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My dad was an innkeeper, which is how I got into cooking. He was with the parent company of Holiday Inn, and we lived all over the Midwest. He put my brother and me to work in the kitchen, but by the time I was in high school, I hated it.
After I graduated I went to Ball State University in Indiana, but I spent most of my time playing guitar because I really wanted to be a rock musician. After it became clear that I was just wasting my parents’ money, I dropped out and moved to Columbia, Missouri, where my brother was living. I stayed there for three years and had a blast. But my dad was worried sick that we were going to be bums, so he said, “Why don’t you come back to Louisville and we’ll open a family restaurant.” Well, the funding fell through and I was back working as a night chef at the Holiday Inn. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and then my dad read about a retired chef named Harvey Colgin who was going to teach a course at the community college. He insisted that I talk to him.
Within twenty minutes Mr. Colgin had changed my life. I had been turning and burning steaks and opening up Sarah Lee cheesecakes, and he told me I was going to learn about sauces and sautéing and garnishes. He had been an apprentice to the great French chef Escoffier in London in the twenties. He saw that I had something to me, and he got me into the Culinary Institute of America.
At the beginning of my career, I learned a lot from my cooks from Mexico. I would bring in all these products, and they would tell me about them. They taught me how to smoke ancho chiles and get this incredible flavor. When I came back to the Mansion in 1985—I had been at the Fairmont, the Anatole, and had opened Agnew’s with Tom Agnew—the whole Southwestern thing was exploding, but I wanted more diversity. I had been to Thailand in 1987 and had seen that a lot of the ingredients they use there—cilantro, mangoes, chiles—are the same ones they use in Mexico. On top of that, the preparations are similar; a curry is very much like a mole. It may be tattooed on my forehead that I’m a Southwestern chef, but when people eat here, they’ll also find food from all over the world.
Jalapeño Smoked Shrimp
24 large Gulf shrimp
3 fresh jalapeños, finely chopped
1⁄4 cup finely chopped pickled jalapeños
1⁄4 cup juice from pickled jalapeños
3 shallots, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh epazote
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons unrefined corn oil (or olive oil)
Salt to taste
Note: This recipe requires a smoker. Peel, clean, and devein shrimp, leaving tails on. In a medium bowl, combine shrimp with next 8 ingredients. Marinate for at least 2 hours, turning occasionally.
Light 4 to 5 mounded pieces of charcoal and let them burn until covered with gray ash. Spread out in a single layer and over them lay green or water-soaked wood chips or pieces of wood (such as hickory, pecan, apple, or cherry). You may also use fresh herbs or soaked dried herbs. This process lowers the heat of the coals. Drain shrimp and cold-smoke for 15 minutes. They should still be raw when removed.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Salt half the shrimp and cook for about 6 minutes or until opaque. Remove to a warm platter. Cook remaining shrimp in same manner. Serves 4. (From Dean Fearing’s Southwest Cuisine, Grove Weidenfeld.)