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April 8, 2012
Riding the train on the way to Milwaukee mid afternoon. The girls are with their mother and it is the rarest day off without any responsibilities. I have yet to put a bite in my stomach. Too frequently this happens. I’ve been on and off and have recently gotten back into cigarette smoking. They give me this raw feeling I’m clinging to right now. Like I am out on a fragile tree limb and the wind is blowing. Like Captain Dan hanging off the mast on the Bubba Gump shrimping boat daring God to come and get him. Raw bones protruding at the seams and clawing their way through my pores. A hungry man who’s disillusioned.
With all of the unpredictability and stress of the restaurant business, it has been far more honest, true, and predictable to me than so many of the human relationships I have had. But the kitchen cannot give me a hug or kiss. It is more like a temple or salvation. It is a give and take relationship and I can’t imagine where I would be without it right now. Hell, I’m not even so sure where I am at with it. I have felt this way before during my most lonely times and the easiest way to come out of the funk has been to dive into the deep end of whatever kitchen I am in. I hope this is one of those phases.
In an interview with a journalist working on a documentary shortly after we opened, I was asked whether the need to receive accolades and to be a Michelin starred chef was akin to being a drug addict. He wanted to know if I felt the amount of sacrifice and vision that is necessary to achieve these goals were worth the strains that can cause on oneself and relationships. It would have been easy to accept the comparison. Yes, there is something to be said for the amount of commitment it takes to be a successful chef. This industry in general can be very hard on relationships. And yes, there are many chefs – myself included – who have turned to alcohol and/or drugs to ‘get a better grip’ on this stress. So although I can’t really say because I don’t have any Michelin stars to begin with, the simple pursuit of perfection and desire for one’s work to be well received could be equated to continuously shooting heroine. So one can recapture the fantasy of that initial trip to heaven. For a chef, that trip to heaven is a feeling from within, but it most certainly comes from the outside. To be told from others that what you are doing is special. I cook and create for myself first to be sure, but it doesn’t make a difference if it isn’t understood, desired, and most importantly enjoyed by our guests. I understood where he was going with the point, but I reluctantly disagreed. I told him that for myself, being a chef was more like a religious commitment.
I have been able to step out of the culinary world for a considerable amount of time and never felt like I was going through withdrawals. I needed to step back and discover myself as an individual. Luckily as a result of a solid background, cooking for me has been like jumping back on a bike. With as much bouncing around as I’ve done, there are times when I ask myself whether or not I even have a right to be in the position I currently am in the first place. I have picked up and put down my trade at will. True, I would always find work in kitchens when I traveled, but the vast majority of the many I’ve worked in (post New York) were more out of the necessity of making ends meet than pursuing a shot of heroine. Yes, heroine is more punk rock, sexy, and Bourdain-esque than the purity of religion, but isn’t religion the heroine of the masses anyhow? I may be trying to convince myself here. But of course I deserve to be where I am. I’ve paid the cost to be the boss.
In my eyes, a relationship with food is the easiest form of expression in terms of spirituality. When my focus is solely on the creative aspects in the kitchen, I am the Pope and the food is my Scripture. I consider it holy to enter the being of an ingredient and understand it from the inside out. To give life to an inanimate or downright dead ingredient or animal and raise it to a higher plateau before the process of decomposition or digestion returns it to the dust from which it came. What do any of us know (me included) about God beyond what we’ve been taught as kids? Why should I look any further? When I bite into a scrap of fennel that is lying on my cutting board, I taste a miracle of flavor, water, and freshness that no scripture is going to be able to describe. When I think about doing justice to that ingredient – like a person in prayer – I let go of myself and listen to what the fennel is telling me it wants to be. It forces me to step outside of myself, use my senses, trust my instincts, and use my past experiences. I put that ingredient on a pedestal and take treating it properly with great magnitude. When something goes wrong I curse the world and have even been known to throw childish tantrums. So how to prepare the fennel? Perhaps caramelized? Perhaps black pepper crusted? It would not be unusual at all for the fennel to sit around my station for a couple of hours while I’m getting in touch with how best to handle it. We have fennel branches in the kitchen… can those make an appearance? Squab? A note of gaminess would play well off the sweetness of the fennel and spice of the black pepper. Olives: Just let them be olives. The salinity will be nice. What else? Note of bitterness perhaps? With time, patience, and honest reflection it’ll all come together. Or perhaps the dish will never be what I wanted it to be and it will come off the menu. But that won’t change the integrity or spiritual experience that went into it. Life to me is about being experimental and taking chances. Religious people are far from perfect as well. My respect and love for food opens up questions, reflections, and introspections. I own a restaurant and it is my pulpit. It is not holy. But when I look at all the beauty and ickyness of the world in general, I wonder about the holiness of the The Holy One him/herself.
I am just a cook and we are just a restaurant. Only a place where high ideals are strived for. Some nights we hit it on all cylinders. Once in a while we don’t. Life is not about perfection, but the pursuit of it. Do I really believe that? A hundred things can go right and I take it in stride. One thing goes wrong and it will torture me. We hope it is received from an elevated plateau in regards to the way our emotions are translated onto the plate and palate and into this experience we call life. There is just not much about my life outside of the restaurant and love for my daughters that is very pretty right now. Though I think that squab/fennel/olive dish will hit the menu soon. I expect that to be beautiful. And I need to quit smoking… once again.