The last time we spoke to Christopher Garlington, he was preparing to take off on the adventure of cooking underground dinners based on recipes collected in a plush 1960s cookbook by Vincent Price— yes, that Vincent Price— under the direction of Clandestino Supper Club chef Efrain Cuevas. (The book figured in Garlingon’s childhood, so he decided to try to recreate its recipes, collected on Price’s travels as a Mad Men-era actor-gourmand.) This weekend brings Garlington back to mind for two reasons. On Saturday, he and his co-author of The Beat Cop’s Guide to Chicago Eats, Sgt. David Haynes, will talk about their favorite Chicago joints at Kendall College for a Chicago Foodways Roundtable program; get more info here. Then on Monday, he’ll serve the last of the Vincent Price dinners with Clandestino— not the last one ever, but this Monday will represent his graduation from the self-described role of “kitchen bitch” under the tutelage of Cuevas and his fellow chef Lauren Parton. He’s been chronicling his adventures at his blog Eating Vincent Price; we talked to him about his adventures and why, above all, his goal is “not to be a douchebag.”
Not that we disagree with the idea of not being a douchebag at all, but why is that your main goal in all of this?
Basically I’m living everybody’s fantasy from Top Chef. We’ve all had that thing, you cook a meal for some friends and they’re all like, “This is awwwwwesome man,” and you think, I could be a chef! I am a chef! No, you’re a douchebag.
I knew that I had to go start at the bottom and actually get my feet wet to understand what it means to put a dinner together. It kind of stopped being about blogging this Vincent Price book for a while. I thought I was learning how to cook but I was really learning how not to be a douche about cooking.
I’ve put in some time, I’ve cut myself a lot and burned myself a few times, but I’ve managed not to fuck up anyone’s meal and you know, that’s kind of amazing. I knew it would be fun, I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t get how gratifying, how insanely gratifying it would be to make food for 60 people and have them be happy.
So why is it over with Clandestino?
Efrain from the beginning saw it as a predetermined amount of time that he’d mentor me. We’d cook a certain number of meals and then I’d be done. We’ve pretty much gone through the entire Vincent Price book thematically, except for Scandinavian because, well, bleah, and Hawaiian. The Hawaiian section is bullshit.
American Chinese food with extra pineapple on it?
Exactly. And you know they don’t really eat that.
But yeah, we’ve done the whole book, and the next step for me is to host a dinner on my own. I’ve found this great old 1912 clubhouse on the northwest side and my first dinner will be April 23— I’ll announce more about it at Monday’s dinner. It’s a great space, other than that it doesn’t have a stove. But you know, the convent that Clandestino holds dinners in is basically an abandoned building. It doesn’t even have hot water.
And I’m reaching out to chefs now, trying to invite them on this adventure of cooking from this old cookbook of fancy food from a long time ago.
Has the reaction been good to the whole Vincent Price thing?
It’s been fantastic. We’ve sold out every dinner. At first I didn’t know if people would know who Vincent Price was any more, or if they’d show up in costume. But people responded to it, we’ve had people who found the dinners because they were searching online for the book.
Efrain told me at the beginning that I needed to put myself out there more, to talk about the inspiration for the meal. And I didn’t want to talk and be a big…
Right. But he was right. People want more than just a meal. They want to know about how we had this book when I was a kid and how it was part of my relationship with my father and all that. They want the story. You’d think being a writer I’d have known that, but….
It’s really a cool thing, man. It’s not like when you go to a restaurant and you’re sitting in your table of two or four and the most you ever say to anybody else is, what’s the wine you brought. Here it’s like, people talk, and they come into the kitchen, and they want to help cook and they bus their own tables. You happily involve yourself with strangers.
Let’s talk about your experience in the kitchen. How was it learning to cook professionally at your age?
You know, I worked for two chefs, Efrain and Lauren Parton. Who are entirely opposite in every single way. So I was always observing this really cool tension between the two of them.
Efrain is a fly by the seat kind of chef, hey, we’ll do this Saturday and it will be cool. And he can make it happen because he’s like part gypsy or a Mexican witch doctor or something, he does everything wrong but it’s okay.
Where Lauren does everything the classical way. She’s Escoffier, so she comes in on Saturday and we tell her what we’re doing and she says, no you’re not. You’ll do it this way.
So I’ve learned two entirely different ways of cooking. I don’t think I’ve gotten any smarter, I’ve just learned to shut up and go for it, which is kind of more valuable than it sounds. As long as you pay attention, you’re probably not going to fuck it up.
Efrain, I swear sometimes I thought he was screwing things up just to see how I could handle them. I don’t really think that, it’s just that shit always goes wrong. But like one time, we didn’t notice that we didn’t have any water to blanch the green beans in. And people are sitting there, we have to serve in five minutes. And Efrain just leaves me hanging there, and I realize that we’re making duck stock off the carcasses. And I think, we can cook the green beans in duck stock. And they were fucking fantastic. And Efrain says, oh yeah, that’s how they do it in the classic French kitchens. And I’ve looked it up and nobody ever said a goddam word about cooking haricots verts in duck stock. I just figured that one out on my own.
But that’s what I learned how to do. I learned that fear doesn’t matter. So I’m graduating. Actually, I’m getting paid for the first time for this dinner, the same as any other sous chef. That’s how I know he thinks I’m ready to move on.