My girlfriend Hope made a comment last night that has me thinking. She said that she thinks there are dishes/eating experiences that you can enjoy so much that they’ll forever change your life, and perhaps even start you down a path of cooking. I likened her idea to Bruce Lee’s martial arts movies: there’s a major occurrence, and from that point on, it’s over, your path is set, you must train and subsequently slay all manner of obstacles before you can enter the dragon.
People who’ve gotten to know me over the years know a few things about me. They know I’m a big sports fan. They know I’m a lover of wine, art, culture and travel. They know I love movies, that I love writing tv and movies, and they know I’m an absolute sucker for inspirational, biographical movies, especially ones about musicians or sports heroes.
And if they know me even a little bit, then they know how I love to cook.
So Hope’s thesis got me thinking. What were my turning point entrees/dining experiences? What started me down this path of trial and error, this endless path of learning mixtures, ratios, alchemy, temperatures, ingredients, principles?
In chronological order, my top 10 from memory:
Entree #1: MY Mom’s Omelette (Santa Cruz, CA)
I believe that my desire to learn how to cook came from a pretty common source: my mom. Not because my mom was a gourmet chef. Far from it. She wasn’t a bad cook either. She was about economy. With so little time to prepare meals, my mom wanted to make the best thing she could in the shortest time span.
My favorite thing she makes is an omelette, with avocado, bacon, jack cheese. She can make the thing fluffy, almost airy. Absolutely no browning on the outside of the omelette whatsoever. You bite into that airy egg, you get the melty creamy fatty goodness of the cheese and avocado, combined with the crispy crunch of the bacon. I love the way she does this still today.
When I was about 11 years old, I knew I wanted to make this. I wanted to make it myself, and I wanted to make it EXACTLY the same. My mom told me to have at it. I’d watched her make it several times, and I thought, okay, I can do this.
But as I went about the process it became clear to me that I was in way over my head. Oh no, I thought, the avocado isn’t scooped out and cut. Where’s the bacon? Where’s the cheese? The eggs are cooking too fast. What is going on?!
And as I ran around like my hair was on fire and everything felt as if it was coming apart, my mom asked if I wanted help. No, I said, I’ve got this… Wrong!
The omelette was an abject failure, a culinary catastrophe. My mom asked me why I’d refused her help. I told her that I wanted to do it, I’d seen her do it before, and I wanted to do it alone, exactly the same as her. But, she said, you didn’t prepare anything ahead of time. You didn’t have the cheese grated, you didn’t have the bacon made, you didn’t have avocado ready before you started cooking the eggs. You must not have been watching me, she said, because if you had, you’d have had all of those things ready to go.
It was true, my mom would’ve had these things ready.
I learned 2 huge lessons about cooking that day:
1. Mise En Place! Mise En Place! Mise En Place! My mom to this day is supremely organized and prepared before making anything. She has a plan, everything indeed is in it’s place, and she gives herself the best chance of executing the dish she wants to make, efficiently. Ask anyone who cooks with me, and they know that I definitely take after my mom in this regard.
2. If you need help, ask for it. Don’t waste time and food, or worse, burn the kitchen down, because of your pride.
entree #2: Uni & Mackerel @ Pink Godzilla (Capitola, ca)
I grew up in Santa Cruz, California, which, if you’re not familiar with it, is a coastal town in central California, on the north end of the Monterey Bay. We’re famous for our skateboards, our surfing, our boardwalk, and the fact that it’s a natural, beautiful place, one of the most beautiful in all the world for my money.
But what most people, even some locals, don’t know is that it is a great, GREAT seafood town. It’s not like a New England seafood town (lobster, crab, lobster, lobster, cod, clams, lobster, oysters, and did I mention lobster?) or down to the Chesapeake (crab!!!) or the South (shrimp, crawfish). Seasonally, the Monterey Bay will have salmon, halibut, steelhead, squid, shark, flounder, abalone, tuna, mackerel, swordfish, clams, shrimp, and I could go on. As a child, I can remember just how delicious I thought grilled abalone was, that first time I had it…
You would think that being exposed to this cavalcade of crustaceans, mollusks and fish would have naturally led me to sushi and/or sashimi, but it did not. Grilled or fried or poached. This was the way seafood was to be prepared, and anything else was just weird. Raw? That just sounded nuts to me.
My girlfriend when I was 19 years old was a Japanese girl. She would constantly try to get me to eat sushi, or any sort of Japanese cuisine. Being young and closed minded, I thought to myself, well, I’ll do it for the girl this one time, and then after I yack up the raw fish all over our table, we certainly won’t have to go through this exercise again.
I looked at the slice of mackerel on a slab of rice, with a piece of seaweed wrapped around it and I thought, dear God help me. I remembered that the first fish I’d ever caught off of the Capitola Wharf was a mackerel, and that it wasn’t really that great for cooking… Then I bit in… No green pasty wasabi, no soy, no ginger, just straight up mackerel, rice and seaweed. And I loved it.
It was like I’d just eaten the freshest fish in the world, and that this was light, savory, had just the right amount of salt – I felt like I was tasting the ocean, in a good way, and I never looked back. I tried them all: unagi, yellowtail, salmon, bring em on! Octopus? I ain’t no octopussy! Smelt? Another notch on my belt.
Though nothing quite matched the mackerel experience for me, each was excellent nonetheless. Then, I tried uni. I remembered the one time I’d stepped on an urchin quill. Pain. Numbness. Then pain like I’d never experienced. I remember rolling around on the beach and everyone around me saying I had to pee on the impact point to neutralize the sting.
The uni was nutty, salty, refreshing, incredible. Revenge was mine.
Then, I tried a caramelized scallop that was stuffed with flying fish eggs.
My world was changed. My mind was blown. I was hooked. Japanese cuisine was a new galaxy to explore. Don Buri. Katsu. Udon. Ramen. Yakatori. Yaki soba. Meat is the accent, not the star.
Perfectly executed sashimi? Nothing beats it.
The lesson I learned here was simple and profound: when it comes to food and drink, have an open mind!
ENTREE #3: VegetariaN messob & injera @ Meskerem (Washington, DC)
Still just a kid in my late teens, I had a college buddy who was a pretty adventurous guy. His name was Keenan. Keenan had no qualms with trying things that others might think was weird. He introduced me to the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC, where the Ethiopian restaurant Meskerem has existed for years and years. The place is an institution, and definitely a rite of passage for any self-respecting citizen of Washington DC.
So I knew at this point that I could never dismiss a cuisine of the world based on my own preconceived notions of what might or might not taste good. I also knew that Washington DC has a pretty sizable Ethiopian population, so I figured, we’ll probably get the good stuff if we go to the most well known place in town. Keenan assured me that Meskerem was awesome even if the surrounding neighborhood was, at that time, kind of dicey.
I remember telling a classmate that we were going out for Ethiopian food that night. The classmate tersely replied, “What’s that going to be? Do you eat one grain of rice?” I thought that was a classless and racist thing to say. But it did make me apprehensive too. What would Ethiopian food be? Would the portion size be agonizingly small? Would the meat be something I couldn’t conceive of trying, like cat or dog or monkey?
God was I ignorant. Up until this point I’d eaten the classic American fare, some Italian, some Chinese, some Mexican food, and of course I’d just started my new love affair with Japanese food, but beyond these things I was in the dark. Totally, hopelessly clueless. Japan was one thing, but Ethiopia? As this was still pre-Internet days, I couldn’t reference anything to tell me what Ethiopian cuisine was. Oh well I thought, at least this adventure will give me some kind of story.
After briskly walking past some of the shady characters around 18th & Columbia in those days, we make it inside and we sit on these seats that are like wicker djembes, and a table that looks like a huge basket of some kind. We order – half meat, half vegetarian.
The food comes and immediately I’m intrigued by the bread. What is this spongy, almost sour tasting awesomeness? It’s called injera. It’s allowing me to make these little sponge tortillas and fill them with Gomen Watt (collard greens) Yemisir Watt (pureed lentils) Shurro Watt (chick peas) and oh man! The spices, the flavor explosions I’m having in my mouth are unlike anything I’ve experienced. Keenan tells me it’s sort of like Indian food, which I can recall meant nothing to me, because I’d never had Indian food before.
I just knew I loved the flavors and tastes I was experiencing. Even more amazing to me, I was enjoying the vegetable portion of the meal more than the meat part. Not that the meat wasn’t great too, but the vegetables just seemed to soak in this thing that they called “berbere sauce.” I loved it so much I asked the waitress, what is in a “berbere sauce?” She smiled and said it was a secret.
I had no idea what asking such a question meant.
More than anything, I think the question meant that one day, I’d love to cook.