You may be wondering where I got my inner-foodie mojo. When I think back to how I became so passionate about food, there are many influences, but I grew up with my mother in the midwest, so I would have to say that she was my earliest culinary influence. She had a large lazy susan full of herbs and spices, and encouraged us to get cooking early on. Instead of suggesting which spice went with what, she'd say, "use your nose!" and make us sniff the jars and explore for ourselves. Although that annoyed me at the time, I'm sure it had everything to do with the early development of my palate and my keen sense of smell.
Mom was more of a health freak than much of a cook, but she did insist we have a green salad every night. We would take turns washing the lettuce, patting it dry on a kitchen towel, and pounding the garlic in the bottom of the salad bowl to create a fresh vinaigrette for it.
She was also an avid gardener, so as a kid I recognized the exquisiteness of tomatoes that still tasted of sunlight, green peppers and beans snapped right off the vine, the crunch of baby cucumbers, or picking sweet-tart raspberries in my own backyard.
As a teenager when I met my Dad, I absorbed his passion for food and art and music, and mostly his uncanny ability to whip together the most delicious and exotic foods in a matter of minutes. On the east coast, he introduced me to worldly flavors, gourmet foods and wine, and encouraged my experimentation in the kitchen. He showed me how to work with eggplants, chick peas, and fresh fava beans, how to eat eggs with pita bread, olives and sliced tomatoes. I learned to balance the creamy-lemony-salty-sharp ingredients of hummus with my eyes closed and my taste buds aware. We made lamb every which way, we roasted ducks, experimented with shellfish, and in the summer entire meals were made out of piles of farm fresh barely steamed sweet corn. "You've got to eat anyway, so why not eat well?" he'd say. We ate very well.
As a young adult, it was my travels and the cities I lived in that expanded my palate. Arriving in NYC at 17, I was exposed to just about every cuisine and ingredient imaginable, and I was curious. I asked questions. I explored markets. From Indian Tandooris to Bento boxes, I tasted and experimented. One of the best schools I went to was living across the street from the Fairway Market on 74th and Broadway. I suppose it was a poor man's Zabar's, but to me it was heaven. There I was introduced to mountains of produce, great breads, amazing cheeses, coffees, imported oils and vinegars, smoked fish, and so much more. It was also right down the street from another favorite goldmine, Citarella's Fish Market, which at the time was a tiny storefront packed with some of the most beautiful and amusing displays of fresh fish and shellfish I'd ever seen. I also worked my way through a number of restaurants to support my music career, and was continually inspired along the way.
New York City offered a huge collision of global influences for me, followed by living and working in the South, but by the time I got to LA a few years later where there's sunshine 95% of the year and just about everything grows here, I truly became inspired by the sheer abundance of cultures and ingredients available -- from every kind of produce, to farm-raised meats, to artisanal cheeses and sausages, to fantastic olives, and incredible world-class wine. It was as if the floodgates of creativity were opened and anything was possible. Roasted turkey with mango-dark rum glaze? Mahi Mahi with plum-cabernet sauce? Guava roasted beef tenderloin w/ blackberry chevre stuffed squash blossoms? Sure, you bet. You could see it, smell it, grow it and create it here. I found abundance on every street, at every market, at every turn. And food became another creative medium to play in.
I never set out to be a chef. I didn't study with the right people or plan a strategic course of high-profile restaurants straight to the top like so many young upstarts do these days. I was never so self-assured or conscious about my life decisions. It was all so hand-to mouth. Day to day survival really. Perhaps I took my ability for granted because I assumed everyone had to eat anyway and probably already knew how to take care of that need, so for years I didn't value my skills much except as a way out of debt. Now records, that was my goal. A big juicy recording career, never a career in food. Food was just the ladder, the day gig. The bread and butter they called it. I fed the rich to feed my music habit, which somehow always landed me in more of an outlay of cash than an influx of success.
Needing to earn some quick cash, I discovered freelance catering out in LA. It was perfect. I registered with several companies and could book as much or as little work as I needed to. Within months I rose up from a kitchen assistant to head chef and kitchen manager on many very exciting high profile Hollywood events, and then I began getting requested to chef in the private homes of many stunning and unbelievable personalities.
But beyond all that which I'll save for another day, my bottom line, final fork is this: whether cooking in my home, for a group of friends, or for a client, I try to be creative and fearless with food. As a busy mother, time is a luxury these days, so I use what's fresh and available--whether that's what's in my garden, what's on sale at the market this week, or even the leftovers in my fridge, and I do it with as little fuss as possible. I find inspiration everywhere, and believe that color and beauty on a plate are just as important as taste.
Creating with food is relatively no different than creating with words, or notes, or colors on a canvas. It's playing with form and ingredients to create pleasure and a shared experience. You've got to eat anyway, so you might as well eat well! May we all experience such abundance.
Bon appétit and santé!