The kitchen is the great equalizer. Food doesn’t care about the colour of your skin…
Every year to celebrate our Food Gypsy anniversary we turn the focus from our usual banter and throw the spotlight on our readers. Every life has a story, and sharing those stories are as essential to being human as breathing. In this tale we travel south to Anderson, South Carolina for a back-to-school conversation with reader Lou Hart, living his culinary dream.
I’m fortunate that many readers reach out to connect on a personal level, and Lou Hart of was among the first (pictured top, second from the right; along with classmates Brenda Tate Buchik, Adam Floyd, Matthew El-Bayadi and Caleb Backman). Lou found Food Gypsy just days after it launched and sent me a very kind note. I still have our first email conversation from 2010 on file, I was thrilled that someone not related to me (or forced to read by my Mother) was interested in my take on food, travel and the adventures of life.
Since then, we’ve become friends. Lou followed along as I traveled through Central America and actively encouraged me as I moved to Ottawa to expand my culinary knowledge at Le Cordon Bleu; similar areas of study had always been his dream. Last year, much to my delight, Lou announced that he’d enrolled at the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas” at Greenville Technical College. “It’s been a long time coming” he joked. Now in his final term, he will soon have the title of “Chef” to add to a long list of accomplishments in a colourful life.
At sixty-six, Lou Hart is true southern gentleman. Married to the love of his life, Elaine, the Harts have two daughters and one grandchild. “They are my real life” he once confided “everything else is just a bonus”. He served his country in Vietnam, began in the industry as an assistant store manager, overseeing the kitchens of Neiman Marcus, and for the last 26 years he’s been a successful businessman /owner/operator of Schlotzsky’s Deli franchise in Anderson, South Carolina.
More than 35 years in the kitchen and Lou is still learning, in his own words: “learning is the fountain of youth”.
In conversation with Lou Hart…
FG: Lou, you and I have talked about this a few times but you’re kind of the maverick of the Schlotzsky’s franchize aren’t you?
LH: (laughing) Ya, well for the most part I know more about food, the kitchen and the restaurant business than the corporate office. So I often do things my way and go on about my business.
FG: Key word there being “business”…
LH: My feeling is that my purpose is to please my customers so that my business will continue to be successful. If that pleases the corporate office, fine. If it doesn’t, oh well. I first became interested in the food service industry when I was at Neiman Marcus. I looked after two restaurants and one cafeteria they were run by [the culinary staff], but they all reported to me financially.
FG: Before that were you in the kitchen with your Mother? Is that where you first learned to cook?
LH: I’ve been interested in food my whole life really. My mother was noted for her cooking and she taught me a lot about food and [her style of cooking]. At Neiman Marcus the restaurant was run by a girl who had taken some courses at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and her husband was a graduate of the program, as we became friends they really got me inspired be to learn more about the techniques and cuisine in general.
FG: Which fast forwards us to today, where you’re returning to school to learn those techniques because you felt you never really had that foundation. So what took you back to school at this time of your life?
LH: You know, you’re little pieces that you did on your culinary experiences were kind of interesting to me. You have a way with words and your photos are so vivid, I have always appreciated that, so reading about your schooling really piqued my interest. I had looked at several technical colleges, but then I found the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas at Greenville and it was a real culinary school, not a ‘cooking class’. It’s a full-time, full-blown, culinary institute.
So I went over and checked it out and it’s a great facility and, I just got kind of excited about it. So I said, ‘you know what, I’m gonna’ do this. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time and I want to do it.’ So I did!
FG: Has the experience been everything that you thought it would be?
LH: And MORE.
FG: We love more, let’s talk about more! Sometimes, as a mature student we absorb different things, and have a little bit different perspective.
LH: I take the “mature student” thing to a whole different perspective! (laughter) I’m three times as old as most of the students, who are 18 or 19, a couple are 25 – 30, one or two are 40 or 50, but most are straight out of high school.
FG: I identify, one of my good friends from Le Cordon Blue, was 19 at the time. Her friends thought it was strange we were hanging out and one suggested “does your mom need friends?!” (laughter) So, yea, I hear you on that. Do you often feel like the father-figure?
LH: I do, I do! I’ve actually become very good friends with one of the kids who’s 19 from Columbia, South Carolina, a couple hour’s drive from here. He’s going to stay with us next semester. But I’ve never been ostracized because of my age, I’m just in a little different place in life.
FG: A differant category of student perhaps, and maybe that lends a bit more… respect?
LH: Yes. I really think I have an advantage over most students. I think my experience is to my benefit. Certainly, with age you can’t do as much as the younger students do, you slow down a little bit and things hurt, but [experience wins out every time].
FG: So what’s been the best thing you’ve learned? Is there something that’s changed how you cook/eat?
LH: Oh gosh, someone asked me that in my first course, and what I learned was how little I knew about food! But now I’ve learned all the basics; sauces and knife skills and everything that you need to be a professional. Our textbook, On Cooking, is over a thousand pages, it covers 101, 102 and is a resource throughout your career.
But the thing that’s been the best thing for me hasn’t so much ‘recipes’ as the [advanced] assignments where you’re told “this is the direction you’re taking, now go do it”. It taught me to think in flavours and to understand how certain ingredients react with other ingredients and how things taste together. It taught me how to experiment rather than being locked into “OK, I have to go find the recipe for this”.
FG: Ahhhha, the key to the flavour palace!
LH: RIGHT. I’ve even done ice carvings now!
FG: Sooooo, can your customers at Schlotzsky’s expect ice carvings soon?!
LH: No. (laughs) No. (laughs some more) But the experiences; tasting duck and Kobe beef and everything in between, seeing how it’s treated. It’s really expanded my horizons as far as food goes.
FG: Is there anything left to learn, any holes in your repertoire left to fill, now, as you near graduation?
LH: I’ve never taken any bakery courses, I’m looking at returning for some artisan bread courses, because you can apply that in so many ways. And being around all these young people has made me feel younger, so I’m going back for more!
The final question, what does wife Elaine think of all the advanced culinary education that has consumed her husband’s life over the last year? She hollers from the kitchen as we wrap up our Skype call… “now I have a full time chef!” Amen to that Elaine, chefs are good people.
“It’s never too late to be the person you’ve always wanted to be.”
Thank you to Lou, and every single one of our Food Gypsy readers, as we celebrate two years. You make it all worthwhile.
Photo Credits: Top photo compliments of Caleb Backman
Classroom photos compliments of Lou Hart