Number 52

The ads started appearing in February or March. Shore Lodge in swanky McCall was inviting all to their second annual King of the Culinary Mountain cook off, and it moved me to consider the inevitable.
It was a year ago when matriarch Joyce and I took our tax refund and gambled it on entering our daughter, Becky, into this culinary contest. She dreamed of becoming a chef, of working in a kitchen, but in her last semester as a English major at college, and with a pedigree that included the bakery at Walmart and stock clerk at Williams Sonoma, her dream needed a jump start. We didn’t know what the outcome would be, but we knew at least that the experience of working with professional chefs would open her eyes to what a life in a kitchen might actually entail.
She had thought about cooking school, but those costs were extravagant. She voraciously devoured cooking shows like they were an addiction. Yet, when we dropped her off for the weekend, Joyce and I both prayed that this would be a point in her life to which she could look back and say: it turned there.
Well, the story did turn there. She teamed up with house chef Steve Topple and with the help of her dessert choice, won the competition. It was there she met competing chef Wiley Earl, was offered a job at Alavita, and as a show of support, was the genesis for this blog.
It has been a year of incredible ups, a few downs, and a bucket of body ink (I never knew that chefs were the pirates of the culinary world). It started with a dream realized, and led to more dreams, realized and deferred, and a horizon of possibilities that continue to expand. It is the unbridled optimism of youthfulness waking to an unwritten day.
This marks the full year’s cycle for this blog, published every Saturday without fail. I don’t know what the average life of a blog is, or if there are rules that govern its demise if it should go on too long. I guess it remains up to each blogger to decide when it is time to go.
I am a writer by trade, so posting 200-500 words each week is like eating a McDonalds hamburger, only, I would hope, a bit more nutritious. Writing about my daughter is as easy as breathing, because as parents, we believe our children are literally and figuratively an extension of our breath. But like an athlete pondering the end of a career, (and a year with a blog feels like a career or a lifetime), is it better to leave a year early than to linger too long and be rendered boring or irrelevant?
I know I have met fascinating people from all over the world through these posts. Many are amazing young women, like my daughter the chef, with bold culinary dreams or just dreams that remind me what youth is meant to be. (One last plug for back2spain and jessicaandlove). Some other bloggers are lost souls, self-absorbed, writing as if only seeking to impress an audience of one.
Becky’s journey is begun. It has been my privilege to share 52 small steps along the way, a year recounting a daughter’s growth and a father’s pride. I am grateful for my family’s patience and willingness to allow me to share their lives with you, and all the oddities and endearments those lives entail.
For those of you who follow faithfully, thank you. I hope the blog has encouraged you, made you laugh, or maybe, as it has many times, for me, helped you appreciate the lives of those around you, the lives of those you love, of those God has given to your care.
The first post on this blog was about Becky trying to grow grapes from seed. Never seeing the symbolism of it all, I know now that such has been the nature of this endeavor. Dreams, carefully tended and nurtured, bring new exciting life into the world. Those dreams grow a little at a time, discerning their own paths along the way. A blog is like a branch, just one small outgrowth on the way to something much bigger and grander.
I will continue to post on ocassion, whenever a major branch reaches out somewhere new, interesting or unexpected sprouts. But as for weekly updates, maybe it is time for nature to work more quietly, less under the discernment of a doting father.
As for the grapes, four plants are sitting in the ground outside the window. There, eager anticipation perches; faith comes in knowing that whether this particular dream comes true, there is always hope that something wonderful or unexpected awaits just a dawn away. Thank you and for now, good-bye.

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California dreaming

It is said that the hardest thing for any parent is to bury a child, and I pray that I never come to feel that pain. After that, I might think, it would be to see a child’s dreams buried, and that too I hope to never see.
Coming up is an important test for my daughter the chef. Having been unsuccessful in her attempt to book a reservation for Rene Redzepi’s Noma, and toying with the idea of relocating to England to follow another chef she admires (April Bloomfield), she was able to book reservations for several of Thomas Keller’s establishments in California next week for her and boyfriend Russ. She had filed applications at several places there – including The French Laundry. She has all of Keller’s cookbooks – no small expense – and treats them like sacred texts.
I don’t see this campaign as save-dreams-on-life-support, but rather as stepping stones, as dreams-that-lead-to-other-dreams.
I know she was thrilled, and maybe a little envious, when her sister visited the Laundry last year and sent back pictures and a well-meaning napkin. And maybe it’s less of a longshot, if she can arrange for an interview while she is there, that she might be considered for an open position in the future.
The reality is that when anyone embarks on their career, it is important to mark fence posts, because when you start in the middle of nowhere – which is where everyone starts – fence posts are the only way to measure our steps forward.
I suspect Becky and Russ will return from Kellerland with her head full of ideas, perhaps a tinge of disappointment, but with dreams still intact. She is one tough bird, our daughter. And if true to form, she will use the experience to redefine her vision, to refine her focus and to charge forward to the next fence post in front of her.
And, if by the grace of God, the improbable happens, well, then, we will just have to wait and see. Nothing is more powerful than the dreams of our children.

Banning ketchup

There is more than a little truth that among the most popular flavors of men with less than developed palates are cheese and ketchup. (I prefer the spelling catsup, but gave up that fight long ago). When we hosted a foster son years ago, almost everything he ate included a slice of cheese and a ketchup bath. I try to avoid too much cheese, having passed 50 and working to ingest healthier things like fresh fruit and vegetables. Yet, I still reach for the cheap red sauce for proletarian food like corned beef hash and French meat pies.
Daughter’s boyfriend Russ finds more solace in the tomato-based product, and I fear it will place him on the endangered species list. Case in point was when Becky spent time making a pan seared white wine baked fish, she offered no words but slung ocular daggers at him from across the table as he slathered his entrĂ©e, without so much as a required nibble first. And, as is often the case with young men inexperienced in the ways of women, he was the only one at the table oblivious to her icy glare.
Afterwards, as we were cleaning up and he was upstairs out of earshot, I suggested she conduct his disembowelment in a place where the evidence could not be found by authorities, and maybe try talking to him again, as this was unfortunately not his first time offending in this way. She said she would respect this request, as she sharpened her mental knives.
I imagine that it must be a challenge for young women, facing the expectation of possessing minimal cooking skills, teetering between trying to meet those minimum expectations and reaching for the stars on occasion. They suffer no greater insult than a plated pond of ketchup. And frankly, most guys are clueless. I also surmise that the insult is exponentially compounded when the woman involved is climbing the ranks in skills and confidence in a culinary world that is still male dominated. My hope is this: to guys, or the women who might think they have a fondness for you, do yourselves a favor. Lose the ketchup. Most especially if you plan on dating someone who rules a kitchen, like my daughter the chef.

Stout it out

About six months ago, Becky tried to use stout beer in a recipe for chocolate cupcakes, and we chalked that excursion up to experience. Besides being a dubious use of good beer, the cupcakes were mostly cup and not much cake.
So when she gave it another go this week, and knowing her significant improvement in many aspects of her game, I was confident that she would represent. She scored big. Cutting her losses, she bought premade frosting and then added Bailey’s to give it that DWI direction she was looking for. In a uniquely Becky touch, she included gummy worms to give the cupcakes a tree-hugging feel.
When I got home from work, I got a tray of the righteous cupcakes. No boozy frosting. No sweet and sour jelly worms. Just cupcakes.
And I ate every one. But exercised some prudence.
I stretched them out over two days.
I would not have wanted to hurt the feelings of my daughter, the chef.

Flying Dutchman Pi

So we have two metaphors working here. Today is National Pi Day, which is obviously a shameless attention grabber by math geeks to take advantage of their foundational anomaly – the value of Pi, which goes on forever – and the date, March 14. The other metaphor is the mythical ship doomed to sail the seas forever, but whose appearance and disappearance are impossible to predict.
Becky has never, to my knowledge, tried to duplicate the family recipe for apple pie, which we brothers all witnessed at the elbow of Nana Brown but, like the Dutchman, had no written schedule. Several years ago, I attempted to measure and write the recipe as I was putting it together, but it seemed so bland and, well, disrespectful. In fact, if you asked each of us boys – and probably a half dozen cousins or so – to recreate Nana’s pie, you would probably get a full variety of flavors, each rightfully claiming legitimacy.
So, today, with daughter Jessie spending her last full day at home for Spring Break, we will honor March 14 with yet the latest recreation of Nana Brown’s apple pie. In the end, perhaps, that is the legacy of all families, and their recipes. It is of parents and pies and the stories they spin that can be passed down to all, even my daughter the chef.

All part of the flan

It has only been in the past decade that I have really become interested in Mexican cuisine. Having spent time as a younger man working in Newark, NJ, I had been exposed to some of the great flavors of Cuban and other Spanish cultures, but really since only moving to Idaho has Mexican food tempted my palate.
One dish that surprised me was flan, a smooth version of proletarian pudding, that didn’t sell as a prepackaged mix in a box. Imagine my surprise then when Becky said she was going to make panna cotta, an Italian type of flan.
As many know, I grew up with many Italian friends and thought I had a good sense of culture and cuisine. Becky must mean manicotti, or perhaps I heard her wrong. Well, imagine, my chagrin – and sense of deprivation – upon arriving home and finding this wonderful creamy delicacy in the fridge. It was wonderful! But, for the second instance in a short period of time, I wanted to cast an evil eye at the Nardellas, Cappellis and others long counted as friends, for holding back on the REAL good stuff growing up as a kid. And now a chance to discover those delicacies through the growing skills of my daughter the chef.

Outside the recipe

Becky’s boyfriend Russ recently landed a full time job and is spending weekdays in Salt Lake City, commuting back to Boise on weekends for the next three weeks. It will be the first time he has been gone so long, although he will get back on Fridays-to-Sundays, but she is pretty OK with it all.
Will she miss him? Of course. On short sleep, she got up early today to have breakfast at indie Guru Doughnuts. This afternoon, she took matriarch Joyce on a Whole Foods run to spend quality time as those two will be on off schedules all week. Finally, she made an appointment for a single dinner at the elite Boise eatery State and Lemp, where she will attack with ferocious curiosity to steal knowledge and create a lasting impression.
UPDATE: This post got post-poned (pun intended) for several weeks, displaced by more timely stuff. Skinny? Russ is back to do one last week of training. State and Lemp was amazing, and she left a resume. She knows she won’t get a callback at this point in her career, but having the chance to visit an elite kitchen and enjoy a select dining experience whets her appetite for greatness. In the end, it is gratifying to have a daughter enjoy being in a relationship, and still be who she is outside it.

Fish balls

During the summer, Becky got a cache of fish bones – fresh Northwest salmon that had been filleted but not totally stripped of the good stuff. She meticulously picked off the bones and then started a long process of stewing down the remains. Later, she cooled the broth and settled it into ice cube trays in the freezer.
The fishy parts found a different outcome. She mixed those up with a bunch of other ingredients, including some kind of binder, and cooked them in the form of meatballs. (if you haven’t figured it out yet, we don’t offer recipes or culinary expertise. Remember, this is called “Father of the Chef” for a reason). Anyways, the fish balls went in the freezer too and sat in hibernation for six, seven, maybe eight months. The fish cubes didn’t last so long, proving that balls last longer than cubes, whatever that means.
Enter Lent, and for us Catholics, it usually means an austere non-meat dish on Fridays. Fish is not usually austere, but there, staring at me from the back of the freezer, are Becky’s fish balls. Once Matriarch Joyce, for whom the only really acceptable smell of fish is beer-battered and deep-fried, left the kitchen, out popped five of those bad boys, a bowl of rice and presto. It tasted just like fresh croquettes. I almost pause to spread the news of the success too far because I already know that Lent will surely outlast my supply of fish balls.
Sometimes, new dishes are sure, instant successes. Others can sit for a while, asleep in the corner of the freezer’s top shelf, waiting for just the right time. Thanks for the Lenten feast, a shout out to my daughter, the chef.

Valentine’s Day

Sometimes, maybe most times, media images of romance is stupid. Maybe even harmful. I remember growing up watching decent TV sitcoms revolving around families where the parents always seemed to be happy and, well frisky. When I first got married, I wondered why our marriage wasn’t like that. I came to realize over time that most real marriages weren’t like that and that the last place in the house that you looked to for a fulfilling relationship was the bedroom.
My daughter the chef has this part down. Originally set to work a double today, Valentine’s Day, she got called into work yesterday, on three hours sleep, and doubled down yesterday. It was brutal and exhausting, and I saw her halfway in. She looked beat, but determined. Boyfriend Russ did his part. Training in Salt Lake City for a new job, he drove five hours straight after a full day of classes to be home this weekend. She has work tonight, and he gives guitar lessons this afternoon, but they will have the morning today and tomorrow to continue to build their relationship, earned through mutual sacrifice.
That’s a recipe, written in their hearts, for a real successful life together.

Thai-ing one on

I have never been a fan of Asian food. Not just Chinese, in all of its rich derivations. Not Japanese, Korean or, in the case of this post, Thai. I don’t like the flavors, the prep styles or cooking methods. I like Italian, Mexican, German and French, but never developed a desire or taste for those others.
So when my daughter the chef asked me to pick up Chinese and Thai on the way home from work, I agreed because she is my daughter and I had no desire to cause division in the Pacific Rim. Later, she called and told me that she convinced boyfriend Russ to try Thai, so it meant just one stop on the way home from the gym. It also meant that I would not be the stinkiest thing in the car.
I can’t even begin to describe the aroma. Becky kindly identified it as curry, but what it looked like, I dare not describe. Even the beef fried rice that they got for matriarch Joyce had a scent – not curry – that defied identification.
I was content with my leftover chicken wing sandwich and chips, and the car recovered the next day, although I now have a permanent excuse should the smell of sweaty gym clothes ever find its way back in.
Let none of this be misunderstood as being seriously disrespectful of the flavors and food from cultures exotic and fair. It is just another example of how, when it comes to culinary tastes, my daughter and I are literally worlds apart.