Catalysts, Mentors, and Smoked Pork

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 with his entire 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 green 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.

2 Replies to “Catalysts, Mentors, and Smoked Pork”

  1. Got a wonderful frozen dish from Trader Joe’s. Tricolor quinoa, sweet potatoes, and kale. A little onion. Very nice texture, totally nourishing, and hearty. Good flavor. I even added some leftover rice.

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