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chef, interrupted
the arc of my culinary quests
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)
9.30.09
general


Years ago, in my halcyon radio days, I hosted a program called, “What’s Cookin’”. It was a simple noon hour show that encouraged listeners to call in and guess a recipe title, based on ingredient clues I provided, and win a prize. Occasionally I’d interview advertisers with new products, but mostly my guests were chefs launching new cookbooks or christening restaurants.

The show originated in New Orleans, and hundreds of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast listened to it. So there was a smidge more food interest to cater to there then, say, Minot, North Dakota. And when I say chefs, I mean people such as Paul Prudhomme of K-Paul’s and Lazone Randolph of Brennan’s, forerunners of the celebrity chef movement.

It's important to note I did not inherit this show because of my culinary prowess. My most memorable esculent feat at that point in time was opening a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli without once lifting the can opener handle.

One of my responsibilities as host included visiting some of the best restaurants in the area, then providing a first-person account to listeners the next day. I wasn’t a food critic, although that was the impression. I wasn’t even an appreciator (ref: Chef Boyardee). I was just a gal in the right place at the right time, quickly absorbing the importance of not only good food, but also the passion by which it is created.

Over the next few years, I worked closely with chefs and restaurant owners in other markets to tell the story and customs of their food. Jewish delis, b-b-que joints, Pan-Asian counters, French bistros, sushi bars, regional Americana dining rooms--a swirl of flavors, textures, styles, and intentions. My knowledge of cuisine expanded rapidly, and little by little, my cooking expertise did, too. I even did voiceover work for Charlie Trotter.

When I left the radio industry, I entertained the idea of becoming a chef/proprietor, and in preparation, worked both the front and back of the house in an upscale Provençal/Mediterranean restaurant. Every night was theatre, both on the line and on the floor, and it was a grand time. Executive Chef William was a difficult genius. He was 14 when he started as a prep boy in an Asian restaurant, and advanced to grill line when he was 16. By 23, he was a chef/proprietor. His performance ego was strong, but he willingly shared all his skills if you demonstrated the focus to succeed.

I tested his patience.

Once, as a thank you for a favor I did for him, Chef William prepared a five-course dinner for my husband and me. I was Chef’s employee at the time, but he sat us himself at one of the preeminent tables in the house, and served us personally throughout the evening. You’d think I’d remember every morsel, because Chef’s creations were truly remarkable, but I don’t recall the menu. What I never forget is how each dish reflected his personality and imagination, and how, through his love of the craft, he honored me with his attention.

While in that arena, I added a few more valuable lessons to my understanding of the culinary arts:

-I can’t stand on my feet 10 hours a day.
-I coax great lift from a salade niçoise.
-I suck at most forms of baking.
-With the right dough, homemade ravioli is far more satisfying.
-I’m far better at the front of the house than on the line. Front is still chock full of pressure, but has less chance of second-degree burns.
-As a chef, it doesn’t matter how innovative your creations are if the servers don’t know how to entice and educate the customer.
-I was a poser. I didn’t have the skills to operate at a professional level, much less a chef/proprietor.

I abandoned my dream of becoming a chef, but retained a great admiration for Chef William D’Auvray, and highly recommend you venture into his and his wife Lisa’s hip restaurant, Fins, the next time you’re in Raleigh, North Carolina. But don’t just take my word for it (ref: not a food critic)--consider Bon Appetit's review instead.

I also retained the absolute foundation of my culinary education: it doesn’t matter if you make a cheeseburger or Blanquette de Veau: with fresh ingredients, a true spirit, and a little love, whatever you plate up will be delicious. Whether you’re cooking for yourself or for 50 guests, be deliberate in your approach, and your essence will enhance the food as much as any spice.

As a home cook, I have more than 60 cookbooks, and I don’t see the collection reducing any time soon. Topics range from the history of chocolate and vegetarian crock-pot recipes to Malaysian dishes and Irish country cooking. I read works by professionals such as Nigel Slater because of his fluidity and beauty as a writer. I admire Alice Waters and her Zen-schooled attitude of "be present" cooking. I appreciate Jamie Oliver because he’ll say flat out: do you have to make fresh pasta? No. But you can, it’s easy, here, watch, brilliant.

Like many, I am a huge fan of fun shows on the Food Network. I also tear up watching reruns of Julia Child and Jacques Pépin on public television, the true pioneers of celebrity chefdom, and how they spar and parry with affection over the correct method to bone a chicken, or jostle one another to avoid setting fire to the kitchen with a crème brûlée torch.

Am I a foodie? I don’t know. I respect the Slow Food movement, organic ingredients, and weird things found at farmers’ markets. I go on food tours to farms and through major metropolitan cities. I clip far more recipes than I could ever make, and love to host theme dinners. I’m also fortunate to receive compliments about my cooking from those whose abilities I admire.

But more importantly, I never stop learning how to cook.

Every so often, I’ll enter the zone: the dough slips purposefully through my fingers; I distinguish the nuance of marjoram over basil; the salmon flakes away exactly how it should; I smell when the roasted peppers are ready. And then it doesn’t matter if I have a restaurant, or five stars by my name.

In that moment, I'm a master, channeling all the passion and vitality and love for the craft, and it's apparent in every bite.


ABOUT TRACEY L. KELLEY

Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley

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COMMENTS

alex b
9.30.09 @ 3:27a

Love this. I totally understand it. As much as I'm a foodie fan, I doubt I'll ever compete on "Top Chef" or ever open a restaurant. But chefs never fail to inspire me, and I too have moments where things just feel right: the scent of sesame oil, a perfect al dente pasta, shredding fresh basil.

What's your definition of a foodie?

tracey kelley
9.30.09 @ 6:04a

Well, kind of what I outlined in that paragraph, but probably someone with far, far more knowledge than I have, especially about the little things.

Also someone with more gadgets than I have.

matt kelley
9.30.09 @ 7:21a

Such a modest girl. As the chief benefactor of Tracey's many culinary abilities, I can attest to her wide-ranging kitchen skills. Sure, a slightly-imperfect cake got flung once, and there was the pine nut oven fire, but for 15+ years and 100s of incredible meals, I've happily been the guy who slices a few veggies or roots and watches you turn them into terrific treats for the taste buds. I've even taken pictures of some sumptuous meals she's beautifully arranged on the plate, pleasing both the eye and the palate. Mmm. What's for dinner?

lucy lediaev
9.30.09 @ 1:22p

I'm looking forward to doing more cooking and baking when I retire in a few months. I cooked a lot--entertaining visitors to Iowa City--during my tenure as a faculty wife at the U of Iowa. I was once offered the chance to open my own restaurant by a contemporary who was looking for a place to invest his book royalties. I turned it down, because I've always cooked for fun. Running a restaurant is a 24/7 deal with tremendous impact on back, legs, and feet. I knew I could not sustain the effort. So, I still cook occasionally for friends and family, but have no aspirations beyond that. My greatest joy is that my daugther and son-in-law both cook and my granddaughter is a budding home chef.

lisa r
9.30.09 @ 3:12p

I love to cook, but deadlines are keeping me out of the kitchen. Thank heavens I made a big batch of spaghetti sauce before the avalanche buried me. I figure as long as I have coffee beans in the cabinet and spaghetti sauce in the freezer I can survive just about anything.

Tracey, I think you have me beat in the cookbook library inventory. I think I probably have about half that so far. They're some of my favorite reading materials!

sloan bayles
9.30.09 @ 4:44p

You have indeed come a long way from the girl who rinsed the boiled potatoes before mashing them ;) Unfortunately, it's been a few years since I've been fortunate enough to enjoy your skills. Just, no kale please.

russ carr
9.30.09 @ 5:00p

I was disheartened to discover that Nigel Slater's Appetite is out of print; my cousin is getting married this weekend, and it would've made an outstanding wedding gift. Discovering the kitchen, and really putting it (and yourself) through the paces is rewarding on so many levels. I'm glad that more people are hearing the chef's mantra that's been chanted from Julia to Jamie: YOU CAN DO THIS.

And once you figure that out, and learn to really shop for your food, you'll discover you're as good as (at least) 90 percent of restaurant cooks. Then cooking that evening meal becomes less of a drudgery, as you get to simultaneously feed your ego, your senses and your belly.

jael mchenry
10.1.09 @ 12:13p

A wonderful perspective! Everyone's journey is different, but so many of us end up in the same place: just happy to explore the world of food from our own unique direction, sharing, appreciating, learning. That's the good stuff.

Also, "scuppernong" is my second favorite food word. Comes in right behind "spatchcock."

true sue
10.13.09 @ 2:59p

Good to hear that someone else can't stand on their feet for 10 hours. I truly wonder how some do it. Though IMHO I am an skilled and intrepid (yes, reference intended) home cook and erstwhile caterer, I realized I'll not realize my dream of becoming a restaurant chef, for the two reasons that I my face gets beet red and I can't stand over six hours at a time. Too bad, too, because I can handle the speed, fretfulness, forced inventiveness of a fast-paced kitchen. I'll miss the nightly theatre, as T. Kelley so aptly called it.

[edited]



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