For most of my 30-year career as a professional (I use the term loosely) chef, it was a rare occasion for my wife, Lisa, and I to attend a social function together. Both of us worked in restaurants until just a few years ago and for almost 10 years both of us worked at the same restaurant – while we were raising our daughter.
Before you ask, the answer is yes. We are still married – and happily.
When my bride and I did find ourselves making small talk over cocktails with people to whom we’d just been introduced, we could practically set our watches by the inquiry directed at Lisa after I answered the question about what line of work I was in.
“You probably eat so well at home! Oh, wait – I’ll bet he’s sick of cooking on his night off.”
Lisa, ever gracious, would flash a smile that still makes me swoon, giggle politely, and let them know how wrong they were.
“JD loves cooking for us on his nights off. We eat very well at home.”
When I met Lisa at the age of 23, my ability to contribute to the socioeconomic fabric of the 612 area code was spotty at best. I fancied myself an artist and couldn’t be bothered to prioritize keeping my rent, phone bill or bank account out of a consistent state of arrears. Jobs with roofing outfits, nightclubs, record stores, delis, and international package shipping conglomerates funded my Rimbaud-esque pursuit of life as ‘a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed.’
Lisa revealed her heart very early in our relationship as one that was not interested in a relationship with a guy who couldn’t keep the phone company from suspending service due to non-payment.
I looked at what I’d found in Lisa and I looked at myself in the mirror and I came to the conclusion that if I wanted any kind of life with real rewards and true purpose, I needed to get serious about both. I took a job in the salad station of a fine dining Italian restaurant on Nicollet Avenue, and quickly discovered a desire not just to survive, but to excel. By following the example of others around me, most of whom were born in other countries or on other continents, I came upon the revelation that everything I was passionate about – history, music, literature, paintings, film – ALL of that could be put into flavor on a plate.
THAT was the banquet I wanted to provide. THAT was the heart I wanted to reveal.
I found myself in an unfamiliar kitchen near the North Shore a few nights ago. Lisa and I had been invited to join some old friends for an impromptu dinner and I offered to prepare most of the meal. Most of us at the cabin shared a hometown on the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota, but had allowed our lives to plant new roots elsewhere. The evening took on a sort of ‘Friends-giving’ vibe (all the fun, all of the flavor, none of the generational trauma and passive-aggressive resentment). While Lisa sat at the table with our friends and everyone caught up over luscious red wines, NA beverages, foreign cheeses and locally-sourced charcuterie, I turned yellow onions, celery, peeled carrots, and minced garlic into mirepoix – the base vegetable flavors for the mushroom and sweet corn soup that would serve as the first course. Italian-style broccoli rabe with white wine, red chilies and lemon juice – a dish I learned to make at that Nicollet Avenue Italian restaurant in 1996 – would come next, accompanying the roasted pork with sweet potatoes and red cabbage doing its work in the oven.
I added herbs like thyme and fresh sage to the mirepoix and olive oil in the saute pan and the kitchen took on the aroma of comfort food – that edible incense of gathering, of sitting down to give the gift of nourishment with those we love – or are learning to love.
At the peak of my time in restaurant kitchens, when Lisa and I had a partnership stake in a Meat and Fish place in Saint Paul, it wasn’t unusual for me to arrive at work before noon and not return home until one in the morning – or later – five or six days a week. Yet I always looked forward to the Monday night dinner we would share with our daughter; and I got downright giddy about preparing the meals for my favorite holidays – Thanksgiving and Christmas. I still do.
It would be easy to say that restaurant kitchens provided me with my purpose or that the demands of a life in hospitality gave me the direction I needed to discover the best of myself. While I won’t deny that all of those nights behind a stove helped me discover what I was capable of, what I could work through and persevere, what I wanted more than anything has never changed: As often as I’m able, I simply want to savor the life I share with those I love the most.
It’s the most delicious thing I’ve known.
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