A SPRING STORY
So strangely bright, like the months of darkness have finally lifted. It’s an odd sensation, as the car has not even warmed up, but I’m warm—not just warm—I’m actually sweating. I tap the window button and, sweet relief, a gentle breeze cascades across me. I’ve spent the last six months confined in this moving “Skinner box” and each year I forget how liberating it is to just drive with the windows down. When I was growing up, our family’s form of after dinner entertainment was my dad packing us into the ‘55 Chevy Bel Air and driving up Capitol Drive on the north side of Milwaukee for a custard. It was an exciting sensual assault as the neon lights of the passing businesses blurred into the overhanging street lamps as my sister and I would hang our heads out the back windows like dogs lapping in the air. On the way back that same gentle air would flow into the back seat and lull us to sleep.
That window held so much power: roll it up and you are in your own private universe, roll it down and you have to engage in the outside world. Whenever I pull up to a stoplight with the window down, I feel the same way as I did the first time I was seated at a long banquette in a tiny New York City restaurant so close to the next table that there is really no division—should I look over, look away, or just feign disinterest—always an awkward situation for me.
I know why this happens because from a young age, driving with my mother was always an adventure. Not because of her driving skills, which were better than competent, but because of her demeanor, which could turn on a dime. At five foot not-much-more, she had the face of a rational, happy mother. But this was buffering her internal voice of a Vegas blue comic who professionally wrestled on weekends. Try to take what she thinks is her parking spot at the mall or innocently cut her off at an intersection? She will follow you to hell and to lay on a verbal beating. This would always result in me balling myself up on the floor of the car in an embarrassed, horrified bundle.
By the time I got to high school I felt that I had finally gotten over my fear of my mother-induced embarrassment. Then Nancy Sinatra “walked” into my mother’s life. It was 1966 and “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” was taking over the airwaves. My mother, always feeling she was on the cutting edge of fashion, started wearing those knee-high glossy white high-heeled boots that Ms. Sinatra had made so famous. From my perspective, if you’re a sixteen-year-old girl, possibly hot. If you’re my mother, OH GOD, MAKE IT END!
On the heels of those boots followed a new car. Not just any car but a brand new Plymouth Barracuda V8 fastback in Turbine Bronze, which just happened to match her tan—and her hair. It didn’t even cross my mind that she actually knew that she had just purchased a close facsimile of a classic muscle car. I was thinking what a waste of unbridled speed in my mother’s hands and was hoping that maybe my overactive juvenile body, fresh off of passing my drivers test, would get a crack at this mini-beast. No such luck, as it was like a piece of personal jewelry to her.
A few months after buying the car I’m a passenger with her driving up Capitol Drive. It’s an early spring night and the windows are down when we pull up next to a carful of guys about my age. The driver looks over and guns the engine, and through the roar he whistles and yells, “Nice ride, does grandma know how to drive it?” I start to slink down in the seat waiting for her verbal onslaught but not a word comes out of my mother’s mouth, she just stares ahead. The light turns green and I’m thrust so deeply into my seat that I can hardly breathe. WHAT THE…as I see her white glossy boot buried into the pedal…she’s racing these guys!…my mother is drag racing a carful of kids!!—not just racing—SHE LEAVES THEM IN THE DUST!
She pulls into Kitt’s Drive-in, hands me a few dollars and blurts out, “Hot Fudge Sundae, EXTRA PECANS!” As we’re sitting in silence munching on our sundaes, a calming breeze is drifting through the windows. I’m still infused with the aroma of burning rubber, very confused, and trying to sift out what just happened. But one of the questions I had about why she bought the car was definitely answered…I was so wrong…she knew exactly what she had…oh…she knew.
SEMI-SWEET CHOCOLATE SAUCE (makes 1 cup)
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
¼ cup brown sugar
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
1½ ounce chopped unsweetened chocolate
1½ teaspoons grapeseed oil
Place the milk, sugar, salt and cocoa in a non-stick sauce pot and bring up to a simmer while lightly whisking. Add the chopped chocolate and whip in. Bring back to a simmer. Turn off the heat and add the grapeseed oil, then transfer to a small bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and prick the plastic wrap to let any steam escape. Let cool to room temperature, stir and serve.
SOMETIMES YOU JUST KNOW
It’s like watching a gangling baby horse, stumbling around, teetering left and right, just hoping to find a center. That was the feeling I had watching a teenage Adan during his first few weeks working in Coquette’s kitchen. His arms went left, his legs went right and his head was in continual “bobble mode” as he struggled to comprehend the flow of orders into the kitchen. When he didn’t understand, he compensated by moving frenetically at the speed of light. The fellow training and working with him told me he “just wasn’t getting it.” Instead of improving every day, he was spiraling down.
After a few more painful weeks, I knew what I had to do. By this time Angie and I had been hiring people long enough at that time that we both had developed an immediate inner feeling on every new employee—that was usually right—and with Adan I was sure I wasn’t wrong. He had to be in a place where he would eventually flourish. So I brought him over to Sanford to start as an apprentice, starting at square one with no expectations of skills. All I wanted from him was an impeccable attitude and to breathe in every bit of knowledge that was continually floating in the air.
For most of the time he was a good apprentice—not stellar—but always trying. What I was waiting for was that moment when the eyes cleared and the omnipresent quizzical, scared expression morphed into quiet confidence.
A line cook’s worth can be measured by their mise en place, all of the small components to set up each dish on their station that when appropriately combined, will yield consistently delicious food. With Adan on the sauté station, it was a regular event for him to get a touch buried during the rush. When I would go over to help and start asking for specific mise en place, especially back-up mise en place, there was always a moment when one small piece of the puzzle was missing. He would be on the side hitting his head and swearing under his breath like a Chris Farley SNL sketch.
After weeks of that reoccurring scenario, I walked over to help on a particularly busy Saturday night as an order came in:
“Ordering five Pear and Roquefort Tarts and seven Spring Vegetable Sautés.”
“Do you have more pears?” I asked.
“Yes, right below.”
“More caramelized onions?”
“Right next to the pears.”
“Yes, behind the vinaigrettes”
“Plenty more next to the morels.”
After the eighth item I asked for, I turned to him and said, “Who are you and where is Adan!!” A huge smile enveloped his face—he finally got it!
From that day on there still were learning mistakes, but the scared, quizzical look– gone–replaced by the look of a professional ready to take responsibility for his station and himself.
That was 10 or so years ago and today he’s helping Justin (along with Casey) run Sanford’s kitchen and making it one of the great restaurants in the U.S.
All these memories were flowing in my head on May 24th of this year as Angie and I sat in the audience at Adan and Missy’s wedding. Yes, he’s a pretty amazing, intelligent, sharp, funny and sweet guy—but I knew that all along.
CRABBY IN SPRING
Just one word can trigger so many thoughts and feelings. Recently I was reading a story and the name Louie came up. That name ignites a rush of memories that brings me back to my early steps from childhood to the teen world.
In 1963, I went to my first CYO dance at my grade school St. John de Nepomuc. How you handled yourself at these dances felt like an initial step to either high school coolness or total despair. I spent weeks leading up to the dance watching American Bandstand and trying to get my body to mimic the moves in front of our upstairs mirror, all the while listening for any family footsteps that might walk into my awkward attempts at terpsichorean excellence.
I walked into the gymnasium and the majority of the guys were lining the walls like wainscoting, I took my place next to a friend as we all waited for that perfect moment to make the move to almost certain rejection by asking a girl to dance. That perfect moment in 1963 was when you heard those unmistakable electric organ bars of the passionate teenage anthem for so many hormonally challenged youth, such as myself. If a band knew one song it was Louie Louie, the most sexually charged anthem of the early 60’s. I would charge to the dance floor with a confidence that would not accept no from any perspective partner. The great thing about dancing in a dark gymnasium is that you can’t see yourself. My herky-jerky moves, in my mind, were as smooth as Michael Jackson at his peak. It was all about the heat and the sweat that melded into the unmistakable aroma of wet puppies. The dance led to many phone calls and eventually my first formal date for freshman Homecoming.
I wanted it to be special, so the only place to go for dinner before the dance was Fazio’s on Fifth which was owned by family friends and was my only previous fine dining experience. I sat across the table from my date with a menu that eclipsed the room. Before looking at the menu I craned my head around the side to see what she was thinking of ordering. Upon looking back at the menu I saw it—no confusion—I knew what I was having. We met over Louie Louie, so it was only right that that I should have the Crab Louis. I knew I loved crab and when it was placed in front of me, loaded with glistening chunks of lump crabmeat, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, asparagus, green olives and (have I gone to heaven) Thousand Island dressing, it was like hitting the lottery—crab nestled in my favorite dressing.
After years of never actually knowing a Louie, that name always brought a smile to my face. With spring finally peeking through the frozen tundra I thought this was a good time to pass on my take on Crab Louis. Within weeks the Pioneer Valley will be awash in perfect spears of asparagus and I suggest letting a few partner up with some crab. It’s a dance I’m sure you’ll enjoy!
For the Dressing:
½ cup mayonnaise (I prefer Hellmann’s)
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon Heinz chili sauce
2 tablespoon chopped dill pickles or dill pickle relish, lightly squeezed to dry in paper towel
2 tablespoons capers, drained, lightly squeezed to dry in paper towel, and coarsely chopped
1 scallion, end trimmed, sliced very thin, rinsed under warm water, and lightly squeezed to dry in a paper towel
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1½ teaspoons hot prepared horseradish, liquid squeezed out
1½ teaspoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons brandy
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Place all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix together. Adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Let rest to meld flavors in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
To Finish the Dish:
1 head radicchio, cleaned
1 large Belgian endive
1 large bunch watercress, cleaned
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound lump crabmeat, picked of shells
1 avocado, cubed
4 hard boiled eggs (8-minute), quartered for garnish
Prepare the radicchio, endive and watercress, season lightly with salt and pepper, toss with a touch of the dressing and divide onto 4 plates. Separately season the crabmeat, avocado and eggs lightly with salt and pepper. Divide over the plates and dress each component with a touch of the dressing.
January 1, 2015
FROM THE BEGINNING IT WAS A NUMBERS GAME
Sanford’s 1st New Year’s Eve, 1989
What numbers have been as familiar to you as your own name? For me they are 4053, 1950, 1968, 276-9608 and 445-9064. I was so proud when at an early age I could rattle off my home address and phone number. These were the first series of numbers my parents verbally imbedded into my head so if I was ever lost or in trouble, I had a beacon to direct me back home.
As the years went on, the number that became the most important in my life was 1547. This is where it started for me. It is the address of Sanford Restaurant, originally my father’s and grandfather’s grocery store. I’m pretty sure since I spent my first three years of life above the store that I was literally “started” at that address!
I spent many of my formative years until age 17 working at the store, and then years later when Angie and I opened Sanford, I found myself living back above “the store.” As easy and uncomplicated as my first 3-year stint living there was, this stint was difficult. I had the ability to direct any fairly manageable situation into a non-stop intricate dance where I was always practicing the moves but never mastering perfection. Although after years of cooking, I came to realize that no one achieves perfection, some just get closer than others.
After 25 years running the restaurant at 1547, Angie and I thought it was time for a change to a simpler way of working and living. So we opened the cooking school and slashed our payroll from many employees to just two—Angie and me.
There are many reasons we picked Hatfield, MA for the school, and the location on the banks of the Connecticut River for the house. But the one thing we did not consciously realize may have unconsciously played into our decision. From the moment we drove into the driveway the location just felt right to me. But it took until a few months later, when I held the new street numbers in my hands to place over our front door that I understood it was meant to be. We were at Main Street—154 Main Street. For us, a simpler address—and much easier to remember.
Where next? No immediate plans but I’m sure our future must hold a 15.
A simple recipe for a simpler year…
NEW YEAR’S OMELET
6 large eggs
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons heavy cream
3 tablespoons clarified butter
¼ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 ounce good-quality grey/black caviar
1 ounce good-quality salmon caviar
Break the eggs into a bowl and whip with a fork, about 30 times. Place a 12-inch non-stick pan on the fire over medium heat. Add the salt, pepper and cream to the eggs and beat about 50 times. Add the clarified butter to the pan and when hot, add the egg mixture and immediately start to agitate the eggs rapidly with a heatproof rubber spatula, about 45 seconds to 1 minute until they resemble a loose but just-set custard (should not be watery but should be molten). Flip the outer 1/3 edge of the omelet over the middle then push the omelet to the outer edge of the pan and flip the inner edge over. Invert the pan over a plate to get the bottom of the omelet on top and the folds under. When omelet is still hot, quickly slit the top of the omelet about 6 inches long in the middle and about one-third of the way deep. Open the cut and place the sour cream (mixed with ½ tablespoon of the chives) into the cut. Place spoonfuls of the caviar (1 red, 1 black, 1 red, 1 black, etc.) on top of the sour cream until all of the caviar is used. Sprinkle with the remaining ½ tablespoon of chives and serve.
YOU HAD ME AT CAMPFIRE MARGARITA
The Wilders’ Back Yard
I was so jealous when I saw the photo. Here’s my friend Bob Spitz looking transcendent as his mouth is attempting to close over his first Sonoran Dog. I knew just what he was feeling as almost 12 years ago I was that Sonoran Dog virgin as we waited patiently in line at El Guero Canelo.
It was during Angie and my first trip to Tucson and our good friends and fellow chef/restaurateurs, Janos and Rebecca Wilder, were taking us on the platinum food tour of the town. After sampling through a greatest hits of the Tucson Mexican community, Janos knew there was only one topper that would miraculously make us forget that we had just consumed approximately three times our body weight in food and drink.
What I like to call “The Hot Dog Conversation” comes up frequently between chefs, being that each is so fiercely regional. That time it was Bob Kinkead’s gaggers vs. my personal favorite, Usinger’s Bavarian’s (big mistake when Usinger’s left the Brewers ballpark!) vs. Janos’s mysterious Sonoran Dog. Turns out the Sonoran Dog has the least to do with the actual integrity of the dog itself.
It’s serviceable as a naked wiener, but the magic comes in the costuming: fully corseted with a thin slice of smoky bacon; slowly crisped on a butter-slicked griddle; bejeweled with plump Pinto beans, fresh tomatoes, crunchy diamond-cut onions; accessorized with a yellow, off-white and vibrant green filigree of mustard, mayo, and Jalapeño sauce; all outfitted in a soft cordovan outer coat.
This all flashed across my palate as I saw that picture of Bob. So this last April when I was invited to participate in the Tucson Festival of Books, my head immediately became dizzy with dancing dogs. It took until the last day of the event when Janos and Rebecca, our hosts for the weekend, invited a few other festival authors, Philly’s Italian wunderkind from Osteria, chef Jeff Michaud, and L.A.’s brilliant chefs, wife and husband Suzanne Goin and David Lentz, over for dinner.
The dogs became an amuse to a relaxing evening at the Wilder’s bucolic desert home. “Would you like a campfire Margarita?” Now, how can that even be considered a question as we were comfortably slumped in overstuffed garden chairs, a cool mid-evening breeze cascading over the pool at our feet, gaping in awe at the flaming Tucson sunset fireballing across the vast horizon. The only thing missing was that Campfire Margarita, the Wilder’s kismet camping invention that when, without enough limes they used the only other acidic juice mixers they had, grapefruit and oranges—quite inspired.
Over the dinner table the exquisitely simple chili beef tacos, native seed stewed beans and backyard salad were washed down with liquid gems from the deep recesses of the cellar. The conversation was like being on a “Small World” ride at Disney with satisfying, cathartic off-the-record chef/restaurateur banter such as worst or most colorful customers/employees and other entertaining war stories.
There are few hosts that can pull off the perfect evening and now I’ve had more than a few with Janos and Rebecca.
My next trip to Tucson? Of course I’ll have a dog. But my hand will be twitching until it’s wrapped around that Campfire Margarita.
Janos says: Here’s the Pinacates Campfire Margarita recipe. Remember, it’s a campfire recipe so it depends on what you have, is not specific as at the bar, and scales up, but not down, because who would ever want less:
Janos’s Pinacates* Campfire Margarita
Makes 1 Doozy
2 parts mixed fresh citrus juices (grapefruit, orange, clementine, lemon, lime)
1 part (or more) tequila
¼ part Cointreau, or more for sweetness
Shake it up, salt the rim, pour it over ice and make more.
*NASA says, on its Earth Observatory website: The Pinacates region of Mexico’s Sonoran Desert is one of the most unique and striking landscapes in North America. Located just a few miles south of the Mexico-Arizona border, this volcanic field originated with the rifting of the Gulf of California millions of years ago, but the features seen today (volcanic peaks, lava flows, cinder cones and collapsed craters) formed in the late Pleistocene period (2 million to 11,000 years ago). The volcanic range is surrounded by one of North America’s largest dune fields, Gran Desierto.
WILL I MISS MILWAUKEE?
Frozen Garden, Hatfield
I’ve been writing professionally for close to 14 years but starting this blog feels like my first day at culinary school—filled with excitement and a bit of wonder.
It’s been a huge couple of years—a life-changer, as they say. With selling the restaurant the word “retirement” was floated—lord that sounded like a touch of fun after all those years of working! I heard that 70 was the new 30, which was really encouraging as I packed on the years. Although there was a slight letdown when it went on to say that the average dying age is now 75.
The response during my book tour has been heartwarming and emotional, especially when the inevitable question arises, “Will you miss Milwaukee?”
Except for the 10 years I spent in New York, everything I am, as a public and private person, has been defined by my other 54 years living in Milwaukee. From D’Amato’s Grocery where I started working, practically before I was forming words, to growing up on the Northwest side where my childhood boundaries after school at St. John de Nepomuc were from 35th Street to Sherman Boulevard and from Townsend to Congress. I was an altar boy, Cub and Boy Scout. I learned how to Twist, Shimmy, Tighten-Up and Mashed Potato, but most of all just sweat at dark and moody CYO dances under the glare of multiple habited nuns.
Milwaukee expanded exponentially when, along with my grade school friends Rick and Greg, I attended the Beatles concert at the Arena a few days before starting High school at Marquette; had my first kiss (thank you, Jane); hung out at Gilles Frozen Custard in my cooler-than-cool burlap jeans and large polka dot wide-collared shirt; had my first drink (two cans of warm Schlitz Malt Liquor that came out of me much faster than ingested); and got my first car, a beat-up beige Ford Fairlane V-8 with an after factory 4-on-the-floor—scary in the hands of a teenager.
Starting cooking as the fish fry guy at Kalt’s and becoming a misguided “frat boy” at UW-Milwaukee gave me reasons to move away from home. I spent ten years in New York for school and continuing education. Then back to Milwaukee in 1980 for my first permanent head chef’s job at John Byron’s Restaurant, where I met Angie, my wife and partner of 30+ years. We opened Sanford Restaurant one month shy of my 40th birthday, and had a 23-year run.
Now that my book is released, we have left Sanford in the capable hands of Justin and Sarah. And as I write today, the finishing touches are being put on our house addition/cooking school where we are starting a new life on the banks of the Connecticut River in Hatfield, Massachusetts. We don’t know how long this part of our journey will be, but just in case we are setting up a Squirrel charging station in the living room.
So, will I miss Milwaukee? The only people who change are the ones who want to forget where they come from. I can’t miss Milwaukee because I will never forget where I come from. It’s always with me, it’s in my DNA—I am Milwaukee.