Starved, a Love Story and The Recipe for Tastebuds Signature Greek Pasta, a Paid Subscriber Exclusive!
Happy Valentines Day!
Welcome to Newsletter Number 19 My Friends!
Dear Benevolent Benefactors and Friends,
Although I had been dreaming of moving to Ireland and becoming a writer for some time, I always saw it as a supplement to my life as the chef and owner of Tastebuds Restaurant, not as a replacement. Maybe, it is a good thing, that I lost the steady income, that would have allowed me to merely dabble rather than dedicate myself to my writing. The fact that all of you, who are receiving this exclusive newsletter, believed in me, enough to support me financially, is truly, one of the best things that has ever happened to me, and A LOT of good things have happened to me in my lifetime!
That is the hope that I cling to; that my work has value, that people enjoy reading it, and that it will one day be published, maybe even made into a movie! I’m not sure about that last one, but one of my most ardent supporters, fellow writer Richard Lardie, went so far as to say this last week: “Once you write your life story, I wonder who will play you in the movie. I vote for Jessica Chastain. (Smart, tough, tenacious and pretty.)” Talk about inspiration!
To continue on this dark and lonely road takes a lot of courage and determination. You light my path and I take great comfort just knowing you are there. By becoming paid subscribers, you have given me the confidence and the inspiration to keep at it, day after day, night after night and to believe wholeheartedly that I am onto something. That I am finding MY VOICE, and that what I say MATTERS, maybe not all of it, maybe not to everyone, but to some, and that is all I need to know, and I THANK YOU for that, and I LOVE YOU for that!
HAPPY VALENTINES DAY MY FRIENDS!
Starved, a Love Story
There was never anything to goddamn eat in our house growing up! My brother and sisters and I would come home from school ravenous. We’d check the fridge and pantry, then we’d swing open every kitchen cupboard door, surveying the contents before slamming them shut in anger and despair. “Nothing!” we’d exclaim, “Nothing to goddamn eat!” This was, of course, not true. Still, we’d stand in front of the open pantry or refrigerator, checking once more, shaking our heads with disappointment, as if we were expecting to find a fresh hot pizza or cheeseburgers and fries ready-made!
Far from empty, the fridge was billowing with produce, meat and dairy products. The pantry too was filled to capacity. Beyond the mound of bags containing cereal, and half-eaten, stale potato chips, pretzels and cheese puffs, were rows and rows of baby food jars, cans of vegetables, fruit cocktail, beans, peaches and pears in varying thicknesses of syrup, tomatoes cut, chopped or whole, and pie fillings, pumpkin and cherry. There were countless cans of soup, as well as boxes and envelopes of soup mixes and stock. I recall split pea, loads of the stuff, in every possible brand and size, some with ham, some with bacon, some with both and some advertising low sodium. Even if I liked split pea soup, I certainly wasn’t going to go looking for a saucepan and spend an eternity at the stove waiting for it to cook. This was the late seventies and early eighties, kids did not cook, and the only chef we saw on TV was an angry guy named Mel, who spent most of his time yelling at waitresses.
My mom worked off and on, between pregnancies. Often, we’d come home from school to a note on the stove and a pot containing a large hunk of raw meat. “Heat oven to 350’, scrub 10 potatoes, poke holes in all sides with a meat fork. Put potatoes on top shelf of oven and meat on lower rack. Daddy will be home soon. Love, mom!”
We loved coming home to an empty house, and after assessing that there was indeed, nothing to goddamn eat, we’d make ourselves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and giant glasses of chocolate milk, if we could find where our mom hid the Hershey’s Syrup. We’d eat in front of the television watching Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch or I Dream of Jeannie, sitting on the floor so as to not risk staining the cream-colored couch in our sitting room.
When we heard our dad’s car pulling into the driveway, we’d slam the TV off and take off running in different directions, all trying to look like we’d been busy doing homework. My dad would begin yelling the minute he’d step into the house. Either about someone’s bike or ball that was blocking the driveway or someone’s school bag or shoes that were blocking the doorway and “who’s ever crap that is on the kitchen table, better get it off or it’s going in the trash!” Then he’d yell for all of us to come set the table, make a salad, pour the water, whatever was needed. If we came home ravenous, it was nothing compared to how hangry my dad was, when he came home from work!
When asked, most chefs will tell you, that it was their mother or grandmother who got them started in the kitchen, sharing recipes from the old country and family secrets. Being Irish Catholic, we had no recipes, but plenty of secrets, and the only thing I remember learning from my Granny, was how to play cards. If our Granny wasn’t at Church, she was at the track betting on horses and Granny wasn’t a religious woman if you know what I mean! The only fond food memory with her that I can conjure up, is when she treated us to our first Shamrock Shakes at McDonald's!
My mother was one of nine children and my father was one of seven, for them food was feed, merely a source of sustenance, rather than pleasure. Things improved slightly for me and my five siblings, however, grocery shopping was done at places that offered cheap generic substitutes and sold them in bulk. Mornings were spent wrestling bland-tasting cereal out of bags the size of a pillowcase, and ending up elbow-deep in a label-less canister of peanut butter while packing our lunch! How we longed to have Peter Pan, Captain Crunch or Snap, Crackle and Pop at our breakfast table.
At the risk of bolstering the Irish Stereotype, I’d say we ate a great deal of meat and potatoes growing up, but fair play to my mom, looking back, we had a wide array of dishes and every one of them was quite good. I remember her cutting recipes out of newspapers and magazines and I imagine she would have had to double or triple the recipes to feed all of us! There were many times while grocery shopping, that she would have to send one of us kids back outside for a second shopping cart. Honestly, I don’t know how she did it!
If all of that shopping and cooking wasn’t hard enough, a lot of effort went into setting the table and ensuring that the rituals that followed became routine. Depending on the day or my mom’s mood, a tablecloth or placemats would go onto the table first, followed by candles in crystal or silver holders and a centerpiece usually depicting the nearest holiday or current season. She would then decide if this meal was worthy of china or everyday dinnerware. All of us kids were well-trained on how to set a table properly and we’d all pitch in to help, announcing what job we were doing so there’d be no confusion.
There would always be an argument as to who would light the candles, my mom would pick the winner and promise the loser they’d get to blow the candles out, not a bad consolation prize. We would take our usual seats just as the gravy would be whisked, a dance that could become a duel between my mom and dad having differing views on how much flour or stock to add.
Once everyone was seated, we’d hold hands and say grace. While waiting for each of us to add our own special intention after the initial prayer, which was our custom, my mother would survey the table, her furrowed brow indicating a need for a vegetable, her eyes widening meant that rolls were still in the oven and may be burnt. When the last intention was said, she’d fling out her chair while making the sign of the cross and run to save the rolls or to throw a frozen brick of broccoli or spinach into the microwave.
Admittedly, I hated the clean-up and would often pretend I was sick and then lock myself in the bathroom, only to emerge too soon and get stuck sweeping the floor or taking out the trash.
The food and the dinner conversations improved with age and my parent’s income, we were always encouraged to share stories of our day, good or bad. However, this was done with a fair bit of caution. If your story revealed interest or excitement in a subject my dad was also interested and excited about, you knew you were in for a long-winded story sharing his experience and knowledge on the subject, and you were in big trouble if he left the table to retrieve a book from his impressive collection that related to the topic!
For example, when I mentioned we were reading Beowulf in school, he jumped from the table and returned with several books, including books and essays written about Beowulf, and an entirely new book about one of the other characters, Grendel, if memory serves me right. He read enthusiastically from each of them, before handing them off to me. “Great, more homework!” I thought to myself, unappreciatively. And wouldn’t you know it, I find myself doing the same thing with Ari, and I realize how lucky we were to have a passionate learner and generous teacher for a father, with a book collection that sparked many of my interests.
My father’s passion carried over into music as well and I wasted away many a day, lying on the living room floor, listening to some of his albums. Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Jackson Brown and Billy Joel were some of my favorites! I’d study the Album covers and jackets and memorize the lyrics, even writing them down on paper, if I thought I’d like to keep them with me.
Once in a while, my dad would unleash his creative passions in the kitchen. Inspired by a recipe in Food & Wine or Bon Appetite Magazine, he’d be gone all day, shopping for ingredients and some type of new kitchen gadget he read about. He loved his gadgets! We were the first family in our neighborhood to have a pepper mill, a garlic press and a food processor. We were the only family to have a potato ricer, of this I am sure!
When he returned home, the kitchen counters and sink would quickly fill with ingredients, and every pot, pan and bowl we owned would be in use. The house would become warm and full of delicious aromas; garlic, onions and seared meat. I remember him cooking in his underwear once, drinking red wine, listening and swaying to Pavarotti. As kids, we were only slightly unsettled by this image, because we’d seen him a million times in his underwear, but I don’t think we had ever seen him so happy! We found ourselves not minding at all, once we tasted the Beef Burgundy he made, which he served over egg noodles with a side of Caesar Salad with homemade garlic croutons.
To Be Continued!
I watched the editor of a top culinary magazine interview one of Cleveland’s most awarded chefs, as he struggled to answer the question, “What is the best part of being a chef?” My mind exploded with so many answers, and I wondered if this was because I was still relatively new to the profession. The veteran took a long time, carefully considering his answer, and then finally said, “For me, the best part of being a chef is getting to meet and cook for celebrities, musicians and top athletes.” I should mention that this chef had only recently returned to Cleveland after traveling the world and cooking in some of the best restaurants in Europe, Asia, New York and San Francisco!
For me though, it’s so much more personal, more visceral. I cook to make amends, to satisfy my craving for love, and to create something that is uniquely my own; the sum of my experiences, the map of my travels, and the memory of those who have guided me along the way, either with a gentle helping hand or a swift kick in the ass.
The best part about being a chef is having the ability to give yourself and everyone you know, even strangers immeasurable pleasure! You get to share the most intimate, exciting, and even erotic experiences with them. You are truly presenting someone your mind, body and spirit when you cook for them. Something that begins as an idea in your head, takes shape in your hands, is given with your heart and actually enters, physically enters, another human being.
There is only one other profession that I know of, that strangers could give each other that level of satisfaction and intimacy, it’s the oldest profession, illegal in most states! My God, in either case, if you do it well, customers become obsessed and addicted, and you share this intense desire, maybe even love for each other and the symbiotic relationship can go on forever!
Your life, and the lives of everyone you love, improve, as you improve as a chef. You can be the best accountant in the world, but you can’t seduce your spouse or lover by crunching numbers! And to your clients, you may only be invaluable once a year, a chef has three opportunities a day to be utterly indispensable!
I never won a Michelin Star or a James Beard Award and it never bothered me in the least, because I found, that it was far better to be loved than to be revered! I have had people actually jump up and down, hug me, or grab my arm and shake me even when I’ve mentioned that I was the owner of Tastebuds Restaurant. My employees and family members get the same kind of enthusiastic reaction to their affiliation as well, although now it can be bittersweet. Fans just freak out and start rattling off their favorite dishes, telling us how much they loved our salads or lemon pepper chicken but more often than not, they tell us how obsessed they were with our Greek Pasta! This is something that probably never happens to Thomas Keller, poor guy, fans would just be too intimidated to grab him and gush over him and if they weren’t, they might just brazenly ask for a selfie. No one has ever interrupted my dinner or an evening out with family or friends to ask to take a selfie with me, and I am quite happy about that!
“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” ― George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman
I used to look out the giant front windows at Tastebuds, those days when we’d have a line out the door and I’d wonder how far up the street it went. Realizing that it was my food that brought everyone there, that caused a noon time traffic jam on East 30th and Superior every day, was surreal at times.
What people were willing to go through; our impossible-to-find location, our long lines, and our inadequate air conditioning system, made all those financial, physical, and mental struggles and sacrifices, beginning with culinary school and continuing right up until the last day, worth it.
I remember a time when the street along the front of my building was all torn up and lined with heavy machinery and construction vehicles, as sewer lines were being replaced. My staff and I watched in disbelief as a local news anchor, Alicia Booth, actually scaled a mound of dirt and gravel wearing a red skirt and blazer with matching heels, making her way to the restaurant, just barely avoiding the mist from a broken fire hydrant that was spewing water into the sky! When we all expressed our astonishment, she said, “Well, it is burrito day!”
One of the best compliments I ever received, was from a man who called asking for ten orders of our Gourmet Grilled Meatloaf Specials. He went on to say, that this may very well be his friend’s last meal because he was going in for experimental brain surgery, and his odds of survival were slim. He was throwing him a party, and he told me that his friend requested my meatloaf, not because he ever had it, but because he had heard so many people raving about it, he always meant to try it! That is the most trust and faith anyone has ever put into me or my food! I couldn’t quite believe it! What an honor that was!
Imagine for a moment, that you have been told that you might not live to see another day. What would you want as your last meal? For me, it would be Ari’s father’s Spinach Burek, Grilled Lamb Chops, and my Greek Salad with extra olives and pita chips on the side, topped with a scoop of Tastebuds Signature Greek Pasta with extra feta cheese and some lemon wedges. I’d like a nicely chilled bottle of Riesling if it's summer or Saldo Zin if it's winter, followed by Zoss Bakery’s chocolate flourless cake and an Irish coffee with extra whipped cream!
I’d love to hear your answers!
Just curious, did anyone answer, ‘The 37-course tasting meal at El Bulli?’ for their last meal? I didn’t think so, unless as a way of buying more time! All of this Modernist Cuisine; indulgent, expensive, and experimental has its place, preferably far away from me! When it comes down to it, I think most of us just want to be treated well and fed well, when we finally get an evening out on the town.
I’m not looking for the chef to take me along, on an epic journey narrated by servers who have no idea what the fuck they are even saying! Rather, I want the chef to go on a journey, lots of them, and bring me back something good to eat! Something they narrate in their own head while coming up with a way to share their experiences through the dishes they create! This may sound harsh or ignorant, but often it seems like delicious food and a pleasurable experience for the guest, has taken a back seat to ostentatious displays of innovation, driven by the ego of the chef, delivered with an air of pretentiousness or arrogance. And now, God help us, bartenders are even doing it!
God, I sound old! And to borrow a line from my youngest sister, “At the end of the day, I’m just a hillbilly in Prada Shoes!” Aren’t we all though, if we’re being honest?
When I create and cook dishes, my mind wanders off, remembering the people who taught me the techniques I might be using, or the people who grew or sold me the ingredients, or turned me onto them in the first place. Recounting these experiences, I am often reminded of the vendors at Cleveland’s West Side Market, who are so central to my story of becoming a chef; Gus and Mark’s Mediterranean Imports, Gary’s Ohio City Pasta, Deon’s Urban Herbs, Narrin’s Asian Spices, Nate Anselmo’s exotic mushrooms and mesclun mix. Rita’s nuts, Ed’s peanut butter, Irene’s cheese, Kate’s fish, Whitaker’s pork shanks, Jim’s meats, and Farm Queen’s chicken! Just to name a few!
My Greek Pasta, the dish that I am most known for, is truly a culmination of so many incredible experiences, none more vital than the one I had at a pop-up restaurant, in the late 90s, created by chef and artist Ayman Alkayali, who went on to open Algebra Tea House. I first met Ayman when he was designing ceramic tiles for an Irish pub being built a couple of blocks down from my house in Tremont, called The Treehouse!
He transformed his ceramic studio, inside a downtown warehouse building on Superior Avenue, into a gorgeous candlelit restaurant for a Valentine’s Day Dinner, which my boyfriend Paul and I were lucky enough to attend. I was either in culinary school or had just recently graduated and therefore, I was a pompous, self-proclaimed expert on food and ingredients. Ayman placed fresh bread on each table with a small colorful bowl, one of his creations, containing olive oil and herbs.
We tore the bread and dipped it into the olive oil, and for the first time in my life, (I know it sounds like I’m bragging here, but it’s true!) I could not figure out what I was tasting. I had spent the last 10 years, recreating dishes that I enjoyed in restaurants, with no trouble at all, (It’s a gift, what can I say?) and this tiny little offering had me completely stumped! I knew it was olive oil, infused with some garlic, but I asked myself again and again, “What the hell is that herb? And…are those toasted sesame seeds floating on the surface?”
“Za’atar!” Ayman said, when I finally surrendered and accepted the fact, that just maybe, I didn’t know everything! “Palestinian Thyme,” he added seeing that I needed more clarification, “you can find it at Aladdin Bakery.”
It was that chance evening, that incredible discovery, that elevated my cooking and gave it that distinct but mysterious taste, that perfect bite (umami), that very few other non-ethnic restaurants had back then. Za’atar was mostly unknown until a year before we closed Tastebuds, but I began experimenting with it long before I even opened, and discovered that adding it to my marinades made chicken, pork, and beef more tender. Za’atar was used in the marinade for Tastebuds salmon and chicken, in our Caesar and Greek salad dressings, and on our roasted potatoes and toasted pita chips, but nowhere was it more essential than in our Greek Pasta. So, I guess what I am saying, is that za’atar is not optional when making Tastebuds Signature Greek Pasta!
I believe it to be so vital to some of my recipes, that I begged my sister Erin to bring me the one we used at the restaurant when she visited me last summer with her family. Bearing a strong resemblance to a giant bag of weed, I knew Erin would run the risk of being arrested on suspicion of international drug trafficking, but to her credit, she brought it to me anyway! Now that’s love! And now, I can pass that love on to you!
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