TURNING POINTS—Three Moments in Time

Non-culinary experiences that changed my culinary life.

May 24, 2016 ● 4 min read

The act of cooking, to me, is the sum of a great many sensory experiences. Something you see, smell, hear — all of that fuels your ability to creatively interpret raw ingredients.  

The life of cooking will test you, but the finest things I have made thus far have pulled inspiration from sources outside of the food world. By indulging in other creative platforms, you’ll find inspiration to underwrite your ideas, and help you execute your culinary visions. I see flavors as colors, paying attention to their congruency, and juxtaposition; harmony and context are crucial. Technique is secondary.

Here are three watershed moments that have directly impacted the course of my approach to food.      

1.     Carl Johnson, Gouldsboro, Maine, August, 1998.  

“Being a chef is a ton of work,” Carl Johnson screams over the radio, Steppenwolf’s seminal “Born to be Wild” unspooling from the speakers. “It really is!”  

I am thirteen: an adrenaline junkie, already searching for an identity that might synchromesh with my particular brand of teenage angst. Carl is the Executive Chef at the Bar Harbor Inn and owns a small bed and breakfast nearby. He is a friend of my family, and has invited us to visit his bucolic slab of vacationland. We set up a small camp in his backyard.  

Since I am a teenager, few things in life seem less appealing than camping with my family, but there’s also Carl’s epic sourdough waffles in the mornings, trips to his smokehouse just a few miles down the road, and of course, his beautiful 1983 Porsche 911 Targa.  

My mom, by the way, has trepidations about a life in a kitchen. The thought of toiling under some “communist regime” with the under-scrapings of society (as she sees it) makes her uncomfortable. Nevertheless, she has briefly released my brother and I into the custody of this chef; she doesn’t know that this moment will set me on a course towards the very life she fears so greatly.  

Eager to show off his confident handling of the nearly abandoned Maine highways, Carl cycles up and down through the gears. Somewhere on the Gouldsboro Peninsula, between 110 and 120 miles per hour, a fascination takes hold in my chest, and for the first time, I hear it in my head: Chef. I’m going to be a chef. 

During the nine-hour car ride home, I mull over the brutal life of the kitchen, of Carl’s life: the challenges it posed, and the spoils it afforded its victor. The dopamine begins to set in, and from then on my consciousness is occupied by culinary visions.      

2.     Dave Brubeck, Albany, New York, October 14, 2009.    

I am peeling back the artichoke-like layers to my own heart, preparing to turn and sculpt it while living and cooking abroad. After three years living on my own in Boston, it’s time to continue my culinary apprenticeship, and I’ve secured a six-month opportunity to cook at Mugaritz, in the Basque region of Spain. 

I desperately covet a road journey of the Kerouac variety, and have nearly completed the sale of all of my worldly belongings in order to finance this radical sabbatical across the sea. I live at home, surviving on yogurt and instant ramen. Correctly sensing the desperate mental effects of this spartan lifestyle, my mom surprises me with tickets to see Dave Brubeck.  

On the eve of my departure, I watch as Brubeck, every bit of his 88 years, slowly makes his way to the grand piano. He saunters up to the bench, famous Harry Carey-esque spectacles in place. Perched in front of the instrument, he gently extends his hands, palms down, greeting an old friend.  

Then it happens: the man shoots lightning from his fingertips. “Crescent City Stomp,” “Elegy,” the classics. Unstoppable. Fierce. He hits the keys with the sure deliberation of a cardiac surgeon in a trauma unit. Then comes “Take Five,” and for eleven minutes, Brubeck carefully detaches an entire room of cerebral cortexes and parks his wall of sound in the hearts of his crowd. Even in his twilight, he is a maestro.  

After two hours of this, I am in pure, unadulterated bliss. I forget the technical ways I’ve thought about food for months. I forget my readiness to morph into a wallflower at one of the best restaurants in the world. I stop thinking of everything I am giving up, handing over, or otherwise sacrificing, and I just listen.    

3.     New York City, December 2012.    

I am 27, and this is one of the toughest seasons of my life. The restaurant project that I have been working incessantly on for months and months, Governor, shutters for good after Hurricane Sandy. As a result, I am cast listlessly into an ocean of sentiments I am unprepared for — and it’s the holidays. I am alone in the busiest city on earth.

I begin exploring the galleries of New York City. I stand before masterpieces and fantasize about menus, scribble down ideas for dishes, sketch pictures. Soon, most of what I make, or aspire to make, is a direct result of something that has visually arrested me.  

If I read about Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly, an erratic aesthetic begins to grace my plating. Thin stalks of asparagus, precariously stacked, makes me think of sculptor Alexander Calder. Beets are Gerhard Richter, whose broad paint strokes come to life in a thick, vibrant magenta puree swiped across a plate. Potatoes make me think of the stone works of Isamu Noguchi. I imagine a tomato salad as Dali (paper-thin slices draped ceremoniously over crisp lengths of grissini) and Picasso (natural curves bisected by crisp knife cuts, arranged in a teetering tower).  

Through the work of these masters, I find catharsis, meaning, direct inspiration. In a few months, when I find myself back at the helm of a restaurant, the plate forever cements itself as my canvas, a way to escape and express.  

By Chef Greg Kuzia-Carmel