Part 15: Leaps and Bounds
This is the latest installment in a continuing series that documents my personal quest to become the host of my own cooking show. Since this is a relatively new “career,” there are no vocational programs or community college courses to prepare me for it. From what I have seen, the two most important elements in securing such a position are passion for food and plain old dumb luck. Born with a passion for food, I set out to make my own luck.
Leaps and Bounds
My first TV demo went well. . . with one exception. What the holy hell was up with my hair?
<<<<<<<<<<< Look at that!
Now, granted my mop has thinned a great deal since my mullet-sporting days as a prog rocker in 1990’s Nashville but the lighting and overhead cameras made it look a lot worse. I looked like I had the mange. That’ll never do.
I made the decision to shave my head. I’m talking cue ball shaved, the old Mr. Clean. In order to make it as painless as possible I started by taking my beard trimmer and cutting my hair down to about a quarter inch.
You know what? It looked pretty good like that, with my hair and beard the same length. So I kept it. I now had “a look.” It seemed silly to me that I even needed “a look.” It still sounds pretentious but I don’t make the rules. If I did TV cooking competitions would just be about the food, college football would have a playoff system and all politicians would leave office and go directly to prison.
What was more important is that the restaurant was booming. In an economy that had bogged way down no less. It was the W Recession and people were budgeting things like lunch, people were allocating their lunch budget to eat at Mars Hill. All of our hard work was starting to payoff. Suddenly everyone was buzzing about the cafe and about my food.
They loved the mix of traditional deli standards like Rubens and French Dips combined with original recipes like My Rockin’ Moroccan Garbanzo Bean Salad (Garbanzos tossed with a dressing of olive oil, fresh mint, cilantro and cinnamon) and the Cackalacky Po Boy (grilled chicken with pepper Jack cheese and a Carolina mustard-based BBQ sauce). I made salsa, hummus, BBQ sauce and horseradish cream from scratch, the same with the Cranberry Vinaigrette, Southwest Ranch, Greek and Thousand Island dressings.
The aforementioned hummus drew several nominations for the best in the city. The house soup (Turkey Queso – smoked dark-meat turkey in a spicy béchamel with pepper Jack cheese, smoked paprika and chipotle chili powder) was getting a lot of attention too. We also started dabbling with renting the cafe out as a banquet facility with food service ranging from continental breakfast to full-on dinner buffets.
Mars Hill Cafe was the “go to” place for lunch. I was having the time of my life. I returned to WKRG for more cooking demos and they sent a crew out to do a story. WPMI TV came out to do a story on the cafe as well. WHBR TV in Pensacola, Florida came all the way over to do an interview with me. An article from the local paper had people literally lining up outside the door. We were going on a wait at lunch. LUNCH!
My first shift we had five tables all day, the cafe seats about 115 and now we were turning it over three times a shift. I, for the first time in a few years began hitting the social circuits. It was at the annual Greek Heritage Festival that people began to recognize me if not on site, at least on reputation.
“This is Stuart Donald, he’s the new chef at Mars Hill Cafe.”
“Really? We love Mars Hill. You certainly have turned things around down there.”
I was humbled, embarrassed even.
Strange the dichotomy of my psyche – to always aspire to professions that come with adulation (musician, writer, chef) and then to feel such discomfiture when I receive it. Perhaps it is shame – I only realize how childish my yearning for attention is when I receive it. Rest assured I don’t let it bring me down but I do draw on it to keep me in check. The last thing I ever want to become is a d-bag.
As we work our way through the crowd I see chefs that I used to work under and they have heard about the job I’ve done and congratulate me. It is really an amazing experience to now be held as an equal to these men I had so looked up to coming up. Finally, my life was falling into some semblance of the plan in my head.
Then I met a girl.