Amrita Raven Muehlgay
culinary artist and instructor
It all started in my mother’s kitchen, in the days of Birdseye frozen mixed vegetables, TV dinners, Jell-o molds and Cheez-Whiz. I have no idea where my mother got her palate or her talent for cooking–which was and is remarkable, since it didn’t come from her family; it seemed to have sprung from some deep place within her soul. It was central to our loving connection as a family, and continually brought pleasure, delight and nourishment to us and to everyone we knew.
In spite of the numerous, weird, processed food products popular in the sixties and seventies (which we, like many, had some of in our home), my mother consistently created the most luscious food from quality ingredients for our family and friends with absolutely no culinary training. Growing up, we never ate a meal that was not perfectly seasoned and incredibly delicious. Although she did use the occasional cookbook for recipes and ideas, her palate and her high standards for quality were largely responsible for the amazing food we ate. Not everything was fancy, but without exception, her food was far better than similar dishes in most restaurants.
It is because of her that I became the cook that I am.
When my mother showed me how to whisk eggs with milk, season them with salt and pepper, and pour them into foaming butter in a hot frying pan when I was in the seventh grade, I fantasized about cooking my new specialty for my handsome wood shop teacher, who happened to live down the hall from us, whom I had an enormous crush on. Of course, he shared his apartment with his girlfriend (soon to be wife), but that didn’t hinder my active imagination and nubile stirrings of desire. Already, the part of myself who loves to create, serve, delight and nurture was being born.
After that, I spent many an hour hovering over my mother’s sauté pans, as she pan-fried chicken breasts, eggplant or flounder, trying to sneak pieces from the paper towels when she wasn’t looking. She showed me how to make the thick and delicious green split pea and chicken soup with barley, meatloaf, roast beef, lasagna, egg salad, meatballs and matzoh balls. Spinach fettuccine with clam sauce. Poached salmon with dill sauce. Duck à l’Orange, the original recipe for Caesar salad, Quiche Lorraine, Lobster Fra Diavolo and Paella Valenciana.
Once every few months, my dad, my brother and I would give my mother a break and treat her to a home-cooked, gourmet, three-course meal, with dishes selected from our cookbooks. Experiments with homemade Bolognese-style spinach lasagna were challenging, but surprisingly successful, with no machine to get the pasta really thin, only the old-school rolling pin and a flimsy steak knife to cut the bright green pasta into large squares. We made ricotta cheesecake, chicken with Champagne sauce, and many other somewhat ambitious recipes. Mom was always near by, available for impromptu consultations, but it was extremely rewarding to be preparing the dishes ourselves.
Over the years, I helped my mother cook many dishes, but it wasn’t until I attended college at Boston University that I really embarked upon my own culinary exploration and self-training. As a gift, my mom bought a red floral blank book, filled it with our family’s classic recipes and sent it to me. I spent much of my college years trying out those recipes, in addition to creating new ones of my own, and feeding my roommates and friends. I still refer to it from time to time, and it is blackened and stained with use, with clumps of pages falling out. But it is precious to me, and I have even used it as a reference for some of the recipes in my cookbook.
From there, I became exposed to Middle Eastern, Indian, Thai, Greek, and vegetarian foods, which were popular among college students. I began using more exotic spices and ingredients like cumin, chickpeas, turmeric, ginger, cilantro and coconut milk in green curry, flavors I had never tasted growing up. I tried my first avocado. I unexpectedly enjoyed my first experience with sushi. And I started making tahini dressing for my salads. It was exciting to step out of my comfort zone and experiment with these new tastes and textures. I soon learned that I had a palate similar to that of my mother (nature or nurture, or both??), and friends were suggesting that I open a restaurant.
Years later, long after I had finished graduate school, I was sparked by the chefs of the emerging TV Food Network, and decided that I wanted to attend culinary school to develop my craft to a higher level. Since I didn’t have the money right away for the tuition, even with financial aid, one of the admissions officers at the French Culinary Institute in New York City suggested I offer my services for free as an unpaid stagier in a fine New York restaurant.
After much effort (written letters and unrelenting pleas to his assistant, who ultimately caved in the end), I finally achieved an unscheduled interview with Bobby Flay, who was at the time rather famous for his celebrated restaurant, Mesa Grill, had won the James Beard Award, was already on The Today Show, and was one of the pioneers of the T.V. Food Network. My family and I frequented Mesa Grill, relishing the exciting flavors, colors and textures in Bobby’s southwestern influenced menu. I loved that you never had to use a saltshaker because everything was perfectly seasoned and balanced on the palate.
Bobby briefly talked to me in the kitchen about my cooking and my goals, and then immediately took me on and had me start the very next morning, in spite of my lack of professional experience. And after a couple of months of honing my knife skills in the basement with cases of vegetables (and with one unfortunate fingertip, which I cleanly sliced off with my freshly sharpened new chef knife while dicing a case of tomatillos–miraculously, it grew back, nail and all), I was called upstairs to the main kitchen to help out on the line when one of the cooks didn’t show up for his shift. From then on, I was a line cook.
It was incredibly exciting, but very soon, I learned how impossibly challenging it was. It seemed that no matter how early I showed up for work or how quickly I chopped herbs, toasted nuts, cooked sauces and prepared garnishes, I could never get everything ready for service in time. I was plagued with nightmares of being unprepared. It was hot, intense, ridiculously fast-paced and fiercely competitive, with a stressed-out sous chef screaming at us. It was pretty much the antithesis of a warm, relaxed and inviting home kitchen.
This was the worst possible environment for my sensitive, thin-skinned and tender-hearted Cancerian nature, but some part of me was driven to persevere. I basically forced myself to cook there for two years. But because of this experience, I became a very strong, efficient and fast cook. I learned new techniques, and was given a great education. And I was considered the palate of the kitchen, so many of the cooks, including the sous chef, continually asked me to taste their sauces and side dishes, which boosted my confidence. The servers would literally cheer me on as I plated multiple dishes at breakneck speed, chanting, “Go, Raven, go! Go, Raven, go!” to egg me on. So in spite of all of my misery, I was occasionally able to crack a smile at the absurdity of it all. And I certainly felt some gratification in having achieved a much higher skill level, and in having received recognition by the staff, and by Bobby, himself.
Near the end of my tenure at Mesa Grill, I had saved some money, and with additional help from my parents and financial aid, enrolled in the night program at the French Culinary Institute. I reduced my shifts at Mesa, and started going to school three nights a week for the next nine months. It was one of the best things I have ever done.
Culinary school was heaven to me. Unlike many of my fellow students who were still in fantasy mode with the romantic idea of being a chef, and had never actually worked in a restaurant (most of them were making six-figure salaries in their other careers, and would later have a rude awakening with the $7.50 an hour standard pay rate for line cook hell), I had already been there and knew what the reality was like. But my heart and soul came alive as I learned to create meat, fish and vegetable stocks, layered, complex, and incredibly delicious sauces, classic French dishes and buttery French pastry and desserts. It was thrilling.
I graduated from the French Culinary Institute with honors. And after a couple of stints working again as a line cook in restaurants in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I was given the opportunity to teach culinary arts at Santa Fe Community College, in their Associate’s Degree program. It was great timing, as I was relatively fresh out of culinary school, and I still remembered clearly how to prepare everything. I had also gotten my Master’s degree in Education several years earlier from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and had spent many years teaching school, so this job was a natural for me, and I loved it.
Later, I taught culinary arts privately, in other schools, in cooking stores, etc., on and off, for many years. I was a private chef, worked for caterers, was executive chef in a small restaurant, did menu consulting, and experienced most of the jobs available in the culinary field. But it would be quite a long time before I found my true calling.
When my cookbook, Love On The Table, Crafting Ecstasy In The Kitchen, finally started streaming through me, I immediately felt that this was what I was meant to do. My beloved father, Fred Muehlgay, had passed away a few months before, and I could feel him so powerfully—it was clear to me that he was behind my new discovery, driving me and inspiring this project. In life, he had very high hopes for me, and was always a passionate appreciator of my cooking, and I know he is cheering me on from the other side.
Writing my book has been a wonderful experience, providing the medium for a continuous, magical and alchemical creative flow. It has been so exciting and satisfying to use my gifts and talents, and to watch many of them stream together. Envisioning a dish or a menu, composing the whole thing in my head, and then making it into a delicious and beautiful reality is just so much fun, and so rewarding. Having done all of the food styling, plating and photography myself, and even using some of the ceramic dishes that I have made, I have been able to be fully expressive artistically.
This project has had a life of its own, and sometimes it seems like I have just been here as a vehicle, witnessing it unfold and grow, kind of like a new mother watching her baby being born. A miracle. And like many mothers who give birth to their first child, I suspect that more are on the way and that this is just the beginning. I feel that everything I have done has led to this point, and I can easily see myself continuing to create like this into the future.
Love On The Table is my heart and soul on a plate. It’s about putting one’s whole self into creating dishes, and then sharing these delicious creations with loved ones. It’s about being brave and vulnerable and adventurous. It’s about being humble and generous. It’s about one of the most meaningful and primal things that we humans do: gathering around a table and sharing food.
It is my deep desire to share some of my love, passion and inspiration with you and your loved ones by offering these recipes and menus. Writing and composing them has been a profoundly rewarding creative journey for me, and that is just my part of it—ultimately, it will be a beautiful co-creation with you. My fondest wish is that this website, blog and cookbook (coming soon!) help you to connect more deeply to your own creativity, and inspire you to have more precious, meaningful and celebratory times with your friends and family. That would be the greatest gift to me. So I am wishing you a luscious, inspiring, exciting and fulfilling culinary adventure! And may there be much love on your table!