My father was a factory worker his whole life in the north of England, I remember him saying, “Son, don’t work in a factory. Do something you love, and no matter what you chose to do I’ll always be proud of you”. I took his advice and followed his example into the garden instead of the factory floor. His influence is one of the reasons that my life as a chef and educator started at an early age.
Lessons in Home Cooking
When father was not working, you found him in the garden pruning trees, digging up potatoes, plucking tomatoes from the vines in his greenhouse or entering vegetables and flowers in a local workingman’s club show. My mother, who was a cleaner, part-time seamstress and talented cook, would be in her favorite place, the kitchen preparing dinner every night for the five of us.
Sunday was always the highlight of the week. We would help dad bring in the crop of the day from his garden and help mam, peel and wash the assorted bounty of fruits and vegetables. Lunch was always a roast of some kind, chicken, pork or, if we were really lucky, roast beef with Yorkshire puddings as big as your fist with plenty of roast gravy dripping from the plate. Dinner (or, if you like, afternoon tea) on a Sunday was always freshly made sandwiches with assorted fillings, fresh salads, fruit pies with hot tea, every morsel made by loving hands and tasting yummy. I have so many fond memories of us all together in the kitchen covered in flour from rolling out pastry, purple-lipped from eating too many blackberries or knee deep in rhubarb leaves. We always finished around the kitchen table eating something homemade and delicious.
Home Economics Class
At school I was a visional learner, I always preferred using my hands to my brain (no jokes please from those who know me well). Home economics was a natural fit for me, and also my favorite class of the week. I remember looking out the classroom window day dreaming about cooking as English, history or math was taught. In home economics, I got to prepare food, create a dish, use my imagination, and make something wonderful, most of the time anyway. A few things did get burnt. The big bonus was getting to eat it all. The class did have its down side. It wasn’t just cooking. It involved ironing, cross stitch and knitting.
All my close friends were involved in more “manly” classes such as metal work or wood work. I was kind of looked at as “girly” by my friends during those days. I did get to work in a clean environment surrounded by 19 girls not in a dark dirty room with 19 sweaty guys bending metal or sawing wood. After class, “girly” or not, I became the center of attention with my wicker basket full to the brim with cookies, cakes, pies, soups, sandwiches. “Come on mate,” would be the cry from my friends, “Gissa look in your basket then. Let’s have a taster. I’ll let you hold my fish. “ REALLY- not a great trade off because, I’m telling you, a pork pie tasted a hell of a lot better than a fish carved out of wood or a piece of metal pipe shaped into a hook. In home economics, I learnt that cooking is a life skill and the best way to meet new people, which I found out later in life as I traveled around the world as a chef. As a bonus, you never go hungry for too long.
Life as a Chef and Educator
With no qualifications to my name, I left school in 1980. I had a short stint at culinary school and dropped out to start my first job at the newly opened four-star hotel “The Gibside Arms” in Wickham. I started as a commis chef peeling vegetables and washing floors and dishes. I later moved to Jersey off the coast of France, traveled a great deal and at the age of 24 decided to return to night school and get an education. I spent the next 10 years working full time as a chef and studying three nights a week in culinary arts, education and business, finishing with an MBA from Leicester University. Not too bad for a boy who left school barely able to read or write at the age of 16. It is truly amazing what you can do when you are focused and motivated by choice.
At the age of 30, the same year my father passed away from cancer, I finally found my niche in life when I became a teacher of culinary arts at Neath Port Talbot College in South Wales and met and married my soul mate and best friend, a local lass from Swansea called Alison. Yes she could have been Alison Allison, how dreadful is that! She was wise enough to keep her maiden name of Davies.
My goal back then was to become the best culinary arts teacher I could possibly be, which led to many teaching awards and wining nearly every student culinary competition in the UK to finally being hired by Johnson & Wales University in 2004. Initially I was hired to teach, but, within four years, I become the dean of the college of culinary arts in Charlotte, North Carolina. The funny thing was, it had always been an ambition of mine to live and work in the US. As a child my favorite TV shows from the 70’s and 80’s were Starsky & Hutch, Streets of San Francisco and Magnum P.I. so I was always drawn to the American way of life.
Keeping a Promise
Two things happened that completely changed my goals and made me the husband, father, teacher, chef and now blogger that I am today. In 1999, my son Matthew at the age of 14 months became a type 1 diabetic while we were living in Alaska on a Fulbright Teachers Exchange program. In 2008, my beautiful wife was told she had stage four carcinoid cancer and had only three possibly four years to live. Two of the most loved people in my whole world and out of my family of five had life threating diseases. Something had to change!
We had already altered our eating habits to help Matthew adjust to his new way of life and control his blood sugars. In 2008, we drastically changed the whole family’s way of eating with the news of my wife’s illness. With none too little information from doctors on how to eat if you have diabetes or cancer, I started to research the benefits of nutrition in the diet and what were the best foods to eat to make you feel good, stay healthy, strong and hopefully extend your life span.
I realized that the Western diet we were following did nothing to keep us healthy. Too much meat, dairy, salt, sugar, saturated fat and processed foods loaded with chemicals that you can’t pronounce were not the best things for us. I came to the conclusion that a predominantly plant-based diet was the best thing I could do for my family. This discovery also directly translated into my professional life. I was still teaching at the time of my wife’s prognosis. I became more and more focused on plant-based foods being used in the classroom and encouraging students to eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, healthy grains and lean meats, while also presenting healthy eating demonstrations across the country.
My wife passed away March 19, 2015, nearly eight years after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. I’m not a doctor or scientist only a chef, but I believe that changing her eating habits to a more plant-based diet prolonged her life. She lived a full, happy and energetic eight years, never complaining of her illness, always smiling, living every day to the fullest, enjoying family and friends, organizing vacations, working part time at the boys school and always, always wanting nothing but the best for “her four boys”.
This blog is something I promised Alison Davies I would do. I’m not a preacher or evangelist, just a loving father of three fabulous boys and a chef. The recipes you will find in this blog are the things we generally eat at home. I’m not saying we eat correctly all the time, as boys will be boys, but 80 to 90 percent of the time we eat a plant-based diet, full of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, with a little lean proteins in the way of fish, shellfish and sometimes but not always meat and very rarely anything processed. Just like when I grew up, everything is prepared and cooked in our kitchen at home and every day we all sit around the kitchen table, converse, laugh, talk about the day, enjoy each other’s company and relish a real home cooked meal.
So in a nutshell that’s my life story “3 boys and a chef” is the start of a new chapter in our life, let’s see where this story takes us next.
Mark William Allison