Dining Out

It happened to me today. The moment, a magnitude of moments, building up in the back of my mind, relentlessly shoved aside when it rose to consciousness and threatened my everyday happiness with their existence. The moment that happens to any cook, home or professional, who relentlessly pursue their craft to a higher plane. The moment when you realize that the food you are eating in a restaurant, in almost any restaurant, simply isn’t any good. It’s a sad moment, when you realize that the experience of eating out is not about the food anymore. No matter what you eat, no matter how fine the dining establishment, you are one day enjoying yourself in a spot of sunshine with your favorite dish in a favorite joint, and it happens. You think the terrible thought: “I could have made this at home! Better!”

I was doing just that, enjoying the sunshine heating up my back and having one of my favorite sandwiches in my adopted local restaurant. I was happy. It was cold outside. A cold that I’m still not used to, the bitter chill of temperatures just above freezing, which is practically shirt sleeve weather in the mountains. There, at higher elevations, the frost of the night is burned off on most mornings by brilliant sunshine. The rising temperatures create steam off the roofs of houses and fog over the river valleys and steeply descending icy cold streams as they plunge down in their relentless pursuit of sediment and scour. On the shore, here by the Chesapeake Bay, the local weather is best characterized by the term raw. I’m still not used to it. The relentless wind from the northeast, combined with steady humidity around 60 to 80 percent, which makes your skin cool from evapotranspiration that makes even so called normal temperatures miserable.

That was one of those mornings. I’d been outside most of the day, still glorying in the new and unfamiliar, even the temperatures. I was finally driven in to the restaurant by my own timidity of my increasingly good health and falling temperatures, which felt to me like a storm was on the way. My arthritis was howling, reminding me of past stupidity and to make sure my son is not successful at riding his new little bike off the bed in his room, or at least keep him safe while he does it.

I pulled myself up to the bar, blew on my hands, ordered a coffee and a prime rib sandwich. Holding an ever changing lead with a great cheeseburger and a Bahn Mi, a prime rib sandwich with au jus is a meal dear to my heart. Warming and sloppy and filling on a cold day, there is little to go wrong with that choice. I make it my mainstay in judging the quality of a restaurant: If you can get two of these sandwiches right, then you are most likely paying attention across the board.

Philly Cheesesteaks are also one of my favorites, but my standards are too bizarre to make that a judgment call. It simply isn’t fair to evaluate most establishments on the quality of this sandwich, but if I eat there, and you have it, it had better be right! Melty cheap cheese on a high quality prime rib or sirloin chopped beef with a homemade loaf, onions and peppers, they are like crack to me. If they are good.

This place didn’t have a cheesesteak, but it did offer an American Cheeseburger. You had to look for it, hard, under all the burger options, but it was there. Along with its gourmet brothers, who were covered in everything from oysters to Foie Gras, it was there. A burger, with American Cheese, rather embarrassingly sporting a trio of unripe tomatoes, onions and limp lettuce with ketchup and mayo in little cups on the side, it was still there. I tried it. It was ok. Not great, but ok.

I expected more from the Prime Rib. After all, isn’t it the grown up and sophisticated cousin of the cheeseburger? The Au Jus alone makes it worth the price of admission, or it should. With two hands clenched around my mug of coffee for warmth, it was hard to let go to take my first bite of the sandwich. It looked good. It was steaming in the afternoon light, the kind of sunshine that reflects just so off the windows and gives you a good, unfiltered look at what you are breathing. When I was a little kid and first saw all the dust, mites, dander, pollen, carpet funk and other particles that you suck into your lungs for life, I held my breath until I fainted. I was afraid to breathe. How I ended up in a coal mine from that is beyond me.

I let go of the coffee cup reluctantly and made a grab for the sandwich. It looked good. It was on a toasted bun, and piled high with what appeared to be prime rib. I took a bite, then another look at this sandwich. I felt like Christian in “Pilgrims Progress,” seeing things as they really were for the first time. The bread was dry. It was old. It was still cold inside. There was no mayo, no cheese, no onions, no umami from the beef. Nothing. I dipped it in the Au Jus, my heart sinking a little. The second bite confirmed my initial venture. It wasn’t any good.

People who cook professionally represent a very small community. Pare it down a little further, and the air becomes a bit more stratified. With that said, it can be hard to be somewhere new very long, buying produce, getting to know farmers, butchers, fishmongers, grocers and the purveyors of kitchen equipment before people begin to put out feelers. Your reputation, for better or worse, will immediately follow you. In other words, the community was getting to know me. Far faster than I was getting to know them.

The sandwich was bad. Plain and simple. I disassembled it, poked around a bit and surreptitiously examined my catch of the day. I didn’t eat it. The Jus was cold, and the meat looked dangerously close to a frozen mystery product I used to clobber together as a cook at a summer camp and there was nothing else on it.

Seeing my dilemma, my bartender wandered over. “Did you like it? Sure. Are you not hungry? No, not really. Want something else? No, I’m good. I’ll just pay rent on my space for a while.” He studied me, then my plate. “That’s our best seller.” I offered no further comment, my day dampened a bit. Not ruined, by any means, but rendered a bit raw.

He collected the cast aside parts of the sandwich and ignored fries and wandered away, dismissing all of it immediately. I felt abandoned, somehow. Like all wannabe artisans of a craft, I wanted to think that maybe, just maybe, I would be told if something was off that day.

With my delicate ego in balance, I thought of other dishes I’d had there, and at other restaurants, good establishments, all of them. Nothing whatsoever jumped out at me. Whenever I went looking for something good, I didn’t find it.

Where I did find it was during a street sale in a small town, where oysters were being shucked in the freezing rain for charity only. From a pink joint, where the owner laughingly made me a hot dog piled high with slaw, baked beans, mustard, ketchup and hot sauce. From a roadside fish stand, where crab cakes and trout were being deep fried and people gathered in the freezing cold, regardless of race, economic status or creed to enjoy the fatty goodness of simple food. I thought of the impromptu neighborhood barbecue I had crashed a few days earlier, carrying a case of Keystone Light, with my cargo pants stuffed with pork rinds and dragging a cooler full of ice and Mountain Dew. I thought of my wife’s handmade pasta, carefully shaped as she cast the dough over the flour dusted workspace, over and over and over again. Her potato gnocchi, her mother’s spaghetti and meatballs, all of them cooked with love, with little regard to what needy little foodie bitches like me would think.

I thought of my grandmothers deep fried chicken and squirrel brains with red-eye gravy and biscuits, served to me on my eighteenth birthday, the day I went to work in a coal mine. Six years later, as I was lacing up my boots on her porch, which was overflowing with herbs, flowers and plants growing out of every conceivable container, she told me: “No matter where you go, always take your boots.”

So, the sad day of realizing that I was missing something when I dined out was replaced with the memories of why I started cooking in the first place. Out of love. Love, and the pursuit of perfection.

I’ll never view dining out the same die, cast as I have come to opinionate it. Instead, I will eat what is put before me where I enjoy it most, in the homes and backyards and back kitchens of the world, and I will appreciate every bite.

Maybe I’m not a pretentious bastard, after all.

Hank’s Drive-In

Ramblin Ron

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…

View original post 390 more words

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

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.

Image

ImageImageImageImageImage

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 Baby’s (Excuse Me, Toddler’s) Review of Pink Cadillac

Note: Daddy is going through some writer’s block and working a lot on projects around the house and hasn’t really kept up with his writing, so I’m going to help him out today.

IMG_0116[1]

I woke up the other day in my warm crib and listened for sounds of Mommy or Daddy. I could hear Mommy in the kitchen and it sounded like Dad was filling up the wood stove with wood. I like the wood stove and I really wish that I could convince my parents that it’s ok for me to play with it. They won’t let me, repeating over and over that it is “hot” and will “burn the baby.” I really think that they underestimate my intelligence sometimes. I know that it’s hot but I don’t know who this “baby” is to which they refer. After all, from what I’ve read, at thirteen months I’m a toddler! I can walk, I’m learning to run, I can climb all the stairs, everywhere, which I like to do because I always get chased and I get to show everyone how fast I can go up. Sometimes I get caught before I make it to the top, which always makes me mad. I don’t have to be carried all the time!

I do like to be carried though. It’s fun. I think about riding Dad’s shoulders and giving Mommy kisses while I jump up and down in the bed. It’s time for them to get me out, and from the sounds below my bedroom I can tell that we’re going somewhere!! That’s doubly exciting.

Nolan12thMonth_024

I give up and start to throw my blankets out while yelling “Uh-Oh!” Parents are so funny. They think that it is awesome that I can say that, but as Sadie, my friend that I play with, and I have discussed, it’s hard to get parents to take you seriously when you are still so little. So I just do what I can for them and feel sorry that they can’t understand everything that I say. I understand them!

After throwing all my blankets in the floor I realize I’ve made a mistake, for now I’m a bit sleepy and my blankets are out of reach. So, embarrassingly enough, I do what always works. I cry. Not a minute goes by before I hear both my parents coming up the stairs in a mad rush. I like how they always run for me. It makes me feel special.

Dad has made breakfast, ‘cause he smells like oats, fruit and honey. Yummm. One of my favorites. Oatmeal with fruit! We are definitely going somewhere, their suitcases and my diaper bag are by the door and Dad loads the car while I show Mommy how far I can throw the oatmeal. I eat too much and I feel full and sleepy and I need to poop. I’ll be in the car for a few hours, and it’s time for my nap so I go ahead and poop so Mommy can change my diaper while Dad is outside. Dad means well and he tries, but sometimes he gets my diaper wrong. I have to show him how to dress me every time too, so I’d rather Mom do it this morning so we can get on the road and I can take a nap. We get in the car and the sound of the radio and my parents talking soon put me to sleep…

I wake up a little hungry and thirsty! Dad spins round in his seat and gives me milk, but my stomach is growling! I remind them it’s time to eat and they have a place in mind! The Pink Cadillac! I’m excited, I like Cadillac Cars. My Mommy has one and I like it a lot. Daddy likes it too, I can tell, ‘cause he always sleeps while Mommy is driving. Mommy likes to drive fast!

We get off exit 180 off I-81 North and pull into a gravel parking lot with lots of cars and an old pink Cadillac out front! The waitresses are all so nice and they tell me I’m so cute and handsome, but I already know that. I smile at them and hope they don’t try to hold me. I don’t like it when strangers hold me unless they are pretty.

I can tell that Mom and Dad have been here before. They order cheeseburgers immediately with fries and I cheer up. I like homemade cheeseburgers a lot, especially my Daddy’s and this seems like the kind of place that would have a good burger. There are lots of stuff on the walls and I blow bubbles in my apple juice and play peek-a-boo with the people behind us. They looked bored and unhappy.

IMG_0009[1]

The burgers come fast! With lots of fries and ketchup and pickles and onions and tomatoes and mayo and American Cheese! Yummm. My favorites. Mom and Dad feed me their burgers and I try not to drool on them, but it’s really hard with all my new teeth coming in. I eat a lot and feel like I’m sleepy again.

IMG_0039[1]

IMG_0037[1]

IMG_0016[1]

IMG_0036[1]

We say goodbye to everyone and I wave, which seems to make everyone happy. I don’t know why, so I just wave some more. I can tell we’ll be coming back to this place when we can and I think about how cool it is to be a toddler now while Mommy puts me in my car seat. I hear her say that we’re going to Nana’s house, so I’m happy – I’m going to get lots of presents. And oysters. And stew. And lamb, and risotto, and chocolate cake and carrots and her special pasta sauce and all kinds of stuff.

IMG_0030[1]

I need to poop.