Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day: Cooking with Love, and for Patrick

I am a chef by profession. Despite my experience cooking for various celebrities and ambassadors, tourists and strangers, and the hours spent sweating in top restaurant kitchens, at the end of the day, I am a cook -- not a chef -- at heart. I like to define myself not so much by my professional culinary ventures, but by what I cook for those I love. It is this that measures not just skill and talent and speed, but what comes from your heart, as I believe all good cooking should.

I wrote this almost six years ago when I was living in Rome, and I still feel the same way. For me, cooking is an expression of love. It's something to be shared among friends, family, and loved ones. Cliche as it may sound, it's about more than filling stomachs, it's about feeding souls. When you're lucky enough not to worry where your next meal will come from, cooking is about pleasure: flavor and memory and sensation and smell and yes, hunger -- but in a good way. It's the ultimate sensory experience. I always say, cooking and eating are the only activities for which you utilize all five of your senses...other than sex, of course. So for me, Valentine's Day is as much about food as anything. 

This Valentine's Day, I'm reflecting on cooking for loved ones, and one loved one in particular. This past Christmas Eve, my dear friend Patrick passed away suddenly. We'd been friends since we met in Rome in 1999, and he was one of my favorite people on the planet. In a terrible twist of irony, I was a week away from seeing him. I was supposed to be his New Year's "date" and spend five days in Las Vegas with him and his Mother, his Stepfather Gary, and his 2 little boys, Sebastian and Elliott. I was looking forward to this time with him so much that it's beyond something I can express in words. I was excited to get some good, quality time with the boys, excited to see his Mom again (she'd lived in Florence while we all lived in Rome) and to meet Gary, excited for our famous Dana-Patrick heart-to-hearts, and for our imitations and goofy accents and belly laughs, and to just hang out again with no particular agenda, like we'd done in Rome countless times over the years. And, I was really looking forward to cooking for him, and particularly for Sebbi and Elliott. When I last saw Sebbi, he was too young to have his teeth yet, and the boys had been living in Sweden with their mother until Patrick brought them back to America in 2008. They'd been living on the other side of the country from me, and though we often tried to plan visits to see each other, daily life had always seemed to get in the way. Until this year. We were going to kick off 2011 on the right foot. "I can't wait to cook you guys some good Italian food, you need my help!" I'd told Patrick on the phone back in November. He'd joked about his "master cheffing skills" as he simultaneously prepared dinner for the boys -- peanut butter sandwiches, mac and cheese. Patrick's own diet also tended towards the simple kids' menu fare he served the boys. 

I thought about all the wonderful Roman meals we'd enjoyed -- pasta all'amatriciana, Roman broccoli cooked down to a velvety mush with garlic, olive oil, and peperoncino...thin-crust pizzas and juicy beef tagliata on a bed of arugula with balsamic. I wanted the boys to taste this. For Patrick and me, it would be taste memory. For Sebby and Elliott, it would be cultivating tastes. But I didn't get that chance.

Instead, I flew out to Vegas 3 days earlier than originally planned, for Patrick's funeral. It's still surreal, even as I write this. I don't actually believe he's gone. It seems impossible. But I was there, I attended the service, I saw his family and friends, and made some new ones. We wept, we drank, we talked. And eventually, I got to cook. The day after the funeral, Barb and Gary were hosting everyone at their home. When I arrived there with my friend Gareth, the house smelled delicious. James Taylor was cooing from the speakers (Patrick's favorite -- and mine, too. I've cooked countless meals along with "Sweet Baby" James). I wanted to do something to help the family, wanted to make myself useful in some small way. So I relieved Barb of her kitchen duties, and turned the bubbling broth on the stove into a soup. It was a simple job, really: picking turkey meat off of the carcass, chopping parsley and garlic, menial tasks. But that's what I wanted, to go through the motions and occupy my time. I cooked for Patrick's family and friends, and for me, too. His sister Andrea came and put her arm around me as I worked. "You're doing what you do best. It feels comforting, doesn't it?" It did, and it didn't. The last thing I wanted to be doing was cooking under those circumstances...but under those circumstances, the only thing for me to do was cook. Patrick's niece Sophie was my sous-chef. She'd decided over the course of those few days that she wanted to be a caterer. Strange timing for a 10 year-old to choose a career path, perhaps, but I can tell that she has what it takes, beyond already formidable knife skills: she likes to feed souls, too. Barb said that day, "Having you and Gareth and Erica in my kitchen again, it seemed like Florence -- almost normal." Almost. The one thing that was missing, so sorely, unfairly missing, was Patrick. What a presence. He always lit up the room.

Once all the family had arrived at Barb's house, we ladled out the cream of turkey soup and passed around the garlic bread. All the adults and Barb's 10 grandchildren slurped the soup happily, and I loved seeing them enjoying it, loved hearing the clink-clink of their spoons hitting the bottom of their cups. When he was done, Sebastian, Patrick's older boy, came running up to me and smiled and proclaimed, "You make the best soup in the whole world!" There was no higher praise imaginable. It broke my heart. In that moment, he was a 7-year-old version of his father. There too, no higher praise.
Patrick is gone much too soon, but he packed a huge amount of life into his 38 years. He lived all over the world, and he often said many of his happiest moments were with us in Rome. Patrick truly enjoyed to eat, drink, and be merry, something he cultivated to perfection in the aria and among the cobblestones of the Eternal City. He was an honest, caring man -- absolutely one of the good ones -- with a huge heart, which, as it turned out, was also a weak one. For better or worse, the words "heart" and "Patrick" will forever be linked in my mind.

I wish everyone much love, and time to spend with those you care about this San Valentino, and hope that you can all share some delicious food with loved ones. I'll be blogging about food-related Patrick stories now and throughout the year -- there are so many! This is a piccolo valentino to you, Patrick. I love you and miss you so much. We all do.