Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Less is More

Still innocent

Six months ago I left my home, businesses, friends and Cleveland with a plan to take a sabbatical to realign my mental and physical health. While it was clear that something had to change, I neither knew what it should really entail or how difficult it could be.

My past is filled with incredible memories of a fortunate life, and a significant chunk of it was spent in the life and world of food. With 40 years in the business, I have been able to enjoy a career that offered endless opportunity to do what I loved. Dream, develop, create, challenge, grow, enjoy and share. We have evolved to measure our lives in many ways; how long to live, progeny, health, education, fame and fortune, wellbeing, fulfillment?

I struggle when I try to measure my past but I know the one thing that’s difficult to measure is our happiness. I went “all in” and was able to lead a life that provided many of the measurables and did bring happiness, but the path was never smooth and the journeys always came at a cost. Our “return on investment” in every thing we do in life doesn’t always pay off. Something may have been successful monetarily or by any other subjective measure, but the emotional costs can easily off set that success.

I have played and worked hard. Its scary to compare the hours I’ve put in to what the “prescribed” work week is supposed to be, and the reality is I basically worked enough for 2 lives already. I chose this path and tried my best to deal with the costs along the way, but  I started to realize that my return on investment was not in my favor. Many of the things that I loved about the business started to change. I was consumed by my work, I compromised my relationships, I compromised my health and wellbeing, and it was not only affecting me but everyone around me. What came easy every day, was now increasingly more difficult. Physically I was feeling the battle wounds of kitchen life and the lifestyle that can go along with the business. I struggled with my existence, and whatever fulfillment from the work I was doing was disappearing. My strong resolve to welcome challenges and prevail was becoming wrought with doubt. Years of “lacing up the sneakers” and fighting it out had started to take its toll, yet envisioning any thing else was almost impossible. How could I do anything other than what I had signed on for, even though I knew it was damaging me and others. How could I embrace changing my life after 40 years?

I finally hit a tipping point that made me realize I didn’t have many choices. The pressure, stress, worry, loss, and mental aguish wasn’t worth the gain anymore. The saying,  “What else do you have than your health?”, started to make sense. Losing my two brothers within 6 months just 4 years ago, started a reality check that I should have heeded more closely. I needed to understand what should be important in life and what my own pursuit of happiness could be. I finally made the commitment to finding a way to get there. As Yogi Berra said, “when you find a fork in the road, take It”. Well I arrived at that fork and took it. I’m not sure yet if it was the left or right direction, but I did it.

I set out for Italy with the plan and hope of returning after 6 months with a renewed outlook and new resolve, but the plan to return has become less and less desirable after living a very different life for the past half year. I was afforded an opportunity from a close friend to live at his villa as the resident chef. Groups up to 40 people, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Coming off serving hundreds every day, this allowed me to get back in the kitchen with a very different perspective and purpose. Walking the property and filling a basket and my head with incredible ingredients and menu ideas. Prepping every item from start to finish and plating up some of my most inspired food I’ve ever cooked. No printer spewing tickets, no drama on the line or dining room, no customers looking to be angry or disenfranchised.

For the first time in quite a while, I was really back in the kitchen doing what I love, and for many of the reasons that initially put me there in the first place. My childhood in the kitchen and around the table were some of my happiest times. A great family, and one that shared the home and table with countless souls, provided most of the inspiration for the career I would follow. Cooking and sharing the table. That pretty much sums it up.

At the end of the day, the satisfaction that I derived most from by being in the restaurant business, was seeing people sharing the table and enjoying a meal that would hopefully become a memory. Families for a celebration, friends for a simple night out, long lost reunions, first dates or anniversaries, they all came for a pretty basic reason. Meeting, eating, drinking and sharing the table. This started to change over the past few years………

The erosion accelerated with the proliferation of the “smartphone” and every distraction that comes along with its use. The device has changed our lives forever and has incredible value, but it has also compromised the most core benefits of sharing the table. It became sad watching families and their children completely disconnected. Couples barely looking up from their screens, or business dinners where the tables were virtually still in their offices. Sure, there were still many that kept their phones out of sight and were able to share amongst themselves, putting aside the outside world long enough to enjoy what the table could really offer, but they were becoming the exception. This phenomenon was not exclusive to the customers, and the ongoing battle with staff, their phones hidden away, sneaking in texts and calls while on the clock and a full station had pushed me to the point of confiscating them and tossing them into the deep fryer. I am forever thankful for the hundreds and hundreds of great staff over the years, but the new attitude from too many who got trophies for sucking only added to my stew.

The explosion of social media can be a double edged sword for a chef or restaurateur as I’m sure many will agree. Expert Foodies everywhere relishing in masked opinions that sting, anonymous and vindictive ex-employees bent on spewing vitriol. Take all the good, bad and ugly, with a grain of salt, but, I guess I miss the days when someone couldn’t send a text 5 minutes after a missed call and be angry that I didn’t respond yet. Everything is becoming instant everything…..Unsocial Media.

The more I noticed, the more I began to recognize that the most rewarding aspect of my work was also what was missing from my own life. That sense of family and friends that was so important to me long ago, was compromised by committing everything to my work and the satisfaction I got from serving the masses had essentially replaced sharing a table of my own. Fortunately, and some what miraculously I have a strong relationship with my children, and we are, what I consider expert at sharing the table on the rare occasion that we can, but it became clearer that I had paid a great cost with my choice of career and the lifestyle that came part and parcel with the business.

I struggle to say I had real friends, and I ruined deep relationships while trying create something good for all my “customers” and staff. My inherent attention to detail wasn’t applied to my relationships. It was always easy to say that I loved what I do, it was hard realizing that what drove me, was changing, and it was changing who and what I was becoming.

Assumptions were plenty for the reasons of my departure, and the layers of complexity, legality, financial, operational, health and emotion run deep. The entire story may still be written when the legalities are fully resolved, but regardless, it was me.

Questioning your existence and the will to continue, is a place I experienced. Accepting and admitting to a mental health problem was something that was impossible for me until I understood that it had shaped my life all along. Insane drive and bursts of creativity, roll up the sleeves and JUST DO IT, OCD, passion, fury, finality, depression and then what’s next? Hypomania, Bi-Polar and in denial. It wasn’t until 8 years ago that I was diagnosed, and after fighting what I felt was normal, I finally accepted that I couldn’t continue exposing my self to next shiny thing.

I feel as though I had a career ending injury before the game was over and inevitably lost. Im proud of how I played and to all my teammates who helped win so many games over the years, I am forever thankful. Doing battle every day and night, offense, defense, thankless positions, hard work and competing at the highest level of play was never easy. Accepting defeat or admitting failure was never one of my strong suits, and this was no exception. What some may call an “epic fail” was painful, guilt ridden and very humbling. I know I let many people down by leaving so abruptly and I never got the chance to say I was sorry, thank you or even goodbye to what should be have been thousands of people.

Less is More. It’s been my motto in the kitchen. Under promise over deliver…… I needed to apply it to my life.

Every day I live and cook at the Villa, I’m thankful that there is a more simple life. Total solitude for days during the off season and I feel Monastic. Centuries of history at my feet and I feel connected . A life with simplicity and I can live it. Waking every day with a sense of being and contentment is a welcome change, and one that I didn’t think possible 6 months ago. Alive and “more well” was the goal, and with great fortune I have found a time and place that allows me to write this with feeling of hope and peace.

“We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden”

Cheers, Steve

Nate

1393941_4983937375502_1795595038_n

I closed my restaurant on 9/11 as the country locked down and went into shock. As the news unfolded over the next hours and days, the reality set in that close friends were victims of the terror. I struggled with the thoughts of what they went through and it was difficult to quell the anger, disbelief and sadness that I know we all felt and shared. Three days later we reopened The Mist Grill not really knowing what we SHOULD do but we felt we had to get back to some semblance of daily life. That night forever changed the way I looked at being in the restaurant business.

We opened the doors without any real notice, we had no reservations and yet a number of customers just showed up. These were customers whom I recognized but didn’t really know, and had mostly seen them with other people before. What became clear right away was that almost everyone there had arrived alone. One after the other came up and thanked us for being open. These relative strangers were alone. I never had reason to delve into their personal lives before and would not have known if they were widowed, divorced, had no local family or were simply socially awkward and didn’t really have friends.

That night I realized we were their family or friend in that moment of grief. We were their shoulder to cry on, and I did indeed cry that night with them. Our restaurant and staff was their home. That guy who always sat at the bar alone, the women who used to sit by herself and read, had bonded with with us, they grew to consider the bartender, waiter, waitress, bus boy, chef and owner as their friends and family.

Before that evening I had really only thought of them as just one of the thousands of customers . I had never considered how important  we might be to them other than the services we provided: make and serve good food and drink for good value in a nice atmosphere. The business formula appears simple, but we really provide something much more valuable to millions of people in restaurants every day across the globe.

We are the living room for many people who sit at our bar or table, we are the friend or family when some one feels alone. We can be the one who they trust to share their sadness or happiness, we can be the place where they are comfortable and feel safe. We are in relationships and we need to recognize that many of our customers need us more than we take the time to realize.

The relationships that evolve in the restaurant world are numerous. A first date, a random meeting at a bar, fell in love with the chef and more…, but the importance of the relationships that I have witnessed within the thousands of people who have worked for me was never more apparent then a week ago when I went to visit Nate Cardenales at the hospice.

Nate was the epitome of one of those people who provided the things that not only our customers yearned for as a friend, but Nate was everyones friend unconditionally. Nate embraced everyone and our staff embraced Nate. As I walked down the hallway to Nate’s room at the hospice I saw half a dozen people sitting outside his door and I was expecting to meet family members for the first time, but as I got closer I recognized them, as well as the whole group in the room by his bed. Everyone there was or has been a Crop employee that worked with Nate. They were all there showing love and support like a family because thats what they had become. Seeing them together like that hit me deep and it made me flashback to that night after 9/11 when I realized our customers needed a place to find comfort, but standing bedside with Nate’s “Restaurant Friends” made me realize how important these relationship can be. This business is so tough and the people who work it endure what can be a pretty tough life. Many end up in the business out of necessity or past hardships but there is a very unique level of camaraderie that evolves within a super diverse cast of “family”. How deep that sense of family can become was evident at Nate’s bedside.

Nate has moved on to a better place I’m sure, and I will always hold a special memory of him as a friend, but also as a constant reminder of how important the friendships are to the people who come to work together everyday. Thanks and love to you Nate!

 

Strong Medicine

Vintage News paperI had a Lacrosse stick before a baseball glove and learned to pass and catch with my father pretty much as soon as I was able to walk! My father played in High School, continued at Cornell and for his whole life “Doc” was as dedicated to the sport as one could be. While I never played during High School or college, I could hold my own on various club teams and was a pretty effective youth team and High School coach. Basically we were a Lacrosse Family, and my two brothers John and Paul enjoyed great careers at Syracuse and Cornell and many memorable years of club ball and coaching. Both John and Paul recently passed away within 6 months of each other and while our genetic family was deeply affected, our “Lacrosse Family” proved that the roots of the game are the strongest and deepest of any sport.

Over the years of countless games, miles traveled, losses and wins, I always felt like I was a part of something so much larger than the game itself. I grew up respecting lacrosse not only for its unparalleled excitement and competitive style, but even more so for its tradition and history. As a child, I would often day dream about going back in time 200 years and playing Lacrosse with the Iroquois or Mohicans. Face painted, running all day, doing battle, then celebrating with the opposing tribe. To this day I still dream of doing just that, yet I believe that I have experienced exactly what bond the Indians must have felt with both their team mates and their opponents. The word camaraderie describes a  “feeling of good fellowship”, and while the word may sound cliche’ and over used, I believe the essence of the word lives on the lacrosse field and that the games founders embraced the culture and spirt of the game like no other sport that has evolved today. While Lacrosse has evolved technically, but the spirt of the game is virtually unchanged and I believe that the fabric of the lacrosse community today reflects its past heritage vibrantly.

After the passing of my brothers I witnessed a level of support and compassion that truly brought me to tears. Ex-teammates, coaches and friends of the game covered thousands of collective miles to say their goodbyes, reminisce and console. Their support for  their fallen warriors and my brothers families was unprecedented and beyond the normal call of duty.

Both the Syracuse and Cornell Lacrosse alumni raised an incredible amount of money to assist the families and help insure stability for the future. Unconditional love and compassion was the rule, not the exception. While standing in front of a room filled with my brother Paul’s friends and teammates following a fund raising golf outing, I was preparing to speak to the group and I kept asking myself how and why they all rose to this level of support for a fallen comrade. Was it because he was one of the games greatest goalies? Was it because he was a great person? Yes to both, but it was so much more. His teammates were there because they loved the man like one of their own family members. They were there because they all shared his spirt as a fierce competitor, his spirt for Lacrosse, his spirt for life.

The Native Americans who brought us this hallowed game, believed that the stronger you played the stronger the medicine became. It was good medicine, not bad medicine. It was healing medicine for the mind, body and soul.

My brothers played hard always, and it is their strong medicine that still lives on the fields they played on and in the hearts of all the players they touched. Its the primal thread that runs through the veins of Lacrosse players. Its the DNA that makes us family.

The medicine of Lacrosse is very real and strong indeed.

I am very thankful to all the players, friends and the entire lacrosse family for all of your most generous and thoughtful medicine!  Cheers, Steve Schimoler

Sea Level

Image

 

You can’t have ups without downs and sometimes your altitude is more about attitude. There a lot to be said about being at Sea Level and immersing yourself in an ocean. After all it’s where life began, our most primitive beginnings that evolved to a place where they could crawl onto land millions of years ago. I have always been drawn to the ocean, its sheer power, its vastness, its beauty, its ability to humble, its peacefulness, its secrets and its memories.

 

My deepest memories as a child are connected to the sea. Our home 2 miles from the Long Island Sound, my Grandfathers beach house on Breezy Point, my uncles condo in San Juan and travels to many coasts. Our family always was happy on the sands. From sunrise to sunset, not a care in the world, we would be in the water. Three boys, Three girls, Mother, Father, all together, all day and after expending thousands of collectively burned calories, we would all share the dinner table and ravenously devour a summer’s evening feast. There was no television, no computers, just the old AM radio where afterwards we would listen to the latest Beatles, Dylan, The Doors, and the music was easy to love and remember. Exhausted smiles fell asleep quickly, dreaming of the next day.

 

Those next days disappeared as we grew older and the kids went off to discover what each of our lives had in store for our futures. Our parents did their best to provide the direction but we all took the paths of our personal maps. Those paths diverged, and converged not often enough.  I often reflected on how amazing it was that the six of us managed to survive unscathed and that my parents survived us long enough to leave this world on their own terms, in what I believe was a proud and peaceful place. I know they also shared the happiness of being at Sea Level with their family while we were all there together. The year 1967 stands out for me as our own summer of love. While it seems so far in the past, it also seems like yesterday. My youngest brother Paul was born, we had just moved to a magical new home and as young kids we were oblivious to any of the worlds turmoil.

 

45 years later we are now a family of four. Both my parents have been gone for several years and recently my two brothers have unexpectedly just joined them. The sense of immortality for all of us as a family changed fast. After years of defying all the odds of life’s risks, the realities of fragility emerged and the saying goes, “reality sucks”.

 

Our lives can change so fast. One phone call, a doctor’s solemn look and the momentum of life’s routine and assumptions can come to a screeching halt. It is these moments that cause us to take stock of our own lives and reflect on our past, present and futures. Losing both my brothers in the past six months brought me to that moment all to clearly. Our invincibility, our ability to play hoops, yell, scream, fight, and care was suddenly gone. Denial kicks in, remorse for not being closer over the years, pissed that I didn’t reach out more often and make that unexpected call, but the hardest part is a new feeling of loneliness, one that I didn’t know existed.

 

I have always been one to practice the concept of “Carpe Diem”, and my perspective on mortality is somewhat unique thanks to my father having been a Veterinarian, paired with growing up working in his animal hospital. I know all of us kids shared the same reality after years of watching animals get treated out of compassion and conversely watching them be “put down” with compassion. For better or for worse, that was our world, but it did make me appreciate life and death at a very practical level. In spite of that practicality, I couldn’t expect the depth of new emotion that I now feel.

 

Last week I knew it was time to get back to Sea Level again. I dropped everything and got on a plane and headed to a beach alone. I never spoke with anyone except a few wait staff and bartenders. It was just I, alone on the sand and water with bright reflections from the sun and so many memories, with a clear horizon in front of me.

 

As the plane started its descent back into Cleveland I could only be thankful to return home knowing I can return to a beach but I can always find Sea Level somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

Power to The People

Pretty simple idea! While John Lennon may have popularized the phrase thru his lyrics, I think most of us feel that “we the people” is how to get shit done! This past weekend celebrated Cleveland’s iconic West Side Markets 100th birthday and Friday night 1200 folks showed up at the Peoples Party to show their support for not only the West Side Market, but to also celebrate the concept of community. 

When the plans for the official birthday gala at the WSM were announced, not everyone agreed that they best reflected the immediate local needs for a number of reasons, however the public ground swell of concern prompted a call from local restauranteurs Sam Mcnulty and Dante Boccuzzi. 48 hours later we posted the news for the “Peoples Party” and within 24 hours we sold 800 tickets for 25 bucks a pop! The people spoke and we delivered. By the time November 2nd rolled around, we had 38 restaurants and chefs, four bands and a DJ, Diageo Sprits and 1200 people packed into Crop for the ultimate display of people celebrating each other!

As we are coming up on election day, and certainly one of the more divisive campaigning barrages of all time, all I could do was smile as I looked at the faces of the crowd this past Friday night. For seven hours it didn’t matter what party they would vote for, or who they felt can run this country, they had all just voted for the Peoples Party!!!

Maybe, just maybe we can once again embrace the concept in our political system that when the people take control over the events and the liberties that we have come to expect in this country we get what we want on our own terms and without term limits!! 

I think Lennon would have had a blast Friday night!!!Image

Its been over a year since my last effort at writing this page and I realized that I really miss the time alone just writing. Needless to say the past 12 months have been pretty much devoid of much private time for me with opening Cropicana, Crop in Ohio City and Crop Bistro in Vermont. Throw in the consulting projects, a shit storm divorce and tumult, and here I find my self on the laptop ready to take a deep breath and write! Finally .

I started writing a book called Pressure Cooked in 1990 as a combination memoir and cookbook where the stories featured a dish that was emblematic of the event and I would peck away on my Olivetti typewriter struggling with the process all the way. 10 years later, I had convinced a local vermont publisher to do the book and after a few months he convinced me not to do it, but rather do a cookbook. He felt that the risqué content would forever over shadow my ability to do another book and that the stories were so extreme I would have to deal with the negative perceptions for ever. He was right in the sense that if I had done the book I never would have worked for SYSCO, Nestle’, and many of the companies that I was consulting for. Hind sight is 20/20 and I kick myself sometimes for not doing it, as 12 months later a book called Kitchen Confidential hit the stands, and the rest was history for Mr. Bourdain!! The reality is that my book would have made his look like a Boy Scout handbook!

Well that was then and this is now……

I have found my groove and basically don’t give a shit what the potential negative ramifications of the book will be. I don’t plan on running for office and my corporate days are behind me, both my parents are gone and my kids already know about my past lifestyle,so what the fuck! I have been digging in hard over the past 2 months and the chapters are stacking up. As I reflect on every chapter of my life and the back lines in each of them, I have begun to realize that you can call me crazy, and I’ll agree!

Being in this food business has been an amazing experiment of sorts and the life lessons that come out of a career that can swallow you whole are shared by the thousands of chefs, waiters, bartenders and every walk of life that enters a restaurant to work. Everyday I show up to work I expect the unexpected. I expect to deal with drama, hardship, reward and loss. I start each day with a simple goal of cooking food and serving in it a way that people enjoy and hopefully want to enjoy again. As simple as the goal would appear, it gets derailed at some level without fail. So many moving parts, personalities, demands and unrealistic expectations get in the way of a perfect day. Find a chef who said his day was perfect and he or she is lying!!

It is however, the exposure to these daily challenges that make for an amazing environment to learn about humans and what drives one to overcome adversity. I officially celebrated 30 years as a chef /owner this past month and have amassed an enormous amount of life experiences through this insane business. For better or for worse, I am ready to tell the story!

If all goes well I hope to write the last chapter in the next 2 months and plug it into the publishing world soon after. Last chapter of the book, not my final chapter…….. Stay tuned.

The Unsocial Network

Ages ago we didn’t have a cell phone, smart phone, Ipad, Ipod, Facebook, Myspace, Your space, Twitter, 4 square, text messages and who knows what else is waiting to be introduced as one more distraction to life. I admit I have succumbed to some of  the technology but it is with certain reluctance and surrender to the need for “real time” business correspondence. The occasional Face book post or response is an indulgence that I still am not sure really is worth the time, but it has become a good form of entertainment to read some of the posts from “friends” that feel it necessary to let us all know that they just got home, checked in at the super market or that they just took a dump! Yes there is an enormous amount of diarrhea being spewed by people who clearly have a lot of time on their hands and have now become armed with a voice and vehicle to satisfy pent-up feelings of self-importance.

This concept of social networking is quickly transforming an entire society and basic cultural premise’s, all as a well intentioned effort to improve our way of life.. Not necessarily a bad thing to accomplish, and networking is clearly here to stay, but the  irony is that it’s methodology and our obsession with this new means of communication is rapidly creating a generation of unsocial drones.

As I stood in the kitchen several days ago, watching the dining room as always; constantly checking on how the customers are doing, is the waitstaff in the right place doing the right job?, and generally to check the vibe of the restaurant and see if the people are happy. We weren’t especially busy yet, and there were 3 couples sitting along the banquets, all of them with their faces down pecking away at smartphones, clearly ignoring their dinner dates. It is possible that they all had very important reasons for dedicating the majority of their dining experience to texting, Facebooking or checking emails?………….my guess is that they are  just becoming desensitized to the concept of being social in the traditional sense of the term.

I laughed at the latest TV commercial where the girl breaks up with her boyfriend from across the table by texting him, but the sad part it that it has become reality. We are losing the part , and ART of verbal one on one communication that makes us real people. As great as all this technology is, there is a big downside. Watching children at the tables with their parents who have armed them with their own slick games and devices as a way to keep them occupied and quiet, (which I welcome for selfish reasons and the benefit of our other customers), these kids are missing out on the opportunity to actually learn how to communicate and actually be social.

The horse is WAY out of the barn and I will be relegated to watching the evolution of our de-evolution. The only thing I can ask our customers to do, is to shut them off and just put the damn things in your pocket for 2 hours while you enjoy some food, drink and company. I have considered banning the use of cell phones and all the other gadgets, but I fear I would be branded as Unsocial!!

Oh well, when the day comes that they can only text their food orders because they cant actually speak… I quit!