“You don’t want to look like your heroes
you want to see like your heroes”.
— Austin Kleon, “Steal Like An Artist”.
Though I’m only 1/3 of the way through Austin Kleon’s book I’m recommending it to everyone around me. The subtitle is “10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative”. Get it TODAY.
Why am I pairing that book with the picture of the poster about Justin and my book coming out and us going on tour very soon? Let’s get to that.
You see in the beginning of being a chef and before that I was just like so many young folks seeking direction or, even better, LOVE. APPROVAL. ‘CRED’ in the current parlance. I was riding high in high school but by the time I got to age 21 I’d fallen miserably in regards to my estimation of myself. By then I’d quit school and worked in some pretty bad jobs. Dead end places that you couldn’t wait to get out of at the end of a day. Where the time clock moved inch by inch and your heart sank before the lunch bell rang in the factory. Beer, tequila and weed sucked up time (and money) but it didn’t fill the hunger I was dying from. But through some strokes of luck or divine intervention I answered a job for a “Short Order Cook… No Experience Necessary” in a local newspaper days after being fired as a hot tar roofer. It didn’t really sink in for a number of YEARS that I was going to be… not a cook… not a chef… but a CHEF. How did that happen? It started with a near insane desire to be one. There is this period of time where we all FAKE IT. That is right. Even Bob Dylan. Maybe ‘faking it’ is not exactly right but it is a lot like it. When we are children we plant our feet in our Daddy’s big leather shoes and put his hat on our heads and pretend to ‘go off to work’. When we are young and looking for a career we do something only a little more subtle. We do a kind of gravitational dance toward a peer group that somehow seems to be attractive to an inner need. We begin to learn bits of the language, acquire some of the garb, buy the books… try on the shoes. And then we slip into a period of time where we try on all kinds of guises owned by those beyond us. For me they were the “Great Chefs” as well as the “Great Cookbook Authors”. It took me ten long years of cooking before I began to find a voice that was ‘my own’. But let’s not hurry past that crucible of time and sweat. Here is the deal. You simply have to do that. You have to become your true self before you will ever accept yourself. We don’t give that enough relevance in the “American Educational Experience”. We are taught to believe by the age of 21 we are going to know what the hell we are doing for the ensuing 45 years and the fact is that there NEEDS to be a period of gestation, experimentation, trial and error, going up a road only to reverse yourself and start over. That should be taught and allowed. Or better..not just allowed but cheered! The great artists, almost to a one, had the ‘lost years’. But everyone should be seeking to find their own inner artist. That is the most amazing thing. “Every blade of grass”…
When I finally understood who I wanted to be like I soaked my head in all of the books I could. I began to discern that my hours of reading needed to move from Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and so many more to the artists more specifically in the field for Norman. Back then it was “The Great Chefs of France”. And that was literally the book I spent the most time with for a critical part of that time ‘of becoming’. But as I lived in Key West and the flavor of Latin and Caribbean cookery were around me I continued to evolve. After absorbing James Beard’s books, Alice Water’s first book, Paula Wolfert’s seminal “The Cooking of South West France” as well as Nicole Routhier’s Vietnamese book I also loved, (along with 100 other books or more… Marcella Hazan, Ken Hom, Jacques Pépin, Richard Olney, M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David…on and on) I began to reach into the teachers who had more to say in Spanish and Creole. (Penelope Casas, Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, Colman Andrews, Felipe Lombardi-Rojas, Jessica Harris) and I began to fine tune myself in the process… Until around the time of the publication of my first book, (I must digress to say I was as shocked as anyone that I was even asked to write one!) I was still copying like mad. Copy, revise, riff, morph, vector off the trail and keep going as long as it means something to YOU. But in the great effort of writing that book I placed the past where it was at home and I found the future. The future for me. The book I wrote in 1987 was titled, “Feast of Sunlight”. Even the title was one en homage to a hero who’s coattails I clung to. His name? Chef Roger Vergé. His cooking was rooted in his native France, but Chef Vergé traveled to faraway lands and he celebrated the exotic and foreign which encouraged me in a deep way. In the introduction to his “Cuisines of the South of France” he gives a lot of wonderfully empowering advice and then jauntily adds at the end of his introduction, “Courage, my chefs! To your stoves!”
And if you think I recalled that from rote memory you would be right. But… I also checked from the original book. Because I make it my mission to keep my ‘heroes’ and their books very near where I work every day. When I pulled down the book to double check I was happy. Why?
- The book’s ‘jacket’ was same sunshine shade as when I bought it in 1980.
- It was next to one of my most favorite pictures of my son, Justin.