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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Chef Stephen Block of The Kitchen Project

For several years now, I've been receiving a e-newsletter called German Goodies. I stumbled onto it, and loved the subject matter, and how it was presented. It not only contained recipes for German cuisine, it also provided background information for each dish. Often, feedback from other subscribers was provided in order to give family variations to particular dishes.

When I began really getting into Facebook, I befriended the author of the newsletter, and am now fortunate to call him a good friend. The man behind the German Goodies newsletter is Chef Stephen Block.


Stephen runs a website called The Kitchen Project. It's the umbrella that covers several culinary projects, and has even catalyzed the writing of a few cookbooks. I'll get into those projects and books a bit later. First, let's find out a bit more about Chef Block's background.

Stephen Block grew up in the Williamette Valley in Oregon. Some of you fans of Frank About Food may know this region, as it is wildly popular for growing two things I enjoy: grapes for wine and hops for beer! Stephen points out when he was younger, it was inconceivable that the "redneck back country" up there would one day be inhabited by the best French winemakers. Stephen's father was research director for the United States Bureau of Mines, on the Oregon State University's research campus in the blue-collar town of Albany, Oregon. Albany was famous for school dropouts, troubled youths, and high school pregnancy. Stephen's father wanted to create a better environment for young Stephen, so he moved his family to Corvallis, Oregon, home of Oregon State University. As with most small, quiet college towns, over half the population of Corvallis was affiliated with the college. Albany, on a sidenote, later became the "armpit" of the Williamette Valley, after the industrialization from the manufacture and mining of such products as titanium, zirconium, and paper.

In Corvallis, Stephen experienced the perfect childhood: great schools, great friends, participated in football, baseball, basketball, and even chess team. He was also in the midst of the carefree, hippy lifestyle. He was a part of the group that carried around books about Existentialism, to try to get girls. It was also the tumultuous time in the early 1970's when they rebelled against the Vietnam War, Big Business, and even being an American. At the same time, Stephen and his friends were searching for a spiritual identity more than a political one. The scene was dominated by Gurus, Jesus Freaks, and televangelists.

Stephen was confused, as is common in any young person's life, looking for their purpose, traveling their own journey. While still finding his way on his spiritual journey, he played rock music in a band, and even took up a dishwashing job. Later, he moved up to cooking. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, Stephen Block no longer had any confusion, or doubt; he discovered his calling was to be a chef!

 In that time period, there were no major cooking schools. Stephen attended Culinary Arts School at Linn Benton Community College. The first thing he wanted to learn in cooking school was how to make good gravy! 

Stephen's first chef instructor was a Gordon Ramsay style chef that yelled and screamed to get his point across. At that time, they would place anyone that wouldn't qualify for more academically-driven classes in culinary arts programs. So, Stephen's class was a motley crew of students with a wide variety of disabilities, including one that heard voices.

"I never got close to him when he had a knife in his hand!" says Stephen.


Stephen's classmate???
Fortunately for Stephen, his culinary education experience took a turn for the good when two chefs from San Francisco came to Oregon to semi-retire. They completely changed the program, and he received the benefit of a true French-style culinary training, from the epic tome Larousse Gastronomique (basically THE gastronomy encyclopedia) to the art and technique of ice carving.

Stephen didn't just happen upon cooking; he had a German born grandmother. Anyone can just imagine what that means! She cooked... and cooked a lot!
"What else can I say... being German was a big deal food-wise!"
Every weekend that Stephen would visit and stay with his grandmother, he would get the full, large traditional German meals.  She ran a very clean and formal house with a huge kitchen. It was the old fashioned farmhouse style, with big bins for flour and staple ingredients, even a dumbwaiter with wood for the stove. The house had a basement where wine was made from the grapes growing nearby, and a fruit room brimming with jars of the summer harvest.
As a typical German immigrant in that time period of both World Wars, Stephen's grandmother would not speak much about her past. In America, Germans and Japanese, alike, were subject to being looked poorly upon. People's perceptions were still clouded with the Nazi nightmare. She would not even allow Stephen to refer to her as Oma, the German name for "Grandma."
As his cooking career progressed, one thing was on his mind: he wanted to preserve his grandmother's recipes. They were all put down on 3" by 5" cards and scraps of paper. He wanted to make sure they wouldn't be lost. It was also a thought Stephen had to market something. At first, his father felt that Stephen just wanted to "prostitute" his grandmother for his monetary gain. However, several years later, the book that Stephen penned with his mother Aileen, Recipes from a German Grandma, had been enjoyed my many people, and reminded them of their own grandmothers. This really helped his father warm up to the idea.



The book is a great collection of recipes, stories, and pictures. There are some fantastic traditional recipes, along with some more rare, but truly authentic dishes. There is even a CD that comes with the book, currently, that contains bonus recipes, with step-by-step instructive pictures.
The book paved the way for the German Goodies newsletter, that is constantly taking recipe requests, provided hard-to-find information on little known German culinary techniques, and many more fascinating topics.
As I mentioned earlier, the book and subsequent newsletter are part of The Kitchen Project  started by Stephen Block. He named it after his favorite musician, Alan Parsons. Stephen has always liked the idea of creating projects. He wanted more than just recipes on the website; he wanted to show the background of the dish, as well. He also enjoys the interpersonal contact that comes with the Project:
"The Internet is a fun place to discuss recipes. The interaction is like magic to me. You ask a simple question about something like a stuffed dumpling, and I get reactions from all over the world, telling me about ways to make it that I would never have dreamed. When I started a web site on German cooking, I would have thought there was a couple dozen great German classic dishes. Now, I have experienced hundreds and hundreds, and variations on those classics, that challenge me and pique my interest. It is also fun to correspond with others and hear the stories of the these folks. They will tell you things in email that you would never hear probably in person. There is a safety behind your computer!"
In addition to the German portion of The Kitchen Project, he has written two other books: In a Pickle and Vanilla Enchantment. Obviously, the pickle book is all about pickling and preserving food. Pickling was a major trait of German cooking, so it was natural for Stephen to tackle it. Vanilla Enchantment is a book that takes on the vanilla bean. Vanilla beans were hard to find, ten years ago, when Stephen got started. They were also easy to store and ship, and when looking for an easy food to market, Stephen felt it was a no-brainer. He says it was a fun project, and has been profitable for him. The book came easily, after working with and selling vanilla beans.  
On The Kitchen Project, you will also find links to pages Stephen has created tracing the history of different foods, a seminar he created with two other cookbook authors on writing your own cookbook, and many other great tidbits.
When asking Stephen if he has any other books coming in the future, he responds:
"Yes! This project never ends, and I have no 401k. I will be working until I drop. No shuffleboard and bingo for me!"

Chef Stephen Block is very talented, and knowledgeable  If he doesn't know an answer for you, he will research it, and refer to his other friends, to get your answer quickly. I really enjoy the discussions I've had with Stephen over the years about food, history, and culinary traditions. We have even discussed teaming up to test different recipes we've stumbled onto, and come back to the table to compare our experiences. He has sponsored my Reiter Oktoberfest for two years, now, by donating cookbooks for raffle prizes, and has even mentioned the 'fest in his newsletter. You may also soon see some beer pairings for some of the dishes he features in German Goodies!

Visit The Kitchen Project here.
Go directly to the cookbook site here.
Head over and check out German Goodies newsletter here.

And be sure to let Stephen know you heard about him from Frank About Food!

4 comments:

  1. Hi Frank, A great bio on Stephen. Wonderful chef, and dedicated to preserving German recipes and heritage.I found the web site about 1-1/2 years ago, tried some recipes and emailed Stephen with comments. He always responded, and we are now friends. Best regards,, Carl Crombach

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Carl!

    I agree, Stephen is definitely an asset to the culinary, and German heritage, worlds!

    ReplyDelete
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  4. Hallo Frank,
    Klasse gemacht. Gefällt mir sehr gut.
    Viele Grüße aus Deutschland (Lake Konstanz) .
    Euer Peter Fuchs

    ReplyDelete