Food is our common ground, a universal experience”– James Beard
“Good food is the basis of true happiness” -Auguste Escoffier
“Respect all food, and avoid it’s waste, because it is life itself” - Thomas Keller
“You are what you cook” Alexander Plotkin
After nearly 22 years spinning around the sun I have suddenly found myself at a point in my life where big changes are about to occur. In the matter of months, I will complete my scholastic journey; ready to embark on any challenge life throws at me. Armed with my trusted chef kit. I will soon be able to devote myself entirely to my chosen professional path, the food industry. I have tried to do the best I could up to this point to fill my chef kit with a vast array of tools, both literally and figuratively speaking, all of which have been acquired throughout my adventures around the world and in various kitchens in America. I have not limited myself to acquiring the customary culinary tools and knowledge. The essential life wisdom that is needed to sustain a level of success in the competitive, critic centric world we live in today has been a major part of my learning experience. Although what already seems to be an eternity invested in creating a strong passion for food, I recognize I have but barely scratched the surface. I hope to continue to aggressively pursue all aspects of the gastronomical world, inserting my own flare for experimentation and traditional good cooking into a scene that will leave a long-standing impression on all who experience the magic I believe I am capable of producing. There is not a day that goes by where I am not asked what has been my main inspiration or how in the world did I ever jump into the culinary field at such a young age. I have yet to come up with a simple answer to this dash of inquisitiveness. I tend to tell people that I feel it is what I am meant to be focusing my time and energy on in life, keeping my response relatively simple so the discussion can end sooner than later. I never know if the person asking will truly understand the meaning behind my passion for food; then again, I guess I would never expect anyone to, unless they share the same passion to fully understand how complex my focus on this subject truly is. As time goes on and as more culinary knowledge is acquired from the very best of the best, I am better able to see where the root of my love for food comes from.
I believe I was born with the passion that is necessary to be successful in the food industry. I believe a person who is the best at what they do were born with that skill, as if they were put on this planet to master that specific craft. Mario Batali, one of the most recognizable and successful chefs in the country has clearly expressed his feelings on this matter when he states, “Great chefs are born, not made. Its in your blood, or it’s not: the passion” (Buford 30). For this is the reason I am able to stand on my feet for 14 hours straight in a kitchen that is over 100 degrees making sure each leaf of parsley is pointed in the exact same direction, and still remain as enthusiastic about the last leaf placement as the first. It’s important to offer some background for context as to how this passion was nurtured from my earliest days.
It is fair to say I was never very happy as a young child when my parents would leave me and my two brothers and sister home even for an evening out with friends. In those days I suppose I would have fit the description as a homebody, a momma’s boy, a kid with extreme separation anxiety. I prefer to look at it as being a kid who had so much love for my parents; I didn’t want to spend any time away from them. Maybe it was a combination of the two. Through out what seemed like countless nights of tears and agony while my parents were out to dinner, or on infrequent vacations together, the one woman who was constantly by my side was our housekeeper, friend and soul mate Willie McCoy. I would often spend time in the kitchen with Willie after agonizing therapy sessions lying on a couch being evaluated by some badly dressed, pallid skinned bald man right out of central casting who seemed to have a constant itch in his left eye. These sessions were frightening in their own right. I trusted Willie throughout my growing up years. Some may consider her simply as the role of the housekeeper, the babysitter, or simply the cleaning lady. I considered Willie my second mother.
Willie worked for my family for a wonderful twenty years, from the day each of my siblings and I opened our eyes for the very first time. My parents were always there for me…in more ways then perhaps I don’t fully appreciate today, however it was the separation that caused so much unhappiness. I was raised in a loving supportive family and am blessed to have a Mom and a Grandma who are also experts in the art of cooking from scratch. My first experiences in the kitchen were surrounded by these three great women.
Willie grew up on a farm in Mississippi in the late 1930’s, during a time when racial intolerance was at a peak. She doesn’t know her exact age since she was never able to see her birth certificate. On her last birthday she said she was 72 years old. When told various struggles and hardships she has had to conquer in those 72 years, you are able to see how she is a living textbook of an ugly time that existed not too long ago in our countries history. She would describe her daily routine on the farm, which included waking up at the crack of dawn to feed the animals just before picking cotton in the fields into late afternoon, where she would proceed to butcher chickens for the family. If anyone has ever questioned what happens to a chicken when its head is cut off, asking Willie will most definitely solidify an honest answer coming from a person who experienced such a gruesome yet necessary task for days at end. It is fair to say she grew up having a lifestyle very different from anything I have ever experienced. Through the hard work on the farm over the years, Willie became an expert in the kitchen, adept at making do with basic ingredients in clever and provocative ways. Willie was responsible for cooking dinner along with her mother for the family every night. Whether it was bean soup, grits, fried chicken, chicken feet, chitlins (made from pig intestines), collared greens, pies, corn cakes, or even making a root beer float, anything that came out of the kitchen Willie was working in was sure to be a gastronomic sensation. Willie often commented that her house was always the popular place to eat, since there was authentic soul food being prepared at great excess all the time.
A culinary lesson Willie taught me a very young age is to not waste anything. Growing up on the farm, Willie and her family would use every part of every animal they would kill, utilizing as much as possible. I soon had a solid understanding of the importance for caring for the food enough where you would not want to waste any part of it, a mentality that not enough people possess, especially in America. This is a crucial mind set to have with prices for ingredients today at their highest. It is also an opportunity to discover tastes and textures that can revolutionize the way a certain animal or vegetable is prepared in all the various possibilities. Willie taught me the meaning of sustainability, of enterprise and looking ahead to better days. I owe her so much.
One of the worlds most dynamic chefs working today is Thomas Keller, who I have admired ever since I got my hands on his cookbook and read about the level of respect other incredible chefs around the world have for his abilities and world view in the kitchen. This example only solidified the importance of caring for the food and producing as little waste as possible. Keller feels it is important to build enough care for the ingredients where you would never want to waste it. In Michael Ruhlman’s memoir, The Soul of a Chef, Keller is lecturing Ruhlman on the importance of this issue, while Keller is explaining an early experience in his career when faced with the daunting task of killing and dismembering twelve small rabbits. Through this explanation of this traumatic experience for Keller, Ruhlman obtains a vivid depiction on the mindset of one of the best chefs in the world. Talking about Keller, Ruhlman explains,
“He had taught himself about respect for food and, its opposite, waste. It had been hard to kill those rabbits because life to Keller wasn’t meaningless. If their lives hadn’t meant anything, it would have been easy to kill them. He took that life, and so he wouldn’t waste it. He would not overcook this rabbit. He cared about it too much at this point. These were going to be the best rabbits ever. He was going to do everything possible, short of getting in that oven to cook with them, to make sure they were perfect. It is up to him to not waste them” (Ruhlman 289).
I have adopted this mentality after having similar experiences as Keller had in addition to the profound lessons Willie McCoy has taught me. In a way, whenever I waste food in any manner, I feel as if I am disappointing Willie, after so much time has been spent teaching me the correct path in the kitchen. After the turkey is carved on Thanksgiving, into the pot the carcass goes for turkey stock. Once the shrimp shells are peeled off, right into the pot they go to make a seafood stock for a delicious risotto. I have experienced that over time, various mentalities and the proper way of going about ones craft stick. In other words, they become second nature, making it a part of the natural routine in any kitchen.
Growing up in Chicago was an incredible advantage for me in order to further develop myself into the chef I ultimately want to be. As home to many ethnic groups Chicago offers pretty much any ingredient one would need for any type of dish, whether it is found at the large supermarkets, the small farmers markets, small ethnic stores in hard to find locations, or from a neighbors garden. When I was not cooking for my family, I would always be cooking for friends when growing up. I guess it is fair to say when a kid is asking for an autograph of Julia Child while all of his friends are asking for Michael Jordan’s autograph, that child has a true love for food. That was me. To this day, my most prized possession is my autographed picture of Julia, which reads “Happy birthday to Alex and Bon Appétit. Julia.” As soon as I read those words, my knees instantly began to buckle.
Throughout high school, especially my last few years, I would undergo a constant battle in my mind as to what I would want to do once I graduated. I was not sure if I was ready to go to culinary school so I decided the best thing for me would be to get a liberal arts degree and take it from there. Something that helped me make this decision was the first job I landed in a legitimate kitchen during my junior and senior year of High School.
I thought it would be a good idea to get in a kitchen as soon as possible to see how I liked being in the center of action at a very intense level. I went around to as many fine restaurants in my area as I could asking for an opportunity to get my hands dirty and to learn more about the industry. After many looks of confusion as to why a scrawny short young kid wants to work for free in a kitchen, I finally received the good news from the owner of a restaurant named Carlos’, which is located near my home in a northern suburb of Chicago.
Carlos’ is a four star French restaurant, one of the very best in all of Chicago and is nationally known, which is why I was beyond excited to see what it was all about. In 2007, Carlos’ was written up by the Zagat Survey as being the #1 restaurant in Chicago. No small potatoes here! The New York Times wrote a review of the restaurant, saying “One of Chicago’s best French restaurants is actually in its suburbs”. Before this experience, the extent of my cooking was done in my home, for friends and family, so this was an incredible opportunity to bring my passion to the next level. I had made an agreement with the owner, Carlos, where I would be allowed to come in every Friday after school and into the night and then all day and night every Saturday. On Fridays I ended up working from 4:00pm-1:00am the next morning and on Saturdays I would work from 11:00am to apoproximately1:20 am. Both days were long, tiring, exhilarating, and incredibly beneficial toward helping me formulate a long-term plan for going forward. The kitchen skills that I learned while working at Carlos’ are some that can only be acquired if you are on the line at a restaurant of this caliber.
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into my first day. I knew I loved to cook but I was not sure if I would be of any use in such a fine establishment at such a young age. I remember walking into the back kitchen for the first time, causing every chef to stop what he or she were doing and proceed to stare at me in utter silence. Once a few of them stopped grinning, I introduced myself to the man who appeared to be the head chef who instructed me to follow him into the cooler.
At this point, I was surprised to see that almost 75% of the chefs in this very French restaurant were all Hispanic, including the head chef. The others were older men who had the hands of well-seasoned chefs, clearly demonstrated by sand paper textured skin with burn marks running up every forearm. The cooler was everything I ever imagined it being. Everything organized in such a way that you sometimes felt wrong taking something out of its place. The head chef, Ramiro Velasquez, shoved a large case of fava beans in my direction and said this was going to be my first project. I was not prepared at the least bit for what I was about to get my hands into. Ramiro then began to show me exactly what he wanted me to do. I was supposed to take the beans out of the outer pod, and then I would take each individual bean and peel the outer waxy shell off of it before blanching them. I didn’t think it would be that bad at first; however it was a little tough to get each bean peeled in the time allotted. The result of this assignment took up the first five hours I ever worked at Carlos’. Once I was done with the first case of beans I asked the chef what was next. As another case of fava beans landed on my cutting board, I knew I would have to improve on the pace during my last five hour session.
After each bean, I would question myself, whether or not I was making the right decision trying to jump into a kitchen at such a young age, when I could instead be at one of my buddy’s house, smoking cigarettes in the backyard and sneaking out later to meet up with girlfriends. Then I would remember I didn’t smoke and didn’t have a girlfriend at least not at that point. Pushing those thoughts aside, I pushed through and was able to finish the second case in less than three hours, forgetting the fact that a third of the case probably ended up on the floor. I left the kitchen around eleven o’clock that night, having a very intense feeling in my stomach. I knew I wanted to cook. I knew I wanted to show people what I was capable of. I was not sure if I would be given that chance or just be looked at as a young neighborhood kid who is curious about the industry. Rather than leaving with confidence and a feeling of accomplishment, I left smelling like a three day old fish with my fingers dyed green from being stuck in fava bean pods for hours on end.
For the next three weeks, each Friday and Saturday that I went to work, I was charged with the responsibility of peeling fava beans and after that, more fava beans. I never thought I would be given another assignment but at that point I didn’t care. I was going to do whatever the chef asked of me, hoping it would show my dedication and passion. Within those three weeks, there were three other new chefs who came in and were assigned the same task. All three lasted no more than a week, having a lot of trouble swallowing the task of being in charge of fava beans. Looking back at it, the chefs were using fava beans as a way to weed out the ones who were not dedicated enough. It was a test, which I thankfully had passed. To this day I will not put a fava bean in my mouth but losing all desire to ever eat another fava is well worth it for what the beans allowed me to do next.
After about a month of work on the weekends, I was given more and more responsibilities. It started with having to chop, slice, chop, slice, and chop some more. After a month of work, my hands felt as if they were made out of leather, the true signs of someone who works in the kitchen. I was beginning to understand what working in a fine dining restaurant is all about. I was beginning to understand the pace at which one needs to move in order to keep orders on track. It was a world that felt comfortable to me In a crazy way it seemed that the tumult and frenzied nature of the kitchen was mysteriously appealing. Each time I went to work, I gained more and more confidence that this was exactly what I wanted to do for a career. I couldn’t wait to make further discoveries about myself through lens of my job, constantly hoping that I was making the right decision spending so much of my free time with people who didn’t speak English or people who already have children my age. Granted, there were many times when I felt I had made a huge mistake. Walking into the area off the kitchen where the chefs would change clothes and seeing one of the assistant chefs sniff a white powder substance before my very eyes knocked me back a few steps. I had never experienced something like that before. I now understand that my industry invokes the best and the worst in people. Pressure takes it’s toll and only the strong survive. At such an early age these lessons were invaluable. Yet all of the strange encounters, good and bad only fueled my passion.
One experience I will never forget, one that quickly elevated me from being a rookie to being a chef who is responsible for a significant and important task was when I had to dismember a large amount of rabbits. I had taken apart chickens before, and frenching a rack of lamb was no problem for me, but taking apart a rabbit was not something I had been prepared to do. Luckily, the fur and head of the rabbits were already removed, but it still resembled a tiny creature that had experienced a really bad day. The chef who was in charge of the meat station, Adam, was the one who instructed me on how to go about completing this task. After showing me around the bases of five example rabbits, I gave it a go and completely messed up to the point where he threw my work in the garbage. I had punctured the liver and heart, which tainted the taste of the delicate meat. I was told I had to carefully take the loins off the rib bones without puncturing any of the internal organs followed by taking the silver skin off of the loins with careful long strokes made by a razor sharp boning knife. These little guys were very small so it was quite challenging at first to get it right, not to mention I have always found rabbits to be cute, but I had to put those thoughts aside and respect the food I was working on. After a decent amount of practice, I started to get the hang of things. I also started to forget the fact that I was taking apart rabbits; instead I would encourage myself to go faster than the one before. I always felt an incredible amount of pressure to get things done quickly, since I was the young new guy, and that is exactly what I did. I was told by one of the older chefs to make a game out of it, to test myself and to prove that I am better than the previous showing. Cutting myself was never a fear, nor was the fact that I wasn’t making a cent at the time, but the head chef being disappointed was something that I would never allow to happen.
I ended up surprising most of the chefs with my abilities with my knife work, which was rewarded by even more rabbits. At this point, each time I went into work I was given a bigger responsibility, until eventually I was in charge of my own station after working there for six months. I had never thought this was going to happen, but when I was given the opportunity to be in charge of the Amuse Bouche, I ran with it and did the absolute best job I could. I liked the fact that I was the one that was in charge of the diner’s first bite, with some supervision from the head chef of course. First impressions by customers eating in a high-end restaurant are often formed in these initial moments and now they were going to be subjected to the abilities of a young chef. The pressure was all on me as to whether or not the customers were going to have a positive or negative mindset going into the heart of the meal. The pressure on me at such a young age was intoxicating.
As time went on, I was given more and more freedom as to what I could prepare. It was incredible seeing customers reactions being so positive at such a high level place. At this point, I was still not getting paid and I was most likely working an illegal amount of hours each shift for my age but I didn’t care. Money was the least of my worries at this point since I was learning such an incredible amount every day. I started getting paid after working at Carlos’ for eight months. I was thrilled that I could officially call myself a legitimate chef at one of America’s finest restaurants. It was fulfilling to track my improvements in the kitchen during this period of my on the job training.
Something that many chefs will talk about is the natural instinct a chef must have in order to stave alive in the kitchens at the pace I was working at. Bill Budord, explains the same transformation when working under Mario Batali is his memoir Heat. Buford writes,
“You also develop an expanded kitchen awareness. You’ll discover how to use your senses. You’ll find you no longer rely on what your watch says. You’ll hear when something is cooked. You’ll smell degrees of doneness”(67).
This is exactly what happened to me. At first, I was always looking at my watch; always second-guessing myself when I thought something had spent enough time in the oven. I ended up burning things being overly cautious, resulting in me forgetting about something else when having to constantly run across the kitchen to check on a pot on the burner or in the oven. As time went on, I began to smell when the onions were done sautéing, I was able to hear when the meat was ready to be turned. I was seeing before my very own eyes the transformation from being a young man with a love for food to a chef in training whose skills were continuously getting better. I worked at Carlos’ until I graduated high school, when it finally was time to focus on my next step in life, college.
The decision to attend a Big Ten university is one that I have to admit I initially regretted. I knew I was going to be in an environment where being in the kitchen the amount I would have liked was not a real possibility. Ultimately, I decided the best thing to do was take advantage of the outstanding liberal arts education I was being offered, and to focus fully on the continuation of my culinary career during the summers.
During the summer of my sophomore year, I decided to take a risk and to see how I would do if I started my own catering company. People always asked me to cook dinner parties for them, so why not make a business out of it? At this point, I had proven to myself as well as many other chefs at Carlos’ that I was capable of producing quality food that I was very proud of. I was ready to prove to myself I was able to take it to another level and give it a go with a personal endeavor, regardless if it would fail or not. That is how Epic Eats Catering began. I was a one-man show, bartending, cooking, cleaning, serving, advertising, managing, and enjoying. My first summer, I had a little shy of ten parties, ranging from six people to thirty people. Being in total control was exhilarating, and daunting at times knowing the success of the party was entirely in my hands. I would have a meeting with my client beforehand, plan a menu, go over the budget, and talk about other details that needed to be worked out. I was a little concerned with figuring out the best way to handle the business aspects of this project, but I had decided I would learn as I went along and learn from my mistakes.
During my second summer of running Epic Eats Catering, I was preparing a graduation party dinner for as many as sixty people, which was one of the most intense weeks of my life. At first, I was stubborn and did not want to hire anyone to help me. I was convinced I was able to prepare everything and serve everything myself, making as much money as possible. The fact that I was capable of earning hundreds of dollars in pure profit excited me too much to ever think about sharing that money with someone else. This was a very ignorant mindset to have. I have learned that having people to help you in cooking situations is incredibly important since the client’s happiness is of the utmost importance. I luckily had enough sense to hire a few capable friends to help with the party. Everything turned out as planned. I was averaging a $1000 per dinner party of straight profit. Not bad I thought for having never been to culinary school. Every dinner party I conducted gave me more confidence to follow my dreams to be the best chef possible.
During that same second summer of Epic Eats Catering, I had decided to take on yet another experience where I would be turned into the rookie kitchen slave for no pay, just to acquire more skills and knowledge for my toolbox. Bread has always been something that I consider to be an obsession of mine as bizarre as that may be. There is no other scent that compares with that of freshly baked bread. I wanted to focus on my baking skills and develop a better sense of what it takes to produce the very best of the best. I went around to various bakeries in my area, asking for some type of internship where I would be able to shadow the bread maker and take notes. I finally found Food Stuffs, a retail food market made up of four stores that prepared many of its own items especially bread. The owner was more then cooperative in allowing this desire of mine to become a reality. One small detail that went with the job would be a shift that started at 7:00 PM and continued to 5:00 AM the next morning, otherwise known as the graveyard shift. This was going to be a different experience. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to work throughout the night for no pay, in and out of hot ovens for hours at end; however, after my first go at it, my passion for baked goods continued to expand. The first night I went into the bakery I was once again met with the familiar laughs and snide remarks from the chefs I had received in previous jobs, especially since I was working the graveyard shift. Somehow they knew I was there working without pay which made my presence all the more curious. They constantly asked me if I was crazy or if I had severe mental issues, but I continued to maintain that if you consider a love for food to be a mental issue than by all means consider me to have one. I thought I would be able to learn quickly, but seeing how the capable hands of experienced well-seasoned bakers work was something I was not prepared for. Each baker would work with the dough with a delicate manner at a rigorous yet measured pace, making sure they would be able to bang out 300 loaves of French bread before the morning pick up. Some may say learning the recipes for the various breads would be the beneficial part of this experience, but to me it was acquiring the skills of handling the dough and the final bread product with your hands that gave me the most joy. I began to understand how to work with the ingredients in a way that would produce the proper amount in the time allotted, yet I was still able to acquire the intuitive understanding of the delicate process required when introducing the ingredients together. By the end of the summer, I would barely need to use a scale to weigh out the portions. I would be able to feel the dough through my fingers and tell if there was enough water added, I was able to poke at the dough to check the elasticity to see if more kneading was required. These elegant skills was what I was after, not the money. Because of this, I am more than happy that I decided to be a bread baker in the middle of the night, almost as if I was walking into a different world, one filled with flour and yeast. I benefitted by the lectures of the importance of caring for the ingredients that went into the baked goods. The importance of the taking care of the starter for the sour dough was one of the most essential tasks in the bread kitchen. It was as if the starter was a small child that had to be protected and nurtured. The lessons I learned were priceless, and are only going to make my future food endeavors that much more successful by adding yet more essential tools to my kitchen toolbox.
The amount of fun and excitement that I was having from my own catering company was simply too great to stop at the end of that second summer. When I went back to school in the fall, both my sophomore, junior, and senior year, I would bring my business with me and make a few changes to cater to the student population. I knew I was not going to find a population of people who were willing to spend over a thousand dollars on a fancy meal prepared by a young chef, but I knew there were plenty of students who appreciated good food and had no idea as to how to prepare a first class meal on their own for friends. I also recognized that there was a lot of money wasted by well off students on nonsense and that if I could present an alternative to fast food while creating a congenial atmosphere of good eats there may be a few takers. I was convinced there would be such a significant interest by students to eat incredible homemade food for a fixed cost, while giving them the ability to entertain their own friends at a much more classy level. Although Epic Eats Catering never evolved to the level as it did in the suburbs of Chicago, I was able to make a steady profit for each catering assignment I would find. I was willing to do anything, whether it was cook for a group of sorority girls, thinking it would improve my chances with the ladies, or even cater various concerts at the local bar where my friend’s band would perform on Wednesday nights. I never anticipated I would be baking 500 mini blueberry muffins to be passed out during the concert of one of the local bands, Main Squeeze, just to “spice-up” the show, but I did. I was approached by the bands manager with the thought of creating one-bite treats that would be served during the show. I immediately started to think of what would go well with a band with the name “Maine Squeeze”. Freshly squeezed orange juice shooters were passed out at the entrance to the bar, to give the person an introduction to what was to come. Mini “Maine” blueberry muffins topped with fresh lemon curd were the favorite of the fans. The money was less then anticipated, the work was long and tedious, but overall the experience was extremely fun and very rewarding. Although I was doing such a small thing in terms of cooking, I was still following through with what I love to do which is giving people a genuine sense of excitement when they pop a bite of deliciousness into their mouths. This blueberry muffin endeavor is just one example of the expansion I was making on my passion for food, and how I wanted to express that passion with as many people as possible. It is interesting to note that in the commercial food world, muffins have made a significant comeback with retail stores opening from coast to coast selling these inexpensive and delicate treats. Maybe I’m onto something after all!