Thursday, February 24, 2011

"So Mark...when did you become all food and cooking obsessed?"

Homeskillet supplement: A brief tale about the reason for this blog site and my recent culinary obsession.

Look, now, I’m not going to lie to you here because, well, that’s not my usual style and not the focus of this Homeskillet blog page. Why would I lie here? I’m sharing recipes, telling you about our favorite places to eat and drink in Tucson and all sorts of awesome grubby stuff. I’d only be lying if I said that I didn’t like to cook, that I don’t enjoy eating yummy food or that I will refuse another round of drinks from you. But that aint gonna happen.

Here’s the thing kids: It’s taken me a little over three decades to finally simmer down to what I want to do with myself and what I really love to do: And that is cooking and training myself to be better at it and open a fun place with She-Ra. Believe me, I have tried so many different “careers” and “job opportunities” in my time only for them to all, basically, fall by the wayside and be a memory. Fun memories, some of them, but none of them stuck with me like I thought that they would. Why? Because I never felt that intense urge deep down inside of me to make this, whatever gig that was at the time, to be and become the thing that I was meant to do for the rest of my life.

Until recently.

Okay, so, I hope I’m not confusing you or setting you up for some kind of jag about me changing careers (yet again) only for this one to melt away like all the others because I have some form of ADD and can’t commit to anything for more than a year or two. Because that’s not the case here. Sure, I’ll try (almost) anything once, and sorta have, and, yeah, I am a bit spastic when it comes to working and relationships (now that’s a whole different story) but it was a revelation about a year ago that set me ablaze and got me more excited about waking up and getting started with another day than anything else. It’s so freaking cool.

With that, let’s take a brief tour of my career path past and see where I went wrong. Well, not ‘wrong’ but, let’s say find out why most jobs and careers were the wrong fit. How’s that?

Now, I graduated high school a year early, thanks in part to my English teacher, Mrs. Favalora, who knew and saw that I was really struggling with school (not that I am dumb, I just really hated my high school, so instead of going there, I preferred skateboarding and playing D&D) and suggested I take a proficiency test and get me out instead of having me held back. I took the test, passed with flying colors and was enrolled in theater classes at the local community college, Monterey Peninsula College, soon after. Seeing as my dad was an actor and my mom did costumes for years, I figured I had some kind of chance in theater. It was fun, but I quickly found out that actors bug the crap out of me and I felt like an idiot having to “emote” and say stupid lines while wearing a codpiece. Doing backstage work was always fun though. I liked being behind the scenes and making the show a success by setting the actors and show up by doing lighting, sound, rigging, running crew and all that.

 Me at age 14 with a little 'light' reading

Thrash metal and Xmas fanatic theater dork me at 16

By the time I moved to Santa Barbara, following a girlfriend who got into UCSB and some other pals who did the same, I was pretty much over school. But, when in Rome, I took a bunch of classes anyway, ones that interested me at the time like philosophy, psychology, theology, literature, etc. It was during this time that I thought a career in film would be a good idea so, instead of moving to LA and hacking my way out of that nightmarish jungle, I followed the girlfriend and friends to San Francisco where a job doing production work was waiting for me. See, it’s all in who you know. And I guess I knew somebody.

Being a production assistant on films, music videos and commercials is tough. Long hard hours, low pay and having to hustle yourself all the time for more work just didn’t cut it for me. Plus I was pretty bad at it. The relationship was ending with the girlfriend during this time so my head wasn’t in the game most jobs. When the relationship finally ended and job offers came to a halt, I did what I had to do and start working in cafes and restaurants, because, luckily, San Francisco is filled with them.

With the “I’m just passing through till the next awesome opportunity arrives” attitude, I tended to stay at most restaurant jobs the longest. It was fun, the tips were good, and I always liked helping out in the kitchen. But, no!, I was “too cool” for that stuff, so I continued trying my hand at things that I thought, at the time, were cool.

Writing had always come fairly easy to me so when the chance to pen articles for a friend’s up and coming magazine came along, I jumped right in. It was the beginning of my music journalism stint, one that lasted almost a decade, and I really liked it. For a while. Why? Because (just like they say in Almost Famous) I felt cool. I was hanging out with bands, meeting people like Henry Rollins, Bad Brains, The Misfits, Lemmy of Motorhead, all my high school heroes basically. I got into shows for free, CDs came in the mail everyday, so much in fact I had to get a mailbox service to handle the load. At one point, I wrote for over a dozen websites and magazines which soon got me jobs working for dot coms (this was the late 90’s and early 2000’s in San Francisco, dorks like me with a portfolio got work) and marketing firms allowing me to actually make some decent money. Then, boom!, or should I say ‘crash’? The great “dot bomb” hit and jobs just stopped coming in. Even this project I was involved with, one that had me living online in the old SF Real World house with a bunch of other people went up in flames. No really, the house caught fire destroying everything. Most of my portfolio stuff was in ash and I had no real proof anymore that I was who I was. So, it was back to cafes and restaurants while I still wrote for some of the magazines that kept me on.

But there was no pay, or very little of it, being a freelance music journalist, one that specialized in heavy metal, so I had to have “real” jobs while I wrote. I worked as a bartender and host at a popular eatery called Q, which was featured recently on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which was a great gig for a while. Up the street from Q was my favorite bar called the 540 Club, which I hung out there often seeing as it was between Q and my apartment in the Presidio. One night at the 540, a bunch of us were hanging around the bar, listening to some DJ spin bleak and boring indie rock. None of us were having fun, including the owner, the regulars and the bartender. Now, at this point, I had been writing mainly as a heavy metal correspondent and doing work for magazines such as Pit and Metal Maniacs, seeing as I am a longtime fan of the genre, and the CDs, mostly metal, were piling up in my small place. As that DJ continued to bore us to death, an idea hit like lightning bolt.

“Would you guys be interested in doing a Metal night?”, I suggested. Everyone, including the owner, all perked up and said a resounding “YES!”  And that was how Metal Mark was born.

My first night DJing at the 540, a Saturday night none the less, was so massively popular that the fire department had to be called in because the place was so packed. The fog machine I had purchased, one that I hid behind my Castle Grayskull, along with strobe and black lights and skull candle holders, engulfed the crowd as I blasted old and new school metal. Obviously we had hit a nerve and I became a regular DJ at the 540 Club. 

 NILE listening party at the 540 Club sponsored by Metal Maniacs

This lead to a guest spot on KUSF’s “Rampage Radio” where every Saturday (well, Sunday really) from 2am to 8am, they played the most extreme punk and metal music. I was thrilled and honored to be a part of that crew. Unfortunately this lead me to try cocaine which I soon became quite reliant on and even hooked on. Which, of course, increased my drinking. The drug was simply everywhere, at the station, the bar and grill I worked, “friends” always had it on them, not to mention I was pretty lonely and confused since all my real pals moved away and I was stuck taking care of a creaky apartment that belonged to an ex-girlfriend. Luckily, right before I hit rock bottom, I met She-Ra and moved to Tucson to be with her…that and the cheap rent. And Mexican food.

After detoxing and letting what little savings I had run out, I looked for jobs. No DJ work for me, that is unless I wanted to make right above minimum wage and pull graveyard shifts at some crappy ‘new rock’ stations. I did work two nights at a prominent “gentleman’s club” as a DJ but couldn’t do it as blow was being passed out everywhere and when I heard my voice over the house system “Now lets hear it for Sinnamon! C’mon guys, get those dollars out and…” I cracked up and walked out. That eventually lead me a freelance job for a “professional” DJ company doing weddings, proms, etc. It sucked but it was work. I also tried journalism again, but no one would hire me and the only paper I got in with folded six months after I got hired.

Frustrated and impatient, I began looking for something solid, some job that I could enjoy just enough while I try my hand at book writing.

“You could always work in the kitchen at Old Chicago,” She-Ra suggested. It was where she bartended and where I had made a bevy of good friends because of her job there so, after some deliberation, I said why not. I had never worked in a real kitchen before but, hey, how hard could it be?

Yeah. It was pretty rough at first. Even though I was hired as just the pizza guy it was made quite clear very quickly that you have to know every aspect of that kitchen. I had dough making shifts, prep, front line, even dishwashing (which I strangely actually enjoyed, and still do), expo, opening and closing shifts, all of it. Seeing as I was part time then (still DJing weddings and crap and even did fundraising for the Tucson symphony for a while…that’s right, we have a symphony) I was still a floater, but when I went full time, to start my first novel, I was put on the pizza line, mainly because I am real meticulous when it comes to presentation and the front line is just too hot with servers and managers screaming at you.

I wrote my first book “Rabbit Every Tuesday”, a memoir about my tumultuous last year in San Francisco and finding true love, and began sending it out to publishers and agents in hopes of getting published. Nothing. Then I wrote my second book, a children’s novel called “In The Thicket”, which I had hoped to make a series out of, and, again, rejection after rejection after…heck, sometimes they never even bothered to get back to me. So I kept on trying, editing and submitting my work while outlining my third book and continued to think that my kitchen job was just a necessary evil and I’d be out of there soon.

But then, through time, I found myself really enjoying my job. I like how kitchens work. It’s kind of like working backstage at a theater. Making things happen from behind the scenes was a lot of fun. Plus I found myself reading cook books more so than other normal books, I started getting memberships at food and cooking websites, subscribing to cooking magazines, obsessing over shows like Top Chef and No Reservations, watching online instructional videos on knife techniques (I am a bad ass chiffonier by the way, who knew?) and all things culinary. My book writing took a backseat to me wanting to know how to properly braise a chicken, what stock to use in what soup, which herbs to use in what dish, how Thomas Keller came up with his “oysters and pearls” genius entrée, and so on and so forth. I was soon consumed with my love of eating and a new found appreciation of cooking.

Then, one night…it happened.

After a particularly hard day at work, and us just talking about our options of the future as far as jobs are concerned, She-Ra said something that set the wheels in harmonious motion:

“I’ve always wanted to open up my own place,” she quietly said.

I immediately hit the ceiling, jumping up from my seated position on the couch. The sky, literally, opened up. That was it I thought. That was IT! And, to be honest with you, it is all I ever wanted yet never fully accepted. Four decades on planet Earth and I finally know what I really want to do with the rest of my life.

I wanna be a cook. A really, really good cook. And I wanna eat…well. Which, we do, already, for the most part, but I mean really well.

Oh, and I wanna hang out with She-Ra too. Which I’m sure you thought was already a given. Which…it is.

So there you go. That’s the Reader’s Digest version of it all (which is still pretty long for a blog, right?) and why I started this page and who I am all about now and what I have in store for the near future. It’s like I don’t even notice what I did for “careers” in the past; it was all just fun and story makings for the most part. Sure, I love to write and will NEVER give that up, along with being a dedicated lifelong metalhead, but now I have a different way of expressing myself, another medium to make people happy. And that, my dear friends and readers, is to cook for you and share my adventures as I do so, as I self-teach myself in all manners of becoming a real chef, doing the Top Chef University online program (which is pretty amazing by the way) and, eventually, getting certified from a local culinary academy. It’s so much fun and I’m so excited I can’t even explain it to you.

Wait. Maybe I just did.

Thanks for listening. Now I gotta get back in the kitchen. I think my tater-tots are done…

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