top of page

A Culinary Odyssey: From Childhood Make-Believe to Chef's Reality

Chef Dave Cottrill

I can remember a great bit about my childhood. Like rewatching a movie and going to my favorite parts. I recall being in some after-pre-school environment where we future latch-key children waited for our moms to scoop us up after their new found adventures into the working world.

A typical collection of boys and girls with typical toys like dolls and matchbox cars to keep us occupied until Mom arrived. Then, there were more elaborate options for playing, such as huge cardboard and even wooden building blocks. Think about those giant Jenga games you see at bars next to the Corn-Hole game.

Yes, folks, those heavy, splinter-laden two-by-fours you play with now used to be wielded by Kindergarteners. There were cool indoor tricycles and other fitness-inspiring activities, and then there was the play kitchen. Very gender-specific decor with pink decals and every detail of what a kitchen would look like on a children’s scale. And the makers of these toy kitchens made it clear who should be playing in them. Names like “Little Miss Bakery” “Mommy’s Helper” etc. and to evade opprobrium from the likes of existing toy companies the names are fake and not even well thought of. But you get the idea. The woman’s place was in the kitchen.


That’s where I found myself drawn to, however. Maybe it was to hang around with the girls as some future ladies’ man. My first “girlfriend” was named Candy, and our Pre-K romance lasted about as long as it took to read this sentence. But, it was real. I enjoyed pretending to cook. Asking the girls silly stuff to continue the act. “What’s in this?” “Let’s add this.”. Pretty soon, I remember having a little play restaurant and I was leading a cadre of girls and some other boys my age in preparing food for the adults that watched over us and even the boys on their tricycles came by to enjoy the “food” we pretended to prepare. Occasionally, we got “robbed” but that’s a story for another time.


Fast-forwarding through those times in childhood when one would “Make Believe” all manner of things, I found myself preparing meals, cooking events, and generally entertaining myself and others in this fashion. Even while pretending to be an astronaut, I think I always managed to be the one preparing the “space food.”


Growing up and being the oldest of three, I graduated from latch-key kid to built-in babysitter for my sisters. And I sometimes doled out the afterschool snacks or nuked the meals for us in my parents’ rare absences.


Dad worked in food and beverage, and it's just implicit that evening meals are going to be often missed. It was understandable to me as I had seen the vast operations he oversaw as a manager or director.


Mom did the cooking. Midwestern, Irish creations and reliable staples that we rarely balked at and to this day bring tears to my eyes recreating on my own, knowing I’ll never make it like Mom does. I never took any real interest in what she was doing. I wasn’t like a multitude of chefs who claim their start in the craft while clinging to the apron strings of their mothers. I was outside being a boy or cruising around like a young man. I watched my Dad grill on Saturdays and make Pancakes on Sundays. His trade-off for not attending church, which I have long since adopted.


But overall, the older I grew, the less interested in make-believe and the emulation of cooking was mothballed in exchange for the quest for whatever we were supposed to do next in life. I was a lazy student but got mostly good grades. I was discouraged from trade school mentality and steered more toward university where I just couldn’t find my fit…Pre-Education, Pre-Law, Pre-Alcoholic pariah. I didn’t even cook in college, even though I worked at one of my father’s Pizza Huts. I was a line cook, and there was no creativity in that. But I began learning the ethic. The camaraderie, the safety of food and beverage, customer service and eventually hospitality were all part of a post-secondary education that was free to attend and sometimes even paid well.


The extracurricular courses in human biology and mating rituals came with costs and yet even more lessons were subsequently learned. I learned the transience of the industry provided most with a colorful catalogue of experiences for those of us that refused to settle or work for certain environments. There were countless times I tried to break away and do anything else.


I’ve been a soldier, I’ve sold men’s clothing, hawked speakers from a van, lawn mower sales, painted houses, sold real estate, and there’s even a chapter in my life where I sold cars. None of those jobs or career stints ever gave me the satisfaction I have, like cooking does.


I’ve slept on frozen couches in alleys behind restaurants just so as not to be late for a breakfast shift. I’ve worked 18-hour shifts in Las Vegas and had cozy dinner-only gigs for the summer in Colorado mountain towns. I’ve been in after-work fistfights and dipped tons of quills in “company ink”. I’ve hugged it out with my staff while watching the second tower get hit before a lunch service. I’ve been to tons of Industry Christmas parties and weddings and comforted ex-wives and husbands. I’ve cooked for the owner’s kid and then did coke with him ten years later in his own restaurant.


Decades later, most of us keep in touch and display our growth, prosperity or even embarrassing downfalls all over social media. Some made it out or gave it up to do something else. Maybe they cook at home. Maybe they still enjoy it but not on the adrenaline-pumping, life-taxing level. They're just bodies after all, and they get weak before the spirit. It’s understandable. Some never got away from other demons that kept them down.


Now, I look back and think that all of the childhood pantomiming was prophetic. I have always been comfortable cooking and bringing what I know about the craft to others for their enjoyment. Some kids pretend to be athletes or astronauts. Maybe some pretend to be stockbrokers and lawyers. I recall pretending to be a cop, a spy, I did a pretty good James Bond and again was pretty handy with the would-be damsels at age 5, and I guess I was a pretty good chef, too. So, I have my childhood to thank for my undying passion. It’s with gratitude for those days that I get to do this.

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page