No, I didn’t play kissy-kissy with the chefs I worked for –– well maybe one – –but I did work for chefs who taught me not only about food but life. Things I use to this day at work and home. So here they are, important people in my upbringing, who taught me technique, let me fail, taught me right from wrong (mostly), scolded me, laughed with me (some of them), and intimidated me (all of them).
The Marketplace Restaurant
Portland, Oregon, 1977-1978
There I was, 17, eager and naïve and this indigenous young chef took me on and taught me the basics of everything: mother sauces, the difference between a shallot, a scallion and a scallop. He trained me on the stove, where I stayed as sauté queen for many years in many establishments. He snuck me in to his wine tastings and I’ll never forget the taste of that nineteen seventy-something Meursault. Thanks for having faith in me and mostly, thanks for firing me when I got too arrogant for my little sweet pants. I hated you at the time but it was the best lesson ever.
Portland Golf Club, (Men only) 1978
Bad enough women had to enter through the service elevator from the back alley at this place. But here was the book example of the “washed up chef.” With stained nicotine fingers Chef John sprinkled baking soda in the green bean cooking water. Which kept them green but turned them to mush, like canned. This man, standing over his bean water and yellow rice studded with shriveled capers, oblivious to the workings of the kitchen. The lesson I learned from this guy was how NOT to be when you’re an old chef. I ran away screaming.
Portland, Oregon 1979
You laughed a lot, you let me cook pasta dishes with the boys, you and I were a team. You were like the father I never had, you were full of mystery, like being from Czechoslovakia and cooking Italian. Your tweed jacket made you look like one of the Burnside bums. I still say, “To love pasta is to love life!” When you quit, I quit too.
French Chef. Charming, volatile, chauvinistic. Intimidation with a capital I where I was relegated to baking girl in this massive food factory. At our daily cooks’ sit-down lunches Chef Claude showed me the art of making an omelet. (With a fork, eggs soft and fluffy.) To this day I can’t eat an American omelet and I cringe whenever I see “tomato bisque” on a menu. I want to yell out in a heavy French accent: “A ‘bisque’ is a seafood soup you motherfucker!” Most importantly this French Chef allowed me to be the first female line cook, EVER in this hundred year old establishment. Couldn’t get equal pay though, so I quit.
The Columns Hotel
New Orleans, 1982
Yes, this was the serious one. I was 21, starry eyed with love for my new city and its food, music, history and this chef. His passion for cooking so strong, I jumped aboard the love and cooking train for the exciting and ultimately treacherous ride into the world of seafood gumbo, turtle soup, rabbit, quail, all manner of fresh seafood, the accompanying seasonings and techniques of Creole and Cajun cuisines and a lot of alcohol. The lessons here could fill a book. Escaped with my psyche barely intact.
Chef John Giurini
European Village, Louisiana World Exposition, 1984
This man was my mentor. Teaching someone to cook is easy. Timing on the stove is innate. Leaning to MANAGE PEOPLE is something else entirely. Chef John G. scraped me up from the floor where I lay from my previous debacle and shook me around, all the while searing my tender self with his constant Euro-sexual-innuendo. (As in: man up, sniveling bitch). Sneaking around the kitchen, spying on the staff, rooting through their stations while they weren’t there, attention to detail, working very long hours like a superstar, leading by example –– most of which I still do in business today. And on my birthday that summer in the middle of my shift, he took me to the bar upstairs and played Happy Birthday on the piano. For that I’m always grateful.