Year: 1981. Place: Elm City Diner, New Haven, Ct.
I was in my early 20s when I first began cooking in real restaurants. By real, I mean chef-run independent kitchens where we actually cooked and built food from scratch. I landed in a great place at a great time on America’s culinary timeline.
The early 80’s were the dawning of what the press named ”New American” and “American Regional” dining. American regional food was challenging French food for the spotlight. PBS and the weekend news magazines introduced us to chefs like Martin Yan, Justin Wilson, Wolfgang Puck, Paul Prudhomme, and Tommy Tang. Jeff Smith, “The Frugal Gourmet,” the folksy minister from Seattle (who was canceled because of a clandestine gay affair) was passionately teaching us how to cook America’s best ethnic neighborhood dishes. It was a turning point in our idea of what cooking and eating were.
I was very lucky to have found a job at the Elm City Diner in 1981. Kitchens were becoming less stuffy, more diverse, and more American. Cooking at the Elm City lit the fire for me to create my own New World restaurant brand a decade later.
The Elm City was also part of the movement to bring good restaurants back to the inner cities. It was a complete contrast to the giant Steakhouses that were ubiquitous along the 1-95 corridor and the Italian-American strip mall palaces. The Elm City was a stainless steel gourmet diner on the corner of Chapel and Howe streets at the heart of New Haven’s red-light district. Directly across the street was Cafe Des Artists, a coffee and ice cream place that was also a colorful head shop and sex toy store where along with your Haagen Daz, you could buy a giant balloon filled with nitrous oxide and an inflatable sex doll for your choice of partying. Pimps with feather-garnished fedoras and dayglo-colored jumpsuits and prostitutes barely dressed in sparkly halter tops, miniskirts, and fishnet stockings sauntered up and down the sidewalks. At the other end of the block was Ron’s place, a grungy dive bar and New Haven’s first House of Punk. This neighborhood was where I lived and worked. Many of my friends and relatives from the suburbs thought I had lost my mind, and many were afraid to visit me.
When I began at Elm City, I was hired as a waiter. It didn’t take long, however, for me to be lured into the kitchen. The chef was a huge French-trained Romanian guy named Boris. No, really. He was missing a piece of his left ear and drank Rum like water. I had been working the floor for about a few weeks when one afternoon, when I arrived for my shift, the owner Ross cornered me by the sequined baby grand piano in the dining room. His boney frame seemed lost in his preppy get-up. His blue oxford shirt was wrinkled, his pleated khaki pants were sliding off his flat ass and his five day beard looked like a fledgling chia pet. His eyes were both red and blue from too much whiskey, tobacco and aggravation.
“Hey buddy, don’t you have some cooking experience?” he asked.
“Yea, I do, but not food like this,” I answered with a bit of trepidation.
As a teenager, I made subs, flipped burgers, rolled meatballs, and fried scrod in a few local lunch places, but I never made anything that I would refer to as gourmet.
“I really need you to help Sam in the kitchen tonight. Boris is sick.” he pleaded.
I considered the offer and went for it immediately even though the money would be less. It wasn’t cool to be seen waiting tables. I preferred to be in the kitchen where all the tough guys were. Sam, an African American Vietnam vet with slick conked hair and a Duke Ellington pencil mustache, was the lead cook. When Boris was AWOL, Sam ran the show. He was a chill guy, cool, calm, collected. We often talked about obscure music while we smoked by the dumpster after work. Right at that moment, he strutted out of the kitchen.
“C’mon Ric. I need you in the kitchen, brother,” He said.
Being just a kid, I think I was 21 or so, I was honored that such a badass would tell me he needed me. I took off my glitter bow tie and headed with him into the kitchen. And that was that. I became part of the crew.
Sam had me shadow him for the first night of service. The kitchen was tight, and there were just hot line two cooks. Sam ran the saute station, plated and called dupes, and his second cook Earl, a lanky African American guy of about 40, ran the griddle. Earl had a tight round afro and wore rectangle gold-rimmed glasses. He was also an Army veteran.
“Let me show you the storage in basement. Watch out for the rats. They get big around here,” Sam said matter-of-factly.
“Rats? Really?” I asked naively.
“Child, puleeze,” was his response.
We went down the dark narrow stairs to the basement. There was a long fluorescent light emitting a dead blue glow on rusty shelves of canned goods, cleaning supplies, and boxes of paper goods. It was pretty creepy. Wondering whether or not Sam was yanking my chain about the rats had my skin crawling. As we approached the greasy stained wood door of the walk in cooler, I thought I saw something large move in the shadows in the dim corner of the basement. Sam preempted my question.
“There’s Boris. This is where he sleeps it off. I do suggest you let him sleep,” he said casually.
In the dark corner, there were two pallets stacked with sacks of potatoes and onions. On top of potatoes, in a heap of messy black hair, wrinkled white chef coat, and stained checkered pants, was the snoring chef Boris. He was on his side in a twisted position so that his chef coat was pulled up, exposing his hairy white belly.
“Shit. Isn’t he afraid of getting bitten by a rat” I asked with childlike concern?
“Child, puleeze,” said Sam again.
The next day I was in the kitchen at 10 AM for my first real shift. Sam planned to teach me how to make the Elm City’s signature Christmas Chili. Christmas was a big bowl filled with both red and green chili, side by side, topped with a gob of sour cream and one each red and green pickled cherry peppers.
“You ever make chili?” he asked me.
“Not really, but I like it” I replied. When I first moved out on my own, one of my go-to dinners was Hormel canned chili that I ate cold in front of the TV, straight from the can, but I never made it from scratch.
“You’re going to make both chilis today.”
In the ’80s, chili was much more popular than it is today. From greasy spoons to upscale casual eateries, chili was a menu staple. Any chef worth his stripes had their own chili recipe. Soon that would be me. The Chili Guy.
These are my recipes for classic red and green chili. I have made many variations over the years, but these are the two that began my love affair with chili. As you layer in the ingredients, the aromas will build and fill the house with a spellbinding fragrance.
It’s March, and it is chilly, so take off that glittery bowtie and make some chili.
Ric’s Brick Red Chili
Here is the red chili for my Christmas chili presentation. This is a pretty big batch, but it freezes well and is a lifesaver on that rainy night when you don’t know what to cook for dinner.
1/3 cup beef fat or vegetable oil.
2 large yellow onions, peeled and diced (about 2 cups
1 medium red pepper, diced (about ¾ cup)
1/4 cup garlic, minced
3/4 cup dark chile powder
1/2 cup red chile powder
3 tablespoons oregano (Mexican if you have it)
3 tablespoons ground black pepper
¼ cup kosher salt
½ cup ground cumin
2 pounds lean ground beef (or venison)
1 pound beef or venison stew meat, diced small
4 cups black beans, cooked and drained (or two cans)
2 tbsp cocoa powder
1 20 oz can crushed tomatoes without basil, pureed
3/4 cup masa harina
32 ounces simple lager beer
Mix the meat thoroughly with the chile powders, cocoa, oregano, pepper, salt, and cumin. Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate for at least an hour, or refrigerate overnight.
Put the fat or veg oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven.
In the cold pot, add the onion, pepper, and garlic.
Turn the heat to medium-low and wilt the veggies until their aroma is released, about 5 minutes. You want the veggies soft but not brown.
Add the seasoned meat to the wilted vegetables in the pot. Stir well. Cook over medium heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring and breaking up the meat until it loses its raw color. Don’t worry about the fat; we will address that later.
Fold in the black beans and the tomato puree. Cook for 5 more minutes, carefully stirring to mix it all together.
Add the lager beer. Add enough water to cover the meat by three inches. Bring to a low simmer, stirring frequently.
Allow this to simmer for about 90 minutes.
Skim the fat, reserve a cup of it, and discard the rest. Mix the cup of fat with the masa to make a paste. Add it back to the chili a little, stirring it well to thicken the chili.
Cook for about 10 more minutes, being careful to stir so It doesn’t burn.
Ric’s Green Chile Chili
Green Chili was a culinary revelation for me. As my infatuation with chiles blossomed, using freshly roasted Hatch, poblano, and Anaheim chiles infiltrated my cooking repertoire with abandon! Green chiles have a complex and sophisticated flavor when roasted and peeled. When used raw, the skin is almost indigestible. Remember that, chefs. Can you use canned green chiles in this recipe? Yes, I suppose, but it will be less delicious.
1/4 cup pork fat or vegetable oil
2 large yellow onions, chopped (about 2 cups)
5 cups jalapenos, stemmed and sliced into rings
1/3 cup garlic, chopped
4 ribs celery, chopped (about a cup)
2 cups green anaheim chiles, roasted, peeled & coarse chop (about 10 chiles)*
3 cups fresh poblano chiles, roasted, peel & coarse chop (about 12 chiles)*
1/2 cup cilantro
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin, lightly toasted in a dry skillet until is turned dark brown
2 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 cups lager beer
2 pounds of ground pork (turkey works too)
1 pound pork shoulder, diced small
1/4 cup masa corn flour
In a mixing bowl, combine the vinegar, dry spices, and beer. Add the meat and toss well to coat. Let the meat marinate for at least an hour or overnight refrigerated.
Put the onions, jalapenos, garlic, and celery in a food processor and pulse to a fine mince.
Heat the fat or oil in a large, heavy pot and veggie mince. Saute until softened but not browned.
Add all of the marinated meat to the pot with enough water to cover it all by an inch or so. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Fold in the minced chiles and cilantro and cook gently for 90 minutes, stirring often.
Remove from the heat and ladle off about half of the fat
Slowly add the masa, stirring constantly.
When the masa is fully incorporated, bring the chili to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes to thicken.
Taste for salt and season to your liking.
Remove from the heat. Stir the chili occasionally while it cools.
- Roast chiles the same way you roast a sweet red pepper. Char the skin all over on a gas stove flame, under the broiler or with a blowtorch. Let cool in a bowl sealed with plastic wrap for a few minutes to loosen the skin then carefully scrape off the skin and seeds, removing the stem as well. Google it. I am running out of space here.
Using two ladles, add red and green chili at the same time to make the bowl half green and half red. Garnish with sour cream, pickled peppers, cilantro, and scallions if you like.
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What an amazing vivid story, such great characters vividly described! So unique and so like every kitchen, right? Thanks for sharing and I love the idea of Christmas Chili/red and green together…can’t wait to try it…
Great, colorful story and the recipes yield lots of chili, but after that account about the Elm City Diner, I just have to try at least one!
Inspirational article, from waiter to chef. Ric changed the food scene in The Hudson Valley. This article highlights a moment of Ric’s early beginnings, complete with recipes. Very well done.
That was a wonderful, delightful article, Ric. The first aka red– chili recipe is tantalizing. There is still time to make it.
Great piece. I was 23 when I was giving up cafe and bar shifts to work in your kitchen Ric! I’m making chili this weekend now. Thanks for this.
Loved it! Felt like I journeyed right along with Chef Ric. …could I actually smell the dank, greasy basement or…?? Great story. Even learned some spicing technique by diving into the recipes : )
Great recipe. I know what I’m making !
This is the great creative art of the culinary memoir. It’s the mise-en-scène behind the mise-en-place. Here Rick Orlando, the New York Capitol District’s preeminent punk rock musician and farm-to-table chef brings us right back to the start of it all, to milieu I well remember but only as a bemused observer. Rick dove right in, and brings us these gems of stories and recipes out of his lived experience. He’s got a million of ’em too — he’s a frequent guest on local radio station WAMC’s Friday food show, which is a rollicking good time. He’s got all the stories, and I hope to see many more of them here.
I love the story and the recipes for green and red chili Oooh how festive! Also, I’ve never used masa flour to thicken. I’ll have to try that.
Ric, I felt like I was in the New World Kitchen, listening to your stories, hearing music in the background. Enchanting. And the receipts were great. I could smell the aromas as I read. (I am a texan who actually likes beans in their chili, but it is a deep dark secret in an contra frijole state. Shush, don’t tell.)
I lived there in the 80s and remember Elm City Diner well. I’ve got Impossible meat in the freezer and am ready to try these chilis.
Great memories and recipes. Beef and beer chili with beans is a favorite of mine to make. Looking forward to trying yours.
Great article about a great chef. We are lucky the Elm City Diner helped discover him.
Love your descriptions of these icons. And Ric—New Haven needs one of its icons back. It needs you back!