By Steven Goff
Cooking and I have had a sordid love affair for quite some time. My story isn’t your average “my parents and I were on holiday in the south of France and I ate my first oyster…” or “ the first time I ate foie gras at a three star Michelin restaurant with my parents… blah blah blah…” It’s a little more like, “I have a criminal record, tattoos on my hands, and a blue mohawk, so….”
I grew up in a blue collar Northern California family and food was looked at as sustenance and sustenance alone. Gaining pleasure from eating and especially trying new and different things was totally off limits. I am a direct byproduct of the fast food nation. I started working in restaurants at the age of 14 in Greenville SC. I hit ‘em all. I worked at Hardees as a breakfast cook,Burger King as a porter, Fazoli’s, every form of fast food restaurant but my favorite, Taco Bell (Multiple states of Taco Bell have denied my entry).
Really, cooking was just what funny looking guys with criminal records do for a living. That or construction… but as a degenerate, very frequently vagrant punk rocker cooking had it all! The fast paced “rock n roll” ness of the kitchen, free beer and late nights. Somehow though, I fought back against the direction of my vocation, despite working my way up. After tearing through every fast food job imaginable, I finally turned 17 which meant I was old enough to start bussing tables at O’Charleys. I had just made it into the big leagues, I thought, a Corporate Restaurant.
From there the sky was the limit, I became a “star” busser, and then picked up hosting shifts, then dish shifts… I quickly worked every job there before I hit a brick wall; age. I could not cook or serve until I was 18 years of age.
The day I turned 18 was my first server shift and also the first time I went to a strip club, paid for by all the older servers. I didn’t mind waiting tables but something just wasn’t right. I started picking up salad shifts in the kitchen because people would always quit. The kitchen manager would always ask me, “Why are you not in the kitchen? You work so hard, you should be back here!” And when I finally got behind the scenes, it fit. I instantly fell in love with the kitchen, all the action, vulgarity and the freedom to be exactly who you want.
Still, food meant nothing to me. I had grown up with a blue collar family, and then lived on the streets. Food was something for the blue bloods, the bourgeois, and the upper class. Me? I am a prole. Working class for life! In and out of a million corporate restaurant jobs, had developed a work ethic in me by accident. Now, I never put less than 110% into anything I do. It doesn’t matter if it’s washing dishes, having to tournee apples, searing fish or cleaning the house, I put all of myself into it. Beyond that I, also do it as quickly as I can, that sense of urgency working in a kitchen instills in someone.
I somehow found my path, as people tend to do. I started working in cafes, pubs, gourmet grocery stores, places that were more “upscale,” comparatively. Finally, I shucked the chains of food service altogether and decided to try out a school for welding… for a whole week. Then I tried my hand studying to be an electrician, and that lasted a whole two weeks. After the whole school thing not working out, I started looking for construction jobs, but no one would hire me. All I had done in my life was “women’s work”, you know, cooking. Fortunately, a kind soul at a coffee shop hired me as a barista and a punk rock pizza joint hired me as a server. I may not have been able to escape food service as a whole but at least I wasn’t killing myself in the kitchen. As fate would have it, within a few months the banquet chef at the gourmet food store, where my coffee shop was located saw my resume and persuaded me to start cooking again.
That experience at Fowlers food and wine in Durham was the first sprout of a love. I liked the kitchen before because of the rock and roll lifestyle, the hours, the grit and the grime, but I had yet to be sold on the one key element, the food.
Working at Fowlers I started to love the process creating things. I was able to fill the deli case every day with whatever I wanted. I worked the register in the wine section and learned about the wines. I worked the cheese counter and learned about cheese. I was able to work in the butcher shop, and I busted out sandwiches for the deli and worked special events. This is exactly what I had been waiting for, why had I been fighting it? I finally learned, just give in!
About that time my then girlfriend and I became pregnant, and my thought process was, go big or go home. Instead of having two jobs, why not just have one job and go to school for that job? Didn’t I want the poor misbegotten child of a 26 year old punk rocker to be proud of her daddy? Having her in my life gave me even more of a reason to make something great out of all that kitchen experience. So, School it was! I moved Back to Asheville from Durham and began the culinary program at Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College.
Again, I put all of myself into everything I do, and school became my entire life. I worked 40-50 hours a week, I was on the College’s culinary competition team. I was a father to my child, I participated in the baking/cooking clubs at school and still made time to work in the back of the classroom — probably even when I wasn’t necessarily supposed to be there — trying to figure out what to do with fish heads, chicken hearts, pork kidneys and salmon bones. I was always pushing myself to learn. I had fallen in love, and fallen hard. This was it. This was my life. Done and done.
I continued on with school. I completed two years of culinary, two years of pastry and a year or so in hospitality management. The entire time I was in school and working, I made sure to continue to fill my life with culinary extracurricular activities. I had fallen madly in love and that love kept growing, in fact, it still does to this day.
On top of my 40-50 hour work week and all the other extra curricular activities I was involved with, I was also a work study/teachers aid the entire 4 years of school. I ended up building strong lasting relationships with my instructors, which enabled me to see and do a lot of the behind the scenes work that makes a culinary instructor. I knew early on that I wanted a chance to help shape the minds of the young cooks coming through the ranks and put my own stamp on them. A couple years later while I was working as a sous chef at Zambra, the culinary department chair contacted me and mentioned open slots for adjunct instructors. I didn’t feel like the 60-70 workweeks at Zambra were enough on my plate, of course, so I jumped at the opportunity. This was an chance to not just to put my stamp on the youth of today but to learn how to be a chef in a different way than just grinding it out on the line, creating dishes or doing a competition. You really have to know what you’re talking about through and through. To put it simply, I love a good challenge.
One of the many facets of becoming a chef, is to become a teacher. Teaching is one of the main jobs a chef must be able to do and do well. As a Chef at my restaurant, I have the tendency to be rather harsh on my cooks, but it is understood that it will make you better and you will actually learn how to cook.
Teaching is something I do to give back to a life that I feel gave so much to me in the first place. No one in my life ever pushed me, or inspired me, or told me that I had it in me to be anything until my teachers did when I went to school. My Instructors at Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College instilled confidence in me and believed in me. I had never experienced that kind of support, and it drove me. I want to be that influence to people as well. I want as many opportunities as possible to share my passion for food, this industry, and this community. Cooking is not just a job, it becomes a part of you, it becomes your life.
Steven Goff is the Executive Chef at The King James Public House, and an adjunct instructor at Asheville Buncombe Technical College in Asheville, North Carolina. And we welcome him on board as the newest contributor to the Dirty-Spoon. Look for more of his writing here in the coming weeks.