A Bowl of Ratatouille & My Story
I am a proud son of an immigrant mother whose French culture and joie de vivre founded and shaped the foodie and person I am today.
A serious addiction to The Good Life
My story starts from the very beginning, actually nine months before the beginning, when I still was deep within my mother’s warm and comfortable womb. My grandfather Pépé insisted on feeding my pregnant mother a hearty Perigord diet of goose foie gras and black truffles to ensure that despite growing up in the savage New World thousands of miles from the French motherland, I would grow up to become a proper gourmand.
The gourmandizing extended just past my first minute on planet Earth. Instead of getting the traditional spank and sip of mother’s milk to herald my arrival, I was handed a flute of bubbles and with that a serious addiction to the good life. You see, dear old maman was born in Champagne, France and it is the age-old custom to whet the lips of a newborn with a sparkler.
My mom loves to recount the seconds after my birth with the typically Marseillaise trait of never letting the facts stand fully in the way of a great story. According to legend, I was being ingloriously hung by my feet upside down, like a hunter proudly displaying a freshly shot rabbit, about to be spanked by the good doctor when my mother growled at him like a possessed demon saying I needed a flute of Champagne immediately, and no spank would be necessary. It’s best not to question a command delivered so forcibly from deep within the guttural bowels of a snarling woman who just had the equivalent of a Cavaillon melon pass through the most intimate parts of her anatomy and survive to tell the tale.
However embellished, I did start life with a sip of Champagne and a taste for truffles.
On the fence, between two cultures.
I grew up in Chicago, living life on the fence between two cultures, French and American. My mother came from a well to do Provencal family with wide roots extending as far North as Alsace. Her palate was educated by a combination of her father’s strong-willed cook and eating in restaurants like L’Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence, Pieds de Cochon in Paris, and hearty bowls of bouillabaisse in a tiny Vieux Port restaurant in Marseille.
Ironically, my mother herself learned to cook from remembered tastes seasoned heavily with snippets from Julia Child’s seminal work ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. Through Julia, she was reunited with her mother culture and proudly fed us a different meal every single night of the week.
Note: that requirement may have been more wishful thinking by father than her actual desires.
The Moroccan Party
One of the great stories growing up was about the time my mother threw a Moroccan party for all her European expat friends in Chicago. To create the right mood and atmosphere, she sawed all the legs off our dining room table and ringed it with every single cushion we owned. I still can never forget the contorted look of horror and rage on my father’s face when he returned home that night from work that night. No feat was too daunting or act unworthy of ultimate sacrifice to ensure the correct ambiance at her table.
Though as much as my mother’s free-spiritedness and love of life caused my father to utter ‘mon dieu’ all too often, I know he secretly loved it. Shortly after my father passed, I came across a letter dated from 1958 that he had kept in which he glowed about my mother’s magic and how she would walk into an American supermarket barely speaking English asking for just a few bay leaves for a beef daube she was preparing.
If there are small children in the crowd you may want to cover their ears or have them get a drink of water right now. Everything is a potential food source to a Frenchmen. As a result, the pets of our household didn’t fare too well. I filleted my sister’s goldfish at age two and ate my braised pet rabbits by age seven.
I was visiting my grandfather Pepe at our family’s auberge in Perigord. I kept two rabbits in a cage near the restaurant. At seven you never think about things like adults do. Every morning I played with my two beloved rabbits. They were so cute. One morning I woke up and ran to see them. Pepe and the Chef were standing near the empty cage looking both guilty and remorseful as they explained that during the night the rabbits had picked the locks and fled to the countryside. I was in tears as my grandfather tried to console me.
That afternoon we had a typical lengthy lunch with all the relatives. Halfway through a really long chicken leg my grandfather leaned over and asked how I liked the “chicken”. I smiled and replied it was delicious. He confessed his sin.
What would have sent a normal child into therapy for years (maybe decades) didn’t bother me. I had the chef gene. Through highly scientific independent research I found this to be a trend in children raised with French parents. Granted I only asked one former French girlfriend for my study. She also grew up with pets that turned into pates.
Lost the first million in the garbage can.
The French are a notoriously frugal people. Frugality is a trait that can both be good and evil depending on how you apply it. I once had a French sous chef named Nicolas who almost got lynched by my staff for serving for family meal what he dubbed ‘French Paella’; a disgusting combination of really old chicken livers, leftover rice pilaf, and some other borderline ingredients he had squirreled away to save money. On the other hand, I ran really low food costs because of an early mentor who drilled into my head that he lost his first million in the restaurant business in the garbage can and it was our sworn duty as chefs to put the garbage man out of business.
My mother worked as a nurse at Billings Hospital in Hyde Park. One day she came home with a live turkey given as a gag gift to a parting doctor. Being frugal, the turkey ended up running around our condominium’s basement hallways till she worked up the courage to send old Tom on his way to the next incarnation. I think our neighbors were scared to complain because you never knew what my mother was capable of.
Holding the turkey neck in one hand and wielding a heavy Chinese cleaver almost as big as her with the other, she muttered a prayer, closed her eyes and swung. The turkey swerved his neck out of the way and my mother severed the top of her finger off. Before going to the hospital, she yelled zut and punted the turkey out into the cold streets of Chicago. It was last reported crossing the Midway Plaisance towards the ghetto to face undoubtedly a more perilous fate than the one it just escaped.
Never, ever taste anything blindly.
My early years in the kitchen didn’t always fare all too well for my father either. I clearly remember the day my mother was replacing all the spices in the cupboard and gave them to me to play with. I was three, maybe four and did what any good kid would do — I pretended to be a chef and I gathered all the spices in a large pot and made a brick reddish sauce. When my father came home he walked into the kitchen, saw what he assumed to be a delicious pot of tomato sauce, and dipped a big spoon in and almost choked to death on the intense searing heat spicy cayenne pepper. A lesson remembered now that I too am teaching my own young son how to cook.
It may be very cliché to claim one learned to cook hanging off their maman’s apron strings, but I really did. She was a complete free-spirited natural who cooked like a great jazz musician riffs. She had a bold, fearless style that was never daunted by lengthy recipes or even the need to follow them religiously. On the spot substitutions when ingredients could not be found were the norm. Edible poetry in constant motion.
Her food was imbued with a strong helping of love and passion. It was how she taught me to cook. Later in life, I would tell my apprentices that you can give two equally talented cooks the exact same set of ingredients and even the same recipe and you will end up with two different dishes. The person who cooks with passion and love always prepares the tastier, more soul-satisfying meals.
I eventually stopped cooking my pets and went to the highly esteemed New England Culinary Institute. I developed my chops under two important early mentors, Michel LeBorgne and Michel Martinez. Both were hardcore old-school French men who instilled in us the fear of God along with proper seasonings in their recipes.
I remember the first day of school quite clearly. Chef Michel LeBorgne stood at a podium fiercely stared us down like the take no shit marine drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. He challenged one of us to come forward and chop an onion. I averted my view of him, hoping not to be selected. One brave soul got up and fumbled with a knife long enough to severely cut his hand and be dragged off to the hospital in tears. Yes, chef LeBorgne earned another notch on his gun that day.
He warned us that chefs have the highest divorce rates (check), drug and alcohol abuse rates (check) and suicide rates (thought about it several times after barely surviving a particularly grueling dinner service but never actually acted on the impulse).
He recounted his own poverty-stricken apprenticeship in France where he and a fellow commis shared just one pair of shoes between the two of them. Thank God they worked opposing twelve-hour shifts and could share them as they walked uphill to and from work.
The speech was intended to weed out any chef wannabes who didn’t get the memo that being a cook was a masochistic profession not geared for everyone. Choosing to cook for a living is a bit like choosing self-mutilation as a recreational hobby. You need to have the spirit of a pirate with a predilection for the rock star lifestyle; just without the sufficient funds to afford your drug habit or the subsequent rehab. Instead of scaring, the speech electrified me.
Where LeBorgne was a bulldog, chef Martinez was more an Escoffier man with a drinking habit. He did his apprenticeship under one of Escoffier’s legendary apprentices and was a living God to us young cooks. Everything he touched magically transformed into something heavenly and ethereal.
I remember the day he taught me how to poach a whole salmon. We had a massive caldron that held something like 50 gallons of white wine, stock, and herbs. Chef Michel slid the salmon down into boiling stock and after a few moments, he asked if I knew how to check to see if the salmon was properly cooked. I replied no. He rolled his sleeves up and gently dipped his entire arm into the boiling inferno. He held it there for what seemed like hours to me. I was slack-jawed in amazement as he kept gently touching the fish. He asked if I wanted to check it too. I stuttered no, still not believing my eyes.
The Kitchen Prison
I left cooking school a hardened foot soldier of classical French cuisine ready to wield a ladle in the name of gastronomy. For more than two decades, I worked my way through a series of restaurants across the States, Canada, and a short stint in France garnering rave reviews from magazines and newspapers across the country. I was featured in Gourmet, Bon Appetit, the New York Times, London Times and many others. Food and Wine Magazine named my restaurant Pili Pili as “One of the top ten new restaurants in the world.”
As the years passed, cooking became more of a job and less a passion. The joy I once had all but disappeared and it became a soulless chore I dreaded. I would literally wake up wishing I could just stay in bed and not cook. I dealt with the stress through a measured mixture of overworking and a host of recreational drugs.
The kitchen had become my prison.
I was a professional chef for over 25 years when I decided to escape the kitchen life to spend time with my family. I went from cooking for hundreds of people every night in a fully staffed kitchen to preparing three healthy meals a day, seven days a week for my wife and young son, while juggling a full-time job, taking care of our dog, and attending after-school activities.
To avoid having home-cooked meals become the daily chore I resented most, I decided to apply some of the labor-saving techniques I learned as a chef with my mothers’ joyful free-spirited approach to cooking. The results were incredible. Cooking delicious food became fun again.
Good food doesn’t have to be complicated to be able to enjoy. My goal is to teach you a few easy restaurant techniques and methodologies to help you create simple, inspired food and have more time with the people you love.
One of the things that made Julia Child great was that she brought French food out of the fancy restaurants and into everyone’s home. I want to pick up the torch from Julia and show a new generation of aspiring cooks that great food is both simple and fun to prepare.
A Bowl of Ratatouille, A Prologue
When I was a small child my mother used to keep a jar of ratatouille in the refrigerator at all times. It scared me to death. I thought eggplant was a plant made from chicken eggs and that disgusted me. My mother would eat it by the bowl load; cold, hot it didn’t matter. I could never fathom her love for it.
I made ratatouille a lot over the course of my professional chef career. I meticulously cut each ingredient into a very small dice and sautéed each one separately, combining all the ingredients only in the very end.
Like Narcissus, I patted myself on the back and thought I was at the height of my game. My mother, on the other hand, would taste it, then rightfully complain that it was solely a restaurant version and not half as good as what she made at home. I fought with her relentlessly over this, insisting as a Chef I knew better.
Let me tell you Mother knows best.
My mother’s recipe for ratatouille
- 2 Japanese eggplants diced
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 sweet onion diced
- 2 green peppers diced
- 3 zucchini diced
- 4 cloves garlic mashed
- 4 tomatoes skinned and chopped
- 1 cup basil chopped
- salt and pepper to taste
- Submerge the diced eggplant in ice cold water and let sit for ten minutes to remove any bitterness. I started soaking eggplant rather than salting after reading a cookbook of Japanese dishes. I found it works better.
- Heat olive oil in a large pan and sauté onions and peppers together over low to medium heat till softened and translucent, about ten minutes.
- Drain eggplants well and add to onions and peppers. Continue cooking for another ten to fifteen minutes. The eggplant won’t be fully cooked but will be on the way.
- Add zucchini, garlic, and tomatoes and continue cooking on low heat till tender, about thirty minutes. Add basil, salt, and pepper and cook five more minutes.
- If you want, drizzle with a really fruity flavored olive oil and sprinkle on finely grated Parmesan. Even a poached egg served on top is incredible.