My memoir, BAROLO, about my illegal work in the Piemontese Italian food and wine industry was recently released.  Check it out!

BAROLO is now in stock and available here:

Growing up in my family, food was the thing that emerged from the microwave, steaming and soggy. A rubbery omelette. A desiccated matzo ball in watery broth. But my mother treated our crap with ceremony. It was with bad food that we dealt with tragedy or comedy or mediocrity. For my birthday, microwaved hamburgers with iceberg lettuce; for my father’s, microwaved lamb shanks. It was always something that once had a bone or an entire skeleton. We loved meat. In my family, to die young and full was expected. We gracefully upheld the pillars of heart disease and diabetes. Saturated fat and clogged arteries kept us warm through the winter. In my family, enjoying food meant overeating. I became a fat teenager.

The winter of 1986, I tried so hard to be cool. This was my first year in high school, Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” had just come out, and the December temperatures in suburban Chicago were way above average. You could see the sidewalks through the ice. Girls would come to class in shorts or skirts and teachers would scold them for their weatherly indiscretion. I tried so hard, but Bon Jovi was this foreign thing—this upsweep of mislabeled heavy metal, rooted in AquaNet hairspray.

My father had brought me up on classic rock—Chicago’s 105.9 WCKG and the rough sexy DJ voices of Patty Hays and Kitty Lowie. The way they talked about Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, their voices gruff and throaty, carrying the mysteries of age and cigarette, was enough to make a male high school freshman dismiss Bon Jovi, and, in turn, his coolness, as sonically trivial.

When driving together, my father and I would pick up McDonalds (he would remove the buns from his two Big Macs and press the four patties into his mouth, one hand twisting the steering wheel), and listen to Simon and Garfunkel and the Eagles. We dissected “I am a Rock” for its metaphor and contexts, and “Witchy Woman,” tying the allure of the invisible Patty and Kitty to the windblown black of Stevie Nicks.

But this wasn’t cool. Not in 1986. I knew damned well that if I couldn’t quote Bon Jovi with some study-hall regularity, I’d never make it to the upper echelon of Adlai E. Stevenson High. The song that year was “You Give Love a Bad Name,”—Shot through the heart! and I soon would be, by a rosemary sprig. But I hadn’t yet found food, my hopeful catalyst into coolness and, at the time, I had to rest with Zeppelin, my thirteen-year-old feelings uncontrived and implacable, hidden in the folds of those short winter skirts.

As I grew older, I began to wonder: what was the matter with fruits and vegetables? Somehow, I didn’t anymore want to be part of a familial food culture that made of the tomato the devil’s candy. If I couldn’t get into Bon Jovi, perhaps I could get into the four food groups and a little exercise.

I began running, slowly, around the block twice a week. I read cookbooks, revising my approach to edibles. In the bathroom, I would thumb through the back of Chicago magazine’s dining guide, circling the interesting places in red pen—the ethnic haunts, the then-nebulous four-star establishments granted the clandestine designation of fine dining. I began to check them off.

When the Food Network was launched, I watched it voraciously, taking notes. When I left for college, I left my most expensive graduation gift behind—the microwave. I began cooking—fucking up, almost succeeding, fucking up. I got serious, reading Chef Thomas Keller’s treatise on trussing a chicken, Charlie Trotter’s manifesto on the potato. I waited for Ferran Adriá’s “El Bulli” cookbook to drop below a hundred bucks on Amazon.com. When it never did, I read all the free articles about it.

My friends got into cooking. My male friends grew their hair long, my female friends shaved their heads. We told ourselves we were these rebel chefs, self-important culinary militants who were mediocre line cooks at best. At worst, we were over-seasoners. A handful of salt. A liter of cumin. We made up jailhouse stories for each other, though none of us had seen the interior of a cell. We drew prison tattoos on each other’s forearms with Papermate pens.

I took restaurant jobs—dishwasher, prep cook, server, garde manger, grill, stockboy for the wine. Watching the other chefs work the line, I realized my militancy was an illusion. These people were for real. In the restaurant kitchen, the hierarchy trumped the collegial. I was tired of being yelled at. I would never really be a chef—didn’t have the calloused tear ducts for it—and began to wonder: Could tasting be a talent?