It’s another lovely day off in Seattle. The sun is somewhat shining over the mountains out my window and there’s the faint buzz of seaplanes landing on Lake Union. I’ve taken it upon myself to write more, and with this blog, a bit more of what goes into the dinners I create can be shared with those who want to know.

First off, it needs to be said that in no way am I one who will go the healthy road completely by choice. Butter’s just too good. Cheese is delicious. However, going through school, it was always stated that one needed a bit of something green on the plate to go along with your starches and your steak. Growing up in the Midwest, you got a lot of the meat and potatoes, but I was fortunate enough to have the mother who made it her personal charge to prepare home cooked meals from scratch on a nightly basis.

Set the table by 5:45. Food on the table, and we eat. Always a vegetable, always something prepared with thought and a fair amount of health to it. When you have only one mouth to feed, it is easy to let the conventions of healthy eating go by the wayside, but when you’re charged with making sure that your children grow up healthy and strong, the staples of milk, whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, and healthy meat products should always weigh on your mind.

I was fortunate. In conversations with others about food and food for thought, it often comes out that not many people had the experience of a sit down meal with their family five or even three times a week. The term soccermom became prevalent, and grab-n-go injected itself into the American vernacular with a pervasive grunt. Food was an afterthought. We didn’t have the opportunity to take time, relax, go over the day’s events, and relish the company of others over a delicious meal. It was the prepackaged, over the counter dosing of Modern American snack food turned meal replacement that got our families out of the loop on keeping themselves healthy.

The invention of the Food Network came along, and people started praising the likes of Rachael Ray, Alton Brown, Emeril, etc. etc. While there’s a great place in my heart of hearts for how the network turned people on to cooking, the people I’ve looked up to in terms of breaking barriers for me are Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, Julia Child, Eric Ripert, and a tiny frenchman by the name of Jacques whom I met in his basement cafe in Menton, France on a late night in 2002.

We were staying in a small hotel on a Cooking School trip along the coast in the Mediterranean, about five miles from Monaco and steps from the Italian border. I’d never know when I was going to experience this type of food and living again, so I resolved to say yes to everything. Upon getting to the town, after a detour-ridden trip through the Alps which involved snowcovered switchbacks, abandoned ski villages, and a whole lot of housemade cognac, we pulled into Menton at 9:30 at night. We asked the concierge, Bob, where we should eat. The town was all but closed, and he directed us to a small bistro where they served a steak frites which resembled horse lung and wet shoelaces for 5€, but for the next night, he gave us reservations at a hole in the wall run by a madman.

Here’s the pitch: The restaurant is run by one man who happens to be the owner, the chef, and the waiter. He serves ten customers a night, and he serves them what he wants. He speaks no English.

Perfect.

There are four of us who make it, and we trudge up graded back streets, through covered stairwells interlaced between highwalled sandy buildings where someone’s got to live, but in the foreign darkness, remain silent and mysterious. We settle upon an unmarked door, and walk in. We’re at the top of a landing, and we walk down a rickety staircase to the sublevel where we come across a room maybe 15′ by 15′. Two tables, one set for four and ready for us. There are a couple of pans clattering through a kitchen door, a short burst of what I can interpret with my six months of 7th grade french to be expletives, and, after about a minute of silence, a small round head pops out, beckons us to sit, and we do.

He speaks no English. My French is on par with Brad Pitt’s Italian in Inglourious Basterds, or would be with a little formal training. Through a series of wild gestures, I interpret that on the menu tonight is a Pocketwatch lamb foot, duck chest with moonshine (pantomime of drinking from a jug), prawns with moonshine (once again, from the jug), and a word I can understand, Cassoulet. After a few minutes of back and forth and feverish awkwardness, I manage to convince him that anything he brings us will be great.

He brings slices of cauliflower frittata. He brings a small, simple flatbread. He brings a tiny dish of olives and pickled garlic. He kisses the ladies on the cheek, turns up the music on his cd changer. Inferring that we were American, he hand selects Michael Bolton to serenade us through the night.

He brings out a roseflower and orange blossom aperitif that he has made himself. He fills the white wine. He sings to himself when he’s in the kitchen. And around the table, we talk. It’s fellowship, fun for us, and it’s the total experience as we take tiny bites of our appetizers.

The courses come out, and they are simple art: A lamb shank, blanched white bone from being in the crockpot overnight, and a slow drizzle of demiglace. Four Head-on prawns in a pool of whiskey sauce with a sprinkle of fresh parsley. We’ve gone to the shore at Nice that morning and hauled in the nets with fishermen at 5:30 A.M., and they looked and tasted as fresh as we imagined our catch to have been. A frenched breast of Magret Duck with a crisscross pattern seared into that thick layer of fat that crisps up so nicely. The plate is so white underneath the deep brown of the charred checkerboard. And the cassoulet. A crock of white bean porridge with pork shoulder, a confit of duck leg, and a sausage that I’ve seen at the market that morning alongside the fresh mackerel.

Dessert is satisfying and simple. There is a trio of Melon sorbet, a Chocolate Mousse, tiny chocolate ice creams with palmier, and a tarte tatin, something that’s become a mainstay when I want a good dessert- Three ingredients: Apples, sugar, and pie crust.

He brings it out, and sets the tart in front of me, gesturing with the outstretched palm to wait just a moment. He disappears into the kitchen and brings back a tiny copper saucepan that has a faint flame kissing the rim. Feigning fright, he teeters around for a moment with the flaming pot before leaning over between me and the young woman next to me, kissing her on the cheek, holding the pot six inches in front of my face while pouring flaming calvados onto the tart itself. He returns and dresses it with a dollop of whipped cream, fills our glasses with cognac, and gives the table a sly wink as he disappears back into the kitchen. We eat while he washes dishes and sings to himself.

After we finish, we sit with our espressos knowing that we’ve had a defining meal. Looking back on it, it never seemed to be anything too much more than a few ingredients tossed together. Nothing flashy, nothing spectacular, but just well prepared food made memorable. We manage to get a little bit of history out of our host and chef that night, and he says that he had worked in Paris at Michelin starred restaurants, but after a while, he couldn’t stand to answer to anyone but himself for his success, failure, and ultimately, destiny. He just wants to do what he loves, and do it his way.

***

That’s what I hope this blog can be about. Simple food made memorable. Fresh ingredients, nothing flashy, and it’ll be done my way. Recipes be damned. Cooking should be about experimentation, and curiousity, not precise measurements and timestamps on a roast. The food is ready when it’s ready. If it needs more of something, give it more. It’s all about the taste and adjustment to making something that you find ultimately fulfilling. For me, this is what I’m after. Something fulfilling and worthwhile that I can share with not only those around me who choose to dine and enjoy the food and accompanying friendship that I have to provide over a meal at our coffeetable, but those acquaintances and friends of mine who dare to try something like this on their own. It can be easier than you think. Just be aware that it’s not always about the food.  Three ingredients make a mean dessert, and anyone can do it. With each little success that I have in the kitchen, at least I can say I did it my way.

I’ll tell you what kind of stuff I put in the food, and if you like it, do it. If you want to use something else, use something else. Ask, and don’t be afraid that you can’t do it. If someone like Jamie Oliver can break down healthy food to the point where he can, in five days’ time, teach 1000 people how to cook a stirfry, I hope that I can at least get one person to try a creation of their own.  That’s the one thing that I try to impress on customers who come by my shop every day. They can cook. We discuss what kind of vegetables are in their bag, I recommend a fish to go along with it and how to prepare it, tell them that it’s going to work, and then tell them to come back and let me know how it turns out. That’s the beginning of a relationship with food that I want to have, and one that I want others to share. It’s easy, it’s hopefully somewhat healthy, and I’ll always try to have something green on the plate.

A little bit of this, a little bit of that. You know, Mulligan Stew.

Advertisements