My father’s mind is most alive in a kitchen. He can create the most thrilling and unique flavor from seemingly mundane ingredients or spices. Some may equate culinary talent to experience or education, but the way his hands dance with ingredients in the kitchen can only be attributed to a passion that has grown since he stood on his own tippy toes in his childhood home, watching his own father.

In many families, it is common that one parent normally takes the role of “cook,” and I assume that most people would consider either their father or mother a fairly talented cook when it comes to things like simple chicken dishes and casseroles. But, my father surpasses the cooking-to-feed-hungry-children-casserole chef. Rather, he is the Leonardo Da Vinci of pasta sauces, the Mozart of culinary endeavors and the Monet of wood-oven pizza.

I grew up sitting at a high-top table in the middle of a restaurant that was nearly 15 years old the day I was born; it was a place I’d grow to know as home more than I know my own. My father is a restaurateur, and the first of what would eventually become three successful restaurants is the my favorite place in the world.

At eight years old I could name a dozen Italian pasta shapes and sauces. When matched perfectly, the two mingle in the most romantic way to make customers swoon. I could work a panini press like an expert, pair prosciutto and arugula with Jersey tomatoes on a pizza, and I knew that the secret to creating the best burger in the world was nestling a fried egg between the toasted ciabatta roll and patty.

My father teaches me life lessons through breakfast sandwiches; he educates me in ways unknown through the proper food and wine pairings. He hands my brothers and I advice through the knead of pizza dough and seasoning of fresh fish. I wouldn’t call the lessons of my childhood orthodox, but I wouldn’t trade for a dad who teaches me about sports or cars or math. All these seem too mundane for my dad, a person who never let me leave for school in the morning without eating a “Vic McMuffin” (family secret) and a coffee.

In between mouthfuls of caprese salad, leek and parmesan bruschetta, turkey chili and perfectly cooked medium rare steak, I learned how to give, how to share, how to love, how to please and how to listen. I never realized that during the moments I was sharing the kitchen with my father, trying his new creations or enjoying a meal at that old high-top table, I was being taught the most valuable lessons. Things I’ll carry with me anywhere I ever go, these homemade risotto stuffed tomato values are values you will not learn in a classroom. You will not learn them in a book. You will not learn them from a professor. But from watching the way a pair of hands can take raw ingredients and transform them into love.

My father does not cook to feed, or to eat or to just survive. He cooks to share and to unite. He cooks to laugh, to cry, to enjoy, to revel. He does not cook to live; he lives to cook. He has an infatuation, one I myself have adopted, with the way in which food serves such an important purpose; not for sustenance but for bringing people together, no matter how different, at one table, to share something.

As a child I was always taught that I must believe in something in this world, to make life worth it. My father’s religion is made up of worshipping parmesan cheese and fine red wine; it is praying to the gods of pork chops and red peppers;  it is the expression on the face of a person who has had a bad day and is immediately lifted with one bite of gnocchi. He has taught me to believe strongly in the power of tomatoes, in the power of a dinner table, in the power of creativity in the kitchen.

My father’s mind is most alive in the kitchen, in the dance of rosemary and olive oil, in good focaccia, in a full stomach. Seeing as the lessons I have learned from him are as irreplaceable as my grandfather’s base recipe for tomato sauce, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

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