John Gorham: Amid family dysfunction, finding solace in restaurant work

Dave Eggers / McSweeney's

The restaurant cookbook is evolving. Usually the restaurant cookbook romances the chef, the food and the place -- and that's lovely. But the rose-colored glasses are coming off in several new books, including Toro Bravo, co-written by John Gorham, the chef and owner of the popular, Spanish-inspired Toro Bravo in Portland, Ore.

Gorham moved 21 times before he graduated high school. His mother suffered a nervous breakdown when he was 14. Toro Bravo is an unflinching memoir of family dysfunction and upheaval -- and the restaurant community that saved him.

Sally Swift: You write in the book that you moved 21 times before you graduated high school.

John Gorham: I did. It was crazy.

My dad was a manager for Kroger, and he was just constantly asked to open, remodel and move stores. For some reason he just took it. It was never a family question. It was never did we want to move? It was, "Hey, we're leaving next week." We got packed up and we'd leave again. There were times where it was three stores in a school year, and that's why so many schools accumulated.

SS: What about your mom?

JG: Mom was very young when she had me. She got pregnant when she was 14. Her parents didn't want her to go through with it. She actually did this program where she moved out of her parents' house and she worked as a maid for the doctor who delivered me.

The whole plan throughout that was that this family was going to adopt me, so she was going to give me up. When she had me, of course that motherly instinct took over and she didn't sign the papers.

Our relationship was almost a friendship more than a son and mother -- we were very close in that friend way.

But then there was a really dark side of my mom. She was very depressed. She had a lot of pain. She had a major car accident when I was 3 and broke her back. She never got out of that pain. She got addicted to pain pills at a very young age and just battled that until she died.

SS: Between that and moving all the time, that was a rough start for you.

JG: Yes, it was. My mom kept it together until I was about 14. Looking back now, I see it wasn't normal, her staying in bed for 3 days and going to rehabs here and there. But it never seemed to affect her on a day-to-day basis when she was on it.

When I was about 15, she completely had a nervous breakdown and never came back to being who she was before.

SS: When you're a kid, you don't know that your life isn't normal, right?

JG: Yes, exactly. You just think that is life.

SS: Did she function in ways? Did you have family meals? Did you guys sit down to dinner at night?

JG: She was a horrible cook. We would eat together maybe once or twice a week. There were a lot of what she called "fend-for-yourself nights," which meant you're going to cook for yourself. I learned to cook really young, so when it was fend-for-yourself nights, those were probably my better meals.

SS: How old were you?

JG: In kindergarten and first grade I was learning how to cook breakfast. Then I was cooking my own dinners at age 7 or 8.

With the moving there were a lot of empty refrigerators, so there was eating out. We lived in some really great regional places of the U.S., so there was some really great food brought into our lives with the eating out part.

SS: But it was not important for your mom?

JG: No, she loved food. She loved going out to eat. We were definitely a middle-class family who moved too much, so we were always in debt. When we moved, we'd get a budget from Kroger for the moving expenses. It was eat out at great restaurants for a week, and then that ran out. Then it was go back to living day to day.

SS: You were flush for a brief moment.

JG: Yes. I think that was part of the addiction of moving for the family. That we did get treated like royalty for that week I think probably was a little bit of an addiction for them when they were asked to move.

SS: Do you think restaurant work is a place where people go to recreate families?

JG: Without a doubt.

For me, that's what happened. When I was 14, I said I wanted to be a chef and I got into my first kitchens. The draw wasn't the food. I loved food but I wasn't that adventurous of an eater. I'd try everything, but my palate wasn't developed yet. But I was so excited every day to be with those people; I got them and they got me. It was a place of solace for me.

SS: What did it feel like for you to work in a restaurant.

JG: When you're that young, there's a lot of hazing. There's a lot of goofball hazing to the young kids, and I loved that.

We lived in a college town. When I started cooking at 15 or 16, I worked with all the college kids. It was like being in high school as a big shot. High school kids wanted beer. I knew the college kids. I could get us into the college parties. It was almost being elevated from your age.

It could be dangerous for some kids and some kids make it through it. I was one of the ones that made it through it. It was fun. I was always enjoying myself.

SS: There's an intensity in that work.

JG: Yes. My house was dark at that time. My mom, fully in her nervous breakdown, was in hospitals. So going home was a very, very dark place. Those restaurants were the complete opposite.

SS: Do you think you're a good boss?

JG: I think I'm a great boss.

I took everything. I came from the kitchens of the screamers; I got screamed at by the higher-ups. I got punched in the face once by a chef because I teased him when a sauce broke. He punched me in the face and told me never to treat him that way again. I worked for people who messed with your checks and didn't pay your overtime. I dealt with all the things that would make you disgruntled in the kitchen. You get these families, you get those nicks, and finally you get disgruntled and you leave.

I made an early call that I was going to be the opposite of everyone I hated to work for. We created a family. It is a family and once you're in, you're in. If someone got a DUI, I would get up in the middle of the night and get anybody out of jail who works for me. If anyone has issues with their family, I'll buy them a plane ticket and send them. I want to take care of them as if we are a family.

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