My father was a retired San Francisco chef. When he was 90, we moved him into our large apartment on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco from his home in Oakland, where he had lived with my mother before she died. It would prove to be a difficult time for us — my wife, my daughter, and me. But it was the most difficult for my father. Compelled to use a walker by that time, he remained in the apartment throughout what must have been long days. My wife and I both worked. Our daughter, a teenager then, was in high school. But having my father with us could also be pleasant and rewarding when we shared a glass of wine in the evening and he rambled.
He had a lot of stories from his days in the kitchen. My father emigrated to the United States from Alsace in 1912 when he was 15. He talked his father, a baker in the Alsatian storybook town of Obernai, into letting him make the big move with the stipulation that he return when he had worked the wanderlust out of his system. My father never returned to Alsace. He made his way west to San Francisco and became a kitchen helper at the St. Francis hotel under famed chef Victor Hirtzler, who was also an Alsatian. Hirtzler turned my father into a cook and finally a chef. And that’s how my father wound up in San Francisco where this story takes place. He worked in various kitchens in and around San Francisco throughout most of his life.
My father knew good food and he knew how to prepare it. Yet his dining requirements were not elaborate, as seems to be the case with many chefs. What my father liked to eat was what he called “simple food.” For example, he liked a good pot roast.
When my mother was alive, she prepared pot roast, and just about everything else we ate at home, according to my father’s specifications. She cooked, even when he was home from his job in a kitchen somewhere — which was seldom, by the way. My father gave the orders.
One evening shortly after we agreed that it was bad for him to continue to live alone and had moved him into our place on Telegraph Hill, I arrived home about 6 p.m. I unlocked the front door and opened it. There he stood just inside the threshold, leaning on his walker. Apparently no one else was home yet.
“Where have you been?” he asked. He was obviously annoyed.
“Shopping for our dinner.” At least that was a positive, I thought.
“I wasn’t aware that it was late.” I looked at my watch. “My God it’s only six.”
“What are we having for dinner?”
My father sucked in his breath through his teeth, shook his head from side to side, and walked off slowly into his room.
I went into the kitchen, poured myself two fingers of vodka, put on an apron, and got ready to make dinner. I took out a pot with a lid, put it on the stove, and chopped an onion. I put the onion in the pot, lowered the hunk of chuck I had picked up at the butcher’s, and poured a can of beef broth and a splash of red wine over it.
Just at that moment my father came into the kitchen. Before I could put dinner in the oven he looked in the pot and said “What’s that?”
“I told you, it’s pot roast.”
“It is not pot roast. It’s pot meat.”
Well, it was a hell of an evening. We finally ate about 10 o’clock. The so-called pot meat, was pale and tasteless, no matter how much salt and pepper was applied. Actually catsup fixed it up and made it taste O.K. Mostly, we just sat in silence and chewed on what had to be the toughest piece of meat in the world.
Two or three days passed. Then, I found a two-page note from my father sitting in the middle of my desk. In a shaky hand with his fountain pen he had written the following:
I love you, but you don’t know how to make pot roast. Here’s how you make pot roast.
- 1 4 to 5 lb pot roast (bottom or top round)
- 2 carrots (peeled and sliced)
- 1 sliced yellow onion
- 2 strips of celery (sliced thin)
- 1 leek white part only (cut in thin circles)
- 1 bay leaf
- 6 cloves
- 3 garlic cloves (chopped fine)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground thyme
- 1 teaspoon rosemary needles
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (or bacon fat)
- 3 cups beef broth
- 1 cup red wine
- ½ cup tomato sauce
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
With the oil, brown chuck roast on all sides in large pot at medium-high heat on top of stove.
Place browned roast in oven and roast for 1 and ½ hours. Turn the meat every 20 minutes.
Place uncovered pot on stove top burner and add the aromatics (carrots, onion, celery, leek, bay leaf, cloves, garlic, pepper, thyme, rosemary) and return all to oven until aromatics are brown (approximately 20 minutes).
Remove pot from oven and remove meat from pot and set aside on warm platter.
Turn heat under pot to medium. Add flour and stir with aromatics to make a roux. Be careful not to burn.
Turn heat to low and add beef broth, tomato sauce, and red wine to pot and stir. Bring to low boil.
Add roast to pot, pouring sauce over the top, and return to oven.
Roast for approximately 1 hour.
Test roast for doneness by inserting the tip of the blade from a small knife. If blade slides easily through the meat the roast is done.
That’s how you make Pot Roast, he concluded.
I looked at the next page. There he had written:
P.S. Your spaghetti’s not so good, either. Here’s how to make spaghetti sauce. When you make pot roast you will have some brown sauce left over. Use that brown sauce in your spaghetti sauce.
The spaghetti sauce recipe followed, but that’s for another story.
My father died in 1989 at 93.