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I’ve long been into food.

I blame it on my maternal grandmother – Gogo. Gogo alternated her working life as a school lunch cook, a leather craftsman and as Camp Cook for the youth basketball camp run by the pro-basketball team – Portland (OR) Trailblazers.

Some of my earliest food memories as a young boy are of miles of pancakes on a camp griddle, catching crayfish (crawdads) in the stream for a boil, catching Oregon Dungeness crab, “Bush-Up-The-Street Blackerry Pie” and misty Oregon weather punctuated with strong dark coffee whilst playing pirates at her home on the Oregon coast.

My evolution as a foodie continued with direct parental influence. My dad, a pretty damn good cook and avid gourmand, exposed us to great restaurants all over the West. I’ve wondered since if he found some of these through his career as an IRS auditor. My mom continued the legacy of her family, focusing on the influences from a family history relocating in the 1920s from a butcher shop in Meriden CT to the gastronomic abundance of Oregon. Together, with three other couples in my hometown of Helena Montana, they founded a supper club that was the envy of the state capitol – acronymed H.O.G.S. – the Helena Obese Gastronomic Society.

It was years later, after treating college romantic adventures to the culinary scene in San Francisco, that I chose professional cooking as a career. It all started with muffins at the U.S. Army Quatermaster Foodservice School in Fort Lee, VA. Perhaps I was an early Alton Brown.. I was simply amazed that putting slop into an oven could transform into such succulent beings, full of complex structure, aroma and taste. That was the beginning – an epiphicanical gastronomic event.

My culinary training began at the hand of chef and restauranteur rockstars in Portland Oregon (just today lauded in an article in New York Magazine Column Grub Street, by Michael Nagrant, calling PDX “the goddamned Fertile Crescent”) during the late 1980s and early 90s.

The first (and later) influencer and mentor was Riccardo Spaccarelli, Chef/Owner of Riccardo’s Ristorante in Lake Oswego. At the time Riccardo’s was a small 50 seat Northern Italian neighborhood joint – but even from the beginning, Richard was not ordinary. He cared about his crew and product, focusing on good people and the gastronomy of northern Italy. Richard sourced his ingredients locally, long before it was a craze popular across the country. His liquid dairy products and meats were sourced in the late 1980s from within the bounty of the region. One of my fondest memories is sharing the cap of solid cream from the glass jars with Richard.

My second influence was at the merciless hands of Chef David Strouts. Dave was imposing – six foot five tall and over 350 lbs wide. With the toque blanc donned – THAT was a Chef. While I apprenticed under Dave, he competed for the first time at the International Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt GER, bringing back a couple of medals. My specific memory of assisting Chef with that effort, was carving 250 perfectly round (measured with a micronometer) half-inch carrot balls, so that he could select 50 to take, stored in dry ice with all the other ingredients and accoutrements, to the competition – and use sixteen of them. Dave taught me well on sourcing food, the elemental knowledges of culinary history/art/flavor/tenchinques, and what it meant to be Chef in community. Dave went on to become the President of the Chefs de Cuisine Society of Oregon. Back then, Portland was experiencing the beginnings of an intense gourmet scene.

A brief stint in the Seattle area – mostly shucking oysters at a bar and shooting pool until closing time, was followed by my first Head Chef position. I returned to Riccardo’s in Lake Oswego (now with a complete renovation and addition of a 100 seat courtyard) and a year later was named Chef. It was during this time that Richard was awarded “Organic Restaurant of the Year 1993” by Oregon Tilth (the first organic coop in the USA). Working for Richard and his lovely wife Georgette has remained in my “top” experiences as a chef. We changed twenty percent of the menu nightly, using either locally grown or authentic northern Italian ingredients. Richard focused on small, high-end wineries from northern Italy, building a reputation over twenty years as the restaurant to drink that particular type of wine.

It’s here that I must thank Richard and Georgette for three incredible experiences – all that changed my life.

Richard and Georgette encouraged me to participate as Chef in three different happenings:

  • the 1993 signing of the Chef’s Collaborative Charter Statement of Principles on the Willamette Waterfront
  • participation over several years in Share Our Strength’s Taste Of The Nation
  • and the 1994 annual conference of Chef’s Collaborative at Fetzer Vineyards in northern California.

In the fall of 1994, they took me to northern Italy for ten days. We visited five wineries a day, learning the vintners and the wines, immersing ourselves deeply in the culture, traditions and gastronomy of the region. I have to say, that if that sounds like fun, it is. It’s also very hard to stay sober by the end of the day. On a personal note to Richard – I’m soo glad I was not busted by the USDA for smuggling a $1000 worth of truffles back into the States.

It’s from this point that my traveling adventures in food began. I spent fourteen years in New England learning it’s cuisine, traveled to the mid-Atlantic and Southwest states, visited with Chefs John Besh, Susan Spicer, Floyd Cardoz and Mary Sue Milliken in New Orleans after Katrina (a Share Our Strength adventure) and spent ten days in Nicaragua (tasting the cuisine and coffee while helping a small rural village build a community kitchen).

After nine experiences as Head or Executive Chef, I’ve retired the toque blanc – only for health reasons – I love food, cooking, agriculture and the people too much to leave the industry.

My ambition and goal with Savant Culinaire is simple – to travel with new friends on gastronomic adventures around the world. Please join me – we’ll have a fantastic time together!

[cross-posted on Kitchen Dances blog]