I learned to cook the same way you probably did—I was taught by a borderline-senile Vietnam War veteran, Steve, in the back of a Mexican restaurant.
The summer before I came to Emerson, I was hired at a newly opened Mexican restaurant as an expo, someone who slings the right entrees and sides together to help run them out to tables. I learned the menu to a T and began to focus on the food. I’d call out dishes that weren’t made properly or didn’t look good, and I found myself creeping into the kitchen more and more. The day I turned 18, they pulled me back behind the line.
Steve was classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America. The kooky old man who had his chef pants cut into shorts and napped in his car at work taught me everything down to how to tell off a waitress. We worked side by side during the busy Saturday night dinner rush making ceviche, enchiladas, and churros. On Sunday mornings, we listened to Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd at full volume and rolled chimichangas and empanadas, and he told me stories from the war.
The most important thing that Steve taught me, by far, was to be creative in the kitchen and to love cooking. He pushed me to never consult the recipe book or second guess myself, but to continue to taste and trust my food.
Steve left after that summer for a better job, and I haven’t had contact with him since. So, in his honor, I decided to cook something Mexican-inspired. And of course, in pure Steve style, I wasn’t going to follow no damn recipe. I was going to create my own, based on what I knew from making others.
To begin my concoction, I envisioned what I wanted: chicken tacos. I started with recipes I knew from home or the restaurant and then began to scour the internet to fill in the blanks. After almost an hour I had a rough idea of what I was doing and a simple grocery list.
I knew how much chicken to buy and how long to cook it from an allrecipes.com user named “Kyle,” I knew to add tomatoes and green chiles from my dad’s Mexican-inspired shredded beef crockpot recipe, and I knew how to add zest and spice from Steve. Of course, I also added cilantro and some heat which are both standard in Mexican-American cooking.
When I got back from the store it was the perfect time to start assembling everything—I had just finished lunch and was not hungry at all. Easily enough, I just plopped all of the ingredients into the crockpot, turned it on high, and set a timer for three hours and 45 minutes.
When it was time for dinner, I took out the chicken breasts and shredded them with two forks (it doesn’t take more force than that) and stirred them back in with the rest of the ingredients to let them simmer for another 30 minutes.
Finally it was done, and I could try my culinary potion to see how it was. It was good—but I wasn’t expecting any different considering all of the ingredients were tasty on their own. That’s the beauty of creating your own recipes.
I put my finished product into flour tortillas topped with a little bit cheese, some homemade guacamole and sour cream.
Anyone can come up with their own recipes. You and I may not be Ina Garten, but we understand flavor and know what we like. This allows creativity to flourish.
Steve was always into new recipes and creative ideas. As I finished up eating, I made sure to write this endeavor down, thinking of what Steve used to say to me: “Carpe dementia, do it before you fucking forget.”