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The early 1990’s hallmarks the point in my life when I started to become seriously interested in food. “Seriously” interested means evolving beyond Chinese take-out, delivered pizza, canned vegetables, Kraft Mac n cheese, etc., and actually learning how to cook. Before being professionally trained and working in the field, my culinary education comprised of the Food Network, cookbooks, trial and error, and a Hispanic chef named Felix.
Felix and his wife owned a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in the heart of a nearby working class town. The facilities were small and unassuming but the food was the best Mexican fare I’ve ever had in my life. Far removed from the chain restaurants, Felix made everything fresh to order. The servings were rustic and generous. Each table sported a jar of Felix’s homemade habanero sauce. A waist high wall is all that’s separated the guests from the kitchen. Felix toiled in plain view as the intoxicating aromas filled the air. A bowl of assorted hot peppers always graced the counter, beckoning the chile-heads like myself, who requested their grub extra hot.
I patronized Felix’s establishment at least once a week. I preferred arriving later at night when it was almost empty. Sometimes I was lucky enough to be the sole customer. Felix would join me, chat, and share his culinary knowledge. From him I learned to make different kinds of hot pepper sauces, pico de gallo, black bean soup, salsa, and a variety of other items. Little did he know, or myself at that point, the influential role he was playing in my future. There’s always been a special place in my palate for Latin food; now it has a special place in my heart.
Felix moved his restaurant to another town where the rent was less. Unfortunately, he and his wife divorced, the restaurant closed, and a legacy died. His ex-wife and her new husband opened a new restaurant in Felix’s old site. Felix, she tells me, has moved to Georgia. Definitely New Jersey’s loss and the Peach State’s gain.
I still frequently think of Felix and his impact on my cooking persists to this day. Virtually all of my current Mexican creations have roots in his recipes and/or culinary practices. I may never meet Felix again, but his presence will always be in my kitchen.
Around the time I was relishing Felix’s cooking and developing my own culinary interests, there was a show on the Food network called “Michael’s Place.” It featured Chef Michael Lomonaco and his eclectic and stupendous cuisine. I rarely missed an episode of his show and still make many of his recipes. I learned a great deal about cooking simply from watching his show and then recreating the dishes myself.
Chef Lomonaco served as the executive chef of the 21 Club in New York City before commanding the ship at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center. On that fateful day of September 11th Lomonaco was spared because he was running an errand on the ground floor when the attack occurred. Although I was relieved to discover he survived, sadly, 73 of Windows’ employees were killed. Now Lomonaco is the executive chef of Guastavino’s in Manhattan.
I have never met Michael Lomonaco and he has certainly never heard of me. Little does he realize what a pivotal role he played in my early culinary development. I can honestly say he was the most influential force on my emerging culinary pursuits. Even without ever meeting him, he served as a mentor for my own metamorphosis into a professional chef.
Felix and Michael Lomonaco have added to my life and will always be a part of me. They sparked a passion that I find deeply fulfilling. One that I can keep for all my days and whose benefits play out in many spheres of my world. They exemplify what the famous chef Fernand Point once stated: “The duty of a good cuisinier is to transmit to the next generation everything he has learned and experienced.”
Food feeds much more than our immediate hunger. Food, food customs, and the people who embody them, are vehicles by which we maintain meaningful connections to others. The culinary world and its practitioners are sources of inspiration, mentors, and transferors of traditions.
The role food plays in binding us to others is by no means limited to the relationships between cooking enthusiasts and professionals. I am certain that we all have food related memories and family traditions that are a part of our interpersonal heritage.
In February of this year my dear grandmother passed away. I received a number of her kitchen items. Some of these gadgets I use at home and some I use at the kitchen where I teach my cooking classes. Every time I reach for her ladle or measuring cup I am reminded of her. On one hand it’s sad and I feel a twinge of grief. But on the other, I’m keeping her memory alive and it feels better to use her tools than to discard them. Thus, the culinary realm is a portal by which my attachment to my grandmother remains active. Such can be the depth and scope of our culinary connections.
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