I am a restaurant boy. Every childhood memory I have took place in a restaurant or above a restaurant or on the way to a restaurant or returning from a restaurant. And those memories, either good or bad, are forever linked to not only the restaurants, but to the food itself, be it bad or good. So I guess I’m not just a restaurant boy…I’m a food boy. Food has defined me. Some people have soundtracks to their lives and some have screenplays…I have a menu. Every smell and texture and taste evokes a strong connection with the first or worst or best experience I had with that food. When I eat Gravlax, it’s 1982 and I’m with my Uncle Wolfgang in Trondheim, Norway; banana pudding and fried okra and I’m back in my grandmother’s kitchen Atlanta. These collected eating experiences are the common threads that hold my timeline together.
My family purchased the Woodbridge Inn restaurant in 1976 when I was four years old. The Inn, originally called the Lenning Hotel, was build in the mid-1800’s and had once been popular vacation spot for Floridians wanting to escape the summer heat. It was all but derelict when my parents purchased it. We moved into the upstairs portion where the guests once slept and before we knew it, my sister Sonja and I were restaurant children. Living twelve and a half steps above one of North Georgia’s landmark restaurants ensured that our lives would never be boring. It was frustrating and exhausting and exciting and ridiculously stressful all at the same time. If we needed help with our Math homework, we’d take the books to the kitchen and ask Dad questions between pickups. If we wanted a snack we’d go downstairs and order off the menu. And if the restaurant got slammed, we’d run down the stairs to work. I’ve washed dishes and shucked oysters in my pajamas more times than I care to admit.
I was raised in a house of food, and to this day, food permeates my every thought. I plan my day around what I’m going to eat and when. When we go on vacation, I’m more concerned about where we’re going to eat than what we’re going to do when we get there. I am obsessed with food. And so I feel obligated to make a disclaimer: I am not the world’s leading authority on anything (except maybe okra). I’m just a simple chef that wants to share some damn good food with you and hopefully help you to create some food memories of your own.
In July of 2005, just 2 weeks after taping the finale for the Next Food Network Star, I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The irony that a chef would contract stomach cancer was not lost on me or my physicians. The cancer was diagnosed as stage three and I ended up having half of my stomach and half of my esophagus removed. One month after that surgery, a leak was discovered at the junction of my stomach and esophagus and a second surgery had to be performed. A piece of my right shoulder muscle was 'harvested' to help fix the leak. I ended up living at the MD Anderson cancer hospital in Houston, Texas for a little over 8 weeks. Seven of those 8 weeks were spent with nothing to eat or drink which, as you may well imagine, was pure torture. All of my nutrition was obtained through the use of a feeding tube that tied in just below my stomach...or what was left of it. I weighed 214 pounds the day of my first surgery and have since lost over 65 pounds.
As of my last biopsy, I am now cancer free. My life moving forward will be filled with more biopsies, blood work, CT Scans, and Dr. consults...a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things. Though I wouldn't wish the disease on anyone, I will say that my experience with it has heightened my appreciation of life, love, family, and of course, food. If I can offer up one piece of advice, it would simply be this: Never take anything for granted. Never.