Tell me a story about the best thing you ever ate. Or the weirdest. Or how you learned to cook. Or what you learned from Grandma.
The best meals, and the best stories, start with some essential truths: ingredients, emotions, desires.
When we think back to a great meal, are we remembering the food or the way we feel about it? Was it the setting, the occasion, or the people we were with?
Stories about food can be about all of those things, as Anthony Powell learned when he set out the create "Feed Your Soul," the new production from Stories on Stage.
"No matter who you are, your relationship to food is wonderful or complicated or terrible, so it's a perfect subject for Stories on Stage. A certain memory of food can take us to a time and a place in our lives," says Powell, who immersed himself in food writing to find the material for this weekend's show.
"I never saw the connection between the restaurant business and theater until I began to read these stories," says Powell. "But one was talking about critics, saying 'if I read the blogs I'd go insane,' and it made me think of theater people."
Running a restaurant — cooking for people — is as much performance as it is sustenance. And chefs crave applause as much as any actor, says Jennifer Jasinski, who has received her fair share of praise. "Every night, it's constantly seeking approval, hoping the guest is happy."
The stories range from chef Gabrielle Hamilton's powerful 2011 memoir, "Blood, Bones & Butter" to the evocative power of a 4-by-6 handwritten recipe card to call up the tastes of the Mississippi Delta in sportswriter Wright Thompson's "Yancey's Red Hots."
The audience will hear of competing rat restaurants in China's Guangdong province, prayers answered through cake, and a 37-course lunch in — where else? — France.
"Gabrielle Hamilton's was so much about the soul of cooking, and the saint's cake is about cooking to change the world, and 'A Rat in My Soup' is a comedy piece — I always try find something funny to balance the evening," says Powell.
With the help of Stories on Stage board member and avid foodie, Sophie Walker, Powell is adding the voices of local writers and chefs — Jasinski, Antonio Laudisio, Dave Query, Hugo Matheson, Jay Solomon and former Denver Post dining critic Kyle Wagner.
Denver restaurateur Solomon of tells of his connection to the lowly cabbage, Query recounts a grease explosion at LoLa, and Laudisio gets a little political. Wagner's piece comes from an essay she wrote in 2005 for The Post Food section about depression running through her family "like the veins of a blue cheese."
"We have the most amazing chefs here, in terms of generosty and hospitality, its like part of their DNA," says Walker. We have included portions of their stories here.
Jay's Patio Cafe, Hot Ticket Cafe
Consider the cabbage. Next to a petite baby zucchini or an iridescent sweet pepper, a burly head of cabbage is positively gargantuan. It is the Lurch of the vegetable kingdom.
When the cabbage gets cooked, things only get worse. Soon after the elephantine leaves are dropped into boiling water, an overwhelming sulfurous odor stink-bombs the kitchen, rendering even your most loquacious guest speechless. Your home is now ruined for the next eight hours.
Given its lack of charisma and charm, it is not easy to explain how a cabbage dish — specifically my grandmother's cabbage rolls — became one of my favorite comfort foods. As a kid, a plate of cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and ground meat and smothered in stewed tomatoes was a sure sign that life was good and all was right in the universe.
I was brought up in the restaurant business from a long tradition of family, where my first job was in Brooklyn killing flies with a newspaper in the back, and then peeling garlic and it was just, how you grew up in it. And this is how I was brought up, you learned your father's trade: "L'arte del padre è mezzo imparata" — "The art of the father is half earned, half learned."
So there's a magical something that happens intergenerationally that passes on the tradition of your culinary culture.
I am sustainable, and I can't be sustainable when there's a tremendous rupture in my system that keeps taking all this energy and puts it in a third world country which I want to see flourish, but that is paying slave labor. Where's my middle-class, where's my farmer going to be? So I think that we really need to adjust our recipe of life to any given situation.
Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall
I got invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York, and I was going to do a pasta dish that I have on my menu with a sunchoke ravioli. Because rolling out pasta's really hard I thought, "Oh, I'll roll it out here with semolina flour between it and put it in a vacuum sealer to keep it fresh."
What I hadn't thought about: When you vacuum-seal something, there's a pressure, and it pushed, pushed all the semolina into each layer of pasta dough, so the pasta dough was not just dry but three times thicker than it should be. It was just horrible.
I started to have this complete meltdown. Then, I remembered a little trick that Wolfgang Puck had shown me when I worked for him. I ended up re-making the filling and putting it in wonton wrappers. I just, just, by the skin of my teeth, just barely got the dish out, in what was maybe my worst day.
But then, at the end of the evening, I had five or six guests say that was the best ravioli they've ever had in their entire life. And I was like: "Oh God, thank you!"
I was kind of a weird kid. Instead of watching cartoons on Saturdays, I remember growing up watching, on PBS, all the cooking shows, Julia Child. And I was just very interested at a very young age.
I would find myself kind of experimenting, not following the recipes exactly, but adding things — I started early and just kept going.
Recipes just come to you, I guess. It's like this: You get to make delicious mistakes.
We like to feed people. We like to make people happy through food. That's part of the joy of cooking, too, and it feels very good, it's very rewarding at the end of the day to know that you had an impact on that particular meal. You can really make a lot of people happy through feeding them.
Jax Fish House, Zolo Grill, LoLa, Centro Latin Kitchen, The Bitter Bar, The West End Tavern
How it started for me was I was working at Mustard's Last Stand as a 14-year-old, and just the first time serving someone something and having them eat it — even a $2 hot dog — and having them like it and say, "That was awesome," that was pretty amazing, immediate gratification right there. Just over and over and over again.
In restaurant work at the end of the night, you've done your work. It's not an architectural project, it's not a math equation, it's not a software or a medical device, you're done, y'know?
You learn from what you did well, you changed what you didn't do well, tomorrow you'll come in and it's a different day. We'll rebuild this whole line again, and we'll fancy-up the dining room and we'll invite our friends in tonight for another party, and we'll see how much more successfully we can throw a party tonight than we threw it last night.
I never buy expensive cooking things. I think it's a waste of money. You know, there's so much bollocks in all that. Everybody says "I want to see your kitchen, all the gadgets you have..." I don't. One knife. I have an electric stove top and induction. And that's pretty much it. I have a few pans and a knife. My kitchen's tiny compared to most kitchens you see in images, or what people expect it to be of somebody in the food world. Yeah, buy cheap plastic knives, $11 each.
"FEED YOUR SOUL: STORIES FROM THE KITCHEN"
7:30 p.m. Saturday: The Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-444-7328
1:30 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday: Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center, 721 Santa Fe Drive, Denver, 303-494-0523
St. Phanourios's Cake
"St. Phanourios is to the Greek Orthodox what Saint Anthony is to the Catholics: the patron saint of lost things. Greeks bake, bless, and give away this humble nut-and-spice cake, also called a phanouropita, in return for the saint's help to find something that's missing," writes Allison Parker in "Saints, Cakes and Redemption," published on leitesculinaria.com in August 2010. Tested at 5,280 feet, makes a 9-inch cake. (Note: some testers thought this recipe could use ½ teaspoon salt.)
1 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (from about 3 oranges)
½ cup brandy
1 cup sugar
1 cup chopped walnuts
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Powdered sugar for dusting (optional)
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan (or a Bundt or loaf pan of equal volume). Dust the pan with flour, tap out any excess and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, orange juice, brandy, and sugar until thoroughly combined. Mix in the chopped walnuts.
Sift together into a medium bowl the 4 cups of flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and cloves. In small batches, add the flour mixture to the brandy mixture, whisking vigorously as you go. Continue whisking until completely combined. The batter will be very thick and slightly gummy —not to worry. (If it seems impossibly thick, you can always do what I do and splash in another tablespoon of brandy.) Tradition dictates that you're supposed to whisk for 9 minutes by hand. Good luck.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Before putting the cake into the oven, pause to say whatever kind of prayer you feel comfortable with as you focus on the thing you hope to find. (Greek Orthodox women make the sign of the cross, but the cake will not suffer if you skip this step.)
Bake the cake until the top looks hard and golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove the cake from the pan and let it cool completely on a wire rack.
Traditionally, the cake is now given away whole or cut into nine pieces and shared with others. If you're serving the cake at home, you may want to sift a little powdered sugar over the top of the cake before slicing. The cake dries out easily, so if you do cut into it, make sure to wrap any leftovers well in plastic and foil, or store in an airtight container.
Semolina Pasta Dough
From Jennifer Jasinksi, yields 2½ pounds.
1 pound (about 2¾ cups) semolina flour
12 ounces (about 2¼ cups) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
In a mixing bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients together by hand. Create a well in the center of the bowl.
In a separate bowl, whisk the water, yolks and oil together. Place the wet mixture in the well of the dry ingredients and mix together by hand until a crumbly dough forms.
Turn the dough out onto a work surface, press it together into one somewhat crumbly dough ball and then knead it by hand until a smooth dough ball forms.It is important to knead the dough very well to properly develop the gluten. If the dough will not stay together, you may add more water, one tablespoon at a time, until you have a smooth dough ball. Different types of flour will react differently, so be sure to feel your dough to be sure you have the right consistency. This will take some elbow grease; about 15 minutes of kneading.
Tightly wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow it to relax in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or overnight. Roll out as desired.
Heirloom Squash Farrotto
From Hugo Matheson, makes 4 servings.
3 cloves garlic
1 small Fresno pepper, diced
½ small red onion, diced
4 cups cooked farro
4 cups diced roasted squash
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 tablespoon toasted ground cumin
Salt and pepper
1 cup plain yogurt
½ cup cilantro leaves
Cover the bottom of a large saute pan with oil. Heat to medium. Slice 2 cloves of garlic and add, with half of the diced pepper, to the pan. Saute until translucent but do not allow to brown. Add half of the red onion, the cooked farro, the roasted squash, the chickpeas and the toasted cumin. Heat through.
Squeeze half the lemon into the saute pan. Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste.
Place the yogurt in a small mixing bowl and add the remaining toasted cumin and juice from the remaining lemon half. Mince the remaining clove of garlic and add to yogurt. Season with salt and mix well.
Place the farrotto mixture evenly on 4 plates. Top with yogurt mixture, the remaining red onion and diced pepper and cilantro. Finish the dishes with extra-virgin olive oil drizzled over the top of each.