I was introduced to some new people in a local restaurant just the other day. It was a glorious day, in my opinion. It was cold and blustery, and pouring rain, but all things considered, it was still a great day. I was taking care of my fifteen month old son, Nolan. We were doing daddy-son stuff since Mommy was gone, such as eating pancetta with olives and sourdough bread straight out of the fridge, raw cookie dough from the freezer and listening to some new country on Pandora. All in all, a great day. Since I had been up since five and cooked in the restaurant most of the day, I decided it was ok to forego cooking him dinner, especially since the olives and pancetta were giving him some amazing farts and take him out to a local little joint for a cheeseburger and some ice cream.
He drove. Or at least he was relatively certain that he did. Yeah, I know, I’m going to get some haters out there for this, but I broke the law and let him ride in my lap and steer. Yes, it’s against the law. I made a conscious decision to do that and do you know why? The earliest memories that I have are riding around in my Mom’s open top CJ-5 Jeep during the early summer months as she sang along to Alabama’s “Roll On Eighteen Wheeler” and “Copperhead Road” and “A Country Boy Will Survive.” Those were some truly great times.
I’d like for Nolan to have those distant memories of taking a car ride every once in a while, sitting on his Mom’s lap, or mine, as we drive the four miles on back roads to a couple of our favorite restaurants. Although we live in what most, including my wife, consider to be the sticks, we are lucky in that I am only a few miles from work at what is one of the most beautiful venues in the world, where I have been blessed with a job as a professional cook. We are also only four miles from one our favorite restaurants, six to another and about twelve to another. The Palisades, The Bank Food and Drink, Mountain Lake Lodge and Mickey’s Seventh are all within a few miles of where we live!
Let’s leave Nolan driving for the moment, while he rolls the window up and down, turns the cruise on and off and in general has a great time steering with his feet as the scenery rolls by in a way that he has never experienced before. There is a new country song playing on the radio that sounds a lot like rap, but it’s a great song. Nolan is happy with it and I like the crossover sound of the twang and beat.
Let’s fly out the window, into the rain and mist that give the Great Smoky Mountains their name. Let’s head out Spruce Run Road and turn left on Rt. 469 West, which leads into West Virginia and points beyond. Right UP the Mountain we travel, over beautiful waterfalls and no doubt a black bear or two, snuffling around on the first warm day in a long time, seeking out wild ramps, leeks and other leafy items to replenish their bodies stores of essential vitamins and nutrients after their long sleep. We most likely also pass a deer or twenty, wild turkey brooding in the rain, and as we ascend the air becomes colder and the rain turns to snow near the frost line around 2,500 feet. As we go up, we must have also gone back in time, for the Black Ford that Nolan thinks he is driving is here slogging up the mountain at a scant five or ten miles an hour. Visibility is near zero as we descend into the cab with the sleep deprived driver.
The driver is me, the author. I’d left for my breakfast shift earlier than usual, awakened by some sound or the pressure in my eardrums as my head cold gets worse. I didn’t know it then, but I was headed towards a rough shift and one of the greatest compliments of my life. I had a LOT of people staying at the Lodge and I didn’t know it. The snow storm was so bad I would get out of the truck and walk ahead to make sure that I was still in the road, bang the ice of my wipers and drive a little more.
I had no preparation done for breakfast – no biscuits made, no potatoes cut, no oats soaking, no bacon thawed, no fruit cut and no batters prepared. I wasn’t worried, in this storm, long after “Spring” had supposedly sprung – I didn’t think that anyone would be ready to eat breakfast.
I was wrong. There had been a wedding and there were a ton of guests awaiting breakfast, hungry and hungover and eager to continue the debauchery of the former night beginning with Mimosas, Bloody Mary’s and all the biscuits and gravy they could possibly stuff into their faces. I had a new kitchen I’d never cooked in before and no prep work completed. So began my shift.
I honestly don’t know how many breakfasts that I prepared that morning, or how many biscuits I made or how many mistakes I could have or did make. All I know is that it was suddenly 10:30 a.m. and the restaurant was closed until lunch, I was drenched in sweat and so exhausted I was swaying a bit. My ears still hadn’t readjusted to the change in altitude due to the head cold and everything sounded as if I were in a barrel. One of the wait staff high-fived me and we had a group hug as I thanked the staff for their help and celebrated the new menu and kitchen with coffee, tea and the rest of the pancake batter, cooked on the new grill.
Here was my greatest compliment: Chef came into the kitchen with a new employee in tow, and introduced me as Ron, his Breakfast Chef. The enormity of what he said sank in for a moment, then I became very humbled by his gratitude. I didn’t feel like I had done anything that anyone else couldn’t or wouldn’t do, which is just what I was hired to do. But, I’m not a Chef. Not in the classic sense of the term. A chef is a leader of the kitchen, responsible for EVERYTHING in the restaurant. A chef must be able to reproduce dishes flawlessly, while instructing others and motivating them to accomplish a feat akin to an orchestra crossed with a demolition crew tearing down a bridge.
Later that day, I was introduced to the people in another restaurant after Nolan safely drove us there and we were feasting on Cheeseburgers, ice cream and carrot cake. I was introduced to the couple as “Chef Ron.”
But I was too deliriously tired and happy to correct them.