Friday, January 12, 2018

Back from the Dead

I have been alerted by a reader, (my sister-n-law Janet) that I should not tease a near death story without delving into the guts and glory of my life's most dramatic moment.  Let me take you back to the last sentence in my first blog post;

So by sheer fear I became exec chef six years ago. Scariest moment in my life, besides dying last year only to be revived....

I apologize for the tantalizing tease and making you wait to my third post to share with you my most somber hours, days and weeks.  We all have those years, the real shite year when a storm cloud gathers around you and incessant hail and rain pounds your living soul to the brink of death.  Well, 2016 was that year for me and my family. Please play your violin or listen to some late 90's grunge music.  It will set the tone for rest the words that follow.

I was born with a baboon heart.  Well, that is what I laughed with my friends about.  It was simpler and funnier than saying I was born with three holes in my heart, a bicuspid mitral valve, and a coarctation of the aorta.  Yeah say that a few times and you will see why I told everybody I had a baboon heart.

I had corrective surgery when I was four in London at Great Ormond Street Hospital.  We had just moved to the States when they found I was seriously ^*&^%ed up!. My first real memories were from there, a lot were traumatic.  There were some horrible memories like being in an oxygen tent, gasping for a breath and at the same time dying from thirst.  I remember begging my mum to let me suck on some ice to moisten my mouth because I couldn't have water.  She got the nurse and she allowed me to suck on it but not to swallow it. I had to spit it out.  Well of course I said screw that and I swallowed the whole bloody cube.  Moments later I regretted the decision, as I choked on it and spit it up.  But it wasn't all horrible, I did have some good memories as well!

Turn the sad song off for a minute and play some good vibe jams.  I got my first buzz while in hospital and I wheel chair raced daily with a young mate from Iceland.  Yes, it is true no lying.  We English do things differently.  Hospitals aren't like prisons here in the States.  Unless you are in intensive care, you could leave for a bit and come back for your meds and checks from the doctors and nurses.  I am talking about going out, getting some fresh air and coming back in and hour or two.  My parents would take me in my wheelchair outside and stroll me along the streets around the hospital and Russell Square.  My mum and dad often stopped at a pub and had a pint or two.  (they needed it, believe me!)  They would also give me a little cup of Guinness so not be be left out of the fun (good for ya you know, iron and vitamins)  I was their little four year old drinking buddy.  As I was nearing the end my rehabilitation and being ready for release from the hospital, I was once again at the familiar pub yards from the entry way of Great Ormond Street Hospital. My surgeon walked suddenly in front of us and stopped.  He peered down at my little cheeky face.  I recall smiling back with a Guinness mustache.  I remember like it was yesterday, Dr. Stark, saying to me and my folks,"He's looking better I see!"

Now imagine that happening here in the States.  CPS would have been called in and I would be living as an orphan! Ok...enough on the past, let's get to the present.

I was a normal kid, well at least that is what I thought of myself as.  The only limitations I had were physical. I could not lift weights, I could not do excessive physical activity, which sucked for me.  I  loved sports and I was a bloody good athlete but I was limited to rec sports and not HS sports because of my baboon heart.  (Still bitter)

Well, I had developed a healthy fear of doctors over the years.  Side note: Forgot to mention, I had a sarcoma in my wrist that I had removed in 2002.  Thought I had carpal tunnel. Uhh no...the big "C" word.  Another scary m'fing event in my life.  But hey, I was lucky! God Be Blessed!

Now 2016.  I started feeling shitty.  Like I couldn't walk up stairs, I couldn't do anything but sleep.  I thought I had everything wrong with me but never did anything about it because I was too bloody scared to find out the truth.  It wasn't til my beloved wife threw down the "I am leaving you if you don't go to the doctor" gauntlet that I was shaken into facing the horrid truth about my health.

I think you might be seeing a theme with me and maybe you can see it in yourself and others.  Fear is the greatest motivator. 

Going to speed up because this post is getting long winded and quite frankly I need the loo.  My mitral valve was looking like a bad spaghetti bolognese.  Well that is how my described it from the pictures the doc took of it.

I had to get it repaired.  After entering surgery, the doc found it was not repairable at all and only a replacement would work.  I awoke 5 days after surgery.  I swear to God this is the truth.  I woke up and I thought I was back in London at the hospital where I had surgery when I was four.  It took me hours to realize where I was.  Surreal as hell.  I was in hospital for 5 weeks. I missed my son's, my dad's and spent my birthday in hospital.  It sucked.  I coded in the hospital in my bed.  It was like someone turned off the light.  There was nothing but nothingness, until I was revived.  I remember seeing what looked like when a person is peeping out of a peep hole, and then suddenly the image grew larger and then I saw my wife giving hell to a doctor who was trying to give me medicine I was allergic too.  I had no idea what had happened.  There were about 15 people in my room.  I didn't know what the fuss was about.  I then began to feel my chest.  It was aching badly.  Whoever gave the heart compression nearly broke my rib cage in half, but I was so glad that they were there for me and my family.  I coded because of a dangerous heart rhythm.  A nerve had been severed during my heart operation that was responsible for my upper and lower parts of my heart from communicating correctly.  I needed a pacemaker. I was going to be dependent on it.

I am not going to lie, going through what I went through sucked some serious arse, but in my case it was a necessary evil. I had to go through the whole ordeal or I would have been six feet under or some dust in the wind.

There were some positives however to be taken from my ordeal.  Firstly, my family rocks. They were there day and night for me. My wife was a super hero.  She kept our catering business going while I was sick and single-handily kept it afloat.  I learned to appreciate life.  I know that is queer and quaint, but believe me, we take it for granted.  And for those wondering what the hell does this post have to do with a food blog, well all I can say is hallucinogenic drugs.  I am quite a bore, besides being a little bit of a lush at times. Never done a drug in my life.  No interest!  I am not sure what the hell they put me on, but I had the most amazing visions of recipes and food. The ideas sweep over me like a tidal wave of psychodelic intoxicant.  It was like a was reciting the spoken word of the food god!  I had been overtaken with the most amazing visions of food. I was eating and nourishing on my hedonistic culinary dreams.

And this is where things get kind of weird.

I started having visions of Irish food. Yes, Irish bloody food, the land of spuds and soda bread.  Bizarre? I know!  Why not food from France.  Wine from Brugundy, Cheese and Butter from Normandy and Herbs from Provence. But no, I lusted for food from the land of leprechauns.  I was overwhelmed, consumed with it.  I have no idea where it came from.  All I could think was that my grandmother was Irish but I had never been.  Her dad had brought her and the family to Liverpool where my mother was born.  My great grandfather one day decided to leave the family and go back to Ireland to a family he had left behind!  (Yeah no one knew he had another whole family and life in Ireland).  We have a dark family past.

But I didn't know where the fascination came from, I was at a loss.  Did God plant it in my head when I was dead?  I don't know.  But it wasn't a flight of fancy, I felt I had a calling,  So bloody hell, without anyone's consent or advise I irrationally booked a spontaneous trip to Ireland this summer to sew my food oats and discover a land that consumed my culinary mind.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Unknowing Student

Before I get too long winded, it might be helpful if I let you know the road you are going to travel down with me.  This blog, is about food, recipes, my life's journey to becoming an executive chef, food again, restaurants, food travel (exciting news to come) some family and some sublime insight on life on this blue planet and well, anything I bloody like to pontificate about.

So how does one become chef without going to school for it?  Well, in my case you have two young kids, a lovely wife and no money, and minimal job prospects because after all, companies don't like entrepreneurs, they like team players, those that can sit in a cubicle and take direction from people half their age, who snapchat emojis as directives and tell people like Janice that yeah, I think a committee is a great idea.  How could one decide on a Holiday card without the help of six other people! Well, I didn't fit that mold.  So as mentioned in first post, I had to trade in my owner's hat and put on a chef's hat.

Okay.  Let me be frank, no I think I will be Stephen instead, Frank is generally a fat fellow.  I am mostly slender but with a gut of a pot belly pig and the cheeks of chipmunks. I wish I was an Aiden, because that sounds more English. Oh well, c'est la vie., Stephen it is, I am stuck with it I am afraid.

I was not an idiot (keep comments to yourself).  I did know cooking. I cooked at home.  My mum was a great cook.  I was always in her kitchen as a youngster.  Loved watching her make Yorkshire pudding and leg of lamb, not so much the mashed carrots and turnips she made. I loved it.  When I got married I did it all and I was very good for a home cook.  I loved to watch Jacques Pepin and Julia Child on PBS.  I loved all the cooking programs.  Loved the original Emeril Lagasse show on the Food Network.  I soaked it all in every chance I got.

But that alone wasn't enough.  I would be tasked with cooking for 100-300 people a day for our catering company Go Gourmet, from sandwiches to lasagnas, to fajitas, to chicken milanese and etc.  How the ^%& was I going to do that.  You know those white knuckle moments you get on airplanes for fear of crashing, well I had those all over my body for fear of crashing our business into the ground.

Little did I know, or little did I have this awareness, but I had gone to culinary school.  I had been going for 11 years.  Each day I would come to the catering kitchen with my chef and his lieutenants and I would watch them work.  I would pitch in when needed, cleaning dishes, stirring sauces, grilling chicken, dicing chicken, cutting potatoes, making salads, whatever was needed I would pinch in where I was needed.  You had to, it was our business.  Even though I was the boss I wasn't the boss of the kitchen, that was the Exec Chef.  They were head honcho.  I followed their rules.  I had to get my food handlers license, I learned to order produce and meats.  I never knew I was learning, I was just doing.

So when the rubber met the road, and I switched hats I did have knowledge, I had too developed skills, I did have a clue.  Our company had many chefs during the first 11 years, some good, bad and some great.  I learned from them all.  I was being mentored even though I hadn't a clue.  I was being prepared for this moment and I was ready. Still going strong six years later...  

Friday, December 22, 2017

In the beginning there was light...and foie gras and chateauneuf du pape

I admit Adam and Eve probably didn't dine on foie gras and have libations such as Chateauneuf du pape, but I bet God did! Only our creator (literally) could create such masterful delights.

As I begin this blog, I feel it necessary to own up to all of you, shed my dignity, unclothe my ego and show you my stark naked self (not literal).

I am not a trained french chef, nor am I trained chef from a community college, or do I have any diploma with culinary in the title.  Confession One:  I am a graduate of Southern Methodist University with the meaningless degrees in Political Science and Russian Area Studies. Sorry mom and dad for wasting your money!

I am a culinary novice so to speak, well may bit a more than that now, having climbed to executive chef of  my catering company, Go Gourmet Catering.

Yes, that sounds a little odd. ("Climbed to chef of my catering company? Huh?") Disclosure numero dos!  I started this company along with my wife in June 2001 before the world as we know it was so @$^# up. (the good ole days)  I was not a chef but as stated in my bio, I loved food.  Now here is the boring part. Fast forward if you like, but I must share, or my journey will make no bloody sense.

My family had a big bad ass business which we sold to a big bad ass NASDAQ company. So for awhile our family was rich, I was a brat and a douche and we lived like a low rent Kardashian or upmarket Beverly Hill Billy.  Your choice for frame of reference.  Well readers digest version, no matter how much money you have it can go fast if you are stupid, or surround yourself with thieves and crooks.

So as you can guess this doesn't have a happy ending.  Family money is shrinking and I had to get off my ass and do something.  My awesome wife, who works like she is not going to have money to feed the family if she does not get the next sale, was a super awesome pharma sales rep. She worked all over DFW (Texas y'all).  As awesome as she was, she had no sense of direction.  And for me with no direction in life, became her chauffeur. (Yes, this is before we had google maps, we had mapsco folks!) One day a light bulb went off.  Or maybe she just hit me (probably deserved it).  I noticed a pattern.  She set appointments for lunch and breakfast and snacks and dinner programs all day long.  We would have to go to restaurant pick up the food and bring it to clinics and doctors offices.  She did this every bloody day! (yawn /boring), but that is how she sold and apparently a lot other people just like her.  So I had this crazy idea, how about I start a company that focuses on catering to people just like you, there must be a lot.  Well, let's just say we found a niche.

Fast forward.  Sorry y'all, you still have to read more for context.  I will just give you the meat and leaves the bones for another day.  We hired chefs, got a big bad "A" commercial kitchen and with a a few thousand dollars made a million dollar business in 5 years, with really no clue what the hell we were doing.  Remember no experience!

Another fast forward.  Remember that great recession thing.  Yeah that one, not such a good time for us.  Budgets and layoffs in our niche business meant company collapsed in half in a few years.  Meant debt, layoffs for us and just a general shite (british for shit) time.  (Oh yeah I am English, pardon the late introduction)

So I had a come to Jesus moment.  I was faced with two options, close down and look for a job in a shite market, (which scared the crap out of me or bloody well man up and take over the reigns in the kitchen and get rid of our chef because it was either him or us.  Sorry, us wins.

So by sheer fear I became exec chef six years ago. Scariest moment in my life, besides dying last year only to be revived....