Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Cook Ahead of His Time

My dad is one of my biggest influences as a cook. My dad is a former Navy cook who went to chef school on the VA Plan and then went into hospital food service in the late 60’s with the idea that just because it was hospital food it should still taste like food. I grew up in his kitchen. He had a picture of me on his desk taken when I was about age four, standing in the big mixing bowl of one the Hobart mixers that his head baker could make enough bread dough in to feed the patients and staff of a 125 bed hospital. He would tell everyone who came into his office the last few years of his career, "I knew she would be a good baker because she always wanted to play in that darn mixer".

A man ahead of the ideas of the day, he would have themes like “Pancakes Any Way You Like Them All Day” or “Pizza by the Pound” in his cafeteria. He put a salad bar in the cafeteria before any other restaurant in town had one. He had a local baker who would make him four foot loaves of French bread in his huge ovens so my dad could run his “Subs by the Inch”, a once a month special he would run for the next thirty years. This special was so popular that the local police, firemen, and even mayor would stop by the hospital to buy lunch and talk with my dad about fishing, hunting, and local politics then take a sub home to their family for dinner. He made award winning potato and leek soup during the winter and hosted the largest pig roast in the area during the summer in the back parking lot of the hospital to raise money for local charities. He had a local farmer who sold him his sweet corn during the summer and his acorn squash during the fall. He had a little herb garden in his office and a kitchen garden out behind the laundry room. The local community clubs like the Elks and Eagles would hold their meetings in the hospital so they could have my dad do the lunch or dinner. Way before hospitals started doing “ala Carte” meals to the patient rooms my dad offered the service. “Just because someone is sick doesn’t mean they should have to have bad food and have to eat on the nurses schedules”. This didn’t make him popular with the various head nurses but he didn’t care. “They aren’t the ones sitting in those beds not feeling good and the least we can do for our patients is let them eat when they feel like it.”, he would explain whenever the head administrator would ask my dad to work with the nurses on a schedule.

His proudest moment during his tenure at the hospital was when the newspaper from the big city two hours away named his hospital cafeteria one of the top ten restaurants in the three county area five years in a row in the early 80’s. I had my first taste of curry when I was in middle school at the hospital cafeteria while having lunch with my dad. Until about five years ago, the hospital cafeteria was the only place anyone in town could get Indian food without driving two hours. He had one of the doctors from India show him how to make a good curry because he didn’t want to serve something that wasn’t “authentic”. My favourite memory of my dad at work was when he got into a shouting match on the phone with the head hospital bean counter one afternoon when I was visiting his office after school. The head bean counter, who wanted my dad to start using more canned vegetables because they were cheaper, was telling my dad he wouldn’t sign off on his purchase orders to a local supplier. My dad ended the argument by offering to “discuss it over lunch the next day”. The next night over dinner, I asked how his lunch with Mr. So-and-so was. He smiled and said “Well, kiddo, here’s the story. I made a stir-fry that I know is Mr. So-and-so’s favourite lunch. We normally make it with fresh corn, green beans, carrots, and almonds. Today I made it with all canned vegetables. When he tasted it and asked what was wrong with the food, I told him I was saving him money by using canned vegetables.” Mr. So-and-so never again asked my dad again to save him money.

When my dad wasn’t working, he would putter around our kitchen toying with recipes. He would take well-known cookbooks and figure out how to make a recipe that makes six to eight servings make one hundred servings. It was from him that I learned allspice is used to boost the flavour of cinnamon and nutmeg in pumpkin pie and the sage in stuffing but if you use too much of it, the taste of the food gets bitter. “It isn’t just a matter of multiplying the amounts, Pumpkin,” he said. “It is understanding how one ingredient blends with the others. That is why you add additional spices slowly and in small amounts; tasting often”. That is a lesson I have never forgotten.

My dad retired in April this year after 35 years at the same hospital. Things had changed the last few years. A larger chain of hospitals had bought his hospital. A few years ago, the hospital administrators had brought in a food service company to save money on day-to-day operations and kept my dad on as an advisor and to manage the corporate functions held at the hospital. They put an old school nutritionist who believed that food should be healthy first and tasty second in charge of the patient food and cafeteria. The head corporate offices in Chicago ordered all the food. All day ala Carte service went away and so did the kitchen garden. The hospital’s cafeteria fell out of the top restaurants in the area lists and doctors, nurses and visitors started to go across the street to the national chain restaurants that opened a few years ago for their meals. This last year my dad would just sit in his office reading fishing and travel magazines waiting out his retirement. On his last day at work, three former mayors, six retired police and fire chiefs, a down state food critic and over 200 current and former employees held a huge retirement party for my dad. They gave him a plaque and the obligatory gold watch but my dad’s favorite retirement present was a bronzed and framed copy of one of the “Top Ten Local Restaurants” list all the head nurses gave my dad. They still remembered all the ice cream sandwiches my dad made sure were in their floor freezers and the homemade strawberry shortcake my dad would have delivered during the summer to the nurse’s lounges in the middle of the night.

My dad now lives in New Mexico. I talked to him a few nights ago as I was cooking dinner but I could hear pots and pans clanging in the background. “What are you doing Dad?” I asked. “Well kiddo, I’m trying to figure out how to make my potato and leek soup in a smaller quantity than for 200. And you should see the hot peppers down here. They are huge!” Even in retirement, with my dad some things never change...