The Story of my life, part one. New Haven

8Oct

This is my story of how I became a lusty food loving chef who has made his mark on the culinary world. These are the stories of the foods I encountered in my young life; food I ate, food I feared, and the food I eventually grew to love and cook professionally.  

The foods and flavors I’ll be telling you about were introduced to me by challenge. Times were different. When I was growing up it was a point of honor to eat like the grown ups. If you were “afraid” to eat the weird, er, I mean, good stuff, you were considered less manly and you got your balls broken, if not the back of your head smacked. That is how it was.

I grew up among people who were closer to the old ways and the flavors of a different time. Many had survived the depression, the great war and lived frugally with big families. They were not allowed to turn their noses up at any food. They were thankful to eat a square meal and learned to love the funky cheap stuff. There were never separate plates with chicken fingers for kids going on in my family. Not a chance.

So much of what I have learned about cooking isn’t cooking at all. It was eating. When I finally developed my own cooking style it was driven my memory of early flavors that imbedded themselves in my brain. Later, as a chef I wasn’t satisfied until those flavors were fulfilled. I worked from olfactory and gustatory memory. I would tweak and season and taste over and over until I found those flavors that were deep in my psyche and I brought them to life. My style became flavor first. The techniques came later.

I made my name by being fearless with the boldest flavors. Long before ethnic food trucks were sending out international effluvium all over the city squares, I was cooking and serving assertive peasant flavors and winning over the early foodies, the people want to brag to their friends about the cool stuff they ate.

CITY BOY

I was born in October 1959, and raised in the 1960’s and 70’s in New Haven, Connecticut. We always lived a notch or two above the poverty line. Though we moved almost every year we never strayed too far from the lower middle class Fair Haven neighborhood and the surrounding eastern ‘burbs.

I was not quite 18 when I moved out on my own into the heart of late ’70s decaying downtown New Haven to the horror of my family and friends who stayed in safe, white East Haven. I was an early “punkrocker” who slid in among the students, musicians, communists, old school hookers and pimps, bums and gay people who walked the upper blocks of Chapel street in the late 70’s.

I played and also booked bands at Ron’s place on Chapel and Park Streets. It was New Haven’s House of Punk in the red light district.

It made sense then that I would do the East Village and Lower East Side thing for a bit in 1980 following the underground music and art scene I was enmeshed in. Then through the mid 80’s, I lived in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, mainly in the Bohemian Central Square and Fenway neighborhoods. I returned to New York in 1988. I worked in the East Village while I lived in the magical melting pot of Flushing, Queens. I bounced around the coolest neighborhoods in the Northeast to seek my fortune in the music world, but by day I found myself working in food; sweating behind sandwich counters, line cooking the busy lunch shifts and banging out whatever it took just to stay fed and pay the rent. All the while, I was always eating, and inadvertently cataloguing flavors in my brain.

NEW HAVEN, MY HOMETOWN

New Haven has a sweet skyline

For a smallish city, New Haven has a strong food identity of its own. It is the marketed as “The Gateway to New England” which lends itself to plenty of Yankee lobster houses and classic “fried or broiled” seafood restaurants, but it’s also the furthest east of the New York City suburbs. It boasts plenty of amazing red sauce Italian American joints, cheap eats and a growing spattering of Latino store front restaurants.

Thanks to social media, New Haven is now finally being recognized as the American Mecca of Pizza, or ah-Beetz, as it is properly pronounced. Start with an Ah and end with an invisible T before the Zs. There is no “uh” at the end. Just Ah-BEETZ. Say it. ah-BEETZ, accent on the BEETZ. Good. In New Haven you go for ah-BEETZ, you don’t get a pizza. It’s a thing, a brand, a legend.

HOW AND WHY I AM WHO I AM

The number one lesson I learned to become a good cook is in order to learn to cook, you have to learn to love to eat.

I hope you love eat!

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