Thank You, Mom

A Recipe Card From The Heart

From the moment they were born the girls have been with me in the kitchen, learning, helping and growing.  Be it creating birthday cakes, mastering the art of the soufflé, poaching lobster or steaming fresh dumplings, our time together in the kitchen is precious to me and I love watching them learn as we go.

The skillsets behind cooking are important to me and I believe that, with practice, they are with you for life; not just in the sense of knowing how to feed and nourish thyself.  It’s an ability in life that dips into so many practices, be it science, math, art and creativity, intuition and sometimes even luck, there is so much to take in from the culinary arts and it makes me proud to see the girls enjoy and appreciate it so much.

At forty years of age, I still recall and apply much of the sage advice bestowed upon me by my Mother and it’s to her that I really owe my passion for all things food.  She may not realize this, and if that’s the case then shame on me for not thanking her enough for the lessons she taught me growing up, or sharing with the her the memories that I carry with me daily.  Memories and moments similar to ones that I can only hope both Nora and Audrey are forming and will bring with them throughout their lives. The skills I pass along are ones that I trust they will employ throughout their many adventures, straight up until the days they will undoubtedly need to start cooking for and feeding me in my old age.  And when I’m in my 90’s, conceivably incapable of preparing my own meals, they’d better know how to pan sear a proper filet.

While I did attend culinary school, have practiced and worked in numerous kitchens and even ran a catering business for a number of years, the tips, tricks and base knowledge I posses today came directly from my Mom.  Not just in ‘how’ to cook, but in the steps leading up to it and what I later learned as the ‘mise en place’: preparing your station or workspace and your ingredients ahead of time so that, when it comes time for adding the garlic to the pan, it’s ready to go and your onions don’t burn while you’re fiddling around with peeling and chopping.  You know, fundamental stuff that the kind folks at my post-secondary instituion had absolutely no problem collecting good money for, despite my prior knowledge;  then again perhaps my education also taught me to appreciate the importance of all tastes, including ‘bitterness’.

Through her I learned that it doesn’t matter what size pan you use, you’re going to need to wash it so go with what makes sense for the task.  I observed how to care for my ingredients, knowing their value and their importance and contributions in the greater picture.  I know that, perhaps more important than any other lesson that can be learned, you clean as you go.  This is not simply for health and safety precautions, but for keeping yourself organized, on track and on time.  A chef or cook operating in a clean kitchen is a sign of someone who is proud of their work and knows that they’re doing.

This shouldn’t suggest that I didn’t learn anything in my post-secondary endeavours;  through my experiences I came to respect what salt can do and pepper can’t. I experienced why you never grab a hot pan with a wet towel.  That severing part of your thumb on a cheese grater during prep does not get you out of the late shift on the deep fryers and that you had better be back from the emergency room before dinner service starts or there’d be hell to pay.  That how you hold a knife ultimately defines you as a person, and I know precisely how much pork tenderloin I can squeeze out of the walk-in and into my knife-roll without raising suspicions from ‘management’.  All said, culinary school represents a time in my life when I discovered the true value friendship, old and new, love, passion and creativity.  I learned, perhaps more than anything, that some of my happiest moments involve being around food.  In this regard I am truly not sure that my mother understands just how much she encouraged, drove, and inspired me to become the person I am today.  Our time in the kitchen when I was five years old stays with me today, and it’s those experiences which encourage me to bring our girls into the kitchen with me at every opportunity.

None of this is to say that I was taught or instructed that only the finest Michelin star experiences would do; quite the contrary, really.  I was taught and continue to value all aspects of food.  I respect where my food and ingredients comes from and the efforts that go into them. Being in the kitchen from an early age gave me appreciation for how much is truly required to prepare a meal, be it for 4 or for 400.  It’s a value that I am working to instil in our children with an understanding that, yes – the server’s job is not easy, they have to deal with us: the general public and all the quirks, challenges, demands and complaints that individuals bring to the table.  But the prep cook, dishwasher, garde manger, expeditor and grill cook, all purveyors, farmers and truck drivers, and so many more also had to work in tandem to ensure that what’s presented on the plate in front of you comes together seamlessly and is cooked to your very specific and desired tastes. It’s not easy and, in most settings, tips, appreciation, thanks or acknowledgement are rarely delivered to the back of house crew and that generally doesn’t sit well with me.  Truthfully I rather despise the notion of tips as a whole and would much prefer a pay system based on equity, but I especially take offence to the suggestion that the front of the house staff ‘earn’ tips while the back of house employees do not.  I would much prefer that restaurants paid all of its members fairly and allowed all patrons to enjoy their food and everything that goes into it without worrying how much extra to leave so as to not offend, and recognize that no one person worked harder than another to set it on the table in front of you.

*takes a deep breath into a paper bag*

I apologize for the diatribe…

As I was saying: I am not sitting here in my home eating nothing but oysters, caviar and humongous blocks of parmesan cheese.  Good food does not have to mean expensive food; good food is prepared with love, care and respect for the ingredients, environment and the company you’re in.  When I go to a restaurant, my only expectation is that I get what I pay for. A classic greasy spoon can often times more reliably satiate your cravings while respecting your wallet far more than many fine dining establishments and I, like most people, love a good fast food burger.  The same can be said for eating at home: two nights ago I prepared a dish consisting of cod, slow poached in olive oil, served with fried chorizo, sauce vierge, radish and micro-greens. Tonight? We will be enjoying hot dogs wrapped in Pillsbury dough with a side of all dressed chips and some pickles.  Both dishes are equally delicious and fun to put together.  It’s not about the expense, it’s about the experience.

My parents often bring up that they don’t know where I got my creative side.  Be it music, writing or food prep, they’re not entirely sure how I came about these passions.  It surprises me how surprised they are because it all began with them.  To watch and realize that plain, uncooked ingredients can come together and create something beautiful, delicious and life-sustaining, blew my mind and drove me explore that even further.  With a great deal of support, encouragement and patience, I ‘opened’ my first restaurant in our house at a very young age – Raul’s Steak house, as I named it, was a exercise in both imagination and practical applications as I prepared meals for my family, experimenting with a variety of foods and mediums.  I came to identify a dinner plate as a blank canvas and the contents of the fridge and pantry could paint beautiful and inspiring things upon it.  Along with so much more, I learned that from you, Mom.

To this day I love opening the fridge without a plan and just seeing where I end up.  By understanding and mastering a few basic techniques and methods, stocking your kitchen with a few key pieces of equipment (which do not need to break the bank), something as unassuming as a half dozen eggs, a couple of cups of flour and a lemon turn into a spectacularly light and fresh pasta in under 30-minutes.  There is a romance in the process and when you get to share the results with friends and family, it becomes something even more spectacular.

So, Mom, thank you for bringing me into the kitchen.  I am teaching our girls the same valuable lessons along the way and encouraging them to recognize that the kitchen is not to feared.  They understand how to properly hold a knife, that a dull one is more dangerous than a sharp one, and that, while it will likely mean you will be saving on manicure costs for the rest of your life, to catch a falling blade is simply not worth it.  They know that heat, gas, fire and amber are dangerous when you don’t respect them but that there are fewer things more beautiful when you do.  We’re still working on the cleaning as you go piece, but that will surely come in time.

I am teaching them to be brave and bold, allowing them to explore and make mistakes; I’ve been burned, cut, scarred and bruised countless times and to varying degrees of severity and stitches, but I share these stories with the girls, letting them know what I learned as a result and that it doesn’t deter me from forging into the fire once more.  I not only hope but believe in my core that they are developing the same wonderful memories that I still reflect on to this day.

In other words: I love you, Mom.

 

 

 

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