My name is Christopher Papagni. I arrived here last winter after spending 16 years at the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in New York City. The last position I held at the school was Executive Vice President. After completing a Ph.D. at New York University in Education Administration, it seemed logical to marry my love of food with education. FCI was where chefs like Bobby Flay and David Chang went to school to learn basic French technique. While employed at the school I became involved with the James Beard Foundation, The American Institute of Wine & Food (AIWF), The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), The Culinary Trust, Spoons Across America, and other culinary foundations and organizations. I have settled here in Portland to enjoy all that a city by the sea has to offer. This is how and when my love affair with food began.
When my father Leo arrived here from Puglia, Italy, in 1925 he took a job as an iceman. He would carry 50 pound blocks of ice on his back, up five or six flights of stairs, when most families had an icebox and tenement living was a way of life in New York City. Leo was 6 foot, 4 inches tall, had big broad shoulders and massive calloused hands. Hauling ice was a living; cooking was his passion and hence, he passed that passion along to me.
When I was a small boy, he would lift me up onto a cold kitchen counter top and he would say, “Now watch me." My legs would dangle in the air, and he would insist I kept my eyes on his every move. He wanted me to learn how to cook; I honestly had no choice. His mother, my Nana, brought him and his seven brothers and sisters to the United States. They left my grandfather and their eldest son Frank behind. Nana was to earn money and send it back to Italy. She sewed 12 to 15 hours a day and earned barely enough to keep the family fed. My father told me that they ate Italian peasant food; the dishes I later grew to love. Nana’s intention was to make enough money to return the family to Italy, or to send for her the husband and son she left behind. Neither would come to pass.
Money was difficult to come by, and learning how to use every part of the animal or vegetable was how poor families survived. Nana made sure that all of her children knew how to navigate the kitchen. I hated my father for forcing me to do what his mother made him do. Dad was more tender; more patient than my Nana was. He wanted me to love food and never take it for granted. I once watched him turn a loaf of stale bread into a meal for the entire family. He cut up some garlic, added some ripe tomatoes from our vegetable garden in Brooklyn, poured over a little olive oil, some salt and pepper, tossed it a few times and threw the sheet pan into the oven. The smell of roasting tomatoes and garlic filled the basement and we waited for our feast.
Dad did all of the cooking in the basement. The basement was where the family would gather. Food, of course, was always the focus. Sunday was my favorite day of the week. Dad would wake up at 5:00 a.m., and start with the homemade pasta. By 5:30, strands of linguine would be hanging from every surface. My dad would soon be feeding my ten siblings, several of his brothers and sisters, and many of his nieces and nephews. I never once heard him complain; he lived to cook. Cooks earned very little 50 years ago, and my mother wasn't working at that time. Dad would spend the entire morning at the stove. Fried garden fresh zucchini, layered eggplant parmesan, meatballs, homemade sausage, sauteed broccoli rabe, and seafood on special occasions. I must have stolen two or three meatballs throughout the day — I couldn’t resist. I’m fairly certain he knew I was a thief.
I was his sous chef, or cook’s helper, and runner. I sprinted to neighborhood markets to get him whatever he needed. On one occasion, he asked me to run to the supermarket to buy four cans of Italian whole tomatoes. I returned with four cans of tomato puree.
“What did I ask you to buy?” he said.
“Tomatoes,” I said.
“What kind of tomatoes?”
It didn’t matter what I said that day, kids were taught differently back then. I learned to be a better listener or my face would make contact with the back of his hand. It did not take long for me to experience his softer side.
He would throw me up in the air, put my small face in both his hands, and express his gratitude in Italian, “Molto bene Cristoforo.” As I grew older and became more involved with buying food and eating out, he would often remark that my interest in cooking had surpassed his own.
"I wish I had been born later in life,” he would say. “I'm too old to read cookbooks or go back to school." My father always regretted quitting school; he was illiterate, something very few people knew. Perhaps it was the deep love I felt for him, or maybe it was the love that went into his cooking, but I still believe that he was the greatest cook I have ever known. The techniques he taught me have been the foundation of my culinary life. His appreciation for the sacrifice an animal made in order to feed the rest of us lives deep inside my consciousness. In many ways, I am still that small child watching the world from that kitchen counter top.
My father is no longer at the stove, but I hear his voice telling me why it's so important to buy from the local butcher or why planting your own seeds can be so gratifying. My desire to discover the world’s culinary treasures can be traced back to that first loaf of stale bread and my dad saying, “Now watch me.”