I didn't come from a gourmet family. I grew up on spaghetti, meatloaf, and tuna casserole...the one with crunchy noodles on top. Not that I ever felt deprived, I liked those things. In fact, year after year my mother's meatloaf beat out McDonald's for my birthday dinner. But it never occurred to me to learn how to make any of them; aside from the occasional batch of cookies, I stayed out of the kitchen. Like a lot of people I suppose, I didn't realize the importance of having a repertoire of good recipes until I left home.
In my case, I left home to study music in Paris. When I got there I arranged for lessons and rented a room, it was a tiny room that, in other times, would have been the maid's room. There was no refrigerator, no stove, no cupboard (there wasn't even a table! My "kitchen" was a sink with cold water and a hot plate on a chair. Now, whether it's a chambre de bonne in Paris or your first apartment out of college, there is nothing like those first few nights to show you what you can do. I quickly discovered that my repertoire was limited to plain white rice and green beans. So between my non-existent kitchen and the strange-looking products in shops, I became very fond of bread, cheese, apples, and raw carrots. I've got to say though, I was kind of into it. I mean, an artist is supposed to starve in Paris, right?
I got by on this diet for almost two years before my money ran out and I returned home to Denver, Colorado. I was still intent on being a musician but in the meantime I needed work. Wanting to at least keep my language skills up, I answered an ad for a French speaking waiter. My interview didn't go well (I knew nothing about escargots, less about service, and could barely open a bottle of wine (the only wine I could afford in Paris had a plastic cap). But I spoke French and I must have struck the owner as a hard worker because he offered me a job as a dishwasher.
I took it because a) I didn't expect to be there long ( I naively figured that in a matter of months I'd become a world famous cellist. b) I could practice French with the owner and waiters. And c) I needed the money. About two weeks into the job (just about the time I was ready to pump gas rather than scrub another pot) the pantry cook walked out and I was offered his position. Even though I wasn't a cook, the first few days went fine: arranging thin slices of pate on plates wasn't exactly rocket science.
The event that changed my life took place when I came to work and found a case of tomatoes on my table. As I was tying my apron, the chef told me to peel them right away. About ten minutes later I heard him coming over to my station: "Say Ryan, are you done with my tomatoes yet?" I was standing there with a potato peeler in one hand and a butchered up tomato in the other. The situation could have gone either way, but he chose to find the scene incredibly funny. He took the case, dumped them into a pot of boiling water, waited a few seconds, scooped them out and started squeezing them out of their skins. You could have knocked me over with a feather...I thought it was about the coolest thing I'd ever seen. That night I called everyone I knew to tell them about peeling tomatoes.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created 1996
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