Ghost in the Kitchen – Part 2
mac & cheese

Click here to read Part 1 “I bought another book today.” “Where, on eBay?” “Yes.” Christian shifts in his seat to face her. “Could you please… slow down.” She sucks air between her teeth, “Relax.” Silence. “I’m not speeding. And why waste money on books? No one reads like that anymore.” “I do.” His hands betray his annoyance at her tone and he deliberately turns his head toward the oncoming lights. “Do you?” “It’s old-fashioned.” His jaw tightens. The tail lights of a tractor-trailer wink in and out of the darkness. “Ten years ago, kitchens used real recipes to make food. Back then I used to cook – with real vegetables that still had dirt on them. I used a real knife and a cutting board and made salads with real lettuce and dressing.” His voice grows quiet as he utters the last syllable. Unbidden, an image of him wearing a chef’s jacket surfaces. His next sentence comes out in a rush, “Now it’s just a matter of mixing one flavor strip with the next.” She grips the steering wheel more tightly and the car speeds up. Christian sighs and says, “Celia, let the GPS take us home.” “No.” “Why are you so stubborn? Let the computer do what it was programmed to do. He reaches out and strokes her cheek.  “I promise… promise to stop living in the past.” Celia allows the tension to leave her shoulders. “It’s just that sometimes, I feel as if you’re trying to make the […]

Ghost In The Kitchen
Ghost in the Kitchen

“Lord, I need a break.” Christian muttered. Nora the grill cook snorted in disgust as her boning knife peeled the tough silverskin off a beef tenderloin. It was the last loin on her cutting board, and Christian glanced at her hotel pan, already filled with six long cylinders of butchered prime. As she hustled to get ready for the evening service, she pushed past him to grab the scale from the shelf and position it in front of her cutting board. “Christian!!! Are you talking to yourself again? Muttering all that mumbo-jumbo crap…. If you’re gonna go crazy, do it on your own time, pantry boy!” Even as she spoke, her knife never stopped cutting; her stack of tenderloins became thick portions of filet mignon. Christian sighed, but said nothing. Secretly, Nora scared him.  She was just 5’3”, but her fights with the other cooks were legendary. A mean drunk with a penchant for fighting when her lewd advances were not reciprocated, Nora had been dragged out of more bars than Christian could count. But she always showed up for her shift on time, cooked like a beast, was never in the weeds, and moved masses of meat on a volcano-hot grill any given night. No one wanted to piss Nora off – especially not when she had a razor-sharp boning knife in her hand. In this kitchen, Christian’s pantry station was less than a knife’s throw away from her grill. He picked up a case of romaine and walked […]

Jomo’s Banana Bread Story
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For many years, all I ever wanted was to become a pastry chef. I spent years working in the pastry kitchens of several leading hotels in Jamaica. For those few glorious years, all my dreams were as rich as dark chocolate laced with Meyers rum and whipped cream. I was filled with the enthusiasm of youth, and proud of my prowess with a palette knife and piping bag. To this day, I still can decorate a cake in five minutes flat. My most treasured possession was a small hardcover notebook that I kept in the breast pocket of my uniform. It was the fashion in my kitchen for every pastry cook to own a notebook. Whenever the pastry chef taught us something new, we would dutifully copy the recipe and in this way make it our own. This was long before the internet. Smart phones were unheard of. We learnt by making things over and over again until committed to memory. I still remember the recipe for pound cake as clearly as the day it was given to me. This notebook – this magical tome if you will; in a sense we were all sorcerer’s apprentices studying and learning from the master – contained all our secrets. Our recipes were jealously guarded and shared only amongst ourselves. My book was four years in the making, every recipe tried and true. It was a source of great pride and I often swore: “If I ever lost my book I would stop doing pastry.” […]

Oxtail on My Mind
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My culinary repertoire is limited. Numerous attempts at disputing this fact, have led me irrevocably to the same conclusion- I cannot cook! Like any male faced with this sort of predicament, it is easy to find someone else to blame. Similar to being born with a non- life threatening deficiency, my theory insists, that my failure to feed myself is a matter of genetics. My mother was a horrible cook, and hated the kitchen passionately. Somehow in the transition from womb to birth, she was able to pass some remnant of this kitchen hating gene on to me. For her, the kitchen was a mythical hydra that strove with great ferocity to protect its lair, by scorching béchamel sauce, overcooking pasta, and roasting her Thanksgiving turkey to a crisp cinder.

The Dance
THE LINE

The Dance It’s called the line, and each night we dance: Bend, twist, lift, swing – A ghostly symphony that waits and plays by ear.    An orchestra: Pots, pans, oil sputters, the Garland burner roars, Refrigerators hum, a freezer’s occasional chime.   Pivot right, turn left, the MICROS begins to sing, The rhythm crests, pulses. Entrees hot and salads cold.   We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation it deserves.   We know our parts, and wait expectantly. The MICROS sings, the rush begins: Focus, push – the line moves as one.   Cooks, shoulder-to-shoulder: Adrenaline rush, purpose, Entrees hot and salads cold.   We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation it deserves.   Foxtrot lively, brisk, quick, Nicoise, Waldorf, Cobb, Caesar, Salsa picante, moves meringue – sweat, pivot, timing.   Seared halibut, glazed spring vegetables, Well-done rib eye, tempura onion rings, peppercorn, Sweet symphony, graceful, finesse.   Tiramisu, sorbet, cobbler, Macaroon, red velvet, Entrees hot and salads cold.     We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation it deserves   We special few cook with hand, heart, and mind, Converting more than recipes from books, A mirepoix of memories and tradition.     The bounty of the earth: So, night after night we gather – Hot kitchen, cold kitchen.     Begin the dance. The chorus sings: Entrees hot and salads cold!   We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation […]

CurryLOVE
Different types of curry from India, Asia and the Caribbean

The word curry has different meanings. In the English language, curry can refer to “an attempt to gain favor or approval from someone through flattery”  – hence the saying, “to curry favor”. The word curry is more popularly used to describe a blend of spices that traces its origins to the Asian continent. Curry is ubiquitous throughout the cuisines of South Asia, especially India, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam. Unseasoned cooks subscribe to the popular misconception that curry is a single spice. In fact, there is no true spice called curry; it is a blend of spices which vary from one region of the world to the next. Curry recipes in India can change from household to household and run the gamut from mild to searingly hot and spicy. Curry can be yellow or red or green, depending on the herbs and spices used in the blend. Common ingredients in curry powder include: coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds,  cumin, fennel seed, mustard seed,  poppy seed, chili pepper and turmeric.  The powdered turmeric root gives curry that distinctive yellow hue which most westerners are accustomed to seeing. The word curry resides on a deeper and more personal level in my West Indian psyche. To speak of curry is to think of roti with split peas and dahl… A birthday party… the fair… the local cook shop. The smell of curry-spiced meat sizzling in a Dutch pot takes me home to my island heritage. Curry is a 13 year old boy living on a cattle farm in Jamaica, workers in […]

Sous Chef, I Know You
Sous Chef

Sous Chef, I know you. Your life has changed. For a split second, the room stands still and in that one brief moment, I look down. “There’s an asparagus peel on my shoe.” It’s an errant thought and I mentally swat it away and force myself to breathe. My executive chef points and my eyes follow the motion of his hands and see the embossed folder lying on his desk. It’s there on paper – the title, I mean – all neatly printed in bold font. I sign my name and he says ,“Congratulations, proud, good job, yada yada yada,” and all I’m thinking is “I need a drink.” It came so quickly, Sous Chef … I know you can never be truly ready. I’ve spent years preparing for this one moment. I’ve worked hard, then forced myself to work harder. I’ve endured the insults and absorbed the pain. I remember one night when I was working the grill. It was just before service, and we had more than a hundred reservations on the books. It didn’t help that our executive chef was anal about every little detail; we were all tense and our fear was palpable. He strode over to my station and took a black truffle the size of a ducks’ egg and told me to shave some for service. I was nervous: the truffle slicer was razor sharp, and I sliced my palm open. I ran to the back with a kitchen rag wound tightly around my bleeding […]

Remembering Ackee & Saltfish with Roast Breadfruit
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Seedlings from the ackee tree were brought from West Africa along with slaves in the early 1700’s. Every Jamaican knows that ackee can be poisonous; never pick the fruit before the pods fully open on the tree. I’ve never been poisoned by ackee. Growing up, I was a willful child, but I did pay attention when my grandmother was teaching me how to prepare it.  We would sit on the verandah with the basket between us, filled to the brim with bright orange pods. As she plucked the ripe ackee arils from the pod, I would use a small knife to remove the shiny black seed. Grandma loved to gossip, and as we worked she would tell stories of people who had been poisoned by ackee. She would always end by pointing a finger, warning, “Jomo, don’t forget to tek out the red membrane; is poison, yuh know.” Eventually the creamy yellow arils would fill the plastic container on my knees, and we would head to the kitchen to boil them. Ackee, breadfruit, and salted codfish are all transplants that traveled along slave routes in the heyday of European colonialism. Both plants adapted well to Jamaican soil and flourished in our tropical climate. As for salted codfish, it was a staple of any oceangoing fleet of that time –especially the British colonists who settled the Caribbean. Establishing vast sugarcane plantations, colonists bought slaves from West Africa to work the land. The slaves were forced to adapt to their new surroundings and gradually […]

Growing Up Country
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Albany, St. Mary, is a small village deep in the Jamaican countryside. In its heyday, St. Mary was known as the “banana parish”; hundreds of acres were dedicated to growing the plant for export to Britain.  In the “good old days”, Jamaica had a preferential trade agreement with Britain, guaranteeing better prices for Jamaican bananas in British markets. Then in the “best interest of free trade”, multinational fruit distributors  quickly put an end to that arrangement.  Thanks to Dole, Chiquita, and Delmonte, the Jamaican banana industry lost its small share in the European marketplace. My story begins long after the heyday of the banana plantation. My mother had recently remarried, and her husband (now my stepdad) had decided to follow his dream and become a farmer. For us, it meant leaving Montego Bays’ bright street lights, movie theatres, supermarkets and neat subdivisions of concrete houses. I was nine and I cried when I saw my new home. We had no neighbors. I was swallowed by a kaleidoscope of varying hues of grass, trees and shrubs. Searing like a Scotch bonnet pepper, bush was coming out my nostrils, my ears and my brain. Bush as far as the eye could see – surrounded by it – bush was everywhere. But my stepfather  worked hard to turn this wilderness into farmland.  He rented a huge D9 Caterpillar tractor to create a patchwork of crude roads so the Land Rover would not break an axle. Pumpkin and Scotch bonnet pepper were planted for export. Seedlings from coconut trees were planted […]

Channeling Breadfruit
breadfruit&bacon

There are no breadfruit trees in Atlanta although I’ve seen the fruit for sale at the Buford Highway farmers market; but buying a breadfruit nestled in air conditioned comfort, thousands of miles from its native soil, is not the same as roasting one just picked from the tree. For me, it’s as natural to eat a slice of hot buttery roast breadfruit as it is for Americans to enjoy a bagel or croissant with their coffee. It’s been a year and some months and I long for a taste of my homeland.