What I Learned Cooking For A Michelin Chef

Part 1: How A Michelin Chef Ended Up At My Table

My path to full-fledged food addict has been somewhat subversive. By that I mean that during my earliest years, I rarely took note of food’s impact on my being. Yet many of my earliest memories revolve around food. I recall standing on my mom’s kitchen stool while making chopped liver. I recall, while at my grandfather’s house in Massachusetts, running around with lobster claws on my hands (back when my little digits could fit inside). I certainly remember the day I took tinfoil packed scrambled eggs into school for lunch at my own insistence … I’m a stubborn little bastard.

Hell, before I can even remember, food was a huge part of my life. Case in point: I peaked early when I wrestled a gallon jug of O.J. up three flights of stairs and proceeded to dump the contents all over my sister.  She was obviously being a big stinking doo doo head.  That event takes up exactly zero blocks in my memory bank, and yet it still remains the crowning achievement of my life.

So it seems that now is as good of a time as any to tell a story that is really important to me, even if the conceptualization of why its importance has evolved over the years. It was the night I cooked for a Michelin starred chef.  Yeah … seriously … HOW THE FUCK did that happen?

Many many people have impacted my food conscience. While my dad’s unbelievable late night grilled cheese sandwiches are as emblazoned as anything in my memory, the two people who have impacted my relationship with food more than anyone else are my maternal grandfather (known as Poppy) and this man of repute, who we shall call Mr. Michelin.

I don’t actually have a clear date for when this event occurred, though I know it was either during my later teenage years or my early 20s. Despite that fugue recollection, the rest of the experience is anything but forgotten.

My father and I were out in Colorado enjoying some fine snowboard powder and taking the opportunity to escape our worldly responsibilities. Spoiled as they may have been, these vacations were fixtures of my early life. Through the years, a rotating roster of people shuttled in and out of the trip lineup.

Sometimes it was family, sometimes it was friends, sometimes it was business associates. On this particular trip, we were joined by several Coloradans, one of my father’s childhood buddies, a few family members, and a quiet married couple. That couple happened to be Mr. Michelin and his wife, who is equally responsible for any accrued accolades, she ran the kitchen at their restaurant.

My understanding is that my father had befriended Mr. Michelin many years prior when Mr. M was working in a Northeast metropolis. It was, is, and probably will be a cherished friendship. So it came to be that many years after that initial encounter, the gentleman and his wife were anything but tagalongs on this wintery Colorado escapade.

At the time of the excursion, Mr. M was already a force, having received accolades of all types. Though the Michelin Guide was still years away, he was already capable of producing food worthy of their iconic gaze. I had met him early in my life, at least 10-years before this meal, and he and I had a very solid rapport.  Mr. M had incepted my mind, dropped some awesomeness on my palate, and quietly went about kicking ass and taking names. This longtime relationship has been so impactful yet so mysterious that only since I started journaling online have I realized just how often my relationship with him crosses my mind.

For most of these trips we had a kitchen in our midst. Having tutored at the side of my grandfather all those years before, cooking for large groups was a comfortable endeavor by this time. So it came to be that at least once a trip, I was tasked with feeding a large roaming band of misfits.

Honestly, I don’t know why I was given that responsibility. Maybe part of it was my penance for being a free-loading little brat.  I am, however, more inclined to think that my father, and those around us, realized something I didn’t know about myself: I love food and everything that comes with it. I adore it in fact. To this day, cooking for people is one sacred responsibility I take great pride & greater joy in, even when my attempts leave people saying thanks through their teeth.

Part 2: The Meal

While I often cooked a few times on each trip, one meal was always linguini with clam sauce. I learned how to make it from my grandfather and it is the dish I’ve always been identified by. I’ve easily cooked it 10x more than any other dish I’ve ever made. It’s simple, it’s somewhat rustic, and it’s 100% awesome. While I can recapture its original form without any effort, I’ve gotten so comfortable with it that I’ve started to play with its production.

I don’t know now if I knew then why I made clam sauce so often.  I used to think I made it because I was good at it. I used to think I made it because people who eat it enjoy it. I used to think I made it because that’s what I always made. But it has since occurred to me: this dish connects me like no other to where I came from. My grandfather wasn’t just a cook, he was an honest-to-god chef. Food was important to him like it is to me. Though I, like my sister and two cousins on that side of the family, only knew him through the untarnished telescope of a grandchild, this man was a great man.  He exists in many families in many countries in many eras. You may have had him in your life; but this one was mine. His clam sauce is his mark on me. If I make this dish for you, I don’t just like you … I love you (or at least someone at the table).

So it was without thought that I decided a preparation of Caesar salad, some hors d’oeuvres, and a big pot of clam sauce was in order. The acquisition of the ingredients is no special tale. Though keep in mind that this is waaaay before gourmet grub had become the manna of the masses. Farm fresh ingredients weren’t available in most major cities (at least not in the way they are today) and you certainly weren’t going to find top flight goods in some supermarket in Mountain Town, USA.

I think that added to my apprehension … how do you cook for god when you don’t even have a farm at your disposal? By the time I started cooking, my nerves were fucking shot. To quell the edge, I know I took a swig of white wine, an ingredient I introduced into the recipe soon after Poppy had passed on to the big spaghetti pot in the sky. [Note To Kids: Underage drinking is very very bad and I’d never do it – so obviously I was probably like 22 when this took place].

Mr. Michelin and his wife, arrived a few hours into the cooking … but well before anyone else.  Beyond a simple hello, I ignored them.  I focused more intently on my task. Mr. Michelin walked by the kitchen every so often. I was sure he was watching me … laughing at my pedestrian antics … my silly attempts to prepare something for someone of his skill level. But each time he passed quietly with what appeared to be an earnest smile. He was fucking with me and I knew it! He was just trying to get into my head.

Hours had ticked by when I began the most dangerous portion of the evening: cutting the onions and hand slicing the garlic. My hand was quivering. My mind raced with culinary hallucinations.

As the fumes ripped into my eyes and my knife serenaded the cutting board ever so carefully, my tenuous hold on the idea of calm evaporated. He invaded … like a man without a care sanity … he strolled into my kitchen. I know I chopped off my hand … I had to have.

M. opened the fridge and retrieved some water. Mysterious as that act was, everything changed after that close of the refrigerator door. This change wasn’t a retrospective appreciation for what took place.  No, it hit me immediately.

The cool air from the ajar appliance served as a much needed reprieve. It didn’t just chill my neck while i stood by the beating heat of the stove. It energized me and calmed me at the same time.

Meanwhile, M. peered from that short distance. He didn’t encroach, he didn’t bother, he didn’t do anything. No, this man, this titan of culinary offerings, sat and watched me for probably about thirty seconds. While I’ll save the exact quote for my own personal treasure chests, M., in his broken English, entrusted me with a compliment tied to my knife skills. He scanned countertop of my mise. He was excited, he appreciated the difficulty of the simple, and he was looking forward to the meal.

One might argue that he was lying or simply playing the part of the polite guest. Perhaps he was overstating his thoughts on my cuts.  Maybe he saw me spazzing out and did something he hoped would calm me. But even if that is the case, he made a connection to something and to someone. In this one moment, he basically used me as a conduit to Poppy and said something to the effect of “Nice job Bill, you really know how to cook.”

I can’t say the rest of the evening was a cool breeze of chillaxation.  No, I was still nervous as hell. When service hit, what time I spent considering M’s experience was either done so through closed eyes (too nervous to look) or thru the shameful eyes wide open assumption that he was reacting disingenuously. Emotions remind me that the meal sucked, but logic tells me that the smiles that washed over Mr. Michelin were honest. I don’t believe it to this day, but I know it happened.

Part 3: What I Learned from Mr. Michelin

Nobody gets in the Michelin Guide for putting out simple food.  It just doesn’t happen. Mr. Michelin’s food is nothing short of extravagant and artful. But when you talk to him, he continually espouses the importance of simplicity and fundamentals.

Poppy was never going to garner accolades beyond that of an adoring customer and a loving family. He cooked simple. Even if that isn’t what Mr. Michelin presents to his legions of fans, he’s all about simplicity. He’s reminded me of this ideal countless times over the years and that is something I won’t soon forget.

Still, I learned more. I also learned how everyone wears a Janus mask of sorts. Just because someone is an all-demanding kitchen general, it does not mean that they aren’t congenial as the most gentile soul in their private life. We don’t know people unless we KNOW people.

His public behavior, like so many others, is not an act of dishonesty or fraud. Rather, it’s understanding that certain situations dictate different behaviors. Short of some innocuous exception to the rule, there is no right or wrong way to run a kitchen, only methods and consequences (good and bad). That seems true in much of life.

I also learned that pure genius can be shackled with immense pressure. No matter how many times I’ve cooked for someone and no matter how many times I’ve tasted my own food and actually thought it was at a minimum decent, I’m always apologizing.

I’ve worked hard to move past that self-deprecation, but it creeps in every now and thin. Not everyone does this, and hopefully the last remnants of this behavior will soon come to pass, but I saw a man as skilled in his profession as any man I will ever come to know. He carries that same burden, even if he isn’t vocal about it.

I learned a lot that night, and very little of that lesson had anything to do with food. This meal was the single connecting point for my two greatest food tutors. I will never forget it. I hope you don’t either.

[post script: thanks to a friend for reminding me why I write]

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