From childhood, a deep passion for cooking

Chef realized early that culinary world was to be his destiny

Chef''s Corner

July 17, 2002|By Jerry Edwards | Jerry Edwards,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When I was young, my parents thought there was something wrong with me. Why would a 6-year-old boy want to stay in the kitchen by his grandmother's knee instead of running and playing in the yard with the other 13 grandchildren? What was so much fun about making raviolis and crispelles? Why would I prefer Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet to cartoons and the Three Stooges?

They got their answer when I was 21 and decided to open my own small carryout restaurant. By then, I had learned from my Italian grandmother how to prepare rich, unctuous tomato sauce and light-as-air gnocchis. My mother had showed me how to make bracciole (rolled steak stuffed with parsley, garlic and parmesan cheese). My Swedish/Lithuanian grandmother had had me grind the ham for the family's favorite dish, pirogi stuffed with ham and onions. All these experiences brought me so close to the art of cooking with love that I could not resist a career in the culinary business.

As long as I can remember, I revered food. Going to the market with my mother on Fridays was a treat because we would pick out the fresh fish and vegetables for dinner. My favorite vegetable dish was just plain Maryland tomatoes with fresh mint, onions and extra-virgin olive oil.

Don't get me wrong. I was involved in sports and other games that most kids played, but I was always called into the kitchen by that growing passion and desire to cook. Before school, I would make omelets for my friends. After school, I would play sports and spend time with my friends, but if there was a spare moment in the evenings, I would pull out my mother's Good Housekeeping cookbook and try my hand at strudel or sweetbread.

When I was 12, I contracted an illness that set me in bed for six months. I would watch every cooking show that I could find, read every cookbook that I could get my hands on and write in my journal every recipe that I could conjure up in my mind. This is the time that I really began to develop my interest in Mediterranean-inspired dishes.

In my freshman year of high school, I went to my parents and asked them if I could enroll in a vocational-technical program that taught cooking skills. In a desire to direct me toward the best possible future, my parents discouraged me from a vo-tech education. They said my grades were too good and that I could do much better. They still did not understand that cooking was my destiny.

When I was able to get my first job, I took a job working as a dishwasher in a French kitchen. That was all I needed as an entree into the culinary world. I quickly became involved in preparing the vegetables and sauces for the restaurant and was now fully indoctrinated into the food business.

I believe that you can learn technique, but you are born with taste. Like a musician who can hear the music by looking at the page of notes, a true culinarian can taste and smell the food before the first bit of preparation begins.

You have to be born with taste to truly please most of your guests. While technique and training are very important, taste is what separates chefs from ordinary cooks. I could always taste and smell the food in my head.

Over the years, I developed my own style. I always wanted to have many levels of flavor and texture. I am drawn to the Mediterranean, Northern Italian, Southern France style of cooking, which is with good olive oils, fresh herbs and natural tastes that are enhanced with refined sauces.

Variety is also important to me; therefore, I prefer to serve small portions in many courses that flow together in one fully orchestrated meal. I want my guest to taste the natural flavor of the ingredient and then taste all the other levels of flavor I have designed, without making it confusing.

Here is an example of a summer meal that is inspired by this style.

Jerry Edwards is corporate chef and founder of Chef's Expressions catering service.

A Study in the Gifts of Summer

Serves 4

2 large tomatoes

sea salt to taste (divided use)

white pepper (divided use)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (divided use)

1 large bunch fresh basil leaves (divided use)

1/2 of a Vidalia onion, diced

kernels from 4 ears corn

1 pound jumbo lump crab meat

dried basil, optional as garnish

Slice tomatoes in 1/2 -inch-thick slices. Sprinkle with salt and pinch of white pepper. Drizzle slices with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle sliced basil leaves on top. Toss together diced onion, corn kernels, sea salt, the remaining oil and pinch of white pepper. Place in a casserole dish or clay pot. Cover and roast at 450 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Toss in more fresh basil. Place tomatoes on plates, top with crab and serve corn salad on the side. Garnish with fresh or dried basil, if desired.

Grilled Cowboy Steaks

Serves 4

2 tablespoons granulated garlic

4 tablespoons sea-salt crystals

1 tablespoon fresh, finely chopped rosemary

2 tablespoons cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon red pepper flakes

6 tablespoons finely ground espresso

5 bunches fresh rosemary

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