Part I of the Chef John Series, from an exclusive interview.
John Somerville, lover of science-fiction literature and personal ally of Captain Crunch, is Chef de Cuisine at the Lark in West Bloomfield, Mich., an award-winning establishment whose excellent food and exquisite service is celebrated throughout the Midwest. Currently, Chef John appears on Bravo’s Top Chef, competing against 16 other chefs for, among other honors, a cash prize. While I know first-hand that he can create fabulously using any ingredient, I am most impressed by what he doesn’t have to use: garlic.
Garlic is my nemesis. I’m sure it’s from the Devil (which is why that age-old myth that garlic repels vampires is absolutely untrue). Garlic could kill me (I am not a vampire). At the very least, it renders me shockingly ill. But most terrible, is that garlic, the Devil’s herb, has found a way to creep into almost every dish at every single restaurant in all fifty states. Chef John, even in the midst of the busy dinner hours, or outside the fixed menu during a themed dinner, prepares me garlic-free plates, a genuine courtesy other restaurants refuse to afford me (you know who you are, you organic nincompoops in D.C.).
Why does Chef John care about one diner’s war against garlic? Because he likes happy diners and because he is the consummate happy chef (yet, he is entirely unlike the Muppet’s manically-happy Swedish Chef).
Happy. Just plain happy. Not content, not satisfied, not pleased. No superficial smiling, no ridiculous macho ego (ala Michael Voltaggio), or dumb, forced style (I’m calling you out, Spike Mendelsohn). None of this. Instead, Chef John is truly happy.
Because many of us are unsatisfied and lead lives of quiet desperation, meeting someone who is really happy can be a little disconcerting. Happy people are a little too at ease. Chef John laughs and smiles with abandon, and doesn’t mind admitting to a collection of toy sharks. He delights easily. He finds wonder in simple things, like the smell of fresh cut flowers, the sunny flavor of a summer tomato, a field of foraging groundhogs, and the enduring rapture of an excellent book. Okay, so maybe he likes to spend his Sunday mornings juiced up on coffee, sitting in one of his Mustang 5.0s, honking at a field of foraging groundhogs, scaring the bejesus out of them until they scatter about. But, really, who doesn’t do this kind of thing on occasion? My preference for animal out of which to scare the shit: elk. (Please note, dear reader, don’t call the police if you see me at the side of the road, flapping my arms about and lowing at the fenced-in Elk herd in northern Michigan, just let me be me.)
Really though, one can’t help but fall for Chef John. He likes his Mom’s cooking best — stuffed cabbage and peppers, pancakes, French toast — and has wonderful, giggly memories about making Toadstool Bisque with his father when he was young (just an elaborately titled cream of mushroom soup, he tells me). He also listens patiently as I continually interrupt the interview to explain my rather limited palate (I own and often use The Twinkies Cookbook) and my highly opinionated cooking philosophy, which I’ve crafted without any real knowledge about cooking whatsoever. Frightened groundhogs aside, he is a very sweet and gentle man. There is an aura of play about him. He has a child-like sense of the absurd which shifts effortlessly into sophisticated philosophizing about literature, the term “organic,” and his work as a purveyor of excellent tastes. He is resolute about his favorite drink, cosmopolitans (Grey Goose L’Orange, Cointreau, with just a slight touch of cranberry) and also about his list of “Things President Obama Should Read,” which includes Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. He keeps a detailed journal and refers to it casually, as if it were commonplace, in 2010, to use a pen and paper and write down one’s thoughts without the intent of Tweeting, blogging, or publishing them in a sentimental memoir at some later date. Most striking, is that he does all of this without affect, without pretense, without the haughty attitude you get from the terribly unhappy, who are just showing off or using their knowledge and skill to conceal a frail ego (as well as other things Freudian).
Although he describes himself as competitive, Chef John is not appearing on Top Chef for fame, for fortune, or for any other reason than to test himself, to hone his own skills. Every day he earns the respect of his patrons, his co-workers, of anybody who meets him, because he is remarkably genuine. He immediately recognized my order upon my second visit to the Lark and came out to the table to ensure my strip loin was cooked as little as possible: I like it extra-rare. I have also seen him enthusiastically greet first-time patrons like old friends, genuinely interested in the quality of their experience. He is what we once called “salt of the earth,” truly taking his own organic philosophy to heart. A man of exceedingly good taste, Chef John Somerville indelibly leaves his mark, on the plate and on the soul.