I’m a good cook. I studied knife skills and classic French techniques, am a hard worker and have a decent palate. I’m not the next Thomas Keller; I don’t believe I’m going to reinvent the way anyone eats or change the world with my food or anything. I simply try to take the best ingredients available to me and not mess them up. I also think that restaurateurs, celebrity chefs and pretty much anyone who cooks in New York City thinks WAYYYYYYYY too highly of themselves as hospitality professionals and could do with a big ole slice of humble pie.
I didn’t have too much of an interest in cooking growing up; my parents were both good home cooks but we certainly weren’t a gourmet household by any means. My dad’s California roots and my mom’s Midwest upbringing put us in a slightly more adventurous category of eaters though. I would eat anything. I remember slurping down oyster shooters at Joe’s Crab Shack in Chicago before I even hit puberty. That being said, when I was finished with high school and deciding how to continue my education, Le Cordon Bleu Chicago seemed like a pretty good idea.
As it turns out, I had a bit of a knack for cooking. I also am polite and a hard worker, which are basically the two prerequisites to work in any aspect of food service/hospitality. About 2 months into my schooling at Le Cordon Bleu, I snagged a job dishwashing at this super sweet vegetarian bicyclist bar in Wicker Park called The Handlebar. I had to practically beg for the job (which I only applied to because of their smoked Gouda macaroni and cheese dish) and almost didn’t get it because I “didn’t have enough experience.”
Fortunately my bitchin lesbian chefs Jennifer and Lauren saw some potential in me and put me on prep just a few short weeks after I started. It didn’t take long for me to get upstairs onto the line, and within 3 months of starting at the Handlebar I was on the saute station training their new hires. The Handlebars food wasn’t fancy, but the menu was thoughtfully written, the dishes were hearty and delicious and the staff was a lot of fun to work; all of these factors have definitely impacted my cooking style and how I feel a restaurant should be run.
After graduating from culinary school (which in retrospect was a rather large waste of money, I should have just gotten the dishwashing job and skipped the schooling) I found myself itching for some nature so I decided to continue my education at Alderleaf Wilderness College in Washington state. I worked as a private chef for a computer programming hippy to fund my classes where I learned wild edible identification, how to make fire with sticks and other outdoor survival skills. The culmination of this program was 7 days spent on an island with nothing but the clothes on my back eating nettles, foraging for oyster mushrooms and roasting lizards over an open fire. I definitely gained an appreciation for wild foods, bitter greens and adventurous eating that I try to demonstrate in my cooking today.
After my brief stint living in the woods and hunting for my food I headed back to beautiful Decorah, Iowa to continue my culinary adventure. I split my time cooking between an organic food co-op deli and a cute little 40 seat bistro. At the co-op I worked with mostly local and organic produce with an emphasis on healthy meals, allergen free foods and cooking for those with dietary restrictions. The bistro was my first taste of fine dining and I loved it. My chef, Justin, was a self taught culinary whiz kid with more passion in his pinky finger than any of the New York chefs I’ve met have in their huge, corpulent bodies. I still try to be health conscious in my cooking as well as strive to be inspired by locally and seasonally available ingredients.
As it happens, I soon tired of my small town situation and decided to strike out to see the world. My good buddy Mike with whom I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu called me up and suggested I spend a summer season cooking with him in a tiny little town on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska called Cooper Landing. Mike ended up bailing but my bestie Erin and I packed up her little Nissan Versa and headed north. Over the course of that summer I seared thousands of sea scallops, crusted hundreds of pounds of halibut and grilled more salmon than I dare to count, but I held my own and began to find myself falling into a leadership position in the kitchen where I would return the following season as sous chef.
Two seasons in the last frontier (as well as a few months spent in the hell-on-earth that is Vero Beach, Florida which I won’t even get into) prepared me for the most trying cooking job of my life; 12 months as a lunch lady at the Amundsen Scott South Pole Station Antarctica. On top of being in the highest, driest and most remote human outpost on earth our ingredients we’re questionable, our menu was outdated and our equipment was inadequate at best. But I took all of those frozen, canned and dehydrated foods and made some amazing soul-satisfying meals. Being at the South Pole made me respect all types of cooks, from prison chefs to stay at home moms because food, while being a necessity, also should be good and bring people joy even in the coldest, darkest place in the world.