Every person has turning points in their lives. Made a decision, find out later that it was a Big Decision.
For example, family lore says that my grandfather (on my mother's side) was going to take a job with a new manufacturing company in Wilmington, Delaware. The money was good but they were paying part of it in paper -- stock certificates. He didn't know what a 'stock certificate' was and furthermore, he knew that plastic (whatever that was) would Never Replace Wood, so he didn't take that job. With DuPont.
Yea. Like that.
This is my path to cooking. A love of cooking begins with a love of food -- something I was not born to.
It's 1985 or so. I was a young woman, just out of college, out in the world, dating and such. I met a man (at a bar). His name was Jamie Rafftesaeth. We went out a few times and I must say, I was crazy about him. One night we were at some restaurant in the G-d-forsaken-Hell-hole-that-is-Allentown Pennsylvania and I ordered shrimp scampi for the umpteenth time.
"Why do you always get that?" he asked. I replied that I get shrimp scampi because I know I'll like it.
He asked it I really liked shrimp scampi. Well, it was OK but safe, I explained.
To which he replied, "Order something different. If you don't like it we'll get you something else." Really? Something else?? I had no freaking IDEA that you could 'get something else.'
This was the turning point. I got a different entree, (probably something raw or rare -- hey, I was untested, not unimaginative). It was a short hop to oysters on the half shell, carpaccio, snails, squid, steak tartar, fois, sushi** etc etc etc.
So Jamie gifted me with a palate. And we ate well. Our greatest joy was to "go places and eat things." Memorable meals at Jean Louis at the Watergate (in DC), and in Paris, London, Lisbon, Barcelona, New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Cape May (props to Cape May, a beach town in NJ with a dizzying number of wonderful restaurants). We traveled a lot and we ate well.
Flash-forward 12 years or so. After moving to Dallas from Washington DC, I embarked on a freelance journalism career. I began by writing about food. "I like food," I thought, "I like to cook, and I can write." Why not food writing? My first big story was in the Food section of the Dallas Morning News. It was about "Smoked Turkey Legs -- just like at the State Fair." My editor was Dotty Griffith.
I freelanced for many years -- about ten I believe. I wrote about every topic imaginable (but football), but at my core, I was always a food writer.
I also reviewed restaurants, which was as close to dying as I want to get. I was the lead food critic for the Fort Worth Weekly (an alternative tabloid). I had food poisoning more times than I can count. I was denied additional entrees at a Vietnamese joint because they said, "I'd had enough to eat." I had to stare at the cojones of a Fort Worth restaurateur who came to the table and put his foot up on a chair to chat amicably with me and my friend Melinda Rice. He had on loose fitting shorts and was going commando. For years, anytime I thought of his restaurant, all I could think about was being at eye level with his gonads. I have a million stories about reviewing restaurants. It was a blast.
As much as I loved writing, after a few years of doing it I felt stale. I wanted to be a better food writer so I thought I'd go back to school. I wanted to learn about food. If there had been a masters degree program in food history, I'd have gone the academic route. (I may still go back to school. Hey, I'm only 49!)
There wasn't a food history program so I decided to go to cooking school. I attended El Centro College, a community college with a well-respected Culinary Arts program.
I loved culinary. The reading, the cooking, Fun (fundamentals of) Baking, the spreadsheets, the ridiculous floppy hats and dumb neckerchiefs we had to wear. I loved everything about it.
But, in order to graduate, I had to have three semesters of practical experience (called 'practicum'). That's almost a year of real-life, restaurant experience.
Heavy sigh. Who the hell was going to hire me? I was 42-years-old and I had no kitchen experience. But I wanted to complete the program so I had no choice. I had to get a cooking job.
I moaned to Jamie. Where will I work? I thought about Norma's, a diner in our 'hood (Oak Cliff for you Dallasites). Maybe they'd hire me. I'd offer to work for minimum wage, I just wanted to finish the program and get on with my writing career.
Then Jamie tossed off another of his Important Sentences. "Why don't you apply at the best restaurants in town? What's the worst that can happen... they say no??" I thought about it. No wasn't the end of the world.
So I applied at three of the fanciest restaurants in town. I got two interviews, two offers and accepted a job at Nana, in the Anatole (was Wyndham, now Hilton) Hotel.
I was a part-time pastry assistant. I loved cooking in a restaurant, especially once I got out of pastry and moved to the 'hot line.' I got the Nana gig and never looked back.
(Read more about Nana in a previous post: "Farewell Nana".
I worked in two of the best kitchens in Dallas; Nana and Stephan Pyles. The Pyles years are a whole 'nother chapter. But, Stephan studied with Julia Child so there are some techniques I learned from him that came straight from Julia. Cool, huh?
Jamie and I have since divorced, and I moved to Portland four years ago. Cooking here has been a dream come true. I've immersed myself in food culture -- to the exclusion of all else*** -- and have loved/do love every minute of it.
I don't know what my future holds. Will I stay in the kitchen? Will I teach?? Right now, I'm happy as a clam (in the mud) as a line cook (OK, a lead line cook for what it's worth) at The Deschutes Brewpub in Portland. I always thought I'd spend ten-years in the kitchen and then do something else. Honestly? I don't know what I want to be when I grow up.
I do know that...
Cooking = love.
Thanks for reading this.
Thanks to Hobie Bender owner/janitor of Bipartisan Cafe for telling me to write this story.
And thanks to Jamie Rafftesaeth for being there to utter Important Sentences.
*** I've come to realize that I do so much cooking, eating and food writing that I don't have anything to say in the company of non-food-types. I've become myopic, monotone, succinctly focused, to the exclusion of all else.
So, on my next day off, I'm going to the movies. Pop culture, beginning with "Hunger Games," here I come.