A Chef’s Food Journey

Diana Kennedy, Mexico’s Food Expert

Long before I had heard of Diana Kennedy, there was El Taco Tico, the first Mexican restaurant on the corner of Main Street and Park Street in Rockland. They served guacamole, enchiladas, taco salads, Mexican “pizza” and these wonderful fried ice cream balls that were rolled in cornflakes. Having enjoyed the food there for a few years, my father decided to surprise my mother with a trip to the real Mexico. My mother was horrified! Sure they would get sick from tourista, robbed, or die some horrible death in a foreign country where nobody spoke English, my mother moaned and groaned and tried to do everything she could think of to dissuade my father. He took her kicking and screaming anyway. Two weeks later when they returned, my mother was suntanned, relaxed, and in love with Mexico and its real food. That was the beginning.

Next came Dallas. I lived in Dallas for eleven years and during that time worked with and became friends with many people from various regions of Mexico. And the first thing you learn is, everything you know of Mexican food is an abstract of the real thing. It’s like comparing a Wal-Mart diamond to the Hope Diamond. The nuances, rationality, and clarity were removed. But when you get to eat a real enchilada, made to order in a sauce just barely thick enough to coat the fresh tortilla, stuffed, rolled, and then my favorite, wrapped in a lettuce leaf so you can pick it up and put it in your mouth with a cool outside, hot, meltingly cheesy  interior, and juice dripping down your arm…it’s the best! And all the parts of the animal you never thought you would want to eat: tongue, tripe, intestines are actually really good.

I have always believed that to truly cook something right, not merely edible, you have to either be from that place or try to follow the recipe as closely as possible to experience the original intent. It goes back to something my favorite English teacher taught me “You can write very well in defiance of the rules, but not in ignorance of them.” That is how I view attempting to dabble in a foreign cultures food traditions. I want to try to honor the origin. Learning that Tex-Mex had nothing to do with true Mexican food was intimidating, the real thing so removed from the dishes served at El Taco Tico.

Enter Diana Kennedy. An “ethno-gastronomer”  in her words,  the last fifty plus years she has  spent  to record and preserve Mexican food from all thirty-one states. She was given an Order of the Aztec Eagle for having spent the greater part of her life researching and honoring the traditions of each region, village, and home cooks recipe, by recipe, cataloging the unique native plants and ingredients. Many times over. Because everyone, or more easily to imagine, everyone’s mother or father has a unique way of making a favorite dish. Her books helped me replicate the foods my Guanajuato friends were making for me, and I will always be grateful.

Gabrielle Hamilton, Prune Restaurant 2.8.18

Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir “Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef” details her journey through kitchens and life, from cooking at home with her mother, and around the world in New York, Greece, Italy, Turkey and France. Every page is full of amazing stories with interesting people, humor and straight up honesty. The book was a New York Times Bestseller and won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Writing & Literature in 2012.  As Chef/Owner of Prune, Gabrielle was nominated for Best Chef New York City in 2009 and 2010 by the James Beard Foundation, and won the award in 2011.

A friend gave me Blood Bones & Butter about six years ago.  At that time I had recently moved from Boston back to Maine after realizing the fast paced city life was not what I wanted.  I had worked in various kitchens throughout my career and was contemplating my future.  Like Gabrielle, I started working in a restaurant as a dishwasher as a young teenager. Our mothers were both outstanding cooks, using what little they had to literally make magic. We both left the restaurant business to persue school and other careers.  I could keep going, but this was why I had a hard time putting the book down and have read it many times since. Gabrielle’s words really spoke to me and inspired me to jump back into the kitchen. One quote that stuck with me is actually Gabrielle quoting Jo Carson: “Be careful what you get good at doin’ ’cause you’ll be doin’ it for the rest of your life.”  With cooking, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In 2012, Gabrielle published a cookbook, “Prune”, named after her restaurant in New York City.  The book is one of the most straight-up cookbooks I own. There is no preface, few little blurbs about dishes, just honest recipes.  Prune looks like the cookbook most kitchens have.  Pages have handwritten notes, some have stains and even restaurant size amounts (for making 40+ portions).  What really stood out to me was the section towards the back of the book titled “Garbage”. Pages describing what to do with Limp/Dead Celery, Salmon Carcasses and the like.  As a chef, using everything and wasting nothing is essential.

Gabrielle Hamilton throws out all rules that restaurant food has to be extravagant, laborious and fancy. She serves food that she thinks is delicious, from Pork Shoulder braised in Octopus Broth, to Canned Sardines & Triscuits, and even simple Ovaltine.

Saying that, I see a lot of similarities to what Melody and I do at In Good Company. During my first few months working at IGC, I had a customer walk up to the brick window of our kitchen to chat about his meal.  He mentioned he was from New York, what a great meal they had, and how they loved the restaurant. “Don’t change anything, please!”, He said. I looked at him puzzled and he asked me if I had ever been to Prune in NYC. I told him I had not but Gabrielle Hamilton’s book had been a huge inspiration to me. He said “Well I’m a close family friend of Gabi and have known her since she was little.”  He went on to say how IGC reminded him of the early days of Prune before there was a 100+ person line waiting outside every day.  We chatted a bit more and I thanked him again for his words, because they really meant a lot to me.

–Zeph Belanger

Marcella Hazan 2.1.18
Emilia Romagna

The first time I made pesto I was on externship from the CIA and working at the Willard Hotel in DC. I was assigned to the garde manger kitchen, where at anytime 8 to 12 people would be working in. The chef was old school French,meaning we were not allowed to speak at all, unless asking or asked a work related question. Silence reigned. My assignment was a quart of pesto for a function that evening. “Yes, Chef”. Now, I basically knew what pesto was, but I hadn’t made it, and I didn’t dare ask one of my fellow workers any questions, so…I peeled a couple head of garlic, put it in the food processor and added pinenuts, a bunch of basil, parmesan, salt, & pepper, and extra virgin olive oil. It looked right, so I took it up to the chef. He put a spoon of my pesto in his mouth and swallowed, and then turned bright red and started gasping. I really thought he was having a heart attack. With eyes watering he asked me how much garlic I had used. Trepidatiously I told him. By the end of the day I had added the entire case of basil to ½ cup of my concoction!

Clearly Italian was not something I was familiar with aside from my mother’s mile high lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs. I remember Moroccan, Caribbean, Mexican food cooking excursions with my mother never anything other than the Chef Boyardee version of Italian. Then I got my first Marcella Hazan book.

It was sometime in the early 90’s,  I had been collecting cookbooks for almost twenty years by the time I purchased “The Classic Italian Cookbook:The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating”. Her book stood out from the rest… once I opened the cover, everything about it hooked me in.

The 80’s and 90’s seemed to be a time of “hurry,hurry, hurry”, her writing helped me realize the importance of slowing down to appreciate what was happening in front of me. She wrote about needing to have patience with sauteing an onion in half olive oil and half butter until it was evenly golden and caramelized for the nuance of flavor that can’t be achieved any other way, reflecting that most modern cooks were too impatient to achieve.

The importance of using good quality extra virgin olive oil, flat leaf parsley, real parmesan not something found in a green can.Her cookbooks spoke so clearly of simplicity and honesty in both ingredients and effort. Her most revered tomato sauce has four ingredients: tomatoes, butter, onion, and time. Sitting and eating a meal with your family and friends was an act to be cherished, savored not rushed.

I am one of six children, but the age difference between my nearest sibling is six and a half years, so while I have memories as a child of us all being around a dinner table, by the time I was in middle school and high school I was basically an only child. We no longer ate as a family at the table. Most nights my parents and I ate on trays in front of the t.v., which at the time was fine with me since what teenager wants to have to talk with their parents? It was only after reading her book that I realized all my best memories can be traced back to times over the dinner table. I knew I immediately felt at home. Somewhere, in another life, I had to have been Italian. “It is the act of cooking itself that constitutes tradition, a tradition that looks to the production of a fresh meal for the family as the manifestation of a bond of affection and kinship, as the affirmation of identity, as a personal moment of nourishment and celebration.” –Marcella Hazan

Julia Child Food Journey 1.25.2018

As hard as it is for me to believe, I came to admire Julia late in my cooking life.

I was born in 1963, the year her cooking show started. So while I have vague memories of watching her and the Galloping Gourmet’s show, with my mother, my first love for classical French cuisine came in the form of Chef Fessey, my instructor in Basics at the CIA, Hyde Park. Basics was the longest time you spent with any one chef, and he made an indelible impression on me. We shared a common love for the bridge section in the news paper and simplicity in the kitchen. In an era when recipes were burgeoning with ingredient lists a mile long accompanied by complicated directions, his favorite instruction was “green beans should taste like green beans”. A philosophy that has always resonated with me.

I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park New York in mid January of 1986. French food at that time seemed stuffy, too heavy, and overdone while “New American” and “Southwest” were all the rage. In search of this, I moved to Dallas.

I went to work for the Crescent Club, a 17th floor exclusive private club where oil barons ate lunch and watched their buildings be built. It was a dream of a kitchen to work in. We had great arching windows on every outside wall with all the modern equipment a young chef could dream of. The Executive Chef of the Club was Jeffrey Triolia and when the Chef was offered a job in Aspen at the Hotel Jerome, he asked me to go with him to be his sous chef. Working in Aspen turned out to be not nearly as glamorous as I had imagined, although the countryside is beyond gorgeous. My days began at 5am and ended at 5pm in the evening, with one day off every other week. However, it was at the Hotel Jerome that I was lucky enough to meet, cook for, and forever after revere Julia. It was the year I turned thirty and she turned eighty.

In June the Aspen Food & Wine Festival comes to town just as the locals have recovered from the ski season and melt. In 1993 Julia was a headliner, along with Marcella Hazan. The Jerome, like so many other places that year decided to host a celebration in honor of Julia’s birthday. It was to be a picnic lunch for twenty four guests and Chef Triolia very generously let me plan and prepare it. My menu was Deviled Eggs, Southern Fried Chicken, Haricot Vert Salad, Blue Cheese & Walnut Red Cabbage Slaw, and the meal was rounded out with the pastry chef’s Chocolate Layer Cake. I am sure you can imagine how nerve wracking it was.

After the meal, Julia asked for us to come out to meet her. A moment I will never forget. I had never been particularly a starstruck person. You meet and cook for a lot of celebrities in my line of work, but when Julia stood up to compliment and thank us, her kind words had me shaking and awestruck.

My first book of hers was The Way To Cook. Published in 1989

Irma S. Rombauer, Joy of Cooking Food Journey 1.18.2018

For most of my childhood years I had told my parents I wanted to be a lawyer. I watched all the Perry Mason, Ironside, and Murder She Wrote shows with my mom. I devoured mysteries, loved to debate points of view, believed I had an analytical mind. Then, late in my sixteenth year, I had an epiphany over my mom’s Gourmet and Sphere magazines. Cooking was something I loved doing, even when tired, something that felt not like work, but joyful, divine, and absolutely right. When I told my parents of this change in my future plans, they did not see my decision in the same euphoric way. My father’s’ hope for one of his children to attend his alma mater of Dartmouth and my mother’s dream of a nice, safe, comfortable married life for her daughter were crushed.

The first cookbook my mother ever gave me was for Christmas of my senior year.

Joy of Cooking — The All-Purpose Cookbook
Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker
6th Edition, Twenty-fifth printing, October 1981

I’m not sure if she ever regretted it but if my mother were to rewrite the Willy Nelson / Waylon Jennings hit Mommas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grown Up To Be Cowboys, it would substitute chef for cowboy. Once I moved out of the house at eighteen and started working in kitchens, the number of holidays and family gatherings I missed became a sore spot for my mom. Working in a kitchen is not a nine-to-five job. Nor is it something one does to become rich and famous. Choosing the kitchen is about passion, love, obsession, and insanity. I am never happier than when everything is flowing in the kitchen. My food is about nurturing people. I am a very simple cook who loves to feed others.

There is a warranty on the cover of Joy — “Try any dozen recipes in Joy of Cooking. If for any reason you are not completely satisfied, you may return the book and get your money back.” I truly can’t imagine that anyone has ever taken them up on the offer. This book has everything from the now famous skinning of a squirrel illustration in the cooking game section to cheese making, stain removal, curry, and hermits, one of my favorite cookies.

When I was starting out, anytime I had a question, this book always had the answer. Now, of course, we have the internet, but I still find holding a book in my hands, turning the pages to read and imagine the recipes, seeing the stains of previous forays, is so much more enjoyable.

I like to think that by the time I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, my parents had reconciled themselves to my dream.