I Cook For Someone Who Is No Longer Here (Published in 2020)
The rush of the summer air hits me, and I am excited for the next hour. It is just nearing the end of the day, and the sun is starting to get low over the trees. The day was hot, but the coolness of night is refreshing, and welcomes me to relax. My ten year old self cannot really picture a much better time to relax and reset, even if I did not understand those concepts yet.
Next to me on the porch of my house sits my grandfather. A large man who has lived a life of food. He served in the Navy, cooking for the captain, and often told the story of how the captain exclaimed his sauce was the best for pasta on Sundays. He sits with a bowl of watermelon next to him on the small wooden table. A police scanner fills the calmness of the moment with static and odd numbers and words I do not quite understand.
We sit here together, and shortly my grandmother will come out to hangout with us as well. I am holding a book, probably Harry Potter, or something of the same genre, and reading intently. This ritual of hanging out on the porch during summer nights is one I secretly enjoyed, as it allowed for fresh air, bonding with my grandfather, and the chance to just breathe. I find it is hard to find that nowadays.
As I sit, my grandfather passes me the bowl of watermelon, and of course I take a bite. It’s cubed, and the perfect size for eating. I love watermelon, sweet, juicy, bright re… wait.
This watermelon tasted strangely salty, and I spit it out onto the front lawn like it was poisoned. As the chunks of half-chewed fruit hit the lawn, I glare at my grandfather, and ask why the off taste.
He simply laughed, acting as if it was all the same. It obviously was amusing, and yet I could not understand why he would put salt on it. It baffled me for years, but always stuck with me. The sneaky way for me to try something new. And the best part, it didn’t taste bad. It was just different, and that was enough for me to not trust it. How crazy now that I look back on that memory fondly.
My grandfather was the Chef of the house. Every Christmas he would bake Italian cookies, such as pizzelles, biscotti, and cuccidati. During Easter he would make Easter Pie, a casserole-pie hybrid of sorts with ricotta, pepperoni, and hardboiled eggs. Sundays were spaghetti and meatball days, often with an odd piece of pork in the sauce.
He would take me to the old Italian markets on Pine Avenue, mostly to grab different meats for sandwiches, parmesan cheese, and maybe some candy. Scratch that, he always got candy. We would visit farmer’s markets, looking for peaches or plums, and he would look at the produce with the knowledge that I did not have at the time. You know this knowledge, as a Chef, understanding what it means to know what ingredients do and how you can manipulate them.
I’ll never forget the first time he made homemade Mac’n Cheese for me. It was the subject of culinary genius, and I did not understand how he was able to absolutely crush any other boxed pasta that I had eaten before. He tended a garden in the back yard, and every summer he would cut fresh tomatoes, salt them, and put them on white toast and top with some mayo for my grandmother and himself.
As those tomatoes neared their season end, he would can whatever he had left in the garden, preserving them for the rest of the year. He was into this project long before it became a trend on Instagram.
He hunted avidly, and would be so interested in making Italian sausage with whatever meat he had gotten from the deer that season. He loved Peanut Butter M&M’s, and would often have me sneak some to him when we were at the store, out of view of my mother who did not want him to have any.
My grandfather and I did not always see eye to eye. We would argue a lot as I got older. I think when you are young and growing up you would like to think you know the world more than your elders. There is amusement looking back on this now and seeing I really did not know much, and still do not.
I write about him today because for the first time in a while I have had the time to think and look back on what has inspired me as someone who works with food for a living. And I never really have had the time to sit down and write and really think about my grandfather’s impact on me as a Chef.
As I started to cook, and become more aware of the role a Chef played, I started to look back at my grandfather and his actions, and sort of understood why he was valiant in his desire to cook for his family. As he got older, my grandfather did suffer with health issues. And as we both got older, it was harder and harder for him to make it to the kitchen and cook.
After one time of watching him struggle to make cookies for the holiday, I asked my mother why he did not just stop cooking. He seemed in pain, yet was so determined to cook for us still. My mother answered simply:
“Because he loves us. He cares about us, and does this for us, not himself.”
I’ll never forget this moment. In my mind and heart, this is what it means to cook. What it means to be a Chef, to provide food for others.
I lost my grandfather on September 11th, 2014. It was a day that I knew would be coming for a while, as he had been in the hospital for quite some time. I was of course sad, but the true sense of loss did not hit me until later.
Upon being accepted to The Culinary Institute of America, he was not there for me to show him my acceptance letter. Taking pictures of myself in a toque, green side towels on my apron string, and ironed chef jacket with my name on it, and not being able to send them to him.
Obtaining my externship at a fine dining restaurant, and not being able to share the joy of this accomplishment. Learning how to make fresh pasta, bread, tomato sauce, Italian sausage. Understanding the importance of Julia Childs, and why he held her book in such high regard.
The day I got to cook at The James Beard House with my mentor, Ross. Winning a cooking competition with my other mentor Cody. Visiting California and working on a farm for twelve weeks, and wondering what he would think of me there in the dirt at 5:30 am pulling weeds.
Graduating from Culinary School, having been Student Government President and leaving a community garden behind for future students to use and grow. Building a social media brand to help cooks connect, grow, and share with one another. Typing this article in honor and thanks for his inspiration and for teaching me the importance of food.
As I progressed through it all, these waves hit me. Often I would sit thinking after one of these moments what he would think or say. I remember on my graduation day trying to envision him watching, and the smile it would give him. Often my family would tell me during these events that he would be proud, and the sadness always came with that.
My grandfather has not been here for the bulk of my culinary career, and I would like to think he watches down with pride. He taught me a lot about cooking. He taught me you could love food more, and that it means more than just a meal to sustain you throughout life. He motivated me and pushed me to cook because that’s how he showed us compassion.
What he taught me most of all is that food is the ultimate tool to showing love, and the act of getting to that meal is worth any pain, hard work, or suffering you may endure.
Looking back at my career, there is sadness, I will not lie. I look back and wish he was here to see and be proud of all of the hard work I have put in so far. I wish I could only cook for him one meal now, being fully skilled in cooking food and wanting to impress. But more importantly, I wish he could cook one more meal for me. I wish to see him cook now with the eyes of a Chef, someone who now understands.
I miss him a lot, and yet this may be the most that I have ever expressed that.
Grandpa, you taught me so much in your cooking for me every Sunday, holiday, or day that I just needed it. I carry with you the lessons you taught me that I did not think I would need to know, and now hurry to remember whenever a sauté pan or bite of food reawakens them. And I thank you for the love and passion of food you shared with me over the years. I truly do miss you, and really hope I have made you proud in some way as a Chef. Until we meet again to eat, laugh, and talk about food once more….
I hope this article helps you get through the thoughts you are dealing with during this time. I think for many Chefs this scenario rings true, yet we do not talk about it. Whoever has inspired you in your life, I hope your work has made them proud. It is a lot easier to rekindle the passion for cooking when you remember who is on your sideline through it all.