I grew up in a Greek and Irish household where food was the sun around which our familial solar system revolved. My grandfather owned a diner (à la Saturday Night Live) and cooked all the big family meals with my grandmother. My Dad owned an Italian restaurant, The Driftwood Lounge on Long Island, New York. He didn’t start out cooking. He learned on the job from his first chef Tony. My Irish mother became a great cook , I think, to prove to the Greek women on my father’s side that she was as good as they were despite not being Greek.
When I was ten, I used to sit on a beer barrel at the back door of the Driftwood kitchen. I was enthralled by the sure-footed dance between the chef, his assistants and the servers. I loved the smell when the big refrigerator doors next to me swung open. A brief wiff of provolone and they would slam shut. I could smell yeast from the bags of fresh Italian bread leaned against the door across from me and stacked wooden boxes of raw pizza dough. Garlic was the base scent that permeated everything with hints of oregano and basil.
When Tony moved back to Italy my father moved from the front of the house to the back where he stayed for the next 40 years. I never worked at the Driftwood. I was too young. My brother was the lucky one who learned how to spin pizza and I’m still jealous about that.
I learned to cook from both my parents but working with my Dad was different. In the mid-60’s no one in our suburban neighborhood was cooking with their Dad especially in the middle of the week. We spent many Tuesday afternoons (his day off) stuffing grape leaves, making eggplant parmigiana or having him trying to teach me to open a clam. Looking back I’d say I learned passion in the kitchen from my Father and order from my Mom.
I started cooking meals for the family when I was 11 and never stopped. I’m picky about ingredients and will travel farther and spend more if I think the ingredient will make a difference. I love researching restaurants and markets. I remember what people ate more than what they wore (and I was a fashion design major!). I stagger at the smell of grilled cheese sandwiches from Kappacasein, the embodiment of grilled cheese anywhere sold at the Borough Market in London and am plotting when I should fall off the wagon and throw caution to the wind to eat that sandwich again.