The story begins somewhere around 1962 I was about 12 years old and My Uncle Peter was home from the Virgin Islands. We were feasting in the formal dining room a place where no-body ever was allowed in unless it was a very special occasion. The dining room overlooked the living room where we kids were allowed on Christmas morning only. Heck every piece of furniture was covered in plastic I have no idea where they got that stuff I think they made it just for Italians. The furniture lasted a life time thought!
My Uncle Peter was the closest thing I had to a father and was a larger than life figure to all of us, my mother, my Aunt Teresa (the countess of Grove Street) and my sister. My Uncle was the last appointed Governor of the Virgin Islands (Nixon appointed) and the US Comptroller for the previous 16 years (Eisenhower appointed). He was also the first all American football player from Holy Cross and went on to play for the Newark Bears a team that would eventually become the NY GIANTS. He played offensive tackle, he was a substantial man. My Uncle was firm, a man of faith, loving and mater fact about life and we all adored him and followed his direction.
As we sat at the dinner table my uncle began with a prayer at which time he included his mother and father… my grandparents who traveled to America from Naples Italy and who had passed away before I was born. As he finished I looked at my Uncle and there were tears running down his face. I couldn’t believe it I had never seen him cry nor could I comprehend how mentioning his parents some bloody 15 or so years after their passing could bring him to tears…I mean they had been gone so long surely the sorrow of their passing would have healed.
That day stayed with me forever; at that moment my Uncle would teach me about the true meaning of family, love, compassion and of respect and loss. However, it took some time to sink in. That lesson only manifested itself when I too became overwhelmed by the emotions of such a loss and by a heart that longs for something that it will never have again.
Well what does this have to do with food and for heaven sake Wolfgang Puck. OK we have to enter our time machine and fast forward to 1982 I was a young chef making a little bit of a name for myself and it was at the peak of the American Culinary revolution being architected by the likes of Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower all in California. Believe it or not Chefs were becoming celebrities and Puck was the ring leader… at his first restaurant La Maison where he crafted himself into a household name the phone number to the restaurant was unlisted.
Shortly after he would open his own restaurant Spago it was the beginning of a dynasty. Getting one’s self a reservation at Spago his new restaurant positioned over a Hertz Rental Car Garage was no easy task, the restaurant bustled with the who and now of Hollywood and the best tables were reserved for the stars. It just so happened my sister-in-law was a soap star and was given two reservations in one week. I would tour California that week from Tijuana to San Francisco eating with all the chefs making names for themselves. As we readied to leave LA and my sister-in law was taking us to the airport I made her go past Spago… it was about 10am I wanted to purchase Wolfgang’s first book.
As I entered the restaurant the books were piled high on the host station for sale and I stuck my head in the kitchen, all Spanish speaking staff…they looked at me as if I had two heads. I was getting nowhere and needed to go(a plane to catch and all) and took a book with me knowing it would give me a chance to write a note and send a check for the book to Wolf at the same time. Which I did, I used the book to great advantage in my hometown of Rutland Vermont and my Mother knew of my passion for his cooking. I would have a chance to meet him some 10 years later at his restaurant in Chicago. It was May and we where there for the National Restaurant Association Annual Show we had a 5pm reservation the only time we could get a reservation… they were getting ready for the evening.
There he was just standing in front of his open kitchen…there only because every restaurateur in the country and from around the world was there that week and he looked tattered and worn out. So much so I almost didn’t speak to him but my tale of our visit to Spago back in the day was burning inside me and I asked if he would like to hear it. He sat with us at the table, of course I was hoping he would say oh sure I remember that letter I mean how many of those could he have had! He was engaging and charming but I was sure he didn’t know what the devil I was talking about he probably never saw the letter.
Now where has all of this lead us? My mother would pass away in the summer of 92 some 18 months after I moved to South Carolina but not before she had purchased Wolfgangs new book for me, Adventures in The Kitchen. My sister Judy one of the true loves and blessings of my life was in possession of the book and decided to inscribe it to me letting me know mom had purchased it for me before she passed and signed it love mom and put it under the tree Christmas morning. It crushed me that Christmas morning I was not able to remain with the kids opening their presents I know my sister felt terrible and probably seconded guessed her decision as it related to the timing.
In preparing for my next cooking class at Bove I removed the book from a place where it has been since Christmas 1992 with the inscription unread again until this morning. The emotion poured out as if it were that morning all over again 18 years earlier. My Uncle’s face indelibly fixed in my mind and that lesson from the dinner table in 1962 still captivates my heart and soul. Cherish every moment of time you have with family even if at times it seems challenging, just open a bottle of wine, break some bread together and as my mother always said “eat this you will feel better”.
Dining in Pawleys Island * Bove Restaurant & Bar Style