There’s something about gazing into the open kitchen of my favorite restaurant and watching the steam come off a massive rondeau pot that Chef Tommy is studying that brings me great comfort. It's my favorite restaurant for nostalgia, not that it's the best food I've ever had but because it feels like a second home, everyone knows me, it's consistent and never disappoints. Characteristics that after 40 years of life I look for in food, relationships and objects as well as experiences. No drama, no fuss.
I’ve been fortunate enough that my travels have taken me to more than 50 countries where my family and I have eaten everywhere, from the very finest and most well renowned restaurants to some of the tiniest hole in the wall places that have been local favorites or even simple meals with friends at their homes.
It's not always what's on the plate, where you are or who you are with. It is a culmination of the three and so much more. Digging deep and searching my soul I have found that there is one common factor in some of the most memorable meals I've ever had. It's almost always about the intent of the host and humility and humbleness of the food.
Argentina - 2003
We drove two car groups of four to an estancia just outside of the city of Buenos Aires. The drive seemed longer due to the dirt roads and the Fernet Branca and Coca Cola in the backseat with the glasses we brought with us perfectly snuggled into the cup holders, so typical of Argentina, but it was just outside the city enough to breathe in the fresh air of the campo. We acclimated ourselves into the estancia and had dinner with the host to then settle in that evening to our gites outside of the main home.
That evening, with the assistance of the amazing Malbec and the cold brisk air, I slept like a stone. The next morning, I was the first to wake and I strolled outside. Several of the property's horses were tied up with a lot of slack in the rope to a tree just outside a communal building where we would later play games, drink wine and talk by the fire. I took one of the horses and rode him at a gentle pace, away from the area into the cow pasture. Riding a horse with his head and your body just above the fog in between grazing cattle in the early morning is one memory that I will never forget and would love to relive that level of peace and serenity again.
That afternoon in the cool air we huddled inside the stone building with a massive fireplace, played games and sipped wine. For lunch, we broke away to see and experience the gauchos go to work, they weren't chefs, they weren't even cooks, they were cowboys on the property and in place of a pistol that you’d imagine on the belt of an American Western film cowboy, they holstered a fork and a knife. They knew one thing about cooking and they knew it well enough to be proud of their craft and wanted to have us, the guests, experience it. I’ve had better steaks of course, but I'm biased due to the day that surrounded the meal. The air I was breathing, the theater of it all, being cooked artfully over hardwood sealed this experience and flavors in my memory.
I often say, I'd easily use my last $50 in my account to cook a beautiful meal for someone that appreciates it, and for all intents and purposes, this was the case when I first got married and lived paycheck to paycheck. That $50 bought me an appreciative smile from a guest that shared stories with me along with a drink and a good meal with my wife and I. They may or may not have known it was all we had to offer but we chose our guests wisely and it sometimes meant more for us than the person we were feeding, which brings me to my next experience.
Queens, NY 2005
We were invited as a relatively newly married couple to an older couple's home that we knew. They were an amazing devout couple that emigrated from Ecuador with always such thoughtful things to say and the widest smiles at all times.
We were invited to their home for dinner one evening at their apartment and it was not much larger than the size of a 1.5 car garage. In fact the edge of the bed was our seat and our humble hosts sat with their back against the oven and sink. Our dinner table was two foldable tv-dinner trays I knew all too well from childhood. Nearly 20 years later I don't remember much of the conversation, although it was encouraging and uplifting to us, but I do remember the food and the circumstances.
The husband worked at a shrimp hatchery in Ecuador and definitely knew his way around making a ceviche. A warm version of the classic dish where he must have used most of his paycheck that week to buy the largest shrimp he could possibly find and the most amount he could fit into one pot.
The shrimp and rice were cooked to perfection. Our setting, although cramped, was cozy and also perfect. They took pride in what they presented to us from what simple belongings and offered up their very best and fed us until we had no desire or need for anything else.
I was quietly humbled, to my very being, sitting there in that moment. I slowed down to make sure I appreciated every bite and every moment with them and to show my deepest gratitude and the respect they deserved. We all need those humbling moments in life regardless of how the lesson is taught to us, hopefully they come without tragedy as they so often do.
I think about that meal often, sometimes right in the middle of experiences at Michelin rated restaurants or the new, “hot spot,” I’m trying out. There is no comparison in the cookery and the quality of ingredients and care but the two are different experiences that you can't measure one against the other and they shouldn't be, each has its own place.
What I've learned is, although I've been fortunate enough to have experienced some of the best restaurants in the world, my patience wears thin most times and I sit there in a fancy dining room with a stuffy atmosphere expecting to have my wallet emptied out before I leave the door. I seem to always crave the humble approach to cooking.
In the end, any Michelin memory I've had or will have will fade long before that meal at that small studio apartment in Queens will. Who knows, in my old age I may be the one offering up the best I have in a tiny apartment and giving my guests the best seat in the house, the edge of my bed.
If I had known this would be one of the last get-togethers with friends before the pandemic, I would have cherished it even more. We belong to a small knit group of friends in a community that will roll over backwards if asked to, for a friend or family member they don't even know. It’s hard to explain to an outsider, those who know, KNOW.
We traveled to Amsterdam and as we often do, we ask friends if they know anyone that can show us around on their day off in their city. We pay the way, of course, museums, lunch and share stories and get to see their city from a local’s perspective. Sure enough, we were fortunate enough to be introduced to two brothers in their younger twenties who shared a WhatsApp location and we met on bikes outside of the Van Gogh museum. After riding around the city and hitting it off, we were invited to dinner. They insisted, “You are coming to dinner, our parents are out of town but we arranged for some friends to come over to enjoy a home cooked meal.” Years later they confessed that if they had known I was a chef, they would have never done that.
One of the brothers cooked a delicious vegetable lasagna, his go-to recipe, that was simple in its ingredients but put together with such care, he watched very carefully as we all dug in listening for those reassuring sounds of pleasure and satisfaction. On the way to the house, I attempted to buy some wine for the evening and was quickly refused by his card going into the machine a half second before mine. He was a very thoughtful and generous host indeed.
Food is gathering people together and building relationships. Anthony Bourdain had it all right, he basically broke down what food means to us in the most relatable terms and up to his last moments meant every word he said. Bourdain consistently showed his audience the entire experience, not just the meal; the meal was often secondary to his hosts and surroundings. The conversation and friendships we forged that evening I remember vividly and also draw from my memory often to relive them. To this day, those brothers and I are lifelong friends.
Barcelona 2002 - 2003
Just starting to get a taste of the travel bug, at the young age of 22, my wife encouraged me to go on a “guys trip” with one of her oldest and dearest friends along with a few others in our group of friends to Barcelona. It was only a year into our marriage and I was on 36 individual flights. In those days we weren't the best savers but we sure experienced a lot. The infection of travel once bitten is deadly and never leaves you. My friend Anthony took us to a restaurant that went by the colloquial name, “el restaurante sucio,” meaning the filthy restaurant. It was in the Gothic Quarter and owned by friends of friends of Anthony. We walked up and it was an older restaurant ,no name - no nothing, it was a bit shabby but I was reassured that it would blow me away. A lot did blow me away back then because my palate was just opening up, I couldn't cook for a lick but I sure could throw down as a patron of the “art of cookery.”
We were quickly ushered past the patrons eating their meals to the kitchen, where the family worked over the plancha (griddle) preparing lunch for their diners. We eventually sat at a small table off to the side where we didn't order, we were just fed. The food was simple, calamari a la plancha with fresh squid with nothing more than oil and sea salt, gambas al ajillo. I remember this dish vividly as a shrimp antenna flexed its way from another shrimp and flicked hot oil in my eye - totally worth the brief seething pain. Several other dishes followed, one better than the last, nothing special, just high quality ingredients prepared in a way that the chef had done thousands of times in the past to perfection.
The story doesn't end there, as in all these meals we don't often get to repay the memory to our host especially when traveling, sometimes you are in a city once in your life and you are in their element not yours. At home, it’s easy, you get invited over and later on, you repay the favor and it’s your turn to put your best plate in front of them.
Twenty years later, Anthony called me and said the owner of that restaurant was in my home state of NY, traveling with his family and exploring Manhattan. He asked if I remembered them and if I'd like to get together. I didn't hesitate for a second, of course I remembered them and would love for them to come to my house to repay a memory that I've carried dear to me of their hospitality for two decades and have spoken about countless times. It was last minute but I put my first foot forward and prepared what I had imagined was a memorable evening for them, holding nothing back as they did for me, so kindly, years ago.
The restaurant industry is interesting, few artists will share their media and their work as freely as chefs. When a restaurant knows a chef is in the house they share their food and their art freely and without any reservation. It’s their time to show off and share their soul with someone who gets it, I love this facet of hospitality. We truly want to share our knowledge and what we have created or emulated with the masses, we want to create memories for the guest as we’ve been influenced and inspired by others along the way.
We travel seeing things through the viewpoint of a lens, to be present, seeing things through the mind's eye, the attention contends. I encourage people to stop looking for the next best thing, the next best experience. They do have their place, but it's those places around the corner, the places down the back alley of that old city. It's the invitation we second guess to a friend's house for something better that we often decline, that's where those experiences and memories that we keep for so many years lie. More importantly, it’s where the bond and relationships we keep for life get made or grow stronger. We live on this lonely rock for those reasons, to forge those relationships, the rest is noise and doesn't matter in the end.