Funny stuff. Thanks Dad.
A friend of ours passed away a couple weeks ago, so I’d like to dedicate this post to him.
We weren’t very close. I could probably count the number of times we spent time together on two hands. But what always impressed me was the passion he put into his food.
He didn’t know it then, but Daniel was an early mentor of mine. He didn’t necessarily show me the ropes or share recipes. He didn’t teach me any fancy tricks, he didn’t explicitly encourage me to continue cooking. He simply cared about what entered his body.
It may seem like a simple idea. Some people obsess over their eating habits due to vanity and old wives’ tales. I usually snack all day, taste dishes. Maybe I’ll have a small cup of black beans with kale and yogurt for breakfast, a papaya salad for dinner. But back then we didn’t feel like we needed to worry about what we ate. I was young, a recovering vegetarian, an amateur line cook. I was also still in school and a bowl of ramen was all I needed on a daily basis.
Daniel smoked the meats for the restaurant I worked. He smoked pork shoulders after a dry rub, let them smoke overnight in a pit in his backyard as I recall. When he delivered them to the restaurant we warmed them in the oven, pulled apart the stringy mess, basted it with a vinegary mixture of brown sugar and red pepper flakes. It was, and is, one of the best pulled pork sandwiches I’ve ever had.
He inspired an attention to detail. He was the kind of chef that didn’t take shortcuts and didn’t pout about the time it took properly prepare a meal. Slow and low was the game. Take your time. Work smart, not hard.
He and Steph bragged about the dinners they prepared over a weekend. No special occasion necessitated a good meal; it was the meal itself that created the occasion. Sometimes a dinner took days to execute. Maybe they smoked a turkey after a few days of brining, or salt-lemon cured a salmon caught the same day. Perhaps they made cheese or distilled their own vodka. What did I know? I never felt close enough to invite myself over, but I was a little jealous. Our friend Max, who I worked with in the kitchen, told me about their great meals. I wanted to learn what they knew, follow their experiments step by step. I wanted to know how they cared so deeply about food.
Somewhere along the line I figured my own curiosity was all it took. And then, once I realized I couldn’t figure out how to be passionate about cooking without cooking anything, I made a few big dinners at home. In Olympia we could get fresh clams and oysters, amazing mushrooms and bright greens, pungent cheese and cheap, delicious wine. I may have borrowed more Stafford Loan money to keep my tastes sufficiently satiated, but at least we learned to eat well.
Daniel was a good man with a great palette who taught me a lot more than the well-reviewed Italian chef I worked for a couple years prior. The Italian chef showed us how to properly roll our shoulders, preen the feathers, show off as you pour a splash of wine into hot oil with tomatoes, garlic, and basil. That was just show.
But what Daniel shared with us is that it’s your mission that helps define you; your passion, not the necessarily the execution.
I wish we could have hung out in Puerto Rico together. We’re going to miss him.
You may know already that I’ve wanted to be a writer since before I had my first crêpe. This makes me feel better for getting off to a late start. I did manage to publish my first poem in the Sheepshead Review this winter.
Age at which Wallace Stevens published Harmonium, his first book of poetry: 44.
Age at which George Saunders published CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: 38.
Age at which Janet Malcolm published her first book of essays, Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography : 46.
Age at which Norman Rush published his first book, Whites: 53.
Age at which Alice Munro published her first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades: 37.
Age at which Penelope Fitzgerald published her first book, a biography of Edward Burne-Jones: 59.
Age at which Willa Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge: 39.
Age at which Toni Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye: 39.
Age at which Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping: 37.
Age at which Mary Anne Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot, published Adam Bede: 40.
Another favoured mode of self-soothing is checking out when writers publish their best work, which is to say, generally late in life:
Age at which Wallace Stevens, discouraged by the reviews of Harmonium, published his second book of poetry, Ideas of Order: 56.
Age at which Rebecca West published Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: 49.
Age at which Janet Malcolm published her masterpiece, The Journalist and the Murderer, as a New Yorker serial: 55.
Age at which Edith Wharton published The House of Mirth: 43.
Age at which Marilynne Robinson published her second novel, Gilead: 61.
Age at which Willa Cather published Death Comes for the Archbishop: 54.
Age at which Toni Morrison published Beloved: 56.
Age at which Virginia Woolf published Mrs. Dalloway: 43.
Age at which Junot Díaz published The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: 39.
Age at which Robertson Davies published Fifth Business: 57.
Age at which Ian McEwan published Atonement: 53.
Age at which Eudora Welty published The Optimist’s Daughter: 63.
Sometimes I think my menu isn’t big enough. There are hundreds, thousands of recipes I’d like to try but I’ve inadvertently developed a menu that people like. There are a handful of plates people would be sad to see go, though you shouldn’t get too comfortable.
It started years ago with the steak and mahi sandwiches we used to do at Casa Isleña. They were delicious. We scrapped those along with lunch because we needed to focus on dinner. I cut churrasco from the menu after we moved to La Copa Llena since everyone has churrasco in this town and I wanted a nicer cut of steak anyway. The drunken brownie was always a hit too, but what about a mousse or cake or blahblahblah? We said farewell (if only temporarily) because we wanted to try new things, learn new techniques, and I have a short attention span.
I get restless. I want to make everything.
That’s where a menu gets in the way. I suppose a restaurant has to have something a customer expects every time they come visit. While I care about what customers think, I just want to be weird, change it up constantly. Some days I wish I had a small chalkboard up on the wall with the eight things we offered for the evening like that cool little French spot I went to in 2009. It becomes a poem.
A couple of summers ago I rewrote the menu every week. Small plates, bigger plates, desserts. Summer here is slow enough that I can get away with playing around like that. Dinner was only served Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, then brunch on Sundays. It worked out pretty great. I played on a theme, a region. We worked with farmers and fishermen. I still work closely with them but on a much larger scale now. That summer I could focus on feeding about a hundred people a weekend, averaging 30 to 40 people a night, give or take.
Next week La Copa Llena is going seven days. I’m happy with the menu as it is but I’d like to make some changes. It’s at this teetering point where it’s small enough to be flexible, yet too big to keep me from making specials. Part of that is because I print new menus with the new changes a multiple times a week. Anything I’m out of is deleted, anything I feel like adding I’ll throw on. Sometimes the temporary placeholders stay on the menu. A couple of weeks ago I braised kale in chicken stock with garlic and red pepper flakes, finished it with butter, rested it on a grilled baguette, topped it off with a sunny-side egg. It was temporary because we ran out of something and I had a lot of extra baguette. It turned out awesome so it’s still there, a little rustic gem.
The menu is constantly evolving. Not so much because I’m inconsistent or bored or can’t make up my mind. I just want everyone to try new things, to share, to indulge. These are my shared experiments with you. Perhaps you are my guinea pigs, test subjects for an erratic mind.
And now that we’re going seven days, having a consistent menu is easier for the staff and me, but who wants easy? We’re here because we like a challenge.
I plan on sticking around this summer. I may be able to get away with changing the menu on the regular, but this time I’ll focus more on themes. Anyone who has eaten our food knows that there’s no real categorizing it. I’ve described my food as a travel journal, a map of where I’ve been, the restaurants I’ve visited, the ones I’ve worked. Ex-girlfriends, childhood memories, dreams of traveling the world. It’s all very personal. My brother is a painter and I think he reminded me of why I’m still in Puerto Rico. I’ve got this canvas, this big fucking canvas, and I can pretty much do whatever I want with it. Sometimes you might see red, you wash down the spice with a good beer or mimosa. Some days I might be green, light, refreshing, bouncy like tarragon. Today? Crêpes with caramelized banana, ice cream, cinnamon (tomorrow will be panna cotta with salted caramel).
Anyway, this summer. Maybe one week will be Mediterranean, including, but not limited to, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon. Another week could be Southeast Asia. The next one France. Southwest United States. Korea. Mexico. Central America. Peru. India. Cambodia. Thailand. I guess I already incorporate some of these places in my recipes, but I think I can train up better this summer when it’s all separate, focussed.
This brings me to another idea I’ve thought about for a long time. I’d like to start teaching. Cooking classes. Once a week in La Copa Llena’s kitchen (an impossible feat at Casa Isleña, my new kitchen is now five times the size) I would like to teach people basic techniques. Easy recipes, move on to advanced stuff, celebrate with a family dinner. It’s all food. It’s only cooking. Sometimes people just need a little push to create an excellent meal at home. I can ramble on more about the gratification of cooking at home, but I don’t have the authority. When I cook at home, it’s ramen with an egg dropped in it. A bowl of cereal. A quesadilla if I’m lucky.
But I know, and I know you know, and I know you know that I know that there are few things out there more satisfying than the smell of fresh bread in the oven. A collection of pickles on your wall or in the pantry. The redolence of boiling chicken bones with mirapoix, thyme, and bay leaves that leave your mouth watering and windows steamy. Hands slick with butter and sugar. Slicing a perfectly roasted leg of lamb stuffed with butter and baguette and garlic and herbs after it has rested the proper amount of time. And then the look on your lover’s face. The yummy sounds your friends make. Your parents’ gratefulness, perhaps forgiveness for the decades they’ve fed you, raised you, prepared you for the moment when you must take care of them.
It’s a pain in the ass, but sometimes it’s worth the burns and cuts, the sweat and tears. Somehow we wake up everyday, do it again, in the hopes that we get better, learn something new, and perhaps pass some of the that knowledge along.