In preparation for each column I write for this magazine, a concept (or three!) simmers in my head, the pressure mounting to both boil down the subject and bear down on its actual writing in order to submit by deadline.
And like clockwork, each January I find myself in an unfamiliar warm-weather destination, in the all-too-familiar territory of straying further from my original concept(s) as travel inspires and hyperactivity conspires to lead me down a different literary road. The egg timer rings and, true to form, my deadline gets nudged as we seek something closer to “well done.”
This one was no different.
My promise to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association landed me in Mexico — revered for its colorful and exotic culture. I should write about Mexican cuisine, I thought, resplendent in avocado and lime, corn tortillas, tacos and tamales, simmering pork and shimmering mole sauce made sexy-silky with chocolate, spices and a whole lotta love. ¡Olé hombres. Yo estaba amando a Mexico!
My first visit surely won’t be the last.
Dubbed the “midwinter meeting,” more than 30 board members and many spouses made the trip to “blend, mix, slice and dice” the issues that are most current and concerning for our industry. Ironically, my last column dealt with some of those issues in a rare jumping of my personal rail, as I railed political. Not because I woke up one morning and thought, hey, maybe this can be fun, all that close-minded discourse. Rather, I was compelled to offer an insider’s view on the legislative siege that continues to threaten small businesses. I paid a price for that one by ignoring an editor’s suggestion that I might ruffle some hardcore left-wing feathers. His warning rang true as readers called me an “insensitive jerk” (often true), the “R” word (generally so not right) and a whiny “snowflake” (perhaps the nicest name I have ever been called, although I am certain this impassioned fellow was not referencing my pure and whimsical nature!). Dude vowed to boycott our restaurants.
Ima steer clear of politics hereon. Risking business is bad business and extremely unfair to my incredible staffs when I offend, intentions aside. (And a career in writing doesn’t hold enough promise; drinking rare mezcal ain’t cheap!) I digress.
On our second night in Mexico, beneath the smile of a moon, my column’s focus would simmer again. While palming a half glass of oak-aged local añejo, served aside a fresh-squeezed orange juice chaser with a ground worm-salt rim, previous concepts seemed a world away — of portraying the dynamic world of the kitchen expediter; the essential liaison between cook and customer; or examining whether “the millennial workplace ethic is an actual thing,” as challenged by one of my contemplative and ornery daughters!
Instead, my attention turned to vibrant guacamole topped with crisp-fried grasshoppers, chuckling internally while wondering why the adjective “authentic” is applied almost universally to Mexican restaurants only. Am I wrong? For actual authenticity, we hopped on over to the bayside deck at Porfirio’s, and I can tell you that grasshoppers do NOT taste like chicken. Their earthen and umami nature reminded me more of a toothsome version of a shiitake mushroom.
I could not wait to tell TripAdvisor all about this great restaurant … so much fun that we visited again the same week for the endless hospitality, tequila and mariachi! New prose began to formulate as, unexpectedly, Cancún emerged as a bastion of exemplary service — with omnipresent grace and attention to details — like we had never witnessed. Kathy and I shared these observations and our table with good friends, the owners of the incredibly successful Turner’s Seafood restaurants. Jim Turner repeatedly shook his head in awe and philosophical recognition: “It’s these three things: attentiveness, friendliness and knowledge” that make all the difference. We noted further that when food is problematic, it often can be corrected. But in the artful execution of these service standards, good food will often be perceived as great, no corrections necessary. Such service is regularly elusive and undervalued. And here we were, a multitude of restaurant operators being schooled south of the border! ¡Salud!
During our early-morning board meeting, experiencing some afterglow on the heels of the previous night’s social event, my sleepy, still-spinning writer’s mind circled back around to all the incredible work the MRA does — as the topic at hand was the more than $100,000 in culinary scholarships awarded each year by the educational foundation. I marveled at that number while future fundraising events were being announced and discussed … then I drifted …
I heard my name. Wait, what?
That too familiar feeling from back in school, when the teacher knew you weren’t paying attention, and suddenly directed a question your way. Busted.
“In addition, we have added two more restaurants to this year’s initiative …”
Aha. Cooking Matters. We had moved on to discussing our 2-year-young partnership with Share Our Strength — the national organization committed to feeding and educating at-risk children — while announcing the list of participating restaurants.
Involving a multitude of commonwealth volunteer chefs and staff members, this year’s goal is to eclipse last year’s effort and top $100,000, with 100 percent of the proceeds to serve hungry families in Massachusetts.
Boom. Now THAT is what I need to be writing about!
Please join us in creating a recipe for success on Monday night, March 27, when many restaurants statewide will hold exclusive multicourse dinners, featuring the best and most compassionate chefs in Massachusetts … on behalf of children.