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Culinary Dreams



“I’m at the Rite Aid on Cherry Street,” the caller explained, “and I need to get back to Johnson State College. This is Elvin, by the way.”

It was a dead January afternoon. Mired in the postholiday cabbie doldrums, I liked the sound of this out-of-town run. I recognized the voice before he gave his name, as I’d been driving the young man every couple of weeks over the last six months. Elvin was a wide-eyed freshman — a little bit lost in Vermont, it seemed, but game.

“Sure, Elvin,” I replied. “I’ll be right in front in less than 10.”

When I arrived, Elvin was standing there with an ultramodern suitcase of a color somewhere between gray and green. Loading it into the trunk, I couldn’t tell if it was fashioned from metal, rubber or some high-tech composite with which I was unfamiliar. I’m sure it was filled with his clothes and whatnot, but this capsule appeared better suited for the transport of HazMat materials.

“How was your break?” I asked as we got under way. “Where were you — in Hong Kong, right?”

“Yeah, mostly in Hong Kong with the family, but I actually traveled quite a bit. I spent a week or two in Mongolia.”

Fun,” I said. “I had some great holidays myself. Spent an afternoon in Winooski. No yaks, but I did see a skunk … Well, it could have been a cat, to be honest.”

Elvin smiled, though I suspected even that was generous. Sometimes I fear that I’m only about 30 percent as funny as I imagine myself to be.

We took Route 15 to the Circ Highway, and then rejoined 15 at the exit for the factory-outlet mall. This was my first time taking Elvin back to school. Until this trip, I’d only tooled around the Burlington environs with him, facilitating his shopping excursions. As I thought about it, I realized I didn’t know how he normally got back and forth to Johnson. I knew he didn’t drive himself, because he’s told me he hasn’t obtained an American license … Oh, yeah — probably he catches rides with other students. Duh.

“Hey, what are you studying up at Johnson?” I asked. “Have you chosen a major yet?”

Elvin chuckled at the question and said, “I don’t know what I’m studying, to tell you the truth. I only ended up at Johnson because I wanted to experience life outside of the big cities where I’ve spent my entire life. My dad’s a businessman, and our family’s lived all over the place — California, Taiwan, Brazil and, of course, Hong Kong. But always in a city.”

“Well, what are you interested in? That’s a good place to start.”

“I really like cooking,” Elvin replied. “I want to be a chef.”

That didn’t take a millisecond, I noted.

“I’m actually trying to transfer to the Culinary Institute of America,” he added. “I’m fascinated by what they call ‘molecular gastronomy.’ It’s this cutting-edge approach that brings, like, advanced scientific methods to the development of new dishes.”

“That sounds great, Elvin. So, what’s the problem?”

“It’s my dad. He says I’m on my own if I want to be a ‘cook,’ as he calls it. He won’t pay for school.”

“Well, that’s surprising to me. Doesn’t he know how prestigious the culinary field has become? And lucrative, for that matter?”

“Apparently not,” Elvin said, with a sigh, “because he’s dead set against me going into it. My dad is in his seventies and as old school as they come. He escaped to Hong Kong after the Communist Revolution with absolutely nothing to his name. From scratch, he built up a big trading company — a conglomerate, really. He does a lot of work in China now that the mainland has become so capitalistic. For him, cooking is something to be done by the servants. ‘Not something worthy of my only son,’ he tells me. Over and over, actually.”

“So, if your dad doesn’t want you to be a chef, what exactly does he want you to be?”

“For a proper young man growing up in Hong Kong, there are three acceptable careers: business and finance, technology, or scientific research. That’s it, really. The main thing is, he wants me to take over his business. And culinary school isn’t going to help with that.”

I thought, When will fathers ever learn? Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies was not that farfetched: Perhaps some part of every dad desires his own Mini-Me.

The farther we got from Burlington, the higher the snow blanketing the fields and houses. I never tire of this ride up Route 15, and I harbor a particular fondness for Johnson itself. Many years ago, I lived on Route 100C, just up from the town’s Power House covered bridge.

In Johnson, we took the left before the Johnson Woolen Mills store and turned up College Hill — the school’s steep access road. As we approached Elvin’s dorm, I asked, “Have you tried skiing or boarding yet? I guess Johnson students get some kind of great deal at Smugglers’.”

“I haven’t yet,” Elvin replied, “but I really plan to this semester.”

“Well, I would if I was you. You are in Vermont, after all.”

I paused and smiled at my young customer. The conflict he was having with his dad was not alien to me. Sooner or later, every one of us has to contend with our fathers. Elvin’s father wasn’t Dr. Evil — overbearing, maybe, but just a pop. I had a feeling things would work out for the two of them; at least, I hoped so.

“Yup,” I continued, “you definitely want to hit the Vermont slopes once or twice before you leave. You know — before you transfer and embark on your culinary career.”