After high school I moved to Burlington, Vermont and landed a line cook job at a little bar-and-grill downtown, called Reuban James. The kitchen manager was a rotund hippy who wore tie dyes, smoked a lot of weed. and when he wasn’t in the kitchen had a side arm strapped to his waist. Mike (“Mikesta” as we called him), was a real character. He introduced me to “Safety Meetings,” Everyday, right before we opened for lunch, we would adjourn to the alley and get high. Apparently, this would ensure that nothing went wrong and would all be safe! Mikesta had been a chef at some high end restaurants in Boston for years, but preferred the slower pace of a little bar-and-grill. I hadn’t really done much actual cooking at this point in my career, but I was a solid line cook, and faster than most of the other guys on the line.
One day Mikesta told me he was going to make a soup. It was one of his best, he said. I’d love it! As the pot started to simmer, I was excited to see what this culinary master was going to produce. After an hour or so he grabbed a big ladle and presented me with a big bowl of … wait for it… Cheeseburger Soup! It looked just like yellow ground beef but I was sure that the moment I took a bite, the exquisite flavor would blow my mind. It did not. It was exactly what it looked like: ground beef and velveeta cheese. It was awful. I kept my mouth shut and acted like it was really good.
That was the moment I really started my culinary career. If this soup, one of his best, was produced by a guy who had been a head chef at high-end, fine-dining restaurants in Boston, then surely making good food couldn’t be that hard. I knew I could do better. That was the day Mike inspired me by negative example to become a real cook!
Of course, the transformation didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t until two years later, back in Boulder and working at a Mexican / Italian place called Piccolo’s that I would make *my* first soup. Italian Sausage Soup was the first thing I actually created myself. It was basically just a tomato soup with sausage and stale bread in it. I thought it was pretty good, but in retrospect I’m sure it was pretty awful. On the other hand, it couldn’t have been worse than Cheeseburger Soup!