I met chef Chris Crosthwaite a few years ago, when I was doing a dinner at the Oregon Truffle Festival. Chris approached me after the cooking, and asked me if I would like to visit him and his students at Lane Community College in Eugene. I told him I would think about it. Some time passed, and Chris followed up, and we set things in motion for me to visit, talk to the students, and do a grand dinner for the college’s faculty and alumni. Why, exactly, did I agree to do this?
For me, the kitchen has always been my happy place. I came out of medical school, and I know I could have flourished in that field. But in my soul, there is an artist, and the expression of that art for me is food and cooking. By the time I opened my restaurant, Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca, in Vancouver, I was primed to be the very best I could be. Running a successful restaurant is so much more than cooking, of course. You really have to have the passion for it, otherwise it would wear you down in no time.
One of the challenges of cooking in the United States is bringing in food. For Oregon, we really did not bring anything. I was tempted to bring salmon, actually, but in the end we used what was available at a great market in Eugene.
For the Harvest Dinner at Lane Community College, of course the autumn harvest was the theme. The idea was to teach the students, plus cook a meal for 300 paying guests. I brought one sous chef with me. I had recently cooked at the beautiful Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, an amazing place, where we hand-fed the eagles, something so spectacular. But the concept was the same, although the scale was greater in Oregon. The idea was to use the local products.
The day was rigorous, and many staff there were not used to working the long hours we do, so it was interesting. Some people think the job is to show up at night, and get the glory. But that is not what I wanted these kids to learn. An extra challenge was that the main kitchen was in use, for the college cafeteria lunch and dinner. So we had to make do with some space they made available to us.
Over the years, I have committed a lot of time and energy to train my staff, and the young chefs. I was not always easy to work for, I know this. But taking the easy way is not the right way.
At the college, I told the students I would expect only their very best effort, and a team effort, too, in order to create a memorable dinner for 300 people. We worked hard all day, and Chris told me later that they had never had such a great response to a guest chef. That made me proud of what those kids achieved.
A great restaurant is about creating a memorable experience for the guests. I knew in the beginning that there was no such thing as an insignificant detail, and that everyone working with me had to demand the best of themselves every day. That is the only way.
I think we left a little of that passion, and that attention to the tiny details, with those students in Eugene. My hope is that some of them work in great restaurants one day, too.
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