It's been two years and change since I walked out of my last kitchen. That last one, in Albuquerque, wasn't even a good kitchen, but I remember it with an irrational fondness because it was the last one, and the last of anything is always special. I was (believe it or not) working the night-shift line at a Waffle House, doing short-order and crisis management, when the call came for me to pack my bags and come to Colorado. Here I was, a Colonial French-trained chef, fourteen years in the business, my resumé strewn with good reviews and abject failures -- honor and shame in equal measure -- so why was I spending my nights flipping burgers?
Because I liked it. Because I had nothing to prove to anyone. Because I started my career in places like the Waffle House, and coming back at the end of it felt right. Also, I needed to pay the rent. I was working days as a freelance food writer, and the money wasn't exactly pouring in. (As loquacious as I am, getting paid by the word still wasn't enough to cover the nut.) You know that old saying, don't quit your day job? Yeah, well, my day job just happened to start at ten in the pee-em.
Anyway, you'd think that two years and a few months would be time enough for me to settle into something approaching a normal life. Three squares, up with the sun, down with the moon, that sort of thing. But no. My body and brain -- having spent roughly half their natural existence wired into the all-encompassing microcosm of the kitchen life -- have been (and I'm beginning to think always will be) kinked to an unusual cadence. I still measure time like a cook -- in shifts, night preferable to day, those hours between midnight and 4 a.m. like a wakey-time bonus available only to graveyarders, cooks and the criminal element. I feel strange when I have a weekend with no work in it. I measure my past by where I was working when, the chronology dotted with odd black patches when I wasn't working anywhere and all of life seemed simply to stop.
For me, seasons are not marks on the calendar, but menus. Particular ingredients. The special red circles on a trusted produce man's fax -- guys bidden by friendship or out-and-out graft to let me know first when the new crop of this or the first flats of that were coming in. In The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, Jacques Pépin (who, by the way, did ten years of diner work in the prep kitchens of Howard Johnson's, a gig he chose over being private chef to John F. Kennedy) vividly remembers lean seasons in France -- the war years --by what he was eating. Or not eating. He remembers his mother's restaurant through the eyes of a twelve-year-old peeling potatoes at her sink, his first real job as a thirteen-year-old apprentice in a French hotel galley. And with every chapter, with the turn of every season, he closes with a recipe that, to him, is indicative of the time. Jeremiah Tower fills his book California Dish with menus that he's saved from every important dinner he's ever had -- from the smallest soiree with friends to his first menu from Chez Panisse. This is how we make memories. This is how we see the time passing.
For me, June was always summer-squash salad with shallot Dijon vinaigrette, the recipe lifted from God knows where. In July, Black Tip shark tacos when I could get the fish line-caught, cheap as sin and fresh as hell. Veal cheeks in sauce gribiche -- that was winter. Huge bowls of penne, hand-rolled around pencils because the guys in my kitchen were constantly losing the proper dowels, in a killer smooth-and-heavy gorgonzola cream sauce studded with quartered baby red potatoes and chunks of mozzarella barely two hours old at the start of service.
French mussels in February; Aussie lobsters in the winter, tail meat curled around a thick grilled-veggie ragout or, oddly, a bitter green salad juiced with preserved Meyer lemon -- the closest I ever got to the vertical architecture of Alfred Portale. Autumn was potato-and-sweetbread hash; hanger steak with chipotle-black-cherry barbecue sauce (my own recipe and the closest I ever got to California cuisine); whole roasted chickens stuffed with bouquet garni and lemons, the birds expensive, coddled, killed just for me and babysat in the oven until the skins were perfectly crisped. To this day, I have no hair on the backs of my hands because it was repeatedly burned off while I crouched before the oven, shoving chips of ice-hard beurre d'Isigny sauté butter up between the skin and the breast of the birds.
I miss the ordering of my life by this near-subconscious attenuation to the changing of the seasons. Summer in the kitchens was pure murder, winter a long but not unpleasant siege. Spring was just too light for my tastes. In the French canon (or at least in my bastardized version), there is no spring, only a long winter of comfort and solace bookended by a brief, brilliant summer and a russet autumn full of everything I loved about food. Fall was my favorite time for cooking. The season always started at some indefinable time after Labor Day, on the morning after the first night I saw my breath when walking home from the bar or immediately following that first burnt-cinnamon hint of dying leaves in the air.
Here in Denver, the seasons are different than in upstate New York, where I was born and first started cooking. Granted, Albuquerque was worse (300 days of summer, followed by chile season, followed by one snowstorm, then summer all over again), but now, with Labor Day at my back, I'm already sniffing around for an autumn that isn't coming fast enough. I've prematurely switched from drinking crisp summer whites to my preferred muscular reds. And I sometimes wonder what it would cost to spray-paint all the leaves in my neighborhood their proper September shades.
I know that autumn will eventually arrive, but as I said in this week's review, I am an American boy, bred for instant gratification. Eventually just isn't fast enough. To rush things a little (or at least get some relief from the interminable dragging of summer's dregs), I have turned to my bookshelf for a little pre-season reading to put myself in the proper frame of mind. A culinary countdown, as it were, but also a great reading list if you're looking for a little something to cool out with.
This is by no means a total list of what's keeping me going these days, just a sampling of other people's memories of food and time and season.
For an amuse-bouche, that little tidbit that whets the appetite, anything by M.F.K. Fisher. She was the queen of this game. No one has ever done it better.
My menu continues with literary cold appetizers:
Best Food Writing, 2003: About fifty of the best bits of food writing gathered over the last year, including snippets from most of the authors who make up the rest of this list. And as a bonus, I'm in there, too.
The Apprentice, by Jacques Pepin: The life and times of one of the greatest living French chefs, from his boyhood in France to the car accident that almost killed him. A beautiful book, and his menus read like poetry.
Secrets of the Tsil Café, by Thomas Fox Averill: A New World/Old World book about a kid growing up in his parents' Mexican restaurant somewhere in the Midwest. It's fiction but reads like a memoir, and all the details of life in a restaurant family are right on.
Some hot appetizers:
Best Food Writing, 2004: By the time this issue is on the stands, the book should be, too. Same premise as the 2003 edition, but bigger, better, and with pieces drawn from a more diverse pool of talent. This one is on the syllabus as required reading at the Culinary Institute of America.
A Cook's Tour, by Anthony Bourdain: Pig-fisting, automatic weapons, kicking it with the Russian Mafiya -- this book has it all. And when chef Tony isn't busily trying to get himself killed or poisoned, or freaking out from culture shock, he happens to be an excellent food and travel writer.
California Dish, by Jeremiah Tower: He's a narcissistic, obsessive, self-aggrandizing drunk with serious delusions of grandeur, but at least he's our deluded, narcissistic, obsessive drunk. Tower -- a Continental of dubious pedigree -- pretty much invented California Cuisine and helped bring American cooking kicking and screaming into the modern era. This is the story of that effort.
And for the main course, the offerings get more meaty:
Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain: The classic insider's look at the New York restaurant scene, through the eyes of one former junkie line cook made good.
White Heat, by Marco Pierre White: Twenty years of food history reduced to one slim volume and focusing on White himself -- the Brit who took the Frogs to school, the quintessential Steve McQueen badass of the culinary world. Also a showcase of some of the best kitchen-action photography ever done.
The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten: A food memoir by Vogue magazine's house critic, mostly as an accounting of how much he was able to use and abuse his expense account. The man flew to Kyoto just for a really good bowl of miso soup. How come I don't get to do that?
Soul of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman: Three chefs, three very different stories. First, there's the harrowing account of the week-long Certified Master Chef exam. After that, it's on to Lola in Cleveland for the story of Michael Symon, the rising star of his day. Then a visit to Thomas Keller at the French Laundry. What's Ruhlman after? One perfect meal. And guess where he found it? (A hint: Ruhlman's next book, one-half foodie bible, one-half straight-up food porn and also an excellent read, was The French Laundry Cookbook.)
Finally, a happy ending with Appetite for Life, by Noel Riley Fitch. It's the biography of Julia Child, without whom we'd all still be eating Spam casserole and ham with pineapple rings. Hers was a life well lived, which is the best eulogy anyone can ask for.
Leftovers: Just up the street from the Westword office, Luciano's Pizza and Wings, at 1043 Broadway, finally opened last week. I made an early scouting visit, and the kitchen's wings are the real deal. Owner Kris Ferreri is from the home of the chicken wing -- Buffalo, New York, where I spent several formative years -- and he hasn't lost a trick since coming here to Denver. Frank's Red Hot is the way to go, Kris. And don't let any of these chumps out here tell ya different.
A block away, Wholly Tomato!, in the new Beauvallon complex in the 900 block of Lincoln Street, recently made its debut. As with Luciano's, opening was a long haul for owner Stephen Anson, but he reports that the restaurant was already hitting its break-even point in terms of customers-per-day by Wednesday of its first week in business.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.