3 meals that changed St. Louis chef Ramon Cuffie's life

Chef Ramon Cuffie is a student at heart, from studying old Italian and French cookbooks to learning from the international customers during his tenure at Bar Italia. He earned a GED in order to get an associate’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America. “Every skill I have came from this job,” he said. “Every skill is connected to cooking.” 

Now, the newly appointed executive chef at Herbie’s is sharing his knowledge. When we spoke, he had just finished a tutorial on how to properly cook mushrooms. “You’re never too old to learn something new.” 

Here, he reflects on three meals that changed his life. 

1. Cincinnati, 1976
“I might have been 11 or 12. I went on this trip every year with my mom’s bowling league. And every year, we went to this cafeteria-style restaurant. It was a tight space. You walked around a U-shaped counter and got whatever items you wanted on your tray, and it was great comfort food – mashed potatoes, that kind of thing. At the end of the U was a big mound of whipped cream and strawberries and, as a kid, I always wanted dessert first, and it never spoiled my dinner. 

"This particular time, my mom made me eat my dinner first, and the whole time I’m thinking about those strawberries. They just looked decadent; I just wanted them. She told me to eat dinner first and that they were going to be there, but I kept asking. I bugged the hell out of her to get those strawberries. 

"She finally gave in, and I got too excited. I got a big bowl of strawberries and cream, and then I just fainted, I just got so excited. In the following years, she would just let me have those strawberries first.”

2. Avignon, France, 1998
“My first meal [helping teach at an international culinary program] was cooking turbot. I sauteed it and mixed it up in French butter; I was so excited to cook it. Savoy cabbage was something I used to order and wait on, but there it was available, and that was the difference. In Europe, when you go to the market, you can smell what you see. Everything was so vibrant; I guess it’s like going to anybody’s farm. 

"We were supposed to get together and do something with other students. They just wanted to go party; they didn’t really want to cook. I wanted to go cook. I was taking it all in, and I didn’t want to waste a second, so the minute I got there, I was standing there in front of things that I didn’t feel like I could cook or eat again. For me, to put it in the skillet and go to the market every day was the most exciting thing. Things are different now with farm-to-table. But not then.”

3. Milan, Italy, 1999
“I was in Milan at the train station and, close by, there’s a little market, and I could smell the peaches before I saw them. Everything about being in Italy was amazing. Everyone was selling some particular thing like that. The thing is that this was probably some guy’s personal peaches that he grew. They didn’t come from someplace; they came from his land. And, the smell, that’s what drew me in. And the peach, well, the peach was fucking fantastic.”

Meera Nagarajan is art director at Sauce Magazine.