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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Chef Boyardee, Smucker's, Chicken Tetrazzini and Other Foods & Brands Named After Real People


And You Thought They Were All Just Made Up Marketing Tools



Day after day, as you shop the grocery aisles, leaf through magazines, click around the Internet, or drive around town, you're likely to encounter a lot of foods and food brands that are named after people: Betty Crocker, Sara Lee, and Aunt Jemima, for example. The question is how many of these iconic food characters are real and how many are just made up for advertising purposes. The list may surprise you.

Betty Crocker - Sorry, folks, Bets is a fake. Developed in 1921 by the Washburn-Crosby Company to help sell its food products and recipes, the name “Betty” was thought to be bright and cheery while “Crocker” was chosen as a tribute to Washburn-Crosby director William Crocker.

Sara Lee – She's for real. Around 1949, Chicago baker Charlie Lubin created a line of cheesecakes which he named “Sara Lee's” after his eight year old daughter, Sara Lee Lubin. Lubin later sold his recipes and the “Sara Lee” name to Consolidated Foods

Aunt Jemima – This one's a little tricky. In 1875, African-American comic and dancer Billy Kersands wrote a song about “Old Aunt Jemima.” Although there was never a “real” “Aunt Jemima,” actresses portrayed the character in minstrel shows throughout the latter part of the 19th century. Around 1889, St. Joseph, Missouri businessmen Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood appropriated the character to promote their new ready-made pancake mix. Numerous actresses made appearances as “Aunt Jemima” in various forms of advertising up through the 1960s, after which the old image of the plump “mammy” with a headscarf and a polka dot dress was retired and updated to look a bit less racially stereotyped and a little more like a modern homemaker.

Mrs. Butterworth – Need some syrup to go with those Aunt Jemima pancakes? Call in Mrs. Butterworth! But no matter how long and loud you call, she won't hear you. She's a made up character created by Pinnacle Foods in 1961.

Uncle Ben – Mars, Inc insists that well-known rice man “Uncle Ben” is based on a real person, an African-American rice grower known for the quality of his product. Of course, the bow-tied guy depicted on the box since 1946 isn't actually that rice grower: it is said that the image is that of a Chicago maître d' named Frank Brown. As for the “converted rice” process attributed to “Uncle Ben,” you can thank German-British scientist and chemist Erich Huzenlaub and British scientist and chemist Francis Heron Rogers for that. In fact, the process is called the “Huzenlaub Process,” but I suppose “Uncle Ben's Huzenlaubed Rice” wouldn't jump off store shelves as quickly.

Little Debbie – That cute little girl on the Swiss Cake Rolls, Nutty Bars, and Oatmeal Creme Pies can't be for real, right? Actually, she is, although there was a little artistic license taken with her image. Back in the 1960s, the founders of Collegedale, Tennessee-based McKee Foods, O.D. and Ruth McKee, decided to name a product after their 4-year-old granddaughter, Debbie. The artist who created the packaging, however, was instructed to make little Debbie look a little older, say 8 or 9.

Jimmy Dean – Yep, there was a real Jimmy Dean behind the sausage that bears his name. Born in Plainview, Texas in 1928, Jimmy Dean rose to fame first as a country music singer and television host. His biggest hit was the 1961 country/pop/rock 'n' roll crossover “Big Bad John.” He also found work as a film actor, appearing in the 1971 James Bond movie “Diamonds Are Forever.” But one day, he and his brother Dan were having breakfast in a Plainview diner when Jimmy made the statement, “You know, there has got to be room in this country for a good quality sausage!” And he decided to make one, founding the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company in 1969.

Oscar Mayer – Oscar's also the real deal. German immigrant Oscar Ferdinand Mayer started out working in a Detroit meat market before moving to Chicago in 1876. He labored in a North Side meat market for a few years, but eventually started up his own butcher and sausage shop in 1883.

Duncan Hines – Ice cream was the first Duncan Hines product to hit the market in 1950, sold by the Lehigh Valley Cooperative Farmers dairy of Allentown, PA. Then Durkee's Bakery in Homer, New York started selling Duncan Hines bread in 1952. Next came the iconic cake mix from Nebraska Consolidated Mills out of Omaha, Nebraska in 1953. But who was Duncan Hines and why did people want to put his name on everything? Born in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1880, Duncan Hines was a traveling salesman representing a Chicago printer. As such, he ate a lot of meals on the road. And he kept a journal of places he liked. In order to help fellow travelers find a decent meal in the days before interstate highways and chain restaurants, Hines and his wife compiled a little book of good places to eat based on his travels and his journal. Then he expanded to lodging recommendations. By the mid-1950s, Hines was a food critic, writing a syndicated column that ran in newspapers across the country. The Duncan Hines “seal of approval” was only awarded to establishments – and products – that met his rigorous standards and were then permitted to display signs proclaiming “Recommended by Duncan Hines.”

Chef Boyardee – Yep, the chef on the spaghetti cans really existed and wasn't just a made up marketing character. His name was Ettore Boiardi, a real life Italian chef who emigrated from his native Piacenza in 1914. He went on to open his successful Giardino d'Italia (Garden of Italy) restaurant in Cleveland in 1926. Restaurant patrons were so taken with his tomato sauce that they asked for take-home samples, which the chef provided in clean milk bottles. He started selling his “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee” products nationwide in 1929, having changed his name to Hector Boyardee because Americans couldn't wrap their tongues around his Italian name. Boiardi produced canned rations for Allied troops during World War II, for which he was awarded a Gold Star order of excellence from the U S War Department.

Orville Redenbacher – No, the funny-looking guy with the horn-rimmed glasses and the bowtie wasn't just made up by an ad agency to sell popcorn. Orville Clarence Redenbacher, the former fertilizer salesman from Brazil, Indiana, was quite real. In fact, in “Orville Redenbacher's Popcorn Book,” he takes pains to state, “I want to make it clear that I am real.” He launched his “RedBow” hybrid popcorn – an amalgam of his name and his partner, Charlie Bowman's – in 1970 and by mid-decade had captured fully one-third of the American unpopped popcorn market.

Mama Celeste – There really is a “Mama” Celeste behind the smiling face on the frozen pizza boxes. Anthony and Celeste (née Luise) Lizio came to the United States from Italy in the 1920s, settling on Chicago's West Side, where they opened their first restaurant in 1932. Their pizza became so popular that in 1962, they shuttered their restaurant and went into business selling frozen pizzas to other restaurants. Quaker Oats got involved in 1969 and soon the frozen pizza with Mama's face on the box became one of the top selling brands of the 1970s. The Celeste brand today is owned by Pinnacle Foods.

Marie Callender – Marie Callender and her family lived in a trailer park in Huntington Beach, California in the 1930s. Marie baked pies to supplement the family income, pies which her son, Don, delivered on his bicycle. By 1948, Don had given up the bike and had founded a wholesale pie business supplying area restaurants. Later he started a restaurant of his own and named it after his mother. The restaurant became a chain and the chain spawned a line of packaged and frozen foods marketed under the Marie Callender brand.

Mrs. Smith – And since we're talking about frozen pies, how about Mrs. Smith's? Real person or marketing gimmick? Real as the day is long. Pottstown, Pennsylvania housewife Amanda Smith made some pretty good deep-dish, fruit-filled pies back in the early 1920s. So good, in fact, that her son, Robert P. Smith, started selling slices door-to-door and at the local YMCA lunch counter. Then came a delivery route (probably not on a bicycle) and a small store. All of this led to the 1925 formation of “Mrs. Smith's Delicious Home Made Pies, Inc.” The company began producing its now even more famous frozen pies in 1952.

Famous Amos – Did I say “famous?” How about “Famous Amos,” the cookie man? He's for real for sure. Wallace “Wally” Amos liked to bake cookies with his aunt in 1948 New York. When he went to work as a talent agent for the William Morris Agency, he would sometimes send his home-baked chocolate chip cookies to celebrities as an enticement for a personal meeting. And they were g-o-o-o-d cookies! So good that Marvin Gaye and Helen Reddy ponied up $25K for Wally to start his own cookie store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. And the “Famous Amos” brand took off from there.

Mrs. Fields – Mrs. Fields turns out some pretty good cookies, too. But is there really a “Mrs. Fields?” There really is. Debbi Fields and her husband Randy opened the first of many stores selling homemade cookies in Palo Alto, California in 1977.

Captain Morgan – Okay, the pirate guy on the rum bottle has got to be a marketing gimmick, right? Yes and no. There was a real Welsh pirate...er-r-r “privateer”.... named Henry Morgan who roamed the Spanish Main from his base in Port Royal, Jamaica from 1663 until about 1671. He didn't make rum, but he did make a lot of money raiding ships and settlements around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. He wound up a wealthy sugar planter and lieutenant governor of Jamaica. When Seagram's started manufacturing a new rum in 1944, his name seemed as good a choice as any to slap on the label.

Okay. How about looking at some iconic food brands that don't have faces on the labels but do have real faces behind them.

Hormel – A real guy named George A. Hormel was a slaughterhouse worker in Chicago. He transitioned to being a traveling salesman dealing in wool and hides, which led him to Austin, Minnesota. He found that he liked it there, so he borrowed five-hundred dollars and opened a meat business that evolved into George A. Hormel & Co in 1891 and now operates as Hormel Foods.

Wrigley's – More than just a name on a chewing gum package and a baseball park, William Wrigley, Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1861. With thirty-two dollars in his pocket, he moved to Chicago in 1891 and started selling soap. He offered customers a premium gift of baking powder with the purchase of his soap. He soon found the baking powder to be more popular, so he switched to selling baking powder and giving away chewing gum as a premium. And the gum got to be more popular than the powder, so......After introducing the world to “Juicy Fruit” and “Spearmint” in 1893 and “Doublemint” in 1914 and becoming a “confectionery magnate,” he wound up owning a major league baseball team (the Chicago Cubs), most of Catalina Island off the coast of California, a few hotels, some steamships, and five mansions across the country, the smallest of which was his 16,000 square foot “winter cottage” near Phoenix. Chew on that.

Birdseye – Yep. Real person. Clarence Frank Birdseye II is considered by most to be the father of frozen foods. Birdseye worked for the USDA and was in Labrador and Newfoundland off and on between 1912 and 1915, While there, he was taught by the native Inuit how to ice fish under very thick ice. In -40 ° weather, he discovered that the fish he caught froze almost instantly, and, when thawed, still tasted fresh, unlike the more conventionally frozen seafood he'd had in his New York home. This led him to pursue development of quick freezing methods that ultimately resulted in the founding of Birdseye Seafoods Inc. and later the Birds Eye Frozen Food Company in 1929.

Stouffer's – There's a real Stouffer in the history of Stouffer's. Abraham E. Stouffer, to be exact. He started with a Cleveland, Ohio area creamery and a dairy stand in 1914 and moved up to a restaurant around 1922. More restaurants followed, including the first locations outside Ohio. The Stouffer Corporation debuted in 1929 and expanded into frozen foods in 1946, ten years after its founder's death. The Stouffer's brand is now owned by Nestlé.

Keebler – When it comes to cookies, Keebler is really big. They are the second largest maker of cookies and crackers in the United States, and even though “Ernest J. 'Ernie' Keebler” may be the famous face of the brand, it was actually Godfrey Keebler who opened a bakery in Philadelphia in 1853, a bakery that eventually networked and merged with other bakeries to form the United Biscuit Company of America in 1927. Elves in hollow trees indeed!

Kellogg's – Snap, Crackle, and Pop, Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam and, of course, Cornelius (the rooster on the corn flakes box) are the most notable faces of Kellogg's today. But the brand goes back to the turn of the twentieth century when the Kellogg brothers, Will Keith (“W.K.”) and Dr. John Harvey (“J.H”) set up the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1898. The company was started to provide “health foods” – like corn flakes and granola – for current and former patients at Dr. J. H. Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium. The company became known as the Kellogg Food Company in 1908 and began to market its products under the “Kellogg's” brand. When Will wanted to sell cereal outside the sanitarium's clientele base, J.H. balked at the idea and the brothers had a falling out. W.K. established the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, producing and marketing – guess what? – Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes. As a result of the success of the cereal, the company name changed to the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1909 and later became the Kellogg Company in 1922, which it remains today

Smucker's – They say “with a name like Smucker's, you have to be good.” And the J.M Smucker Company has been producing very good jellies, jams, and other food products since Jerome Monroe Smucker started it in Orrville, Ohio back in 1897.

Campbell's – Okay, the “Campbell Soup Kids” are world-famous, but is there really a Campbell behind Campbell's? Oh, yeah. Joseph A. Campbell, a fruit merchant from Bridgeton, New Jersey, who started the “Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company” in 1876. The company reorganized twenty years later and became “Joseph Campbell & Company” in 1896. But it was a chemist working for a wage of $7.50 a week, one John T. Dorrance, who shaped the company's future around 1897 when he developed a commercially viable method for condensing soup. He became president of the company in 1914 and eventually bought out the Campbell family.

Kraft – Canadian James Lewis Kraft immigrated to the United States in 1903 and wound up selling cheese door-to-door in Chicago. He lost $3,000 and a horse his first year in business. But things improved and soon J.L. joined up with his four brothers in 1909 to form the J.L. Kraft and Bros. Company. It became the Kraft Cheese Company in 1924 and continued to grow and expand to global proportions.

Heinz – Henry J. Heinz started out selling horseradish in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania around 1869. He soon expanded his line to include ketchup, pickles, baked beans, and numerous other food products. His famous “57 Varieties” slogan was inspired by an advertisement for a shoe store boasting “21 styles.” Heinz picked the number “57” more or less at random because he liked the sound of it.

Lay's – When Charlotte, North Carolina-born Herman Warden Lay started selling potato chips out of his car in 1931, he probably had no idea where it would take him.

Bush's – Andrew Jackson Bush is the man behind the beans. He started the family enterprise back in 1904. And yes, Jay Bush, the guy who does the Bush's Baked Beans commercials with his dog, Duke, really is a member of the Bush family. He's A.J.'s great-grandson.

Ghirardelli – Domenico Ghirardelli was born in Rapallo, Italy in 1817. The son of an exotic food importer, he was introduced to chocolate at an early age and soon apprenticed as a candy maker. Ghirardelli emigrated to America in 1849 and opened a general store in Stockton, California, selling basic supplies but also confections to gold seeking miners. He later opened a second store in San Francisco, where the company that bears his name remains headquartered today. (Well, technically, it's across the bay in San Leandro, but......)

And since we're on the subject of sweets, let's examine:

Hershey – How many guys do you know who get their hometown renamed after them? Milton S. Hershey was one. After starting up a candy shop in Philadelphia in 1873, Hershey moved around a bit before landing back home in Derry Church, Pennsylvania in 1886. He founded the Lancaster Caramel Company there but after seeing a chocolate making demonstration at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he declared, “Caramels are just a fad, but chocolate is a permanent thing.” And, apparently, he was right.

Nestlé – Swiss confectioner Henri Nestlé was the founder of the company that bears his name and was also one of the main creators of condensed milk.

Heath – The toffee and milk chocolate Heath candy bar, now produced by Hershey, was first developed and marketed in 1914 by L.S. Heath.

Oh Henry – Nobody knows for sure where the name for the candy bar made of peanuts, caramel, and fudge coated in chocolate really came from. It was first introduced in 1909 by the Williamson Candy Company of Chicago
. The most popular theory holds that the bar was named by the guy who created it, one Tom Henry, owner of the Peerless Candy Company, who dubbed his confection the “Tom Henry Bar.” When Henry sold out to Williamson, they renamed the bar as “Oh Henry.”

Baby Ruth – The same ambiguity surrounds the Baby Ruth bar, made by Chicago's Curtiss Candy Company and originally marketed as “Kandy Kake.” The battle has raged for almost a hundred years over whether the bar was named for President Grover Cleveland's daughter, Ruth – the official stance held by the manufacturer – or for famous baseball slugger Babe Ruth. Both sides of the issue present evidence to support their claim and denigrate the other's. The Babe Ruth faction points out that Ruth Cleveland died at age 12 about seventeen years before the candy bar was created and that the former president himself, who hadn't been in office in over twenty-four years, died thirteen years before the bar was first produced. So why would a candy company choose to honor the name of a long dead president's long dead daughter? And why would a candy company located down the street from Wrigley Field not name a product after a baseball superstar – unless it was because they didn't want to have to pay him for the use of his name. We may never know.

Snickers – This one we do know: Franklin Clarence Mars owned Mars, Inc. – successor to the Mars Candy Factory and the Mar-O-Bar Company – in Minneapolis. He also had a favorite horse, a horse by the name of – you guessed it – Snickers.

Tootsie Roll – Here's another one with a fairly clear history. Austrian Jewish immigrant Leo Hirschfield started working out of a small candy shop in New York in 1896. He went bankrupt and committed suicide in 1922, but not before naming his most famous creation after his daughter, Clara, whose nickname was “Tootsie.”

Now let's turn to the names attached to some of your favorite fast food places. Like:

McDonald's – No, Ronald McDonald is not the owner of or the inspiration for the fast-food pioneering restaurant. A Chicago milkshake mixer salesman named Ray Kroc was actually the guy responsible for erecting “golden arches” around the world. But the place is called “McDonald's” instead of “Kroc's” because Ray was impressed by the modern, mechanized, “assembly line” approach to food preparation utilized by Richard and Maurice McDonald at their San Bernadino, California eatery. Ray partnered with – and some say shafted – the McDonald brothers in a franchising operation which started in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines and blossomed into the McBehemoth we know today.

A&W – Started up in 1919 as a walk-up root beer stand in Lodi, California, under the auspices of Roy W. Allen – the “A” half of the name – and Frank Wright, who supplied the “W.”

Arby's – Back in 1964, a couple of restaurant equipment salesmen in Boardman, Ohio got the idea that fast food could be based on something other than hamburgers. “Why not roast beef,” said brothers Forrest and Leroy Raffel. And they called their venture “Arby's” based on the initials “RB” for “Raffel Brothers.” Clever, huh?

Wendy's – Yes, there is a real “Wendy” behind famously square “old-fashioned” burger joint Wendy's. In 1969, founder Dave Thomas dubbed his first restaurant at 257 East Broad Street, in Columbus, Ohio “Wendy's” in honor of his eight-year-old daughter, Melinda Lou Thomas, whom everybody called “Wendy.”

KFC/Colonel Sanders – Today, its just called “KFC”. It used to be known as “Kentucky Fried Chicken” until the Commonwealth of Kentucky trademarked their name in 1990, forcing anybody who wanted to use the word “Kentucky” in their business to obtain state permission and be subject to licensing fees. But way back when, the company that introduced chicken into the fast food mix was also known by the name of it's founder, Harland David Sanders, a guy who ran a gas station and restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky. Sanders developed a unique method for preparing fried chicken using a pressure fryer and “eleven secret herbs and spices.” Commissioned as a “Kentucky Colonel” by Gov. Lawrence Wetherby in 1950, “Colonel Sanders” went on to franchise his process and to have his name and image immortalized the world over.

Jimmy John's – Yes, Virginia, there is a real Jimmy John. After graduating from high school in 1982 second from the last in his class, Jimmy John Liautaud's father offered him a choice: military service or business. Jimmy John chose business and, with a $25,000 loan from Dad, opened a hot dog business that later morphed into a sandwich shop, the foundation of a franchising operation headquartered in Champaign, Illinois that now exceeds three-thousand stores nationwide.

Papa John's – There's a real “Papa John,” too. After selling his 1971 Z28 Camaro to purchase $1,600 worth of used pizza equipment, Jeffersonville, Indiana native John Schnatter converted a broom closet in his father's tavern into a pizza shop in 1984, and “Papa John's Pizza” was born.

Sbarro – On the topic of pizza, there really is a Sbarro behind the Sbarro pizza chain found in malls across America. Italian immigrants Gennaro and Carmela Sbarro opened their first salumeria (an Italian grocery store) at 1701 65th Street and 17th Avenue in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York in 1956. The initial success of the business and its fresh Italian fare led to other locations in the metro New York City area. The first mall-based Sbarro opened in Brooklyn's Kings Plaza Shopping Center in 1970 and spread nationwide from there.

Burger King – C'mon, really? You didn't actually think there was a real “Burger King,” did you? Nah, the place was called “Insta-Burger King” – after the Insta-Broiler used to cook the burgers – when it was founded in 1953 in Jacksonville, Florida by Keith J. Kramer and his wife's uncle Matthew Burns.

Finally, a few words about a few foods that were named after few famous people.

Graham crackers – named for 19th century temperance preacher Sylvester Graham

Turkey/Chicken tetrazzini – generally believed to have been invented around 1908 at either San Francisco's Palace Hotel or New York City's Knickerbocker Hotel and named after Italian opera star Luisa Tetrazzini.

Fettuccine Alfredo – credit this one to an early 20th century Roman restaurateur named Alfredo di Lelio

Cobb salad – invented around 1937 at Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant and named for owner Robert Howard Cobb

Salisbury steak – the name has nothing to do with the cathedral city in Wiltshire, England. The dish was developed by an American diet physician, Dr. J. H. Salisbury around 1897.

Bananas Foster – created in New Orleans at Brennan's restaurant in 1951 by chef Paul Blangé, the dessert was named after owner Owen Brennan's friend, Richard Foster.

Caesar salad – no Roman emperors were involved in the naming of this salad. It was named for Italian immigrant restaurateur Caesar Cardini, who claimed to have first made it at his Tijuana, Mexico restaurant in 1924.

German chocolate cake – nothing “German” about it except the name of its creator, American baker Samuel German, who developed a type of dark baking chocolate for the Baker's Chocolate Company in 1852.

Earl Grey tea – thought to be named after Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey and British Prime Minister in the 1830s, who supposedly received a diplomatic gift of black tea flavored with bergamot oil.

Granny Smith and McIntosh apples – Maria Ann “Granny” Smith developed the apple that bears her name in Australia in 1868, while Scottish-Canadian farmer John McIntosh is said to have discovered the original McIntosh sapling on his Dundela farm in Upper Canada in 1811.

Melba toast – created by original “celebrity chef” Auguste Escoffier around 1897 in tribute to Australian opera singer Helen Porter Mitchell, whose stage name was Dame Nellie Melba.

Nachos – a maître d'hôtel at a restaurant in the Mexican border town of of Piedras Negras is credited with creating this popular snack for the wives of U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan in nearby Eagle Pass, Texas in 1943. The ladies arrived at the restaurant after it had closed for the day, but Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya went to the kitchen and scavenged. He cut tortillas into triangles, fried them, added shredded cheddar cheese and sliced pickled jalapeño peppers and served them up. The women were wowed and when they asked what the dish was called, the clever waiter answered, “Nacho's especiales,” which eventually morphed into “special Nachos” and finally just “nachos.”

The Sandwich – everybody knows this one: 18th century aristocrat and gambler John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, was hungry but didn't want to interrupt his card game to eat. So he ordered his valet to bring him slices of meat tucked between two pieces of bread. That way he could eat one-handed without using a fork or getting his cards greasy. The form caught on as others began to order “the same as Sandwich!”

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Holiday (Or Anytime) Mashed Potatoes Done Right


The Best Mashed Potatoes Aren't Really “Mashed”

I have a confession to make: the first batch of mashed potatoes I ever made came from a box. They were “French's Mashed Potato Flakes,” as I recall, and I was about seven years old when I made them.

Things have changed, although I do still keep dried mashed potato flakes around. They come in handy for lots of other things in the kitchen. Potato bread, for instance. But when it comes to actual serve-'em-up-for dinner mashed potatoes, I rely on real, honest-to-goodness potatoes that you have to wash, cut up, cook, and mash. Is it more work? Sure it is. Is the end result better? Definitely.

That said, however, when it comes to the “wash, cut up, cook, and mash” part of the deal, there seem to be as many opinions on how to do it as there are grains of sand on a beach. Everybody's got a “recipe” that they learned at their granny's knee or something, but sometimes you can teach an old dog new tricks. I know I've certainly picked up some tips and tricks for better mashed potatoes over the years – besides not making them out of a box – and I'd like to take this opportunity to pass some of them along.

The first thing I learned about making better mashed potatoes is pretty straightforward: use better potatoes. You know that definition of insanity that says something about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Yeah, that was once me with cheap, “bargain” potatoes from the grocery store. Those “bargain” potatoes you find “on sale” at the store aren't usually much of a bargain after you wind up throwing out about half of every other potato in the bag. There's a reason they're “on sale,” folks and it has nothing to do with your grocer's altruistic desire to improve your life. You get what you pay for, so pay for the better quality spuds.

Now you have to decide how you like your mashed potatoes: do you want them light and fluffy, rich and creamy, or just a little chunky with maybe some skin left on? Most people go for the light and fluffy option that is buttery and smooth. For you rich and creamy lovers, that's okay, too. But achieving that texture without turning your potatoes into a starchy glue can be a bit tricky. And as far as the chunky, skin on method, well, it's probably easiest to prepare, but I'm not so much into chewing my mashed potatoes and picking bits of skin out of my teeth. Sorry. Personal preference. So let's focus on the more popular method, light and fluffy.

First, mix 'em up a bit. Everybody and his or her mother uses stalwart old russet potatoes for their mash, right? Ah, but as Hamlet might have said had he been a decent cook, “There are more potatoes in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” More precisely, there are two types of potato: starchy and waxy. Within those parameters there are then dozens of different varieties, russets being just one variety of starchy potato. Make no mistake, there's a reason the russet – or “Russet Burbank” – is also called a “chef potato.” (Well, in the UK they call them “Maris Pipers” because they didn't have Luther Burbank.) They've always been the ones that are most popular with chefs. Until a few chefs started experimenting. And came up with some nifty – and tasty – results.

Starchy potatoes are always best for mashed potatoes. Waxy spuds – like red bliss or new potatoes – are great for roasting or for using in soups, stews, or potato salad. They are very flavorful, but they are also very dense and firm. That's why they're so good for long cooking preparations; they add great flavor but they hold their shape and texture well. Which is not really what you want in a light, fluffy mash. So stick with starchy potatoes that will fall apart easily. Russet's, of course, but also consider Yukon Gold.

Yukon Golds are a bit less starchy than Russets. Russets are a “high-starch” potato while Yukon Golds are more “medium starch.” The texture difference isn't going to be that discernible in a mashed preparation, but the flavor difference will be. Yukon Golds are quite flavorful. Some people like a straight up all Yukon Gold mash because the very buttery flavor and yellow color appeal to them. I'm not so much in that camp. I like Yukon Golds, but not as an “all in” thing. Russets, on the other hand, are, frankly, rather low in flavor, but their light, fluffy texture is superior. So, the best results for perfect light, fluffy, flavorful mashed potatoes will come from a mix of Russets and Yukon Golds. Half and half maybe? 60/40 perhaps? Make a couple of batches and play around until you get the balance the way you like it.

Next, we have to consider technique. Flavorwise, the mix of Russet and Yukon Gold potatoes will be great for either light and fluffy or rich and creamy, but the final outcome will be determined by the mashing technique. Basically, the best mashed potatoes aren't really “mashed” in the traditional sense.

Here's a quick look at some science behind mashed potatoes. Potatoes – like everything else – are made up of specific kinds of cells. Cells, of course, consist of molecules, which are made up of atoms and all the other stuff you should have paid more attention to in class. The important thing to remember here is that potato cells are made up primarily of starch molecules. These cells are a type of carbohydrate bound up as tight granules surrounded by pectin, a water soluble gelatinous polysaccharide, if you want to be excruciatingly correct. When potatoes start to cook, the pectin starts to break down. The starch molecules within act like little balloons and soak up all the water they can hold before bursting and releasing all that starchy goodness. And it's the concentration of this starch that will ultimately influence the consistency of the finished dish. Got me? Stick around. It gets easier. Bottom line: if you want light, fluffy mashed potatoes, you want there to be as little sticky, gluey starch in your finished dish as possible.

Now, when you beat the holy hell out of a potato, you wring out and release every atom of starch that potato has to hold. The result? Wallpaper paste. I'm serious: you actually can make wallpaper paste from potato starch. Do you want to eat it with a little butter and some salt? Not so much. So keep your little starch bombs as far away from things like food processors as possible. And if you simply must have that oh-so-French creamy texture that the Frenchies call pommes purée, okay. Do as the French do and whack 'em with an electric mixer until they practically pour out onto a plate. But be careful: the difference between pommes purées and wallpaper paste is a very fine line, indeed.

I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. Before we do all the processing, we have to do the cooking. There are two schools of potato cooking when it comes to making mashed potatoes. One school holds that you absolutely must cook your potatoes whole and skin on for optimal texture and flavor. Unpeeled potatoes, they say, absorb less water and hold in the starches better. And there's a good bit of flavor in the skins themselves that is infused into the potato as it cooks. All true.

The other school says peel' em, chunk 'em, and boil 'em. I'm sorry, potato purists, but I'm firmly in that “other school.” I've tried both ways and fail to detect significant difference. And cooking potatoes whole takes longer and peeling and cutting them while hot is a pain in the......hand. No, I'm a big believer in peeling, cutting into quarters or other workable chunks, and boiling. In salted water, by the way. The first step to seasoning your completed dish is adding flavor to the water. Just like pasta, when those little starch cells expand and take on water, they also take on flavor. And it's flavor you simply can't add later. You may not need as much salt as for pasta – i.e. a tablespoon per quart – but do be generous.

Oh, and another “by the way:” unlike pasta, you want to start your potatoes cooking from cold water. Dropping your spuds into already boiling water will usually lead to uneven cooking. You can wait until the water heats up a little to add your salt if you want it to dissolve more rapidly and efficiently and thus avoid damaging your cookware. The salt won't be absorbed into the flesh of the potato until the cooking process starts anyway. But put the cut up potatoes in the cold water first and then crank up the heat.

Like most people, I would rather have light and fluffy mashed potatoes that have a little body to them. Perhaps not so much body that you can use them to sculpt replicas of Devil's Tower (remember “First Encounters of the Third Kind?) but enough that maybe they'll hold up a fork, okay? And the way to achieve that quality is with a ricer or a food mill.

Huh? What about grandma's faithful old potato masher? Give it back to grandma. It's a potato torturing device left over from a less enlightened age in the treatment of tubers. To achieve ultimate lightness and fluffiness, you want to coax the starches out of the potatoes, not crush them out at the end of a blunt-force object. The old masher is just a slower, less effective way to make glue.

I feel your questions: what are food mills and ricers and what have they got to do with potatoes? We'll start with a food mill. It's a kitchen tool that no kitchen should be without, although most are. Basically, it's a mechanical means of hand-processing soft foods like tomatoes for sauces, cooked apples for applesauce and, of course, cooked potatoes. It's a three-piece gadget consisting of a bowl, a variety of different processing blades, and a crank handle. You fit the blade of your choice into the bowl, affix the handle, toss in whatever you're preparing, and crank. Within seconds, you've got soft mounds of, in this case, potatoes that are light and fluffy and ready to mix with the rest of the ingredients we'll get to in a minute.

A ricer works the same way and is even less complicated to use. It looks like a giant garlic press and functions in much the same manner. A ricer is a simple, two-handled unit joined by a hinge. It's got a plunger on one handle and a perforated receptacle or “hopper” on the other. The plunger fits into the hopper and when you squeeze the handles together, the plunger presses the chunks of cooked potato through a series of small holes in a cutting blade. As with the food mill, you first select the size of the blade based on your desired results. Some ricers have separate blades that you have to insert and some have a movable blade you can just dial around to achieve the texture you want. The results look like grains of rice, hence the name for the tool. And those grains are the secret to transforming your lumpy mashed potatoes into a thing of beauty.

The actions of the ricer or the food mill are much gentler on the potatoes than your old masher or a mixer of some sort. The devices provide a uniform size, an even texture, and they preserve more of the integrity of those little balloon-like starch cells. As a result, you don't need as much stirring and mixing of the final product as you do with other methods. The “riced” potatoes are ready to rock and roll with your other ingredients just the way they are.

And what about those other ingredients? All you need for great mashed potatoes are fat, dairy, and seasoning. You can go off on tangents with garlic and herbs and spices and whatever else makes your taste buds tingle, but for superior “plain” mashed potatoes, all you need are those three elements.

Let's start with fat. And that means butter. NOT MARGARINE!!! That horrible plasticized abomination has no place in any decent kitchen. Laws still on the books in Wisconsin even prohibit serving the vile stuff to prison inmates. No. I mean real, honest-to-goodness, direct from a cow and not a chemistry set butter. Preferably but not essentially unsalted. And in quantities more than you would think wise. One chef I know calls for “egregious amounts” of butter in his mashed potato recipes. By “egregious” he means more than a whole stick per pound of potatoes. If you're cooking up five pounds of spuds for your holiday table, you'd be using about a pound-and-a-half or more of butter. And that's probably excessive. But don't be cheap with it. The old saying “there's flavor in fat” is true. Use as much butter as you're comfortable with – and then throw in an extra tablespoon or two. Softened butter works best.

Now dairy. You need milk, cream, or a combination of both to add an extra layer of flavor and to achieve that final texture you're looking for. Ready made half-and-half is a good option. You don't need a lot. I was showing off my mashed potato skills to a client recently and overmilked the damn things, creating a nice warm potato soup. Way to impress. So add your dairy incrementally until you get the texture you're seeking. Oh, and make sure the liquid is warm. Pouring cold dairy into warm potatoes rapidly cools down the whole mix and increases the likelihood of lumps.

Personally, I tend to mix softened butter into my riced potatoes first and then add in my warmed dairy. There are a couple of reasons, one scientific and one not so much. Scientifically speaking, mixing in the fat with the starch will help coat the starch cells and keep them from absorbing as much of the water part of the dairy component, which is what makes the potatoes gluey. From a practical standpoint, if you do as a lot of folks do and melt your butter in with your milk or whatever and then pour it all in at once, you're losing out on the benefit of some of that butter if you don't wind up using all the liquid. You know, like if you find yourself on the edge of potato soup. But......whatever works for you.

And then you finalize your seasoning. If you adequately salted the cooking water, here's where it will pay off because you won't need as much salt in the final preparation. And if you used salted instead of unsalted butter, this is even more so. The only way to tell is to taste. Culinary school 101: taste, taste, taste! Once you've tasted, adjust your salt accordingly. Add freshly ground black pepper if desired, although white pepper is an option if you don't want little black specks in your fluffy white mash. That's it for me. Some people go on and on with chives and herbs and parsley and such, but for me salt and pepper completes the dish. That and a little garnish of butter to gild the lily.

As I said earlier, if you want to cream your potatoes into a pommes purée, that's your decision. One tip I will pass along to you French chef wannabes is to cook your potatoes in the dairy mix. It'll infuse extra flavor and almost guarantee maximum creaminess. And if you absolutely have to, have to, have to have that almost liquid consistency, DON'T use a food processor or a blender. Instant wallpaper paste. Get that texture in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or use a hand mixer. If you've got one of the nice ones that you can fit with just one whisk or beater, so much the better. Work at low speed and don't overwhip.

Oh, and by the way........one more confession/guilty secret: there is a down and dirty solution to the “potato soup” problem. Thicken 'em up with dried mashed potato flakes. See. I told you they had lots of uses.

Buon appetito!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Sold On Sous Vide


Darn Close To Foolproof

I've often said that my home kitchen is ridiculously over-equipped. I've got stuff at home a lot of restaurants don't have. But I am definitely not a “gadget guru.” I'm not prone to the useless geegaws you see on TV commercials. You won't find a stick butter cutter or a banana slicer or a twirling spaghetti fork taking up valuable space in my kitchen. For one thing, even if I wanted such things, my wife wouldn't let me have them. You know how some guys tell their wives if they want a new pair of shoes, they have to get rid of an old pair? That's kind of the way my wife is with me in the kitchen.

So my wife was rather dubious when I told her I wanted an immersion circulator. I had been hearing wonderful things about the sous vide method of cooking for a long time, but the necessary equipment was prohibitively expensive. However, in the last couple of years the prices have come down to the point where you can buy such stuff at Walmart. As a matter of fact, that's where I got mine.

Wait a minute,” I hear you say. “Immersion which? Sous what? What language are you speaking? French?” Actually, yes. “Sous vide” is French for “under vacuum,” and a vacuum sealer one of the pieces of equipment it's handy to have in order to cook something sous vide. The other more essential piece of hardware is an immersion circulator. And whereas once such arcane and esoteric things were only available at specialty suppliers at costs approaching the ridiculous, nowadays you can buy them, as I said, at places like Walmart for a couple hundred bucks or less, thus moving a fancy French technique once reserved for expensive high-end kitchens into the home kitchen for an affordable price.

In a nutshell, “sous vide” refers to the process of vacuum-sealing food and cooking it in a temperature controlled water bath. Or a bain-marie, if you want to be painfully French about the whole thing. This allows food to be cooked to a very precise temperature while retaining maximum moisture and flavor and with almost no chance of over or under cooking. And no shrinkage either: if you start out with a 10 ounce steak, you'll wind up with a 10 ounce steak.

There are three characteristics of sous vide cooking: containerized cooking that separates the food from its heating environment, pressurized enclosure using full or partial vacuum, and low temperature slow cooking. Each of these techniques developed separately at different points in time. They were all brought together as a distinct cooking method by a combination of engineers and chefs in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Now, you need to understand that this is a low and slow method of cooking. If you've only got ten minutes to bust out a steak for dinner, forget sous vide and break out the old frying pan. A sous vide steak is going to take at least an hour. BUT, that said, it's going to be a perfect steak when it's done. The way the fancy restaurants work around this time issue is that they cook up a bunch of steaks via sous vide in advance and stick them in a refrigerator. Then when an order comes in, they take out a pre-cooked steak, slap the steak in a hot pan, sear it off for a couple of minutes, and viola!, they can deliver a perfect steak in no time. And you can do that at home, too.

And it's not just for steak. So far, besides steaks, I've sous vide cooked ribs, chicken breasts, potatoes, and asparagus. And they all turned out perfectly with no more effort than it took me to prep them. And cleanup was a breeze: I emptied the water out of the pot and threw away the plastic bags.

Here's how it works. You take a big pot, something tall like a stock pot, and you attached the immersion circulator to the side of the pot. My circulator has a big clamp for that purpose. Then you fill the pot with water to the appropriate level. There's a “MIN” and “MAX” line etched on mine. Using hot or warm tap water will speed up the process because the machine will take less time to bring the water to temperature.

Next, you bring your vacuum sealer out. Prep and season whatever you're cooking and place it in a bag you can seal up with the sealer. You can buy premade bags or make them yourself from specially designed rolls of plastic material. You can even bypass the vacuum sealer altogether and use heavy-duty zip-top plastic bags. Since you're never going to heat anything to anywhere close to the boiling point, regular heavy-duty bags will work. Just make sure you get all the air out of them. There are a couple of ways to do this: you can leave a small opening at one corner, stick a straw in there, and suck out the air. Or you can use the water immersion method wherein you slowly submerge the bag in water until the outside water pressure forces all the inside air up and out the top of the bag. Either way works – but a vacuum sealer works better.

Once you've got your food seasoned and sealed, immerse the bag in the pot to which you have attached the circulator and turn the device on, setting the time and temperature required for whatever you're cooking. It's a good idea to secure the bag to the side of the pot so it doesn't go floating around as the water circulates. I use a binder clip. I've heard clothespins work, too. Or a small clamp. Anything that holds the bag in place. The circulator will heat the water until it reaches the desired temperature. Then the circulating motor will kick in and start moving the water. The combination of the heat and the circulation will cook your food in the preset time. Like I said, a steak takes about an hour at 135 degrees Farenheit and asparagus cooks in about twelve minutes at 175 degrees.
You simply cannot under or overcook your food because the machine keeps the water at a precise temperature for a precise length of time. You couldn't “burn” something if you tried. The temperature of the food cannot exceed the temperature of the water in which it's being cooked. And because it's vacuum sealed, there's no loss of moisture, flavor, color, texture, or aroma.

When the process is complete, you just take the bag out of the water, open the bag, remove the cooked contents, and do whatever you need to do to finish the dish. In the case of a steak, that might include tossing the steak in a hot pan for a couple of minutes to give it a nice sear. I have one of those “George Foreman” type electric grill things and it did a perfect job finishing the last steak I cooked sous vide, right down to giving it beautiful grill marks in about a minute. And no smoky kitchen full of dirty pans afterward. I emptied the water out of the stock pot and wiped down the grill surface and I was done. And there was a tender, moist, flavorful mid-rare steak with a gorgeous crust and grill marks sitting there on a plate looking delicious.

In case you couldn't tell, I'm sold on sous vide. I've always thought it was a great if somewhat expensive concept in theory, but now that it's economical enough to be practical......well, I may just go out and buy another one of the things.

There's an old aphorism that says “anything said to be 'foolproof' fails to account for the ingenuity of fools.” And I have found this to be generally true. Somebody could probably screw up a sous vide if they tried hard enough. But so far I haven't been ingenious – or foolish – enough to figure out how.

Vacuum sealers are everywhere these days and you can get a good one for a hundred dollars or less. However, even though they've become vastly more affordable, immersion circulators aren't falling out of trees. You'll have to hunt for one. Mine came from Walmart, but my local store had them on clearance. Largely because, I suspect, the average Walmart shopper didn't know what the hell the thing was and hence they didn't sell many. You can still get one at Walmart.com. Target has them, too. And you can find them at higher end stores like Williams-Sonoma, but expect to pay higher end prices: the same unit I bought at Wallyworld for sixty bucks sells for $160 at Williams-Sonoma. Bed, Bath & Beyond has one similar to mine for a hundred dollars. And, of course, there's always Amazon.

Have I piqued your interest? I hope so. Sous vide is a really great idea for both professional and home cooks. So go out and acquire the equipment and start cooking. Who knows? Your significant other may be so impressed by your new gadget that she or he will even let you keep your banana slicer or your twirling spaghetti fork.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Easy Recipe: Make Some Delicious Tomato Soup Tonight


Open Up A Different Can

It's officially “soup weather.” Now don't go by me; I like soup in July. But for most folks, when leaves start to turn, thoughts start to turn to warm, comforting soups. And nothing says “comfort” like a nice steaming bowl of tomato soup. Maybe float a few oyster crackers or some seasoned croutons in there and serve it up with a grilled cheese sandwich. How can a cool weather lunch or dinner get any better? Well, it can be a little better if you make the soup yourself.

When I was a kid, tomato soup meant the famous red and white can from Campbell's. That's what Mom made at home and even the diners and small-town restaurants of my youth proudly displayed those iconic containers. Ever since a Campbell's chemist named John T. Dorrance developed a commercially viable method for condensing soup around 1897, the time-honored method for making tomato soup has been to open a can, dump the concentrated contents into a pot, add water, stir, heat, and serve.

A hundred years or so later, “ready to eat” soups like Progresso began to make inroads into Campbell's territory by marketing themselves as being more “adult” in nature. And I'll admit that as I got older, I tended to “doctor” Campbell's soup with basil and perhaps a touch of cream. Or I'd just buy a can of Progresso's tomato and basil soup. But now I don't do either anymore. Not since I reconnected with a recipe I used to use in one of my restaurant kitchens several years ago. The results are delicious and the preparation is almost as easy as opening a can. In fact, you do open a can. It's just a different can, that's all.

I was watching an episode of one of those cooking competition shows not long ago and one of the contestant chefs – a self-taught Italian guy – made tomato soup from canned tomatoes. And all the other “cheffy chefs” got all up in arms, scoffing and turning up their oh-so-sophisticated culinary school noses at the very idea of using canned product. Well, lah-ti-dah. I'm here to tell them – and you – that there ain't the first thing wrong with using canned tomatoes for soups and sauces. Generations of Italian cooks, from little mamme and nonne at home up to the big name “celebrity” chefs on TV, all know that, even though there's a lot to be said for garden-fresh tomatoes, for the other forty-eight weeks of the year, good quality canned tomatoes are perfectly acceptable. So all those highfalutin culinary schoolers can just stick their fresh tomatoes where the sun don't shine – an image that will take me a long time to erase from my mind – and get over themselves.

And with all that said, here's how you make great tomato soup at home.

What you'll need:

1 tbsp olive oil
1 small to medium yellow onion, minced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup tomato paste
1 can (28 oz) peeled whole tomatoes, San Marzano preferred
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 or 3 tsp dried basil

And what you'll do:

In a Dutch oven or a large pot, working over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add in the minced onion, with a pinch of salt to sweat, and saute until translucent, about five minutes. Add in the minced garlic and cook an additional minute or two. Add salt and pepper and tomato paste. Cook, stirring occasionally, another two or three minutes. Add the tomatoes, the chicken broth, and the basil; stir to combine.

Using an immersion blender, blend the soup to the desired consistency. Simmer, uncovered, for about twenty minutes. Serve.

Serves 6

A few notes on the recipe.

Some recipes you'll find use butter instead of olive oil. Go for it. Either one works. I just prefer the extra layer of flavor the olive oil imparts. 
Some recipes tell you to throw in your onions and garlic at the same time. Don't. Again, build layers of flavor. It's the Italian way. Besides, garlic burns very easily and will turn brown and bitter long before the onions are translucent. 
Watch your salt; you don't want salty soup, especially since you've already used a little salt to help sweat the onions. 
And if you prefer white pepper to black, that's okay by me. 
I like tomato paste in a tube, but you can use one of the little cans if you want. You'll just wind up with half a can of paste that you'll have to figure out how to store or use up. 
I like whole tomatoes in this recipe, but diced or crushed will work as well. After all, you're going to puree them in the end anyway. But please, please, please use San Marzano tomatoes if at all possible. Yeah, they're a little more expensive, but they're well worth it. 
Low-sodium chicken broth, please. Remember what I said about salty soup. 
And if you've got fresh basil that you want to use in place of dried, that's okay, but remember to add it later in the cooking process.

If you don't own an immersion blender – go get one! No, seriously, you can just dump the soup into a regular blender or a food processor to puree it. Then you can dump it back into the pot to finish it. See, wouldn't a stick blender be easier?

This soup only takes twenty minutes or so to cook. If you want to simmer it a little longer, you can do so. It will reduce and concentrate the flavor a little more. Speaking of flavor, if you have a Parmesan rind saved in the freezer (you do, don't you?) this would be a good place to use it for an extra flavor element. And you might want to keep a pinch of sugar handy in case the tomatoes are a little too acid. A knob of unsalted butter would also tame the acid and add a nice smooth, silky finish. Totally optional. You can also make the soup creamy by adding – guess what? – a dab of cream. But do it very last thing or you risk curdling the cream.

If you find yourself with leftover soup, put it in a clean glass jar or container of your choice – remembering that plastic stains – and keep in the fridge for about a week. Or ladle it into a freezer-safe vessel – freezer bags work well – and freeze it for a couple of months.

Try it tonight. You might still keep a can of condensed or ready-to-eat in the pantry as a backup, but I can pretty much guarantee this will become your go to tomato soup of choice.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Word About Opening A Restaurant – DON'T!


It Wasn't Hell's Kitchen, It Was Kitchen From Hell

Let me warn you from the outset that this is a long, long story. And it must be read in its entirety to really be appreciated. The telling of it is something of a catharsis for me and the reading of it should be a cautionary tale for you. So go get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a nice cold beer or something and prepare to kick back.

It was about two years ago that I turned the key for the last time in the door of a restaurant with which I was involved. It had been a frustrating experience. The struggling owner had finally agreed to my help, but too late to save the business. I had agreed to a ninety-day arrangement to try to turn the operation around but once I was fully involved, it only took me about ninety minutes to realize it was all too far down the rat hole to save. Ultimately, all I could do was slow down the bleeding as we shuttered the place once and for all. I hate failure and, despite my best efforts and some nominal short-term successes, I felt like I had failed. And as I locked that door I vowed never to do it again: no more restaurants. I'm old and retired and the restaurant business is for the young and vigorous. I've got my personal chef gig to keep my hand in the game and that's enough for me.

What is it they say? Never say never?

It started again when a friend told me he was opening a brand new restaurant. He's never run a restaurant before, but he's got this great concept. After seriously questioning his sanity, I said, “Well, when you get ready to open, give me a call and I'll come look the place over.” That was it. The extent of my commitment. “I'll come look the place over,” meaning I would make sure the “i”s were dotted and the “t”s crossed when it came to health codes and licenses and such. I'd just be lending a hand to friend, that's all.

See, I have more than average restaurant experience in my family. My grandparents ran restaurants, my uncles and aunts ran restaurants, my wife and I have run restaurants, and one of my sons is in the restaurant business. And that's just the ownership and/or management end. That doesn't factor in numerous family members who have been cooks, servers, bartenders, bussers, dishwashers and the like, my own service and my wife's experience in those areas included. So I do know a thing or two about the industry and it's this knowledge that keeps getting me in trouble. That and the fact that the words “no” and “never” don't seem to exist in my otherwise extensive vocabulary.

Anyway, a few weeks go by and my friend calls me. I get an address and meet him at his new place. And it's really beautiful – from the outside. It's a grand old building in the historic district that he has spent a year-and-a-half and nearly a million dollars buying and renovating.

I found out he had sacrificed more than a quarter-million dollars in tax assistance for which he was eligible as the owner of a historic structure because he had fundamentally altered the exterior of the building by knocking out a window and a door and replacing them with a modern electric roll-up garage-style bay door. Why? Because he thought it was cool and “upscale.” He's going to open the door on nice evenings, he says. And invite in every flying, crawling, and hopping bug in the county, I thought.

Inside, it's a nightmare of ladders, construction equipment, building materials, dirt, dust, and large empty spaces. No water, no lights, no tables, chairs, stools or restaurant equipment. I ask him when he's planning to open this “upscale” palace of his and he smiles proudly and says, “Next month.” Next month? This place isn't ready to open next year! I feel weeds beginning to grow.

You might not be familiar with the term “in the weeds.” It's an idiomatic expression in the restaurant business that basically means overwhelmed or in over your head. It happens, for instance, when your dining room is slap full on a Saturday night and two of your three line cooks, one of your two prep cooks, your dishwasher, your bus person, and half your servers all call in sick. Get the idea?

My friend is Vietnamese. And he has as little taste for Italian food as I have for Asian cuisine. “Sauce too sour,” is what he tells me. I fixed a nice baked ziti one day. He took his portion back to the kitchen, chopped up a bunch of lettuce and cabbage and I don't know what all and – as my Italian grandmothers whirled like turbines in their graves – tossed it all in with the pasta. “No good,” he said. “Must have vegetable.” Anyway, I asked him what his specialty was going to be. I figured it would be something Asian and I was half right. He did indeed plan to feature Vietnamese food and some Japanese, specifically sushi. But he was also going to have Mexican food and American food on his menu. What's more, he planned to import Vietnamese cooks from Vietnam to cook the Vietnamese food, Japanese cooks were coming to cook the Japanese food, he'd find Mexican cooks to cook the Mexican food, and local American cooks would cook the American food. The weeds were now up to my ankles.

Before we go any further, let me explain that this is a very small, very rural Southern town, crippled by the declines of the tobacco and textile industries upon which it once depended. There are a couple of mom & pop diner and cafe-style operations, a couple of chain fast casual places, the usual coterie of fast food joints, and, of course, a Waffle House. To say that the local tastes are plain and unsophisticated would be a vast understatement. One of my Italian friends found this out when he opened a place in a similar town nearby. He can sell pizza and spaghetti and meatballs to the locals all day, but even the simplest Italian dishes like spaghetti aglio e olio or cacio e pepe go sailing right over their heads. I tried to caution my Vietnamese friend that his menu was too ambitious, but he remained convinced that his Vietnamese noodles and his pho were going to revolutionize the local culinary world. And the weeds grew.

They shot up another couple of inches when he asked me to recommend the names of some good-quality kitchen equipment. I went through a list: Viking, Blodgett, Vulcan, Vollrath, Globe, Garland.....several others. “Which is best?” I told him they were all good and that a lot depended on what he was looking for. I told him there were several area restaurant supply places that could help him choose and that many of them could set him up with some good used pieces for a decent price. “Oh, no! All must be new! Top quality and new! Must match!”

I went back a couple of weeks later and saw, for the first time in my life, a whole row of gleaming, brand new, still wrapped in industrial plastic top-of-the-line matching Vulcan restaurant equipment. A six-ring range with a convection oven, not one but two double fryers, a three-burner flattop, and a big honkin' charbroiler. There was also a commercial wok range and a two-burner stock pot stove especially for his soup. Throw in sandwich units and a reach-in freezer and lowboys and prep tables and......the eye-glazing list went on. I had never seen well in excess of fifty-thousand dollars worth of matching stainless steel all still wrapped in plastic. It was amazing.

Still more amazing was the little piece of equipment I saw him fiddling with at the bar. Oh, did I forget to mention his plan for a full bar with top shelf liquor, dozens of local wines, imported and domestic beer in bottles and twelve beer taps? All surrounded by seven huge flat screen TVs? And live music nightly? Anyway, he was attaching this device to the bar. I asked him what it was for. “To chill glasses,” was the response. I pointed to the bank of refrigerators and freezers already in place under the bar. “You can chill glasses in those,” I said. “This more upscale,” he replied. I inquired, “How much?” The weeds sprang higher at the reply, “Two thousand dollars.”

Then there were the custom-made tables he ordered from California at a cost in excess of $12K. With matching chairs, of course. And the banquettes; the white leather banquettes. Not faux-leather or vinyl. No. These were real textured top grain white leather, at a cost of which I am blissfully ignorant. Doesn't he realize what's going to happen to that white leather after a few butts in blue jeans slide across it and a bunch of shoes and boots start kicking it and kids start bouncing on it and spilling stuff on it? But he doesn't care: it's “upscale.” And the weeds continued skyward.

This was quite a departure for me. The last guy with whom I had worked didn't have two pennies to rub together and we had to do everything on the cheap. This guy had to be tied down and handcuffed to keep him from throwing money at everything in sight.

He began stocking his kitchen. He had more woks than I have ever seen. And he had ordered a butt-load of sizzle plates for fajitas. But there was not a single skillet or saucepan anywhere to be seen. I pointed out this obvious shortcoming and he responded by bringing in some stuff from somebody's home kitchen. He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him it all had to go. And so did the brand new Black and Decker non-commercial toaster oven he bought and set up on the line. And the dish sponges he was using to wash dishes. And about a dozen other health code violating elements I kept finding as I slogged through the growing weeds.

He began bringing in food. And the battles over properly arranging things in his walk-in cooler began. As did the constant fight to keep things off the floor. Every time I walked into the kitchen I found myself screaming, “You can't do that!” And the next day the raw food would be back above the cooked food in the walk-in and the bags of rice and sugar and what have you would be back on the floor. And the damn sponges would be back in the dish bay. And the mops would be leaned against the wall with their heads up so the dirty water could drip down the handles. And the waste baskets would be missing from the handwash sinks. And the ice scoops would be left in the ice bins. And there were always stacks of wet dishes everywhere I looked. “You have to let them dry,” I would plead. “It take too long,” was what I got in reply. I would shout, mi stai impazzire (you're driving me crazy) and he would say something in Vietnamese and the battle would rage on.

As he began to hire kitchen staff, he started listening to what everybody told him he needed to have. Some of it was stuff I had been hammering him about for weeks: pots and pans, tongs, spatulas, Cambro containers, hotel pans – basic stuff he should have had weeks ago. Now with everybody telling him to buy stuff, he went on another spending orgy and bought everything. But because his new staff had already figured out that their boss had more dollars than sense, they were convincing him to buy big ticket items like a $1,200 Robot Coupe. While those of you in the business are picking up your jaws, I'll explain to the uninitiated that this is a very expensive, very high-end commercial food processor. Did he need a food processor? Yeah. Did he need a frickin' Robot Coupe? No.

The tipping point was the menu. He had paid eight-thousand dollars to somebody who saw him coming for the design and printing of his menu. When the garish, poorly laid out but beautifully printed and spiral bound menus arrived, they were so riddled with errors that they had to be trashed and redesigned and reprinted. I handled that at a cost of less than a thousand dollars.

But it wasn't just the printed menu that was the problem. What was on that menu was the problem. Even the reps from the major food distributors were trying to tell him his eight-page menu was unsustainable. But he wouldn't listen. He plowed right ahead, buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of food that he predictably discovered overwhelmed his storage capacity.

But the best part of the debacle is yet to come. When he found – as I told him he would – that the local job pool was not neck-deep in ethnic cooks, he gave up on the idea of having a dozen chefs specializing in four specific cuisines and settled for hiring four or five local guys and gals who could cook a variety of things. But he insisted on doing the Vietnamese dishes himself. Which would have been fine had he ever spent even thirty seconds as a cook on the line and had he even known how to make the goddamn stuff himself! He hadn't a clue! He had put all this stuff on the menu based on what he liked and what he had seen in other restaurants, but he didn't know how to really make any of it!

His opening date of “next month” had long since gone by the wayside. For one thing, he had no tables or chairs: his California supplier had taken his money up front and then dragged out delivery for several weeks past the promised date. He hadn't hired any FOH staff, not the first server or host. Oh, he had a pile of applications, but no employees a week out from his new opening date. Which he planned to meet using old mismatched tables he dredged up from the basement and covered with white linen tablecloths. What he did have – besides a fractious and fractured skeleton of a kitchen staff – was his “management team.” This consisted of one semi-retired guy who had run his own country-style diner once and who had worked for a couple of chain places. And there were three young women who had been either waitresses or bartenders at local establishments. Mind you, they'd never managed a day in their young lives, but they had at least worked in restaurants. The fifth member of his team was my wife, whom he had prevailed upon at the last minute to join with and perhaps help balance out his merry band. But besides her involvement with our small personal chef business, she has a full-time job in the “big city” and had neither the time nor the interest in being anything more than a part-time “fill-in” wherever she might be needed. She made that clear at the outset.

The kicker was that none of these folks was “in charge.” There was no structure like a general manager with assistants to supervise various areas. Nope. Everybody was “equal.” Which meant everybody was running things the way they saw fit based on their own level of ineptitude and inexperience. Hiring and training staff, working out the seating, setting up the bar, learning how to operate the POS.......all this and a hundred other day-to-day details were left up to the “managers,” four of whom – including my wife – all had other full-time jobs and were only available at the restaurant on limited days and for limited hours. This left the bulk of the work to the older guy who quickly got snowed under. My wife tried to tell our friend from the get-go that this “management by committee” was doomed to failure, but he wasn't listening.

That's because he was busy back in the kitchen learning how to make the food he was advertising. As I told him, if I opened an Italian restaurant and featured bucatini al'Amatriciana or pasta puttanesca or even fettuccine Alfredo, I would damn sure know how to make the dishes before I put them on the menu! He just got pissed at me for pointing out yet another thing he didn't want to hear. And the weeds are now waist high.

Working with this guy was so maddening. There were times when even Jesus Christ would have thrown up his hands and shouted, “ME!”

There was a lot more. Like when several of us had to talk him down off the ledge because he wanted to call in the television stations for the grand opening which was to include a band and a full-fledged Chinese dragon parading around out in the street. But frankly, I'm as tired of writing about all the lunacy as you probably are of reading about it.

It all boils down to a dream. Here's a guy who has never owned, managed, or worked in a restaurant before. Hell, at this point, I'm not sure he's even been in a restaurant before. But he has a dream. And I found myself living in his dream, which – with a nod to Gordon Ramsay – was rapidly turning into my kitchen nightmare. But instead of “Hell's Kitchen,” this was kitchen from hell.

The problem with beautiful dreams is that they more often than not clash with harsh reality, and that's something I could never get my friend to see. Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes had a big hit back in 1980 with a song called “Don't Fall In Love With A Dreamer.” Truer words were never spoken.....errr...sung. I might modify the lyric a bit; change it, perhaps, to “Don't go into the restaurant business with a dreamer.”

The beginning of the end of my ride on this treno pazzo actually came when I called out his dream. Fed up and fuming beyond the usual mi stai impazzire stage one day, I told him his dream was out of touch with reality. “I know you see yourself as the smiling, genial host, circulating among tables full of happy diners consuming your liquor while your staff glides smoothly around serving them plates of delicious food to rapt and effusive praise. I know you envision stepping through the kitchen doors, where your line of immaculate cooks will be singing songs as they effortlessly prepare your exotic dishes. Even the bussers and the dishwashers will be glad for the opportunity to work in such a wonderful place.” Then I hit him square between the eyes with reality. “After the initial grand opening blush, there will be days when you won't have enough customers to make it worth opening the doors. Your servers are going to quit because they can't make enough money.” I told him his kitchen staff would break down over stress and long hours and some of them would walk without notice. When they were slammed they would be hot, sweaty, dirty and short-tempered and when they were bored they would be worse. “And nobody will be singing.” “You wrong,” he shouted. “It not be that way ever! You go too far!” Yeah, well. The only far place I went was out the door.

Good friend and damn fool that I am, I came back and stayed on through the disastrously successful opening. As predicted, he made a ton of money in the first few days. He was slammed to the walls with a butt in nearly every seat. And I found myself making trips to Walmart on opening day to replenish stocks of food he kept running out of because he hadn't listened to anybody in advance. He had to 86 mashed potatoes because he ran out of spuds and he had to 86 french fries when the freezer ran out of those. And I was buying flour tortillas by the carload because he was selling the hell out of tacos.

Burgers and tacos were his biggest selling items. His sushi did okay but his Vietnamese dishes went nowhere. Can you say “I told you so?” He changed the menu three times in the first week. Of course, by then there were hundreds of take-out menus all over town with items that weren't on the actual menu anymore and the menus on the website and Facebook were in a constant state of flux. It became kind of a game to log in and see what the “menu of the day” was. My wife and I tried to tell him to introduce the community to the unfamiliar stuff by running dishes as specials to see what caught on. But......yeah, you guessed it. He wouldn't listen.

No, that's not quite right. As the pressures and consequences of his incompetence began coming home to roost, he went from a stance of listening to nobody to one of listening to everybody. Somebody would tell him something in the morning, he would implement it in the afternoon and ditch it by nightfall after somebody else told him something different. It was quite pathetic to watch. His wife said she couldn't even talk to him about the restaurant anymore because he would just get angry.

The head cook – or at least the one who knew the most about what the hell he was doing and tried the hardest – took me aside at one point and said, “I've been doing this a long time and I've never seen anybody have to learn every fuckin' thing the hardest fuckin' way possible.” All I could say was, “Yep.”

The reviews started coming in. The food was great but the service sucked. Maybe because when I tried to tell him he needed to set up actual training sessions for the servers at least two weeks before he opened, he ignored me and let his “managers” handle it. Basically, the servers were given a crash course in how to operate the POS and then handed menus and told, “Go forth and serve.” The most consistent complaint in the reviews? “The servers don't seem to know the menu.” Well, duh! And when you change the damn thing three times in a week, what do you expect?

That's where my wife began to lose it. Not only did she wear a “manager” nametag, she also donned the hat of webmaster and menu designer, something she offered free of charge because she felt so bad for the way he had already been screwed over. She has a degree in graphic design and more than twenty-five years experience operating and managing sign shops, print shops, and the graphics department of a fairly large newspaper conglomerate. But she simply couldn't keep up. He was making changes by the hour. He was watching his menu disintegrate before his eyes and there were days when the menu that was posted when the doors opened was not the same menu that closed out the day. Because she had another job and a life outside the bedlam, my wife couldn't make the changes rapidly enough to keep pace. Well, there was a girl in the kitchen who had taken a class at a community college and who had Adobe software on her computer. When she volunteered to take over managing the hourly menu updates, our “friend,” without a moment's consultation with or consideration for my wife and all her hard work to that point, let her do it.

The hosts and the servers and the bartenders started quitting. And so did the cooks. And the bussers and the dishwashers. And, finally the “consultant” and one of the “managers” called it a day. Yep. My wife and I walked for good after one of the so-called “managers meetings” where nothing was ever really managed. Between that and the menu insult, we'd had enough. We simply got tired of being ignored and superfluous. Basta cazzate! Non me ne importa un cavolo! Non mi più essere il scemo, quindi vaffanculo! And that about says it all.

The day after I left, the health inspector dropped by: five critical violations and three non-critical ones. And every blessed one of them was for things I had stomped and shouted and fussed about day in and day out.

When my wife went down later that day to turn in her keys, it was a very contrite man who reluctantly accepted them. “I do things your way from now on. I listen to you. You see, I change. We talk soon.” Maybe. But next time he wants to talk, I'm not sure we'll listen.