Like many kids in college, I spent time in the restaurant business. It was a good way to make money in an honest way. Waiting tables also got me out of the insular environment of the music building, a very good thing.
What started out as a way to work my way through school became an introduction to food. My first gig was at a Sicilian place specializing in calzones and pasta – nothing fancy, glorified junk food, in a way. What else can you say about lots of pepperoni and mozzarella baked in bread?
But I got to help slice the pepperoni. I watched the dough turn in the big chef’s mixer – I’d never been that up close and personal with the process of making food. I learned about tomatoes and how to make a real philly cheese steak.
It was a beginning.
I worked at a place called the Chelsea in New Bern, NC for a couple of years in my 20s. There, I watched my friend Karl slice onions at the speed of light. He was the one who taught me good knives and a proper hand position made for good cutting. Karl was an accountant, I think, or an Insurance Salesmen – I can’t remember. Food was his addiction and passion, though – and he eventually quit his day job to go to culinary school. Last I heard, he had returned to the Chelsea to run the kitchen.
From a personal cooking standpoint, I am most grateful to Karl for teaching me how to cook jerked ribs and chicken. “The key to good jerk,” he told me, “is finding the best habernero or scotch bonnet peppers you can. And, don’t rub your eyes for awhile after you have handled them,” he warned. This was a revelation for me at the time. Peppers hot enough to sting and burn were not a regular part of my diet growing up. Jalapenos were the hottest pepper I’d ever run across, and frankly, I wasn’t impressed.
He let help ‘rub’ the ribs and chicken – and again it was literally getting my hands dirty that furthered my growing love of cooking and food. Karl was good at telling stories about what he cooked, too – maybe because part of falling in love with anything is sharing it with other people because you are so excited about it.
He was the first to tell me that nearly every culture in the world does the BBQ thing (Jerk cooking is really a form of BBQ). “Makes sense, when you think about it,” he said. “Take whatever you hunted that day, throw it in a pit in the ground, cover it with coals and spices, and 8 hours later, you serve dinner.”
Karl also taught me about balance in cooking. If your jerk pork or chicken is gonna be hot (which it should to be respectable), cut it with lime and some kind of sweetness to balance it out. In Jamaica, the home of ‘jerk’ style cooking, there would have been plantains, maybe mangos.
In the American south in summer – there are peaches. I think Karl served our jerk special with some kind of peach compote or maybe a salsa – I can’t remember.
At the farmer’s market yesterday, I thought of jerked chicken and pork ribs when I saw the peaches in this picture.
Thanks, Karl. Now I have to cook some jerked food – or head to the Jamaican place in South Charleston to get my fix.