What was the moment, the event, the restaurant, the dish, that changed your life? Can a meal or a restaurant experience really change a person’s life? Maybe it wasn’t in a restaurant after all, maybe it was a memorable experience created through the hands of a parent or grandparent. In any case, there are those moments in most of our lives that carry such strong memories causing us to reflect and use them as benchmarks. With many cooks, the connection to that one incredible meal is profound.
Career decisions in life are often driven by experiences that we hold close. I am sure that watching Jeff Beck or Stevie Ray Vaughn sparked the interest of many young people grasping their first Stratocaster. Seeing a father or grandfather risk everything, as a fireman to help those in crisis has been the impetus for building entire families of firefighters. Watching Joe Montana control the football field, as he did so many times, was the spark that helped to create multiple generations of quarterbacks, and connecting with writers like Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck was the driving force behind a cadre of writers to follow. But, can food experiences do the same?
What is it about food that in the past three decades has been the impetus behind the exponential growth of restaurants and culinary schools, as well as the preponderance of cookbooks, food novels, and television food entertainment? If you stop to think about this rapid change, it really is amazing.
In the early sixties when I was wrestling with my first job in a kitchen, being a cook was anything but glamorous, yet it had an attraction. Was it the freedom that comes from receiving a paycheck, the interesting characters that worked alongside me, or was it something deeply rooted in that one incredible meal, dish, or restaurant experience at some previous point in time?
The end of the year is an opportunity to reflect on what came before as each person consciously or unconsciously begins to plan for the year to come. My reflections typically go back much further than the year coming to a close. Today, I found myself thinking about what brought me to a lifetime of food, a career that I am proud of, and connections to hundreds of unique people who I call friends and associates. Where did it begin? What role did food experiences have in the direction that I chose? I think that it is a great exercise to look back and understand what “light bulb moment” was the catalyst for your life. “If I hadn’t done or experienced this when I was 16, or 18, or 30, what would my life look like today?” Who was the person, or for that matter was it a person, who coached me, or drove me in a certain direction?
I can remember so many different food events that may have been the catalyst. Maybe it was not a food moment, but rather a series of moments that continued to reinforce those early decisions. If so, I could rightfully assume that I am, and always will be, in pursuit of that next incredible meal or food experience to solidify my decisions. I do have that proverbial “bucket list” of food experiences, so maybe that is the key. That great initial experience makes us hungry for more (no pun intended). Maybe, we need to constantly feed our need for more and that is the real value of those eye-opening experiences early on. It was that first Hemingway novel that hooked a young student into a life of reading and writing. Quite possibly, it was the connection with an art museum filled with Impressionist work that inspired a young girl with colored pencils to choose art as her form of life expression and a career that gave her the opportunity to create. Maybe it was that Jeff Beck concert that parents took a begrudging teenager to that allowed him to shift from listening to hip hop and take up that Stratocaster with a new sense of purpose and passion. Maybe it was a young college student walking by the Ground Zero memorial in New York that gave him pause as he read about the countless firefighters and police officers that lost their lives trying to save people from the Twin Towers, that made him eventually become a volunteer firefighter in his hometown.
Anyway, as I reflect, here are a few of the food experiences in my life that may have turned on the switch.
- It was my great aunt who baked fresh bread every week in the 50’s while nearly everyone else was convinced that Wonder Bread was the way to go.
- It was certainly my grandmother’s famous chicken and dumplings that she cared for like a child. I always remember her directive: “Make sure it is a young chicken.”
- It could have been my first homemade pasta at Leonardo’s Restaurant in Buffalo that made me see the light.
- Without a doubt it was that USDA Prime strip steak at the Palm Restaurant with caramelized crust, and juice captured inside until I cut into it and found a perfect medium rare.
- My first raw oysters and clams on Allen Street in Buffalo outside of Mulligan’s Brick Bar were certainly enlightening.
- It was the signature cromesquis at Marc Meneau’s L’Esperance in France (foie gras infused with truffle and cognac, breaded and deep fried) that burst into such intense flavor that my sinuses filled with the aroma to match and my eyes teared with the wonder of how anything could be this good.
- It had to be my first beignet in the French Quarter of New Orleans that inspired me to continue on a culinary path.
- I know that it was the best cappuccino of my life that I found in an Italian Restaurant in Boston’s North End that solidified my choice of career.
- The first of five experiences at Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant in Chicago made me see what was possible with a deep understanding of food.
- Wine in the personal cellar of Alfonse Mellot in Sancerre still makes me smile.
- Chicken liver dumplings with Spaetzle in Frankfurt, Germany – monumental!
- That incredible tamale at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill or even the margarita made with fresh squeezed lime did the trick.
- Roast Chicken from the kitchens of Union Square Café in New York was truly memorable and brought me back to the importance of keeping it simple.
- The sushi and sashimi at Nobu with Drew Nieporent and Kevin O’Donnell spoiled me for sushi anywhere else.
- A rack of perfect bar-b-que baby back ribs from a hole in the wall restaurant in the Carolina’s. Slow cooked ribs with that fantastic bark, slightly sweet glaze, and ear of corn, coleslaw and potato salad. Hard to beat the combination.
- That first Rodenbach Sour Ale at the Three Penny Tavern in Montpelier made me a beer lover again, and the place demonstrated how important a neighborhood watering hole is to a community.
- Veal cheek ravioli and a bottle of Barolo at Babbo after shaking Mario Batali’s hand at the bar created a perfect dinner package.
- Single Malt Scotch in the Oak Bar at the Plaza brought me back to the way it must have been at the turn of the century.
- My first taste of Turley Zinfandel, Miner Family Vineyards Oracle, and Daniel Chotard’s Sancerre will always be part of my flavor memory.
- Coffee and Croissant while sitting in an outside café with Notre Dame in the background is my most vivid memory of Paris and the importance of food to the French people.
- Epoisses cheese (quite possibly the smelliest in the world) on a slice of fresh baguette – incredible.
- Poilane bread – enough said.
- Wood fired pizza from American Flatbread in Vermont – the best of the best.
- Goat’s cheese from Vermont Creamery, Cheddar from Grafton, Bayley Hazen Bleu from Jasper Hill, Camembert from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in Central New York –will help you to differentiate great cheese from average.
The list can go on and on, and every event or dish that makes my list brings back not just memories, but also confirmation that what I chose to do with my career was right. It certainly has been rewarding. As cooks, we live to experience these moments and strive to create them for others to enjoy.
What are your food memories and which one or ones drove you to be the cook or chef that you are today. It is always good to remember.
Happy New Year!
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
COMING SOON: The Event That Changed Everything
by: Paul Sorgule
Available in early 2015