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Photograph by Michael Amsler

What Chefs Really Eat

Do chefs hoard deep, disturbing food vices? It depends on whom you ask.

By Sara Bir

Having lived with a few chefs in the roommate capacity, I've been able to observe, up-close and unmitigated, their often surprising off-hours diet. And while it's true that no two chefs are the same, there's no way of getting around this hard fact: A sizable percentage of chefs in the world eat mighty strange things.

Which isn't to say that regular people don't eat mighty strange things. Deep-fried Twinkies, anyone? But there's something extra voyeuristic in finding out that instead of whipping up a plate of poached salmon on a bed of greens (not forgetting the horseradish foam), our celebrated chefs indulge in, well, deep-fried Twinkies.

Take, for instance, my former housemate Yoni. He worked on the line at the Lark Creek Inn for a while, and during his shifts he had a habit of searing off small pieces of very high-quality beef and popping them in his mouth during service for an Atkins-approved pick-me-up--a beef shooter, if you will.

Once he returned home--grease-caked and out of it from work yet all wound up from postshift drinks at the nearby Silver Peso--it was a different story. Restless late-night hunger would set in, and he'd whip up his favorite concoction: a tortilla smeared with peanut butter and dappled with Tapatio sauce. He's been going from restaurant to restaurant for years, eating his scary tortilla creations and showing no signs of stopping.

Then there was the temporary roommate who now works at one of Humboldt County's few tony eateries. He never ate at home--I hardly saw him eat, period--but when fig season came around, he would tromp about in the mornings before going to work, sneaking into people's yards and thieving figs from their trees. He lived on pot, red wine, and stolen figs.

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2003 Food and Wine Issue
Wine Alive: Biodynamic wines, where flaws are welcomed and individuality is coveted.
Who's Cooking Now?: With the help of cooking schools, it could be you.
Life's Too Short: Michele Anna Jordan's philosophy involves eating well and living well.

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My theory is that, after spending all day handling fine-quality foodstuffs, chefs crave a break--call it the antifood--something whose flavor is blunt and whose appeal is baffling, even to the eater. Say, sauerkraut straight from the jar (or sauerkraut from a jar in the first place). The juice left over from canning green beans. Pineapple cores.

In the test kitchens of a national lifestyle magazine whose fearless leader may soon be heading to the pokey, I spent a semimiserable externship in the company of some very creative and gifted food editors. The lunchtime treat of cottage cheese over baby greens topped with grated carrots and balsamic vinegar was a favorite with more than one staffer. The kitchen was overflowing with fresh-baked cookies and cakes, savory pastas, and luscious salads, all just prepared. And they chose instead to eat cottage cheese with--vinegar?!

But who knows--it might not be bad. As for Martha herself, she has on numerous occasions gladly shared with a television audience of millions her sentimental soft spot for radish and butter sandwiches on white bread. Radish sandwiches in themselves are not such a shocking thing, but it's the white bread that pushes them over the edge into fetish food.

The best example of off-kilter food fetishes I can offer is eating hard polenta cold and straight from the refrigerator, because I am the cook so afflicted. There's something about the cool, clammy blandness of leftover polenta that's so soothing. And sometimes, when cleaning up after making grits for breakfast, I'll pick all of the cooked, misshapen, hardened corny goodness out of the saucepan and pop it right into my mouth. It's terrible and I should be ashamed, but that's how it tastes best to me, finger food at its most depraved.

Is this just a fluke? Do all chefs feel this way, or have my field studies been too spotty to take serious? I'm convinced that we all have our food vices, the things that we know in our heads are really gross, but that in our hearts are wonderful and forbidden. Usually, this is the stuff you'd rather not have people see you eat. Hot dogs right out of the package; the crumbs left in an empty bag of chocolate chip cookies; the damaged-beyond-repair slice of cheesecake that's lingering in the back of the dessert reach-in.

Even world-class chefs, in their hearts, are regular folks, too. They watch TV, they follow sports, and they may, every now and then, pull into the drive-through and violate every law that's supposed to govern integrity in food.

Right?

There was only one way to find out, and that was through a random bunch of cold calls to chefs in the area, asking if they ever gave into very bizarre food cravings that the public would not normally associate with fine-tuned palates.

"Numerous times on the floor I'll have people look at me and say, 'I'd just love to go through your refrigerator,'" says Bryan Dempsey from Restaurant Mirepoix in Healdsburg, "and I'd say, 'No, no.' . . . We're pretty bad."

Bad how? "We do tend to live off of whatever we have in the restaurant," Dempsey explains of what she and chef Matthew Bousquet consume outside of work. "At home, if you opened the fridge, there would be beer and something that maybe once was cheese. And, if you're lucky, some takeout from a couple months ago."

And when they don't feel like cooking? "We're really bad with frozen pizzas. Any kind--run home and heat up a pizza." Burritos from El Farolito in Santa Rosa and the $4.50 Gilroy garlic fries from Pac Bell Park (which is known for its tasty concession items, some of the best food in baseball) are favorite slumming indulgences, too.

"If beer cravings count," continues Dempsey, "Fat Tire Ale is definitely a big one for us. We had been harassing the company [New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colo.] so much, they released it to us a month early." Fat Tire Ale is now one of the two beers on the menu at Mirepoix. Loving Fat Tire, though? It's some mighty fine beer; there's nothing to be ashamed of there.

Charlie Palmer, the big gun behind Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen--as well as a small army of many other highly respected eating establishments--said (via his press secretary) that he didn't have many odd food urges, save an occasional craving for Juicy Fruit gum (he's not a gum chewer) or a glass of Bud Light with ice in it. Which actually sounds quite appetizing, especially in the height of summer heat. Kind of like water.

Subsequent queries yielded no pay dirt. Chef Roxanne Klein from Roxanne's in Larkspur couldn't think of any strange food indulgences (perhaps when you are on a raw-food diet, you don't get weird cravings). Neither could chef Lucas Martin of K & L Bistro in Sebastopol, though he thought his wife, chef Karen Martin, might--but she's pregnant, so weird cravings are all part of the territory.

After dialing additional chefs with increasingly trembling fingers, the theory of chefs stowing away food vices began to deteriorate. No one fessed up to downing shots of glace de viande, pining for Rice Krispie treats, or jonesing for fluffernutter sandwiches. Either these chefs were too cautious to let such potentially incriminating information leak out to the public or my past observations were flukes in a sea of normality.

But what about the first chef I ever worked for, whose favorite thing to eat in the entire world was--and this is the honest-to-God truth--hot dogs from the 7-11? What about Julia Child's well-documented allegiance to McDonald's French fries, back when they still bathed potatoes in good ol' beef fat? Where's Mario Batali to tell you about coveting lardo (salt-cured pork fat) when you need him?

The only conclusion I could come up with was that the chefs I have known and worked with in my own experience are totally nuts--which is really no revelation. Either that or I called the wrong people.

Then, in the middle of the night, a vision arrived of something I'd read long ago, about M. F. K. Fisher leaving tangerine segments on the radiator to toast before placing them on a snow-packed windowsill to turn as brittle "as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl," as she wrote in "Borderlands" from her first book, Serve It Forth, in a confession of "secret indulgences."

Of course, our dear Mary Frances was not a chef chef in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a passionate and highly intuitive home cook. Having lived the final years of her life in Glen Ellen, though, she can surely qualify as the quintessential worldly North Bay food figure.

"There must be someone, though, who understands what I mean," she concludes after her baffling but spellbinding tangerine disclosure. "Probably everyone does, because of his own secret eatings." She must be talking about my housemate Yoni, he of the peanut-buttered tortillas with Tapatio. If only he could write as eloquently as Fisher, perhaps we'd be compelled to try one and see what it is about his special food that beckons him so, whispering gently, "It's just us, baby, only you and me."

But probably not. Me, I'll stick with cold polenta.

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From the July 31-August 6, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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