At fifty-one, I realize that I am not the best cook on the planet. I’m not even in the top million. I say this not as a disingenuous stab at garnering praise—the ego maniac’s self-deprecating ploy—but as a man honest with himself and his environment. Understand, I did, for a long time, think the other. Like many cooks and chefs, I thought my (loose) approach was the best, my flavor combos, my organizational triad (again loose), my borderless mentality on the plate, my insistence that food not be overly garnished, my, my, my… After a few years of succumbing to my own bullshit, fed by often effusive flattery, I pretty much thought I could walk into any of the great kitchens of the world and, if not create new dishes, at least keep up on the pantry station. Now I know, in middle age, what my true place in those great kitchens would be. I’d be a potato-peeling commis, unworthy of a spot on the hot line. This self-awareness, to me, is as refreshing as an ice-cold beer after a hectic ten-hour grill shift.
Recently, my ego-detector registered a few delightfully crushing blows. After leaving Memphis (where at least a large portion of chefs knew who I was) and planting roots in the quaint, leafy hamlet of Newmarket, New Hampshire, I find myself having to prove my worth again. My father, a lovable ego-manic himself, couldn’t understand how I could leave a town where I was Someone to go and practice my craft in a distant land where no one gave a shit about Caritas, my book, my Mike Conley gig, my years teaching, my less than meteoric three-decade career. All I can say is, it was time to venture out. Starting over and seeing the world was an attractive option. I knew I’d be, at the very least, undervalued as a marketable commodity. And that was fine. I’ve always said (and meant) that I’d be happy if the newspapers lost interest in me. Here in New Hampshire, I got my wish.
My pride was also dented by the realization that—should I quit or get fired—the kitchen I’m currently overseeing, Ciao Trattoria and Wine Bar, might just serve better food in a more professional atmosphere. One of my inherited cooks, young Josh Herlihy, a mild and humble powerhouse of a culinarian, has thrown down the culinary gauntlet in these short few months. His talent and professionalism are so off the charts that, as a matter of retaining him, he was put on salary and given the title Chef de Cuisine. I may be proud of my accomplishments and confident in my cooking but I’m no idiot. The dining public needs what Josh has to offer, and it was only a matter of time before he gave me his notice. There are too many killer chef gigs floating out there in this post-pandemic world. One just need spend a few minutes on Indeed.com to realize why the salary and title were mandatory.
Reluctant to pander to New Hampshirites ever vocal entreaties for chicken and eggplant Parmigiana, the sugar-sweet marsalas, the ubiquitous meatballs, garlic knots, endless salad bowls and other tired ABCs and 123s of the Italian American kitchen, he’s unapologetically steering the conversation toward hyper creativity and, for me, the unknown. Just last night I was shown up by his simple sounding grilled asparagus with pistachio aillade. Aillade? What the fuck is that? Shouldn’t I know? For those also in the dark, aillade is a French condiment akin to pesto (with an inverse ratio of nuts to herbs) that MUST BE made with a mortar and pestle. He bought one online just for this dish. And his tesa salad with frisee, radicchio, candied pecans, parmesan and pork fat dressing is so left field delicious that I was both delighted and depressed after trying it the first time.
Like most acolytes of high-end chefs, he’s got the de rigueur saucing spoons—one for saucing, another, with slots, for who knows what (maybe draining expensive diver scallops??), the expensive culinary tweezers, the cake testers (for ascertaining the doneness of proteins). He’s methodical, calm, his station immaculate, his mise en place organized for maximum productivity and minimal movement. These are all things that I’ve kind of half-assed in my working life and I certainly don’t use tweezers. Sure, when I’m at a podium lecturing, I’m an authority on The Set Up but when I’m taking fire on the line, my station is…well, embarrassing. The hypocrisy is painful. Josh’s towels are always clean and neatly folded, and he never uses too many. He wipes down after each dish with a sanitizing cloth so that, should interlopers from the civilian world enter our domain, he’s ready to dazzle them with a show of efficiency and sanitation that I only aspire to.
Why do I admit to all of this? How can I, a fully formed chef with a lifetime of experience and the moderate respect of my peers, cop to being Less Than? The answer lies in my hopes for the future of gastronomy. As stated many times in this blog, I know with certainty, that my days as a fighting member of the brigade are numbered. The knees are going, the elbows, the feet. Once healthy bone and muscle is now giving to arthritis and the soreness of age. Decades of standing on cement floors have taken their toll. And honestly, even if I had another decade left, I’d be miserable doing the same thing at sixty that I was doing at twenty-five. It’s time to mentor the new generation. They’re the ones with the energy and ideas. I see myself in the next chapter becoming a professional, globetrotting gastronome, a crabby old sea captain hell bent on being pampered on a cruise ship. When the eventual happens and I’m hauled off the line, I want to know there are places I can go to have a memorable meal with Kristin. And I want to know–because yes, deep down there’s still a selfish component to my worldview—that I had a hand in creating those memorable experiences.