Thanks to the overabundance of television time given over to glorifying chefs, I imagine many young people are increasingly drawn to this career. I’ve worked around the cooking world for many, many years and my advice is “prepare to work and work hard.” What goes into being a chef? Long hours, knife skills, buying prowess, and knowledge of nutrition are just a few of the things a good chef must know. And you’d better enjoy meeting, greeting, and being charming to people. Doesn’t sound so easy, does it?
In the old days you’d be hired as an apprentice and you were most definitely not called “chef” until you had trained in all aspects of the cooking business, starting with the Beetle Bailey job—peeling spuds. Then, depending on the size of the operation, peeling off to a stint as perhaps a salad maker or “sides” maker, working up to Sous Chef directly under the Numero Uno.
I asked some of the best and brightest food people around, “What was the defining moment when you realized you wanted to make a career out of cooking or supervising cooks?”
A Place of One’s Own
Jamie Fry grew up in the restaurant business, namely the celebrated Turkey Ranch at Trout Run. And to hone his skills he decided to go to Baltimore and the professional chef’s school there. When I asked him what was the moment when he decided to spend his life as a chef he answered without delay. He and his wife and another couple decided to splurge and went to the very popular Rudys’ 2900 restaurant on Baltimore Pike in Finksburg. By the time dinner was over Jamie knew what he wanted to do, namely precisely what Chef Rudy Speckamp did at that restaurant.
Jamie told me that it was a combination of the setting, the service, and the menu that made up his mind to open an upscale yet friendly eating establishment. And there you have it, Mansfield’s Wren’s Nest.
Rudys’ was actually the work of two Rudys: Speckamp is a certified Master Chef whose specialty was using local ingredients (way before the current craze); his partner was Rudi Paul, who ran the front of the house. Chef Speckamp specialized in game dishes and Jamie fondly remembers the defining dish for him—venison with mushrooms.
Sadly, Rudys’ 2900 closed in 2005. Speckamp is now teaching at the Culinary Institute of America and hopefully encouraging other young chefs to follow in his footsteps.
“I love to see happy faces.”
Chris Jarreau, the Director of Catering and Special Events at the Penn Wells Hotel in Wellsboro, was working for a law firm in her native Mississippi when, aided by her reputation as a darn good home cook, as was her mother, she was asked if she’d cater a function for the firm. “I was thrilled to see all the happy faces at the event and that did it for me. I soon began a catering business—you know, weddings and such.” She hasn’t picked up a steno pad since. “It’s personally so satisfying for me to see that people appreciate my work and I find that folks come up to me and thank me for a wonderful party that I’ve done several years ago.”
Over the years she has only veered once from the hospitality business and that was to help a friend in Asheville who had an infant/baby clothing business. Chris said “I realized that wasn’t for me.”
“I’ve Always Cooked”
Kevin Hillman remembers cooking when he was barely high enough to stir the contents of a pot. “I was cooking when I was six or seven,” he says, so it was natural for him to keep on peeling, chopping, stirring, sautéing and all of that when he matured. But he is especially adept at supervising a kitchen—something he did for many years at the Ponderosa in Riverside, New York. Kevin is now the proud owner of the popular Fran’s Landing just outside Addison, New York. He is doing what he loves, overseeing every aspect of the restaurant from the menu to the cooking and serving staff and, last year, the conversion of an outbuilding to a party center. And Kevin is enjoying an extensive catering business. Imagine planning and producing a picnic for 1,000, as Kevin did last month!
The E-Z Bake Oven
Chef Michael Lanahan the chef/owner of the chic The Cellar restaurant on Market Street in Corning cites his Italian grandmother as his inspiration to become a chef. “She babysat me at her home and I watched carefully as she made meatballs and sauce, braciole—everything. And there were fruit trees in the backyard and I remember helping pick the fruit and then preparing dishes—from pies to preserves. My grandfather had a vegetable garden and using fresh vegetables was what we did, so all of these cooking elements just stuck with me and pointed me in the direction that my life has taken.”
About that E-Z Bake Oven: “my sister received one of these as a present, but I used it more than she did.”
So Many Inspirations
Chef Suzanne Stack of Suzanne’s Fine Regional Cuisine up in Lodi on Seneca Lake’s East side—as with so many chefs—cites her mother, her “best friend,” as the source of her passion for cooking. But as we talked she listed many other factors that made her the outstanding chef she is today. The major one turned out to be when she discovered the James Beard Foundation’s special dinners, featuring outstanding chefs from all over the U.S. and abroad.
Suzanne, then living in New Jersey, attended as many dinners at the Beard house as possible and realized that she wanted to cook professionally. Then she got involved. She particularly remembers assisting a chef and his wife from Madrid (a many-houred day) and still treasures a thank you note from them.
She was in New York City every week, attending classes at the French Culinary Institute and then participating in the de Gustibus cooking classes at Macy’s.
I loved her story about the time husband Bob took her to the very famous Per Se restaurant in Manhattan as a treat. “I was trembling as we walked in,” she confided, “and it did not disappoint.”
In a convoluted way, my paternal grandmother influenced me. Let me explain. It was the depression and my parents were fortunate to have kept their jobs albeit at reduced salaries. So they moved in with grandma. Due to a medical condition, grandma Catherine was unable to cook so she had a German-born nurse/housekeeper, who knew her way around a schnitzel and a strudel. My mother carefully made notes on the dishes Berta made; after all, they were my father’s favorite things, and among the favorites were potato pancakes.
I take you now to grandma’s New York City kitchen with Berta at the stove turning out those pancakes and passing the applesauce. According to family lore, my normally 110-pound mother had twenty-seven—count ’em—twenty-seven pancakes. A few hours later Yours Truly was born. No wonder I love potatoes and any kind of pancake. And I got my start cooking by grating potatoes (and knuckles) and flipping pancakes of all kinds when mama cooked for papa and the other brats…err, I mean she cooked brats for the younger kids…oh, never mind.
Here’s a favorite recipe I’ve made countless times all over the country when I demonstrated Corning consumer products. It is always a hit, and considering that zucchini may still be growing in local gardens as you read this, I ditched the potatoes. I promise you will love these, but you’d have to be very hungry to eat twenty-seven of them.
Have fun with this recipe. Make small pancakes and serve them as finger food with drinks, or make them a bit larger (like IHOP-size) and serve them as a luncheon dish, topped with lower-fat sour cream and chives or with a good tomato sauce, jarred or, preferably, homemade.
1/2 pound zucchini (unpeeled)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons mayonnaise (lower fat is fine)
2 tablespoons grated onion
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (preferably imported
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano (preferably Mediterranean)
Salt and pepper to taste
Butter for frying, maybe a little oil
Preheat the oven to a low 200-degrees. Grate the zucchini in a food processor or on the coarse side of a four-sided grater. Mound the zucchini onto a paper towel or clean tea towel and squeeze to remove some of the moisture.
Combine all of the ingredients except the butter and mix well—use your hands if you like.
Melt some butter and maybe a tablespoon of light olive oil to cover the bottom of an 8 1/2-inch skillet. Ladle the batter into the skillet to make silver-dollar sized pancakes (or larger if you prefer). When the pancakes are nicely browned on one side (lift to check), flip them over and brown the second side. Place the cooked pancakes on an oven-safe platter to keep warm until all the batter is used.
This makes four to six servings unless you invite a guest who is channeling my mother. In that case you can double—or even triple—the recipe.