BY JANEY COWLING
OK, so The Bridges of Madison County
was a hugely successful story. Made a movie about it with real superstars. And it made a zillion dollars at the box office. Unrequited love. Big deal. But what about unrequited hunger? Here at ACE we, too, got down to the fundamentals of life. Questions about basic needs and desires, the meaning of life, no less. And the answer came to us with chilling clarity: food. That’s what it’s all about. Having made this incredibly enlightened discovery, we then set about to get up close and personal with the food pros. What do they like? What do they eat at home? We invited ourselves into the kitchens of the professionals to uncover the truth-or Cheez Whiz-lurking in the hearts of real chefs. And amazingly enough, they graciously opened up their homes (and fridges) for investigation. The following is a tale of icy suspense, filled with sizzling surprises and pearl (onions) of wisdom. They had fancy wines. They had bologna. They had sparkling wine from Vienna, Austria. And ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s. Yes, Virginia, they even had Jif.
Chef Lucie Meyers
of à la lucie
A Lexington native, Lucie Meyers has been in kitchens for 20 years, about a dozen or so of them spent at à la lucie’s, which opened Halloween, 1985 (and the anniversary party has since become an annual tradition for many regulars at the restaurant). Meyers also owns and operates Roy & Nadine’s and Pacific Pearl together with her husband. Working mostly at lucie’s, she assists the chefs at the other two restaurants from time to time when they need help with the menus or other areas where she can provide expertise.
With no formal education, Meyers got her experience training and working with different people.
“I depend a lot on cookbooks. I collect them,” Meyers says. “I read cookbooks like other people read novels.”
Every month she browses through the food magazines, and she is always looking for new and inventive dishes when she travels and eats out. Meeting and talking with lots of different chefs helps to serve as inspiration.
A new trend?
“Right now at Lucie’s, we’re going back to more traditional,” Meyers said. “We’re selling a lot of lamb chops lately, and I think the trend lately is to go back to basics.”
“They call it comfort food. Tonight I ‘m going to make a lobster pot pie, so it’s still taking traditional stuff but with a twist to it.”
Of course, no investigation would be complete without finding out what chefs don’t like. Meyers just came back from spending a month in China visiting her daughter, and shook her head about some of the dishes popular in that culture.
On acquired tastes, Meyers admits, “I don’t know about some of that food… I didn’t care for the snake or chicken feet.” She pauses, “I guess you develop a taste for it.”
“The snake is too weird because they have it in big pots in the ground,” Meyers explained. “So you go to the restaurant and you pick out your snake, and they chop it up. Maybe it’s the visual aspect…” Meyers’ voice trailed off.
What about dog? That’s supposed to be a real delicacy over there, isn’t it?
“No, I couldn’t eat dog. I ate all through China, and you can never be sure what’s in everything, but I tried to be careful where I ate. I didn’t eat off the street much.”
As for her culinary philosophy, she says, “Food is such a comfort, there’s such a warmth to it,” Meyers said. “To feed someone is like saying, ‘I’m going to take care of you.’ It’s a love.”
“Then there’s food and history,” Meyers said. “We fought wars over food, it’s so related to our survival.”
Meyers gets excited about food because she believes you can learn something different every day: “I think it’s fascinating because it’s always changing.”
Asked what her favorite dish was, Meyers didn’t hesitate: “I like what I call peasant food. I like it all in a pot,” Meyers responded. “If I could away with it at Lucie’s, I’d serve everything in a big bowl.”
Continuing in a confessional vein, Meyers was asked to reveal her weirdest food habit. She began by saying how she likes to raid the fridge late at night for ice cream.
Is that all?
OK. When “grilled,” she finally fessed up: “I like to eat rice with ketchup. Minute rice,” Meyers said. “Sometimes I’ll put chili or hot sauce on it to spice it up. It’s so good.”
Meyers’ fridge was mainly a refuge for condiments: 1 large bottle of Heinz ketchup; 7 or 8 different salad dressings; Kraft parmesan cheese; A-1 sauce; beer; diet Cokes; strawberry jam; mustard; pickles; and Hellman’s mayonnaise (both lite and regular). Ice cream and popcorn made their home in the freezer.
Chef Phil Dunn
of Phil Dunn’s Cookshop
For Phil Dunn, the days of cooking began while a student at the University of Kentucky, living in a fraternity house.
“We were all very poor and we took turns doing the cooking,” Dunn said. “A few of us liked it enough to do it on a regular basis.”
After graduating from UK with a degree in geography, Dunn realized it was not a field bursting with opportunities and decided to get into something more productive and profitable. He moved to Vienna, Austria, and lived there for a year while cooking at a hotel. When he came back to the states, Dunn attended the Culinary Institute of the Americas, in Hyde Park, New York.
Phil Dunn’s catering company is 16 years old. About six years ago, Dunn said he wanted to do more with the business than just catering. So in December of 1992, he opened Phil Dunn’s Cookshop.
“The idea was to open a bakery. That’s why we bought the building on Old Vine, to expand the bakery and catering company,” Dunn said. “We had no intention of opening a restaurant at all.”
Today, that little cookshop has almost outgrown the space, Dunn said. He has 55 employees and still needs more room.
And while she may have tried to assume a look of deprivation, Dunn’s 10-year-old Basset Hound, Margaret, is not going hungry any time soon. Her big velvety ears slid over the polished hardwood floors as she waddled determinedly (and gracefully) into the living room to oversee Dunn’s interview. He said Margaret is a connoisseur of food.
In case you think the elite of the Bluegrass only have a palate for paté, listen up. According to Dunn, one of the big horse-farm gentry insisted on serving vienna sausages cut up on a little platter with toothpicks at her lunches. Nothing else. Oh yeah. And first they had to be boiled until they were all plumped up. When she died, she left him cases of the stuff. Gee, thanks.
As for his own more epicurean tastes, Dunn loves breakfast foods.
“I love waffles. I could eat waffles every day,” Dunn said. “When we were growing up we ate a lot of breakfast food because it was quick and easy.”
Asked if he’s health conscious when it comes to food, he passionately admits, “I despise margarine. I don’t think it has any taste or any redeeming value at all,” Dunn said, adding “I only have real butter in my fridge.”
Bags of coffee; bags of bread “butts” (“I love the ends of bread. I bring ’em home from the restaurant and pop them in the toaster for breakfast”); butter (yep, the real thing); spaghetti sauce; Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (vanilla with heath); yogurt; bacon; and beer, wine and champagne (“the three basics of every fridge”); and peanut butter (Dunn insists it’s for Margaret, to put her medication in. Sure it is.)
Chefs John & Jill Schweder of Mason’s
The Schweders have made cooking a family affair: John prepares the main courses at Mason’s while his wife, Jill, is in charge of desserts. The family includes their two-year-old son, Mason, and their amply fed dog, August, who made the culinary rounds with John in New York where he (John, that is) attended the French Culinary Institute.
A delectable plate of water biscuits, a variety of fancy cheeses and anchovies was offered early on, and somewhat dominates the memories of said interview….
Though it’s easy to recall that John admitted, “I’m a big pickle freak.”
Spicy foods also hold a special appeal for him, but “they have to have flavor. Spice for spice’s sake doesn’t work for me.”
“But I like everything. I’ve yet to meet a style of food I don’t really like.”
Jill, on the other hand, succumbs to the call of garbanzo beans topped with cucumber salad dressing.
“I love a bologna sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise,” John admitted. “Kraft Singles American cheese. You know, the kind of white bread that sticks to the roof of your mouth and you gotta sit there and pick at it after you eat.”
Homemade cookie dough; one egg; salad dressing (for those garbanzo beans); tofu dogs; Philadelphia cream cheese; beer; milk; and pickles. Lots of pickles.
Chef John Foster
Foster has been at Dudley’s for eight years and working as a chef since he was 16. A native of upstate New York, Foster graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York City and moved to Lexington so that his wife could pursue her studies in Spanish at the University of Kentucky.
Foster was probably the most outspoken of those interviewed when it came to being health conscious.
“We’re constantly struggling with trying to eat well, to be healthy, and we don’t go out to eat a lot,” Foster said. “We usually go someplace that we know we can get a salad or something that’s not full of fat.”
“We’ve always had a garden since we’ve been here. Not a big garden, but it helps out,” Marshall said. “We always have a lot of herbs.”
Foster’s big indulgence in the non-health sector? He loves coffee.
Foster says what he enjoyed the most about being a chef was the creativity.
“It’s the chance to showcase what I like to eat and what I think is good to eat,” Foster said. “Cuisine that people will accept and come back for again and again.”
The element of creativity nixes boredom, Foster said.
“In the eight years I’ve been at Dudley’s, I’ve never not wanted to go to work,” Foster said. “There are slow times, but there’s always a variation.”
“I love eel a lot. In fact, I was the eel catcher for a fish market in Portland, Maine,” Foster said. “Every Christmas they’d stock the tank with eels. They’re delicious.”
“I will try anything once. I love raisins. I’ll eat a box of raisins, but not when they’re in something,” Foster remarked. “I hate that.”
“My favorite foods are probably the comfort foods that I grew up with,” Foster said. “My mom made the best pot of chili that I ever had.
“But I also like things like pasta. I could probably eat pasta seven days a week,” Foster said. “It’s healthy, unless you smother it with cream sauce.”
This fridge won the award for most plentiful health food: lite butter, soy margarine, and a bevy of organic stuff. But lurking amidst all the natural foods, a jar of mayonnaise peeked out, along with salsa, pickles and homemade pizza. A lonely bottle of champagne occupied the top shelf.
Chef Kim Marshall
of Atomic Cafe
Kim Marshall’s fridge won hands-down for most fun decor. The door of the Marshalls’ fridge was decorated with magnets, pictures and photos. Personal favorite? The Elvis magnet with the swinging guitar.
Marshall has been with Atomic Cafe for six and a half years. He literally started in the restaurant business at the ground floor, working as a busboy and waiter. Then he moved to bartending while gradually working part-time in the kitchen and helped to open up a Columbia’s Steakhouse in Ashland. In 1986, he moved to Lexington and attended the University of Kentucky, majoring in English.
“I worked at the Marriott in banquets and learned about large functions and handling big crowds,” Marshall said. “Sometimes you’d have a party where you’d have a wok station, and I thought that was kind of cool.”
“There are a lot of things I don’t like,” Marshall said. “Even on our menu, the eggplant caviar is something I never used to taste. I’d just make it according to the recipe, and only recently have I started liking it.”
“I’m not big on curry,” Marshall said. “There are some curry items on our menu, and I’m not crazy about them.”
“Mexican is my favorite type of food, then Chinese and Italian,” Marshall said. “If we talk about going out somewhere, I want to go someplace where the food is different than the food at Atomic or what we have at home.”
Marshall does all the purchasing for Atomic, except for the beer and wine. He bakes all the desserts and cuts all the seafood and beef, in addition to his responsibilities as chef.
“I’m like my dad,” Marshall said. “If I do it, I know it’s going to get done right. All the stuff my dad used to say, that I thought was a bunch of bunk, is all true. If you’re going to do it, do it right the first time. That way, no one has to come in behind you and do it over.”
What does Marshall like the most about his job?
“I like the freedom of not being chained to a desk and an office. I can be baking, with two cakes in the oven, a pot of beans on somewhere, and I’m chopping vegetables at the same time,” Marshall explained. “I like juggling a lot of things.”
“It’s instant gratification, too. We open at 4 p.m. and it’ll be quiet. And then by 6 p.m. it starts picking up, and then about 7 p.m., as soon as the kitchen door opens, it’s like a roar of people,” Marshall said with a big smile. “And that’s neat.”
“At work I would say that there’s one thing I eat all the time,” Marshall said. “I eat cold cooked linguini with spicy Thai peanut sauce. I really eat that a lot. It’s great. I put red hot Tabasco on a lot of things.”
Marshall had prepared his favorite summertime recipe of pineapple coleslaw for sampling during the interview (included in the sidebar, AND highly recommended).
Vodka (Absolut); watermelon; crescent rolls; one-percent milk; olives; pickles; Chef Boy-R-dee pizza; wine (merlot, white zinfandel, lambrusco [!]); three Bud Lites; big jar of Miracle Whip; and Velveeta.
While Phil Dunn’s home was a study in cool, clean elegance (comfortably chic comes to mind), John and Jill Schweder’s home reflected a family’s relaxed ease and informality. John Foster’s two cats draped casually on a white windowsill and overstuffed chair, blending in with dark green plants and pretty candles to create a warm and cozy feel to his home. Kim Marshall’s home reflected a sense of fun, humor and whimsy, with Hadley and Bybee pottery adorning the kitchen. And Lucie Meyers’ home was both whimsical and filled with an eclectic charm, with brightly colored pictures and interesting bric-a-brac (like a wooden man with a clock in his belly) scattered throughout creating a cheerful ambience.
Interestingly, and not too surprisingly, almost all the chefs seemed to prefer an openness to their kitchens, with the emphasis on a large eat-in area and/or open space to an adjoining room to convey a sense of informality and perhaps, also, to provide plenty of room to whip up those creative recipes.
Maybe the characters in Bridges of Madison County would have been happier if they had just eaten better. Here at ACE we’d like to leave you with some slightly higher-minded literary fare to savor as the temperature rises this summer:
As Virginia Woolf puts it, “One cannot think well, love well or sleep well if one has not dined well.”
Subscribe to the Ace e-dition for Lexington news, arts, culture, food, and entertainment news delivered to your inbox.
Recipes Volunteered by the Interview-ees
ATOMIC CAFE’S RECIPE FOR PINEAPPLE COLESLAW:
2 lb. Head white cabbage (chopped)
1 lb. Head red cabbage (chopped)
1 red bell pepper (diced)
1 gold bell pepper (diced)
1 bunch green onions (chopped)
1 cup chopped fresh pineapple
1 medium carrot (finely diced)
1 inch of ginger root (peeled and finely diced)
Combine ingredients in large mixing bowl. Drizzle with sesame oil until coated liberally. Add dashes of rice wine vinegar to taste. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, tossing in 1 tbsp. sugar as well. Sprinkle with crushed red pepper flakes, about 2 tsps.
Optionally, you can add 1 cup chopped peanuts or roasted sunflower seeds, according to taste.
Take 3 cups of your favorite barbecue sauce and doctor it up with 2 cups honey and 1 cup teriyaki. Grill and baste 6-8 oz. salmon fillets until medium-rare.
DUDLEY’S RECIPE FOR SETA SAPORE:
8 garden tomatoes (romas or sauce tomatoes)
1 rib of celery
1 green onion
1 tsp. crushed garlic
1 bunch (approx. 2 oz.) fresh basil
salt to taste
extra virgin olive oil
In the robo coupe roughly chop all your ingredients except the salt and olive oil. Add salt to taste and olive oil to coat after the mix is chopped.
BASIL CINNAMON SYRUP
A quick “sauce” to soak fresh or dried fruits in. Good with berries, peaches, dried cherries and dried apricots. Spoon over vanilla ice cream for a cool summer dessert.
(Makes about 1 cup of syrup)
1 1/2 cups water
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped basil (fresh)
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp lemon zest
Simmer first four ingredients for 10 minutes. Cool; stir in lemon juice, strain, add lemon zest. Pour over cleaned, chopped fruit-let soak 30 minutes at room temperature. Serve over ice cream.
of à la lucie
CRAB LASAGNA WITH TOMATO-BASIL COULIS
1/2 cup celery (diced in 1/4 inches)
1/2 cup carrots (diced in 1/4 inches)
1/4 cup red onion (diced in 1/4 inches)
1 pound fresh crabmeat (lump crab is best)
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup mayonnaise
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
freshly ground white pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
4 rectangular sheets (ready made) pasta sheets (or lasagna sheets trimmed to fit)
6 to 8 romaine lettuce leaves
1 recipe for tomato-basil coulis
6 fresh basil sprigs
1. Cook vegetables separately in saucepan of rapidly boiling salted water for 3 minutes; run under cold water, pat dry and set aside.
2. Pick through crabmeat to clean off cartilage and shell.
3. Place crab, lemon juice, mayonnaise, parsley, salt & pepper to taste and mix together. Cover and refrigerate.
4. Line an 8x4x3 1/2 inch tureen with plastic wrap leaving about 2 to 3 inches overhang all around; rub olive oil on inside of tureen and set aside.
5. Bring pot of salted water to boil over high heat; cut pasta sheets into 4 sheets to fit the tureen; drop into water one at a time; cook about 1 minute or until just al dente and remove and drain thoroughly; hold on paper towels. While water is still boiling, blanch the romaine leaves about 5 seconds; remove from pot and dry.
6. Put one pasta sheet in tureen; add a layer of romaine lettuce; add layer of crab mixture. Repeat until all the pasta, lettuce and crab is gone (finish with a pasta sheet).
7. Wrap with ends of plastic wrap and place a heavy pan on top of tureen to weigh everything down; hold in refrigerator for about 4 hours.
8. Ladle a small portion of the coulis into a plate. Using a very sharp knife,
slice the crab tureen into 6 servings. Garnish with fresh basil.
2 large very ripe tomatoes
1 shallot (minced)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
3 tbsp minced basil
Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium heat; add shallot and sauté for 1 minute; add tomatoes that have been cored and chopped; sauté 5 minutes; stir in vinegar. Put all in food processor and strain through fine sieve; stir in basil, salt and pepper.