A Kitchen Story

I always enjoy hearing stories of what brought people to their passions for food. My grandfather cooked on a train during the Depression. That’s all I know of that story. Although it provides a good prelude to my own.

The author at 13

My journey into food began, I suppose, as so many do: at my mother’s apron. The house always smelled good, and the kitchen was warm and inviting. And there was mom, making stuff — if I was really lucky, she was cooking a pie and rolling up the scraps of crust dough with butter, sugar and cinnamon for her son to eat hot out of the oven. My openness to trying new things came from my mother’s oft-repeated refrain if you complained you didn’t like something: “Eat it or I’ll shove it down your throat with a black stick.” (A recommendation with British etymological origins, I’m sure, that she likely learned from her English father…) To this day she claims she was only kidding.

I was 11 or 12 when my parents divorced. They lived near each other, and shared custody of me and my little sister. The days we stayed at my father’s house, our options for dinner were often either Swanson’s salisbury steak dinner with peas and carrots and apple cobbler, or Swanson’s chicken gravy dinner with green beans and blueberry cobbler. So I would get out a cookbook and pans and get to work. (A story I’ve told more times than I’ve repeated my social security number, in answer to the question posed to me over a thousand first dates, holiday dinner tables, counters and bars: “So how did you get interested in cooking?”)

I began cooking “professionally,” such as it were, in cafés and pizza joints when I was 15 or 16. I learned valuable skills like how to make massive balls of dough in huge mixing machines, and how to not cut your finger off. By the time I was in college, I’d clawed my way to sous chef at a French restaurant called Jili’s. Jil was the owner, a handsome silver-haired Frenchman given to fits of ill temper. The thing I remember best of him was those times I would be chatting with a busboy or carving a turnip or daydreaming, not paying attention to my sauce burning onto a pan or a quail being broiled to charcoal, and he would grasp his cheeks and gape like Ricky Ricardo used to when Lucy was up to some particularly implausible mischief. “Dahling!!!” he would say in exasperation. “Dahling” was what he called me whenever I was screwing up, which I guess was better than other things he could’ve called me.

"Oh no!!! Lucy!!! What you done!?"

Inexplicably, Jili’s had a sushi bar in the back. The kitchens were connected, and I made fast friends with Tatsu, the sushi chef. I used to fill my water glass with saké and when it was slow we would drink in the no man’s land between French and Japanese kitchens (a metaphor in there somewhere to my own mature style of cooking). After the restaurant closed, I would sit down at the sushi bar and Tatsu would make me stuff with whatever fish was leftover. I learned a lot from him, more probably than from Jil.

Sometime after that came the moment of truth. I was offered the position of chef at a French restaurant in the downstairs of an office building in Santa Monica, across the street from the seminal California cuisine restaurant, Michael’s. The owner was a friend of my father’s friend, Pierre, who owned the famous Moroccan restaurant, Dar Maghreb, in West Hollywood (before seizing up on an airplane somewhere over the tulip fields of Holland). I went for lunch with my dad to meet the owner. I was invited into the kitchen to cook something for him. And was hired. Except I wasn’t sure I wanted the job. I loved cooking, but didn’t care for the restaurant culture. Plus I’m a morning person, which also killed my rock & roll career. And I was in college working on my Master’s Degree. So I declined.

For many years, people said, “You should start a food blog!” I’ve also been prodded regularly to open a restaurant. I’m less sure I want to fulfill that request. Perhaps if I could do it in the European style of those places that are open four or five nights a week, serve one or two things (As my 5-year-old daughter says, “You get what you get and you don’t get utsep”), and close for the winter. There’s a pathetic grocery store here in our town that has a great location on a friendly bend in the road… and if that ever becomes available, I might snatch it up and turn it into an upscale market, grill and wine bar. Kids welcome, closed for the winter. Or not.

For the time being, we like to think of our home as a really good restaurant open to only family and friends. No charge, just bring a nice bottle of wine and you’ll be fed.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa Gaskin
    Jul 29, 2011 @ 01:09:16

    Zees is trueeee!

    Your grandfather cooking on the train…was that a grandfather of mine?

    Reply

  2. mom
    Jul 29, 2011 @ 16:45:00

    The author of that family famous saying about the black stick wasn’t English. He was an infamous Irish great-uncle with about 8 kids. I never met him but I heard the story repeated with a shudder so often I believe it. He was probably the father of my Mom’s cousin who tied me to a chair and washed my mouth out with soap when I was 4 for saying ‘poo-poo’. My favorite word in those days BTW.

    Reply

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