Intro Draft for THE ADVENTURER COOKBOOK
Truth be told, I haven’t always been an adventurer-at least not in the current context. My dream was to become one of the great chefs of the world. Food has always been and always will be my passion. From the first time I stepped into a kitchen, I was hooked. The seeming chaos was poetry to me. The line cooks were the most mesmerizing improvisational dancers. Such beauty coming from such mangled and disturbed human beings. The heat, the emotion, the recklessness, the smells, the work-until-you-have-nothing-left drew me in and kept me for good. I saw people that couldn’t manage any part of their lives prepare and assemble unbelievable dishes with the precision of a watch maker and I wanted to be one of them. They only read cookbooks and betting lines. They only drank alcohol and water. They only had work clothes. They always smelled like food and sweat. The kind of smell that you can’t wash off. Their hands were calloused and scarred. The vocabulary was curt and crude. Their backs were strong and their will even stronger. These were my people. The paradox of blue collar workers producing exquisite wonderment for only the class of people that could afford it was never lost on me. Some would get out of the kitchen life and move on eventually. Some would die young. The drink has a way of being your crutch and your encumbrance. Some would make it through all of the many pitfalls and tribulations to actually become respectable Chefs. Not many. I consider myself fortunate to be one of the ones that made it.
Being able to succeed as a chef takes an unexplainable amount of sacrifice and dedication. If you aren’t willing to put in endless hours for many years, it will never happen. Chefs are married to their kitchen and aspirations. With margins so small and competition so high, every action is under a microscope. Food and labor costs, product sourcing, employee management, hiring and firing, moral and staff inspiration have to be multi-tasked into every day. Time is at a premium. Every chef I know has forfeited or canceled vacations, worked plenty of 20-hour days, skipped weddings and funerals because of their tether to the kitchen. Why? Because if someone else can do your job, even for a short time, you are replaceable. So, you never leave the kitchen-not for long-and that becomes your whole life. I did that you over twenty years. I never saw the light of day outside of the kitchen. I vividly remember a waiter at Restaurant Medure once asking my what were my hobbies, what did I do for fun. I was speechless and dumbfounded. And embarrassed. I had nothing.
This isn’t to say that chefs can’t find love. I was married to Britt Blackwell Newsom on July 24, 1999 at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. She understood my passion and ambitions and I moved to New York City to attend the French Culinary Institute just three months after we wed. Seven years later, we had own first and only child, James William Phelan, jr.-Will. Life proceed as usual after his birth until he was three. We were alerted by a counselor at his day care that he exhibited behavior atypical for a child his age.
At that point, something changed in me. I could no longer truly justify my obsessions with my work in my own mind. Suddenly, everything stopped. The reality of the world surrounding me became extraordinarily clear. I had missed so many things. My growth as a chef had stunted or obstructed my development and understanding in so many important areas. I had no hobbies or methods or relaxation. I never read books or articles that weren’t about food. All of my friendships were with those in the restaurant business. I had become aware that all of my conversations would gravitate towards food or my career because I, honestly, had nothing else to contribute.
Then one day I found myself outside of the restaurant of which I was the executive chef. It was the dream job that I had worked my whole career for and had afforded me the status and recognition in the chef community I craved. I had dutifully held the title of its commander for two years. But, this day was different. I was gripping the wheel of my truck and did not want to go in. It was a level of burnout I had never had and hope to never have again. I was paralyzed. Mental and physical exhaustion are nothing new to me, but this was deep and numbing. A day off and some sleep wasn’t going to fix this. With all that was going on with Will’s diagnosis for autism, his schooling and therapies, I had lost my drive in the kitchen. I had been sleepwalking through service for months. I’d begun to repeat dishes on our daily-changing menus, which is something I had never done in my career. The passion for the day-to-day grind of kitchen life was gone. And I was convinced it wasn’t coming back. So, I drug myself to the office of the restauranteur, a very good friend, and gave my notice. I told him that I wasn’t just leaving my post, that I was leaving fine dining. He was surprised but acutely understood.
A month later, I was jobless. I had not put out one resume or made one inquiry. There was a path and it was going to find me. And find me it did.
This was a self-imposed sabbatical. I had enough money saved to not have to gain additional income for about three months. In that time, I was going to find what it was that I really wanted to do. For the first week or so, I woke up every day thinking about calling vendors to put in my fish and produce orders. It was a matter of habit. Eventually, those old habits went away and the world started to open. Though I’m not usually one to initiate conversations with people, I was starting to be more outgoing and making friends at the gym. Pretty soon they found out that I was a chef and asked if I would help with their weekly meal preparation. It wasn’t long before I was doing it for them for a modest fee. I loved it. And I was good at it. It kept me in gyms and markets and around those living a healthy lifestyle. This was my ticket! My passion was back! Now, if I could make this a business, I could do this for as long as I wanted.
J. William Culinary was born in March of 2011 as a company that catered to those that wanted to live a healthy lifestyle and eat well while doing it. It was started with less than $100 and a Foodsaver out of my rented home in Neptune Beach, Florida. It took every bit of drive and effort I had to make it viable and successful. A few years into it, I was asked to co-write Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman’s Guide to Cooking with Fire.
On June 15, 2014, Paleo Grilling hit the shelves of bookstores and became available for online purchase. It would be well reviewed and received. Because of the book’s success, I was gaining notoriety and friendships in the paleo community. One such friendship is a gentleman named Nick Massie, also known as Paleo Nick. An energetic and gregarious young man, Nick had forged a name for himself in the paleo and CrossFit worlds by showing people how they could eat incredibly flavorful and diverse food within the paleo diet, not unlike what I had done. Nick was even hosting trips called “culinary adventures” around the world for the paleo and CrossFit faithful. When Nick asked if I would help host a trip with him at the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in Alaska with him, I accepted without a second thought. In late August of 2014, I would get on a plane in Florida and fly 5,000 miles for some halibut fishing in Homer for a couple days, then hop on a float plane to the Tordrillo Mountains to meet up with the rest of the guests. In the remote wilderness location, not accessible by road, we would spend eight days of fitness, adventure and amazing cuisine. Days started with breakfast and a CrossFit workout and ended with a refined paleo dinner of local ingredients. In between was straight adventure-camping, kayaking, fishing, hiking, wilderness exploration.
More trips and adventures would follow to Thailand, Nicaragua, Aruba, Australia and road trips all across Alaska, the lower 48 and Canada. Wanderlust and all the new experiences had become an irresistible force in my life. The man that had spent years strapped to a kitchen now couldn’t stay in one place. I had learned how to travel without spending a king’s ransom, to save on this trip so that I could go on another, to maximize the experience by connecting with friends, cooking for myself and staying away from the expensive touristy stuff. I’ve found that the story is deeper when there is unknown and the adventure more resonant when it involves skills that I don’t possess. I’ve come away with a more tactile sense of the world by thrusting myself into situations that require me to learn quickly-navigating the Bangkok night markets in Chinatown with no knowledge of the Thai language (I know how to say “thank you”, which will get you a long way in any culture), rowing a raft down the Klickitat River in Southern Washington, realizing that I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere on the steep gravel roads in Playa Maderes, Nicaragua if I couldn’t drive a motorcycle and figuring it out on the fly. I’ve become addicted to adventure and the unknown. It is my pleasure to share it with you and hope that it will inspire and guide you on adventures of your own.