Chef Irv

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

Jeremy and I were out for dinner last night at a new restaurant in Brighton—Jeremy’s treat to me for finishing up a big project. The semi-pop-up restaurant had a (small) open kitchen, and as I watched the chefs slaving away in their chef’s whites in that hot, cramped space, I said to Jeremy, “I just thought of Chef Irv.” Jeremy smiled and nodded. “Yeah.”

Let’s back up ten years. In May 2005, Jeremy and I went on a cruise to Alaska with my family. It was an utterly brilliant trip, and I even managed to write a few short blog posts about it: one on the ship itself, one from a coffee shop in Sitka, and one after we got back home. Because I was new to Flickr at the time and not yet used to broadcasting visual depictions of my life all across the web, I posted a measly 27 pictures of the cruise—despite the fact that I took nearly a thousand pictures in the two weeks we were away (I’m going to rectify this in the coming weeks).

The trip was very special to me, not only because Alaska is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been, but because of the experiences I had with my family: skimming over glaciers in a float plane with my brother and Jeremy (which, admittedly, left us feeling rather queasy), standing next to my parents as two humpback whales breached right in front of us, watching my 86-year-old grandmother dog-sledding(!) across Denver Glacier. It almost seems unreal now, ten years on, but I look at the pictures and it all comes back to me, and I feel happy and sad all at the same time.

This particular trip was special for another reason, too: Chef Irv. I’ve been lucky enough to go on three small-ship cruises to Alaska, and while the food was very good on all of them, the food on Chef Irv’s cruise was outstanding. There were fluffy scrambled eggs with hot smoked salmon, there were giant prawns in butter sauce, there was filet of sole with a pecan crust and citrus butter. There were amazing soups every day: smoky ham and lentil, rich black bean, spicy gumbo. There was banana bread pudding with whiskey sauce, and there was strawberry sour cream pie. Before dinner each night, Chef Irv would describe the evening’s meal in a warm Southern drawl and then ask, “Y’all ready to eat?” The response was always a resounding “YES!”

Chef Irv was from New Orleans, which explains the gumbo and the drawl, and goes some way towards explaining my rapport with him, too. I was born in New Orleans, I love to cook, and I love to eat, so I guess we had some common ground. When I got to take a tour of the ship’s galley, I struggled to imagine how the tall, lanky chef could turn out such delicious food for so many people in such a small, seemingly dangerous space. I was full of questions about where his recipes came from and how he managed to avoid 3rd-degree burns while working over a blazing hot stove in rough seas. I was intrigued by his job and effusive in my praise of his wonderful cooking. I probably badgered him for the gumbo recipe and the secret to his black bean soup. He, in turn, was friendly and patient, generous with his time, always ready with a smile—and very, very good at what he did. From crab-stuffed salmon in the dining room to barbecued salmon on the deck, we ate extraordinarily well every single day.

When the cruise came to an end, I think all of us—passengers and crew alike—found it hard to say goodbye. My dad organized a farewell ceremony for the crew, complete with a poem and a rendition of “North to Alaska,” and when the ship pulled away in Juneau to head back to Seattle, we stood on the dock and twirled our blue-and-white Cruise West umbrellas in parting as the crew waved goodbye from the deck. I didn’t want it to be over, but I knew I would treasure my memories of the trip, just as I would treasure Chef Irv’s parting gift to me: a stack of his recipes, and a crisp white chef’s jacket.

There are two strands to what happened after the cruise. Here’s the first one, recounted in part through a blog post I started to write ten years ago but never finished:

{2005}”My trip to Alaska was not really the type of vacation where you spend lots of time shopping for souvenirs. The majority of the time we were on a boat, very far away from anything remotely resembling a souvenir store. Nonetheless, on my travels I did manage to acquire a few little goodies and mementos, and by the end of the trip I realized that they probably weren’t all going to fit in my suitcase when I headed back to England. So when we got to Juneau, the last stop on our Alaskan journey, I packed up a little box of stuff and carted it over to the rather provisional-looking post office to mail it back to England.

The stuff in the box wasn’t of any tremendous monetary value, so I just sent it by plain old air mail, uninsured and unregistered (mainly so I wouldn’t have to pay customs on it). I did have a moment’s hesitation in doing this—after all, I haven’t always had the best of luck with sending things through the mail—but in the end I put my faith in the US Postal Service and the Royal Mail to get my little box of treasures to me intact.

I was expecting the box to show up about two weeks after I returned from Alaska. Well, two weeks turned to three, then four, then five—and as the weeks stretched on, the hope of ever seeing my box of goodies gradually diminished. With no way to trace the box, I could only assume that either the box had accidentally gotten sent by surface mail rather than air mail (though after weeks six and seven passed, even that seemed unlikely), or that it was being held up in customs, or—the worst possibility—that it was simply lost, sitting in some dead letter office somewhere between Juneau, Alaska, and Hove, England. As the weeks dragged on, this last option began to seem like the most likely scenario, and I went into mourning for the little box I would never see again.”{/2005}

Against the odds, the box did eventually show up, a good two and a half months after I (supposedly) sent it. Judging from postmark, it had sat in Juneau for 98% of that time, probably shoved in a corner somewhere, until someone stumbled over it, realized it was supposed to have been mailed months earlier, and finally sent it on its way. I took a picture of the contents when it arrived and started to write yet another blog post that I never finished:


{2005}”In the picture [above], you can see a selection of some of my most precious souvenirs from Alaska - souvenirs which, up until a few days ago, I was convinced I would never see again.

I know that looks like a weird collection of stuff, but it really tells the story of my trip and brings the memories of my Alaskan travels flooding back to me. The knitting off to the left was acquired in Friday Harbor, the first stop on our cruise. I hadn’t brought any knitting with me, so when I spotted a nice yarn shop on the main street, I dashed in and picked up some fun, sparkly yarn and big bamboo needles to knit a really simple scarf. In Ketchikan, my mom bought me some pretty beads to add to the scarf, and I subsequently spent many of the lazy, late-afternoon hours on the boat working on my Friday Harbor scarf while the beautiful Alaskan scenery slipped past.

The tiny wooden bowl next to the knitting was purchased by my parents in Skagway before we went off on our dog-sledding adventure. My Oma gave me the fancy Russian covered box from Sitka. She also gave me the pretty beaded keychain with the little silver whale tail on the end as a memento of the numerous humpback whales we saw on the trip. The watercolor painting in the picture is also of a humpback whale. That was a gift from my parents in memory of the synchronized breaching whales we saw in Tracy Arm—one of the most remarkable sights a human being could see on this planet.

I collected the foodstuffs myself. In the upper right of the picture, there’s a little jar of kelp pickles and a little jar of salmonberry jam, both from the wonderful town of Sitka. Mechanical problems with the boat gave us a whole day in Sitka rather than just the few hours that were originally planned, and that gave me the opportunity not only to explore the sunny town but also to hang out at my favorite coffee joint there (the Backdoor Cafe), blog from an Internet cafe, buy a cool t-shirt, and pick up the pickles and the jam. The honey bear on the left was from Haines—a kind of odd town which won me over when, by a lucky chance, one of the locals directed Jeremy, my brother and me to a great wholefoods store/cafe, where I had a sandwich with cream cheese and locally smoked salmon that was absolutely heavenly. The bear is actually filled with Alaskan birch syrup, which is apparently a Haines specialty.

And then there are the photocopied recipes and the chef’s jacket, both of which definitely require a bit of explanation.”{/2005}

That, inexplicably, is as far as I got. As for the items in the box: I wore the scarf for years, until it was so mangy looking that it had to be retired (knowing me, though, I probably still have it somewhere). The wooden bowl, covered box and keychain are little treasures I still keep with me (all the more precious since Oma passed away). The watercolor of the breaching whale is hanging just to the right of me, next to my desk, where I see it every day. I ate all of the foodstuffs, of course. And the recipes and jacket…well, they’ve finally been explained.

And here’s the second strand of the story:

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans just three months after our cruise. I thought about Chef Irv at the time and hoped that he and his family were okay. I wish I had written a note to him at Cruise West back then, a message thanking him for his kindness and sending him good wishes. I’m still ashamed that I didn’t. As the years went by, I thought about Chef Irv on and off, always with a feeling of fondness for him and melancholy for the time that had passed.

As I was writing this blog post, I did a little Googling around to see if I could find out anything more about Chef Irv’s fate. I first found that he was still delighting passengers on Cruise West in 2006, which made me happy. He had been with Cruise West for years by that point, and he may have continued to work for them until Cruise West shut down in 2010.

Because I couldn’t remember Irv’s full name,* that’s as far as I would have gotten with the search—but, luckily, a woman named Susan Anderson sailed with Cruise West in 2006 and helpfully posted a picture of Irv with his full name: Irvin Richardson. Armed with that information, I found Chef Irv—cooking on television in Texas.

A reporter in Houston had featured Chef Irv on his show a few times, which is how I found out that Irv is the resident chef at the Kroger Signature Store in Woodlands, Texas, where he teaches free community cooking classes—something that totally makes sense considering what I experienced of Chef Irv’s generous nature and his eagerness to share his recipes and love of cooking. This show is also how I found out, however, that Chef Irv lost two of his brothers in Hurricane Katrina, and that he went to Houston initially to look after his parents and ultimately decided to stay in order to give something back to the community that had shown him so much kindness and support.

The news clips were from 2012, so I couldn’t be sure if Chef Irv was still in Texas—until I Googled the Kroger store itself and came across a Yelp review of the store from January of this year that included the following: “The highlight on this visit was a Chef (who happens to be from New Orleans) cookin’ up some Crawfish Étouffée and with Mardi Gras coming up it seemed apropos.” There’s even a picture of Chef Irv, “Cookin’ with Love,” very far from the wilds of Alaska but still sharing his delicious food and N’awlins heritage with the lucky folks of Woodlands.

There’s an address for that Kroger store as well. Chef Irv is finally going to get a thank-you note that’s ten years overdue.

* Looking back through my pictures, I realized I have a picture of Irv in his chef’s whites with his name embroidered on the front—I just wasn’t paying attention!

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