Third in an occasional series
When Art Chudabala was a boy, his father took him on weekly fishing ventures off the Southern California coast. On one of these excursions his father caught a huge mackerel and hauled it on deck.
His father immediately filleted it and took a bite of the raw, still-warm flesh.
"There was blood running down his cheeks," he told me. "That was hardcore."
Art, a Burbank resident, recalled this story as we left the fishmonger's stall at the farmer's market and perused the other vendors looking for his next meal's muse.
"My pops is my inspiration," Art told me.
Though his father died five years ago, Art channels him whenever he's in the kitchen.
"He was the best cook in the family. My mom, God bless her, is good. But my dad, he took it somewhere else. He was a very Zen, patient guy in life. Same with cooking. He wouldn't do a thing without prepping. I got that from him. It's the whole process."
Art's parents immigrated to the U.S. from Thailand in the late 1960s seeking the opportunities this country had to offer. They established a little takeout restaurant in North Hollywood that Art would work at in the summer. They'd also cater outdoor festivals and open-air markets.
"I was out there at 11 years old selling won-tons and egg rolls and stuff like that."
It's a business his family still runs. Art seriously considered culinary school before he went into show business.
His film and TV credits as an actor and editor are impressive. But, of Art's talents, cooking is perhaps his most natural and effortless.
"Cooking is something I've always done well but never really focused on. I was the guy that everyone wanted to be roommates with because we could have a piece of bologna, a can of mushroom soup and beer, and I'd cook up something good."
Though he's a skilled artisan when taking on someone else's character or cutting scenes to enhance someone else's artistic expression, in the kitchen, something else is allowed to take over— something true, sincere and gracious: Art. The craft and the man, pure and simple.
And it has him reevaluating life, looking at the things we've all taken for granted.
"For me food was always a passion. When I get home and get to cook, it's a way for me to go Zen, a way for me to exhale."
Art's recent soul-searching may be because he finds himself at the crossroads of 40. Or it may have something to do with a recent and unexpected opportunity to showcase his skills as a chef for one of the most famous grill masters in the world.
Coaxed by a friend, Art submitted an audition video to the Food Network. His passion and comfort in front of the camera and behind the grill came through. From thousands of entries by amateur chefs around the country, Art became one of the few selected to prepare his own recipe side-by-side with Bobby Flay on his show "Grill It with Bobby Flay."
What did Art prepare for the Iron Chef, restaurateur and Food Network star? Thai BBQ chicken, a recipe handed down to him by his father.
The episode is now airing on the Food Network. To see Art's audition video, look him up on Facebook.
"Yeah, it was great to get on the show. But for me it was way bigger than the show. When I act, I'm playing a character. That food thing was totally different. I've never been myself on camera. And on top of that, I brought my family, my culture, my history, the way I grew up Asian American, and why I cook Asian fusion. That was me."
Watching the episode, it's hard not to like the affable and witty amateur chef as he cuts it up with Flay.
"My recipes are very much a diary," he said. "Like you listen to a piece of music and it takes you back to a particular time. That's what food does for me."
And it's hard not to get hungry watching him.
Ask anyone why they like to cook, and you'll get a lot of answers. Perhaps the most common thread is a desire to share; to have a vision, see it to completion, offer that to others and see them wordlessly experience what you envisioned. With cooking, your work is consumed physically, rather than cerebrally, literally becoming a part of the recipient in the most unselfish way.
"Yeah, and I did that," Art told me. "For an Iron Chef. And I rocked him."
When I asked Art what he has faith in, he hesitated.
"This is going to sound corny," he told me. "But I still have faith in the American dream. I come from an immigrant family. This country has given me everything, every opportunity, the highs and the lows. I still believe in that very much. And even more so now than ever."
Like most everyone today, work has been a struggle for Art lately.
"I don't really know what's going to happen tomorrow, like me and the rest of this country, and the world. But I still have faith. I mean seriously … I went on the Food Network! Where else are you ever going to be able to do that? I'm just some cat. At 40 I can say to myself, 'I'm going to switch gears and do something completely different.' Where else can I even think of doing something else altogether? Yeah, I still have faith in the American dream. I do. As Americans you can never lose that sense of hope."
"And all because I barbecued some chicken."
PATRICK CANEDAY has delusions of grandeur. He can be reached on Facebook, at http://www.patrickcaneday.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.