Here’s how I got into food. I love to share this story because I think it gives others hope. I was married at 18 and must confess that up to that point I had rarely stepped inside a kitchen. My father’s work took the family to Brazil and when you grow up in Brazil you get a few perks; a maid and a cook to name a few. My parents did encourage us to clean up after ourselves but the kitchen belonged to Cida – that was her territory and she wasn’t looking for any help. I was eating some pretty amazing food and probably had a sophisticated palate for a teenager but had no idea how it all came together.
So when I got married things were a bit scary. To add to the challenge my husband and I were poor college students and we had budgeted $20 a week for groceries (this is 1975) and that included all the food plus essentials like toothpaste, laundry supplies, etc. What that meant was that everything had to be made from scratch.
I had been given a volume of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook as a wedding gift and that became my cooking companion. But even then I could rarely afford all the ingredients a recipe called for and so the improvisation and substitution began. I remember making a Beef Wellington with ground beef (instead of beef tenderloin), using caramelized onions and mushrooms (in place of the liver pate) and for the puff pastry I was forced to make my own since I couldn’t afford the store bought. I was so proud of myself.
At this point I have to stop and thank my family. My husband and two sons were such grateful eaters. They were thrilled with anything that came to the table which just fueled my desire to do more and more in the kitchen. There were days when my boys would leave for school and I couldn’t wait to get in the kitchen and start cooking and before I knew it they were walking in the front door and asking “what’s for dinner?” Those first 10 years of married life were the best education and training I could have ever received.
So how do you get from home schooling to professional cooking? Once our boys were in school fulltime I felt compelled to return to school and get a bachelor’s degree. I poured over college course catalogues looking for a major that would turn me on. Nothing got my attention. One evening my husband I were reviewing the catalogue together and after a frustrating hour he closed the book and simply asked me what I liked to do. I remember being somewhat embarrassed and then telling him that what I really enjoyed was cooking. From that moment on he became my greatest ally and even though neither of us had a clue as to what the future would hold he was determined to help me get there.
The first step was saving up for cooking school and learning French. In 1991 I attended Le Cordon Bleu Paris Cooking School and spent three months in an intensive summer program. I came home more excited and passionate than ever. I enrolled that Fall in the culinary program at Boise State University and two years later had my associate degree in Applied Science. I was 36 years old and ready to work but had no desire to start as a dishwasher or even a prep cook in a restaurant working evening shifts and weekends. I had to find the perfect job. Or create it.
One day I was walking through what was the only gourmet cooking store in Boise (at the time) and I noticed that at the back of the store was a kitchen and small eating area. I asked the clerks about the space and they said that they used the kitchen to make picnic gift baskets for special events and that the tables and chairs were set up for customers to relax and enjoy biscotti with their coffee. That was it! I visited with the owner and with in a month I was running a Monday through Friday lunch operation and occasionally on Saturdays would teach a cooking class. What a dream job!!! In fact if the store hadn’t gone out of business I think I would still be there.
I loved the work. I got to create dishes and change the menu daily. I worked on a tight budget (which I was very good at) and utilized every ounce of product. I even got a taste of managing and maintaining a small staff which I quickly learned is the biggest challenge in running a restaurant. The business was getting in my blood and I think I was good at it. As I taught Saturday classes I visited with so many people who had questions and were struggling with cooking dilemmas. I felt the need to create a platform to share some of the things I had learned from trial and error. So I approached the general manager of our public radio station and after some serious effort on my part and trust on their side I began hosting a daily two-minute food program (called Food for Thought) that shared not recipes, but a cooking tip for the day; just something to make life easier in the kitchen.
That information was so well received that the program director of the ABC television affiliate in Boise (who happened to be a public radio fan) asked me to join the morning show and pass on the same kind of useful kitchen techniques, not recipes. I latched onto the opportunity and did that for a number of years.
I am wrapping this up….in the meantime the gourmet cooking store goes out of business and so goes my dream job. Because I have developed a reputation in the community through radio and television my husband and I optimistically decide to open a restaurant in downtown Boise (I run the place and he gives me all kinds of support since he has his own business). Those were the hardest and best years of my life; working in a kitchen no less that 16 hours a day, on my feet, putting out fires in every imaginable way, creating menus, washing dishes, hiring and firing, meeting the public, being recognized by the business community, even the James Beard Foundation…physically and mentally exhausting in every way…a bit surreal at times…but loving every moment.
Presently I’m completing my Executive Chef Certification from the American Culinary Federation, I’m part of the adjunct faculty for Boise State’s culinary program, host of Food for Thought, which is now a nationally syndicated program and keeping as involved as I can in community and local events. My philosophy on food and cooking is directly tied to my experiences in the kitchen. I hope it will be to others a source of inspiration, information and motivation in their kitchen work.