8 Aug 2010

For The Love of Food: A Conversation With Chef Extraordinaire

Phillip_Gums2_newIf you ever wonder what makes someone who has tasted the glamour of the runways, the majesty of the billboards, and the glitz of the red carpet turn to the comfort of a more humble corner namely a home kitchen, well, the answer is simple. Food and cooking are the medium that connect and reconnect our souls, and Phillip embraces this philosophy from a very young age. He comes from a family that values the tradition of togetherness, instilled by his mom’s absolute rule for him and his sister: Sundays were dedicated for family time. 

In between sipping a glass of scotch and tapping his fingers to the blues, I asked Phillip what his fondest childhood memories are that remain unshaken until today, the place and time where he would be transported back over and over again. He looked at me and smiled: “Chopping vegetables at my mother’s kitchen, cleaning the fish that I caught fresh from the streams, stirring the bubbling stew, sitting together around a big wooden dinner table eagerly waiting for my mother’s cue to dig in, inhaling the unforgettable fragrance of spices enveloping our senses and dancing around our conversation.” Phillip grinned, “I could go on and on, how much time do we have?”

A native Californian, born and raised in Sacramento, the kitchen was his loyal playground where he spent most of his childhood rather than playing in the dirt outside like other kids. Phillip loves fishing, a family legacy he learned from his grandparents. His eyes lit up when he shared endless fishing stories and stretched his arms to show me the largest salmon he ever caught. Phillip cited over all the trips with his grandparents to the farm to gather fresh vegetables and to Clear Lake to catch all kinds of bass for that evening’s dinner, followed by pedaling the hand-crank machine to make homemade ice cream, something his grandparents promised the children for their sweetest behavior of the day. Time consuming, but it was all fun and pure love. He inherited his kitchen discipline from his grandmother, from cleaning the fish, to shucking the peas and peeling the potatoes. “A bucket of peas sometimes took all day, it amazed me as a little kid,” he said.

“I learned how to grow vegetables from my grandfather.” Phillip brought me a few samples of his garden pride: akajiso-red leaf shiso, shishito-Japanese pepper, campari tomatoes, garden cucumbers, and some sweet basil. Very healthy looking vegetables they are indeed. I could smell the akajiso’s fragrance seeping through the ziploc bag. Akajiso is used as vegetable dye to make umeboshi – pickled Japanese apricot – commonly found in sushi and ochazuke. Japanese is one of the cuisines he likes to experiment with, which explains why akajiso and shishito are part of his garden fresh repertoire. But his true favorite cuisines are the hearty European dishes, influenced by those years he spent in Milan and in other fashion capitals during his modeling career. Phillip chanted a few phrases in German, which I answered quickly in my rustic German. He then tried throwing me off with some Italian slang, I responded and showed off a few things I learned back in a day from my Italian friends. We grinned each other respect for our multilingual duel and understood that we have conquered the world map in our younger lives.

Phillip_Gums_Retouched_newI commented how much I love collard greens and asked if he knows how to make it. Phillip chuckled, “My grandma was from the south, so she taught me all kinds of southern specialties – greens, ham hocks, pig ears and black eyed peas. One of my favorites was neck bones, I would smother them in pepper and ketchup. Another one is pork belly, I could eat them until I am a fat pig!!” He waived for another scotch, “I’ll make you some greens.” And that’s how we shook hands on the collard greens on the menu for the next time he is making me dinner and showing his cooking extraordinaire.

From strutting the runway in Milan and shooting for commercials in Paris to teaching cooking classes, hosting culinary exhibitions and catering for San Francisco’s elite; from his first concoction: a classic, grilled cheese sandwich to his latest creation: steamed seabass with ginger, scallion, and chili oil; Phillip Gums III is a paradox. So what? Every person is a paradox to a certain degree. That’s what makes the world so rich, exciting, yet attainable. And that’s what makes Phillip’s story interesting, inspiring, yet humble.

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