Sammy Davis loved to cook. When I first heard how dedicated he was to cooking it surprised me, because he was always traveling on tours, and filming. Usually this lifestyle is a restaurant based existence, but Sammy traveled with all of his pots and pans and knifes. Many of his friends commented on what a good cook he was, including Bill Cosby, who said that Sammy was a true gourmand. He never used recipes or wrote down what he had done. Instead Cosby said that if Sammy made a truly remarkable meal you had to merely live with the memory of it, as he would never be able to recreate a dish. I heard this quote when I was a teenager, which was the same time I was having similar experiences at home, where my father (who was new to the kitchen) began to approach cuisine with a gusto of invention, which was inspired by his travels to Mexico, Asia, Europe and Israel. At the time there was only one thing repeatable in Dad’s cooking which was that everything was extremely spicy, which served to separate the men from the boys, or in our case those that had ulcers already, from those that would soon be getting them. Dad was not the only improvisational cook around. I was soon to discover underground chefs in my home town of Akron, many of them men, who were not simply weekend baroque beer drinkers. This was before the cooking television craze, which seems to have made gourmets of couch potato corn dog eaters. In my view though this small unsung group of hard working friends from my community was much more interesting, as was the food they made. Someone who comes to mind was a long time engineer at our family company Tech Pro. This engineer Don Watson and I would spend a lot of time at company parties, not talking sports, or technology, but rather cooking. Don had tweaked traditional Akron cuisine like Picasso did African masks, making it his own expression. Though I should in good taste keep Don’s reputation intact, as well as the other great cooks at Tech Pro who were in the same tradition such as Harold Vunderlink, I cannot go without mentioning the fact that I married someone who was more than up to the challenge of competing in an area which these others were truly experts in; chili making.
I had of course eaten chili my whole life, but my wife Marine, being from France had not, nor had either of us ever made it before. We entered our company chili making contest as extreme underdogs for the Halloween contest of 2005. To our surprise, Marine and I won. A competition like this is subjective of course, and it is not certain that we deserved the award against such formidable competitors, but I did learn something from this which I keep in mind in most things I do. Marine didn’t have preconceptions of a good chili, only a rough idea of the ingredients normally used. Therefore she made impromptu substitutions, which made the chili unique. She used black beans, instead of red. She used Cilantro and crème fresh. She used tofu burgers instead of hamburger. This was a proud day for us.
This is why I don’t like cooking shows. They are like those old painting television shows I remember as a child, where a very boring artist teaches how to paint a beautiful landscape. They are false, and lack spontaneity. Cooking is now like every prepackaged food, only slightly longer to prepare. My suggestion is an outing of the closeted cooks in companies, who labor by day and invent masterpieces in the kitchen by night. As I have said about free-jazz, poetry, origami, graffiti, science and living in general, the true innovation will come from a mix of intellect, intuition and chance. For this reason I keep picking out new vegetables and meats hoping to stumble across the next great meal or even a chili.