I have three homes. My first one is the town of my birth, Oakley, Kansas. I was born there and spent my first 18 years there. I have fond memories of Oakley and am grateful for it being there in my formative years. My second home is Las Vegas, Nevada. I moved to Las Vegas when I was 18 and spent the next 22 years there. It is in Las Vegas I found my wife. My third home is now found in Traverse City, Michigan, and it is here I wish to stay. I just came back from a few days in Las Vegas where I was one of 16 guest chefs cooking a dinner in memory of Jean-Louis Palladin. I told myself I went to Las Vegas to cook this dinner, but in reality I went to shake some demons.
The past couple years have been good years for me. Not only has my family moved to one of the most beautiful places in the US, but I have had a chance to live my dream and open a restaurant. The past couples years have also been a time for reflection. I spent a good part of my life in Las Vegas and managed to build up a good deal of baggage, most of which I wish I would have never purchased. I moved there when I was 18 and left when I was 40. It's funny, I did not realize how much of a box I was living until I moved out. I didn't understand how limited I was before leaving, and how much I needed change. When we left and arrived in our new home in Traverse City I started an unintentional transformation within myself. I think the simple act of leaving opened myself up to things I never intended. Going back to Las Vegas these past few days have helped me understand my ongoing transformation and helped point me in a direction I want to go. There were three moments that stand out and these three moments, though unrelated, have a common thread. These three moments, I believe, are the reason I went back to Las Vegas.
The first moment was at the Jean-Louis dinner. The Jean-Louis foundation is a foundation set up for two purposes. The first is to offer scholarships to young cooks for travel so they can spend time in top restaurants. The second, and in my mind the most important, purpose of the foundation is to offer help to older chefs in need. As Andre said in his speech before the dinner, to often chefs are tossed aside after years of service and need a hand up. The Jean-Louis foundation gives help to older chefs when they need it. As the dinner was beginning I looked around and took note that there at least 40 cooks in the kitchen, 16 of those were top chefs who donated their time for this dinner. I saw a sea of white chef coats working together, we were not rivals. We were not competitors. We were simply cooks helping put out each others dishes. There was something to seeing some of the countries best chefs plating dishes together and laughing with one another. There was that true camaraderie that can only be found in a kitchen. There were 40 of us from who knows how many restaurants putting out one dinner.
The second moment came during lunch I had with a dear friend. She and her family have seen some very tough times during the past 5 years or so. They have faced difficulties and have surmounted obstacles that would have made me, and most others, crumble long ago. During our conversation I saw in her face a determination and a unrelenting fight to continue forward even though, at times, their situation would cause even the bravest of souls to pause. I was humbled.
The third moment came as I was returning my rental car. I was driving down Rancho Avenue. It was dark and I was on of the roughest streets in Las Vegas. I was taking a short cut. As I passed one of the rescue missions I saw a lone man sitting on some baggage in front of the darkened mission. There was no one else around. The street was abandoned except for my car and this man. I'm not sure what it was that spoke to me as I passed him but what caught me was our connection. Here is a fellow human being, down and out, sitting on what may be his only belongings, alone on a dark street corner.
Now here is what connects all three moments together for me. I spent my time in Las Vegas reflecting on life in general, but more specifically, my life in general. Who I am, where I have come from and where I would like to go. Yesterday it all kind of came together for me. Those three moments make up the essence of what it means to be alive. I saw in the kitchen men and women working together for a common cause. I saw in the face of my friend raw determination and the refusal to give up. And I saw in that homeless man, a hopeless situation. I have never liked the idea that man is an island unto himself. I much prefer to believe we are in this together and it is together we find the strength to fight against the odds that are against us, though at times they may seem hopeless. We have the choice, like my friend, to face impossible odds together, and to fight on. But it takes us, in community, to do this.
So how does this apply to me. As some of you know from reading for a while, I am on a constant search for meaning, not only for myself but for my restaurant. I don't want to run a restaurant just for the sake of running one. I don't want to cook just for the sake to cook. This weekend in Las Vegas has helped point me and my restaurant in a better direction. I was reminded that what I do, I should do for all people. Sure, I have a ways to go until I fully know what it is the restaurant is to do, but rest assured it will involve making my new home a better place.