The real gifts are the people we learn from…
The Holidays have become a time for reflection for me. I start with Thanksgiving and the contemplation of all the things and people that I am grateful for. Then the Holiday season really kicks in. The restaurant business gets crazy, the family is pulling us in all directions and we are vaguely preparing to be broke in the coldest months of the year.
I think that is why it becomes easy to lose track of the real gifts. The real presents are the folks that we meet in our lives. Oh, sometimes we can start out disliking someone, or they make us nervous or we feel that an individual has nothing to offer. Then, as time passes we grow to realize that each person we come in contact with has their little bag of tricks, good and bad, that we can grow from and be enriched by. Here are some of the people that have been gifted to me over the years.
Jimmy Knikos: Here is a guy, running an incredibly busy restaurant, waiters and cooks spinning out of control all around him, and he is calm. I mean really calm. Impeccably dressed and never a hair out of place. I was new to cooking on the “line” and almost totally inept. I was scared, unsure and unskilled. The line was set up such that the manager or expediter called all the orders in over a microphone. We cooks were expected to remember it all and coordinate the tables so that all the food came out together.
I was frequently lost, and just as often, Jimmy Knikos would talk me through the process. He would gently and calmly speak to me over the mic, saying things like, “Joe, turn around and open the oven. Now fire two more stuffed shrimp and don’t forget to take the other one out of the oven. No, that’s a wet towel, you’ll burn yourself, yes, the dry one…” Hours of this, without any anger or disdain at my obvious ineptitude. After a month or so, I got quick and could remember what was happening in sequence. I got good, but it was all Jimmy. He gave me the sense to be a fast and capable cook.
Victor Gouras: I did my “externship” at a New York restaurant called Periyali in early 1988. It was owned by Charlie Palmer; one of the City’s best chefs. I wanted to work with Charlie, so I took the job. The kitchen was in the basement of an old building in Flatiron/Chelsea. As a matter of fact, it is still there (35 West 20th St # A, New York, NY 10011-3709, (212) 463-7890). It remains a very good upscale Greek restaurant.
On my first day, I met Victor Gouras. He and his wife, Irina, were the “consultants” to ensure authenticity in our Greek-ness with regard the food. At the time Victor was around sixty and to describe him as “crusty” would be a gross understatement. He and Irina lived most of the year on the island of Patmos off Greece. They were in New York specifically to open Periyali. Victor had never gone to Culinary school and was openly contemptuous of anyone who did; think me.
He was also the fastest cook I had ever worked with. He got more going before 8 AM that most cooks could in an entire day. His motto; “If you put it on the stove, it will get done.” He was so rough on me that I had to retire to the restroom to cry in peace on several occasions. Over time I was able to hang with Victor, I got all the soups and the octopus and the lamb shanks going. I made sure that I was respectful of Victor and his wife, mostly by making the food exactly the way he showed me. By the time Victor and Irina had to go back to Greece, he was like a father to me. The tears I shed when we said goodbye were tears of love. I will never forget the lessons and the flavors that Victor Gouras gifted me.
Mark Erickson CMC: When I met Mark, I was doing a Fellowship at the Culinary Institute of America and he was the Director of Culinary Education (kind of like being in charge of the Sports department for the Olympics). He was going to take a job in Atlanta at the Cherokee Town and Country Club, and hired me to be a Sous-Chef.
The thing about Mark is his absolute mastery of so much of our craft. The “CMC” after his name means Certified Master Chef. He also has an MBA. And he is a great mountain biker. And he is the most humble and gentle chef I have ever worked with. Most chefs have big, BIG egos, me included, but somehow Mark was able to out-cook and out-think everyone in the kitchen without the big head. He was and is a great manager, drawing out the best work from his employees without a trace of histrionics. I saw him angry once, but gave him many opportunities to be angry with me.
I take from Mark the gift of quiet confidence, from Victor the ability to be accepting of knowledge no matter the source or style and from Jimmy the sense of order through the chaos that informs the working life of a chef. I hope I can always be open and receptive to the gift of the people in my life.