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Where I’m At (partie trois), or Going From Point A to Point A

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          Yup, that’s me in ’78 or ’79. I would have been 16 or 17. Photo credit: Cheryl Pieczynski

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
~Paul David Hewson (Bono)

(This is a third part in an autobiographical series. To read the first parts click here or here.)

“You are so negative! Miserable! And your negativity is exhausting!” I was in the manager’s office at work. She was ranting, and these were the words thrown at me. Stomping around the closed-door room with arms flailing. I tried to talk but she didn’t want to hear it. She would ask questions but not hear my response. So I just sat there, looking at the floor, and let her get it out.

In some respects she was correct. I was being negative, but mostly to her. I was being passive aggressive; I was taking out my frustrations on her. My frustrations of working too much, of not being entirely happy. Things needed to change. This is what I thought to myself as the manager ranted, and when I say “things” I really mean myself. Not my hairstyle, or clothes, or job…I needed to change. I needed to remember who I was, and that can only come from the inside.

Then I noticed that I didn’t hear her voice any longer and stopped staring at my shoes and looked up. To my surprise she was looking back at me. Without meaning to or even realizing I was saying it, I said “I’m sorry, I’ll try to be more positive. Are we through?” And as I walked back to the kitchen I knew that I needed change, that there was no other choice. The next morning I submitted my letter of resignation. But as I often do, I am jumping ahead. Let me begin again.

I never thought that I would be a chef, at least that’s not what I set out to be when my nervous and innocent 16-year-old-self faced a stove for the first time. I do, though, remember five years later when I made the conscious decision to pursue restaurant work as a career, at least the first time I spoke it aloud. We were in Clarence Town Park (Clarence, NY). We were with a friend from NYC who played guitar and I was an aspiring bass player. We’d get together to jam now and again, and he wanted to start a band. I couldn’t commit, I told him, because I had plans of attending culinary school. A couple years later this friend had a breakdown and was institutionalized. In retrospect, I know that I make a better professional cook and an amateur musician, rather than the other way around. But I have to start at the beginning—for myself and you—in order to see how cooking for a living found it’s way into my life.

Before discussing my cooking career, or how it began, I’d be remiss by not mentioning my roots, or at least a bit about my background. I was lucky enough to be born into a family of good cooks (on both sides), but I was also born into a poor family, though I didn’t know it at the time. My dad was the eldest son of Lebanese immigrants, and my mom from a linage of east side Buffalo Germans (Prussian and Alsatian). I am the third child of four; two older sisters and one younger. And by the time I came into this world we were living in a public housing project on Buffalo’s east side. But I view these early formative years through Rockwellian glasses. My dad worked at least two jobs and my mom worked full-time while raising my sisters and I. There was always food on the table and presents under the tree at Christmas. I really believe it is from these very earliest years that my love of food and cooking were instilled. We ate kibbeh, grape leaves, and flat bread from my dad’s side, and kuchen, fastnachts, and anise cookies on my mom’s.

I can now see in retrospect that this is the time in my life where I also became aware of spiritual things. My mom took us kids to church every Sunday, where I would mostly daydream. But things changed that would forever altar our family’s history; on a cold February evening my dad died suddenly. I was 12 years old. And without getting too New Age-y, this is around the time I first began to have mystical experiences. I mention this for two reasons. One is that I really do not think that spirituality and cooking are mutually exclusive, but also these early experiences are some of what has shaped me as a person and have been with me for all these years. They are in fact influencing my decision making today. But more on that in a bit.

Flash forward three years. In the winter of 1977 I was a wild child with little or no supervision. My dad, who was also a cook, had died three years prior, and my mom was home sick in bed from another terrible round of chemotherapy (she joined my dad two years later).

Unlike today, where chefs are celebrities and some akin to rock stars, and where kids from wealthy families attend culinary school with stars in their eyes, I began a restaurant job because I needed the money. My first bill was to pay my mother back the $50 she had just spent to bail me out of jail.

It was during this bleak winter that I happened to be sitting in a late 1960’s Ford Torino on a dead end street in a half-built suburb of Buffalo. I was in the back seat with a case of beer between me and a friend; three more guys were in the front seat. I had turned 16 just a few weeks earlier, and we were passing around my birthday gift…a water pipe loaded with the best pot we could afford. The radio blasted one of our guitar gods. Then I noticed through the fog of the windows and pot smoke that there were a couple crouched figures slowly approaching the car. I wiped a space in the window but by that time it was too late…there were two police officers just outside the car door and a few more waiting by their cars blocking the street.

They took the driver’s license and told us to wait in the car; we were all underage. At one point, and after what seemed like a while, one of my friends thought it wold be a good idea to speak with the police. He opened the door and began to step out and an officer drew his gun and told him too get the fuck back in the car. This may have been the excitement this officer needed to break the boredom of being a policeman in 1970’s suburbia. This said, the beer and pot was confiscated—along with my birthday present—and we were all arrested. The sound of the officer’s voice as he read us our rights while we drove to the police station is still with me today. He sounded proud of himself as he read them. It seemed like a dream then just as it does now, “You have the right to remain silent…”

Our parents were called to collect us and pay our fines for release. On the way home the only words my mother spoke were that I was getting a job to pay her back. The next day, she called a friend of my dad who owned a Greek diner and told him of my situation. Two days later I stepped behind a grill for the first time. And this is how I officially began working in restaurants…because I needed a job because I came from a poor family and I needed to pay my mother back from being bailed out because of marijuana procession. Stars were the farthest things from my eyes, but survival was very real. It was December and nearly Christmas.

When I stood behind the grill for the first time I was like a fish in water; I didn’t have to be taught to swim, it was as natural as breathing. I’m of course not talking about cooking—which I had to learn—but more specifically the culture and lifestyle of restaurant work. I was young and the late hours appealed to me. I could stay out late and sleep in, there were plenty of friends, and also attractive young waitresses. It was, and still is, a business that attracts eccentrics from all walks of life; everything and everyone is accepted, no matter who you are, freaks included. I liked that right from the beginning and still do.

It wasn’t until about 5 or 6 years into my career that I first considered it as a vocation; it was also around this time that I thought of culinary school. In the early 1980’s the only full-fledged culinary school I knew of was the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Being innocent and naive, I never considered how difficult financially it would be. And so, on a hot summer’s night after midnight, and after working a large banquet (at my second job, where I worked for European chef for the first time), I sat in an all-night diner drinking coffee and filled out an application to the CIA. Much to my surprise I was accepted, and six months later in the midst of a January snow storm (the storm of ’85), I found myself sitting in introductory classes at Roth Hall and my life was forever changed in so many ways. This is also around the time that I began reading Jack Kerouac and other Beat writers in earnest.

Since those early days I have been blessed to have worked in so many different venues and in so many different capacities. My first eye-opener was working in a large hotel in the south. Not only was it one of the largest in the country at the time, but I was also plunged into a different culture. The hotel had more than 100 cooks on it’s culinary team, many of them from Europe, and I’m pretty sure the chef never learned my name. He would simply call out “Entremetier!” (vegetable cook) or “Tournant!” (rounds-person) when he needed me or one of the other externs. It was also my first time out of the northeast. After a brief return to Buffalo, I traveled to Europe for the first time, and then spent a very short time living and working (and drinking) in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

When I returned to Buffalo again, I landed my first chef’s job almost immediately, the first job where I was in charge of the kitchen. By this time I was hooked. I quite literally lived and breathed food and cooking. I would work all day everyday and not complain about it. And when I traveled I would seek out book stores known to have good culinary sections. Keep in mind these were pre-internet and Amazon days. At best guess, my culinary library contains more than 1500 books, many of them pertaining to culinary history, which is still a passion of mine. Bed time reading were Larousse Gastonomique, La Cuisine, and Le Repetoire de la Cuisine. My Lebanese-German/French roots reflected my cooking style, and they still do.

During this period I was fortunate enough to attend a few brief stints at other cooking schools. The Cordon Bleu in Paris and then in Ottawa, but my favorite and the one in which I am most proud, was being accepted (full scholarship) to study with Madeleline Kamman at the School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards. I had entered a menu and recipe contest and much to my surprise, won. This was the first time I saw my recipes in print. It was before the advent of personal computers, so on a rainy spring day I rode a bike with my hand-written menus and recipes wrapped in plastic to a printer to have them typed. I can still remember how professional they looked…my recipes actually in print!

I was at work the day I received her call. In heavy French-accented English, “Hello Joseph, this is Madeline. I’m impressed with your menu and would like you to come study with me in California.” My knees went weak but I still managed to jump with joy. Those that know me know that I am a rather reserved person, but on this day I yelled out, “Woo hoo!” as I hung up the phone.

It was a two week program (graduate level course as she liked to say) and it had a profound effect on me. I was one of four students nationally. The evening we all met we were were a bit nervous, and I was and still am so impressed by this small but incredibly intelligent and powerful woman. She is a practicing Buddhist and also a feminist. At a time when French kitchens were still dominated by men, she was there. And when the infamous Paul Bocouse stated that (I’m paraphrasing) women do not belong in a professional kitchen, she hung his portrait upside-down in her restaurant’s foyer.

Our class began with coffee at a table on the edge of the vineyard and then we would go to a small kitchen and cook. When the afternoon sun became too hot we would sometimes retreat to a wine cellar, or on one occasion Madeline’s home. And I can still remember something she said to us that had nothing to do with cooking. Likely seeing how obsessed and driven we all were with our careers she told us (and I’m paraphrasing again) that we have to read all the time but more than just cookbooks, that life is more than just food and cooking. We should enjoy many creative interests, including spirituality.

As a chef I am influenced by cooks who write, not just cook. People like Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher, for example. So some years ago I submitted an article with recipes to a local weekly paper and much to my surprise it was published. Before I knew it I had columns in a few local papers and was published nationally. This is a far cry from when my written English was so poor that the waitstaff had to proof read menus, and for Christmas one year one of them gave me a book on grammar. It was also around this time that I began to teach part-time a local college, something else I immediately excelled at. There was one point in my life when I was working full-time as chef, part-time as educator, and had columns in two papers and a magazine. Then, not surprisingly, my marriage collapsed.

I still remember the feeling…the feeling as if I were falling and there were no safety net. I had to build wings before I hit bottom, and to do that I had to look inside. I had to grow wings from the inside out. And I did; I still am.

Shortly after, on the third Sunday of Advent I returned to church after more than 30 years. I used the excuse that I wanted my son, who was 6 at the time, to be Baptized, which was true, but it was also for myself. Some, I think, were surprised by this but it was not a far stretch. Though I hadn’t gone to church for most of my adult life I was still connected to the Spirit. I would often pray and would, as I do now, feel the presence of something greater than I. But like any person of faith I have had doubt as well. There was one point, a dark time in my life, when I had serious doubt. It was during this time that I had a dream which for lack of better explanation I’ll refer to as a vision. During this vision things were explained to me that I will not discuss here other than it removed my doubt, and when I think of it even now—years later—tears still well in my eyes. It was also around this time that I began thinking that there is more to life than facing a stove all day, I also felt the desire (was called) to attend seminary.

The day that I dropped the completed application in the mailbox to One Spirit Interfaith Seminary (OSIS) in NYC is both an exciting memory and also one of anxiety. I really wanted to be accepted, but what if I actually was? How would I do it? I was working full-time as a chef, a single dad, and in debt. I was accepted and somehow I did do it. After traveling back-and-forth across the state 22 times in 24 months from Buffalo to New York, mostly by train, in the spring of 2014 I was ordained an interfaith minister. I am also an ordained deacon in the United Church of Christ and a certified spiritual counselor, through the International Association of Healthcare Professionals. Currently I am enrolled in SUNY Empire State College (ESC) pursuing a bachelors degree in religious and philosophical studies. This, some may think, is an 180 degree turn from my previous vocation, but is it?

Between travel and schooling expense in NYC, I found myself in debt so I looked for a part-time job. I found one at a local agency where I cooked in a homeless shelter for battered women and their children. I found it so rewarding and did this while working full-time as chef for an elite women’s city club, the second oldest club in the country, they like to say. The juxtaposition between the wealth of who I served at one job while the poverty of the other was real. I cooked, as I always have, from my heart at both places. It was around this time that I began to realize that I truly wanted to be of service to people rather than be the boss of people (whether you like it or not, when you are the chef you are the boss).

                                   A selfie with the kitchen crew. My last day as chef at the city club.


It became apparent that I needed to change so I resigned my long standing position at the city club, which is where this story began. Since then I have also left the part-time job in order to return to school at ESC. There have been a couple jobs since, but now I find myself working at another residence for the (previously) homeless. I had to take a cut in pay but have not been happier at a job in quite a while.

Why am I saying all of this, or even any of this? Honestly, I’m not sure. Sometimes it just needs to come out, sort of a public journal. Which of course is how blogs began. I suppose that what got me thinking of this was a conversation I had a few nights ago. I had stopped out for a couple beers and ran into a woman I had worked with years ago at a restaurant with high critical acclaim. She was with another women (who I did not know) that also worked in the restaurant business. The person I knew introduced me to her friend and began to gush about me and my former achievements. Then she asked where I was working now. After telling her the name of the agency I told her how I was a cook at a homeless residence. After a short pause and blank stare, she replied, “So you’re the food service director?” No, the cook, I told her. Still questioning, she asked, “Like the nutritionist or something?” Nope, I replied, I simply cook good homemade meals—lunch and dinner—for about 20 people a day, people who otherwise would not be able to do this for themselves. After another pause the conversation then went in a different direction.

                                 On the eve of my ordination 2014. Photo credit: Sandra Chelnov

So with all of this said, is this it, is this where I’ll finish my career? Nope. I don’t think so. As 60 comes closer into view (in a few years) and 50 fades in the distance I find myself getting motivated for the next act, which I’m still trying to ascertain. Cooking will always be part of me and I part of it, but at the same time there is more for me to do. More to accomplish. In some ways I have gone in a different direction, but more specifically I’ve done a 360 and am returning to myself. The need to look inward before going outward is real. It’s not always the destination so much as it is the journey, and that is something which continues. The future awaits.

Notes to My Younger Self; Eleven Things I’d like to say.

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Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

–Bob Dylan

Time goes so very fast doesn’t it? I remember hearing this when I was younger and not really paying it much attention, but the older I get the more true this seems to be.

I am a creature of habit, I always have been. And while I have moved away from Buffalo, NY—the city of my birth—a few times, and have done a bit of traveling, I have always called it home. I live in the eclectic and somewhat bohemian neighborhood known as Allentown—a village within the city—and I know it’s streets like the back of my hand. Some of the businesses I have patronized for decades. And this is what I was thinking while I was out for a couple beers the other night at one of my favorite watering holes.

As I leaned against the bar, which is so old that it in itself is leaning, I thought about the three decades that I’ve come here. In my younger years I would visit late-night for serious partying, but these days it’s mostly just a beer or two in the early evening. And I’m not sure what made me think of this one night in particular, but I did. I was likely about 22 or 23 at the time and had driven here from the suburbs by myself. I was still living in my parent’s house, though they had both passed away by this time. Anyhow, I’m not sure why I remember this night—as nothing out of the ordinary happened—but it came to mind. I can even remember what I was wearing…parachute pants (remember them?) tucked into combat boots (keep in mind this would have been the early eighties and I was heavily influenced by The Clash…watch this video). And on this night I was leaning against the bar just a few feet from where I now stood, albeit 30 years later.

In those days the thought of being 52 years old would have been inconceivable…an old man. At the time I thought I was so grown up—I’ve often felt older than my years—but in retrospect I was just an uncertain young man. I was rebellious, crazy, and wild, but I also carried the weight of the world on my shoulders; and I had so much unresolved grief. But no one probably knew this because even then—just as now—I have the ability to put on a different facade, the face I believe people want to see. And now—so many years later—I had the fantasy of going back and offering my younger self some useful advice.

I imagined standing next to my younger self and having a beer and gently telling myself things that would help me along the way. After all, who would no better than me? Many people write themselves notes (I know that I do)..a sort of “note to self” so they don’t forget something. Well this is a sort of note to self in the retrospective sense…truly trying to remember who I was meant to be as I walk this planet.

It is said that with age comes wisdom. While this may be true, I at times still feel like that uncertain and confused young man. But being more than twice as old as I was then, and knowing myself better now than I did then, I feel I would have some good advice to offer my younger self. And these are some of the things I would say (in no particular order).

1. Don’t worry. For the most part everything works itself out. If you have your health that is enough. You may have heard this a thousand times but it’s truer than true.

2. Cherish relationships. Family, friends, acquaintances, all of them. Over the years people drift apart or in and out of your life. People get sick and die. Cherish them all because you never know when the next time you’ll see each other.

3. Spend your time wisely. When you are younger there is so much time for everything. But as you get older you will realize that time is your most valuable commodity. Spend it wisely.

4. Be kind to people (everyone) and don’t hold grudges. The only one you will be hurting is yourself.

5. Don’t take yourself—or life—too seriously. As you start to fall into certain roles (because you will whether you like it or not) don’t take yourself too seriously. Life can be so fleeting and the years go by quickly. Enjoy it.

6. Relax. Yup, it’s that simple. I know that you are a driven person, and a creative person, but allow yourself to relax now and again. Just…do nothing.

7. Don’t suppress your creativity. You are an extremely creative person (we all are) and as a child it is expressed so freely, but as we get older this is sometimes stifled (and in so many ways). Creativity is what makes our souls jump withing these bodies that we currently occupy. So just do it. Create. Write, draw, paint, play music…whatever makes your heart sing.

8. Live in the present moment (and enjoy the journey). I don’t mean to keep harping on this but it is true, life can be so fleeting so just enjoy every minute of it. This, I truly believe is why we as eternal souls have incarnated into these human forms…to experience life. All of it; the good and that bad. It’s not about the destination but the journey itself. Enjoy it. Every minute of it. Never lose your sense of wonder. Embrace it.

9. Don’t try to be someone you are not; be yourself always. Throughout life people will try to fit you into certain roles and identities, and you yourself will try to make yourself fit into roles and identities that you are not meant for, but don’t do it. Be yourself. Always. It may be difficult sometimes—really difficult—but just be yourself. To everyone and all the time. Years from now you will be happier for it. Be your authentic self.

10. Embrace the fact that you are an introvert. It will take you many years to accept this, and many more thereafter to realize you are an INFJ (sometimes INFP)…one of the quirkiest and most obscure personalities to visit this planet. But the sooner the better. Don’t just accept this, embrace it. Once you figure this out things will fall into place much easier. You’ll be a better person all around.

11. Be grateful for everything. Seriously. Even when it seems impossible or undeserving. Just be grateful. Everything is a gift.

So of course I could go on for pages having this imaginary conversation with my younger self. Offering the younger me advice on how to navigate the years ahead. But as I was typing I couldn’t help but think…if I am writing and conversing with my younger self 30 years prior, what I wonder will I want to tell my current 52 year old self when (hopefully) I am 82, thirty years from now. But then it came to me that maybe I’m already doing it…that much of what I have to say to my younger self is just as pertinent now as it was then. Now I just have to heed my own advice.

There are only two ways to live your life. One is though nothing is a miracle. The other is though everything is a miracle.”

–Albert Einstein