Cooking up life lessons with an Iron Chef | Pippimamma! Hot from the Oven!

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This week we welcome back columnist Carolyn Ossorio, whose new column Pippimamma! Hot From the Oven! will serve up local stories over food.

Stone-Ground Grits, Shrimp, Cheddar Cheese, Andouille Sausage and the dish that started it all: Lula Mae’s Fried Chicken served with collard greens, mashed potatoes, chicken gravy and corn bread.

Hungry yet?

“I’ve eaten a lot of grits and no one can match the soulfulness of Chef Wayne’s,” said Hank Linear.

Linear, Ron McGowan and Chef Wayne Johnson’s are the co-owners of Shuga Jazz Bistro in downtown Renton.

These days there are as many restaurants as there are writers out there to choose from.

But how many restaurants pour their heart and soul into every plate? And how many call themselves “Shuga’s” in homage to “the endearing term used by our grandmothers when they welcomed us into their homes and into their arms. It is that warmth and love that we at Shuga share with our guests and the community.”

Umm, no pressure!

The goal of this new column is to meet really cool people around Renton and share a story while sharing a meal.

And these days there’s no better story to tell or plate of food to woo your palate than a plate of Chef Wayne’s Southern-inspired food to warm the winter blues away, all set to sensational jazz.

On a recent Friday, I was invited to Shuga’s to cook Braised Southern-Style Oxtails with Chef Wayne.

After some prep work in the kitchen, the two of us moved to the line: a bay of industrial sized stoves and ovens that in the space of a few hours would be filled with five chefs busily cranking out fried catfish and chips, hush puppies, Cajun deviled eggs, bacon wrapped shrimp served with onion and apple cider vinegar infused collard greens and house-made sauces so definitive they have personalities.

Even though it was just the two of us, Chef Wayne filled up that space like a prima ballerina fills a stage.

I watched in fascination as he fired up a gas burner for the broccolini, switched back to the sink to fill up an industrial-sized bowl with water and ice (an ice bath for the vegetables so they retained the deep, forest green color) then nabbed two kitchen towels – “Chef’s gloves,” he said – to place on either side of the scarred metal braising panned curled up the edge of the foil where the oxtails had been slowly cooking for four hours.

He fanned up the steam in a rapid motion and as I inhaled the slow roasted meat and bones, infused in stock, tomato and hot sauce with spices and herbs my mouth immediately started to water.

“During the winter months, I have always loved cooking braised, casserole and baked items,” Chef Wayne told me. “It just says comfort to me and when it is cold out who doesn’t need warmth of comfort wrapped around them. I’m blessed to have a Mom that always enjoyed cooking while me and my brothers and sister where kids, it helps to get an early understanding of home cooked meals.”

There is a reason why foodies love watching food shows: the fluidity and motion with a master in the kitchen is an art in itself.

“Here, you can do this like a real chef, no more wannabe,” Chef Wayne said, with a smile, referring to our first conversation when I used that word to describe myself.

Afterward, I kind of kicked myself about being intimidated by this Iron Chef (season 9; Chef Johnson went up against Iron Chef Symon in a cucumber battle).

Chef Wayne lifted up a spoon for me to taste.

We’d spent the last hour cooking together and it was easy for me to see how much he enjoyed mentoring and teaching others.

“Why Renton? Why now?” I asked.

“I love that Renton is home to the world champion Seahawks. The space to accommodate live music. The inspiration behind a southern inspired menu only seemed right since live jazz and soft R&B was our entertainment of choice,” he said.

I watched him pull out an aged sliver of paper, wedged tight within the crease of his bill fold. I was sure I was about to get served a lesson in southern cuisine, but instead it was a note this Iron Chef had scrawled out to his younger self years ago.

It read:

• Flavor Profiler before chef or cook.

• Flavor conductor.

• Flavor compositioner.

As a writer who carries around scrawled notes in my backpack and also scattered around the homestead, I felt a kinship with Chef Johnson, who I now considered an Ahab in the pursuit of high flavors.

“If you just season the outside of the meat, you just get the flavor on the outside,” he said. “You’ve got to get the flavor inside!”

Good writers and chefs worth any salt are cut from the same cloth: on a quest to inflate people’s palates not their own egos. And what we look for is the flavor.

I’m a hottie when it comes to words like haughty—but a big vocabulary doesn’t make you a good story teller, just as preparing only the best cuts of meat doesn’t make you a great chef.

It’s all about finding the flavor in the unlikeliest of places and there is no humbler place than an ox’s tail.

Southern style braised oxtail takes time, marinating the bones in broth overnight to seal in the flavor inside and out. The next day it literally requires hours of slow cooking.

The reward, however, is a sublime and a southern inspired plate of food that transports your taste buds to a place I’ve never been, the south, within the embrace of a southern grandmother I never knew I had.

“Shuga,” indeed.

The promise of “grandmotherly hug” was not only delivered but sealed with a kiss!

“A good writer has the stamina to endure and keep writing,” my wise writing mentor once told me.

I didn’t want to believe her at the time – I wanted filet mignon. I wanted to be the most creative, the funniest, the best and loudest ALL THE TIME!

The antithesis of ox tail!

But good writers can make any story good, just like good chefs find the flavor in everything.

The ox tail ain’t no Ferrari cut of meat, but with the right coaxing it has a depth of flavor like no other.

And that’s not just a cooking lesson. That’s a life lesson, Shuga.

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