after browbeating me for the past couple of months, finally decided I had enough of a book done to send it to a few publishers.
So, I had to write an introduction. Since most of you here will be among my audience, I am interested in your reactions. The name of the book is "Why I Cook."
Simply put, I cooked initially because I love to eat and, it seemed to me a completely harmless manner in which to exercise my creativity, provide a valuable service for the species and, at the same time, earn a living. Although I lived among them and called many friends, I never was a hippie. I grew the hair, did many of the same drugs, but I never had a sense of belonging. I don’t think any of us who were in Vietnam could completely buy into the idea that the world could be saved with peace and love and drugs. And many of the hippies were very leery of us combat veterans. We might be baby killers.
I did, though, subscribe to many of the tenets of the flower children. We shared a belief in the benefits of growing and eating natural food in an era when large food service corporations were cranking out a new processed food every nanosecond and fast food joints were replacing local eateries at the rate of dozens per day. Self-medication could be a good thing. Large corporations were inherently bad for the species. Politicians are just no damn good. Equal rights are a good thing. Ending the Vietnam War was a good thing.
Small is good, Grassroots are good. Local is good. But, there was something missing in the hippies. They had not seen enough of life.
As in any age of human existence, true believers abounded. I had waiters, cooks and musicians who were suckers for the latest movement. Organizations like EST (Erhard Seminars Training) and Scientology fought for the right to control the gullible and rootless. For every one of these movements that survived there were a hundred that rounded up feckless flower children and herded them off to a commune somewhere where they could work on them in isolation. Sometimes the results were disastrous, as with Charles Manson. But, most often they just died from the gradual erosive effect of close-quarter cohabitation and no notable improvement in the general quality of the species because of their efforts.
I decided to cook because it seemed to me to that, as a nation, we were getting off track. Fewer and fewer of us were working with our hands. Hell, I was a fucking snob about tradesmen when I was an undergraduate. I was an idiot. Vietnam was more mind-altering to me than any of the thousands of drugs I took. Although I came very close to leaving this country rather than go to war, I, ultimately, went to Vietnam voluntarily because I wanted to see for myself what war was all about. It stripped me naked. I met lots of different people with lots of different backgrounds and possessing a myriad of skillsets. And although I saw the closest thing to hell on earth, I saw the good in the species in the Vietnamese who had survived thousands of years of war and occupation upon occupation. And in the GI’s who felt much more empathy for those Vietnamese than you might imagine. I became aware of the truth in simplicity, a simple thing done well. The creativity and inventiveness involved in making daily life bearable. Getting through a day without harming another. Learning to trust those beside you in the trench. These traits are essential in the professional kitchen. Living creatively in an environment designed to test the human spirit. Keeping on, keeping on. Back "in the world" we were becoming a nation of non-producing, consuming morons.
My life as a cook got a lot more complicated than I could ever have envisioned.
Here I trace my careening path from New Orleans to Indiana, New York, Chicago, Vietnam, Europe, Memphis and California, noting what I learned along the way, including all the character flaws, stumbles and pratfalls. Eventually, I became a damn good cook. And I think, ultimately, that’s even more important to me than being a good chef.
As we wend our way, I make frequent mention of music and films. And politics and history as I lived it. This is not serendipitous. To me they are the diegesis to my narrative, an essential element to an understanding of what was going on. Try to hear the music and visualize the films as you read. This was the landscape for my life. The politics will be harder to understand as many of the issues are not yet resolved.
Nearly my entire adult life has been devoted to cooking or teaching cooking and I continue to do both and will as long as I can remain upright. But, the hardest working among us do not spend 24 hours per day in the kitchen. I hope my story will enlighten you as to what the life of a chef really entails and flesh out the cardboard cutout of a guy in a white coat and gros bonnet, as well as open your eyes about the many routes one may take to arrive at the point where you are called "chef."
One of the most common questions from my students over the years was, "How will I know when I am a chef?"
The answer is simple. You are a chef the first time a line cook begins talking to you and places the word "Chef" at the beginning of the sentence. You have been permanently imprinted. You have arrived.