Moveable Feast's Executive Chef has every right to consider himself a local celebrity chef. He graduated with honors at L'Academie Cuisine, one of the nation's top ten culinary schools. He interned and was quickly promoted to sous chef at Occidental Grill, the historic restaurant just steps from the White House. And he has overseen the kitchens of some of Baltimore's finest restaurants including Louisiana, Mezze and Kali's Court. You hear stories of celebrity chefs and their overblown egos but you do not get any sense of that with Chef Damon. Rather, you get a chef who surprises and warms the staff with a tasty stone soup on a cold afternoon. You get a chef who blushes when a client stops by the office to tell him how much she enjoys his food and has started to gain weight.
Moveable Feast is full of dedicated and hard working staff, but nobody can deny Chef Damon is the busiest. This past summer after the birth of his first child, Isabelle Hiroko Saffron Hersh, Chef Damon decided to leave the late nights of the restaurant world and search for something that would allow for him to play the role of an active father. All it took was an hour of chatting with Executive Director Tom Bonderenko and a week volunteering in the kitchen and grocery room to receive the job offer he was looking for. And, this past October, Chef Damon officially became in charge of the Moveable Feast kitchen, open 365 days, 7 days a week.
I asked Chef Damon what has been his biggest challenge so far working at Moveable Feast. He quickly responded, "sheer volume." He went on to explain that with his experience in fine dining, he would typically prepare meals for roughly 120 diners each night and with a staff of 7. At Moveable Feast, he is preparing on average 5,000 meals per week (sometimes 1,000 in one day) with only 3 full time and 1 part time staff members. Chef Damon goes on to credit the many volunteers who have worked in our kitchen but is honest about the struggles with having 40 volunteers one day versus zero the next. He reminds me (and I think to remind those reading this) that our kitchen is open 7 days a week.
In changing the subject to the benefits of his job, we talk about growing up in households where dinner each night was spent together as a family. Chef Damon seems happy to be at that place in his life where he can begin to carry on this tradition, one we agree is very important. I expect Damon to answer bouillabaisse or lobster sous vide, when I ask him what he typically cooks for dinner. He casually reveals, "chicken with a mushroom cream sauce, green beans, and brown rice." He doesn't bite my bait to chat more in depth about food and cooking styles but rather returns to discussing the newly discovered perks of his job. Chef Damon says his greatest reward is at the end of each day, when he goes home and holds his daughter in his arms, he knows he did the best job he could that day and feels proud of what he accomplished.
I dream of being a celebrity chef in my next lifetime and obsess over the Food Network and Top Chef. Chef Damon is participating in a local chef competition this spring and I excitedly ask if he has ever considered auditioning for a television show. Of course and Iron Chef would be his choice. I ask him who he would go up against. He answers "Bobby Flay. [I would] wreck his little red wagon." We go on to chat for a few more minutes about the different cooking styles of Morimoto and Mario Batali until I realize I need not waste Chef Damon's time and get back to the task at hand.
I bring up Ride for the Feast. Damon inserts his humor and says, " I plan to ride my Big Wheel. Hills will be tough but I'll make it." Like me, this will be Damon's first Ride for the Feast. He says his game plan is to rely on the expertise of those who have gone before him, like Chef Aaron Purdie who has been with Moveable Feast for the past few years. He admits not having the luxury of his own kitchen will be difficult but I don't sense any bit of anxiety over prepping, cooking, transporting and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner for over 300 riders, crew, staff and guests this May. I ask him if he rides. No. But, he goes on to say that if he had come across Ride for the Feast before he started working here, he would have signed up for the challenge. Chef Damon believes that whether you ride 140 miles, run a marathon, or wrestle an alligator, everyone in their lifetime should experience an event where you challenge yourself physically, emotionally and all for a good cause.
More fun facts about Chef Damon:
- He entered the Army out of high school and was a Korean linguist.
- He started his culinary career at a pizza shop.
- He hates okra because of the texture.
- His favorite cooking tool is fire. Though, he gets a kick out of using the industrial sized immersion blender in the Moveable Feast kitchen.
- He sings in the award-winning group, Pyrates Royale. But, do NOT ask him to sing. He will tell you to buy one of their CDs or check out a performance. (Hmmm....I'm now thinking pirate theme for the RFTF Saturday night dinner)
- He is the Founder and President of Fraternite Gastronomique, whose goal is to find like-minded culinary professionals who are willing to give for their art to help create in order to create a vibrant and growing culinary and social community in Baltimore.