So I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up.
My food journey starts in a seldom traveled country road in rural Pennsylvania. A man and his wife of some renown decided to set up shop just down that road. My (late) elder brother worked there as a bus-boy and eventually found his way into the kitchen and was captivated. He later went on to graduate Cum Laude from J&W.
When I was in my late teenage years I lived with him and cooked with him in the home. As life would have it, I began working with him in an unpaid position cleaning dishes but gaining my first exposure to the kitchen environment. It was a small 40 seat establishment which served mostly standard American classic fare and eventually the business closed its doors as many do. After all, this was another very low-key Pennsylvania town where they refer to Green Bell Pepper as "Mangos" and think that having a glass of red wine with your meal is the type of snobbery only people in New York City participate in.
A short intermission in that path and an entrepreneur from the Mayflower (Central Park West) deciding to gamble on bringing some culture to those poor backwoods hillbillies by revitalizing (label that investing a ton of money) a local failing landmark, the Fallsport Inn. My brother secured the head chef job, developed the menu and opened the doors for me to come in alongside and work with him. We worked through that hell of an opening, fueled by the pressure of owner and his gamble, overbooking and understaffing, the failing of overhead exhaust turning our kitchen into a veritable hell on earth and the promises of the restaurant's pasta (which were to be made by the owner himself) falling quickly apart like the pieces of the Ron Popeil pasta machine working against the vigor of Semolina in a commercial environment. I don't hold regret, those stories all hold a special place in my heart. Yes even making the pasta by hand with a mixer and a hand-crank Atlas machine for an evening service of up to 60/hr once a week, every week still shines in my memory like the flash of Armangac in a hot pan. The ever increasing pressure mostly resulting from the owner biting off more than he could chew led to an eventual falling apart between himself and my brother, who in turn, like a bruised fighter waiting for the clang of the bell to signal the next round, paused briefly to gather his strength and planned his next move.
A local building which sat in an ideal locale along the stream, an old mill turned Old Mill Stream Restaurant opened up for lease. The hotel portion was in full swing and the manager was itching for the restaurant to be fully functional once again. My brother seized the opportunity and once again I was by his side. Those days were the best. The hours were long, the kitchen hot, the pace was fast, but there was always the reward of seeing customer after satisfied customer raving about the quality of the food and service. Summers we had a giant outdoor grill from which I cooked chops, steaks and other treats to order for the hungry crowds who flocked to the nearby lake to create those nostalgic memories so many Americans now hold dear, reflecting on them from time-to-time like the sepia tones of a long forgotten photo found in the back of a dresser drawer. At one time I was making steamed Lobster to order with drawn butter on a Bayou Classic which we ran (probably against local code) to the delight of those looking for some surf and turf. I would split those crimson beauties down the middle and serve them up steaming hot with drawn butter and lemon. I recall one day, temperatures soaring into the high 90's, a hot summer day over an equally hot grill, my fingers flying to keep about 2 or 3 dozen steaks of various request from overcooking alongside a myriad of chops and skewers while having to fill orders from the steamer. One customer who wasn't satisfied with the lack of our utensils (so my brother forgot to order nutcrackers...but the backblade of the chef's knife and the split basically did all of the work for them) demanded a "nutcracker". This was lunchtime rush. Mid-90's. Hundreds of bucks worth of food on the grill. A lobster that was prepped for consumption that so that even a 10 year old could have navigated the steamy, messy crustacean with the greatest of ease. And here was this 40-something customer with the "I'll show you" attitude demanding from the waitress (he was quite verbal and borderline abusive....our wait staff was not to be messed with by unruly customers) a nutcracker. I offered to crack the shell some more thinking I really can't leave my station. Not now. But to my dismay he refused, sending the waitress back, tail tucked between her legs to bring the resounding echo of his firm demand. I wish I had a nutcracker. I did, really, really I did...but we forgot the darn things and this was the pilot launch of our Bayou Classic.....A small wire in my brain snapped and I clearly remember everything quickly coming into focus and my feet rapidly guiding me back to the recesses of the kitchen. Back to the rack. Back to the home of a prep mallet that was probably the size of a small sledgehammer. What was that thing used for anyway, killing Rabbits? Marching out, triumphantly, I presented the mallet to the irate customer. From his thick (Brooklyn...nothing against Brooklyn...my family made it's bones there fresh off the boat in the restaurant biz) accent a faint cry escaped...."What's this"? as he sunk into his chair, unable to cope with the gravity of the situation. To which I politely replied..."Your Nutcracker Sir". I don't think he came back.
Fast forward 20 years. A degree in Physics. A degree in Electrical Engineering. Five years of school and work and then a decade of computer simulation work. A rock-stable job. A decade of blurry, mindless, suffocating work. A decision I certainly made with my head and now in a reflective almost trance-like meditative state I can remember, like looking through the clearest of glass, making Béarnaise by hand with my brother but I cannot tell you what I did last year or even (just about) last week. That's not living. That's existing. But it was also over a decade of food exploration that covered almost every realm possible and the salary to afford it. A decade of people tempting me to open a place of my own. A decade of people sitting there, watching me cook for them with ingredients I have grown, mushrooms I have collected, meat I have raised and butchered, drinking beer I have brewed from grain, pickles I have fermented, salami from deer I have taken by hand (on my own property too!) and transformed into hanging white cased marvels of preserved meat and served up with prepared mustard made from scratch. But it wasn't enough. The kitchen is calling me. I'm home and I am ready to bring it.