Have you ever sat back and wondered what kind of story a plate of food can tell? What about a story of rising above a tattered and broken past, only to overcome one obstacle and be knocked down by another? What many people don't realize is that we black sheep in the kitchen are subject to this a lot more than anyone might think. But how does that translate into a plate of food? To fully explain this, I'd like to share a story of a very good friend of mine. She's one of the best in the business. One of the strongest people I know. And this is her story.
Growing up she never really knew what a real family was like. When she was about three years old, her father murdered her mother and another person. This action led to him being incarcerated all of her life. So foster homes are where she learned to piece together what the term family meant. But something always felt off no matter how perfect she tried to be. Which created life-long chaos for her and those around her. And unfortunately for her, people fear chaos. So, making friends was hard, and holding on to a temporary family is even harder. In the foster system, it's always an ugly battle. The system doesn't care how happy or sad you are, it's heartless all the same. Some people have good luck and end up happy. But this isn't one of those times. It took her years to realize what was happening around her, and why it was happening. So, to try and hide from her home life, she looked for a job. Growing up in the system wasn't exactly profitable, so being independent she wanted to make her own money. She looked high and low, but nothing stuck out. After putting a great deal of thought and a few months of searching, she found the right fit. A French restaurant across town was hiring for a prep cook. She then recalled back to trying to cook at home, and how many times she would damn near starving. Her foster mom didn't know how to cook at all. She was a pant-suit wearing an example of a valium addicted housewife. So, feeding herself became challenging when all the frozen pizzas were gone. So, she decided she wanted to know how to cook. Though she felt that no one would hire her, she went after school one day to apply in person. It didn't matter that it was against her mom's wishes and demands. She was determined. And as you and I both know; you can't get in a determined woman's way. You won't survive. This is who you follow into battle. Take a look at the female Vikings. Total bad-asses. Point made. Anyway, she went into the restaurant and asked the host about the open position, and the host asked how old she was. When she replied 14, the host chuckled slightly and reluctantly went to get the chef. This huge man wearing what looked like a shorted doctor's coat came walking out of a single pair of swinging double doors. He came over to her, and kneeled a little, and asked if she was the one looking for a job. She smiled and nodded. The chef held his hand out a little bit above her head and said that she needed to be a little bit taller to work in the kitchen with him. So, she jumped up so that the top of her head touched the underside of his palms. He liked that response. And agreed to try her out. She left a few hours later after learning the layout and names of her co-workers. Excited beyond belief, she ran home to tell her foster mother. She ran so fast, that when she arrived home she was out of breath. Her stepmother wasted no time in scolding her for disobeying her wishes and started in on her. But she had enough, she made sure that her stepmother knew she wasn't her real mother. She wanted her stepmom to hurt as she did. And she knew exactly what to say. After all, was said and done, she stood over a kneeling valium filled middle-aged woman sobbing in the middle of the kitchen floor. So, after a long drawn out apology, the stepmom called the restaurant to confirm the story's validity. The chef answered and explained the situation. After a few moments on the phone, the stepmom agreed to allow her to work there. Confused, she asked her why she made the switch. That when the stepmother told her what the chef told her. Sometimes people take to the kitchen to learn life lessons that they couldn't learn anywhere else. The best lessons are learned through the immediate gratification of tasting your results. Whether it is failure or success, the results are immediately known through taste. That's how the chef portrayed his view of why she would be able to cook there. So, the stepmom felt better. But was still reluctant enough to note that she would fail and just give up anyway. And to enjoy it while it lasted.
During her first day of work, she got to taste a few new dishes the chef was working on. He made her taste them because she didn't what she was looking for as far as a flavor profile. He had her try the shrimp risotto, which she said tasted like how she imagined the sea would taste like. He has her try the spaghetti, which reminded her of a garden with the flavor. And lastly, he had her try the Rabbit au Vin, which reminded her of an amazing chicken dish. Laughing under his breath, the chef corrected her and told her that it was not chicken, it was indeed rabbit. When he got a good look at her, he saw all of the colors leave her face. So, he asked what was wrong and why she thought that rabbit tastes like chicken. She said that it was because you couldn't eat rabbits. So, the chef asked why she thought that. She told him about her grandmother. And how her grandmother raised 5 kids on a secretary's salary. And how her ex-husband was an alcoholic and would come home in rage fits very early in the morning. Sometimes waking the kids up. Being terrified of him, all the kids used to hide in the closet to avoid him at all costs. But during the day she said it was an all-out blood fest. It was every child for themselves. See they were poor. With very little money coming in, it wasn't uncommon to fight over a box of cereal. Either you beat up your so-called family for Cheerios, or you starved. It was brutal sometimes. It got to the point where she didn't think life was ever going to get better. And then her grandmother's husband became ill and passed away. She always knew that his drinking would do him in, but she just wasn't sure on how. Sclerosis of the liver is no joke. But she didn't feel he would be missed. Although none of her or her brothers or sisters missed him, her stepmom did for some reason. So, they did their best to help her out. A few years went by, and then grandma met a man. This man married her grandmother. And saw that there was a problem with the situation in the household right away. Being a farmer, this gentleman knew exactly how to solve the food problem. So, they saved up a little bit of money and purchased a few rabbits. And that's when they set up a rabbit pen in the barn. She was so happy, she finally got to have a pet! A flood of emotions passed over her as her new grandpa brought the first pair home. He said that she could always help take care of them, she just couldn't even name them. Too late, as she had been thinking of possible names all day. So, no matter what he said, she had already named them. She noticed that after a while, the rabbits would disappear and there would always be chicken on the dinner table at night. With no proof of thinking anything else, she was always led to believe that was she was eating was in fact chicken. So, the chef asked if she had ever seen a chicken on the little farm the grandfather had created. She replied that she did not. And that's when it dawned on her. She was eating her rabbit friends. Which was pretty hard to swallow for her. But then she asked the chef why her grandmother would lie about something like that. He said to her that sometimes we try to save those we love from heartbreaking moments in the hopes that life will get better. She didn't know how to react. Part of her wanted to puke forever. But another part of her kept thinking that Mr. Biggles tasted amazing. So, she asked the chef to show her how to cook a rabbit. He said he liked her panache. And would love to show her how to make his Rabbit au Vin.
About a year later, she invited her grandmother to her work. And then unknowing her grandmother invited all of her brothers and sisters and grandpa. Upon arrival, she met them all in the dining room for a few hugs and tears of excitement. For she had been tossed to another foster family by the system and missed them dearly. She never lost contact though. But even that causes you to miss someone more because you can't see them face to face. It's an energy thing she said. The grandfather spoke up and said that they were invited there to eat, and he was starving. So, the show needed to hurry up. So, she went back into the kitchen and made them her chef's famous Rabbit au Vin. She had the servers run it to the table and watched from the kitchen as they sucked down every last bite. So then came the time to go out and ask what they thought. Walking up to the table, she received a round of applause. She started to cry a little, so her brother stood up from his chair to comfort her. Sobbing into her shoulder, he asked what that food they just ate was. And she sniffled and wiped her tears away and looked her grandmother directly in the eye and said chicken. Her grandma looked at her grandpa and which caught her attention. So, she looked over to her grandfather, who's only response was a simple nod of acknowledgment followed by a single wink.
This story was shared with me to show that no matter what, stay true to yourself. But never forget your past. For if you forget your past, time will steal it and it will be forgotten. Harness your weaknesses and use them as strengths. Also, she shared this story to properly define why chicken doesn’t taste like a rabbit. I wonder if she has a pet rabbit now. I never thought to ask. Wouldn’t that be something?
Rodney Lienhart is a Chef formerly of McKenzie, TN but is now working and residing in Lansing, MI area. Starting at the young age of 7 years old. He worked his way through the ranks in his mom's kitchen in the hills of Tennessee. With a background in nouvelle and southern cuisine, he uses what he knows to learn more about what he doesn't. When he isn't putting a flame on a sauté pan, he can be found reading and researching about what makes people tick. A massive overindulgence in psychology has led him here to share what he has witnessed in his experiences. You can follow his story and insight into the world of cooking food @chef_rodney_117 on Instagram.