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Chef Pete

The "Dish"

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Sack Lunches, Milk Money, & Me

September 5, 2017
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Looking back, when it comes to anything culinary in my life, I’d have to say I had the least expectations of food from 3rd through 5th grade. I call that period the brown years, as in brown paper lunch sacks. Before those dark years, from kindergarten through 2nd grade, I walked back and forth to my home to enjoy whatever lunch my mom had prepared.

I thought I had it tough then…until I got “sacked” a year later. It was only then that I realized how good I had it.

In 6th grade, I graduated to the hot lunch program as no self-respecting Livonia boy would be caught dead carting a mom-made lunch to school in a brown paper bag. To me, the school’s new hot lunch program was almost the equivalent of enjoying dinner out at a fine-dining restaurant (albeit with a limited, rotating menu).

For two long years, I’d endured bologna sandwiches, liver sausage sandwiches, ham and cheese sandwiches and the dreaded PB&J washed down with a small 5 cent carton of milk.

The backup plan was always the sandwich swap, which usually cost me an apple and a cookie (especially when it was liver sausage). As I think back on those days, it’s probably a good thing for me (and my backside) that I didn’t critique my mom’s brown paper sack lunches. I just dealt with it.

Redemption…or so I thought.

40 years later, my disdain for those sack lunches still haunted me, even though I was an established chef at a nationally award-winning restaurant in Detroit called Opus One.

Shortly after opening Opus One, I started up a Chef’s Night Out Group with a colleague. Each month, one chef in the group would host an event inviting all the members to a casual evening of fun and camaraderie. When it was my turn, I chose my event to be a Sack Lunch Exchange and mailed each invited chef an invitation in a small brown paper lunch sack.

The simple instructions were to remember the days when THEY went to school with what mom had packed for them and to create something that they would now make for themselves. I also gave them two additional requests.

1). The lunch had to fit in the standard-sized brown paper bag that I provided.

2). They were to provide a recipe in the bag for one of the items contained within.

I also told them that each sack lunch was going to be exchanged with another chef’s at the event.

I invited about 40 chefs, and about 30 attended. Only three actually followed the instructions.

Most of the chefs made SO many items, they couldn’t use the bag I provided. Not even close. One actually brought a cooler and taped the bag to the outside. A few chefs forgot to provide a recipe, and a couple said they didn’t give out recipes. One actually created what almost amounted to a cookbook. That’s just how chefs roll.

Some things never change.

When the bags were finally exchanged and opened, I saw the look on many chefs’ faces that I remembered so vividly from four decades earlier. That wrinkled-nose, squinty-eyed look of distain and disappointment when you discover you really don’t care for what “mom” packed for lunch. Except now it was packed by a chef with an ego, all meant to impress the other chefs with their culinary prowess. I don’t remember anyone getting something in their bag they really were in the mood to eat.

Foie Gras with Lingonberry Sauce, Galantine of Duck, Truffled Quail, Charcuterie, and other exotic fare were pretty much the norm bag to bag. No PB&Js, no bologna sandwiches, nothing ordinary. I’ll bet there were a lot of chefs stopping at fast food restaurants on the way home that night.

Lesson learned.

So, can you really go back? Are things as bad as you remembered them to be? I suppose I survived those sack lunch years like everyone else.

Now, I cook my own food and pack my OWN lunch. And when I do cook for others, I offer dozens, if not hundreds, of choices and let them decide. I think, perhaps without me knowing it, I realized early on that, especially when it comes to food, you can’t please everyone, so you have to please yourself.

And while I’m thinking of sack lunches, if you’re looking for some healthy sandwiches for “back to school” lunches, here are a couple of links to some of my previous blogs.

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