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Recipe for Living... Biography of a Chef
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Do You Remember Chef Tell?
Once my last book was written -- the task had taken nine months to complete -- the letdown of having nothing else to write felt like decompression and depression combined.
What to do?
I was determined not to let living in a world of constant change and temporary setbacks force me onto medications to bring me back to battery -- the side effects and warnings scared me enough. Besides, tough as it is to do, there is redemption in wrestling with words... those little symbols that represent a myriad of concepts. I have too much affinity and respect for words not to coax them out of my head and onto my computer screen to play with me.
I decided, instead, to write another book; this time a biography of a dead chef.
Little did I know what I was getting myself into! Writing about someone who has departed means you have to find the people who knew him when he was alive... and if they were still alive. And if they did know him, you have to steel yourself for the fallout: some will chew your head off, because he owed them money when he passed; some would rather ignore your existence, rather than reveal the hurt they feel inside about the dearly departed; others will begrudgingly offer a few crumbs, but not the entree; that is, not until they understand your true motivations. You, after all, purport to write a book about a friend, which they knew intimately, maybe had profound feelings for. You could be one of those investigative reporters looking to throw the one they loved under the bus, if that is where the story takes you.
In my case, however, the chef was my brother-in-law.
Master Chef, Executive Chef, Pioneer TV Chef
People often equate "author" with "journalist," despite your desire to simply tell a story. Fortunately, some people not only open their hearts and minds, they do so gladly, even extend their skills and connections to more people you could interview.
Chef Tell was a famous television personality in his time. A voluminous cache of data that could be found, rounded up and corralled rather easily into a working base of information, was available. Then, too, other celebrities in his field were available, and that is where I started.
I established my research pattern without any preconceived path to follow. My first task to contact the names that I had been given, yielded permissions to interview them about the chef. Once they agreed, we worked out when and how to fit my interviews into their schedules. The thrill of obtaining their permissions exhilarated me, but terror soon followed: what was I going to ask them?
Since I do not type fast or without looking at the keys, how am I going to multitask asking questions, listening to their answers and either typing or writing down what they tell me? my mind feared, while my heart pounded.
Early moments of emotional difficulty soon turned into a methodical onslaught upon the unknowns ahead of me, once I remembered my mentor's advice about the simple construct of a storyboard.
A storyboard is an illustrated, scene-by-scene rendition of a film in production -- a way to visualize what the camera will see and shoot. Typically, many people use the storyboard to wear different "hats" in the production process. For example, the costume designer works from what she sees on the board; the cinematographer brings the cameras into focus and the director frames his shots and, well, directs the overall show, to name a few people and their needs to use a storyboard.
While my book storyboard did not contain images, my beginning, middle and end for the biography took shape on it in the form of written titles, subtitles and notes of varied significance, which I would re-arrange as needed. Starting the board was easy: the chef was born; he lived a full life and then he died. I knew when and where. Splitting the board into the three categories of childhood, career and later years, once done, allowed me to concentrate on each time span, one at a time.
From his birth to a significant life-changing event in the chef's life delineated the first part of my story, which I plotted against a timeline of events and years as the data unfolded. The larger middle section chronicled his major career advancements and personal life. The last section brought forward several incidents that were consequences of his earlier decisions, leading not only to his unexpected death, but also to the significance of his legacy among chefs.
Adopting the same three-part approach as the overall story board, each section helped me formulate the story. Drilling down beginning-middle-end sequences inside of progressively smaller and tighter time frames of the subject's life, oddly enough, led me to questions that needed answers and guided me to the interview questions that needed to be asked of my contacts.
Fishing upstream at first, my suggestions of different time frames in the chef's lifetime allowed his friends, relatives, acquaintances and co-workers to feel more at ease; and hooked smooth-running interviews that triggered their memories (and emotions) and filled my creel with keeper information. My interviews reminded me of days in Montana fly fishing: patience and finesse captured the strikes, but, in the end, catch-and-release was the rule.
E-mailed and telephoned interviews, as needed, fit well into my developing work schedule. Questions relating to events offered up by interviewees permitted them to relax and to expound as much as they wished. Waxing enthusiastic about such memories, contacts forced me to wield my pen as fast as my aching hand would allow. (I had opted for the pen over the keyboard for fear that I would slow down the process or, worse, slow down and bore the contact.)
Sensitive as Jewel
Not all interviews went well. At times, I felt like I was a dentist pulling teeth with pliers. In fact, the most difficult ones poured as slow as cold molasses or thick ketchup because of anger-filled recollections -- leftovers of unexpressed resentments, unfulfilled promises or broken hearts left behind by the chef's untimely passing. A few of these sledgehammer interviews were enough to make me realize that not everyone liked my chef or would ever like my biography. The worst shoved me down deep into dark chasms of self-doubt. Each spiteful word pummeled my ears painfully and terrorized my stomach. Tightness in my chest felt like repeated stabbings that accentuated my anticipation before each new phone-call interview.
Am I wasting my time writing about this public figure? Sensitive artists like me are vulnerable, I know, but my sensitivity is also one of my strengths I reminded myself, as I listened to Jewel singing "I'm Sensitive" in my earbuds connected to my iPod.
"I'm Sensitive" Jewel
- Jewel - I'm Sensitive - YouTube
From the 1995 album "Pieces Of You."
My curiosity outlasted my physical and emotional difficulties. I soldiered on through more interviews, at times solely to see if learning more would make me abandon the book; or uplift me and make me feel that all would be well in the end.
In fact, more interviews did lead to humorous anecdotes about the chef and his personality, which redeemed both of us. People recalled what they loved about him and they opened up like lotus blossoms, scenting our conversations with more intimacies, tidbits and revelations than I ever could have suspected was possible.
My chef, a workaholic like most, had also lived an engaged celebrity lifestyle filled with cars, travel, women, wine and more work than the Average Joe would care to know. His generosity toward the scores of others less fortunate than he that he came into contact with was legend and outweighed any peccadillo negatives. He earned and owned what few others will ever see in their lifetimes: fast, German vehicles, millions of air miles, resident addresses in tony neighborhoods, a 20,000-bottle wine cellar, the wherewithal to host outrageous parties in exotic locales and a plethora of women who admired him. All of it supported by the trained-in disciplines of an executive chef's life of rising before dawn and working all day -- including TV appearances, cooking classes and writing cookbooks -- well into late-night hours almost daily.
I was more than thrilled with the progress made with my interviews, and the way people were volunteering information to me. As the memories poured in, my storyboard overflowed with juicy tales, entertaining twists and secretive details, as well as the chef's quips and antics.
At several points, it seemed that my biography would write itself.
one favor and one promise
At each interview's end, I asked for one favor and promised one courtesy in return. My request was for names of who else they knew, which should be interviewed for the book and how to contact them ("And may I use your name as introduction?").
My promise was to write up my notes immediately following my interview and then send my report to them for review and accurate fact-checking. If my contact had enjoyed the interview, they always approved both. Factually, all interviewees did approve my requests and, of course, they loved my promises kept, which also had the added benefit, at times, of triggering more memories, which they shared in writing with me. Those who did not participate were not a total loss, since I discovered that even hatred toward my chef worked well as counter-weights for the story's ebb and flow.
After all, who among us is perfect; who among us has no detractors.
The interview and research process continued to generate new ideas, which I jotted down. Bit by bit these new thoughts, incorporated into the story line of the book, put flesh and muscle onto the storyboard, which was still the spine of the book. Each new addition demanded consideration of the effect it would have on other parts of the book. That's the way it goes with writing: imagine, create, make a million decisions and observe their side-effects, and execute each draft in units of time with renewed vigor any time of the day or night. Because your life, and the expectations of your readers, depend on it.
Not Like Baking a Cake!
While adhering to the facts as much as possible, I wanted to create an entertaining read that people would stay with to the end and then recommend to their friends. More interviews delivered enough added grist for my imagination mill. Individual elements coalesced into the fascinating quilted pattern of the chef's life. Early passages mutated and took on new meanings, but the speed of the flow increased as the story moved forward.
The better the research, I found, the easier the writing of the book's subsequent drafts (of which there were at least 20-22). The non-existent dirt trail that the chef had blazed from the start opened to a paved, one-lane pathway and then to a two-way, double-lane thoroughfare with mile markers and assistance teams keeping it clean of debris. Sure, draft readers and preliminary editors would soon enough bring along their rip-rap -- another gauntlet to endure and navigate -- but for now I was a happy camper.
Help was pouring in from all quarters, including family relatives who sent new photographs and unexpected documents. That is not to say that writing any book, let alone a dead chef's biography, is as easy as baking a Bundt cake! To the contrary, there was no recipe to follow and the actual outcome uncertain from the start.
Still, the mere threads of initial interest within me sparked into small match-like flames as the work progressed. Once unexpected bits of information filled my email and snail-mail in-boxes, from sources that I had not interviewed, that delicate tinder -- my hopes and emotions -- erupted into a blazing conflagration: outpourings of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, pages and chapters that made persistence a easier chore to confront. "Come hell or high water," "for better or worse," "til death do us part" ... and other overworked phrases ... at last I knew this book was going to be written to its conclusion.
And I cast off self-doubt that had hung over me like an old lifetime's death shroud. "Let the chips fall where they may," because I see the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel" I told myself. I no longer cared much about naysayers, or reneged familial pledges of support from some quarters. The book was taking on its own shape now, and I liked my work. Now well beyond the intersection of good news and bad, I was certain there would be no turning back.
My hunch that my subject was a decent man and a celebrity worth spending a decent chunk of my life on -- my initial estimate was six to nine months, which turned into 20 months of 10-14 hour days, six days a week ... and a man, which others would want to know about beyond the kitchen, had been validated. The more the spotlight shined on the chef's nuances, the better he looked.
Something missing had gone missing before I began the work. Here was a magnificent, eye-catching rose in the expanded garden of television celebrity chefs, which had been overlooked -- in fact, this was the first cutting that propagated the explosive interest of viewers across the nation... all but forgotten by its offspring. Now, though, I believed the cuttings would take root and, cultivated by the contributions of many, pruned and crafted by my hard-won hours and thoughts, the bud would once again bloom and be seen and admired by many.
My choice to continue to whatever ending lay in store, egged me on. My writing soared on invisible winds enhanced by the story's characters, which by now were speaking to me constantly, telling me which way they wanted to go.
Communion of Spirits
At every writing of an article, short story or a book the writer hits his point of no return. I had hit that. Right behind that portal came the downhill run, which the long-distance runner in me recalls as like passing through the "pain barrier." I had entered The Zone, the place where all steps are pain-free and the athlete feels like he is floating and can run forever.
Like the skier who pushes forward from the mountainous top of a Black Diamond course, this writer tucked into position and let fingers fly across the keys. Forward motion accumulated more speed. A thousand twists and turns yet to come demanded decisions and determined the rest of the run, but the story's characters were already on board with me. The chef whispered, at times shouted, telling the writer which way to turn... when to dig deep, lean forward and go faster... when to slow and reconfigure the story's form as the avalanche of fresh ideas and words tumbled and followed without fail, at once dangerous and thrilling.
The writer who knows his stuff has his heart in the game. At this point, he stands tall on his board and rides fresh powder all the way to the fearless and triumphant end. Writing about my chef was now all of that and more, for we were now in communion: we were the mountain, the run, the avalanche and two skiers melded into one, moving at lightning speed.
Our communion of spirits occurred the same way a physical book opens the portal between reader and author, releasing new vistas of shared imagination. In my case, "The End" on the last page did not end my sacrament of writer and chef. Our futures are forever chained, linked to the writing of his biography and whatever the Fates have in store for the book. We know more about each other than likely anyone else will ever know -- a fact that other writers of caliber and dogged persistence will undoubtedly understand.
This writing of the life of this particular chef was meant to uplift readers' lives with an entertaining account of a man whose life showed both moral and lasting value; and to record a legacy of life lessons that might otherwise have gone forgotten and wasted. His life -- now an indelible part of mine -- was a roller coaster of emotional and intellectual upheavals and, at times, glimpses of heaven, which, I now know, I would never have wanted to miss.
How others will fare riding on the same E-ticket attraction remains to be seen. But I do know this: the world will know about the chef who cooked for kings and queens, affluent patrons and children, and me. His readers will feel how somehow he makes us feel we are special. Alive or dead, Chef Tell's is a life worth knowing!
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Chef's Biography Excerpts
Visit the page where you can read excerpts, view more photos and "friend" the project. Book is in pre-release and will release on 1 October 2013.
- America's Pioneer TV Showman Chef
40,000,000 Baby Boomers fan base ... 20,000 recipe requests per week ... seen on 100'S of TV stations and in live demonstration shows ... Regis Philbin's favorite guest chef.