Two-Minute Memoir: With Heart in Mouth
The best meals are made with two ingredients: passion and a desire to connect with other people.
By Christine Cushing published January 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
I was born in Athens, Greece, and my family immigrated to Toronto when I was a small child. For most European families at that time, food was paramount. Sitting down to eat together is what we did. There weren't hockey games or piano lessons. But there was always dinner. My dad's specialty was moussaka, a layered dish with zucchini, potatoes, and ground lamb. Making it was a day-long affair. It required every pot, every frying pan, and every bowl in the house. My mother would lose her mind over the mess, but it was our favorite meal.
My family still communicates best when hunched over hot stoves or cutting boards. My relationship with my female cousins, for example, is predicated entirely on cookie baking. During each holiday season, we get together and make eight different kinds of cookies. With flour flying around the kitchen and frosting on our foreheads, the scene looks chaotic, but it feels gloriously calm. That's because our massive initiative forces us to stay together for hours on end, focused, without interruption. We really learn what each of us is going through at the time.
Food is about nurturing. I love preparing it, but eating it with other people is what completes the experience—good flavor turns into good feelings. That's why my partner, Bosko, and I try to dine together each night.
Part of why we are so compatible is our mutual zeal for food. Bosko will go to any length to seek out a great meal, even if it's late and he's had an exhausting day and the restaurant is on the other side of the city. As the professional chef in the house, I usually do the cooking. I know I will make him happy, say, if I make my giant seared scallops drizzled with butter.
When I travel, I'm always in search of that essential meal, the dish that captures a particular culture. Bosko is from Montenegro, and the first summer we were together, five years ago, he took me there. We went to Sveti Stefan (Saint Stephan), a fairy-tale ancient coastal village. I quickly learned that the Montenegrins and the Greeks are equally insane about food, except the Montenegrins are a little more enthusiastic about their meat. (Maybe that's why their men average over six feet in stature.)
Sveti Stefan is unlike any beach town I'd ever been to—pine trees grow right up to the Adriatic Sea. A whiff of pine always reminds me of Montenegro now.
One day we ran into some friends of Bosko. When they found out I was a chef, they said, "You have to go to Zof's!" There was no phone number for Zof's. No reservations were accepted. In fact, there was no address. There was just Zof, cooking by the shore for whoever happened to show up each night.
To get there, we actually had to trek through a forest. It was thick. I was sure we were lost. Then a clearing suddenly appeared. We saw four tables nestled in the rocks, with water licking at the legs. We heard some music, and we saw a guy at a grill with a towel slung over his shoulder, talking and laughing. There he was—Zof. He was a local guy in his late 20s. He didn't offer a menu. He came over and meticulously explained what he'd be serving that evening—sauteed eggplant and grilled fish. He poured us some wine. As we savored our meal, a bright orange sun sank into the sea.
Zof had no formal training as a cook. Yet five years later, I remember the meal in sensual detail. Everything tasted out of this world. It was an offering from his home. He was overflowing with passion that you could just taste in his food.
Zof taught me that the Montenegrins are a proud and giving people. But what I really took away from the experience was that everywhere you go, you can find cooks who are full of heart. They take what they have and make the absolute best of it. No matter which ingredients are at their disposal, they are determined to create a spectacular meal and to nourish others with it.
When I was growing up, my Dad always watched my brother, my mother, and me eat his moussaka. I always wondered why the hell he was staring at us! But now I catch myself doing the same thing. Each time I see Bosko react with surprise and delight to food we are both taking in, I feel even closer to him.