Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Cooking on the Dark Side

I'm self-taught...well I use that term loosely. I am really the product of 23 years of experiments in the kitchen on my own and some intense periods cooking under a couple of very gifted chefs to whom I owe a lot.

In the early eighties I started cooking challenging food in my own kitchen. The more complex the dish was, the more interest it held for me. I cooked like a madman and believe me, I ruined a lot of food in the beginning. Inch by inch I learned about things like cooking temperatures, complex sauces and spice combinations etc.. Gradually, I developed a sense of "feel" in the kitchen.

I got my first professional cooking experiences rather late in the game. About 1991 I met Dennis Kaniger who owned “The Venue” which was considered the most cutting-edge restaurant in Kansas City at the time. We invited him and his wife Gabe over for dinner and I did my best. It was good and he asked me if I would like to come to the restaurant and cook as a guest chef. I accepted of course and was very flattered. The experience was fantastic for me, I learned a lot and I ended up staying on. Dennis is a fantastic chef though hardly challenged in Kansas City, especially in those days. He was a couple of light-years ahead of our simple Midwestern tastes.

A few years later we moved to Vermont and happened to live next door to a chef named Marcel Grange. He was French and learned to cook in Paris and more specifically the Crillon Hotel. He was in his seventies when I met him. Marcel was cooking at the Equinox hotel in Manchester and he suggested I go down and ask for a job. I thought it might be fun to work in a big kitchen and so they hired me as a prep cook because I had no formal culinary education. I made a few bucks less than the other chefs but I wasn’t too concerned because I wasn’t really doing it for the money.

I decided I had something to prove and did my best to impress. I was up against 27 other chefs from NECI and the CIA. There was some real talent there and some very inspired chefs. I worked hard and on my 8th day I was promoted to Chef de Partie and cooked lead in the Marsh Tavern. The Marsh Tavern was a sweat-shop during foliage in Vermont. Tour busses pulled up and deposited 100’s of tourists on our doorstep all at once. I really learned the meaning of “slammed”.

At the Venue all of the other cooks were self-taught. In Vermont I was the only one. The difference in the two kitchen was amazing. The Venue was intensely hardcore and everyone there was trying to cook legendary food, but at the Equinox the chefs were generally less interested in making history. Many seemed to have chosen the career as an alternative to being a carpenter or a plumber. Honestly some of them possessed no drive at all, they were just performing a job. There were exceptions as I have mentioned but the electricity was lacking in that big kitchen.

Picking a good school is important but I honestly feel that great food is all about inspiration, drive and energy and if you don’t have the dosh to spend on a top-drawer culinary school, go get a job as a prep-cook and spend your time trying to impress them. Sooner or later you are going to get noticed. Oh yeah…it helps to smile!


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