Monday, November 18, 2013

Chef's that shaped me.

Many men and women in my chosen profession will tell you that they were shaped by one individual chef who magically transformed them into the brilliant chef they are today. I am not saying that it isn't possible to be so moved by the time you spend with one chef; what I am trying to suggest is that many people tend to forget about the hours they spent slinging grits at Waffle House. It sounds better to drop a big name TV chef or a cookbook author. I am not afraid to tell you the truth.

The first ever tax paying job I held was as a dishwasher at a small pizzeria in Kenwood, California. At 15 years old I had no idea what I was getting into. Marco Dana's was owned and operated by my pee wee football coach D. Margreiter. I worked only a few nights a week, alongside my friends Mark and Paul. Being the small town Glen Ellen is the three of us actually grew up on the same road, not a street; this is rural Sonoma County ya know. Washing dishes here was a defining moment in my culinary career; I learned that every person in a kitchen has a role, and if that role is not properly filled or the job is not being executed at the highest capacity everyone else in the kitchen feels it. EVERY role in the kitchen is equally important, if you can't see that you should get out. I still vividly remember the double stack dish machine I was in charge of, the dark damp closet I called home, the burnt cheese on ceramic casserole dishes. I had never worked so hard or fast in my life. I felt the importance of my role, no one ever told me what a great job I was doing, I didn't have customers sending me cash tips or newspapers calling for my secrets. I was a simple dishwasher, washing dishes as fast as they came in, scrubbing toilets, cleaning floors, washing windows, and cleaning out trash cans. But the most memorable part of this job? At the end of every shift, the guys would make a few pizzas and a salad, then we would all sit down and eat dinner together. We would all sit down and eat dinner together. I would later learn this is called family meal.

The next real job I had was as a deli hand at the Sonoma Cheese Factory. This job was probably the most fun I could have had working. My good friends brother got me the job and I wound up working with my good friend Chad as well as a few other really good buddies. We got into so much trouble. I mean we were 16 year old boys with a sweet summer job, what else is there to expect? We had cash, we had driver licenses; we were kings. I took a lot away from this job, most importantly how to make cheese, the art of using the meat slicer, I still have all my fingers, customer service, old ladies love me, old men tell me I remind them of their youth, and of course how to make a sandwich. The managers were also really good managers, they had a great style of management, just the right mix of authority with a splash of fun. I also learned the art of customer service that summer, we dealt with some pretty picky and uptight customers, so learning how to make them smile became a game, and I refuse to loose at any social game.

I joined the Army straight out of high school; This job taught me everything you see in TV commercials and pretty much 99% of what you see in movies. Food wise... Insert clever mess hall joke here. Wait no, I had to pull KP duty now and then while on training missions, I learned how to make scrambled eggs by the 20# bag. Yes there are eggs that are packed in boil safe bags. You boil 40 gallons of water in a 50 gallon pot, put the bag of eggs in the pot, when the eggs look cooked you take them out then put them into a steam table. That's simple cooking. Then I was fortunate enough to get to clean up after 150 soldiers ate. Oh man that was awesome. Seriously I loved being on KP duty, the cooks may possibly have been the most interesting soldiers I was able to meet. The other great time about my Army service? I was stationed in Southern Germany "Bavaria". Germany's bread basket (I made that up) was a place I learned more about the culture and soul of local and sustainable food. In Bavarian towns there are often one or two butchers who buy their animals from local farms where the animals are treated with dignity and respect, they are not force fed hormones to make them grow larger; the vegetables are not doused with pesticides or fertilizers to make them non nutritious. This food reminded me of home, it took me back to my childhood eating fresh veggies straight off the vine. I was infatuated with this, every chance I had to get off post and visit small rural towns I did. I went to Spain, France, Spain, Italy, Amsterdam, Ireland, France, Denmark, Czech Republic, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland once because I got on the wrong train, best wrong choice I've ever made, seriously those Swiss Miss commercials! Those women exist and they travel in packs, and if you are polite and treat them with respect, they will talk to you and show you all the cool places to go and see. But that's a story for a different blog. Ok where was I? Ah yes traveling Europe! I was fortunate enough to see some of the most amazing sights a man can see, the wine, the cheese, cuisine, farms, restaurants, castles, apple orchards, women, the world's oldest wineries, Normandy, Catalan, Basque Country, fuck it was amazing. I got lost for 10 hours in Rome once, fucking lost as could be, but found my way back. I watched a French butcher work for 8 hours butchering different primal cuts of animals, turning them into charcuthceri, steaks, roasts, breasts, thighs, and stock. I ate the best duck breast I have ever eaten in my life. It was the best time of my life to that point.

When I came home, I started working at Viansa Winery, the chef there was beyond kind enough to take a friends word that I would do well. Chef Chris tested me, god damn he made do the most annoying kitchen work, but I wasn't washing dishes; well not everyday. My usual day consisted of grilling copious amounts of vegetables, chicken breasts, sirloin steaks, and egg plant, god damned egg plant. One the best lessons chef Chris taught me here; In my first week he hands me 10# of fresh garlic and says; "peel and mince this, you have 1 hour." Sure sounds easy, but I had never peeled and minced that kind of volume of garlic. My hour had past and chef came to collect his garlic; not only had I peeled and minced the garlic, I had also grilled the 10 of 25 pounds of chicken I was to grill later. The look of astonishment chef had taught me that if I work hard and multitask I will not get into trouble. Later that month while "multitasking" I burnt 5 loaves of bread, over beat heavy cream, destroyed a vinaigrette, and managed to burn the hair off my arms. Sooooo, maybe know what you are capable of before getting ahead of yourself. But in those mistakes were lessons, I learned what my capacity at the time was, I learned to tell the truth because you can usually fix mistakes, I learned to cover up the truth if you can fix it without chef knowing. Oh what a summer.

Wow you're still reading? Thank you.

Ok so, after my first few months I decided to go to culinary school. I choose to attend the Santa Rosa Junior College Culinary Arts Certificate program. I made it through 2 semesters before I was board to death of my fellow students. Remember I had been through some life via the Army so these children were unimpressive to me. I did meet my first true mentor. Chef Maria DeCorpo; chef DeCorpo was my knife skills teacher, soups, stocks, and sauces, as well as vegetables. 4 years after being a student of chef DeCorpo, she would call me her colleague as we shared a meal together in her home, this where I learned the importance of respecting those who came before you. I could write a short story about Chef Maria DeCorpo, her intelligence, candor, integrity, culinary knowledge, respect for others, dynamic forward thinking, and kindness. However I will save that for my book. One thing I will share is while I was a student of chef DeCorpo's I was also struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, there were few days I was not hungover or bewildered in her classroom. But chef saw past my bullshit and gave me chance, she encouraged me to grow up and learn to be a chef. I still have the letter of recommendation she wrote for me to attend the Culinary Institute of America. Chef DeCorpo taught me to believe in people. To encourage those around me and to bring my peers up not down. She taught me to be a chef.

My next stop was at a small Spanish restaurant. I learned how to do cocaine off the dish machine without spilling it, how to pick up guests, how to impress servers with my sweet knife skills, how to ruin working relationships via sex, how to party until 6am and get back to work by 10am and kick ass for 12 hours just to do it again. I credit Zangria Restaurant with teaching me the art of kicking ass and taking names. I highlight the alcohol and drugs here because this is where I really found out how to work hard and play harder. My boss told me if I ever screwed up on the job I would be gone. I was not fired. However in the 6 months I worked here, I bused tables, washed dishes, prepped food for hours, cleaned and organized the walk-in everyday, set tables, served food and wine, made Zangria, and  I was able to recreate many of the Spanish dishes I fell in love with while traveling through Spain. Most importantly I learned how to make paella. The hours of making stock, followed by the endless stirring of rice, I had no idea how important of a job I had until 2 years later when I was an Executive chef making rice dishes for a Zagat rated restaurant. My boss also taught me how to peel and de-vane prawns quicker than anyone in the county. Every other week Carlos would grab 20# of prawns and challenge me; "First to finish their bag gives the other his pay check" little did I know as an owner of a small start up he had no check in order to pay mine. Non the less every time we raced I tried so hard to win, but I would always loose, he never made me sign over my check, he'd only laugh and say maybe next week. The first time I actually won he smiled and said to me; "I expected you to learn this sooner." he smiled and walked away. Later that night, after 10 hours of stewing in my resentment, I mean come on where is my pat on the back, where are my glorious winnings? I worked harder and faster and with more accuracy than I had ever worked, I was going to prove to him how fucking awesome I was, it was a beast of a night and I fucking kicked ass. As I clocked out Carlos called me over to a small table asked me to sit, poured me a glass of wine then had a server bring me 3 thin slices of Iberico Ham, 2 slices of aged Manchego cheese, and an order of mussels in chorizo and saffron cream. I honestly don't remember the conversation we had, but I remember the resentment from earlier in the night melting away, I was calm. I realized then it's never about the money, it's about the food, the people, my co-workers, and the tradition. After that day I have rarely sought a pat on the back, and very rarely given one. But I have shared many meals with my mentors, colleagues and employees. I learned it's not always the prawns; it's almost always the mussels.

Next I worked for TV's Guy Fieri; before he was on TV. It was a step down but I thought the money was better. Honestly I do not remember a lot about this job either, I mostly remember Guy telling me that I had to push the boundaries, try something different, don't just fit a mold, and most importantly be a man. I remember my first interview, I sauntered into the restaurant sat in a chair straddling the seat with the back at my chest, and said "what's up Guy?" He told me to check my attitude pull my pants up and sit properly in my chair, I was thrust back to basic training in a heartbeat and quickly righted myself. I worked for Guy over about 1 year, I took horrible advantage of this job, and Guy saw right through me, but for whatever reason he kept me around. I can't put a finger directly on what I did at this restaurant, I but can put a finger on the lessons I learned; 1.) Always be willing to make mistakes. 2.) You're only as good as your team. 3.) Push the envelope. Guy Fieri gave me a chance to be better and I took it and ran, he taught me to be a better team player, to support the staff not beat them down. To learn every position so I could be more valuable to the team. See a pattern? Yes? Good, lets move on.

These are only a few of the chefs who took the time to help shape me as young man and chef. They cared enough to tell me when alcohol and drugs were running my life ragged. They gave me opportunity to be better and showed me through their own actions how to do it. This was my begging, this is where Chef Andrew H. Garrett joined the ranks. It wasn't all duck liver and truffles. I scraped shit off of toilet bowls, and cheese off of plates. I peeled shrimp, and mashed potatoes. I minced garlic and bused tables. I made mistakes and learned from them; these chefs shaped me. These chefs taught me the value of work, the quality instilled deep in their souls and how to give it back to the next generation.

I am forever grateful for my first years of cooking professionally.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post Andrew. This is what strong foundations are made of. Sounds like ya got a good one.