I moved in with my Dad when I was thirteen years old. My mother had just passed away, and I arrived with innocence and untrained cooking skills. Mom was an Irish Catholic meatloaf and corn-beef cook. Dad was a Russian Orthodox raised moderate vegetarian, and decided to hire a chef to teach me how to cook.
I came home from school one day, and found Caesar in the kitchen. He was a stand-in for Paulie in the Godfather, only he had curly black hair, and apple red cheeks. Caesar was dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and an apron that fell short of fitting him. Dad instructed Cesar to teach me how to make salads, baked fish, and spaghetti with oil and garlic. Everyday after school, Caesar was in the kitchen preparing dinner for us, and I stood beside him, observing his chubby knuckled fingers, slice and chop vegetables. We started with what Dad ordered; a meal in a salad, and later coined it Farmer’s Chop Suey. The salad was not just prepared, it was a decorated masterpiece when he finished. During the preparation, I noticed beads of sweat on Caesar’s face, and a jittery nervousness, surfaced just before my father arrived home, “What do you think? Will Dad approve?” He asked. I assured him Dad would love the salad. Cesar and I became pals, and waited anxiously for Dad’s arrival. He wasn’t all that agreeable. Fastidiousness and perfection are common traits amongst gangsters. Usually, Dad remarked there wasn’t enough garlic, or there were too many croutons, and Caesar would swiftly correct the complaint.
After Cesar went home, Dad would talk to me about food, and how everything starts in the stomach, and how the vegetables have to be scrubbed, and the seeds removed. Three or four times a week Dad dined out, and he didn’t order salads. He frequented Italian restaurants, and his favorite was Bouillabaisse, with a side of pasta. I never saw him enjoy any food as much as Borsch with sour cream, and smoked white fish. That was his favorite childhood meal. His father was a Orthodox Butcher, a very scared skill that requires a thorough understanding of Kosher preparation.
About six months had passed, and I came home one day and Cesar wasn’t there. Instead I found my father in a rage. I asked about Cesar and he told me it was none of my business, and to start preparing dinner. After my first salad preparation, Dad applauded my presentation, and assured me everything he was teaching me would serve me later on in life. He explained he had to be harsh and demanding, because he wanted me to be able to take care of myself properly.
I developed into a moderate vegetarian and have used that salad as a blueprint for most of my meals. Now I create a variety of salads, and a lot more ingredients: like white beans, garbanzos, walnuts, tuna, or shrimp, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes etc. My friends call me a free-style cook because I only use recipes when I’m making soups or stews.
I was very fortunate to grow up with a father who spent hours teaching me what I would need to know in life. This is something you won’t read or see in a film about growing up with gangsters.