Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Returning to the kitchen

A long, long time ago, in a previous life - I worked as a software developer on Wall St., developing communication protocols for electronic trading. That was during the dot com boom, the money was great, venture capital, vapor ware and $125 bottles of California Cab flowed like water. But after years of burn-out work schedules on trading floors, nerding-out until the wee hours of the morning over lines and lines of code, having a pager at my waist 24/7 constantly abuzz with server messages, and the promise of stock options fizzling into nothing, I lost my heart for the work. As the dot com bust loomed I knew in the pit of my stomach that my position and income were not sustainable, the life I was living was draining, and I wasn’t happy. The money was good, but I wanted something satisfying. I wanted to be doing something I felt passionate about and money alone wasn’t a motivating enough factor.

Too often, I'd be at a nice restaurant with a client having dinner and I’d completely tune-out of the tech talk going on because I was distracted by the scent of truffles from a plate two tables over, or by the perfectly sautéed piece of turbot in front of me. While my clients were telling me of their connectivity, communication and data management issues I was lost in the restaurants wine list; with thoughts of Petrus, Pomerol and Super Tuscan’s dancing in my head... For lunch, I preferred a hunk of cheese and a crusty baguette from the nearby gourmet shop to chewing on a big chunk of dysfunctional code. I dreaded meetings with stale pastries and paper cups of coffee. I hated cafeteria lines, eating a limp salad out of a plastic clamshell within the boxed in walls of my cubicle. I waited with baited breadth each month for the latest issue of Saveur, but had hardly the enthusiasm for my subscription to the Visual Basic Programmers Journal. To me, this was not living. I was numb and burned out. I was day dreaming about something else, and most of the time, I was dreaming of food… So, in 1998, after two years of complaining about how much I disliked my profession, I finally grew tired of listening to the whining in my own head and decided to do something about it. I enrolled in the evening culinary program at the French Culinary Institute.

I grew up in a food oriented family and had been at the stove since a very young age. When I was seven years, after nosing around the kitchen and asking lots of questions of my mom, she taught me how to make scrambled eggs. The next morning I decided to take stab at it and I left the stove on and almost burnt the house down. A few days later I tried to make scrambled eggs for my dad and step-mom. My step-mom is the master of the perfect scrambled egg; true to her French ancestry - soft, buttery curds, seasoned to perfection, never over-cooked. She took the time to teach me how to make them her way; lots of butter, low heat, stirring slowly and constantly with a rubber spatula and turning off the heat while they were still runny (they’ll continue to cook and be perfect when you put them on your plate). To this day, soft scrambled eggs are one of my favorite foods.

On weekends while I visited my mom and she was at work I would watch Julia Child on television. Then I would go through my mom’s fridge or walk to the market, pick up some groceries and cook something. The first time I watched Julia Child I went straight into the kitchen and made a roux, and when my mom came home I showed it to her. She then showed me how to make gravy. I was still fairly young, eight or so. My cooking was often typical kid food; fudge, sundaes, chocolate mousse made with a box of pudding and whipped cream. But then I began cutting recipes out of magazines and my mom would give me money to buy the ingredients and I would cook dinner. Often times I would make something for my mom that I’d watched my dad cook. She was always very encouraging and when she would have dinner parties I would help in the kitchen as she and her friends cooked together in the kitchen. Cioppino, a traditional San Francisco fisherman’s stew, made a regular appearance at my mom’s house. And cracked dungeounous crabs with drawn butter and sourdough bread were a seasonal favorite at both my dad’s and my mom’s houses.

At my dad’s house I would often make breakfast in bed for him and my step-mom. I’d make Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes, omelets and grapefruit drizzled with honey and decorated with flowers. We would then spend the morning in bed together reading the Sunday funnies. I’ve always enjoyed creating things and the kitchen provided the perfect outlet.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people with a passion for food and cooking. My father is a fantastic home cook, a hunter, and fisherman and was the main cook in our home growing up. Although there were times as a kid when I would have gladly traded our venison taco’s or wild boar chili for McDonalds, in retrospect, I appreciate the exposure that trying new things gave us. I really owe my parents for teaching me how to enjoy food. My brothers and I were never forced to eat something we really didn’t like; however, we were always encouraged to at least try “one bite”. Our dinner table mantra was, “you don’t have to like it, you just have to try it” and so we did. And through this I grew from being horrified by raw oysters, to developing an almost fanatical love of them; of being totally grossed out by sushi to now enjoying even the more exotic offerings (uni, roe, octopus) and to never being afraid of trying something new. In my childhood the kitchen was a fun place, it was a place that symbolized freedom and little or no restraint. It was a place to explore, a place full of creative energy. Plus, there was the added benefit – the cardinal rule of our kitchen: whoever cooked didn’t have to clean! And so, I would help my father whenever I could; a pinch of salt, stirring a pot, looking over his shoulder and asking questions and when dinner came to an end I would sit back and relax as my brothers washed up the pots and pans, loaded the dishwasher and wiped down the counters...

Going to culinary school and learning to cook professionally was a way of returning to my roots, rediscovering something that I’d lost touch with within myself; returning to a place where I felt creative, free and alive…

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