Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Autobiography of a food freak: Part 1

My sister and I in front of our house in 1975! Man, look at my stomach - clearly hunger was not an issue!

I love food (he says shocking no one).

So why am I stating a fact that's fairly obvious based on the contents of this blog? Well lets just say that recent career events had me thinking a great deal about the choices you (I) make in life. How important it is to find the one thing that connects you to what drives you to succeed. To find and pursue what you're truly passionate about. It's no joke that passion drives you forward. For me, that passion is food and everything about it - from ground to table. That passion has not diminished as I've grown older, in fact I'd say it's become stronger.

Growing up people thought I was odd, and I was, but not because of my love for food. I think that love only made me much more aware of that oddness - until I started working in the business and would meet other people who were just as odd as me. And Ill add, they wore that badge proudly. I have to say that the one thing that makes the food industry so unique, are the people in it. The people who are truly dedicated food lovers come from all walks of life. You will never, ever meet such a wide variety of people like you'd find in the food industry. People who love talking about food, sharing details, news, events and getting excited every bit as much as you do. You'd also meet people who aren't as passionate, who may just be passing through on their way to something else, but it still draws such varied mix of personalities that they all become part of the story. I love that the most about the business.

So where and how did this passion start? Pretty early in life I'd say. As a baby I was told that nothing and I mean NOTHING got in the way of my mouth and the food shovelled into it. If you were to ask my Mother about me and my enjoyment of food as a child, she'll do a very good imitation of me moving my mouth trying to put food into it. Scary, but prophetic.

I learned a great deal about cooking from my Mum. She told me some pretty wild but true stories about how she and her family would prepare and cook their meals when she was a child growing up in Trinidad. Trust me, after hearing these stories I realize just how incredibly lucky we are to have the modern conveniences that make cooking much easier. Cooking in Trinidad was work! They'd kill their own chickens or pigs. They'd have to wash the butter because it was too salty. Everything that was made for the family was cooked fresh every day - no such thing as "leftovers". It sounded like work, and it was, but she'd say that there were lots of family members to help out which took the drudgery out of the chores. I think that's what's missing today. Time has become so precious no one really wants to spend it cooking together - at least that's what I think.

Grocery shopping was never, ever boring to me (my Mom would have something else to say about that I'm sure). I lived practically next door to farms, and we knew and were friends with a lot of farming families, so the farming life was and still is very close to my heart. Fresh produce, half a cow - or the whole one, depending on the size of your family, slaughtered, chopped and packaged for your freezer. Honey, eggs, strawberries in season, all there ready and waiting. We also had a HUGE garden in our backyard which as a chid I hated having to take care of, but appreciated what it provided for us. I may not have had my parents build me a miniature replication of Thomas Keller's French Laundry restaurant kitchen like 15 year old chef Flynn McGarry (which can I add Holy Mother of God wow?? Seriously, his parents built him his own kitchen at 13 - you have to read about him in this NYT article - stunning), but I was right there in the kitchen helping my Mum, asking her questions, baking or cooking something, anything with varying degrees of success at a very young age.

Interest in all things food didn't stop at my house, but was expanded to include my friends too - or at least their Mothers cooking. I'd rummage through kitchen pantries to see what they had - with permission of course..or sometimes not. I'd remember certain dishes that my friends mom's would make (Thank you Mrs. O'Reilly for the intro to shepherd's pie, and thank you Mrs. Reid for the tasty tuna pasta salad. Now before you comment, please remember this was the 70s, and this was Barrie - small town, pop. 30,000, so it was a big treat for me to have and eventually introduce these "new" dishes to a Trinidadian household!) What astonishes me the most as I look back is how I would remember what was in the dish, or at least get my mother to call the other Moms and find out the recipes!

Besides learning from my Mom and my friends Moms, my Aunts, and in particular, my Auntie Joan was another food maverick I attached myself too. Now usually when you go to someones house for dinner, you knew that dinner was being made or already made based on the cooking smells right? Well at Joan's house, when you arrived you'd smell nothing. Nothing was done. You'd be hungry but you'd think to yourself, "ok clearly we are not eating dinner here tonight." Then about 30 minutes later she'd have a table full of food, all prepared and ready to eat. I am NOT making this up. Rice and peas, chicken and gravy, fried plantain, roti, all sorts of Trinidadian dishes, and lots of it! Over time I'd ditch playing with my cousins and sneak into the kitchen to watch her and she was a marvel on two legs! Pots bubbling, cakes baking, meat cooking and then boom - dinner's ready! She was and still is an amazing cook and a big inspiration.

You would think, based on the reminiscing above (bit of a sidebar here: the word reminiscing reminded me how much I love the song "Reminiscing" by The Little River Band - listen to it here) that I was destined to head into a kitchen while I was in school. It didn't quite turn out that way. It was a different time period. Pursuing a career in cooking did not have the same reputation as it does today. Today it's crazy cool to want to become a chef - and for some becoming or at least dreaming of becoming a celebrity chef, but in the 70s & 80s? Not so much. Wanting to become a chef was not exactly encouraged and I fault no one for that, it was just the way it was. And in hindsight, that probably would have been the best time period to learn. The men who ran the kitchens back in the day may have been slightly crazy, a tad misogynistic and more than a touch homophobic, but they were true Master Chefs. I would have been the recipient of kitchen techniques and traditions that are sadly going the way of the dodo bird. Probably would have been the recipient of much abuse too, but that's no different than what can happen in today's kitchens! Live and learn.

Anyway I continued studying whatever it was kids studied back then to get to University, but food and the food industry was never far from my mind.

Part 2 - teenage dreams.

Part 3 - the finale: what lies ahead

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