Monday, December 12, 2011
I grew up around coffee during a time when coffee came ground in a can and was made in curious vessels called percolators. It was all very strange. Coffee smelled delicious, but tasted awful! Neither of my parents drank coffee. My mom always said, "if coffee tasted as good as it smelled, I'd drink it." My best friend Jim drank it before and after swim meets. My girlfriend in college drank it. All four of my grandparents drank it morning, noon, and night. But not me. It wasn't until my 20s that someone actually peer-pressured me into drinking it. It was during my time cooking at Christie's that I first discovered real coffee. Christie's was one of the finest (in the top three according to AAA) restaurants in Wisconsin and I was lucky to be working there right out of culinary school. At the time, I was working two jobs. I worked as a lifeguard at the YMCA from 5:00a.m. to 10:00a.m, then I'd go home, have a bowl of cereal, and sleep until it was time to work at the restaurant from 2:00p.m. until 10:00p.m. (or midnight if I had to close the hotel's room service kitchen). After work I again would go home, have some cereal, (and if I was really ambitious, an English muffin), and catch a few hours sleep before doing it all again. At Christie's, I worked alongside some characters who drank more and slept less than I did. One in particular, Jesse, would come staggering in twenty minutes after me, throw down his knives and make a pot of coffee. Every day he'd offer me a cup and every day I'd say, 'no thanks.' Finally one day he asked why I didn't drink coffee. I just shrugged. At this, he grinned and insisted he'd make a cup that I'd love. The reason I pointed out that Christie's was a fine-dining establishment was not to brag so much as it was meant for you to realize we served good coffee. Kona, in fact. One of the finest coffees in the world. To this fresh brew, Jesse added heavy whipping cream and natural sugar. That was it. Once it hit my lips, there was no turning back. I liked coffee. In retrospect, I believe Jesse's true motivation to get me drinking coffee, was so that I'd have a pot brewed by the time he made it in. Eventually my chef had to start limiting my intake based on my nightly level of obnoxiousness. I also learned quickly that if I wanted any sleep before going to the Y the next morning, I had to quit the coffee by 6:30p.m. From Christie's, I moved to Oregon. Right about the time a little shop called Starbucks began a growth spurt that hasn't stopped to this day. Coffee places were everywhere out west much like bars are everywhere here in the Midwest. There my drug of choice came in designer varieties and flavors like lattes, cappuccino, and my personal favorite: mocha (chocolate & coffee. Seriously.... What could be better?). But it wasn't really until I moved back to the Midwest that coffee starting being pared with my lifestyle. The earliest memory where I can match a good time and coffee was when I lived in Door County. On my day off, I'd put my mountain bike on my Jeep and head north to Peninsula State Park for an afternoon of trail riding. On my way home, I'd always stop at Door County Coffee Roasters for a mocha in a hand-made ceramic mug (and a bowl of soup in the spring and fall). That theme transferred over to my moving to Sheboygan where a trip to the kettles to ride always warranted the phrase, 'daddy's riding for a mocha,' as I'd leave the house. Last year when we got Zooey, an Australian Blue Heeler herding dog, brisk morning walks often called for a detour to Starbucks en route to the beach. If memory serves, I even mentioned my Sunday morning mocha a few blogs back where I pay homage to our weekly morning ritual.
Coffee has evolved along with my life. Where it used to wire me for long nights cooking on the line, now its matured into a treat to be savoured during my quieter moments. Sometimes its the treat of an iced mocha after an exhilarating afternoon tearing through the woods. Sometimes its a steaming latte on the couch of a coffee house next to my wife. Sometimes its waking up to fresh-brewed coffee on a winter morning before heading out for the dog's morning walk. All-in-all, its easy to say that my life goes better with coffee.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
|Our Matriarch (center) and her subjects. Christmas 1984|
Grandma may have been the originator of 'thinking outside the box.' That's the only way to explain some of the stories that came out of that house. Stories that seemed funny and cute when I was young, but now seem bordering on the verge of urban legend. Who in their right mind, after all, would save bacon fat and ham drippings, mix in some spices and flour and fry it as a breakfast meat? Grandma, that's who. And it was delicious (if you could get past the fact it was as black as road tar. The outside was crisp as a potato chip and the inside was the consistency of raw ground beef)! Who would think to market ketchup between two slices of bread as a black cat sandwich for a Halloween Boy Scout fundraiser? Grandma, again. Who would think to open all her canned vegetables and soup from the bottom so when the grandchildren would play 'store' all the shelves would appear to be stocked with full and proper canned goods? Yep. Grandma. This one though is by far my favorite, and so absurd I have Snopes.com looking into it's validity. I don't remember the orgin of this story, but somewhere I heard that grandma on vacation would float around the lake in an inner tube snacking on fresh radishes that she would dip in the salt that she filled her navel with. Now this begs all kinds of questions that I never thought to ask back when I originally heard this story. Primarily, who filled her navel, because she'd have to be laying down to do it? And, did grandma wear a bikini?
Through the years, the image of our grandparents doesn't waver. Even now that they're gone, we can picture their smiling faces greeting us at the door on a brisk Christmas morning. Their stories still make us laugh, they fortitude inspires us, their legacy moves us. They raised our folks and our folks raised us. Now we remember that wisdom, humor, and courage as we raise our own children. I still now remember that house, those smells, and that woman at the stove pouring me a cup of chamomile tea. That's my grandma.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Eventually Zooey finds me again and we get up and continue our walk along the beach and up the boardwalk along the river and back to the jeep. We drive home amidst the other returning church-goers. Home to thier brunches, football games, and lazy Sunday afternoons. I often wonder during my Sunday meditations whether those dressed in dresses and suits enjoy their time with God as much as I do. Since we moved to this town, we've been 'shopping' for a church we could embrace. But to me, there's no church like the outdoors. Where God's work is all around you. The woods and the beaches is where the peace is. Where the magic is. Where God not only shows up, but also shows off. And there's no place I'd rather be on a Sunday than outside.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Back when I still had a job as a chef, I came across a recipe contest in a trade magazine that I had entered once before back in 1994. Last week I came across the torn out ad in a pile of papers on my desk. I looked it over to realize that the deadline was only a few days away. I thought to myself, "Looks like I've some cooking to do this weekend." Well, needless to say, the weekend came and went without me doing a single thing regarding the contest. Now its Monday morning. Kovis off to summer school, the dog is walked, and the deadline is mere hours away. this sounds like a good time to hit the kitchen and whip up a dish worthy of dubbing me 'The Hottest Chef in America.'
Tabasco puts on this contest to feature their products in recipes. This shouldn't be too tough for me to do, since I put their products in practically everything I make already. My wife gave me a sort of culinary challenge a while back to combine two of her favorite flavors: cilantro and coconut in a single dish. After a little brainstorming, I decided gazpacho would be an ideal vehicle for combining all the necessary elements. Gazpacho is a Spanish chilled tomato and cucumber soup. I figured adding cilantro, coconut, and a note of spice would actually make a pretty kick-ass soup. Until recently, I've cooked flying by the seat of my pants. Creating dishes with 'a little of this and a little of that' and never writing anything down. This winter, when I started creating my own granola and energy bars, I've actually gotten into the habit of starting with a written recipe and taking meticulous notes as I went along. So I grabbed a legal pad and started constructing a soup. I started with the basic building blocks of a gazpacho and added to it the ingredients that would give it it's signature. When I felt it was ready, I sat down to enter it in the contest on-line. Tis true -- I was about to enter a recipe for a dish no one, myself included, had ever tasted. But, what the hey? Its not like entering was costing me anything. As I sat at the computer, roadblocks came at me right and left. To enter, the cook had to either be a student or work (in a leadership position) in a professional kitchen. This presented all kinds of problems. First of all, while I am once again employed, the building isn't even done being constructed. So what am I to enter on the 'address' and 'phone number' lines? Plus, I've only met my new boss once and didn't even know his last name let alone his phone number. By the time I limped through the first section of the registration form, it looked as though a 6-year-old had filled it out. (Heavy sigh) On to the actual recipe... With a tinge of guilt, and my shoulder angel screaming in my ear, I began to enter an untested recipe in a nation-wide contest. Then came the kicker: The last line was where the contestant was to enter a photo of what the final product was supposed to look like. How was I supposed to know? I've never even made it, let alone seen it or photographed it! With drooping shoulders, but a renewed sense of pride, I grabbed my keys and wallet and called to my daughter that I'd be right back. After two trips to the grocery store and a thorough cleaning of the kitchen, I had a final product ready to be tasted, refined (adding grilled shrimp if only to make the eventual photo more appealing. Hence the second trip to the store), and finally photographed. The morning had started out with a half-fast, last ditch effort to get a recipe in on time, that should have taken me fifteen minutes. Stopping only to get Kovi off the bus and make him lunch, the project was now on its third full hour. I have to say that the final product was worth the extra effort. The gazpacho was well received in local circles. By 'local circles', I mainly mean, my wife Lori and her friends. All said and done, it was an eventful day. Thank goodness I'm unemployed, if only for one more week. In no time at all, I'll be back in the workforce and have to be much more careful not to squander any of my time. But as for this moment today: I wouldn't have time to be so reckless if I wasn't so busy being reckless. Next year, when this contest pops up, I'll know better. A little planning can go a long way.
|Spicy Coconut Cilantro Gazpacho with Grilled Shrimp|
Saturday, July 9, 2011
I was recently reflecting on my past writings in an effort to see a pattern that might show why I've stopped writing as frequently as I once had. Oddly enough, I realized that while I started writing as a way of philosophizing about my mountain biking adventures (or, all too often -- misadventures). In more recent scribblings, I bitched about work and threw out some thoughts on life. I was, in essence, concentrating on life as a way of avoiding biking! How's that for an up-side-down paradox? As is usually the case, it took an obvious everyday situation to show me the obvious any day solution.
The prophecy of my January blog came full circle the day after Valentine's Day when I lost my job. While it was a pretty cushy job, it was sucking at my soul as a chef to go in every day. Having had the last five months off (I do have a new job, but don't start for a while yet), I've had some serious free time on my hands. So much time, in fact, that I don't have time for anything. I don't know what I do all day, but the calender is full. Thank goodness I don't have a job, because I wouldn't have time to do it! One of the things that takes up a fair portion of my day, is walking Zooey, our 19-month old Blue Heeler. With her, it's simple: the more tired she is -- the less trouble she gets in to. So this means long walks and lots of them. I'd been getting bored with the same ol' beach walk (plus, the summer tourists' presence means more time on the leash for Zo) and started thinking of new places to hike. We had hiked the woods along the river behind the quarry a few times and its closer to home than the beach, so we started there. After several trips to the quarry, I started refining our route so it coincided with the mountain bike course. And then it dawned on me.... I could ride this! The quarry was always just a section of the course I'd ride that wound its way through Maywood and Evergreen parks, as well as around the quarry. If I were to enter the course from the west rather than the south, I could hit the quarry section and join the traffic flow rather seamlessly. I would add distance by doing several laps instead of once around and back under the highway to Evergreen park. Viola! I ride is born! I got on my X-Cal the next afternoon and headed out. There and back plus two laps around came in at about five miles. A fairly typical mountain bike outing for me. I rode it a couple more times since, and my times are coming in line consistently. After the last couple of gun-shy seasons plagued with injury and basic white-knuckle riding habits, I've found a ride that fits. It's got all the elements I love: a few challenging climbs, lots of fast winding single-track, short quick descents and one or two launches off the quarry's slick-rock just to keep me from getting complacent.
It's unnatural for me to think outside the box all the time. I think most people are this way. Because of that, I spend a lot of time consciencely looking for a catalyst to help me see just beyond the shadows of my conscience thoughts. I look and listen and learn from what's going on around me. Seeing things from a different vantage point, listening to song lyrics, watching what other people experience. These are all valid ways I look for inspiration. This time around, it was Zooey. And I'm sure it will be again sometime.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
In the spring of 2003, I was a salesman logging hours on end in a truck listening to the radio. When I heard an ad for a bike expo coming up at State Fair Park, my weekend plans were made. That bike expo was something of a milestone event in my life. I was given the OK to buy a new bike, it was this next bike that forever cemented my alliance with the Gary Fisher brand. Over the last eight years, I've been at this bike show numerous times. Spreading the enthusiasm and love of cycling to friends by helping them pick out new bikes. Last year a sales person suggested that with my knowledge and excitement, I should come down and [temp] work the show. When I was let go from my job (fulfilling the prophesy laid out in a previous blog), the opportunity to work the expo became available. I printed an application off their web-site and drove it down to Milwaukee. A few days later I received all the information and forms associated with being an employee. The schedule would be: a day of setting up, three and a half days of sale expo, and a half day to tear it all down. Wow, I was going to the show. I studied up on my bikes. Spending hours on-line pouring over models, components, and accessories. When the day came I showed up at the expo hall and spent the next six hour as part of a bucket brigade that unloaded over 1,000 bikes off of more semi trailers than I can remember. The bikes were then set up in rows so packed together that bumping one bike the wrong way would have knocked a row of 50 bikes down. Aisles for the customers were maybe six feet wide. It was a sight to behold. Hundreds and hundreds of road, mountain, dual-sport, cruisers, Hy-bred, triathlon, and kids bikes all lined the hall waiting for the doors to open the following afternoon. The first day, the sale didn't start until 4:00pm. I arrived at noon to help put the final detailed touches on my area of responsibility. My name badge said 'Jim [and under that] Mountain Bikes.' I would be planted in the section representing a sport that I've tried to align myself with for years. I don't know any cyclists that I don't look up to. Riders are riders, but mountain bikers are the coolest. And those are who I wanted to be hanging out with. A little before 4:00, the PR guru spoke up with the enthusiasm of a high school cheerleader and told us to, "Have a good expo, work hard, and have fun!" With that, the door opened and I became 25 again.
I really never aspired to work in a bike shop. However, now that my career has hit a wall (and hit it hard), I long for a job where I could get paid to do something I love. To spend the day talking about the bikes I ride and the places I like to go to ride them would be so refreshing compared to the career I've struggled with of late to even identify with. The day's first customers were in the door, and some of them were making their way to my section. I remembered what some expo vets had said at dinner the night after set-up, "Opening day is the easiest, because those are the people who know just what they want. They're coming in not to shop, but to buy." It was quite a confidence booster to sell two bikes right off the bat, including the newer version of the model I ride. My feet were firmly beneath me and my confidence soared.
In retrospect, the expo represented everything I felt a mid-life crisis should encompass. It was four days of hanging out with people (staff) much younger and more hip than myself. I knew it was really an unhealthy choice to have a Kopp's burger at 9:00 at night, but I did it anyway (I even added bacon). And I even tried to let go of everything else in my life at the moment that usually churned my guts into a daily caustic mess for the hours I spent at the expo.
Over the course of the next four days, I would end up selling more than forty bikes (mostly Gary Fishers). It turned out I was pretty good at this game. The training manual had been right; 'enthusiasm is infectious.' It was harder than I had worked in some time, but a thousand times more rewarding.
I returned to my life with a mildly melancholy feeling. I had been offered a dream job with a fantastic company. But I'm a 43 year-old family man, so I need a career not just a job. I'm eternally grateful to Wheel & Sprocket for hiring me and to my family for taking care of everything at home so I could go off to Milwaukee every day to be at the show. Maybe the fact that it only lasted a few short days made it better for my soul. A short, but sweet moment in a world I can appreciate more because I'm not in it all the time. I love going to cycling events to feel the energy of that community, but to a lot of the people at those events -- its hard work day in and day out. Hopefully next year my schedule will again allow me to indulge my soul in four days of spreading the gospel that is bicycling.
Sunday, February 6, 2011
I was 3-months and 15-months old when the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowls I and II, so I wasn't really up to speed on the nuances of what it meant to live in 'Packer Country.' I lived out of state when the Pack won the Big Game in '97. In 1998 I lived through the rioting and chaos in Denver when the Packers lost to the Broncos. Man, I took a financial beating that year, playing the role of a faithful fan transplanted in enemy territory. The odd thing is, I'm not really much of a football fan. If you come from Wisconsin, however, you are a Packer fan. There's so much rich history, passion, and tradition in the Green Bay Packer organization that its hard not to get sucked into it. From the legendary persona of Vince Lombardi to the fact that the team is owned by the people of the city of Green Bay rather than some meglo-maniac billionaire; you can't help but root for this team. I'm not alone in thinking that, either. Apparently there's a Packer themed bar in every NFL city in the country. While I never really embraced the whole football sub-culture, I still quietly cheered for my home-town heroes. This season was no different, save one small thing. I lived in Wisconsin during a Packer post-season. This year's post season even had Cinderella thinking, "Nobody can be that lucky." Sneaking their way into the play-offs missing practically one third of their starters, they just kept rolling. Winning in convincing fashion, they went from mid-season mediocrity to play-off powerhouse. Before we knew it, the Packers we're going to Super Bowl XLV.
The morning of Super Bowl Sunday was business as usual for me. At 8:30am I was getting a coffee and heading to the lake front to walk the dog. As I drove through town, things were a subtly out of the ordinary. Guys in full Packer regalia were carrying coolers to their cars. The church's parking lots were full (normal), as was the liquor store's (not so normal for a Sunday morning). Wisconsin's faithful praying for a win and then buying the beer to make the ride smoother whichever way it went. Packer fans are that way. Football & God (usually in that order) are what Sundays in winter are all about here. We believe they go hand in hand. That's why I knew The Packers would win.
Last week, during the blizzard that completely shut the city down (except for my place of business. We remained open throughout the natural disaster, but ironically closed for Super Bowl Sunday), I sealed the victory with a simple act that made the football gods smile favorably upon my team. See, I have these neighbors.... In spite of the fact they have a monster snow blower and I have a shovel, they have never once cleared my walk; in spite of the fact their dog sneaks into our yard to crap almost every morning; and in spite of the fact they're Steeler fans; I helped them push their car out of the ridiculous pile of snow (that they refused to remove even though the have a snow blower) deposited by several passes of the city's snowplows. Don't get me wrong, it was a great game. Hard fought, talent ridden, well coached, very even (even in the unfair calls), everything a championship game should be. I was once again walking the dog when when the final whistle blew showing the Packers as champions. I would have know even if I hadn't been listening to the game on the radio. People whooping and yelling out their front doors and fireworks scattering across the February night sky told the story: the Lombardi Trophy was coming home. It was a very cool feeling. One I had missed in championships past. I was home for the home team's mighty win. I had faith, though. Karma works in strange and mysterious ways. That's why Packer fans believe in football and God.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
In 1988 I was pursuing my double degree in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management. During a management class, the instructor, a knowledgeable man with a penchant for loud ties said, "...and you want to steer clear of 'animal clubs' (his simplification of Lions, Elks Lodges, Knights of Columbus, Yacht Clubs, Golf Clubs, & Country Clubs)." So apparently it's been common knowledge since the dawn of time that clubs are poorly managed facilities and therefore black holes for culinary talent. Seriously? Didn't someone send the clubs a copy of this memo? Wouldn't they realize that they're the laughing stock of the culinary world and want to whip themselves into shape? I didn't give it a second thought at the time, but I did spend the next twenty years of my culinary career successfully steering clear of clubs. Eventually it came time for me to find out the answer to the questions I posed above. I had what seemed like a can't lose opportunity to be part of a club that really wanted to re-build it's integrity. And since I'd be going into it with a General Manager that I knew, trusted, and respected, I felt safe.
I couldn't have been more wrong. The GM bailed on me less than three months into it; and it turned out that only 3/400s of the membership truly wanted things to be better bad enough to make any real changes; and even they couldn't agree on how. On my first day, I sat before the elected Commodore and the committee that I would directly report to and explained to them my philosophy, "I am a restaurant chef. It's what I know how to do. And in a restaurant you're expected to make money. If you let me run this operation like a restaurant, I will make you money." Sounds simple enough, right? Everyone at that table shook their heads and said that that was exactly what they wanted. And then spent the next three years not letting me do it. Everywhere I turned there were exceptions, 'yeah buts', stubborn staff unwilling to change, narcissistic old timers, and another 200 members that know how to do everything better. I was given all of the responsibility and none of the authority to see it through. Every month we'd sit back down at the table with seven trees worth of graphs, charts, and reports that all said the same thing: this isn't working. Then the powers-that-be would look at me as if to ask, 'We've been chasing our tails all month. Why haven't we caught it yet?'
Once a month there is a membership meeting. At this meeting the members that care the most (or are at least the loudest) gather to match wits and discuss who's to blame for the latest set of catastrophic numbers. At this meeting I set out a buffet which no one pays for. I was told of an individual who stood and ranted that my food cost should be this specific magic number. I wish I could have been there to charge him $8 for the sandwich he was eating. I can ultimately give them any number they want to see. But that would mean they would have to succumb to doing things my way. That, of course, will never happen. After all, owning a boat trumps a culinary degree and 20 years of experience any day in the mystical world of animal clubs. Whether it be tomorrow, next week, or next year; the smart money is on the talentless waitress will still be shooting off her mouth and doing whatever it is she wants completely unchecked and will still be working at the club while the intelligent, well-travelled, reasonable chef will be gone. Drained of his energy and motivation by arrogant members and spineless managing of resources; leaving another committee asking a another fool, 'Why can't we catch our tail?'