The Great and Terrible and Awesome and Stupid Food Idea

Anybody who knows me knows I love cooking.  I’m not sure when it started, because, as a kid, I wouldn’t eat anything.  There was even a point when I thought pizza was disgusting.  Maybe it started with my first serious girlfriend.  I didn’t want to be the 22 year old guy who wouldn’t eat his vegetables, so I just tried everything that was put in front of me.  Slowly, I started loving it all.  From there, I guess, it worked the same way my love for reading turned into a love for writing.  Wanting to eat amazing food made me want to cook amazing food.

Flashback to two years ago, when I was seriously considering going back to school.  Austin has a pair of culinary schools, and I thought I’d take a crack at it.  I ran it by my friend Ek, who’s an amazing chef, and he said something that changed my life…

“Don’t go to school for it, man.  Just start working here.  I’ll teach you.”

So I did.  For six weeks, I staged (basically, kitchen intern) at Ek’s place SPIN Modern Thai.  I picked cilantro, chopped onions, cooked rice, and made tempura batter a few times a week.  It was an excellent beginning, a good starter course on how to get around in a kitchen.  Sadly, infrastructure problems killed the restaurant, but I learned a bit, and I fell in love with the work.

Six months later Ek was helping his sister reopen her restaurant Titaya’s Thai Cuisine.  I had the silly idea to submit a resume (job experience: six weeks staging at your brother’s last restaurant).  Honestly, I just wanted to stage again, to keep learning.  I even said as such when I interviewed with Titaya, who is one of the hardest working and most terrifying people I’ve ever met.  When she started talking about pay at the end of the interview, I was stunned.  I’d just sat there and told her I didn’t really know my ass from a hole in the ground, but she was still going to give me a shot.  When Ek told me a few weeks later I’d start out working the wok station in one of the city’s most popular Thai restaurants, I thanked him for the vote of confidence before going home and having a three-day panic attack.

Training happened the night before we opened, kitchen manager Bob (or Pop…he answers to both), stood by the woks with Michael (another SPIN alumn, and a great cook) and me and said, “Here’s how you make pad thai, here’s fried rice, here’s a regular stirfry…everything else is pretty much the same.”  Wait…what?  I didn’t have time to panic for another three days, so I went home, curled into a ball, and screamed for an hour or so.  The next day, I went to work.

Opening night hit Titaya’s like a goddamn tsunami.  Packed dining room, lines out the door, and me standing over a wok, sweating my ass off and hoping I did everything right.  Michael saved my ass more than once, as did Ek, and I can’t tell you how thankful I’ll always be for not telling Titaya to just shitcan me right away.  For weeks, they coached me along with their mix of support and shit-talking.  Fun story: a month ago, I asked Michael how good he thought I was.  I wanted an honest opinion.  A drunk Michael hemmed and hawed a bit, then said, “You’re starting. You work part time.  You’re as good as you should be.”  Very true, and, honestly, as close to a compliment as I deserve.

After four months, I left Titaya’s to follow Ek to his new place, the Thai/Southern Comfort place Kin & Comfort.  I’ve learned even more there, the benefits of a smaller kitchen and closer staff.  Since June, I’ve been there, usually popping in a night or two a week to make sauces.  It’s been great, and the food’s been amazing.  Do yourself a favor and stop by either place the next time you’re in Austin.

All of this new experience has led to a lot of thinking.  See, a while back I got an idea for a novella that would take place in a food trailer.  I still haven’t gotten around to writing it, because I decided the first thing I’d do is come up with the trailer’s menu.  I spent almost two weeks tinkering with that damn menu, a menu for a trailer that doesn’t exist.

Then, I did something I didn’t expect.  Instead of starting the novella, I started testing out the menu items.  I tried a few every weekend, playing and tinkering and refining.  I used some of them for a holiday meal for my ex and her family, used them again for a friend’s going away party.  They went over well.  Shockingly well.  This past weekend, I experimented a little more, and everything clicked into place.

Holy shit.  Do I want to start a food trailer?  At the age of 38, do I want to throw every ounce of my life into opening a goddamn food trailer?

No, I couldn’t.  It’s a terrible idea.  I’ve spent one year working in restaurants part time.  My chops aren’t where they need to be. I don’t have anything resembling start-up cash.  Diving in would mean me leaving my job with its livable wage and health benefits and paid vacation.  I’d be so busy, I don’t know what would happen to my writing.  And food trailers fail on a daily basis.  It’s a terrible, stupid idea.

But it’s also an awesome and inspiring idea, the first thing that’s really excited me in years. It’s scary (hell, terrifying), but it’s something I think about more and more every day.

And I can’t seem to stop thinking.  Weird….

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3 Responses to The Great and Terrible and Awesome and Stupid Food Idea

  1. Tu N. says:

    We all agree that working at Spin was one of the amazing moments of our lives. We met awesome people and spent good quality cooking time together. I’m glad that I met you, Mr. Nate, and be able to keep in touch with you until today. I enjoyed your company on the back prepping table at Spin in the old days and could not believe that it has been 2 years since then. Time flies.

    • Nate Southard says:

      Yeah, Tu. Wow, two years. That barely makes sense. Thanks for all the help and instruction. It was a blast! You need to make it back up to Austin soon!

  2. Nancy Southard says:

    If this is a dream wish, then do it. That’s what all the major sage’s say in re a strong desire. If it flops you have plenty of family to help you along the way. Is it possible to take an extended leave of absence from your current position? Explore all the avenues.