Tin Roofs

Fatigue steals over me, it’s cold fingers icing up my spine and into the back of my neck, clouding my vision temporarily. I concentrate on breathing for a moment, and lean into the moment. In through my nose, out through my mouth, just watching the colors inside my head project onto the canvas of the room for a moment. The crushing sound of women talking in an enclosed space is suddenly a roar and I am hyper aware of my own deafness in that moment as snaps of conversation, given voice inside my own imagination, burst over my consciousness. The endless chore of finding conversation through a combination of body language, mouth movements and pieces of sounds suddenly becomes too much. I see my wife in a corner, alone with three others, chatting, her spine and carriage the image of confidence. I feel rather than hear or see the sudden leaning in of the lonely wealth, the overly dressed, alienated seekers of attention of any kind and I beat a hasty retreat for the door.

The heat is sudden and welcoming. The closeness of the room was stifling, but the early glimpse of the summer to come is soft on the sidewalk. The climate of the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay has a tendency to narrow seasons, pull them closely in to one another as winter tumbles through spring and into summer with an audible clap. The bank clock tells me that it is 86 degrees in the sun and I turn my face towards it, cresting the western edge of the buildings for the last moments of the day. I spot a white haired man I recognize from earlier seated at a near table and he nods a half-hearted salutation.  I reluctantly wander my way in his direction. I can still feel the presence of eyes on my back, the attention-seeking eyes, evaluating, wondering, seeking something, anything.

I ask the well-dressed man if I may join him. He waves his left hand impatiently at the empty chair, suddenly brusque, the motion of a man accustomed to giving orders, but without the gumption to see them through. An empty gesture. A meaningless greeting. I feel my weariness once more, but welcome the diversion and the opportunity to feel the sunshine on my face before the rain moves in off the coast once more. I think of Mexico, and the mountains of my youth, of sitting on truck tailgates and simply waiting for another to speak, not acknowledging the passage of time, adhering to another standard of social conduct, one born of necessity, of hardship, or needing to know if the other could be trusted, and if so, how much and with what.

He speaks a greeting, and I follow suit. Our conversation is both guarded and open as we talk as men, ranging quickly through the mundane, the weather, avoiding politics, a quick diversion into the economy, both local and national, into travel. He speaks of planes and trains and villas and golf courses, of places where nature and native alike is forced to comply with the western white standard, of maids dressed in uniforms, of women passed over and semi-forgotten, like whiskey beading the curvature of a leaded tumbler. I think of sand and dirt and waves and places gone and remembered and sleeping under a vast canopy of stars, so many that it was an inverse carpet of winking worlds, places unreachable and unknowable and secure in their secrets from the scourge of humanity.

The conversation flows around me as I realize that he is content to just talk, to spill words from himself in my general direction, secure in their ability to impress the younger, less wealthy man. I am content to just not listen, nod my head in the right places and allow my thoughts to wander where they may. I am deep in the Baja of Mexico when his wife approaches, a thin, tight-lipped and unhappy former beauty, a woman who has aged and well, but is still bitter of the implications, of the loss of status in a world dominated by beauty and youth. I bring up an extra chair and she comments on my manner of dress, which is deliberately casual, a muse, if you will. Costumes amuse me, and I don them, as we all do, in response to variations in mood and deference to the requirements of the event.

Mexico comes round once more in our conversation, as does my boyhood home. I stiffen inwardly at the attempt to place my accent, which he does. There are some things that you choose not to shed, and my manner of speech is one of those things I have clung to. His accuracy in placing where I am from is uncannily accurate and I resent the intrusion. I realize that my mask, the outward self, the visible part of me, is slipping a bit and I pull it back into place.

I realize that she is now speaking of the poor indigent people of Kentucky, with whom she has some familiarity as her family once boarded horses at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Derby, which is coming around soon once again. I resent her stereotype, then allow it to slide over me, wondering what it must be like to be black in our society, where stereotypes are often the only common ground between race and socio-economic differences. She branches out, slightly more eloquent, describing the conditions in which people lived, in such squalor, what with their laundry hanging outside to dry, as they apparently could not afford dryers for their clothes in the trailer parks in which they lived. A general lack of education must also be ascribed to such individuals, as no one, of course, with any semblance of humanity would tarry long in such a place, regardless of their background.

My attention is now rapt on the skyline, where the sun has receded into the western sky. The roar of conversation has dulled behind me, and I await a break in conversation, for some queue from which to escape this madness. I think of my own past, nights lying sleepless beneath the tin roof of the tacked together trailer in which the early years of my childhood were passed, as we struggled to put together the monies required to build a more substantial home. Misinterpreting my silence for accession, she continues her diatribe on the poverty of other places, of Belize, where dogs are allowed to just wander in the streets and where children run unsupervised in play.

I remember my own great dog, a mongrel mix of some indeterminate breed, lying quietly in the dust of the dirt road on which we lived in the early morning sun while my brothers, cousins, and various neighboring children played our variations of games that had been around since the beginning of our race upon this earth. Tag, power struggles, small fistfights, and other amusements were enjoyed and participated in, with no parental oversight. We were gods of our own small kingdoms, secure in our aloneness, our only guardian the great brave canine who lay with ever watchful eyes upon his small, unappreciative wards. We were unaware of how some outsider, passing through, watching our world through the tinted glass of an overpriced automobile, might have considered us. Poor. Indigent. Pitiable.

I suddenly resent the two of them. Their derision and judgement, so callously delivered to one from the very tribe they berate, is palpable to me. I sit with them, yet apart. The separation between the child in the street and the billionaire in the car is so small, a knife edge could not slide between them, yet, the chasm can be a physical barrier, impossible to cross.

The door opens, and a group of women exit the gala, their voices trilling in my direction, slightly intoxicated by the free wine. I feel alone, isolated, a man on a tower, behind walls of gauze and stone. I am glad for my time in the dirt.

Get Knocked Down…”In the Weeds” – Updated 07/18/2014

I was diagnosed with terminal alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver last year mid-March. The doctors were almost apologetic, averting their eyes when they spoke to me about it. No alcohol, no cigarettes, no Tylenol or related products. They spoke to me in mostly past tense, as if I had already passed away. I was 39.

My weight had skyrocketed to a shocking high of over 270 lbs. People didn’t recognize me anymore, especially those who I had not seen in a few years. My blood pressure was out of control and off the charts. I was developing diabetes, colitis, ulcers and fluid retention. My liver showed signs of massive damage and I was given a year to live IF I could not quit drinking. Maximum. Quit? They just shrugged.

One doctor was more blunt than the others, or maybe he still saw something that gave him some hope. “The liver can recover, you know that. Right?” I’m dressing to leave, have been dressed for a few hours. I hate hospitals. I looked at him carefully. “Even at this point?” He became more hesitant. “Sometimes, things can reverse themselves…” His sentence trailed off. He looked back at me. “You have to quit drinking.” It was a statement. Not a suggestion. If I wanted to live I had to quit.

By Mid-June of 2013, I was drinking again, more heavily than ever. They told me I would die anyway, so why not? I became worse, more disoriented, more sick, more dependent every day. I was a one-man horror movie as my friends and family looked on in utter disbelief. I drank in the mornings, at night, whenever I was conscience. I could not be trusted, not with a vehicle, not with a credit card, not with cash and certainly not with my infant son. I was literally In The Weeds, lost in a nightmare of helplessness.

Mid-August, 2013 found me nearly dead. I had done NOTHING to combat the disease. I did what AA said: “Distance yourself from alcohol. (That doesn’t work, it’s everywhere.) Don’t be around it. Eat whatever you want. Stay away from situations where you might be tempted to drink. You will always be an alcoholic. Don’t make any decisions. Only worry about yourself. Resign yourself to always being an addict dangerously close to spiraling out of control.”

After my second stint in rehab in August, I had to disagree. I had never, not once in my life, faced a challenge that I had not met head-on. My behavior was strange, puzzling, even to me. My parents were mystified. Where is the person that walked away from car crashes? Where is the person who played two football games with broken ribs? Where is the man that was a coal miner? Where is the rock climber? Where is the distance runner, the father, the husband, the brother, the son, the friend? Where did he go?

My wife begged me – please, please fight this. Her most heartfelt letter made me cry for hours.

So I did fight it. They only way I knew how. By being me again. My first day in a professional kitchen again was a haze of exhaustion and confusion. My ammonia levels were dangerously high, I had ascites and I was still terribly overweight and out of shape. I couldn’t lift a 30 pound sack. I was shaking so badly I cut myself to pieces for weeks. I didn’t quit. I would go home and sleep until the next shift started, then attack it the same way, transferring my frustrations with addiction into physical activity. I fell down steps, burned myself, dropped plates, dropped hot pans – but I soldiered on almost belligerently. It was all I knew to do. My coworkers watched me carefully, realizing I was a liability. Chef hired me knowing full well what he was getting, but for some reason he trusted me.

My wife and I argued over my shifts, argued over my hours, lack of pay, who would take care of Nolan. I took him to work with me once, in a backpack and stood on the cold side and chopped all day, only stopping to change his diaper and feed him. He slept peacefully most of the shift, lulled by the constant din and movement.

I wore out my shoes, my clothes, calloused, got stronger, more pain tolerant, less and less interested in drugs or alcohol. My doctors said I was crazy. My wife thought I had lost my mind. “WHY are you doing this??”

In April of 2014, I physically collapsed on our way to Maryland to visit family. I hadn’t touched drugs or alcohol since August of 2013, but I was very sick. My MELD score had catapulted me into UVA’s transplant center. I spent Easter week in the Anne Arundel hospital, wondering fuzzily where I was and why I couldn’t get up and go to work. Until my sense of place returned, the nurses mostly chased me back into bed. I told them I needed to get the prime rib started. I refused to eat the food – by the time I could handle eating my stomach had shrunk to the point I didn’t want to eat.

Momma Sue made steak and carrots. I remember eating slowly at first, then voraciously as my appetite returned. A slow anger started to burn in my heart at myself for allowing myself to be this unhealthy.

I drove most of the way home the next day, nearly six hours. I probably shouldn’t have been driving, but my pride was returning. My wife watched me carefully for signs of fatigue. I was tired, exhausted even. But I made it home. I stepped out of the car and up the hill to retrieve our mail from it’s box. I turned back to the car and a bright light flashed in my brain. I only registered one thought – someone has fucking shot me! It was the start of Turkey Season and it was a real possibility where we live.

I woke to the sound of my wife weeping beside me, crying out loud, “Please, Ron. Get up. I can’t pick you up. Please get up.” Blood was pouring from a cut on my forehead. I had been unconscious for nearly two minutes. I looked down at my wasted body, listened to my ringing brain and rage filled me like a fire. I love my wife. I love my child. I love my family. Why am I lying here in the dirt, bringing even further worry to my wonderful wife? I’m not shot – I just ran into the car door. Like a fucking idiot. Now my tiny beautiful wife was trying to drag my ugly, dependent body out of the dirt and mud as I lay there. Rage. Nothing but rage – and love, and shame, and deep resentment for what I had become slammed through me. I rolled over, placed my hands on the ground, and got up. I grinned at her, drove the rest of the way up our drive, and cleaned up the cut, showered, shaved and changed. Changed not only my clothes but my mindset. I was NOT a victim. Not any more.

I was devastated when they wouldn’t let me go back to work. I rested for days, becoming bored and irritating to my wife. I qualified for disability, by didn’t pursue it, feeling that would be a full surrender. I then attacked the disease with everything I had, daring it to beat me. I split wood, ate even more carefully, drank nothing but water and fresh herbal teas, concocted from advice given by my sister. I fought through the Ascites, trying to will it to go away. I started running again. I played with Nolan daily, feeding him as carefully as I did myself. He became tanner, tougher, leaner and grew faster. So did I. Laura stopped looking at me with pity and anger – instead there was pride and love there. That made me work harder. I wanted her to like me again, to love me, to realize who I really was. She had not really even met me before now. I was ashamed for what I had become. For my dependence.

The yellow disappeared from my eyes. My scars from hernia surgeries faded to a dull ache, easily ignored. I did hundreds of push-ups, pull ups and carried rocks to nowhere. I cut and split hickory, ran up the mountainside at night and swam in the river. I haunted farmer’s markets and ate pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables. I stopped using salt, period. No sugar, no additives, no preservatives, nothing pre-prepared. Nolan and I ate like kings: Ripe tomatoes, peaches, fresh bread, carrots, greens, local pork, dried beans, fresh berries gathered on our land, and fish caught by my father-in-law. Laura started sleeping better and the worry started to fall away.

My favorite nurse called this morning. They drew blood for a blood test yesterday and I did not bleed afterwards. I did not bruise. A month ago I had bled for nearly two days and bruised as if I had been hit when they ran the blood tests. I paced the floor most of the night, walking relentlessly up and down the drive. I did pull ups until I couldn’t get my feet off the ground. I couldn’t lift the sledge hammer. I finally slept.

My nurse, almost giddy, (I CANNOT stress how much my medical caregivers mean to me) told me my blood test results where the best they had been in over two years. My Bilirubin, 2.1, down from dangerously high levels to almost normal. Liver panels, normal. MELD score, 10: Down from 24 a year ago. I placed the phone back in its charger. I cried. My wife cried.

The fight is not over and never really will be. But I did get up. I did find myself once more, inside a body damaged and broken and sick. I can’t give up, and I cannot surrender. But today, I may rest until I become bored. Or I may get the chainsaw out and finish up the hickory. Every cook loves hickory.

-RM July 15, 2014

As Only a Mother Can

I sat in the backyard of our house in the darkness and shadows adjacent to the plot of land that we had tilled up and called a garden. The Groundhogs, one of which I had named and raised, would not leave the vegetables alone, rendering all the work nearly useless. I angrily threw my recently re-acquired class ring away into the dimly light patch of weeds and broken fence, then stumbled, sobbing as only a sixteen year old boy whose heart had just been broken could. I had not been hurt like that before. I had never felt so betrayed, exposed, useless and more than anything else, lonely. Not even my Grandmother’s passing the summer before hurt quite as much as this. I could wrap my brain around the fact that she could not continue the pain of living and feared the burden she would cause in years to come on her family more than she feared the brief and instant moment of a bullet passing through her heart. I could not understand why the living could betray one another. I thought I was in love. I thought I would die. My dog whined uneasily and the house that we had worked so hard to build and make a home was dark and silent. Nobody quite dared follow me, not knowing what to say. My little sisters, who were my constant companions, were already inside and in bed, not realizing the drama unfolding just outside. My car sat ticking in the cool night air and the breeze was redolent with peaches.

My mother found me. Silent as only she could be in her bare feet, she often seemed ethereal at night. She was filled with a strength that only a mother could have, bearing seven children in the poverty stricken highlands of the coal country. We took her for granted, as only children can. She was sometimes as silent as she was loving, as filled with mystery as the night sky, yet somehow so fragile in the dim light. Nobody really knew her. Not even her children. I would hear her at night, relentlessly cleaning, with her tears occasionally mingling with the bleach she scrubbed away imaginary germs with.

She didn’t say anything. She rarely did. She just gave away pieces of herself until I wondered if there was anything left. She comforted me as only she could, stealing out of the mist and placing one tender hand on my shoulder as I wept for all that was lost – my childhood, the innocent love without fear, the knowledge that I would soon be leaving for college, leaving behind the only thing that I knew. She cried with me that night and gave away another precious bit of herself.

Nearly a decade later I wept into a pay phone as the light went out of the sky in Apalachicola. The sun painted the sky an ethereal palette of color as I dialed her number from memory. Still the oldest of seven, I was again heartbroken and needed my mother. As the phosphorous in the surf twinkled in the early dark and the moon followed the sun into the sky, I once again wept as only the broken and spent can.

She didn’t say anything. She simply cried with me on the phone as I choked on bitter tears and the hurt and loneliness threatened to sweep me away. She gave another piece of herself so that I could live. Just as she had twenty-five years earlier during a screaming hot night in August of 1973 as she brought me into this world through the ferocity and shear will power that only a mother can possess, she beat my demons into the night with her force of will from her place in deep Appalachia.

Fourteen years later, with a young son and wife of my own, I screamed silently into the tile floor beside a toilet with no lid. I didn’t know where I was. The fluorescent lights beat me like an immortal enemy that would not be driven back. I shook violently, my fever skyrocketing as sweat poured off me in stinking, yellow waves. I shook with withdrawal as my nose bled into the drain in the middle of the pale yellow tile. The steel toilet silently took witness as I chewed my shirt to avoid swallowing my tongue. Slipping and sliding through the mist of the lonely place where most do not survive, I managed to scream out for her into the drain as darkness slid across my throat. Somewhere, the devil laughed. In the midst of all that agony and despair and fear, as I traversed a high place, staring at a near certain death, I felt a hand on my shoulder in the cold of the unblinking light. As I spiraled into darkness, I relaxed. No words were needed.

It was my mother.

Mom

Hank’s Drive-In

As a writer and a cook, I rarely need to look very far to find a story. I usually have more ideas than time or attention span and as an editor once told me, I need to “SLOW DOWN.” Sometimes stories are so compelling that you actually don’t know what to do with them or who to tell or how to write it.

When I was at Radford University, a favorite place for us to all go after having a bit too much fun the night before was to Hank’s, as we referred to it amongst ourselves. Set in a sea of fast food restaurants, this beach-like, shack looking place was home to the cook we all knew and loved. We would pile in around a vinyl covered table in his one room restaurant/eating area that could seat around ten or so at max capacity. Everyone else pulled up in their cars, placed their orders and waited, generally eating in the parking lot at a few tables scattered about or on the tailgates of construction trucks as the constant stream of customers at the McDonalds across the street drove away with their mystery meat sandwiches, blissfully unaware of the true treasure trove located about thirty feet in front of their steering wheel as they pulled away with secret sauce dripping down their faces.

Hank would work the line, cash register, take orders, say hello, tell stories about being in WWII, all without missing a beat. That was in 1999, as best I can remember. Burgers were three dollars and he would form the burger by hand while he was talking to you, never once burning, overcooking, lighting himself on fire or the million other things that I’ve done wrong in kitchens.

The place was really on my mind the other day. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, craving a cheeseburger and a sense of my past. I loaded up Laura and my 16-month old son and we went on a day trip in the direction of years gone by.

The place was where and how I remembered. There are more fast food joints than there used to be. Hank now has an assistant and moves a bit slower than I remember. He also had no recollection of a group of climbing junkies who used to pile into his place for a late breakfast of burgers, fries and shakes. Why should he? As I’ve learned, cooks tend to live squarely in the present. To dwell on the past can cause hesitation and self-doubt, both of which have no room in our lives but can take complete control if we let it.

Hank is also now quite deaf and we had to shout a bit to get our order in. He grinned at our little family, mumbled to himself and at the cranky old stove, and cranked out three of the most unapologetically American cheeseburgers I’ve had in my life. Perfectly seasoned, medium done, toasted bun, American cheese, lettuce, onions, pickles, tomato. Our crinkle fries were served the way they should be, in a little paper sleeve, just as I remembered. Some days I hope that will be me when I’m 86, doing what I love for people that care.

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So, You Think You Should Be A Chef?

 

Chances are, if you are a reasonably good home cook, in that you own or aspire to own the finest of professional kitchen appliances, any pot or pan that is French, cast iron that is new and a chef’s knife that cost more than $150, you’ve had these words said to you after a successful dinner party: “You should be a Chef!” Your well-intentioned and undoubtedly tipsy dinner guest, after plying him/herself with your food, your liquor and the products of your work, and no doubt feels grateful for what you have done, jealous that their significant other is now attracted to you and irritated that your plates perfectly complimented the presentation of the meal and wine, down to the cocktail glasses.

You had all day, all week even, to prepare this feast and you are feeling pretty good about yourself. As you mingle with your guests, in your Williams and Sonoma apron with your initials monogrammed on the front, a white clean towel from Crate and Barrel carelessly thrown over your shoulder you start to think some very dangerous thoughts. After all, doesn’t everyone love the roast organic whole chicken from Whole Foods that you carefully brined overnight and roasted in one of your dual Viking Ovens while reading “Cooking with Bobby Flay” with a perfect glass of Portuguese Tempranillo which has been decanted in a crystal vessel imported from France. You continue to muse over the possibilities while shining the stainless steel, marble and granite that adorns your kitchen. Normally the Hispanic help does this, but you feel like working tonight and he’s been a little absent lately. He was probably deported.

Then you come up with the following: “I SHOULD be a chef!”

Everyone says so, even your Mom. You look good on camera, can carry on a conversation of the pros of imported versus domesticated truffles with the smugness of one who lives for the next new Food Network show and religiously studies the “Washington Post” food section.

You’ve seen the idiots on T.V., who you vaingloriously emulate while shopping in the natural foods store. How hard could it be? You’re well-travelled, been to Spain, Italy and France and take great pride in knowing who the chef is in all the high-end restaurants that you’ve dined in. Only one other person that you know of has been to more of Guy Fieri’s DDD recommendations. You continue to muse away in your kitchen, running your fingers over the $400 cutting board, picked up in Vietnam (nobody goes to Hawaii anymore, you pronounced just hours ago) and had shipped back to your house.

It’s time for a mid-life change anyway, right? You eagerly open up your IPAD and do a quick search for “Executive Chef.” Hmmmmm. “Minimum fifteen years or kitchen experience, culinary degree preferred, experience running your own gourmet farm to table menu, the ability to motivate others with your own culinary creations and full fiscal responsibility for a medium sized restaurant in need of creative menu adaptations.”

You read it again. It’s a restaurant that you’re familiar with and, wonder of wonders, didn’t you meet the owner’s wife or mistress or something at a food bloggers “Food and Wine of the World” with all proceeds going to save the Ethiopian Puppies? Or maybe it was Himalayan Tiger Awareness. At any rate, you drift off to sleep with visions of perfectly plated roast duck and pork skin croutons dancing in your head.

You make some phone calls the next morning and after pulling some strings and political favors and promising that you would indeed make your famous bacon-banana-chocolate cupcakes with raspberry icing, you get through to the restaurant owner.

“Hello.” The voice on the phone sounds distracted, irritated. You introduce yourself hurriedly, somehow suddenly afraid. “Chef position? Yes, we have a chef position we are seeking to fill. What is your experience? Who are your references?” You explain that you have travelled extensively, attended multiple cooking events and host a wildly successful series of pro-bono dinners for charity. The voice on the phone sounds bored. “You’ve done what?” You decide a few name drops are in order. Now the voice seems irritable. “I’m sorry, but we’re looking for someone with experience. Have you EVER worked a line?” That seems like a reasonable request. The line, you distinctly remember, is something that Anthony Bourdain, that smartass, used to work.

“Yes.” You answer confidently. “Ten years sauté, five in menu design, tasting and expediting.” Even as the lie rolls of your tongue your thinking of Miguel, your lawn guy who has been deported. Didn’t he work in a kitchen now? How hard could it be?

The next thing you know you’re headed down to a local restaurant for an interview and a food demonstration. You load your Mercedes SUV with your best knife, designer towels and at last though, throw in a jar of truffles and some fresh rosemary picked from the bush outside your study.

You arrive at the destination, which is a little run-down, in your suddenly expert opinion, and find the kitchen in an uproar. It’s nothing like you imagined. Flames seem to be everywhere, with wait staff impatiently yelling at the cooks in a language you can’t even comprehend. It seems to be a mix of Spanish, English and restaurant jargon peppered with obscenities. You rather timidly wave to Manuel, who is manning what appears to have once been a grill, now transformed into a carbon-covered, greasy, smoking, filthy creature that you wouldn’t allow on your street. A runner passes you with a cigarette still clenched in her teeth and swears at you to move, PLEASE!

You can’t find the owner, or anyone else that seems to be in charge, except for the young, white, sweaty guy yelling orders across a stack of plates while clutching a fistful of white tickets. As you approach he screams something intelligible at a heavily tattooed Hispanic girl sporting giant biceps who appears to be chopping a whole animal.

Nervous now, you stand awkwardly a few feet away from the sweaty white guy, feeling a little ridiculous in your tie and favorite apron and carrying your Masakage Hikari Chef knife, purchased on your last trip to Tokyo.

“Whatdoyouwant?” You realize the sweaty white guy is talking to you while you were staring at the new and old burns, scars and tattoos that adorn his forearms. “I’m looking for the owner,” you say quickly, your voice breaking a bit. The cook replies that the owner isn’t there and grabs a stack of plates from a cart. Eager to help, or at least not flee, you follow suit and grab a similar stack of plates. You scream in pain and instantly drop the plates, which shatter in a deafening thunder on the grimy tile floor. Everyone cheers while you stare at your burned hand in disbelief. How the hell did he pick those up like that?

The cook shakes his head and keeps going, barking orders as he goes. He puts down the stack of plates, pulls a dirty jacket off a rack on the wall and motions for you to follow. By the time you get to the door, he has lit a cigarette and is rattling off what appears to be orders on his phone. He plants his bony ass on an upended bucket outside the kitchen door and takes a long, grateful drag on his cigarette. Squinting through the smoke, you feel that he is sizing you up or something. “So, you want to be the chef?”

You have never been so grateful to be back in the safety of your car. This story, with a few tweaks, of course, will be great at the next charity dinner. You’ll have to make sure and tell all of the owner’s friends that he sold the restaurant to some Hispanic guy.

Back on the line, Manuel picks up the Masakagi knife, looks it over curiously and turns to the other cooks. “Cuya consolador es esto?” While the other cooks, including the heavily muscled girl with the leg of lamb, which is now separated into recognizable cuts, howl with laughter, he contemptibly tosses the knife in the sink. He picks up his white handled serrated knife and proceeds breaking down a pork roast for house made enchiladas while mentally estimating the cost per serving. It’s tough being the owner.

 

Celebrity Chef???

As I slog my way up the mountain towards the restaurant where I work, I realize in the blinding snow that I have zigged when I should have zagged and am no longer on the right road. I peer out the window for a moment, a little exasperated, wondering how in the world that the road was suddenly flat. It’s nearly a 2500 foot climb up the mountain to the restaurant, a veritable yawn in the minds of most mountaineers and climbers, but it’s no fun when you can’t see. I go a few more feet, then stop. I started to instinctively pull over, but I realized the futility of that particular endeavor. Pull over where? I realize what I’ve done pretty quickly, in a hard turn I had just simply kept going straight into a neighbors drive.

I retraced my steps and got back into the truck, finding my way along by the interior lights. I’d left my lights on inside the cab and slammed the door behind me, shutting out the howl of the wind. I wonder, and not for the first time, “What on earth am I doing here? At 5:00 a.m., wheeling through the snow on the eve of April Fool’s Day to a dark kitchen newly remodeled and a yet-to-be-determined number of hungry guests who most likely will all be demanding the Southern Special, which is waffles with buttermilk and soy marinated chicken which is dipped in pancake batter, rolled in panko and then quickly deep fried. No wonder they like it so much. I do too, one of the perks of the trade, but one that you can rarely indulge in. Despite what they tell you, no one likes a fat cook.

Unless it was the early years of the Food Network, of course, when Chefs like Emeril and Mario were just starting their television careers. They captivated audiences by their antics on stage on the screen. Nothing seemed to be scripted or even planned. I believe that I remember reading somewhere that Mario once set himself on fire on a set and they just rolled the camera. He finished what he was doing and then put himself out with all of the alarm of a man feeding his cat. Then along came Giada, sporting major cleavage and a Joker smile that wrapped around her head like a guilty pez dispenser. Then Food Network gave us Anthony Bourdain, who was adored by every starving cook on the planet and greatly confused nearly everyone else outside of the cooking world. But, he did something that Emeril and Mario did not – he made cooking cool. His unsympathetic, unglamorous attitude in the kitchen and constant sarcasm to nearly all things commercial while railing against established authority made all of us nearly green with envy.

Even now, as I slog my way up the mountain in the snow, I think of what Bourdain did and did not accomplish in those early days. He did take the FN in a new direction. He did attract thousands, perhaps millions of people to the channel with his brutal honesty and rock star mentality. He did cause chaos in the binding world as they struggled to keep up as millions of people flocked to buy his books.

What he didn’t do was bond well with the new powers that be at FN. They recognized, and smartly so, that his on and off-screen antics and tendency to tell things exactly the way he felt they were had no place in niche market that could be pushed mainstream with the right marketing strategy.

So, it began. The glamorization of a life spent in a kitchen, which seemed to consist more of driving around in classic muscle cars with spikey hair goofing on people’s restaurants than cooking. Giada was showing more cleavage than ever, not that anyone minded, and Paula Deen took the center stage, along with the Martha Stewart looking and acting Sandra Lee, whom I’ve always confused with a truly terrible frozen cake. Beauty started taking center stage and real cooks started realizing, “Hey, these guys aren’t COOKING anymore!” It’s still about food, I guess, but something went missing.
Then came the rise and continued arc of this new thing, a new actor on the stage set by money and market capitalization. The “CELEBRITY CHEF!” The first of such creatures were almost embarrassed to be on film, embarrassed to have everyone screaming their name after live cooking demonstrations that rivaled rock concerts. They had after all, clawed their way up through the ranks within kitchens, most with dubious if not outright sketchy backgrounds and were most definitely not schooled on how to behave on or off the camera.

That wasn’t enough for the FN either. Mainstream still wasn’t there. The show was attracting more and more cooks who could identify with the people they saw on screen, but it was rapidly becoming a cult phenomenon, which the executives could not bear. Not with the millions of people out there just waiting to scarf up high-dollar cooking appliances and decorate their million dollar condos with 50,000 dollars in high end kitchen equipment that they would neither use nor aspire to use. THAT was who the FN was after.

So, they created a superstar. Their very own Chefs. Chefs, it seems, now grow on chef trees out in California somewhere, or maybe in the basement of the FN executives’ house, watered with champagne and ruby lips, cultivated with perfect hair and smiles and dressed in tailored Chefs Whites. Along the way, the very definition of the title “Chef” was corrupted. It came to represent anyone who wanted to call themselves such, no matter what their background was or how fuzzy their resume, printed, of course, on linen paper.

A Chef, by definition, is: “A skilled cook who manages a full kitchen.” Earliest recorded use of the term is in 1840, by of course, the French. They generally aren’t all that good-looking, usually complete with nervous tics, superstitions, older, wrinkled and wise beyond what you think.

A Celebrity Chef, however, is someone, anyone, who can look good on camera while talking smoothly. It doesn’t matter if they can actually cook or not, these new so-called Celebrity Chefs.

As I enter my kitchen that morning, I am thankful to be reporting in to an actual Chef, one who runs the kitchen, one who can chop, julienne, flavor, taste, fire, hire and make the majority of the decisions for me. I don’t have to worry about my lack of a six-pack or my hair. I don’t have to wear designer clothes or have limos pick me up in Eggleston, VA to shuttle me to my magazine shoot while my flunkies, or even better yet, someone else’s flunkies do my work for me. No, I’m happy to do my job, identify with the items that I prepare, and be grateful for the opportunity to get to cook for money. Not a lot of money either. I do it for the challenge, for the food, for the experience and for myself.

If I never have to do a photoshoot for a non-stick, self-sharpening, never-needs-cleaning CHEFS KNIFE that doubles as an IPOD, I’ll be even happier. But thanks, to everyone who has called me Chef Ron. I’ll take the compliment and remember that a cook is only as good as his Chef.

A Trip and a Compliment

IMG_0322[1]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.Menu

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.

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