Have you ever thought about what you would choose as your last meal?
As a chef, you might imagine that my last meal would come out of my own kitchen or that I might want the dish to come from a five-star restaurant or from a world-renowned chef. Not exactly. Here's what I would want as my last meal, and why:
Flash back to January 8th, 2002. I was working on the veg station at Charlie Trotter's. I actually almost didn't go to work that day because I had the flu. I thought about calling in sick but then started imagining the entire staff raking me over the coals the next day for letting them down. Nobody likes it when someone calls in sick. So I didn't do it.
As I start pulling my vegetables from the veg cooler, I heard my coworker's thick Italian accent behind me. Giuseppe said, "Get ready for the guest chefs. We got two ladies today."
Great. Guest chefs are a death sentence on a day like this. My medicine is wearing off and I don't have time to babysit.
Giuseppe rounds the corner with two ladies. "One of you will work with Chef Sven on the meat station and one of you will work with Chef Omar on the vegetable station."
The hotter one says, "I'll take the vegetable station."
My assigned chef is named Katie. I say, "Look, I am really sick today. Do you know how to cook?" She says, "Yes."
"Do you know how to make veal stock?"
"Do you know how to truss a chicken?"
"How do you feel about washing dishes?"
"If that's what you need me to do, fine."
"Ok, if I show you what I want, can you copy it?"
"I'll try. I really want to work."
I gave her a fairly complex list of tasks. Wash an entire shipment of mushrooms, braise red cabbage, stuff the cabbage with the mushrooms. When she finished that, she could tell I was busy, so she walked to the back of the kitchen and just started washing pots. That was a first. The guest chef usually just drove us insane. She was actually ready to work. Amazing.
So I decide I want to show her something cool. I work at the best restaurant in the country, so I gotta demo a little gastro muscle.
"Check this out -- this bottle of wine costs $200, these black truffles cost $1,000 a pound. We're gonna reduce this to practically nothing, then puree it."
Feeling pretty macho, I am staring at Katie while giving her my best food network Emeril show. I pour the heavenly liquid into the blender and turn it on. Zip! The precious (and very hot) red stuff shoots all over us and the ceiling. I think I saw my life flash before my eyes. In my head, I was saying every curse word in the dictionary. But she just wiped it up in two seconds. Impressive. I handed her a prep list and asked her how long she planned to stick around.
"Til whenever you guys kick me out."
Katie said all the right things. She was adding something to my day. I told her to not eat the staff meal -- that we would take care of her later. At around 10 p.m., after service was under control, we sat her down next to the dessert station and each chef would serve her their course. Our wine guy even brought her some pairings, which doesn't happen, ever. Usually they get one glass and that's it.
It's midnight. The hot line is winding down. She has been on her feet for 12 hours. No signs of fatigue. That's a rarity.
A week later, I get a thank you card via the restaurant. She gives me her phone number "in case I ever want to hang out." Nice.
About a month after we started dating she would cook me the best red wine risotto with a bottle of Italian red that would easily be the best meal of my life. The irony of being a chef is that you work so much and earn so little, that you don't really get to eat at that many restaurants. But even if I had, this meal would have surpassed them all.
I was so impressed with Katie's technical ability. She had a natural ability for marrying flavors and was really comfortable in the kitchen. Cooking is easy, but it's knowing when to stop cooking that's hard for some people. When the risotto is the perfect al dente, or when the pork loin is a beautiful medium and well rested. She just loved to cook. She talked about cooking at her grandma's her whole life.
Over the next few months I saw a pattern develop. She would always try to outdo her last meal. I was the lucky recipient. Well, one of them. She loves to cook for her family and her many friends. We married a year and a half later, and have two kids. She works full time, and balances our craziness, and she is seriously the best cook I know.
One thing that is really similar about me and Katie is that she goes through phases while cooking at home and gets bored with recipes fairly quickly. She is always looking for that next great dish, but she has developed an arsenal of favorites. Her current obsession is making a yeasty, chewy pizza that is better than my favorite, Burt's Pizza in Morton Grove. She uses tomatoes and basil from our garden, good provolone, an ancient black sheet pan that she has had for 20 years, and a crazy secret method of proofing her dough.
That's what I would want for my last meal.