Food Memories in the Future

We all have food memories.  Many chefs are inspired by those remembrances and cook based on those flavors and recollection of the times in their lives that those food tastes represent.  It’s not actually what I’ve done during my tenure as a professional cook but as a chef moving forward it’s something I’d like to change.  I’m not sure what the future holds for me professionally, but I do know I’m feeling good and am ready to get back to work.  I’ll do things on my terms and I’ll be inspired by my memories.  I’ve earned it.

I cannot decide which is my favorite pizza, sausage and mushroom or anchovies and hot peppers.  When I was a kid we would order three eight-cut pizzas for our family of six.  Two were plain cheese and the other was sausage and mushrooms which was for my father and oldest brother, both deceased.  Eating that pizza always reminds me of them and those times.  We also got Pepsi in glass bottles when we had pizza so it’s even better with an ice-cold Pepsi.  Anchovy and hot pepper pizza just tastes so damn good.  I don’t tolerate hot peppers like I used to.

Veal Marsala was the last dish I plated at the long lamented Theresa’s Italian Grill.

I remember as a kid my mother made a dish we called noodles and eggs.  It was made from a soft egg and flour dough rolled to about 1/8 inch thick and cut into approximately 1/2 inch by 1 1/2 inch strips.  They were then boiled until floating then cooled then cooked in beaten eggs, like making scrambled eggs (more noodles than eggs).  This was my sister Elaine’s favorite dish and she would always request it on her birthday, which she shared with her twin brother Dan.  I’m not sure it was his favorite, but it was a mainstay on October 22.  I don’t think my mother has made it since June 13, 2000 which was 3 days before Elaine’s death.  I’ve never made the dish but I think my daughter Stella whose middle name is Lainey, the name I called my sister, would like the dish, it’s time to make it.

I grew up in a home that didn’t have a lot of extra money, my mother worked and my father often worked two jobs and dinners were sometimes of the frugal nature.  As a child I wasn’t really aware that some of the meals were on the table due to their low-cost, and it often didn’t matter as we loved many of those meals.  One of the few things I remember my father making was fried dough.  He would hand-stretch small pieces of pizza dough and fry them up into puffy misshapen pillows and feed them to a plate on the table where my brothers, sister, and I would grab at the hot stack wanting to get butter and sugar on one before it cooled.  I need to make that soon as well, my kids would love that as much as my siblings and I did.

Vegans are real people too.

Another dish my father served me was bananas and milk.  I recall having a dentist appointment and my mother had gone to work and I was home with dad who gave me a breakfast of sliced bananas with milk and sugar sprinkled on top.  I recall how simply delicious it was.  Well, I went to the dentist, had nitrous oxide, had a tooth filled, woke up and vomited.  I don’t remember where the communication failed, but I wasn’t supposed to eat before the appointment.

Perhaps it was that lack of communication that contributed to my parents splitting up when I was 12.  The first meal I had at my Dad’s apartment was spaghetti and meatballs, it was one of his favorites and one of the few things he could make.  I do remember the salad all these years later.  It was iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and canned black olives.  What I really remember is the way it was dressed.  Poured on in this order was olive oil, a heavy dose of salt, red wine vinegar, and a little liquid from the olive can.  It’s still my favorite salad and I have it at home in that way or close very often.

The other person that made salad like that was my first wife’s grandmother. There were a lot of Sundays at her house in Troy eating hand rolled pasta and a pot of Sunday sauce.  The pork neck bones that simmered in the sauce were such an important part of that meal for me. The flavor of melted connective tissue and cartilage dug out from between the small bones with tender bits of meat remains one of those flavors that I enjoy with my eyes closed.  There was also a uniqueness to her sauce, and her arrival at that taste remained a secret to pretty much everyone who ate there.  One day she whispered the secret it in my ear.

Whenever you showed up at her house, expected or not, you were going to have a meal.

While living in Troy when Theresa was quite young, I would take her to The Vanilla Bean Bakery on Saturday mornings to pick out a Sesame Street cupcake.

The first dinner I ever made was chicken cacciatora at eight years old.  I make it differently now.

After my running career was over at Siena I decided that I would continue running competitively and see how far I could go.  Between some income from coaching and a bit of prize money from racing I made an ok living.  I shared an apartment with a couple of fellow runners in Albany and we would eat elbow macaroni and jarred sauce quite often.  One treat we had was a spaghetti with clams dish that one of my roommates made once in a while.  It was canned clams, sliced onions, garlic, cooking wine, oregano and the pasta.  It was like a bad recipe you’d see posted on Facebook but it was a break from the other stuff we ate and I really enjoyed it.

Jim Rua at Café Capriccio showed me the best way to make pasta with clams.

The first thing I learned to make at Café Capriccio was eggplant with 4 cheeses. Brilliantly simple, and simply brilliant.

The first time I ate foie gras was during the summer of 2003 while working as a line cook at The Lodge in Saratoga.  The culinary staff included Jaime Ortiz, Brian Molino, and Ken Kehn.

At the beginning of our relationship, Jenn and I would spend considerable time having cocktails on Caroline St. in Saratoga.  I recall one night at about 2am we hit a popular late-night food joint for what was my first doughboys.  I soaked them in jalapeno sauce and gobbled them down.  Delicious. I gave Jenn a hot sauce kiss and her lips have been on fire ever since.

Also, early in our relationship we were strolling through downtown Saratoga and hit the same popular late-night food joint for some more doughboys. They’re horrible things during the day.

Day drinking and a trip to Stewart’s may be in order.

My last drink was on October 6th

Potato chips, tuna sandwich with green olives, blueberry pie, and so many things I’ve enjoyed with my dear wife and constant inspiration, Jennifer.

Influences, Inspirations, and Aspirations

Throughout our lives we are all influenced and inspired by many people, places, and things.  I as a chef am susceptible to many outside factors. A picture of visually appealing plate on Google Images or an ingredient I’ve never used can influence me to try something different, and meal in the right restaurant can inspire me to improve my work, and aspire to achieve more. So, I thought I would write down many of the influences, inspirations, and aspirations in my life as a chef.

My earliest influence as a chef was Mario Batali. Not the pink-faced obese Mario, but the owner of Pó in Greenwich Village from the Molto Mario show on The Food Network. Remember when they used to have actual shows about real food with real chefs?  Before I actually worked in a professional kitchen I used to video tape all episodes of Molto Mario and watch them over and over, retaining as much as I could about cooking techniques, Italian products, and food history. It was a great show because it was simple and about cooking and the love of Italian food culture. I knew then that that’s the type of cooking I wanted to do professionally.

In 1982 I was taken to a new restaurant, Café Capriccio in Albany. Our waiter was Billy Karabin, a legend. He wore a different tuxedo jacket every time he came to the table.  I told the people I was with that It was the kind of restaurant I wanted some day.

In 1998 (the year I started cooking professionally) I opened a small Italian restaurant in Glenville, NY called Theresa’s Italian Grill. With too little money and too little experience it closed after 14 months. It was said at times that my food reminded them of the cooking of Jim Rua, chef/owner of Café Capriccio.

In 1999 I went to work in the kitchen of Café Capriccio and learned that my cooking was not yet like that of Jim Rua. I learned about putting simple flavors together for wonderful rustic Italian, and some Spanish influenced dishes. Jim Rua to this day has taught me more about cooking than anyone else. If you’ve never seen him work, you have no idea what he can do with the most basic staples. His presentation of individual dishes is not overly exciting, but the experience of the entire meal is.

This philosophy was reinforced when I went to Italy with Capriccio’s travel group in 2002 and stayed at Fattoria Lavacchio, a working farm and vineyard outside of Florence. It was here I saw where the simple, earthy, and organic cooking was a way of life. I’ve never experienced life that way and never have since. I do however refer to it in my mind many times when I plan a menu, a meal, or a single dish. Thank you many times over, Jim for the experiences you’ve given me.

The other thing I learned at the Café was the importance of great service and a solid service system. That responsibility fell on Bill Karabin, a constant educator. He saw to it that there were no amateurs on the service floor, he insured front waiters were well-trained and back waiters often waited many month, or years before gaining front waiter status. Billy’s lessons are still with me and I hope to use them more extensively one day.

For too many years after the Café Capriccio I waffled around in too many Capital Region restaurants void of influence and inspiration.

In 2011 I landed the Chef’s position at The Wine Bar and the freedom to be creative has found its way back into my life. I have become far more serious about my career on the last 18 months than ever before. I closely follow chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Humm for inspiration for what is possible.  My friend Jason Baker has given me great insight into the drive for perfection  Dominick Purnomo of Yono’s  has shown me, and others that wanting the best for the local clientelle is not just bullshit, but the proper way of doing business. I’ve worked for many people who say “I want the best,” but do not know what that means. Dominick travels, visits the best restaurants and educates himself in the art of being a great restaurateur.

Also, Tom and Anne Gaughan for their approach to life, Mehmet and Mary Odekon for their hospitality and appreciation for what I do, Jonathan Stewart for his dedication to the proper tending of a bar, and Dale and Judy Evans for their work ethic. There are many others who have influenced parts of my life other than my work as a chef. Perhaps in another post you’ll meet them.

Finally, I am most influenced by my daughter Theresa, who for all the obstacles she has faced, still loves life. And, my wife Jennifer, who supports what I do in many ways.

My aspirations are simple, yet complex. At some point I want my own restaurant, with all of these influences put into play. I want to see what is possible in the 518. One day perhaps.