I romanticize many things in my life. Hopelessly in love with food culture and history, I can can get caught up in the song and dance of nostalgia and sentimentality. I enjoy eating on vintage plates and cooking on antique cookware. I love restaurants in historic buildings and collecting old cook books (the more dog-eared, the better).
Lori Dowie Reeser passed away Monday. Her leaving hit me hard. Executive chef at the Iowa Culinary Institute – DMACC since the 1980s, she was so much more than simply one of my cooking school instructors.
I will always know her as “Chef Dowie,” a friend and mentor to whom I owe so much. “Chef” is a term I don’t use lightly; in fact, I insist that no one call me that, perhaps because I have such great respect for those I still call “chef.” Chef Dowie holds that status for me; if there was ever anyone that was bigger than the game, it was Chef Dowie.
Chef Dowie used to remind us that what we in our business call a “line,” the French call a “piano.” It was such a romantic notion for me; anyone one who loves this business can understand why. Cooking is truly is like making music. If you know me, you know that I love being on the “piano” – the melodies are sweet and satisfying. It’s almost like its not even work to me.
When I got the news about Chef Dowie, I was unable to play the song I’ve played for the past 25 years or so. For me, the melodies went quiet and the music stopped. I needed some time to regroup. But after one day, Chef Dowie got in my ear. “Get your ass back in there!” She brought me pack to the piano, of course.
In my professional career, I feel I owe a debt to those who believed in me when I found it hard to believe in myself. Those are the people who were with me through thick and thin. I work everyday to make sure I never let them down. Chef Dowie is chief among them.
When she first arrived on the scene at DMACC, she was tough! Her personality was more like what you would encounter in a real restaurant – not the traditional classroom setting. She was confident and knowledgeable, like a walking, talking food dictionary. She always had very high standards and expected us to do things the right way. She was hard on me – I know now it was because she could see the potential in people before they could see it in themselves.
I’ll always remember an important lesson I learned in one of her labs. I wouldn’t always follow the exact procedure in our recipes; this would result in her docking points from my overall lab score. This specific lab, I was making some pasta dish under a tight deadline. I didn’t have a pot to boil the pasta in, so I used what we call a six-inch hotel pan to get it done (incidentally, I would do the same thing today if need be). She saw it, made me stand in front of the class and said “George – what did you learn today?”
“Don’t GET CAUGHT cooking in hotel pans.” I said. She made me repeat my statement for the class – she knew I wasn’t going to change the way I said it (with the emphasis on “GET CAUGHT”)!
She could be a stickler. But she also allowed us to “color outside the lines” and not follow a recipe to the exact specifications… so long as the technique was followed and the recipe tasted great. That encouraged me to challenge recipes and understand the difference between a good one and a bad one. She pushed us hard, knowing who was going to be in the industry for the long haul and who was not. We had a great class; some of them are not in the business any longer, but I sure would like to get the band back together again for one last gig!
When I was at DMACC, I was juggling a full time job, raising a family and going to school. It was the start of an extremely hard road for me, but I always felt she was looking out for me in the early stages of my career.
Then, over time, things came full circle, as they sometimes due in life. For me, one of those full circle moments came when my son Anthony Formaro was accepted to the Iowa Culinary Institute. I was especially pleased to know Chef Dowie was one of his favorites, and I felt that she was looking out for him too, just like she did for me.
A few years back Anthony was accepted for an internship in France and I decided to go along; I was hoping Chef was going to go, too, but she was unable to make it. Had she gone along, I can just imagine all the things we could have seen and done in France.We often talked about the great French chef and culinary writer Auguste Escoffier, who many regard as the father of modern French cooking.
Even though Chef Dowie couldn’t make the trip, I wanted to give back to those students the way the ICI and she had given to me.,. so I made sure that we dragged our asses out of bed early to visit all the bakeries and markets we could get to. I think we squeezed two trips in one!
When I was in school, there was no internet or Food Network; you learned the most by learning directly from other people. Chef Dowie helped take my love for classical cooking and food history to another level, and I am still inspired by her work and dedication.
This week, in the quiet, I’ve been caught up in all my fond memories of Chef Dowie. She will never really be gone to me. Although she won’t be around to look out for any more long-haired, bearded, loud-mouth kids like me, I’ll do my best to carry on her habit of recognizing and cultivating the potential in people… even if they don’t know it’s there.
We used to talk about how cool it would be to meet Escoffier… put in a good word for me, Chef!