This is a little "getting to know you" exercise that I did with the help of my friend Marshall. He has been a part of my life since the early 80's and the Navy, and he knows me better than anyone.
RP Thanks for doing this.
MP Thanks for allowing me to be a part of it.
MP Let's start with, who are you and where are you from?
RP My friends call me Reg. I grew up in Chicago.
MP Chicago, that's a big food town isn't it?
RP So I've heard. I can't give you anything firsthand, I haven't actually lived there since before I met you, probably 25 years or so. I'm sure it's changed a lot in that respect, all positive of course. I'm sorry I missed it. I'm much more into food and cooking now than I was when I lived there, but I do have some distinct food memories that are kind of unique to the city.
MP Tell me about some of them.
Anyway, the story they tell guests is that the building that now houses the restaurant was a lookout post for that event. They did this thing called an oven grinder. They would take cheese and sauce and meat and vegetables, put them in a bowl, and stretch pizza dough over the top and bake it. When they broght it to the table, they would turn the bowl upside down and work the dough off and all of the gooey cheese and sauce and such would come out and settle into the "crust." They were awesome, and I've never seen them anywhere else.
MP Sounds good, any others?
RP BBQ of course. On the south side there's at least one "joint" in every neighborhood, and they're all good. My uncle was a barber, and his shop on Cottage Grove shared a parking lot with one. They had a broken down box truck in the lot that they stored their wood in. I spent my entire childhood walking past that truck, into the back door of my uncle's shop to get my hair cut, through that fog of hickory smoke. I'll always remember that smell. Also, I would have to include Kosher delis. My first job working with food was at a little place in Hyde Park owned by a man named Sol Tannenbaum. Vienna Beef hot dogs with anti-freeze green relish, Polishes, combos, corned beef, the works, and no ketchup allowed in the building!
MP What's up with ketchup?
RP You never put ketchup on a dog in Chicago. If a deli gives you that option, eat somewhere else!
MP What about "combos?" What's a combo?
RP French bread, split, an Italian sausage link in the bottom, topped with Italian beef. It's another one of those things that's just pure Chicago.
MP How about these days, and where you now live?
RP It's not so much about that kind of experience any more. That's just not how it works. To me now it's more about raw goods and the process. My favorite thing about where I live is the vibrant agricultural industry that gives rise to just unbelievable fresh produce in season, and farmers' markets. Every city around here has one, and they get bigger each year. I love them.
MP What kinds of things do you like to cook and eat?
RP As far as cooking, my roots are in the southern US. I come from proud, God fearing, Mississippi farm folk. I already confessed my penchant for fresh produce. I enjoy dabbling in what I've heard described as Northwest cuisine. Buffalo, elk, fresh salmon and steelhead, and fresh veggies. Out of season I like playing with spices. Ethnic cuisines that use a lot of spice are my favorites, Thai, Korean, Indian, and regional US stuff like Cajun and Southwest. As for eating, by far my favorite is street food, wherever I happen to be.
MP You did some travelling when you were in the military, did you eat street food then?
RP Absolutely, I lived on it. It's the best way to experience a culture, sitting at a sidewalk table or on the curb, people watching, and taking in the sounds and the smells, and the simplest of food, which often says quite a lot about a place and a people, more than you might think.
MP How so?
RP Street food usually comes from basic, local ingredients. It reflects all aspects of the surroundings. it is the physical manifestation of the spot on the earth you happen to be inhabiting at that moment. It is prepared in a way that shows respect to and makes the most of modest ingredients, and it is offered and consumed in an atmosphere of informality and simple enjoyment. There's nothing like grilled beef sticks after a night of drinking in Thailand, or a having a fried rice and egg bowl from a stall on a street in Hong Kong at 7AM, or tacos wrapped in little sheets of newspaper in Mexico, while a local chats you up, trying to impress you with how well they speak english, and turning you on to the perfect stretch of beach or the night club with the best music and drinks.
MP I sense a theme here, lots of fast food, or fast style food.
RP Well we're talking about stuff I did 20 years ago, I was much younger and thinner then. However I feel compelled to point out that fast food and street food are not the same thing. I'm talking about simple, honest food. The mass produced, chemically laden, nutritionally void fast food of today is one of the worst things we've managed to do to ourselves as a culture. Plain, unadorned, humble street food is a completely different thing.
MP Are you that critical of all foods?
RP No. I don't think I'm critical at all. I simply call a thing what it is. I worked for a company that made french fries for America's most successful fast food chain. You know the one. Salt and fat, that's what gives them their flavor. In R&D and marketing they make jokes about it. None of that stuff is made with you in mind. You have to keep fast food in perspective, that's all. It's cheap, it makes you feel full, and the people who sell it have to make margin. What kinds of ingredients do you think lend themselves to those requirements? If you understand it for what it is and you still enjoy it, there's no shame in it. It's a personal choice. Now, as for food outside that category, people tell me all the time that they are intimidated cooking for me and I really don't get that. I eat and ENJOY other peoples' cooking all the time. I know what my food tastes like. This gives me a chance to experience other interpretations and other expressions of the ingredients. I taste constantly throughout the process of putting together a dish or a meal. By the time its done, I'm no longer hungry and the anticipation is gone. Anticipation is a big part of the experience. I enjoy my own food but I enjoy other peoples' food far more.
MP Who have you learned to most from in the kitchen? Who is or were your major influences?
RP My mother and grandmother. I watched them cook for their families for decades. That's where I picked up the fundamentals, that's where I learned about frugality and ingenuity in cooking, and sharing food with loved ones and seeing it as a part of a larger, social construct.
MP What are three things you always have on hand?
RP Coarse Kosher salt, a grinder full of peppercorns, and fresh garlic. I use all three just about every day.
MP Do you have a process or a ritual when you cook?
RP I like to have some background noise. Music or NPR. If it's appropriate I'll have a drink or a glass of wine while I'm working. If I'm cooking with spirits, I always drink what I'm cooking with while I'm cooking. I'm not fond of talking to people while I'm cooking. Only because I don't like having a conversation with a person when I can't give them my full attention. If I'm hosting, I'll do the bulk of the work while I'm alone, and by the time the guests arrive, all I have left is assembly and service. That way I don't have to be rude and carry on apart from everything else that's going on.
MP You mentioned spirits, and you are a brewer and a winemaker. Tell us about that.
RP As for the process, it would take too much time and space to get into it now. But what I drink changes and depends mostly on the season. I drink pale ales year round, bocks and Oktoberfests in the fall, porters, stouts and barleywine through the winter, moving into browns and reds in the spring, and cream ales and hoppy IPA's during the summer. I used to do a batch of hefewiezen and at least one batch of Czech pilsner each summer. The pilsner takes a lot of care and feeding and ties up my equipment for an extended time, but it's worth it. Wheats are not my favorite, I drink them on rare occasion. I used to do them basically because I had friends that requested them. Since college, there aren't as many people in my life that I can call on to come over and power down a keg, so I haven't done one in a while. The same with fruit beers.
MP What about wine and cocktails?
RP With wine, that depends on the season too. I drink more in the cold months and not so much in the summer. I like anything that has character and compliments to food or the company its being served with. I don't have a lot of wine rules, I drink whatever sounds good to me at the time. I like big flavors and tannin and oak, but I also like subtle, light, and refreshing wines too. I like ports and sherries, especially with a cigar. About the only thing I'm not big on is dessert wine. I mean I've tried some sweet wines, and enjoyed them, but I get more out of them in cooking rather than drinking. As far as cocktails go, there's no pattern there. It's all about the day and the occasion.
MP What's the biggest cooking mistake or failure in one of you meals that no one knows about?
RP Come on. Do you think I would tell? If the presentation isn't to my standards it hits the bin and no one ever knows about it. However, I am far more demanding of myself than others are and I see things they don't. So I try to be reasonable in my evaluation and if a dish can be salvaged after something goes wrong, it gets salvaged. It might appear on the plate a bit differently than planned but the diner will still enjoy it. That's part of being a capable cook, making things work in a fluid construct, with things that sometimes behave in unpredictable ways. That's what makes it fun. I do stress though that I will never put anything inedible on a plate. I don't try to trick people with inferior ingredients or a dish that has gone sideways in a big way. I would rather start over.
MP Okay, time to bring this to a close... Any parting advice?
RP I don't give advice, but I will share some insight... Don't underestimate the value of the fundamentals. Knife skills, timing, and being able to read the food as it cooks are things that seperate a good cook from a hack. They are also things you can't be taught. They are tools that have to be developed, over time, fed by patience and a sincere desire to connect with the food. That said; Be fearless, explore, don't be afraid to fail. Don't be discouraged when things go off the tracks, it happens. Pick up, move on, and do it differently the next time. Taste, taste, taste, all along the way. Flavors change during the process. Don't get caught up in other peoples' rules. If you like asparagus or artichokes with white wine, do it! Do what works for you. Share your food with people you care about. Fill all the chairs around the table, eat, drink, and laugh, a lot. Life is short. And lastly, don't ever lose your curiosity. Don't ever stop striving for that next new and unique experience. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there and try something unfamiliar or even a little scary. No one ever fully lived a life by always coloring inside the lines.
MP Its been a pleasure having this conversation with you my friend.
RP The pleasure has been mine, with every added year of knowing you, the pleasure is mine.
RP Fried shrimp from Lawrence's, White Castle burgers, and oven grinders.
MP What's an oven grinder?
RP There was this place on Clark Street, across from where the warehouse used to be, that was the site of the St. Valentine's day massacre. You know, where Al Capone had members of the Moran gang tricked into an ambush assasination by gunmen dressed as cops.