Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series by Alan Lake, all about home cooks, their stories and recipes. Read part one here for a description of what Home Cookin’ is all about.
Once upon a time in a restaurant in Palm Beach, a manager came back to the kitchen, saying to me, “You’ve got to meet this guy out there. What an ass, getting all bent out of shape over nothing. He reminds me of you.”
Our high-rolling two-top, consisting of a man and his wife, had ordered some vintage port (a Fonseca ’77) after their meal. In walking it over to pour it tableside, my manager friend inadvertently shook the bottle, which disturbed the sediment, thus serving them glasses filled with it. So the man busted her on it, and rightfully so. She came and got me to smooth things over, and he and I have been friends ever since. At the time, none of us knew that this is a guy that knows his sh*t – that’s lived high and low, through good and bad, all over the world.
The Making Of A Man
Robert Smyth grew up playing in destroyed buildings and bomb craters in a tiny old Saxon village called Bishop’s Waltham, outside of London in the rubble that was England during WWII. The Nazis regularly bombed the sh*t out of Robert’s picturesque village, which was situated midway between the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth. Because Luftwaffe aircraft couldn’t land with any remaining bombs on board, Bishop’s Waltham became their default target on the route home to Germany.
Food rations and blackout curtains were as normal to Robert as cellphones or $200 gym shoes are to today’s youth. He didn’t see his first banana until his teens and was lucky to eat chicken twice a year.
Robert developed a fascination for tinkering with radios (television had yet to be invented). And because of Adolph Hitler’s Blitz on London and the surrounding areas, there was a lot to be mended. Young Robert was up to the task and quite naturally gravitated towards his eventual career as an inventor/engineer. He’s a break-the-mold type of guy with a Kipling-meets-Connery persona. He’s also a devotee of Sai Baba, which colors his behavior accordingly. His philosophy is to live well and pay it forward. By the time we met, he’d made and lost a few fortunes; he forever reminds me of one of my father’s favorite clichés: “Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money.”
Sentimental and gregarious with a dash of pirate and an artist’s soul, he can put on the Brit and charm the knickers off of anyone in the room. A poignant, decadent motherf***er ‘tis he. His spirit and intellect are why we’re best mates. He never ceases to amaze me with his generosity and joie de vivre. Besides his career, Robert’s other passions are music (he plays piano), food, wine, and – as a natural extension – cooking. An avid traveler, he’s eaten at the lowest and the finest of restaurants. And when he throws down in the kitchen – damn, he’s good. The Smyths know how to entertain.
My Friend Robert
A few years ago we went to India together, and because whenever possible Robert flies first class, he insisted on buying two tickets, knowing I’d never pony up for anything but coach. In that imperious English accent of his he told me, “You’re not sitting in steerage whilst I’m lounging about up here, mate. Don’t be daft. Say no more.”
I didn’t feel right about it. I called his wife Manuela and told her what Robert was up to. She laughed and told me to have at it – that she wouldn’t travel to India in a million years, and he had his heart set on it: “Please, you’ll be doing me a favor. Go with him and enjoy yourself.” So I did.
Robert is old-school all the way. I remember dinners at his home with lobes of foie gras, Scottish smoked salmon, and roast goose, enjoyed with Chateau d’Yquem and Montrachet. Once, in anticipation of visiting me here in Chicago, he sent a case of Amarone two weeks in advance (to settle that nasty sediment) and had two Perigord truffles the size of golf balls air-freighted from France. We enjoyed some at dinner and then used the remainders for a traditional English breakfast fry-up the following day. I ended up making a sandwich with the rest after he and his wife left.
He’s been cooking since he was a child and is a natural in the kitchen. When I told him how much I liked this book called The Flavor Bible, and that he’d be perfect for it as it takes both ability and intuition to use it properly, he bought it and never looked back. He calls me all the time with new pairings he creates from it. We also own matching Ken Onion Shun Knives. I know he’s gifted others with both items over the ensuing years – most recently, to another chef he befriended in Goa earlier this year when he went there for a month to spend his 75th birthday.
When I asked him to tell me the story behind his food, his voice began breaking as he started to reminisce. In fact, he couldn’t quite finish.
Sorry to make you cry mate, but for the purpose of this story – perfect.
Robert Smyth: My Story
I was born in 1938. They say you cannot remember anything from before you are four years old, but that assumes your youth isn’t traumatic.
Dad was born in Belfast; Mum was born in the coal-mining part of Wales as one of 12 children. They met in a hospital in Bishop’s Waltham where Mum was a nurse and where I was born. Our town was originally the “Bishop’s Walled Town” where the bishop of Winchester lived, when Winchester was the capital of England before Alfred the Great re-founded Londinium around 886 A.D.
Mum was the midwife for our tiny village. Dad worked for the gas company. We had an outside toilet, no hot water, oil lamps in the bedrooms, a guzunder for a piss*, and a mangle outside for the washing**.
During the war, Dad was with the Home Guard putting out incendiary bombs. I remember them landing unexploded in our garden…Years later, after the war, my wife and I would find them in the woods and fields from time to time.
My Aunt Olive was a paint sprayer who could repaint a Supermarine Spitfire in 20 minutes, God rest her soul. My Uncle Ben was in the 8th Army, fighting (Erwin) Rommel pretty much every place that the war occurred – Monte Cassino, Belgium, Germany. My village had one of the 13 secret prisoner-of-war camps in England.
I remember dogfights over our home. I had a Messerschmitt cockpit cover from a plane that was downed in the fields just behind us. I also had a bayonet. Until recently, I had the two Zeiss cameras my Uncle Ben took off a German soldier that he killed – and I still have that soldier’s ring.
My first wartime memories are of Royal Air Force (RAF) vehicles coming past every day with busted-up planes on them. They’d removed the wingtips so they could go down regular streets on their way to being repaired. One day I rode my tricycle to the street end of our footpath. As I turned around, an RAF vehicle came by but the wings of the busted plane on it were too wide. It knocked down the wall beside the path, just missing me.
The V1 Flying Bomb was launched in 1944 – I was six – and I remember my mum taking me outside and showing them to me, telling me not to worry unless the noise stopped.
During the war, we were allowed four ounces of meat a week. Dad being Irish, we had 14 lbs. of potatoes in a sack every Saturday. Typically we ate scrag end of mutton neck***, oxtail, liver, kidneys, heart – all the things that are now expensive delicacies. Dad eventually began to raise chickens for their eggs, so we had chicken when they’d come to the end of their egg-laying period, once or twice a year.
When the war ended, Uncle Ben came to visit for Christmas. It was ’45 or ’46, and everyone splashed out and Mum got a goose and cooked it with my dad’s favorite roast potatoes. I don’t remember what else. I just remember the gaslight (no electricity), and Mum and Dad and Uncle Ben playing cards, and all of us having this incredible treat of a goose.
I spent the years until I was 12 or 13 being alone every day after school until Mum and Dad came home around 7 or 8 p.m. They worked so hard and gave their all so I would have the education they never could. I so looked forward to the bus stopping outside with Dad or Mum on it.
At 14 and 15 I was the one cooking dinner, mostly mashed potatoes with fried eggs on top. So yes, making the roast goose is really my tribute to all of the above. I hadn’t realized it until talking to Alan. I’m too choked up to continue.
Alan Lake: Afterword
Sentimental Robert keeps traditions alive with a roast goose for special occasions. Mind you, trying to find fresh goose in Chicago or Manhattan is hard enough, but in south Florida? Good luck! He ends up overnighting them from D’artagnan. His fathers’ favorite roasted potatoes, which his mum made him as a child, are now a favorite of mine.
And so, in this installment of Home Cookin’, I present a classic Roast Goose with Chestnut-Sausage Stuffing and Roasted Potatoes from my best mate Robert Smyth.
* Guzunder, a.k.a. chamber pot: Because of the war blackouts were common, so there were no lights at night. Uncle Ben told a young Robert to keep his thumb over the rim, to act as a kind of dipstick and advised “if it feels damp Robbie, quit pissing.”
** Mangle: I had no idea what this was so I asked Robert. He said, they were “mechanical rollers that you put clothes in between. My job was to turn the handle for Mum and the clothes would come out the other side, ready for the clothesline.”
*** Scrag end of mutton neck: An often neglected cheaper cut of lean neck meat (common in the UK) that’s full of flavor and generally used for soups and stews.