When I was planning on opening the Curious Kumquat I told an experienced local chef that I was planning on serving foraged and locally grown foods. I was in a very remote town, in a dry arid ecosystem, with an under-developed farming scene. The chef replied that the model wouldn't work because I wouldn't have the ingredients available consistently or sufficiently enough to serve my customers. I replied, "Why can't I just serve what I have?"
I survived and thrived the final dinner service eight years later.
As I prepare to open my new restaurant in St. Louis I was publicly bemoaning how the farmers markets don't discern between organics and non-organics. Actually, what happened was that I was at a booth run by an Amish family and saw on their sign that "berries without pesticides available too." Huh?!
So I posted this on Facebook and another chef, who I know is hyper committed to local like me, responded that you just can't get peaches in Missouri if you don't use pesticides. My visceral reaction was - who gives a shit about peaches?! Why can't I serve what I know is organically raised and not serve the produce that can't be organically raised in Missouri?
I don't feel the need to limit myself with this ideologic straight-jacket, but I also don't feel the need to serve peaches when there is plenty of other produce out there (grown and foraged) that will meet my needs.
Different strokes and I'll eat anything, but I won't serve just anything.
When I gather cactus I never use gloves for two very specific reasons. A bare hand will teach you to take only those parts that are ready for harvesting because they'll be loose enough to detach, and will force you to leave enough parts that are protected by the meanest of thorns to allow the plant to continue. Wearing gloves (or using tongs) is like wearing mufflers to a concert - you can't hear the music properly. Remove the gloves, touch lightly, and listen.
Bear with me as I share 7 years of history. Actually 100+ years of history.
My restaurant is housed in a building built in 1876. We call it the White house, but really its the Benton house that later sold to Senator White. Senator White is the great, great, great grandfather of Robert 'Moose' White from whom we bought the building. The building wasn't always in the White possession. From around the turn of the last century until the mid-1970s the house of was owned by other entities, at different points being a homeless shanty, a boy's boarding house and rental property.
The boarding house existed in 1914 and employed a young woman who cooked for the boys.
Fast forward to my time in the building. We bought the house about 8 years ago to move our gourmet grocery into a larger space, and to ultimately open a restaurant. Very early on we (meaning more than just me) started seeing something out of the corner of our eye, and sometimes not out of the corner, but directly. No one talked about it, and we had a lot of staff turnover in those early days. But about two years in one of my staff mentioned it, and I shared what I had seen too. Over the years, numerous previous staff have confirmed what they saw as well. Now its more common that if one of us sees her, the others see her that same day.
For me the sightings are almost exclusively from the kitchen (which make sense since 90% of time is in there). I see her out of my back doorway into a back storage room. The interesting thing about that is I see her peering around a corner, looking into the kitchen. The wall she is peering around didn't exist until I had it built when we did that storage room addition four years ago. From the movies I would believe that a modern wall wouldn't exist in her universe. I don't have anything more to add about that because it doesn't really make sense to me.
So who is this ghost? Well, we've all seen the same thing - a young woman, dressed in a flowing aged, cotton dress. Longer dark hair. Probably Hispanic or Mexican. Maybe 18-24ish. Pretty and average height. I'm not fashion expert (understatement of the year), but I'd place the clothing style at 1900-1920 based on pictures I've seen. Everyone agrees that this is an accurate description. She comes off as a 20% opacity for you computer geeks. So, we see her but she's see through...not a cloud, not a sheet, not a light. A real body but see through as opaque. She has felt benevolent to every single one of us even though many of us are freaked out by her.
Last year a woman called me and said she was researching ghosts in town (we're an Old West town with lots of history including Geronimo's birthplace, Billy the Kid's first crime, etc), and asked me to tell her what I knew. I did. She asked if I would be willing to see a psychic. I'm not wild about such things but I took my pastor spouse with me and we went. Short version - without me saying a word, she described the ghost exactly in look and age. She said her name was Maria, and that she had cooked at the old boarding house (I've never known anyone to know the building as a boarding house. I found out by researching the title on the property when I bought it.) She said that Maria watched me because she was so fascinated by the difference in how I cook versus how she did. The psychic went on to say that we had a second ghost - whom I've never seen - who is a young girl who hangs out in the front lawn. The young girl (4-6 yrs) died of dyptheria or TB around the same time 1915ish, and was lost and didn't know how to cross over. Maria was watching over her. I don't know what to say about all of that, but since the psychic, we've had a couple of people unsolicitedly tell me about a little girl in the front lawn. But that's not the story.
Fast forward to one year ago. This is before we knew we were moving or selling, but had an inkling that a move might be coming. I had already had the wheels in motion to install a couple of greenhouses on the property. To prepare the property we had to remove a large elm that my tree guy said was probably 110 years old. I can only imagine what it might have been like in 1915 but it was a monstrous shade tree for us, and in feng shui terms, it was our green turtle at the back of the house. Starting the day we brought the tree down ghost, activity went wild. Everyone on staff was feeling something brush past them, seeing Maria multiple times a day, and just feeling uneasy. Taking the advice of my spouse and the psychic I talked to her (no, she did not talk back). I explained why I was doing what I was doing and focused on the new life that was coming in the greenhouse, and all the people we were going to feed. After a few weeks things calmed.
And that's how it remained - a sighting maybe once a month - until yesterday.
This is when I start to get creeped out.
I was raised Catholic during the era of The Exorcist and The Omen. Few things scare the bejeebers out of me more than seeing 666. As I understand it, that's a construct of The Omen, not anything Biblical. [Being Catholic I wouldn't know either way :)]. Yesterday in the morning I walked past my souvide and the thermometer showed 66.6º. Yeah, whatever, right? It has to pass that number to get to its ultimate temp as it warms up. I noted it as I would whenever I see a 666 but not pay too much attention to it. Much later in the day I walked past my scale. Nothing was on on the scale, so it was showing the zero out weight (meaning I had added stuff but didn't zero out, and when the item was removed this was what the scale thought was the baseline), and you guessed it - 666g. I noted this more intently, but still am grounded enough to know that this stuff happens. Throughout yesterday I saw Maria I think 5 times, but I always doubt it when I do. Then my night server came in. I told her about all of this and she told me to grab yesterday's sales sheet and look at her sales. $666! WTH!
I called my pastor-exorcist-most high holy reverend-spouse and asked what he thought. He's very matter of fact about this kind of thing because he's done many house blessings, clearings, etc. He worked for hospice for a number of years so that concept of an afterlife is not a ghost story like it is to me. He said it was probably Maria sensing a major change (like with the greenhouse) and she was trying to communicate with me. I've told Maria many times to not scare me by trying to communicate with me. My response to Tyler was, "But why would she use 666 if its not a real concept?" And even before he answered I realized, "Because she knew it would get my attention." Which it did.
He told me to talk to her and reassure her that the new owner would be okay. So as I left last night I spoke into the nothingness and tried to reassure Maria (or my subconscious) that everything would be okay. I used a trick that the psychic suggested, to put a paper and marker out for her to respond. And I left for the night. This morning when I came in I saw something on the paper, but the marker had not moved. The paper was lightly ripped or scratched in the center. Yes my pulse was jumping. But despite what you might be thinking at this point, I am a very pragmatic, concrete person. I don't trust anything unless I experience it myself. I'm mentioning the scratch, but also know that I didn't pay enough attention last night to know if the scratch was there or not when I put it down. Was it? I have no way of knowing. I do know that I pulled it off of a stack of papers that were a mis-print from my printer and none of the other pages had a scratch or tear. So who knows.
That's it. That's my kitchen ghost story. Tyler thinks something big is about to come with the building. I guess we'll see.
If you read my story about Chipmunk a couple of weeks ago...there have been developments. He reached out one night and I invited him into the restaurant to do dishes. That led to us talking and him showing me a picture of a tiedye cupcake he had made.
It was all boxes mixes (which he didn't care about), but he wasn't happy with the results. I asked if he wanted to learn how to make professional cakes and he did. So I invited him to come back the following Sunday (closed day), and to bring his best friend (for safety).
I knew he was more interested in the finish work than the baking and such so I pre-made the cakes which included 3 layers of Pierre Herme's cocoa cake, soaked with caramel sauce, and alternating with peanut butter cremieux and caramel ganache. Those were all encased in a dark chocolate mousse. The flavors were his choice.
With him and his friend we made the finish - a miroir glaze and we were supposed to create a tie dye effect. I flubbed that but we'll fix it on the next attempt.
The 4 very large individual cakes were meant to be teen boy size:
I have two things I'd like to share. First is that long ago I learned that adding flaws to pastries made them more accessible to people. You'd think that a person would want the best, most perfect pastry, but experience has shown that they want the croissant that has a slight tear, or the pie that has the broken shell.
Why? I don't know. I've hypothesized that it has to do with not feeling worthy of perfection, or that a perfect pastry can look fake. But time and time again, this has proven to be true.
The second is that Chipmunk is obviously reaching out for someone to love him/pay attention to him/care about him...he's not getting that elsewhere in his life. I'm just the chef that he happens to be using my wifi, but I don't want to be another adult that isn't giving him what he needs in his life. Its basic youth development. There is risk having another adult's child in your kitchen, but there are precautions that can be taken - I made him bring his friend along. I'm looking forward to them coming back next weekend to learn how to make the mousse...we're going to work backwards until he can make the dessert all by himself.
On a side note, my cookbook is now available for pre-order at www.AcornsandCattails.com. It releases in September and I get final page proofs next week which I'll share here if anyone wants to see them.
Last night I served a couple who regularly forages for a highly starred Chicago restaurant. They told me the story (because they were buzzed) about how chef said, "I need ## day lilies by tomorrow." So they went down the street to a bank and clipped all of their day lilies, and continued doing this daily until the chef took them off the menu weeks later.
When I first started foraging for my restaurant over seven years ago I read a story about a major Houston chef who would walk down the street to an abandoned building lot and gather dandelion greens...in downtown Houston.
Later I read of a forager for a highly starred restaurant in Central California who would glean the corners of vineyards.
This is not about me so I won't go into what I do to forage more responsibly, but this is about the disconnect between chefs and their ingredients.
First, dude - you are serving stolen food from private property.
And guess what? Even though all three are chefs known across this country (and beyond), they clearly don't care enough to ask. I bet if the chefs asked their foragers where they gathered the ingredients the chef would stop it. Why don't they? Maybe the foragers would respond that its a secret that maintains their livelihood. So you don't trust the chef? But it's unethical and dangerous.
I've long said (and practiced) that if you're not willing to put on your menu the location where you found the ingredient, then don't serve it. Because if you're not, then you're not confident that your customer will trust your food sources.
Occasionally restaurants have a homeless guy living around their dumpster that the staff take in and share food and clothes with. I think its because often times restaurant employees live one paycheck away from homelessness themselves.
My own twist on that scenario is a young man that I've recently befriended. I've never met him, mind you, but we've chatted for hours online. I call him Chipmunk.
Chipmunk is an 18-year old high school senior who is gay but not out, and is not in the most comfortable home environment. We've talked about work, dating, and most recently DIY craft projects. All of this happens while he sits in his car using free wi-fi hotspots around town. His favorite is a coffee shop which recently changed its password. I invited him down to our building where we don't use a password, plus I felt it was safer if he was on my property where we could take care of him a bit.
Early on in our "relationship," fearing that he might be homeless (he's not), I asked if he wanted some food near the end of my night. He was so polite in refusing the food, but it was clear from his response that he wouldn't mind a little food. I still don't know if its because of his home life or just being a teenage boy. So I told him I would put a plate on the back of my car and he could get it when he wanted it. No one was in the lot, so I returned to the kitchen only to peek out the window and see that not minutes later the plate was gone. We repeated this process many times over the weeks, always seeing the plate returned in time for my end-of-day dish washing. Always cleaned to the bottom. And always an appreciative text from him. I've learned he is a very adventurous eater, and he wants to learn to make chocolates - my type of kid!
Last week, out of context he asked me what my favorite soda was. Now, I had an inkling so I didn't go into adult mode about how I don't drink sodas and calories and caffeine and blah, blah, blah. I just said Coke. He responded, "Don't leave!!!!!!" So I waited. Ten minutes later I received another text, "Okay, you can go now." I walked out and right by the door was a massive super duper sized coke from Sonic along with this note.
What a sweet kid, right?
Then last night he, out of the blue, asked me if I had ever seen a cloud lamp (go google them), which I hadn't. Well he was going to make one for his bedroom tonight. I assumed he was at home when he texted me...no, he was in the parking lot, in his car again. He texted, "Damn! I don't have an outlet." I asked if I could throw him a power cord. He was reluctant, but I promised it would be easy. Next thing you know I'm tossing a 50' cord into the parking area. I came inside and Chipmunk stretched the cord to his car.
Almost three hours later worth of chatting and I was ready to go home. I always warn him so he can run away. This time I added, "I wish I could see that cloud lamp lit up inside your car." He just sent back "LOL." Moments later my server stepped out the back door first, and one step out and she screeched. Then I took a step and saw why - pitch black parking lot with an old junky car that we couldn't really see inside except for a glowing cloud lamp the size of a basketball hovering above the stick shift! I burst out loudly, "That is the coolest thing I've ever seen!" And it was. Chipmunk, the king of backseat DIY projects, had built a cloud lamp in the back of his car, in my parking lot, during a busy dinner rush.
I don't know if I'll ever see him, or what impact I'm having on Chipmunk, but he's bringing me immense joy.