Of all the jobs you could choose! Food for thought as to why chefs do what they do
I love reading. Nothing scandalous about that but I can become lost in the words and world printed on a page to the point where reading about food makes my tummy grumble. I was reading the newish Jodi Piccoult book “The Story Teller” which tells the story of a concentration camp survivor, her granddaughter and an SS officer who has escaped to America. Much of the book is centred on baking and food as the survivor’s dad was a baker and her granddaughter is too. Reading the story and the evocative images of food eaten, food shared and food dreamed of when starvation was a part of daily life, had me considering how much a part food plays in our life. For the majority of the world food is not consumed purely for survival. We are aware that our body requires food as nourishment and energy but food also plays a part in many other ways. Food can be the love story we weave from when parents feed children to ensure their thrival and growth, to the food lovingly prepared by one for another. Food tells of family traditions, recipes born of necessity, it reveals the meshing of cultures and the complexities of flavours that have developed through travel and exploration.
Becoming a chef was almost like an extension of a role I already enjoyed. Cooking for me has always been fun and I have always loved sharing stories at the table and bringing together friends and family for a meal. I am sometimes asked if I enjoy having other people cook for me or do I find it hard as I would lean towards the criticising what they have cooked. For me, if I am not paying another professional to cook for me i.e. eating out, I cannot fathom why I would ever criticise someone sharing their food with me. Even if it is a toasted cheese sandwich, if the person making it has made it with intention and care I cannot help but enjoy it as it far surpasses just being a food item and becomes a statement of their intent to care for and about me.
Food evokes so many different memories of meals eaten and times celebrated.
When I think of my Polish grandparents I think of many food items
– my grandfather’s Sunday pork roast and apple sauce
– my grandmother’s chicken curry made from shredded chicken out of the stock pot
– my grandmother’s periogi which we used to fight over
– warm jam donuts from the polish church canteen
– poppy seed stollen and other cakes whose names I forget
When I think of my dad i think of
– A garden groaning with vegetables
– Green beans which he ate by the bowl full and boiled eggs
– Pasta in all forms
– Loaves of bread ripped apart to be dunked into the leftover sugo
– Percolated coffee and numerous biscuits for dunking
My mother evokes
– Handmade pasta and biscuits
– Apple tea cakes
– Crostoli and donut balls
– Spaetzle and chicken broth when we were unwell
– Pickled cucumbers and grilled vegetables
– Margarine containers of home made brawn which made me recoil in horror
When I hear of these foods or eat them the memories of those that nurtured and cared for me are evoked and recalled. These are the stories and memories of those that came before me that I hope to share and expand upon with those that will come after me.
It can be argued that we place too much emotional empahsis on food and that can certainly be the case, but we can have enjoyment from food and evocative memories without shovelling the meal down. There is no reason that a small version of one’s favourite dish can’t be made to celebrate an occasion or just because. What if we could create easy and enjoyable meals that become part of our family’s story? I have my mother’s recipe books from high school, carefully hand written and graded accordingly. I love that I have this part of her history with me, tangible evidence of foods she cooked and shared with her parents and siblings and then it turn the family she create with my dad, us. Two recipes from that book feature here, the pumpkin scones and jam drops. Two old fashioned favourites that I recreated and shared, a little part of my mum, a little part of me. We can’t help but be influenced by those around us at the best of times, but to me it is delightful when that influence is the sharing of ideas and stories from which we can choose what we take from it and create as our own. To me the most interesting and enjoyable recipes are the ones in which a chef or cook or just you or me have taken an idea, an example and had some fun creating it for enjoyment and tweaked it to suit the individual palate.
As a chef it is always the objective to create food that is stimulating and interesting. Flavour combinations and techniques are akin to a painter’s tool box, they are the colours and textures we use to tell a story or create an experience.
One of my favourite catering jobs was for a previous co-worker that was in the finance department. She asked if I could create a surprise five course menu for her and her husband as an anniversary present. Her only guidelines were he likes Asian style food. This was so much fun to prepare and I scoured my cook books and dialogued with her the ideas and a menu was born. Five courses from light (soup) to heavy (curry) from mildly spicy to something with some kick. Each dish was only three to four mouthfuls but each was created to be full of flavour. Her husband arrived home from work to find us in the kitchen, the table set and me in my uniform and a look of puzzlement on his face. ‘Surprise’ she said, ‘Welcome to your anniversary dinner’. The fact that I could create an experience for these two, memories and enjoyment at home created in their kitchen was the beginning of the idea that this could be how people choose to eat more often. What if we could create fun menus to celebrate or just enjoy? What if your wedding menu consisted of your favourite meals shared through your dating years?
Recently I made baked stuffed apples for my brother and sister in law. My brother smiled fondly as he recalled how my mother used to make this very dessert for us all. It created a space of quiet contemplation as a lovely memory was recalled. What if the mere consumption of the food was only half the story? What if the act itself of creating the meal was half the fun? 99% of the food I create professionally I don’t eat myself. Well except for some sneaky mouthfuls. So what’s in it for me? What drives us chefs to create meals we never eat? I believe it’s the knowing that those that come and choose to dine at our tables enjoy sharing that which we create. They enjoy the experience of eating well prepared food and the expertise and experimental flair of those that love to create with food. ? A part of me smiles as I recall all the beautiful meals I have made, all the near misses I have salvaged and the team work that has created a successful food service. Why indeed? Are we crazy? Are we silly? Or do we just know that for us, creating food, sharing food and talking about food is just a part of who we are. We couldn’t imagine it any other way. Nor would we want to.
What are your favourite foods to make for yourself or loved ones? Are there items you make when it’s just you as the other doesn’t like it as much? Do you have a family recipe that has been handed down for generations and is part of your story? I would love you to share these ideas with me as I have with you.