003: There, but for the Grace of Jacques, Go I
My father went to Iowa State University on a football scholarship. I went to Iowa State University on a full ride football scholarship. Difference between us was that he loved the game, and I learned to hate it. I begrudgingly played varsity for two years, but loved the academics, studying the sciences as a biology major, and taking an art minor.
So when I walked off the field in the middle of practice one day, it had a rather terminal grip on my studies. My father told me not to bother coming home. Now what to do? I took a job in Des Moines as a computer operator. During this time was I asked by two scouts to come to a Viking’s training camp. The idea of playing any more football literally made me sick. So did the work as a computer operator.
Looking for another line of work, I saw an ad for a manager at a Country Kitchen restaurant. I had never worked in a restaurant, and I had absolutely no experience managing people, or any type of business. I lied about everything on that application. Everything. So my very first job in food service was in management, and the first thing you learn to do as a manager at Country Kitchen, is to cook, their turnover hovering right around 100%.
I worked at a dozen restaurants for six, years not really knowing what I was going to do with my life; maybe go back to football, finish my degree, maybe something where I could set things on fire, hell, I didn’t know. Until Jacques. Arguably the best French chef in the America, which would put him in contention for the best chef in the world.
A restaurant owner in Boulder wanted to revamp his menu, bought me every cookbook I wanted, and sent me to a cooking demonstration in Denver. There I sat in awe as Jacques Pepin, this little man, with a decidedly foreign accent (I only found out later that he was French) showed me that food, that cooking, could be both science and art. And I was lit on fire.
(Continued below. Read more if you dare or care but the bloody part comes soon…)
Over the years Jacques became my mentor, and I would refer to him as my Per De Cuisine. He showed me how to properly use a knife. He taught me about la mis en place, everything in its place. Gather all your ingredients, and all your utensils before ever beginning to cook. Compensate and Adjust; address all the vagaries that can affect your preparation and/or cooking; temperature, humidity, equipment, differences in ingredients, is the water hard or soft? Is the meat grass fed or finished with corn? Everything, and everything all the time. Take nothing for granted. This “compensate and adjust” I have applied to every aspect of my life.
I was assisting Jacques at a cooking demonstration in the early ‘80’s, when my knife slipped, and I sliced through my left thumb. I had to run out and patch this thing, then put on a rubber finger cot. When I returned, he was pissed. Nothing was to interrupt or affect his demonstrations. Here he was Attila, and could scare the shit out of me, things better be perfect, or hit the road. To make things worse, after a while, people stopped looking at him, and were all focused on me. What the hell? Turns out, my thumb continued to bleed, and filled that finger cot with blood. I had to excuse myself again. God damn!
I didn’t say much cleaning up after the demonstration, and was relegated to simply saying, “no sir” and “yes sir.” The next day, same demonstration with the same foods, for a different crowd. This time, Jacques cuts his finger, and I have to do all the preparation while he speaks. He makes no mention of me, telling the crowd that this once happed to Julia Child while they were filming for PBS or something like that several years prior. He never did forgive me.
He helped me so much, and so often, it’s hard to even think of a way to repay him for all of his guidance. Best I can do is just keep cooking, I guess, to keep cooking, and cooking with the rigidity of his instructions, and compassion of his heart. You think I’m kidding, go buy one of his books. Just starting out, go buy La Technique. You’ll know why he is the greatest.
Warmest personal regards,