Friday, September 3, 2010

Cookin' it Old School

I'm a chef. It was a fact I used to be very proud of. People made reservations weeks in advance to eat my cooking. The cities biggest chefs stood next to me and graciously accepted their silver medals while I was bringing home the gold. I got to travel to cool cities and be immersed in their trendy scenes, while headhunters tried to lure me to the next big thing. It was a very cool life. Recently I feel I've lost that flair and passion that inspired me to dazzle all those years ago. I feel I've whored myself out for a paycheck because I have a skill to do something better than most others. My desire to impress has been replaced with a desire to pay my bills and have a little time left to spend with my family. Every once in a while, however, something happens... A few weeks ago, I was saddled with a project. I was to create a menu of appetizers representing the nine countries that would be taking part in an event being hosted by my restaurant. The pre-event reception would be attended by VIPs, sponsors, and the countries' athletes. So it was time to put on my game-face. Instead I did what I usually do: I started shopping for where I'd find these appetizers. Actually, that's not entirely true. I ignored the whole thing for two weeks first, then I started shopping. Six days before the event, I was laboring over the preparations for a different event and the weight of this VIP gig loomed heavy on my mind. I had to get moving on this. Somewhere during the course of regular dinner service, it happened: I had an epiphany. It's the only thing I can call it. Without the presence of any reasonable catalyst, I went from an inside the box mind-set to an outside the box state of mind. My brain literally went from thinking, "Where can I buy a lamb-based appetizer?" to "I'm going to make braised New Zealand Lamb tartlets with Cabernet creme fraiche." Once that happened, I was inspired to create something for each country (don't be too impressed, I'm still doing mini chili-cheese dogs to represent America). {The rest of this was written the week following the event} Success! The afternoon of the event, after regular lunch service was over, I sent the rest of the staff home and changed into my chef's whites for the first time in months. You see, it was the first time in a long time I was proud to stand behind the food that was leaving my kitchen. The event want smooth. I was in the zone. And without anything or anyone to slow me down or riddle me with questions, I was able to just rip through the cooking and serving like a precision machine. It felt good. When the dust settled and the last hors d'oeuvres had left the kitchen, I grabbed my legal pad and went outside to catch up on some book work. I was seated about fifty feet from the hospitality tent where the event was being staged. I couldn't hear anything, but I could see the guests congregating around the food. Eventually the crowd started breaking up and had to pass where I was sitting to get to the parking lot. Several of them stopped by to extend their congratulations and gratitude as they passed me. Some rather enthusiastically. I smiled and thanked them politely, but inside I was aglow. Over the next several days, more and more compliments come pouring in. Ironically, one of the biggest compliments come from the individual who asked 'where did you buy these appetizers?' Because I can answer, 'I made them, dumb-ass,' (well, at least I can think it). The next day, life at the restaurant went right back to normal. People went back to ordering hamburgers and perch dinners, and I went back to cooking them. Late the following afternoon, my phone rang. It was the events organizer calling to extend a heart-felt 'thank you' for making the event a great success. She told me she had received a number of compliments from the guests, and was extremely pleased with how the event turned out. I humbly thanked her for the kind words, but again I was doing a big gloating dance inside my head. All I could do was reply, "It's what I do. I'm a chef."