an auction. It was a diesel, which was key, but (there’s always a ‘but’…) it was also in need of a new transmission (‘otherwise, in good condition!’). There were two weeks left on the auction, and the reserve was 600 dollars. After weeks of looking at diesel trucks in the multiple thousands of dollars range, it seemed, for that split second, like a deal. Click. Two weeks later we had the truck for 600 dollars, no one else had even placed a bid, which really should have told me something. For some reason, the seller had an amazing look of relief on his face as the truck was towed away. The new tranny was about a thousand bucks, but afterward, it fired right up! I drove it home feeling lucky: what a deal! Then, in the first week, the starter blew (300 bucks…). Then the glow plug array shut down (150 bucks…). Then we needed new tires (900 bucks!). Then, then, the valves were diagnosed as shot, which of course, meant a full engine rebuild. Soon, my “bargain” truck had turned out to be, well, you know…a diesel truck in the multiple thousands of dollars range. Click.
But after all that, we did have the truck. And it was a working, living breathing monster, ready to cart our worldly goods hither and yon.
Our next step was the fuel conversion. I won’t bore you with the details. Which is to say; I won’t entertain you with the humbling process by which I finally came to understand my limitations as a mechanic. In the end, we were only a month late in leaving and it only took us two more weeks after that before I had the guts to flip the switch and finally, for the first time, admit to some small degree of success. The conversion was a kit purchased online through a company called Greasel (now called Golden Fuel Systems) and the long hours of advice and guidance they provided on the phone (usually held in one hand with a wrench in the other) was invaluable and a key to my success. In the process we also acquired a camper trailer, one of those cute old 50’s style things we called ‘the Egg’, which was our hotel room, camp kitchen and storage room for the trip, as well as the domain of our companion, Opus, a long haired grey male cat. Opus, by day, rode calmly in the cab of the truck in his carrier, and in the evenings, when he wasn’t guarding our tiny mobile home, looked forward to his leashed walks around the various campgrounds of what were eventually 21 states and 3 provinces.
We had fun; I’ve got loads of memories from that trip. We traveled as far to the Northwest as Vancouver Island to eat at the Sooke Harbour House, a world class destination and a highlight of my lifetime restaurant experiences. We paused or stopped in various places I’d hoped to see throughout the Northwest and the Rockies, including the Redwood forests in Northern California, the cities of Eugene Oregon, Olympia and Seattle, Washington, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the Grand Teton National Park. We also saw lots of Colorado and a bit of New Mexico, before we paused in Texas to visit my family, offload some of our possessions, filter some more oil and regroup. The second half of our trip took us up through the Midwest with a stop in Chicago to visit a cousin before we crossed into Canada to stay for a while. The border patrol in Detroit took one look at our ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ alternative fuel arrangement with its various heated fuel lines, duct tape, boating accessories, water heater insulation and various barrels of veggie crude (not to mention our hand-painted pickup and our oil-slicked vintage 1950s camping egg) before sending us back to US soil. We were shocked and dismayed but after a little soul searching and with some advice from a seasoned border crosser or two decided to try again on the other side of the lake. The slightly more redneck friendly border patrol agents at the upstate New York border had a different take on our alternate fuel system and laughed at the response we had gotten to it in Detroit and gave us a pass, saying, ‘whatever gets you down the road!’
The veggie oil experiment was not a complete bust, but I don’t like to take too much credit for its impact on the planet. In the end, we only had a few long stretches of recycled planet saving vegetable-based fuel burns, interspersed with a lot of stretches of good old fashioned dinosaur juice pushing a lot of weight a lot of miles without a whole lot of breaks. Some unanticipated challenges arose, such as the importance of heavy filtration, and the time it took to accomplish that. Also, the awkwardness and sheer dumb luck needed to procure good quality veggie oil while we were in transit, and the messy, messy, smelly oiliness that inevitably coated every surface of our lives and possessions throughout the whole process. But to be fair, we didn’t do it because it was easy, to paraphrase JFK, we did it because it was hard. Our ideals had made us want to at least try something. But more often than not, the challenges proved for us to be too great to overcome within our timeline and limited budget. While the veggie oil, when we found it was technically free, it was not easy to find; whereas, petroleum diesel was everywhere, taunting us with its ease of access and for the effort, comparatively low cost. Now, to be fair, we did know about some of the challenges we would be facing on our trip in advance and had always planned to supplement our veggie oil supply with biodiesel, its processed cousin, which is available commercially and works just like regular diesel (no conversion necessary). We had a map of biodiesel pumps across the breadth of our journey and sought them out, even detoured out of our way to use them. But they are few (though growing in number) and far between, and even though it is heavily subsidized, the cost was much higher, usually as much as 20 cents to the gallon. Frankly, by the end of our trip, petroleum or ‘dinosaur’ diesel was what kept our show on the road. Our veggie oil adventure was not an unqualified success, it was an exercise, an experiment, and, we hoped, another hand in the hard work of clearing a path that leads away from the fossil fuel economy that seems, in my mind, to be at root of a series of messes (ever heard the Middle East? Global warming?) But in the end, I think what it turned out be was a fact-finding mission on our part, and facts are not as pleasant as we’d like to think.
Much of the rhetoric that comes out in support of biofuels, especially ethanol, seems to imply that our lifestyles can continue, uninterrupted from one fuel source, petroleum; to another, in this case, ‘bio’ or plant based fuels. Some enlightening statistics have shot holes though this argument. From the numbers I’ve seen, even as productive as the grain belt of the US is, its entire production, if converted to fuel crops, could not even come close to keeping up with our current, much less our future, fuel needs. And that’s not even taking into account that some of that grain belt production should be, you know, feeding us. Not to mention the tough reality that this new biofuel focused agriculture would push the chemically intensive, pesticide, herbicide, and genetically modified monoculture beast that ‘Big Ag’ has become to even more extremes doing untold damage along the way. Sadly, by my reckoning, biofuels are a false prophet. They are a feel good solution, but not the truth. Without some sort of sea change in our world view, this process leads down a scary road. I mean, we haven’t used all the oil yet, but we will, doing untold damage in the process no doubt, but it won’t stop there; if we don’t face the truth and change, then what is next? Will we use up all the other available carbon in our hunger for more power? The fact is that the truth is a bitter pill. In the real world, we will have to stop using as much fuel. We will have to drive less, fly less and accept that everything is going to cost more. We will have to get off the grids that control our lives or convert them to clean renewables like wind and solar power. At least until some Prometheus brings us a new gift of fire from the gods to power our lives. And I do believe it will happen, is happening. Kinetic energy, wind and solar, even some aspects of hydrogen offer glimmers of hope, and honestly, in the end, I think it will be something even better, even simpler than all these things. Modern science has made it clear that energy and power are all around us, and I believe that all we need is the right creative mind to figure out how to unlock it. But until then, we’ve got to face the facts, and the fact is that our answers are not going to be found at the gas pump.
The truck broke down the day that Johnny Cash died. We were stuck in New Hampshire for the night. The transmission again, I guess all that trailer hauling was a bit too much for it. After that we nicknamed it Johnny Cash in honor of ‘the Man in Black’: before our trip, Nicole had hand-painted the truck with black Rust-o-leum and, perhaps more obviously, because we’d dumped so much Cash into it over time. For all our problems, the truck had become a bit of a friend and just as much a companion and a part of our story on our trip as Opus. But that was its last stop for a while. We stored it in New Hampshire until the following summer when I flew out to pick it up and drive it to Texas where Nicole and I had moved for the year before we settled in Canada for good. The truck drove me back to Texas solo, and then back to Canada for one last anxious border crossing, this time from Maine into New Brunswick, and also completing our year long circuit from coast to coast. After our arrival, we eventually settled into Kemptville the truck had developed an oil leak and started running rough, it also needed snow tires (more cash) and there was also a fee to consider involved in properly importing it. Reality set in, and we bought a smaller more efficient car. When the last of the boxes were moved, we parked old Johnny until I had time or enough cash to get him up and running again.
Tim Aubin was a rose farmer in Africa. He always says that he used to run the farm with one finger, pointing it at this guy or that with instructions. Now, as a small farmer in rural Ontario, he says that more often than not, he finds that finger pointing back at himself. Years ago, he and his wife Roshan decided to take their future into their own hands. Together, they operate Aubin Farms, one of my favorite local farms; one look at their farmer’s market table and you’ll know why. After years of life in the “Big Ag” game, Tim likes to keep things real. They don’t use pesticides or herbicides; they strive to keep a closed cycle, or a waste-free farm. Everything that is not sold is used; from the sheep’s wool for blankets to what vegetable trimmings Roshan can’t use in her variety of delicious pickles and chutneys that find their home in the compost heap. As a chef, the incredible quality of their product is reason enough for me to admire them, but as a human, and someone with more than a few environmentalist leanings, the choices they have made that have brought them to where they are fill me with such deep respect and admiration that I have trouble voicing it. Nicole and I left San Francisco to find a place to raise our family. To find a place where we could walk to work, shop locally, and live a lower impact life. Aubin Farms has quickly become an important part of that life. Their table was an anchor at last year’s Kemptville Farmer’s market and their food has fed dozens of our guests and as importantly, has fed us. It’s the kind of food that looks better, tastes better and smells better than you can find anywhere else. It is local food, and it is what we are all about. Low food miles? We’ve got ‘em. Tim also picks up the compost at the restaurant; something that seems so natural, that our trimmings would go to nourish his next crop which we’ll soon be happily buying. One day earlier this year he asked me about the old truck out back, beside the compost bins. ‘It runs,’ I said, ‘It leaks oil and needs snow tires, but it has carried me over many a mile.’ Two weeks later he made me an offer. A good old fashioned real farm offer, and I swear I wouldn’t have taken ten thousand dollars for that truck from anyone. But from Tim, an offer of trade was more than enough.
‘God Bless America’
I couldn’t help thinking, the other day, when I saw this sign in a window in Ogdensburg, how strongly Irving Berlin must have been feeling the day he wrote it. I mean: to wish the blessings of the highest being one can imagine on an entity, on a group of people, on a landmass with non-specific boundaries, on a vision, a shared dream, a collective effort—I guess my generation is too far removed from any great revolutionary moments to fully appreciate the intensity of that kind of emotion, at least as it relates to a piece of land. But it moved me. Yes, even embarrassed me a little. I’m not one to speak of it, especially as an American living abroad, but, if I’m honest, yes, my programming is still in place.
When I was a kid, I read with interest and horror of the shortcuts my ancestors had taken to acquire the ‘right’ to the land they ‘discovered.’ I was so incensed that in my youthful agitation, I chose a quiet, but, I felt, meaningful protest; I refused to, as it was the custom, stand and recite the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ in my school classroom. My teachers were naturally upset, rebellion of any form being seen as a disruption in a routine based system, but I was more surprised to find that my classmates were upset as well—‘Don’t you know about the Indians?’ I asked, ‘The smallpox blankets? Wounded Knee? The trail of tears?’ Some of our ancestors were definitely not the good guys. Slavery was and is a huge stain of on the face of my nation, and my generation, as the first desegregated one in my small southern town, was still itchy and uncomfortable in its new multicoloured clothes. Perhaps that’s why they didn’t care, ‘This is America,’ they said, ‘love it or leave it.’ Patriotism has always been a hard road for me.
I don’t understand why most folks can’t seem to see the connection between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism,’ (i.e.: ‘fascism.’) All patriotism, to me, seems to be built upon the simple preconception that we are better than them, for some reason. And really, are we? Do we actually have some divine gift that puts us above our peers? By virtue of an address? A Zip Code? Seriously, American ‘exceptionalism’ as it is called these days, when examined closely, is little more than racism thinly veiled as a philosophy.
I do love much about America. My programming aside, America is my nostalgic home, I love Thomas Jefferson’s words (more than his actions, actually,) and I love that a rebellion of tax shirkers could actually produce a fairly even handed and intelligent method of self government. I like checks and balances and I like term limits, I like that even the worst of presidents can only really get away with about 8 years in office and that, if we want to, we can flip the whole card and start fresh without firing a single bullet. It seems smart; it acknowledges the pendulum of public sentiment and provides a mechanism for bloodless revolution. And when you think about it, it would take a bunch of people who’d lost so much in a bloody one to come up with and actually agree on such a radical idea. I’m sure my historians out there will want to remind me of the Magna Carta or even of ancient Greek philosophers who laid out the framework that the ‘founding fathers’ adopted long before, but, nonetheless, they could have gone a few different directions once they had the reins, and yet, at the moment, they chose democracy, for better or worse.
So, do I love it or hate it? Well, both. I’ve travelled a bit more now, and I also now live here, in Canada, a place that tells you they find patriotism distasteful, but makes exceptions for hockey, Canada day, any rendering of the anthem, or any mention or presence of any native Canadian anywhere in American popular culture. I’ve also visited Europe, in a ‘post 9-11’ world and met equal parts admiration for our exciting culture and horror at our actions on the world stage, horror that mirrored my own youthful disgust at my reading of my country’s history. I have hated the way, from a distance, America looks more and more like a selfish bully, even with ‘a new face’; it still projects willful ignorance regarding its own behaviour and seems to consume everything around it at an alarming rate like one of its famously obese children. Yet, as I say, I have travelled a bit more now and have also seen that American people are no worse at heart than the people in any of these other places either; I have met with racism and stereotypes wherever I have gone, ignorance and childish, selfish behaviour, even with boorish and criminally violent foolishness. America, it seems, has no trademark on stupidity whether you love it or leave it.
‘Democracy,’ as Winston Churchill said, ‘is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried, from time to time.’ A telling quote. I love much about the idea of America, and much about the idea of Canada, Norway, Denmark, even Japan and yes, even China. I love lots of ideas behind governments, I love the idealism from which they spring and I love the facets of them that seem to work for however long people put their minds to it. But in the end, it always seems to come back to our nature, our avarice, our greed, our compassion and our desire for joy, for love, for security or for safety. The same universal human emotional behaviours that make us choose between decaf and regular, between charity and big screen televisions, behind, beneath and surrounding every decision we make every day. Governments, countries, landmasses of non-specific boundaries, these collective groups of people work and don’t work because they are conceived by, made up of and belong to, of, and by people. Human, frail, weak, and beautiful people.
God Bless America. I checked the lyrics, and it didn’t say, ‘She’s gonna need it.’ But maybe it should have. And really, maybe it should say ‘God bless this planet,’ because that’s where all this patriotism, this pride in ‘our people’ is going to have to redirect itself if we want to see our grandchildren enjoying the ‘pursuit of happiness’ instead of the ‘pursuit of potable water’ like the folks in desert-ified swaths of Africa our carbon economy has helped to create. Woody Guthrie knew this; he hated Berlin’s heart swelling opus and responded with ‘God Blessed America for Me’ a song he eventually changed to ‘This Land is Your Land’, his most famous song and an important poem in its own right. His answer to ‘God Bless America’ did not speak of a lofty divine being whose hand could guide us through a night with a light, he spoke of America’s terrestrial beauty, of how his own two feet carried him across it, of nature’s bounty. And he spoke of a fence:
“As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.”
I’ll leave it there. This land was made for you and me.
I was living in Emeryville, California in September, 2001. Emeryville is a small suburb nestled in between Oakland and Berkeley with easy access to San Francisco, where I worked with Nicole at Millennium Restaurant. September was a busy month for me already. Our restaurant had been invited to participate in a large flashy gala event in New York City and my boss, the chef, had flown out with the pastry chef and catering manager to attend, leaving me in charge. Nicole’s grandfather was, coincidentally, turning 100 years old in Boston that week as well, and she too, had flown off to attend that event which meant that I was in charge and alone both at work and at the house.
Nicole and I had been enjoying our urban lifestyle, to some degree; our salaries were good and our apartment was cozy. We weren’t, however, at home. My family and her family both lived thousands of miles away from us and neither was in much of a financial position to visit often. This meant that what little vacation time we could muster was often spent appeasing one family or the other. We loved the work, but not always the hours and we loved the people, but eventually, to get along with people, relationships have to evolve, which is difficult in a workplace with a glass ceiling. The series of events that had taken us each to the west coast and together had been adventures of a lifetime for both of us, but the road west dead ends at Highway 1 and we were both about ready to start looking for another route.
On the 10th of September, I spoke to Nicole briefly; she’d had a great time with her family, I was sad to have missed it, there was some mix-up with her flight, but she’d figured something else out. She was taking a cab and the train back to the house from the airport so I didn’t bother to write down her new flight number.
On the morning of September 11th a phone call woke me, Paul from work said, ‘go turn on the TV, I don’t think we’re opening the restaurant today.’
By now plenty has been written about that morning by lots of people who write better than I do. And for all the ink and column inches it has greedily drunk, it is, at the end, just one more simple example of a day where someone woke up to find the world had turned up different, darker and worse than the one they’d put to bed the night before. For me, for 45 minutes, I wished more than anything else in the world that I’d written down a fucking flight number. Every minute was a million horror movies played out in repeated images on every channel and in my head.
Her plane was grounded in Wichita. She called, she was fine. I was changed. It took a few days to get her back to San Francisco, to Emeryville, but I knew before my heart stopped racing that morning that I was ready to move home. The problem was I didn’t yet know what home meant.
I had another clear thought that morning. I was sad. I was sad because I knew that whoever had done this, however clever they felt for pulling it off, and no matter how loud the voices of logic and sanity shouted, the war hawks were going to fly. If the plan had been to make the world, or even some small corner of it, a better place for anybody, by whatever twisted logic, I knew that it was for nothing because the only possible result of that monumental act of stupidity was that the war hawks were going to fly.
I am fascinated by conspiracy theories, but skeptical. For any conspiracy of grand magnitude to work, the conspirators would have to be incredibly smart. I, personally, don’t think George W. Bush is very smart. He is smart enough, obviously; he has managed to land an excellent job, but I don’t think his ability to reason is fully developed. His thinking is short sighted and he makes snap judgments, he is inflexible and apparently, from his actions, incapable of empathy. I don’t think he orchestrated September 11. I don’t think anyone in Washington did. I think the official script is pretty close to the truth. Incompetence is probably the most accurate charge that can be leveled against him or his people, and one that certainly is consistent with every other action (outside of political maneuvering) that we’ve seen them take before or since. This is not an excuse.
What is not in question is that as of that morning, my and lots of other people’s safe, bland world stopped feeling so safe and so bland. Nicole and I quickly agreed that we needed to get our priorities in order and high on that list was moving closer to family. Getting away from a city. Finding a home.
We didn’t move right away. We were ready in our hearts, but life wasn’t ready for us. We loved and still love our restaurant in San Francisco. We had met there, married there and come of age in our profession there. We are still in touch with the owners and some of our co-workers and still follow their careers with fascination and pleasure. We also felt that our change of life needed to include doing things we had put off; like a honeymoon trip to Europe and a road-trip across this continent. And at the end of that trip we knew we had a devil’s choice. Would we live near her family or mine?
Our road-trip brought us, among other places, to Texas, to Austin and Bryan to visit my family. Nicole and I both loved Austin; I had lived there for a number of years and she had been there twice to visit a childhood friend who had moved there for work. We loved the town and still consider it a second home. The trip also brought us to Kemptville, to visit Nicole’s sister who has lived here for many years. We went for dinner at a groovy restaurant in town, Amanda’s Slip. It was the first time since I’d found Millennium in San Francisco where I read the menu and said “I understand exactly what this chef is trying to do. “ I also told Nicole that night, “This is the kind of place we should open.”
We came for dinner and I stayed for the summer helping in the kitchen while Nicole earned us some spending money for Europe at her old job in Ottawa. When we came back from Europe we were broke. The first stop had to be in Austin where we were both able to work. It was a move brought on by necessity, not a decision, and our belongings remained in storage for the year we were there.
After much soul searching we knew we couldn’t choose between the two families. We loved both options too much to decide. It wasn’t what you’d think either, we both loved our native homes, but Nicole wanted Austin’s sun and my niece and nephew’s hugs and smiles as much or more than me at times, and I was as likely as not to be daydreaming about the little restaurant in Kemptville and universal health care.
But we did know that we were tired and increasingly afraid of the darkening clouds over America. My clear thought on September 11th had turned into an ugly reality, the war hawks were flying. And my opinion? The Afghanistan war would have happened with anyone in the world in the oval office, but the Iraq war was and is to all practical observation a political action designed to promote America’s business interests, and manufactured in whole by an imperial minded executive. Sadly, the whole damned thing was bought and paid for by a blank check of political capital co-written by a handful of extremists in Washington D.C. and Afghanistan and handed over to the world in New York City six years ago.
A lot of Americans agree with every word I’m saying. And a lot that don’t agree out loud know in their hearts that I’m right. Everyone who was living in the U.S. on September 11th was emotionally affected, it upset the apple cart and we’ve all got to deal with the fact that we’re never going to go back to the safe world we thought that we had before.
But America is not governed by consensus. It is governed by a government made up of slick political operators chosen by a majority of voters. I knew I didn’t want to continue living a country entranced by a fear-based culture being cultivated in Washington, and frankly, thanks to our unique circumstance, and given the timing, we actually did have a choice. We knew we couldn’t decide ourselves, so we finally decided to let the American voting public decide. It was simple, four more years of Bush and we would move to Canada. Anyone else and we would stay. I can’t say I’m happy Bush was re-elected. I can’t say the outcome increased my faith in America’s political system or gave me much hope for an end to the series of mistakes and the tendency towards incompetence that became so apparent 6 years ago. But I can without a doubt say we made the right decision.
Sometimes, in life we need a jolt to remind us of what is important. September 11th was our generation’s jolt. The question is, and what determines our value as human beings is, what do we do with it? For some, that means taking all that anger and fear and spraying it back out on the world from the barrel of a gun. And to some, to folks like us, it means getting our priorities in order. It means moving home to be with family, finding the kind of work that is fulfilling. It means committing to doing little things to make the big world a better place. Being thankful and gracious for the life we have, for the luck of magic that our lives have given us, and trying to spread that love around in the faint hope and desperate belief that if we could all react this way, we wouldn’t have to live in the kind of world where our kids have to fight and die as our surrogates in a live ammo schoolyard pissing contest.
We were in Canada for a nearly a year when we found out the little restaurant in Kemptville was for sale, and with help from some family and some friends we pitched in and bought it, and it felt so right that we’ve never looked back. Our lives have changed a great deal from that September. We see family now, every few days instead of every few months. I am thankful every day for little graces; my music, my food, my family and friends. I try my hardest to live well, love well and give back some of that love to the world. And I wake up every day thankful that the girl beside me wasn’t on one of the other flights that left that September morning. So, why Kemptville? Because, Kemptville is home.
The Slip on The Branch
When we left San Francisco, we had finished writing, but were still waiting to publish, the second Millennium cookbook, The Artful Vegan, on which I had worked very hard and am proud to have received a co-authorship credit. It’s amounted to less than a thousand bucks in my pocket over the course of the several years since we published it, which is hardly a career maker, but I enjoyed the work, and it is cool to google my name and see that I am, technically, a published author. On the jacket cover of that book, I am quoted as saying that we… ‘left the Bay Area in 2003 to travel, with plans of opening an organic foods restaurant in Ontario, Canada.’ It was a dream on paper, sent floating down a stream.
That year we arrived in Canada in June, nearly broke, looking for rest and a bit of work to replenish the coffers for our European leg, for which we had already planned and bought tickets. I wasn’t legal to work in Canada at that time and wasn’t looking forward to sitting on the couch for the couple of months until we were ready to leave while Nicole picked up shifts at one of her old jobs in Ottawa. My birthday in early July was an excuse to get out of the house and visit a local restaurant which our hosts had recommended, Amanda’s Slip. ‘Just be patient,’ they said, ‘the food takes a while, but it’s worth it.’
As we sat down, we drank in the atmosphere. At first glance, the weird hybrid space was part coffee shop, part opium den, and part living room, circa 1975. Or 1935. Or sometime in the renaissance. It’s tough to say. On the wainscoting above the well-trodden, pale wooden floors, the decorators expressed their love for the waters of the Rideau’s branch with bold trowel effects and gobs of paint ranging from light spring trickle to deep ocean blue, and while other primary colors like bright red appeared in splashes on the door and occasional window frame, the bulk of the room was an ivory, or a smoky white, which had lost its gloss and now served as a polite backdrop for the mismatched pieces of art littered about the tall walls in various states of frame, fabric or papier mache. At the front of the room lurched an old piano with an exposed soundboard which had undergone the same broad strokes of blue and red paint; a shelf unit by the door was groaning under the weight of a community’s thousand wildly divergent flyers; while another by the bar was bursting with a year’s worth of the daily news. Scattered about the room and surrounded by creaky, but comfortable looking antique ladder back chairs, were a collection of round tables that were hand stamped with a textured effect before being painted, and were now beginning to wear in a way that gave them a timeless quality. The tables were topped with wine bottles decorated by a waterfall of wax, crested with tall candles, which were lit this evening in the dim room, to magnificent effect. After a few moments, we began to realize that the long, tall and narrow queenly manor of a room was crowned by a shy masterpiece. A hundred plus year old pressed tin ceiling was lovingly preserved, with only a bit of smoke outlining her delicious curves on the patch over the well-used copper topped bar. Cardboard stars hung on string from various points in an effort to draw the eyes up to drink in her beauty. Small plates of an Asian pattern added to the air of mystique and the forks and knives were heavy and long. The bar was cluttered with a treasure trove of mismatched caffeination paraphernalia and the beer taps were of local brews without familiar names. Even the liquor bottles, though some were familiar, shared space with the arcane and unusual. The room echoed and rang with music that seeped out from behind the bar before creeping from Tom Waits to amateurish folk; it was unrecognizable and often weird. Overall the effect was of rebellion; refusal to conform, no concession to the mainstream taste, no attempt to pander. The menu, which arrived with the warm and instantly personable waitress, was a long sheet written in all capitals by a scrawling hand, unabashed in its misspellings and scratched out lines. ‘Amanda’s Slip’, read the oval graphic on the top left of the menu which was rubber stamped in its two tones of blood red and navy blue complete with its iconic riverboat from whose dock this bistro had borrowed its name.
I remember the words ‘house made’ being used more than once; I remember that there were several salads and that several items were described as being ‘Of the Day’ and ‘Market Priced.’ There was a ubiquitous garden salad, a pizza, and a steak of some sort, a mixed grill and a curry; a vegetarian item, an antipasto plate. I remember that the chicken was described as local and grain fed. After delivering the menu, our waitress had the unenviable job of reciting a paragraph of interesting descriptions in order to decode those ‘of the day’ items.
I was enchanted. This ‘little restaurant that could’ seemed instantly like home. I said to Nicole, ‘This is it, this is exactly the kind of place I want to open some day.’ My sister-in-law was right, the service was really slow. In fact, we waited over an hour between our salads and our entrees, and we were, to my memory, the only ones in the place… But even so, the food was, as promised, worth the wait. After dinner, we met A.J. for the first time while he was having a smoke in the alley as we walked back to our car. A.J. stands about six five and is proportional in breadth of shoulder and chest. He is known to wear a variety of interesting mustaches, berets, and occasional ponytails; in his customary chef coat and shorts and with his broad smile under searching eyes, he is at once flamboyant and memorable, yet easily approachable in a way that speaks to his obvious love of fun. Folks who dined or enjoyed an evening of music at ‘the Slip’ inevitably remember this lively character, his lurching, improbable, and joyful dancing, his bear-hugs and generous spirit, so much so that two years into our own venture here, we are still often asked about his whereabouts and activities.
On meeting him, I confessed to my trade and my status and offered him a free set of hands for the duration of my visit. Within the week, I was a happy addition to his kitchen and quite enjoying the freedom and fun and adventure that this exotic little bistro had to offer. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I enjoyed it even more than I should have, but that’s another story. The point is, Amanda’s Slip was a great fit for me. I was coming off 10 years of vegetarian cooking and A.J. was an expert at handling meat. I was a competent self-starter who needed little training, and A.J. was tired and needed a break. I was versed in various ethnic and classic techniques, as was AJ, and able to communicate not only about the nuts and bolts of his cuisine, but about the philosophy behind it. A.J. was thoughtful, even spiritual in his reverence for local foods and businesses and building community, and I was in complete alignment (if a bit more geeky about the organic thing) for all of these things. For those reasons and more, I was and am deeply affected by my time with him in that tiny kitchen. When the time came for us to go off to Europe, he pulled out all the stops; he roasted a whole pork shoulder that Nicole and I still talk about, he closed the restaurant to the public, set a long table down the middle of the room for us, our family and our friends we had made in those few short months and gave us a night we will always remember. Or will always remember forgetting, or something like that. I am especially mindful that it was the last night I saw Wayne Grimm, a fixture at ‘the Slip’ and a character rivaling A.J. in his memorability. Before we came back to live in Canada, Wayne died, after a long, strange, and amazing life, and was found, not by his family or by his neighbor, but by his chef. That’s the kind of community that A.J. built; in Wayne’s memory, and to honor that community, his picture still hangs by his favorite seat at the bar.
Nicole and I left for Europe in the fall, then moved on to Texas, to work and to save and to decide where we would settle, and often, we would talk about that little restaurant in Kemptville, with the fun people and the best parties.
Amanda’s Slip had an anniversary in the summer, July, and threw a big blowout every year with bands beginning in the afternoon, piles of food, a truckload of oysters, and all the chairs and tables pushed out of the way for a giant dance floor. We attended our first, which was A.J.’s 4th, the summer that I worked with him. When we returned to Canada, it was just in time for his sixth year, and we timed our arrival in Ottawa to coincide with the unforgettable event. A.J. was characteristically thrilled by our return and greeted us each in turn with one of his signature back stretching bear-hugs. I was not surprised to find out that he was anxious to have Nicole and I come back to work as soon as possible…his mom even helped us find a house, a rental right on the Rideau, with a dock and access to a patch of forest teeming with wild mushrooms and fiddleheads. I felt like we had won the lottery.
Work at ‘the Slip’ had its rewards; the community of friends and artists and musicians which populated its cheery space was always a source of entertainment and stories. But it had its share of difficulties as well. A.J. was a charismatic character, but over time became increasingly harder to work with; I say this not to denigrate him, I love him dearly, but I prefer him as a friend than as a co-worker or boss. I think we both agree that I was also ready, in more ways than one, to have my own kitchen, and shake off the bonds of attempting, night after night, to put forth a version of someone else’s (no matter how philosophically compatible) vision. I left after New Year’s Eve. Nicole, at the time was supporting us both and moved on as well, to work in a busier restaurant in the next town. While I was still waiting for legal work status, I did stints in a couple of other local restaurants, helping friends I had made through Amanda’s Slip and Nicole’s new job when they needed an extra set of hands, but mostly, I stayed home and worked out some ideas, food-wise, music-wise, and in my heart, searching for what I hoped was my calling.
That year we learned that our landlord had decided to sell the idyllic cottage that had become our home. Sad that we would have to move, we were pushed, by friends and family, to see if we could purchase the cottage ourselves. I honestly thought the whole idea was a joke; I was an unemployed, semi-legal new immigrant supported by a waitress, and I was buying a house? Seriously? What bank would look twice at that? Well, (thank you ‘Sub-Prime’ lending…) guess what? We actually found a mortgage. I was stunned. We both were. For about a month, as the gears of the financial apparatus around us began to move, it looked very much like we were going to buy, even in our precarious financial status, a home. But then, at the last minute, our seller wavered. We were sad, as we had come to quite like our riverside home, but we still felt amazed and empowered in knowing that we were apparently more financially flexible than we had previously thought.
Soon after the house deal fell through, we heard that Amanda’s Slip was for sale. My first reaction was no… no way… the challenges were too great, it was too much work… it was too hard a legacy to shake off or to try to follow…it was too weird, scary, whatever. But then, over the course of a couple of weeks, a new idea began to take shape. I realized, slowly, how easy the work at ‘the Slip’ had been for me; I was confident that I could handle the kitchen myself, which had always been a criteria I had set in my hope for a restaurant I would own. I realized that as crazy as the idea of getting financing for our house had been, we had still managed to find a loan. I knew, deep down, that Nicole and I could not only run a small restaurant, but run it well, and that finally, finally, I could do things my way. And I remembered that first night in Amanda’s Slip, when I said ‘this is exactly the kind of restaurant I want to own someday.’ And then, there it was. No matter how I looked at it, it suddenly made perfect sense.
Nicole and I talked, argued, disagreed, and then finally agreed and rolled up our sleeves. I decided that I was going to make this happen, no matter the cost.
For some reason, the mortgage folks we had assembled for the home purchase were not nearly as excited about a 130 year old stone building with a restaurant on the ground floor, a leaky basement and an apartment above, but we were determined. When one person couldn’t help us, we moved on to the next.
Around this time, A.J. was planning Amanda’s Slip’s 7th anniversary party; Nicole and I wouldn’t have missed it, and A.J. welcomed us as though we had never left. We all knew that I was pooling resources to make this purchase, and that as of yet, had not met with success. What I didn’t know was that I was not alone.
After we left A.J.’s employ earlier that year, he had hired a waiter of outstanding caliber. A smart, personable, experienced, and even-keeled guy named Brent Kelaher, who had left behind a career in restaurant management for what he thought was the stability of a corporate job with Bell. By now, we all know how that story goes, even more so now than back then, but suffice it to say that he was lucky to have a trade to fall back on; a trade for which his aptitude was matched only by his passion. He was even more affected by A.J.’s decision to sell, as it would be hitting him closer to home, and had also begun to wonder if this situation was, in fact, an opportunity.
I was first introduced to Brent after a morning of harvesting wild garlic from a neighbor’s back 40; I knew A.J. would appreciate the gift, so I wandered in the kitchen door, wild treasures in hand, bearded, in my grubby boots, flannel and jeans. A.J. had told Brent about the chef who had worked with him the previous year, and there I was, emerging from the woods with nature’s bounty, like a character in a novel. When we were reintroduced at the anniversary party, it was an introduction of intent: ‘This guy also wants to buy the restaurant. You know what, you two should talk.’ Brent and I hit it off from the start. His obvious passion was a mirror of my own and after a brief but serious conversation, we came to realize that our shared vision could actually succeed. I think we also realized right away that our credit pooled together would be more formidable than his and Jenn’s or Nicole’s and mine alone. In July, it will have been three years since that meeting, and I have never had cause to doubt my instincts from that first conversation.
It took a couple of months from there, but with more than a little help from all of our family and friends, we have managed to do what I had hoped, dreamed, and set out to do when I wrote that fanciful bio for the book jacket back in 2003. Very few people get the chance to live their dream and we wake up every day, thankful that we are among the lucky ones. That dream on paper went floating down a stream in California, but found its way to a riverboat’s slip in Kemptville on a branch of the Rideau River, or, the branch, as we call it here.
What the heck is a “Rubber Boots Buffet”?
November, 2006 (first story!)
From the time I was about 13, I was spending my summers mowing lawns in Texas, it’s a sweaty job, and dirty. We would wake up early, and put on our work boots. My father would accompany me, and perhaps my brother or a cousin on these jobs, and would use the opportunity to teach us the importance of hard work, as well as its rewards. Often, when looking at a finished yard he would sigh, contented, and smile, saying, “Nothing feels as good as a job well done.”
I also remember that for lunch we would often go to drive-through windows or walkup barbecue stands, as our attire (not to mention our odour) did not exactly merit table service. But there is one lunch that I’ll never forget. We were just finishing a one-off job in a part of town in which we didn’t usually work, it was about lunchtime, and my dad suddenly remembered that we were close to a soul kitchen. For those who only know that term from Jim Morrison, a soul kitchen is a sort of underground restaurant, usually in a black community, where food is served family style, plentiful and cheap. This was my first experience with such a place. As I recall, the food service area was the front porch and front room of a ramshackle house, the tables were Sears picnic, the beverage was iced tea, and the food was all you can eat, first come, first served. The other diners were construction workers, linemen, oilmen and farmers, and all of us were sweaty and dirty and wearing our boots. The food was fried chicken, biscuits, greens, mashed potatoes; it was buttery, rich and served right to the middle of the table, where we all sat together and passed the gravy just like Sunday lunch.
A few years on, I passed on the career in yard work to become a cook, eventually a chef in California. I also, on occasion, found myself working outdoors again, for one reason or another, often with the farmers who would supply the kitchen where I worked. I came to have a world of respect for these farmers; few if any occupations are more difficult or more important. And you know, I couldn’t help but notice that they were always wearing those familiar work boots.
When my wife and I traveled to Europe, we decided to try a program called WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) as a means of seeing first hand how organic farming works and to experience the countryside. We spent about a week each on farms in Gascony, Tuscany and Piedmont, trading our labor for room and board. It was in the mountains in France where we heard a story about a local restaurant; it was apparently well regarded, served haute cuisine and held a place of regard in the Michelin guide. On Sundays, however, the chef would volunteer his time to cook family style comfort food for just the locals and the farm workers who supplied his restaurant during the week.
Last year, in Canada, I was loaned a book by Timothy Taylor, called Stanley Park, (set in Vancouver) in which he relates a similar story. His main character, a chef, speaks of his desire to bring this “rubber boots” food to his clientele. His choice of the words rubber boots instantly connected my memories of the soul kitchen in Texas, of the hard working farmers in California and of the rich soil clinging to our boots on the farms in Italy and France.
When we were planning for our restaurant, Sundays just seemed obvious, we would have family style comfort food; all you can eat, an open stage for musicians and others and we would accept no reservations. Our “Rubber Boots” Sunday is a way of saying thanks to all of the hard working friends, locals and especially the farmers who have made this restaurant possible.
My Winter Vacation
Nicole and I took a few days and went to visit my sister in Staunton, Virginia where she is enrolled in a Master’s program studying Shakespeare. Staunton is home to one of the only existing theatres modeled as an exact replica on the indoor theatres of Shakespeare’s time. She was able to give us a tour of this fascinating space, but unfortunately the timing of our visit did not allow for us to take in a show. We did, however, get to experience another kind of theatre and do something I’ve wanted to do for years, which was to visit one of the United States’ most critically lauded restaurants, ‘The Inn at Little Washington’ in Washington, Virginia.
The chef, Patrick O’Connell, through his writings and through stories, has been an inspiration to me for over ten years. Though often described as one of the top chefs in America, he is self-taught, like myself, and has a great love for home cooking and what I call ‘real’ or ‘comfort’ food. He is often grouped with the great chefs of the world in magazines and books, but rather than challenging or inaccessible, I find his cooking style to be humble, smart, and invested with a sense of fun and adventure. In reading about him over the years, I was struck by his anti-snob attitude towards haute cuisine. He always remembers that flavor and service are more important than celebrity or presentation, but by focusing on the former it seems that he comes naturally by the latter. He also was the first chef about whom I read about who was associated closely with a cuisine based on local foods. This seed of thought germinated several ideas in my head and as a result I’ve often cited him as a reference point for my own style. All this before ever eating at his restaurant.
One of the most interesting things about ‘The Inn…’ is that it is, almost literally, in the middle of nowhere. It is a full hours’ drive from Washington D.C., the nearest city, and that drive is through mostly absurdly winding mountain roads populated by a host of vigorously suicidal deer who are actively seeking a hood to ornament. The town is cute and small, but is not home to any other particularly special industry of note (such as the wine country surrounding the world renowned small town restaurants of California). It is challenge to get there and a challenge to leave which was part of the reason the restaurateurs expanded into an inn soon after opening in the late 70’s. And yet, for years, the inn has filled its dining room night after night even with, what the owners describe as prices ‘raised out of self-defense’. Why would someone brave this treacherous journey for a meal? Well after our visit it was obvious.
We were late, a bit, and at some restaurants in this stratum that would have earned us our first scowl, instead, we were made to feel welcome, greeted by name and treated like old friends. Due to poor planning, we were dressed a touch less formally than we would have liked, at some restaurants, this would have earned us a second scowl, but here? No, again. It was so homey I felt like I should have brought a bottle of wine for the hosts. Nicole and I have eaten well in our time together, rarely at such posh places, but our adventures have, at times, taken us, sometimes as employees, other times as the lucky guest of those who can afford, and by an occasional almost heroic effort to ignore the right hand side of the menu until it is too late, to some dining rooms designed to comfort only the chosen (and by chosen, yes, I do mean wealthy) few. Our intimate familiarity with the kitchens and wait stations of such venues also makes us quite familiar with the attitude toward a couple of ratty young ‘middle class’ types like ourselves. We are obviously poor marks, financially incapable of ordering the finer wines or spirits that might push the waiter’s tip percentage into the stratosphere. In places such as these it is easy to discount such customers, to give them the table by the kitchen door, to subtly move them down the priority list for the table check or the water refill, etc. Small gestures, unintentional mostly, but observable to the experienced eye nonetheless.
I can honestly say, with just such an experienced eye, that I felt none of this subtle class distinction here, in fact, it was entirely the opposite. We were greeted by name, even our history was known. When my sister made the reservation she had mentioned that we were new restaurant owners, given this grain of knowledge, the hosts had found a copy of our logo and printed it on special copies of that nights’ menu welcoming us as equals. My reaction was emotional, no restaurant, no simple business had ever gone to such lengths on our behalf. The night improved from there, we were immediately treated to complimentary champagne and a number of delicious treats including tempura green beans, parmesan crisps, and sashimi of tuna. We chose a few selections from the a la carte menu and were treated to more tiny tastes. Our wine selection was aided by a sommelier who recited our menu choices to us (he wasn’t the waiter who took the order) and not only didn’t flinch when I explained our price needs but through the course of the meal, brought us complimentary tastes of some choices we were unable to afford, just because he thought we might enjoy them. And from the menu? I ordered, yes, macaroni and cheese with white truffles and Virginia ham. Those who know me well know I could not resist such a treat. Other menu items included perfect and fluffy gnocchi with lobster and walnuts, lamb loin tartare, wild mushrooms and Artisan cheese (again with white truffles, who can resist?), a meltingly tender tenderloin of venison, an immaculate tuna steak with seared foie gras and desserts of a chocolate trio and a butterscotch ice cream and cookie tower. What we didn’t order? Well, in addition to the nibbles I mentioned earlier there was a Red sweet pepper soup, an intermezzo ‘dreamsicle’ lollipop of vanilla and passionfruit ice cream, and a picnic basket of assorted cookies during dessert, and a chocolate truffle after (don’t tell him I said it, but it was almost as good as Brent’s). The flow of new tastes and flavors never stopped. It was flowlicious. It was a foodgasm.
After the meal we were ushered into the kitchen to meet the chef. He was entirely approachable, friendly, funny, proud, but not cocky, and quick to share secrets and advice. I let it slip during the meal that I had a copy of the first but not the second cookbook, and in the kitchen he handed us a signed copy of the second. As we were leaving, we were also given copies of our menu and the picnic basket from the dessert course.
It’s kind of obvious why people drive this far isn’t it? These folks understand that good service is the art of making people, regular people, feel special.
I read once that food from a top tier restaurant should be held up to a ‘take-out box’ standard, that is to say, that the food should taste just as good out of a take-out box as it does in the restaurant. Few, if any finer restaurants would fare well in such a test. Devoid of the trappings of the high grade china, flatware, crystal, linen and the elaborate lighting and plate design that make up the dining room of a modern haute cuisine restaurant, the food often becomes lifeless. Interesting, perhaps, but not necessarily special. My favorite story to tell about Patrick O’Connell is about his answer to a question which was put to a number of top chefs, the question was something along the lines of ‘What food would you take with you to a desert island?’ Most chefs answered with predictably impractical foods such as truffles or foie gras or some exotic oil, but Patrick answered a bit more creatively. ‘Clean water,’ he said, ‘I don’t think I would enjoy dying of thirst’ and went on to explain that he would enjoy having to forage for the rest. On his menu, he is not afraid to use the tools of haute cuisine which are afforded him by his current station in the firmament of modern day chef stars, but that isn’t what makes him special. What makes him special is that it seems as if he’d be just as content, and competent, without them. And that’s why his food is good. Probably even out of a take-out box.
In a way fine dining is little more than theatre, it is often far removed from the rational reasons of why we eat food, for instance, no one can argue that it has much to do with nutrition or sustenance. But that is not to say it does not play an important role. Much like theatre, fine dining is often a place where new ideas are vetted and tried, exposed and expressed. Just as theatre brought edgy ideas like class war, suffrage and racism to the dialogue of everyday people in Shakespeare’s time, fine dining has helped to bring forth conversations about such topics as organic agriculture, local foods and changing foodways today. One example might be how chefs are no longer relying solely on overfished ocean populations to maintain the impossible ideal of a static menu, and are instead looking to new and more sustainable populations for the future. Not all chefs are thinking this far ahead, but it is undeniable that the potential is there, and as long as chefs like O’Connell and Alice Waters are successful and are willing to take the lead there will be those who follow. That’s when fine dining becomes important, when food becomes more than what is on the plate and when being kind to a customer is more than act put on for profit and becomes a genuine act of people caring for one another. Now that’s good service.
Spring Farmers’ Market Story
Spring has finally sprung! April showers are bringing May mushrooms (or flowers, if you prefer that sort of thing…). The monolithic parking-lot-snow-mountains have shrunk and finally slunk off in a watery retreat to the rain gutters of our fair village. The tips of sprouts are courageously poking out through the brown, frostbitten soil, buds are breaking the ice hardened skin of the bushes and trees, and all around us the bright green chlorophyll is tentatively singing the first few bars of her sweet song of promise. If you listen, you can almost hear it…it sounds like a collective sigh of relief as we all plunge together into the brief season apparently known in these parts as ‘Not Winter’.
With Spring upon us, it seems that all we can talk about is gardening, farming, planting and growing food. There is no doubt that this instinct is as human as thousands of years of agriculturally based civilization can possibly make it. Let me clarify, at our core, we creatures of the earth have the simplest mechanism to keep us alive, that of survival. The desire to follow successful survivors is a manifestation of that base engine, and as humans, the successful survivors have been agriculturalists. So naturally, when spring reminds us of its bounty, we are culturally compelled to prepare the soil, to plant, and to plan for the harvest. Frankly, if we weren’t so compelled our genetic traits would meander off aimlessly and probably fade from the gene pool altogether.
My grandfather was a dentist, but was raised on a farm in East Texas. At his home in Bryan throughout his life he kept a small vegetable patch, a few fruit trees and a few chickens. I think he was just cheap; when you are raised on a farm it is likely difficult to spend money on things that can be produced so easily at so little expense. (I’m joking, of course, I mean he was definitely cheap, but farming is not easy…) The beauty of his example, though, is another fact of farm life that we are all quietly aware of. Fresh food tastes better. He knew it and couldn’t be satisfied by the grocery store’s poor excuse for quality, and we know it, but suppress the knowledge because our busy lives have made the idea of farming and even gardening seem like hobbies or vanity projects. The industrial age has been a noble human pursuit, but it has come at the expense of the flavour, healthfulness and quality of our food (and our lives), and ultimately our connection to the earth itself. This is illustrated clearly by both health crises we are facing as humans and by the looming threat of global warming, a health crisis for our planet.
But Spring has sprung. Everywhere we look or listen today people are talking about these issues. Commercials for organic baby food have entered primetime, hybrid cars are not just for tree huggers and hippies, recycling and energy conservation are now the winning buzzwords for successful politicians, not just the claptrap of the fringe. Is the battle over? No, of course not, it’s just beginning, but it is beginning in earnest and with vigor. I know in my heart that humans will turn this mess around, and I’ll tell you why. Survival. We always end up rooting for the winning team. We are so hardwired to win this game that we will do whatever it takes to make it happen. And mark my words, those who don’t will wander off aimlessly and their genetic information will fade from the gene pool altogether.
What can you do? Eat local, shop local, buy those funny looking light bulbs, quit driving so much and quit buying from people who drive so much. If you do buy from abroad, and we all do, choose organic. The branch will be starting a Sunday afternoon farmer’s market on May 27th; let’s all pitch in and support our local farmers. It’s our best good chance to win this race. This human race.
Someday, we’ll look back on all this and smile. Every once in a while, however, we realize exactly how great all this is right now. And smile. Sunday was one of those days. When 2 o’clock rolled around and the first farmer’s market customers started approaching the first farmers, we knew something special was happening. Everyone seemed to feel it. Smiles were miles wide in every direction. I’ve flirted with spirituality from a distance since my Baptist upbringing, but if ever a case could be made for divine intervention, it was the way the sky cleared and the rain dried up for the exact two hours of our first market day.
Recently, I’ve been wondering what has kept Kemptville from sustaining a farmer’s market long before now (yes, I know that this is not the first attempt). And, to some degree, I’ve been thinking how much fear plays a role in our lives. Be it fear of the unknown (or the unknown food, as it relates to cooking and eating), or fear of change, or the fear of failure, it seems we are constantly being controlled on some level by our fears. For me, I came to a point where I either had to face my fears, or I wasn’t going to be able to get on with my life.
I was in my early twenties and I was beginning to realize that my chances of finishing college were about as good as my chances of making a career out of the theatre degree I was pursuing, which is to say, next to none (apologies to Sarah, my sister with the theatre degree). I wasn’t going to be a rock star after all, and I was Single Again. For years, I had talked about travel, specifically going to San Francisco to pursue my career as a cook, but fear had kept me from it. Growing up in a smaller town, we spoke of “The City” as a scary place, with Crime and His Cousins lurking in every shadowy alley (smaller towns have fewer alleys but I’ve since discovered that that particular family doesn’t seem to mind…). Travel in general was met with equal suspicion, and admittedly can be quite harrowing, especially without the cushion of financial stability or a network of friends and family in place to buffer the dangers. But the biggest roadblock, far and away was not the fear of the danger…it was the fear of loneliness.
We humans are not an incredibly large animal, nor do we possess razor sharp teeth, claws or the ability to out-run, out-jump, or out-swim, well, (speaking for myself, of course) much of anything (hey! I’ve got flat feet!) As such, and being social creatures, we love more than anything to stay close to our pack. As for the fear of being alone, I really think that it’s just the way our brain decodes the blips and bleeps of our subconscious that are telling us, “wait, slow down, let’s just watch from a safe distance, if she eats the toadstool and doesn’t die, then the rest of us can try it,” or “let’s all just wait on the shore, we’ll watch this potentially insane ape walk out on the ice, if he doesn’t fall in and drown, and this does turn out to be an excellent shortcut, then we’ll follow” etc. It can be a rather useful instinct, when you think about it. Though we do celebrate, as a culture, those who are willing to step away from the crowd, we just don’t like to commit to joining them until they’ve proven themselves to not be insane. We like the winning team (Go Sens Go!) but are anxious, cautious and doubtful until the results are tallied (Senators in 6, I’m told). For me, when faced with my choice, I realized that I had to be the one to eat the toadstool, to walk out on the ice.
At the age of 24, I packed a bag and went west. Alone. I knew I needed to find something, and I did. I found that I survived. For me, that simple discovery was a big deal. As important and useful as our instinct to cling to the warm comfort of the pack may be, the fact is that someone has to be the loner, the innovator, the one to take chances; and without that wacko gene, we wouldn’t evolve as individuals or as a species. The best part is that once a person learns that lesson, how to put aside one’s fear, life starts to become easier. In the years since I took that first big risk, I have traveled both this continent and abroad, I have written a cookbook, I have made a good and important career out of something I used to think of as nothing more than a way to make the monthly payments on my microphone and P.A. Best of all, I met and married the most important person in my life, and wasn’t afraid to tell her so.
Last year, Nicole, Brent, Jenn and I each set aside our fear of failure and opened a business, offering creative & tasty organic food in Kemptville. There are those who think we are silly or weird, but it seems like more and more people think it is a good and timely idea and are willing to take a chance and try something new. A month or so ago we set in motion a plan to open a farmer’s market. And last Sunday, with smiles as bright as our own personal patch of sunlight, we saw that without question Kemptville was ready for a taste of the local foods movement. Time and again, we have seen that fear alone should never be a reason to not do something, and that life rewards the innovator. So don’t be afraid. Go west. Or east. Or even just go down the street to meet a new farmer, make a new friend, or maybe just to try something new…
Trust me, someday you’ll look up…and smile!
(eat local, be vocal…here’s how)
The question as asked by Adrian, queries:
‘What should Canada eat?’
But the answer…varies…
The riddle is fair, but not easy to solve,
In a simple reply that absolves us of its far-reaching implications.
Thus, my inclination is to answer in verse.
(rather than being terse.)
(eat local, be vocal…here’s how)
I can’t tell you what Canada should eat, nor can you.
Canada is too big and too wide to eat one food…and too diverse,
Or worse, cursed with a farmer’s worst enemy in the form of a season—
Local farmers are your family & friends; and in hard times,
They need to see our loyalty increasing—
Not outsourced, and increasingly divorced from reason.
(eat local, be vocal…here’s how)
I can’t tell you what Canada should eat, in the general, anyway,
I can only tell you what Canada should eat…today…
And right here. And right now.
(eat local, be vocal…here’s how…)
The meal is unimportant, the recipe can shift—
Look around you, down your road, maybe get a lift to the market.
In summer, mine’s across the street—
In the winter it’s in the city at Bank and Heron.
If you go this Sunday, say hi to Ross and Karl & David,
Maybe even Linda, Chris or even Sharon (if you should meet one…)
(eat local, be vocal…here’s how…)
The meal, well let’s see what we’ve got…
Meat and potatoes would be ok…Tim’s beef…or Dan’s…
Potatoes from Berhanu.
Some greens from Terre á Terre, and a carrot—
(or a pair, if you dare it…)
Apple cider vinaigrette on the greens, with vinegar from local cider,
From Hall’s or make your own from Jasper’s apples or Mountain’s…
Mustard from Janet, and honey from Terry
(come spring, we’ll make it with Aubin’s fresh strawberries)
Brilliant purple radish sprouts from Shelley
Crispy bacon from Aartje’s pork belly—
(Oh, crispy pork, oh crispy pork, we’ll see you again…
perhaps tomorrow with my toast and Linda’s jelly)
And bread. A loaf of comfort, baked by Rob.
With flour from Bob.
And butter, just a little knob, from Andy.
Richard’s cheese, of course, the Tomme…
Sliced thin and served with Jason and Peggy’s honey,
Or an Upper Canada cranberry chutney.
An apple crisp for dessert—served warm,
Apples from Berhanu, again, or from Mary.
With oats and seeds from Bob, maple syrup from Tim and Colleen.
I’ll churn the ice cream—with Cora’s eggs and Harmony’s cream,
(at least until the milk board lets me buy it up the street)
(eat local, be vocal…here’s how…)
I can’t tell you what Canada will eat. It’s too big a chore,
But as to what it should eat…
Start at your door.
You can never go home again…or can you?
My birthday is coming up this week and for me at least, that sort of thing tends to set the old nostalgia engine to rumbling. It also means lots of people are doing nice things for me. It started a week ago last Monday with a trip to Prince Edward County; my sister-in-law Denise surprised her husband Steve, my wife Nicole, and me with an elaborate plan involving fine hotel rooms at Huff Estates winery, reservations at restaurants in Picton and Kingston and pages of printed internet pages recommending culinary and booze related stops at an organic farm, a cider maker, several wineries, a brewpub, a cheesemaker, an ice cream shop, a beach and even Reader’s Digest’s pick for the ‘Best Hot Dog in Canada.’ Our whirlwind tour brought back numerous fond memories of trips Nicole and I took in California and Austin to each of their neighboring wine regions (I’ll let you guess which one was better). Visiting a winery’s tasting room is the best way to discover a wine’s secrets. You will always find the wine displayed in its very best condition, temperature, aeration and proper glass; the staff do nothing but answer questions about the wine and are therefore always capable of offering at least some basic information to help a buyer make informed choices. They also tend to know the culinary and cultural landscape of the area, as locals, and can help to guide the experience outside the winery as well.
When we first moved to this area, Nicole and I took a day trip from Toronto to the Niagara region and were just a little disappointed. The wines were not terrible, we just found them unadventurous and safe. I’m sure a few more trips might yield a different opinion, but after California and Europe, Canadian wines just seemed, well, like they needed more time to come into their own. Prince Edward County, on the other hand, was a pleasure from the first stop to the last. Perhaps the insanity necessary to build a wine region in an area that requires burying the entire crop to save it from the harsh winter also attracts winemakers with a bit more of a maverick attitude. Oh, the safe names like Cabernet and Chardonnay were still evident, of course, but they were often dismissed by the wineries themselves, as well they should be, as most of them were produced from grapes sourced from Niagara. They instead seemed more interested in showing off the newer grape varietals and blends, or the older varietals that were more appropriate for our cooler climate. The wines were not perfect, which is why I liked them. I once heard the French biodynamic wine guru Nicolas Joly speak in San Francisco; he said that he loved to taste bad wine; then, after a beat, he said, it’s the only way you can tell it was made by a human and not a machine. In my experience, some of the best and worst wines I have tasted have been made by the same person. I like Prince Edward County wines and am thrilled to find such a gem so close to my new home.
My parents arrived on Friday of last week with a trunk full of my old vinyl records. It was the missing puzzle piece for me in many ways. I started collecting records when I was about 15 and have amassed a modest but personally important collection over the years. When I moved away from Texas in the 90s, I left the bulky collection in my parents’ care (it wouldn’t fit in my rucksack), but on arrival in California, realized that I had not lost the bug. Collecting records is a very satisfying hobby; it is an excuse to visit second hand shops, garage sales and flea markets, it involves the skills probably evolved in our DNA for hunting, it has the reward of music upon the find, the lost art of the record sleeve, and unless one is a different kind of collector than I, it is a cheap hobby. I never even go to the collector’s shops where discerning snobs have placed inflated values on some album I will definitely find next year after Grandma cleans out Junior’s old room and will sell me the whole box for, I don’t know, 50 cents? Over time I built what I called, The California Collection. And my parents held The Texas Collection. In my mind, I dreamed of a day where the two collections were joined together, and as of last Friday, that wish has come true. I have often said that when these two collections were together I would know that I was home.
I was raised in Bryan, Texas; my family on both sides were Bryanites for at least three generations; I know that wouldn’t seem like much to a European or an Asian whose family has held their patch of ground for hundreds or thousands of years, but to me, it was home, it’s what home felt like, it was the streetmap of my nostalgia, the precise location of my ennui, my longing; for me homesickness was bryansickness, and it still seems like a mystical place, shrouded in the very mists of blah, blah, blah. Ughhh. The fact is, Bryan was a smaller town, it had some neat stuff, but it wasn’t a place I felt very strong about at the time. In fact, as a pre-teenager, I remember fighting tooth and nail to convince my family to move to East Texas when an opportunity came to buy my great Aunt’s house and property. High School was a bitter pill for me and felt more like a survival game than a learning institution. When my chance came, I was gone. I love my parents dearly, but the life of a Bryanite was not for me. I have and will visit the old home for many a year to come, but it is not for me. Not to mention that businesses have closed and opened, old friends have left, new people have arrived, and it’s not the same place it once was.
Many people have written on the theme that we can never go home again, most famously Thomas Wolfe in the book by that (approximate) title, in which he proceeded to piss off so many people with his frank tell-all approach that he actually made the title true by writing it. I don’t claim to understand the mechanics of nostalgia, but I am not immune to it. I feel longing and sometimes its name is Bryan, sometimes Austin, sometimes San Francisco, sometimes it is for my great Aunt’s homestead and farm, a place I never even lived but sometimes wonder about. It was in a small town, a village smaller than Kemptville, and I would have had a very different life. I wanted to move there so badly because it was near my father’s family farm, a (now) collectively owned 150 year old house we call ‘The Old Place’. When I close my eyes I can feel the smooth wood of the porch rail and the magical wind we called the Enloe breeze. I can smell the pine forest and I can imagine milking cows and hauling hay in that blistering hot Texas sun. I can imagine the sound of the old fiddle from the closet, strung and shiny and new giving us a mournful tune in the hands of some great-great aunt or cousin of mine before cars drove down the old red dirt road. I am nostalgic for something I’ve never even lived through. And isn’t that what nostalgia is? A ghost?
I am writing this in a 130 year old building in a country and village which neither I, nor my ancestors had any part in building. I am looking at my complete record collection. And I am home.
Why would we celebrate the dandelion?
This crooked little weed—
This fruit of fertile, feral seed—
This yellow and this green that speak out Spring! Spring! Spring!
For what this little flower with its splash across the lawn—
Aggravating those who seek an order to the grass and long to poison it and us by proxy—
What moxie shows this humble little plant—
It can’t be beaten back, just slowed—
It springs back each and every time it’s mowed, its seeds sown again and again, by wind!
How can one defend against such a hearty foe?
Embrace, and buss, enjoy, we must!
This lion’s tooth, so humble, and so strong—
Why celebrate this weed, this flower, this first sign of spring, this bitter green?
Why celebrate when we have lost the battle it has fought?
Why would we not?
I have always been terrible at receiving gifts. As a child, my difficulty would manifest itself as my being spoiled: gifts would appear, and I would frown, even throw temper tantrums, ‘this isn’t what I wanted!’ It is not the givers’ fault, they can’t know that I was ruined by a gift giver with whom they would be hard pressed to compete.
As an adult, I have been taught well to have good manners; I am gracious and pleasant, I smile and think back over the process and the importance of the ritual of giving and receiving gifts and how sharing is a way for us all to express our humanity. In our rush to keep up with life, we don’t all have the time to pick the perfect gift for each of our loved ones, but even a simple gift says something. With this in mind, and well aware of my own shortcomings when it comes time to pick a gift for someone else, I do my best to be gracious.
But, in fact, I dread receiving gifts. I live in fear that in the split second after the gift is open I will hurt someone’s feelings with an involuntary eye movement, glancing quickly down or to the side before looking the giver in the eye and offering my thanks. In that briefest of moments, I still find myself removed, questioning the necessity of the expenditure, or even, I am shamed to admit, the quality of the product, but I know these thoughts are just adult manifestations of that childish tantrum. I am gracious, but it is a learned reaction, and rarely spontaneous. I find myself, instead, removed and thinking back.
Two months ago now, we lost my Uncle Don. As a young boy, I remember this strange and marvelous bachelor uncle who would arrive at family gatherings like Gandalf the Grey and immediately be set upon by all the children in the area. He never fought this attention, unlike the others of the ‘grown up’ persuasion; he would revel in it and give us all his time and careful, honest attention for as long as we required it.
He was a good man who had been forced to overcome challenges. From a minor birth complication in infancy to a learning disorder in his school years he was stalled a bit, a situation complicated even more by losing his father and having to grow up a bit quicker than he had hoped. In the end, he never followed the path that many others do, into a routine of marriage, static career and suburban ‘normalcy’. He served in the navy, worked for the university, but eventually settled into a life of occasional odd jobs and a series of inexpensive ‘home-like situations’ as opposed to the house, the car and the 2.5 kids that so many of us seem to seek.
He was creative and very good with his hands. He became a well-loved and excellent teacher in the Boy Scouts. He was a ‘Mountain Man’, joining with a group of others who reenacted frontier era camping from the flintlock musket to the handmade clothes; in fact, the last time I spoke with him, he said that he and his group were planning to ride and camp along ‘The Continental Divide’ (aka, ‘The Great Divide’).
He had an uncanny knack for recycling (before it was fashionable) and could piece together just about anything one could imagine out of the odds and ends that made their way onto the grounds of his various compounds, storage sheds, campsites and trailers. He built a car, not once, but twice, out of spare parts from other vehicles, wood, scraps and even bits of worn-out appliances. Not ‘go-carts’, mind you, but street legal, registered and inspected ‘Ogg-mobiles’ (as in Donald Ogg) that traveled far and wide and provided, I’m sure, many a chuckle and smile, and perhaps, even a bit of admiration and envy along the way.
One Christmas, I’d say that I was about 7 or 8, there among the shiny papers and gaudy ribbons was a simple metal box, a gift from my Uncle Don. Like its contents, the box was fashioned by hand, cut with tin snips and folded to fit together like a shoebox. Inside were a series of puzzles and a handwritten note explaining rules. The puzzles ranged from a simple pile of nails with one nailed into a block of wood (the object is to balance all of the loose nails on to the fixed one, this puzzle alone took days for my brother and me to decipher), to a pair of horseshoes joined at the ends by welded-on lengths of chain with ring around the narrow part of the chains that could be removed and replaced without breaking a weld (although we considered that method many times in our journey to discover how). There were many others as well that, all told, provided hours of entertainment and joy over the course of the following weeks, months, even years, as they came back out to challenge new friends with their deceptive simplicity. Simple handmade puzzles that undoubtedly came together out of his legendary piles of ‘junk’ that my parents and his other siblings (unlike we, the nephews) simply couldn’t understand were obviously piles of treasure. Simple puzzles that took time for us to solve and took time for him to fashion; even in his absence from us then, his attention spoke…speaks…volumes.
That precious box of puzzles is easily at the top of a very short list of presents I can even remember from my childhood. Uncle Don was not a wealthy man in the conventional sense, but he had a wealth of time and with that commodity, he was the most generous man I’ve ever known.
As I am now rapidly approaching fatherhood, I (and we all) would do well to remember his lesson: it’s not the gift that counts, it is the giving.
And please, if you should happen to give me a gift, and you do see that split second glance to the side, down, or even out across the Great Divide, please, don’t take it personally. It’s not your fault; anyone would be hard pressed to compete.
Thanks again for the giving, Uncle Don.
A couple of months back, Nicole and I were present at the second annual Savour Ottawa summit meeting, held (this year) in the opulent surroundings of the National Art Centre. Savour Ottawa is the hub of the wheel that is moving our National Capital Region towards having a functioning local foods network. It is a joint program of Ottawa Tourism and a non-profit group called Just Foods, and is supported and loosely connected to many other local, provincial and Canadian efforts that all aim to put a little sanity back into the way we purchase, source, and ultimately consume food. In our area, it is our biggest and best means of participating in the local foods movement. This organization attempts to do this by putting chefs in the room with farmers (…and the media…and many other concerned folks, such as grocery store owners, distributors, micro-processors and farmers’ markets…) and it seems to be working; attendance at each event has increased as has interest and membership, with a surprising number of restaurants and farmers seeming anxious to climb aboard and help move this stuck wheel out of the mud. Much of the event was a series of progress reports and information bits, delivered in an organized and thoughtful fashion. Savour Ottawa has been quite active and engaged since its inception, just three short years ago, and I’ve enjoyed attending, participating, and even sitting on the advisory committee of this effective, smart and forward thinking group. We have gained a great deal by way of this group, but by far, the best thing has been the opportunity to meet, hear, talk to, and get to know a wonderful community of like-minded folks. Folks like Terry McEvoy.
‘Locavore’ is a new word; the folks at the Oxford American Dictionary added it to their lexicon and named it the word of the year for 2007. It was coined in San Francisco by someone named Jessica Prentice for the 2005 World Environment Day to describe folks who choose locally produced foods over the high mileage options we find in most stores, and in a short time, it has come to describe a movement some folks are calling the new ‘organic’. That would have been funny to our grandparents who would have called it ‘normal’. I spend a lot of my time thinking about this kind of stuff, so much so that it actually surprises me when I discover that other folks don’t necessarily do the same. That’s why it is always a pleasure to find other people who are as passionate about it as I am.
I never set out to be a local foods guy; for me, it started with a love of food combined with a sincere interest in and love of nature and the environment. It began in my teens and, I’m usually sorry to say, the earliest manifestations were a precocious political bent, usually expressed with a passionate lecture or a blind criticism of anyone whose knee didn’t jerk to the left. Needless to say, this approach didn’t win me many fans and I eventually learned to tone down the preachy-ness in favour of a more personalized expression in the form of a series of experiments with vegetarian, vegan, and finally organic eating. My career path being what it was (with few exceptions, I’ve only ever cooked for a living), and because of my other hunger for things to read and learn, it was natural for me to follow each of these personal experiments into both extreme research in the form of articles and books as well as into a variety of professional settings. This path has led me to where I am now, cooking philosophical local and organic food in a small town—reaching out and teaching folks (I hope) about some of the things I’ve learned along the way. When we opened the branch, I made a promise to myself that I would start shopping at my door, and really, honestly try to forge a local network that would supply our restaurant, of course, and support my family, but also to contribute to the community as a whole; that we would be a part of something bigger than just a business, and that we would make an honest effort to be a part of a positive world change.
Doing that meant meeting local farmers and producers, a task that is the least work-ish part of my work. It meant going to farmers’ markets, cold-calling numbers from the internet or the phone book, and occasionally, it meant pulling a dangerous U-turn to stop and buy a tub of honey at a self-serve shack like Terry McEvoy’s, which was right on the side of one of the main roads out of town.
I am a local food geek, for sure, but I am not a local food Armageddon-ist, which is to say, I no longer think that the world will end if I eat a slice of processed cheese (it might…but I doubt it); nor am I completely convinced that there is absolutely no place for giant mechanized and centralized farming operations in the matrix of the future of how we feed this planet (hey, I love Star Trek, I’d love to think that there is a scientific solution to every problem!) But, as far as the benefits of local eating go, what I have come to believe is that big economies (such as giant centralized and mechanized farms) and big corporations (such as agro-chemical, food processing plants, or giant feedlot and slaughter operations) are too easily made victim to the violent side effects of one of nature’s fundamental laws, the law of inertia, or momentum. And until humans can subvert this basic law of nature, (God help us when we do…) I can’t help but feel that we are needlessly endangering ourselves, our fellow humans, our children and our planet, and usually for all of the wrong reasons, like money, power or ‘security’; but most often, as I stated before, simply because of momentum. Big systems like our agricultural and industrial food processing ones can turn a bad idea into a devastating one in a short time (think DDT or gene modification); ideas which seem like good science in the lab can suddenly become toxic and widespread when applied to our enormous food system as a whole. Also, when things go wrong, (think Mad Cow Disease, or E. coli) they tend to go very wrong, very quickly because the system is so big that by its nature, by its momentum, it is difficult, or even impossible to slow or stop. In other words, with each new iteration of a poorly tested or poorly understood catch-all agricultural ‘solution’, or with each new manifestation (…watch the papers, what is it that is being recalled this week: Peanut Butter? Spinach? Deli Meats?) of a systemic problem, we open Pandora’s Box; and by the time we realize what we’ve done, it is too big, too bad and too late.
You see, I do believe in the science of agriculture, it’s just that my favorite farm laboratories are not climate or temperature controlled (at least not by the hand of man) or located in a Monsanto complex, they are scattered around the countryside of every rural route in the world—and they are operated by scientists who understand things about plants that can’t be taught in a clean white lab-coat or with a test tube. The scientists that I trust have dirty hands and well-worn rubber boots; they can fix a tractor with a bent stick and a length of twine—they can tell you which hill gets the best sun for basil and which shallow spot is too wet for garlic. And the science they understand isn’t from a book with pages; it is from an almanac filled with dirt, sun, time and water. These scientists Will Feed Their Family, and then, if there is something left, they will feed some other folks, too. They know that crop diversity will be the best tool to ensure a year of meals because the bugs can’t get everything, and they know that saving seeds is cheaper than buying them and the best way to be sure of what they’re going to get. They know that spraying poison on food is counterintuitive at its best and downright criminal at its worst. And they know that if something doesn’t work, for heaven’s sake, you stop doing it, you don’t keep trying it over and over again, hoping for a different result. They are small enough, smart enough and quick enough that they do not get crushed by the momentum of a bad idea.
These folks are the scientists that I trust. They acknowledge the math and philosophy of the agricultural schools but they also don’t let it interfere with the process of putting food in the pantry or the root cellar. It is a science not simply based on knowledge, but on knowledge tempered with wisdom; science of the mind, but also of the heart. These are the same scientists who carried the world on their backs from the caves right up to the industrial revolution, and when the oil runs out (and it will…), these are the scientists we will all be seeking out, hat in hand, begging them to teach us how to feed ourselves again.
I’m not going to wait.
I didn’t want to write today, I (and lots of other folks) got some bad news yesterday morning, Terry McEvoy, our honey guy, died suddenly, much too suddenly and much, much too young. Our, and many other heavy hearts, are with his family today. Terry was a honey collector and processor, a family man, a birdhouse builder and a pioneer and an activist in many community based, positive world changing groups and projects. And, without question, he was one of those scientists, those men of knowledge, of wisdom, and of heart to whom I referred.
I was remembering that Savour Ottawa summit at the NAC today, because of him. As a fellow member of the advisory committee he was asked, I believe, just to introduce or to give a quick summary of some item at the microphone at some point during the latter half of the event. There was no keynote speaker that day and accurately sensing the spirit of the moment he took it upon himself to say a few things…he noted that this was not what he had been asked to do, but that he felt that when an opportunity presented itself, such as this one had, there must be a reason, and that it was important for someone to say what needed to be said. Then he pulled out a set of notes. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said with a bit of mischief, ‘It won’t take too long.’ It didn’t. He spoke clearly and eloquently for the next several minutes about several topics, but central to his theme was the idea that our collective need to put the idea of ‘culture’ back into ‘agriculture.’ He talked fondly of his forebears and about how crazy they would have found the idea that in our backwards food non-culture of today a farmer could have hundreds of acres and still not be able to feed his or her family. And he spoke about how great it was that we were all there in that room talking about doing something about it, but that all the talk in the world wasn’t going to fix what needed fixing and that we were all going to have roll up our sleeves and get to work if we wanted to see real change.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that his talk that day affected me deeply. On the one hand, my respect for him increased tenfold for his act of courage and will in even taking (and I do mean taking) the chance to speak. In some ways, he helped to wake up that passionate youngster in me who I had suppressed all those years ago for fear of offending; I felt like I was being given permission, even responsibility to take the chance to say what needed to be said when the chance arose, and I’ll admit, I have enjoyed and taken a few opportunities to do exactly that in the months since…much like what you’ve read in the paragraphs here today. And on the other hand, the importance of the specifics of his message have resonated with me; both as a reminder of the importance of what we who are active in the local food culture are doing and also for his call to arms, his recipe for a clear direction forward. His phrase about putting the ‘culture’ back into ‘agriculture’ is now a permanent part of my idiom, as it now is, I’m sure, for every person who heard him speak on that (or any other) day. Terry was a true and good leader. I did not know him well, certainly not nearly as well as I wanted to, and though I had looked forward to getting to know him over years to come, I find that even in 2 short days, I am already getting to know him better as I learn more and more about his incredible legacy.
This community has suffered a blow. Terry McEvoy, a good, good man, was ripped from us too swiftly and much too soon. But if he were here, something tells me that he’d be taking the microphone and telling us that we’ve got to roll up our sleeves, look ahead and get to work.
I didn’t want to write today, but I knew I had to.
Branch Blackened Rainbow Trout with Veggie Etouffée and Remoulade
Special equipment: cast iron pan, good ventilation…
I learned this technique from a chef who trained under Paul Prudhomme, the inventor. Or at least that’s what he told me… I like to think that gives me some room to talk about how to do this, but really, who cares? It tastes pretty darn good no matter what I say! Anyway, the trick he taught me was to bring a cast iron pan up to ‘white hot’ before searing the fish… You can actually see an ashy whiteness when the skillet is hot enough, and then just to cook it for a minute or less on either side… if the fish is not cooked through at that point, I just finish it in the oven. This is a great technique in a professional kitchen where we are used to pans that exceed the temperature of the center of the sun and have giant ventilating hoods to spirit away the pungent smoke and possible giant leaping flames (if you should accidentally splash some oil in the pan…) created by this cooking method… As a result, if you want to do it at home, I’d recommend either doing it outside on the burner of your barbecue or just searing or broiling the seasoned fish in a bit of butter or oil over a slightly lower heat indoors. It is still mighty tasty…
2 8-10oz rainbow trout filets, cleaned and deboned
3 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
2 teaspoons thyme
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
3 cups cooked rice (your favourite recipe)
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
½ green bell pepper, chopped
2-3 litres boiling water
Salt and pepper
Béchamel (recipe follows)
Remoulade (recipe follows)
Prepare the remoulade, béchamel and the rice. In a bowl big enough to hold the fish filets, combine the paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper and cayenne and set aside, reserve one teaspoon of the mix for the remoulade. Heat up your pan (see the note above). Dredge the fish in spices and shake off excess. Sear the fish quickly in the dry skillet, less than a minute on either side. If the fish is a thicker filet, finish by removing to a 350 degree oven for 5-7 minutes. NOTE: The crust is formed by the quick caramelization of the spices, it is not supposed to burn. If you can’t trust your skillet to get hot enough to pull off the technique without burning, simply sear the fish in a few teaspoons of clarified butter or oil over medium high heat for 2-3 minutes on either side, it is, as noted above, still pretty tasty.
Blanch the onions, carrot, celery and bell pepper for 45 seconds in the boiling water and drain well, season with some salt and pepper. Place the rice on the plate, stack on the veggies and spoon over the béchamel. Serve with the blackened fish and the remoulade, garnished with the lime wedges and the fresh thyme.
1.5 cups milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
Salt and white pepper to taste
Simmer the milk with the bay leaf, onion and clove for 20 minutes, strain. In a small saucepan, melt the butter, whisk in the flour and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the strained, simmered milk and continue to whisk over medium-low heat until the sauce thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Keep warm.
1 tomato, roasted until dark
2 egg yolks
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon lime juice
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 teaspoon reserved Cajun spice mix (above)
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup oil
In a blender, combine all the ingredients except for the oil and blend well. Then, while you are still blending, add the oil in a slow steady stream until combined and thick mayonnaise is formed. For an easier method, replace the egg yolks, lemon, salt and oil with a cup of your favourite prepared mayonnaise and mix in a food processor.
We don’t need oil
There’s a geyser in the gulf. Our unquenchable thirst for oil has led to one the worst environmental disasters of all time. Every day we see images of the oil spewing forth like the wrath of an angry God from the bowels of the earth into what were once unspoiled waters in the Gulf of Mexico. And every day we hope someone out there is smart enough, is able enough, that someone, that anyone, really, has the will, the means and the capability we need to stop this horrible, horrible crisis from continuing. We need a hero, a superman; we need someone who has all the answers and all the power. Well, allow me to introduce you to…you.
You can’t stop this disaster, I mean, eventually we will, someone will, but sadly, this time, it will only be after much more damage is done. But you do have the power, the will and the capability to stop it from ever happening again. You’ve known it for a while, it’s like the smoker who keeps seeing those warnings on the pack and continues to light up. You know better, it’s just so damn hard to stop. The warning signs are all here, you’ve seen them for years, not just on every other TV newscast, but in the weird storms, the too long winters, the too short winters, the too hot summers, the snows in July, all the little details that keep adding up in the backs of our minds. Gas prices keep going up, sure, they shift around too, but overall, it’s not really getting any cheaper any time soon. Oil is, and we’ve always known this, a finite resource. The nagging doubts, the understanding of the deeper truths, the facts are all there, and we’ve all known them for a long time. You don’t even have to accept the findings of the vast majority of climate scientists who agree on the concept of the greenhouse effect and its industrial origins to realize and accept that eventually cheap oil will be a memory, not a fact of the present, and that when that happens, unless we all make some serious changes, things are not going to be very pretty. The warning signs are all there, but it’s just so damn hard to quit.
I am not new to these worries and fears; I often pondered this peculiar state of the world in high school, even earlier. How was it that we could collectively ignore this obvious, glaring truth? Like many teens, my ignorant, youthful mind turned quickly to conspiracy theories—of course, it must be a plot by the state, which hates the planet and wants it to rot; it is the older generation that cares nothing for the future and is wallowing in its greed and using a gangster mentality of crushing all competition no matter what its intrinsic value to the planet, and to its, and to my future… I was right of course, and wrong. Yes, there are those who live a cynical self-absorbed life of gangster-ism, but there are many more who are simply short-sighted, ignorant, non-philosophical, stuck-in-their-ways, childish, or doing harm by simply doing nothing, feeling that a problem on the scale of planetary health is simply too big to take on as an individual.
I eventually turned my fear into curiosity and made a point of educating myself on any number of environmental causes such as our consumption of meat and the impact of our industrialized food system on the environment, a fascinating, rich, possibly (in my opinion) singular set of facts at which crossroads I built my career. There was also a book by Buckminster Fuller that made me consider subjects like mass transit and off-grid housing. A science teacher opened my mind to ideas about alternative fuels and peak oil. A girlfriend’s copy of the Whole Earth Catalog sent my mind in a dozen directions considering our potential and even hopeful future. I read about ‘back-to-the-land’ experiments from the sixties like the Farm in Tennessee and Tassajara in California. And yet, it seemed that the more I learned, the less I understood—it seemed that the knowledge was ankle deep and rising all around me and yet no-one near me seemed to notice or even care.
I decided to take personal action. I became a vegetarian, eventually a vegan, and finally an organic and local foods consumer and advocate. I recycled, composted, used natural and biodegradable cleaners and bought secondhand when possible. I learned bits of knowledge about everything from foraging and organic farming to home-brewing with a long term goal of homesteading. After years of working for other folks in businesses that didn’t quite match my value system, I eventually joined with my wife and friends and opened a business of my own which is, in many ways, its own intentional community.
Over the years I have always kept ear to the ground of the larger environmental movement and have been thrilled to watch it move from the fringes into mainstream consciousness. Things like Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth’ and widely circulated ideas like the 100 mile diet, green energy, rising oil prices, climate change, ‘climate-gate’ and even security and international conflicts and wars, and most recently, even a disaster like the ongoing one in the Gulf, have all been important memes for opening discussions about environmental issues with broad cross-sections of people for whom the subject held no interest in those many years when I felt like a lonely soul on the vast and empty frontier. I welcome all discussion on the subject of environmental health, because I honestly believe that any discussion will, by the virtue of truth, eventually lead to a more sensible, sane and sustainable world and that even the naysayers do their part by keeping the subject open.
But I also, like many, fear that not enough is being done, fast enough, to change what needs to fixed before things really get worse. I wish, with all my heart that I could turn on a light switch and show the world what folks like me and the many wise souls who lit my path have seen clearly and for a very long time—that we are approaching a cliff, and that the fall will not be fun, the ride exciting, the time spent on the way down pleasant and that the sharp, sudden stop at the end will not be the comic pratfall for which we may hope, but rather a complete, utter and final end to the kind of life we have known, loved and enjoyed. I wish I could flip that switch, not because I want to take away hope, but rather, because I honestly, deeply and sincerely want to offer it. I believe that if we could all, if even just most of us could, like some comic book hero, see what absolutely needs to be done to nudge this Spaceship Earth back on to course then we could certainly do it. We could, and we certainly should.
I believe that the time has come for us to call on that hero, to call our hero back from his journey, from her quest for truth and knowledge; it is time for us to call on that hero within ourselves and say now, now we’re ready. We’re ready to do the small things that need to be done, but to do them together and on such a broad scale that they become the largest thing we’ve ever done on earth. There is a geyser in the gulf, and there is a blanket of gas on the earth, it is time for us to say “no more.” I know it’s so damn hard to quit, but just like a smoker knows he eventually must, it is time to and it is time to say I will do it for my health, for the health of everyone I love and care about, I will make changes because I want to live in a world where we don’t need mile deep offshore oil wells to support our way of life, we don’t even need twenty foot deep offshore oil wells. We don’t need oil. The fact is that we humans are simple, resilient creatures, if we have community food, and shelter, we really don’t need anything else.
You know the answers, you know the truth, and the little things become big things when lots of people do them. Change a light bulb from incandescent to fluorescent, turn up the ac, turn down the furnace, do something in town instead of travelling to the city. Walk more, watch less TV, buy local food, buy local art, garden, compost, learn to sew…You know what to do, and its easy, you’ve just been waiting for the right time to try it. Now is that time. It is time to say that we are ready to start living in a world where we all find our inner hero and for me, that world is the one where my daughter can someday be proud of herself and of all of us and say, “We saw it coming, and we did our part, we didn’t wait for anyone else to fix things. We lit our own path. We are the one we need.”
It’s hard to explain. If you love chilies the way I do, there is nothing to explain, if you don’t, well, like I said, it’s hard to explain…I guess that, for me, there is familiarity, after all, my mother pulled no punches with her chili con carne (it was made with cayenne pepper-40,000 Scoville Heat Units; the measurement for how hot a pepper is, determined by how many times a pepper is diluted in water before losing its heat…, her chili also included jalapeno-6,000 SHU, and ancho chili powder-1,000 SHU…); every Mexican restaurant we ate at in my childhood (and there were many) served chips and salsa in bottomless baskets and bowls before the meal and the salsa (jalapeno) was never made any more mild for the children, nor were the enchiladas, the chilies rellenos, the huevos rancheros, or the burritos (Tex-Mex restaurants use a lot of jalapeno, poblano-1,000 SHU, serrano-20,000 SHU, pasilla-1,000 SHU…) My brother and I discovered a Thai place in our late teens that would deliver a powerful blow if you requested it (Thai finger peppers-90,000 SHU, in sufficient quantities to humble the toughest jalapeno nibbler)—The local Chinese restaurant had a hot pepper in the Kung Pao chicken that we were advised to remove before eating (Cumari-40,000 SHU) but hey, what fun is that? The Chicken Oil Company served the ‘Death Burger” (jalapenos, again, and Tabasco sauce-6,000 SHU), Loretta, our Cajun friend, made a powerful gumbo that would burn like a tire pile (she used cayenne, black and white pepper, fresh serranos and jalapenos and yes, more cayenne)…Breakfast, lunch and dinner, where I grew up, there was always a place for chilies.
But why? When my wife sees me sweating and tearing up, nose running, unable to speak, she is dumbfounded; in fact, most people who don’t share my love of the glorious pain of pepper eating seem to share this curious amazement. But the ones who do…well, lets just say that we understand. But how can I explain it? A scientist would calmly point out that when the capsaicin interacts with the taste buds, the nerves send a signal to the brain that the mouth is being burned, the brain reacts by turning on some defense mechanisms; it increases the heart rate, speeds up the blood flow, increase perspiration, and releases endorphins. Endorphins, you may know, are the gooood stuff…Endorphins are the drugs your body keeps around to make you feel good enough to keep functioning after an injury, which was probably a pretty important survival tool for our jungle dwelling predator-prone ancestors…for the modern version of us, for chili-heads, (…and skydivers, and roller coaster riders…) endorphins are also an awesome cheap (legal, easy, non-toxic…) buzz. That’s right, we’re sitting at the table with you, munching on our peppers and getting high.
My first encounter with real extreme heat was that Thai place I mentioned earlier. I grew up in Bryan/College Station, Texas, a college town and home of Texas A&M University, a large and well regarded institution that drew (and draws) a diverse international student body with its excellent engineering, agricultural, as well as many other programs. This diversity was, although not always exactly overt in our community, a small and interesting presence that brought with it some unusual perks. One of the greatest of these was Thai Taste, a hole in the wall storefront restaurant peopled by a family of Thais who had come to help support the education of a family member (or maybe members? I can’t recall…). It was hardly a conventional restaurant: décor was somewhere between sparse and non-exsistent, the 3 or 4 tables seemed to be inherited from a real estate office boardroom or a garage sale down the street, the menu was short and often patchy, depending on who was working, or the time of day, the time of year—They often even closed for a couple of months at a time to visit Thailand and, apparently, to bring back piles of dried and specialty ingredients not otherwise available in Texas. It was not a cookie cutter Thai restaurant like so many I have visited in the years since with the same tired versions of Pad Thai, Coconut Curry and Tom Yum soup, although it offered some of these things, it offered them in a vacuum, without the influence of the standard ‘Thai Restaurant Model’ that seems to define the mildly flavoured, ‘Westernized’ and homogenized Thai restaurants that I have encountered so frequently in the cities of my travels in the years since. Thai Taste, for lack of a better description, seemed more like home cooking. There was a grandmother in the kitchen, a father, a mother, possibly a sister, perhaps an aunt or an uncle or something, teenagers who wanted to be somewhere else, young children who delighted in running the food, clearing the plates and refilling the water glasses. The food was fresh and rough, large chunks of ginger and lemongrass were left in the soup for the diner to remove, bones and gristle were unapologetically not cleaned from fish or chicken, and most importantly, spice was not held back in some vague attempt at appealing to some mythical, as yet undefined to me concept of ‘the Western Palate’. Almost everything was spicy at Thai Taste, some things more than others, but the reason two teenagers would return again and again to this haven of hot, was the fact that the food could be prepared as hot as you liked, all the way up to the apex of impossibility, that’s right, five stars. My brother and I returned a number of times ordered our food at this magical heat level, asked for a pitcher of ice-water, smiled at each other and plunged in. The pain was instant and furious, but the pleasure…well, here I am 20-plus years later still basking in its glow, so you can be the judge.
When I moved to Austin, I discovered my next marker on the road to chile nirvana, it was in the form of a bottled sauce at a barbecue joint called Ruby’s. Just a bottle on the table next to the Tabasco, by that point in my chile-chomping career, I could drink Tabasco out of the bottle, and I often would, publicly, usually to prove a point, or, honestly, just to show off…This new sauce looked good, a Mexican label, a bright green colour, I was having the Jambalaya, and poured about a half cup of this new treat all over it, against the advice of my dining companion who had met this fabled pepper on the field of battle before and knew exactly what I was up against. That formidable foe was my first encounter with a family of peppers known to scientists as capsicum chinense, the family that includes all of the hottest peppers in the world. The sauce was bottled habanero hot sauce (about 100,000 SHU), and that meal was the first of many with a new and lifelong friend–I almost finished it too! Of course, over time, my tolerance has grown, and now, if I wanted to, I could probably drink that sauce out of the bottle, I wouldn’t bother, of course, but, just sayin…
So yes, chilies are hot. At some point in the 1990’s Dave’s Insanity Sauce (118,000 SHU) came along and introduced ‘capsaicin extract’ as an ingredient that pushed the boundaries of heat into the realm of weaponry; enjoying habanero sauce eventually lead to sampling raw habaneros (up to 350,000 SHU). Dave’s Insanity, upped the intensity in subsequent sauces and opened the floodgates to a host of new competitors using even more and more extract, a process that changed the whole game, but, of course, I tried each new sauce as it came around, and even though through all that heat my tolerance steadily grew, I was also humbled again and again, once, in California, by a bottle of some poison called ‘Da Bomb’, the only bottle of hot sauce which I could not finish, and once, even, by a plate of a half-dozen chicken wings at a roadside stop in Erie, New York, which required a signed release before it could be served. I ate four before tapping out. There was, until recently, always still one more challenge, the true, according to many, Holy Grail of Heat, India’s mythical Bhut (or Naga) Jolokia, the fabled ‘Ghost Pepper’ (1 million-plus(!) SHU) which I actually finally sampled here in Canada last month. It was, though astoundingly hot, surprisingly easy for me, easier than I expected, (too much extract over the years, I suppose) but I also wonder if my sample was anywhere close to as hot as they come (or if, as one observer noted, perhaps I am just the Hulk Hogan of Hot, thanks Kathy…) But either way, it leads one to wonder, is that really all there is? Will I keep trying, keep eating more and more, hotter and hotter? Will I eventually have to spray police grade pepper spray (5 million SHU) down my throat, or score some straight capsaicin extract (16 million SHU) for a weekend with the boys? Well, the short answer is…no.
My favourite pepper in the world is a chile grown and dried by Tierra Vegetables in Healdsburg, California, the variety, ‘Chilhuacle Negro.’ It is native to the Mexican regions of Oaxaca and Chiapas, and the variety is astoundingly tasty with an aroma that can only be compared to the complexity of a fine wine or a perfect cigar, and although the variety of chile is amazing, I’ve had it from other farmers, and the fact is, there is something about the soil, the care, the drying method or something else that Lee and Wayne James (the brother and sister farming team who are responsible for the chili-head Mecca that is Tierra Vegetables) do that turns this mildly spiced, aromatically overachieving chile into a piece of culinary art that, in my mind, rivals the white truffle, the saffron thread, a glass of Chateau D’Yqem, or even a perfect Malpeque oyster for its ability to produce transcendent aroma and flavour. Chihuacle Negro clocks in nowhere near 16 million Scovilles, in fact it only creeps across the Scoville finish line with a relative heat somewhere between 500-1,000 SHU. A close second, for me, in the world of favourite chilies, or even just foods in general, is the texture and warmth of a heavy walled, roasted and peeled Poblano pepper, which, stuffed with good cheese or with a sweet and tangy pork picadillo, I enjoy more than almost any other meal. That’s also only about 1,000 SHU. A freshly fire roasted Hatch chile from New Mexico at peak season is a treat that everyone should enjoy at least once in their lives and several times if possible, easy enough, again, at a measly 1000-2,500 SHU. Give me a few rings of a Hungarian wax pepper fried in olive oil with a pinch of sea salt, or a plate of flash seared pimientos di Padron, both of which are often quite mild (but which may surprise!) with Scoville Heat Units ranging from near zero to the low 1,000s. One of my favourite all time vegetarian meals includes the flesh of sweet big, meaty red bell peppers (0, that’s right, 0 SHU) roasted, peeled and layered with cream cheese, caramelized red onions and big slices of grilled portabello mushroom. Heat or no heat, I am content to dine on this equal parts notorious and nonthreatening nightshade forever. Dried, smoked, ground to any of a dozen different powders, flakes or coarse meals, reconstituted in warm water, pickled, preserved, jellied, served on popcorn, in chutney, in dessert, on breakfast or on steak, the fact is that the capsicum family, when it comes to cooking, is my family; it is as comfortable as my favourite slippers and as entertaining as an evening with an old friend.
India has spices, coffee, mangoes, tea…Thailand has fish sauce, lime leaves and galangal; Italy has white truffles and saffron; France has black truffles, stinky cheese and botrytis wines, Japan has the Ume plum and is surrounded by literal oceans of briny treasures. And in today’s world, all of us can have all of these things, all of the time. Asparagus in winter, chestnuts in the spring…Cheap oil and a fleet of planes have brought the treasures of the world into each and every one of our gourmet food stores and, for a price, we can enjoy anything that we like. For Now. But what if, or perhaps even, ‘when if’ the world shifts, when, for whatever reason, these treats from other lands are no longer around to fill our shelves or when, and even now, the price is so high that we need something else, something that is our own, easy to find and easy to grow and easy to use and store and share to delight our senses and to spur our imagination? What then? Fortunately for us, this New World, the Americas, our world, has its own trunk full of culinary treasure; our chilies, our peppers, these many capsicums which were being consumed wild in the jungles of Bolivia as long ago as 7500 BC before being cultivated in Ecuador some 6,000 years ago. Over time, these puny pods of painful pleasure travelled throughout South, Central and North America, before, finally over the recent and relatively short span of just the last 500 years or so, they fanned out in the galleys, holds, and pockets of European and other adventurers to conquer the palates and racing hearts of humans on every corner of the globe. Over time they have evolved a variety of styles, flavours, textures and aromas that span the palate as surely as they have spanned the globe. For me, chilies have followed me from Texas to California to Ontario, a magic ingredient, a family of ingredients that, in their versatility, array of flavours, ability to tease, tantalize, attack and yes, even occasionally, to get me a little bit high, has always distinguished my cuisine, opened up my taste buds to new possibilities and filled my belly with everything from astounding sweetness to astounding heat; these secret ingredients, these talismans, these tricks of the trade have become the paints whose broad rainbow of flavours, aromas, and textures are the colours that have helped me to fill out, with whatever artistry I can muster, the canvasses of plate on which I daily paint.
It’s hard to explain. If you don’t understand by now, it’s entirely possible that you never will. But let’s put it this way, sometimes it gets pretty cold up here in Canada, too cold to grow allspice, or nutmeg or mangoes or tea. And to me, it seems pretty obvious, there’s only one thing to do when it gets too cold, yeah, you know…Turn up the heat!
I’ve always been a bit of a rebel—I question authority, I don’t take things at face value, I like to think that I live on the edge—battling the status quo. I don’t know where I picked up this attitude, maybe it has something to do with being a middle child—neither the firstborn nor the baby, struggling to earn my due—maybe it has something to do with genetics (…my folks could be described as having the occasional quirk…); maybe it was just my group of childhood friends who set me on this path. One thing is for sure, though, at least over the last year or so, that sense of NOT being in the mainstream is almost certainly incorrect. Or is it?
From things like the election, in the U.S., of an (on paper) progressive president, to my own casual forays into the halls of local politics and even to the broad, casual acceptance of things that used to be my niche, my fringe philosophies; especially things like the local and organic foods movement, green energy, like solar panels and hybrid cars, railing against pollution and oil companies…Well, often, the fact is, I just don’t feel so alone out here anymore.
I seem to be surrounded by friends, big and small, friends I never expected to meet—let me elaborate; today, I saw a Coca-Cola truck with a ten foot high banner bragging that it was a hybrid-electric vehicle that was responsible for cleaning city air; last week I saw an article in which our new Wal-Mart claimed to be building its new local box store using ‘sustainable building’ practices…a new Canadian Tire, (across the street from the old one) will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. Grocery stores claim to carry local and organic products; new restaurants advertise local foods…I’m surrounded by friends, everywhere I look, trying to help make the world a better place by going green, buying local, even cleaning the air with Coca-Cola.
Why do I smell a rat?
Last week I saw Food Inc., finally. If you haven’t seen it yet, please, really, go watch it. Now. Seriously, I’ll still be here when you get back….
OK, you’ve seen it? Good! Now, welcome back, where was I? Food, Inc. is a movie that seems to be a summary of a lot of the information I try to share with people on pretty much a daily basis (monthly, if you just read the newsletter…) It encompasses everything from the dangers and pitfalls of centralized agribusiness in the meat and commodity food industries to the intimate connection between what we eat and our (and our planet’s) health. One of the experts interviewed in the film was Gary Hirschberg, a CE-Yo (…his joke, not mine…), president and one of the people instrumental in bringing Stonyfield Yogurt into millions of homes all over North America every year. Gary, it would seem, was a kind of a late term hippie; the Stonyfield website describes him as ‘an environmental activist, a windmill maker, an author and a noted entrepreneur’, a little more homework reveals that he was a member of The New Alchemy Institute, a think-tank and not-for-profit research group of sorts that experimented with green technologies and that sounds like a page out of any edition of the Whole Earth Catalogue, who evolved into one of socially responsible business’s most exhilarating (on the surface) success stories. He is a man who has taken his values to the street, and by ‘the street’ I mean Main Street, the place where you and I actually live. His brand is no longer merely the best-selling organic yogurt brand; it is the 3rd largest selling yogurt brand, period. He is no longer David, he is Goliath.
I have often repeated language of Gary Hirschberg, both consciously and unconsciously, when describing my vision for our restaurant…How it is important to reach a wider audience, how our business is our activism, how my dream includes the ability not only to help support organic farmers, but to simply, actually, support them. Stonyfield does these things; it supports hundreds of organic farmers and is responsible for tens of thousands of acres of pesticide and herbicide free farmland, an outstanding accomplishment for any company and, in my opinion, probably an excellent step towards saving the world. Hirschberg’s latest venture is encroaching even closer towards my own with a line of natural and organic fast food restaurants under the moniker ‘O’Naturals’, a franchise which he claims that he wants to ‘become McDonald’s’. He speaks of these things with the passion of an evangelist; he firmly believes in taking the socially responsible business model right into heat of the battle, the thick of the fight. He is fearless, smart, and probably, I hope, does more good than harm.
Stonyfield is a grand idea, but here’s the thing, it is an idea built (again, in my opinion,) on the same shaky ground that has created the calamitous state of food everywhere. Everything about Stonyfield, everything about big agribusiness in general, is that instead of, or, perhaps, in Stonyfield’s case, along with, being about good, better and best, it is about being big, bigger and biggest. It is the same bloated mentality that has led us to the edge of the cliff and the same mentality that will push us over.
I don’t doubt that Hirschberg means well and has done a world of good. But by this logic, Wal-Mart has also done a world of good and probably supported thousands of organic farms with single purchase orders. Hirschberg is at much less moral fault than Wal-Mart, who is in the business of organics and ‘sustainable building’ to look good and to sell more products rather than for any deep-seated activist rationale, but he, whether he likes it or not, is at the mercy of the same flawed system nonetheless.
In 2004, Stonyfield came under majority ownership of Danone Group., the folks who make Dannon yogurt, one of Stonyfield’s biggest conventional competitors. Like Ben and Jerry’s going to Unilever and Odwalla going to Coca Cola (to help clean city air, no doubt…) before it, this was a big mash-up in the ‘socially responsible business’ marketplace. Under the terms of the sale, as long as Stonyfield is increasing profits, Hirschberg will remain in control; he has also obligated the company to continue a policy of donating 10% of profits to environmental causes for up 10 years after his departure. In return, he pays back all his investors, and also, incidentally, doesn’t really have to worry about cash flow around the Hirschberg home, anymore. Ever. It seems like a sweetheart deal, and the Danone group looks good with an organic jewel in its crown. And, like I said, there is no question that a big conglomerate can do more with a single purchase than a million of me will do in a lifetime of small potatoes organic purchasing. So, despite the sale, takeover, or whatever, it would seem that Hirschberg’s vision of an ecologically responsible giant agribusiness operation is still under his guidance. For now. Until it is no longer profitable, or even just no longer profitable enough. And yet, it is still flawed. Stonyfield, Danone, O’Naturals, Wal-Mart…All these business are built on the same premise that got us into the mess we’re in, the philosophy of go big or go home.
Another guy in the film is Joel Salatin—now here’s a character I’d like to meet. He is a farmer who describes himself in Michael Pollan’s ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ (you know the drill, go read it…
OK, welcome back…) as a ‘grass farmer’. By virtue of his success at this activity, he also manages to raise beef, vegetables, chicken and pigs on a farm in Virginia that can only be described as ‘beyond organic.’ His take, in the film, on the large scale farms of the world is clear, it won’t work. “The model,” he says, “is flawed.” What he means is that conventional and large scale agriculture ignores too many hidden costs to the environment—be it planetary or human health or even just the massive cost of inputs required to run a farm of scale. Most large chicken farmers make an average of $18,000 a year, and the cost of a single chicken house which is required for a contract with a large scale processor is about $500,000; now, think about that…And that is only one example, a little homework reveals dozens more examples. The fact is that cheap food is not really cheap; it is a market, like subprime mortgages, which is designed to fail. Even Stonyfield, with all of its market share and brand loyalty will collapse when the rest of the system collapses. Cheap oil, as we’ve all seen recently, is also not so cheap when you have to start digging for it a mile below the surface of the ocean, and it is the very foundation of our so-called ‘cheap food’ economy. Corn, a commodity which the film shows to be in, if not the primary ingredient of a vast percentage of the cheap foods we have come to take for granted, is only cheap because of massive subsidies put in place by the U.S. government. Monsanto, the world’s largest purveyor of genetically modified seeds, has managed, through bully tactics and effective lobbying, to all but shut down the time honored practice of seed saving—the only way small, localized farms will be able to survive in a world without cheap oil. “The system,” as Salatin says, “is flawed…” Understatement.
The film is amazingly informative and I highly recommend it, especially its central message about consumer responsibility. I wish a film could change the way we all behave, but that’s not really up to a film, it’s kind of up to us, isn’t it?
On the local front, we are hearing more and more about local and organic, about ‘Green and Growing’ about how these big, new, and likely unnecessary businesses (do we really need four grocery stores in a town of 8,000?) that are moving into our small town are now the ones who are going to help us save the world…
There’s a new word out there, ‘greenwashing,’ that’s used to describe this tactic—it’s the same type of advertising ploy used in recent history that made sugary breakfast cereals a ‘part of a healthy breakfast’ or like claiming that eggs or milk, two products which are high in fat or cholesterol were somehow health foods. They can be healthy, in moderation, as can toxic waste (OK, in extreme moderation…) Nowadays, ‘health’, the buzz word of the last decade or so, has been replaced by ‘green’. And, with the careful application of a little green paint, suddenly everyone is green, like those healthy junk foods of yesteryear, whether they are actually green or not. Pesticide-heavy farms are good for us and good for the planet because they are ‘local’; Grocery store chains can sponsor organic events because .5 percent of their sales are of ‘organic’ products from China or South America, so they are suddenly ‘on our side’…
I thought I’d joined the mainstream, and it does make me smile to know that Wal-Mart, apparently, wants to be like me. Gary Hirshberg had a similar epiphany which he described in an interview a few years back. He said that he had started his quest to change the world by comparing the good turnout he had received at a tradeshow to an outlandishly larger turnout received by Kraft; he had decided then and there to figure out how they had done what they had and to imitate it, but with organic foods. Large organic farms do something similar: they use ‘organically approved’ inputs like Bt in place of conventional pesticides, sewage sludge in place of chemical fertilizers, then they proceed to pile into giant combines and set out to remake the face of the earth in their own flat, unimaginative image. A few years later, Hirschberg, after following this path, found out that Kraft was seeking advice on green(wash)ing their company and realized that, in this battle he had ‘won.’ Somehow he missed the irony.
I hate to be cynical (I mean, obviously); slowly but surely, people are coming around—attitudes are changing, the fringe is becoming the mainstream. We’re still fighting the good fight, just on different fronts in a big, weird and complicated war. Hirschberg is a warrior, with good intentions leading his own crusade and appears to be winning. He is also, thanks in no small part to his timely flying of the green flag, a multimillion- if not billionaire. And Joel Salatin, smart, humble and by no means burdened with such material wealth is on the other front, a clear and honest voice who is also winning his own share of hearts and minds. So am I just a rebel? I don’t crave poverty, but I would, as I think Salatin does, settle for moderate material success coupled with the satisfaction of a life well lived. But why am unhappy and skeptical when I see the corporations, often the same corporations that got us into this polluted illogical system we’re in, changing their stripes? Going down dirty and coming up green? Is it because, like with the ‘health food’ bandwagon we all got on last year, I know, you know, we all know that when it comes down to it, the only real ‘green’ out there for a big company, a really big company, is on the back of the U.S. dollar bill? Well, yeah. That probably is it.
The Trip Back Home Part 3: ‘Home-well’
I used to love catering; growing up in Texas, my mom used to make wedding cakes, and many a weekend found us toting elaborately decorated tiers in the trunk of the car, then out and up the church steps, setting up the cakes—maybe serving punch or miniature quiches, my brother and I racing around on the chair dollies behind the scenes, or pigging out on devilled eggs when grown-up backs were turned. Daydreaming about those days can easily make me homesick for mom’s cooking—or for the ubiquitous presence of all those piles of smoky brisket and spicy sweet sauce that stained the white paper tablecloths at so many of those events…But maybe ‘homesick’ is the wrong word… ‘Home-happy’, maybe? ‘Home-well’ is more like it. Because, thanks to my mom teaching me how to cook, I can carry all those flavours, all those memories with me, and unlike lots of folks without that magic key in their pocket, I can pull them out whenever and wherever I am and set them up, not like photos on the nightstand, but more like the actual places and times themselves, physically present; I can cook, and because I can cook, I can taste and enjoy all of those sights, sounds and flavours whenever I want. Wherever I am.
Over the years I continued to cater from time to time; in 1996, I even did an entire wedding spread out of the kitchen of my tiny apartment that actually paid for my move from Texas to California…
When I lived in San Francisco and worked for Millennium, I became the ‘go to’ catering chef because I actually enjoyed it—every new job was a new challenge, the planning, the organization, the ordering, the staffing, the math—but most importantly, the thrill, the excitement when the job came together—happy customers—good food—a job well done. Every catering was like a little restaurant start-up: we would arrive to find a new kitchen, new tools and new customers. We would set up, prep, organize, finalize the décor, check the ovens, check the stovetops—every site was a little different; if we were lucky, we’d get a visit a month or two before the event, a chance to look around and kick the tires—if we were really lucky, we would be returning to a spot we’d been to before and we’d already know if we needed to bring an extension cord, say, or a can opener. Sometimes, we’d have to bring along a lot more than that…
Once I organized and catered food for an event for 1600 people on Treasure Island in San Francisco—the facility had no kitchen and as a historical site, it was requested that the temporary catering kitchen be set up outdoors, but by this point, I had cheffed on a number of caterings and I knew that almost anything could be rented, delivered and set up for me. I happily bit at the challenge of this massive event; we arranged for stoves and ovens, sinks and even refrigeration—but neglected one thing, a roof, and, as luck would have it, halfway through one of the largest and most challenging events of my cooking life, I found myself balancing on the wet roof of a large truck weighting down a tarp to provide a modicum of shelter for a 10 person crew cooking underneath me in the middle of a freak summer rainstorm… My memory of this event? Pure bliss. Sure, we ran out of food a little too early, and yes, our floor plan for the interior of the event was a pure disaster (note to self, never have a circular bar in center of a room with no other access points). But even after all that, it was the biggest thing that I had ever done, and, all in all? Although not unqualified, it really was a success.
I also organized a similarly sized, if not as un-coordinated a meal at a PETA event in Los Angeles; My job was to go down a week early to tool around on the Universal Studios back lot and spend lots of vegan dollars in order to organize rentals, source products and do all the prep for an event that I then jetted out of town for so that Chef Eric could swoop in on the day of and meet all the big name celebs attending the event. (It was my idea; he was the headline, after all. And if he did meet Paul McCartney, he never admitted it, graciously sparing me at least that bit of disappointment…Thanks, E…)
Some smaller events were also memorable—a wedding at the Palace of Fine Arts where the wind carried off half the chairs and tables, a private dinner in a home with a porous floor in the kitchen that would be ‘completely ruined by a single drop of oil’… My first experience in a synagogue; a wedding in a chalet where every single food item, table and piece of equipment had to be carried, by hand, up a sheer 20 foot narrow stone stairwell…also fun at that event, a cook read the words ‘salad greens’ on the list and packed a case of Swiss chard so that I got to drive nearly 30 miles to a grocery store to retrieve a suitable replacement while my crew set up and stalled the hosts long enough to put off the inevitable service of the first (salad) course… Fortunately the greens I found were pre-washed.
Once, I discovered that an oven didn’t work only minutes before the course that was supposed to be heating up in it was supposed to be served. At that event, I also discovered that a propane gas line can be temporarily repaired with duct tape and a latex glove. Another time, a cake cutting was arranged in the middle of a room full of anxious children whose tiny hands kept attempting to come between the cake and my rather large and very sharp knife; needless to say, I have always arranged a second SEPARATE space to cut the cake at every wedding since (don’t worry, to my knowledge no tiny digits were lost or harmed at that event, but certainly not for lack of effort.) Over time, I learned other tricks to ensure if not a seamless event, at least a less chaotic one. I developed a habit of putting a pot of water on to boil as a first step at any event (whether I needed it or not) just to make sure that at least one burner was working and to determine exactly how fast—if all else fails, I had discovered, I can do an awful lot with one good working burner. I learned to always pack a bowl and whisk, and an extra ladle, an astounding number of sauces can be pulled together at the last minute (should one be lost on, say, a porous floor?) with the help of those utensils. I learned to think on my feet, to get a lay of the land from the moment of arrival (you never knew when knowing where the can opener or, perhaps, the gas cut-off for the building was, you know, ‘just in case…’) I learned a lot, and I had a lot of fun learning it.
In fact, I could tell these stories for hours—each catering was a miniature world, a self-contained ‘instant restaurant’ sort of like a theatrical opening or a rock show—the object for me was never perfection so much as the perception of perfection; the players always miss a line on the first night, the question is, how well can you recover? I enjoyed the spontaneity, the excitement, but more than anything, I enjoyed being the boss.
You see, Eric, my boss and Chef, didn’t tag along for these events; in fact, it was pretty clear that they did not really interest him. He was certainly able to, and in fact he did quite well when he did, he just didn’t really seem to want to… This meant that although within the four walls of the Millennium kitchen I was second in command, that on each of these outings, these field trips, I was my own man. This was a feeling that was in no way wasted on me at that point in my career. That elusive position, that role I had sought since slinging tacos at La Taqueria when I was 19, the role of leader, the guy in charge, the boss. I was finally wearing the tallest toque which I had waited so long to don.
When we started the branch, I arrived with the attitude towards catering that I had always had—that sense of joy, excitement—that giddy feeling that anything could happen but that with planning and luck, everything would come out fine—so imagine my surprise to discover, almost immediately, that the joy that catering had once brought me was now completely gone.
This was not a gradual disenchantment. In fact, it was clear from the very first event we took on—the thrill was not fading, it was gone. The strange thing was that I had no idea, at least not at first, as to why. I mean, it didn’t help that one of the first events we took on at the restaurant was a total dog—we felt that it was such an honour to be asked, so soon into our new venture, to be the exclusive caterer for a brand new festival that we didn’t hesitate to accept; then we were given a set of numbers by the organizers of the event based on presumptions alone as to how much we should prepare, numbers that were well beyond anything I had encountered at Millennium, that were well beyond even the 1600 people I had managed to almost feed in the rain on the island… but the numbers, it turned out, were a fiction, a hope, an idea. But, if you couple that circumstance with the fear of running out of food brought on by my experience at the island event, (we had even signed a contract for this event promising that we would not,) as well as my inexperience with concession versus straight catering… Well, suffice it to say, that in the end, that single event very nearly broke the back of our fledgling business. We continued to pull items purchased for it out of our freezer for the better part of the following year, and dreamed up a whole new list of ways to redirect an almost overwhelming abundance of frozen salsa, beans and corn… We borrowed more money to right the ship and we plugged on, more careful and cautious than ever.
But even that, for all that would be an entirely rational reason, even that was not why I lost the thrill. In fact, in hindsight, the real reason is clear.
I already was the boss.
Catering in San Francisco had been a chance to expand, to experiment, to test, to grow. But…OK, here’s a simple way to describe it: it’s like dating; when you are young and single, why wouldn’t you want to go out with lots of different girls? (or boys, or whatever, I don’t judge…) And why not play the field? It’s no harm to attempt a connection with, let’s say, a few different ‘types’ to discover what works and what obviously doesn’t… But once you’ve found the right one… ‘the marryin’ kind’ as we would say back home; for me at least, I can only assume it is the same for others… the idea of going through all of those ultimately failed attempts again; it just doesn’t sound like the least bit of fun.
The branch kitchen is my kitchen. I have set it up, laid it out, tested it and measured it… I know exactly what it is and what it can do. I love this kitchen; I know it is not perfect, but I know every nook and cranny well, I know how fast water can come to a boil on every burner, and I know how to do everything through five years of practice, through good times and bad, (through sickness and health?) and more so than ever over the course of even these last two weeks, in which we have installed a badly needed new floor, cleaned and reorganized and installed new and amazing lights, a two week period that has completely re-introduced me to this, what has become not only one of my favourite places to be, but honestly? Something I can only describe as, perhaps, a reliable old friend…. These days, the thought of going to work somewhere else holds almost no appeal for me at all. And in hindsight, it is also probably why Eric was so content, back at Millennium, to just stand back and let me run off and go.
I don’t much care for catering anymore. These days I’m a solid guy, loyal and true. I appreciate my pleasures and am smart enough to realize that for all the work, for all the stress it has taken at times to build up this little kitchen—that one thing is certain, more and more, every week and every month, it has always felt, and continues to feel like home. I have not only gotten to know this kitchen, it has gotten to know me.
I love my little kitchen, my smoker out back makes barbecue that tastes just like Granddaddy’s did—sometimes better. My range helps me make chili and cornbread that tastes like Mom’s and sometimes even a chicken spaghetti that, even without the Velveeta, almost has me tucking a paper napkin into my shirt and reaching out for Mom’s hand to say the blessing.
I have a sign, made for me by a neat guy who helped us out a lot in putting this place together, and although I don’t get to see him much anymore, I hope he knows how much we all appreciate everything he helped us do… Anyway, he made a sign for me and gave it to me on my birthday one year, I put it up, way up high on the wall in the Branch kitchen; a wooden sign, hand-cut and hand-painted; red white and blue—the word ‘Texas’ is emblazoned on it in big, bold letters. When new cooks walk into the Branch kitchen for the first time, I like to point up to it and say “See that? Once you’re in here, you’re on my turf. It’s Canada out there, but in here, you’re in Texas.” In here, you’re in my home.
Funny thing happened on the way to Syracuse.
Last week I visited Texas for a family get-together we call the Ogg-in (Ogg is my mother’s maiden name); it is a big family, close and fun. This tradition of getting together in June started about four or five years ago, and my uncle said it was my fault, it was a year when I was back in Texas and my mom wanted to try to get everyone together one more time before I moved…I’ll take the blame—this party is well worth being held responsible for. Like everyone, I’m sure, I come from a diverse, interesting and colorful family that includes CFOs and mechanics, soldiers, bankers, teachers, actors, carpenters, nurses, and more than a few food professionals and food lovers—Uncle Jim and Aunt Suzie, who host the party, have a catering business run out of a kitchen my uncle built himself on the back half of their hill country home in Marble Falls, Texas.
Uncle Jim moved to Marble Falls in High School with his parents in an intermission from their life in my home town of Bryan. The way I’ve heard the story, my Granddaddy Leo and my Grandmother Chris (Christine, as in ‘Abigail Christine’) loved the Hill Country and vacationed there frequently and finally decided to stay for a bit. They had a picture framing business called ‘The Mitre Box’ (which my uncle bought back and ran as well, years later), and my uncle (the youngest of five siblings) was the only one who actually still lived with his folks while they were there. Good thing, too, because that’s where he met the love of his life, and Suzie is assuredly one the sweetest people ever born. They are very comfortable in Marble Falls; it is a beautiful area, with probably the most rewarding scenery in Texas—beautiful slopes melting into glassy rivers and lakes, bright and quiet and just green enough to provide a spare but adequate shade from the powerful Texas summer sun. Their generosity and efficiency as hosts is only equaled by their warmth, humour, and pleasant company as people and this family event is well worth traveling from Canada to enjoy.
The drive my grandparents made from Bryan to vacation in Marble Falls is about 3 hours. From Canada, it’s more like three days, if you’re hopped up on bennies and willing to wear a catheter. Vacationing, but perhaps even more strange, living away from home, in the age of the airplane, has come to mean a very different thing than it did in times past. Being spread out, as we are, can now mean living thousands of miles from family and loved ones, without, thanks to the internet and relatively cheap plane tickets, necessarily even feeling removed. But this separation, at least for the not so rich and famous such as ourselves, has also come to affect the ways and whys of how we vacation.
At the outset of this adventure, I coined the word ‘oblication’ to describe my attitude about the number of stops expected of us during our short visit, a visit cut even shorter by the (gasp) loss of a half days travel when our plane missed its connection in Newark on the way down. It is a weird world in which a 1000 mile trip is considered inconvenient by taking more than half a day. But that is, nevertheless, how it feels. With numerous friends, family and a month’s worth of ‘important’ stops to make in a week’s trip, the pressure to ‘oblige’ makes the desire to ‘vacate’ seem very appealing. But oblige we did, and when we could, vacate we did as well; which was actually fairly easy to do under the guidance of our excellent west Texas hosts.
We spent a day or two in Austin, where I visited my recently rebuilt old haunt of Mother’s Café, which seems to have survived the fire without having suffered much pain in the way of rebirth…we met a new young friend, a second daughter to one of my oldest friends, just hours after her birth. We visited Boggy Creek Farm and chatted with other friends of ours (as well as Uncle Jim and Aunt Suzie’s), Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler, the urban farmers who inspire me as much or more than any other two folks alive. And we took a day in Dripping Springs to play some music, grill some veggies, help build a lego city and enjoy the incredible Hill Country sunset with some other old friends and their children. We didn’t manage to do about seventeen other things that we had promised ourselves that we definitely would…but in the end, I think we did just about enough.
The weekend was spent enjoying family at the Ogg-in, introducing Abigail to her cousins for the first time and playing washers while drinking longnecks, crowding around jigsaw puzzles, eating well and smiling, laughing, maybe even crying, just a little, for a couple of folks who should have been there, and had been there in years before, and were still there, in a way…
Then a stop at home, my parents’ house, where I can’t seem to sleep anywhere except for my old room, even though my sister’s old room has a bigger bed and its own bathroom. Some habits are hard to break. I could have spent the whole week in that room—it is like visiting a younger version of myself; it is amazing how much of our inner lives are scripted in those teenage bedrooms, and how much of that inner dialogue follows us in the years that pass as we grow. I still go through all the drawers, expecting to find some document or talisman that proves that room is still mine. This time, I saw an old green blanket on the shelf of the closet—I remembered its smell on the cool evenings of my youth when it kept me warm in my insomnia, my brain racing to capture all those important things before they faded, never realizing that those thoughts would still be with me to mull over for the rest of my years…
Thoughts like how we live and love and what it means to be alive and live well. What it means to be good and to be happy. What it means to be successful. Thoughts about God and atheism, about sneaking out the window (the screen is still broken, another reminder…), and thoughts about things like drugs and sex, even death, and about what it means to feel good and how.
Abigail was a champ, she flew well, and (with maybe one exception) was in good spirits for the duration of the often blisteringly hot, sometimes chaotic and always completely new to her experience of the whole adventure. Even when we hit the worst of it.
We can’t seem to fly through Newark without some glitch…even on previous trips, that airport has tripped us up with delays, weather issues and the like. Our trip home looked OK, we had a mechanical issue with our scheduled plane, but the airline kicked us over to another small jet at another gate in record time—even the flight attendant seemed impressed. We took off on schedule and seemed to be moving well…we were about halfway to Syracuse when the weather hit. Nicole, Abigail and I were in the last row, which is, I understand, the worst spot for a bumpy ride, but this seemed even more violent than usual, it didn’t help that a pilot on the next row looked visibly alarmed by ‘the ride’, the seatbelt lights were on and the flight attendant was buckled in and using phrases like ‘a little rough’ and ‘looking for a better route’. Nicole had her head between her knees and was breathing like she did the day we met Abigail and I realized I couldn’t keep reading and should probably put my book away. The tension was palpable. The pilots were quiet, focused, and the plane was loud with sound of whitening knuckles and gritting teeth. I was feeling something I knew I was supposed to feel, anxiety, tightening in my neck and tensing my arms around my girls. Fearing for my daughter, coaching Nicole in her breaths; but then, suddenly, calm.
Suddenly I was back in my old room, smelling that blanket, staring out the broken screen. I was thinking, what if this is it?
The plane hit a hail storm; it was a quick, loud metallic ripping noise. Not a noise you want to hear 20,000 feet in the air. The pilot in the adjacent row lifted up in her seat. The wingtip pointed down and our (excellent) captain swung us around and out of there. A minute later, the flight attendant told us that we were going back to Newark and blah, blah, blah. I was still lost in my calm.
What if this is it? I have the best job in the world. I have the most beautiful daughter in the world. I have found the love of my life. I have few regrets and I have just spent a week in the company of many of the people I love most in the world. What if this is it? Well, OK. I’ve done quite well—better than that teenage kid could have ever imagined. More than lucky, I am blessed. I don’t crave death, this is not some sick wish, I just realized, all over, with a sense of shock that no matter what happened, I couldn’t control it, and if this was it, well, OK.
Suddenly ‘oblication’ felt like far too harsh a critique. I felt lucky, so damn lucky for every moment I had spent in the last few days with the folks I loved so much. I felt lucky for the last several years, in fact, for the whole life I’ve had. Much of me knew that we weren’t going down, but I did know that we could, just as we could all meet our moment at any time, whether we liked the idea or not. The important thing was that something about that moment reminded me to think about those big thoughts, the ones I used to chase wrapped in that old green blanket on those sleepless nights in my room at home. I knew that we probably weren’t going down but I also knew that if we did, there wasn’t one thing that I could do about it.
The plane leveled out and left the clouds. We found our way back to Newark and were ‘inconvenienced’ by another six or seven hour wait. Eventually, we made it home; back to Kemptville, to the branch, to our other family, here.
Abigail slept through the whole thing, safe in her daddy’s arm, my other arm around Nicole, reminding her to breathe, calm, and smiling.