Guest Essay: Restaurant Cook and Registered Dietitian Theresa Kremer Tells How She Learned To Cook
Note: Today we publish the fifth of six finalists' essays from our 2012 writing competition, "How did you learn to cook?"
Theresa Kremer, a registered dietitian now retired from the University of Kentucky, volunteers with the Lexington Farmers Market, and has for years. Her story about learning to cook stirs together her introduction to close family member's exotic cuisines and her on-the-job training as a cook in some of Lexington's storied downtown restaurants. This line particularly rang true in the world of Savoring Kentucky: "...if there is one thing I can do, it's cook!"
How I Learned To Cook
By Theresa Kremer
I learned to cook from many teachers. My mother, the first teacher, is Sicilian and her mother is ‘off the boat.’ Italians like to cook and eat. My Italian uncles and my grandmother were old world. They made their own tomato sauce and sausage. My grandfather grew figs and eggplant. Some very special childhood memories are of being in my grandmother’s basement, where all the serious food preparation took place. The contraption that seeded the tomatoes, the other contraption that ground the meat, they were fascinating! Sometimes my siblings come to visit me now and say “your house smells like grandma Vuturo’s.” That is a supreme compliment!
One of my Italian uncles married a woman of Lebanese descent, my Aunt Della, and that opened up another world of tabbouleh, kibbeh, and their use of cinnamon in, of all things – green beans. I have a much cherished Cedars of Lebanon cookbook from 1977, lots of cooking stains on that one.
Other teachers were the owners/chefs of the handful of restaurants where I worked in my 20’s. I was one of the early cooks at Alfalfa’s Restaurant in the 70’s – Artie Howard and Marina McCulloch were great teachers, although they probably didn’t realize it at the time. There I learned the basics of making soup for one thing. Whether it be cream or broth based, the basics can lead you to just about any soup. I’ll never forget pickin’ chicken in the early hours, listening to Hank Williams senior, wearing my blue jean overalls. It was a great place and the most fun I ever had at a job!
Another influential restaurant experience was the now defunct Le Café Chantant or ‘the singing café’ on Vine Street in Lexington. Because of Lou Cease (sp?), I will NEVER EVER forget to put salt in a pie crust again. As the lunch cook, I made the soup, omelet and quiche of the day, and had to get pretty creative to keep things interesting. I made the quiche crust out of butter and lard! The very French Brigitte (don’t remember her last name) was a huge influence. Who knew about browning a big pan of bones and vegetables to make stock! Not me, but I was learning.
Also in the 70’s, I took creative cooking, Chinese cooking and bread making from the Fayette County adult ed program. I still have all of the handouts!
Cookbooks are a great resource, but mostly I read them for pleasure and inspiration, not so much for an exact recipe. The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer was my first cooking bible. I have a 1977 version of the Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen. I ate at the Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca many years ago, a lifetime ago it seems, with my ex-husband who was a Cornell graduate. I haven’t thought about THAT in years!
My profession led me to cooking as I was trained as a Registered Dietitian. I remember that I by-passed a Basic Foods class at UK because I convinced them that I had so much cooking experience. I don’t think they do that anymore. But I remember that I had to prepare, from scratch, a beef stew, lemon meringue pie, fudge and fruit salad. It was timed and my techniques were observed. passed, but I will never forget it as it was pretty nerve-wracking. I had never made homemade fudge before.
These days, my influences are varied, from Lynne Rosetto Casper on NPR’s Splendid Table radio program, to Garden & Gun magazine, my herb group - the Woodford Herbalists, Barbara Napier’s Snug Hollow Farm Cookbook, the Lexington Farmers’ Market’s beautiful bounty, to name a few. Good friends have convinced me to grow and use more herbs, to routinely make homemade sour dough bread and make more things from scratch.
My mother is 90 and doesn’t cook much anymore. The tables are turned, I cook for her and I’m happy to do it!
I turn 60 this year and if there is one thing I can do it’s cook! I guess that is an accomplishment as so many don’t know their way around the stainless and granite kitchens out there. I have a really old double oven GE stove and it cooks and bakes just fine.
I’m glad I got this all written down. It was nice to remember all those important people and places that taught me how to cook.
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