Tom Oldt: In his day job, Robert A. “Bob” Young is general counsel to the 10th Judicial Circuit’s Office of Public Defender. At home, his passion is cooking.
Tired of hearing, thinking, worrying, obsessing or reading about the coronavirus pandemic? Me too. Let’s talk food instead, while recognizing that not everyone in this world has equal ability to procure sufficient reserves.
There’s little doubt food is a splendid diversion in times both good and bad. So who better to talk about the glories of food than a marvelous amateur chef whose gastronomical ideas flow from his fertile mind like water from a stream?
In his day job, Robert A. “Bob” Young is general counsel to the 10th Judicial Circuit’s Office of Public Defender, headed by Rex Dimmig. He is father to a son and two daughters. Until her tragic death in 2008, he was married to Marlene Young, former Polk County commissioner and mayor of Winter Haven.
As a lawyer, Young has volunteered his expertise to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that seeks to reverse wrongful prosecutions, and was one of the lead attorneys who succeeded in gaining the exoneration and release of James Bain, a Polk County citizen unjustly accused and convicted of a heinous felony – and even more unjustly imprisoned for 35 years for a crime DNA eventually proved he did not commit. Young counts it as one of his finest hours.
We spoke this week as the county and country continue to hunker down and its residents hope, possibly too optimistically, for an early end to the restrictive socializing, however rational, coronavirus has imposed upon us all.
Q. I understand that for a long period of time you were the head chef at your church’s Sunday morning breakfasts for the homeless and hungry.
A. I did it for 11 years, starting around 2001, and I still do it occasionally. It requires awful lot of standing when you’re cooking for 120 to 150 people. It involved lunches too – sandwiches, cookies and so forth that they could take with them after breakfast. But it was satisfying, though there are probably a lot of other ways to get equal psychic satisfaction.
Q. I once asked a friend of mine who is a professional chef what I should cook for dinner – I was trying to impress a young woman I was dating. And he said, “What's in your pantry? What’s in your refrigerator?” In my blissful ignorance I imagined one had to decide on a meal and then source the ingredients, but I learned that my friend’s approach is what separates the meat from the meatballs, as it were.
A. I think you should work on your analogies. I would go with wheat and chaff. But it’s true that most of my cooking is just adapting leftovers. Tonight’s menu, for example, consists of tomato risotto with chicken and mushrooms. I’m blessed to have a well-stocked pantry and freezer and I realize not everybody is that well positioned.
Q. Do you use recipes?
A. I consult recipes. I read a lot of them, sometimes just for the reading pleasure, like people would read a novel. I tend to remember the concepts and key ingredients and when someone gifts me a joint of beef or a filet of fish, I remember what I read about it and make it happen.
Q. A joint of beef?
A. That’s what they used to call a roast. If you read the diary of Samuel Pepys, chronicler of Victorian era England, he records almost daily what they had to eat. He was in the upper levels of society so very often they would have a mess of oysters – that would be supper. And on a good day they would get a joint of beef, which usually was a roast of some kind because cooking was all done in fireplaces. But I digress.
Q. Digression is the essence of these interviews. When did you first start cooking?
A. When I first found the need to eat. Actually, my mother was a really good cook – though a much better baker – and she died while I was in college. I came home for her last illness and the task of cooking thereafter fell to me.
Q. Besides salt and pepper, if you had only three spices to cook with, what would they be?
A. Basil, celery seed, and thyme. They’re the most versatile and they last a long time on the shelf. You can use them in French and Italian dishes, even middle European and Middle Eastern stews.
Q. When you met Marlene, was she already an accomplished pastry chef?
A. She always was a remarkable baker. She did well in cooking but her real love was baking – lots of butter, never anything light and fluffy. She once baked a really remarkable carrot cake for a friend’s wedding – a three-layer affair with cream cheese icing, very difficult and time consuming to construct. We made our way to the wedding in about 95 degrees and no air conditioning. The cream cheese softened on the way. We had to brake suddenly and the upper layer of the cake ended up on the floor of the car – after hours of elaborate decorating. I guess that doesn’t actually speak to her prowess.
Q. It certainly doesn’t speak to the driver’s prowess. I gather the cake wasn’t served at the wedding.
A. Yes it was. As I recall it became a two-layer cake. But that’s probably not something we should get into.
Q. Do you have a favorite food to cook?
A. Not really, although I’ve got to admit I’m more likely to cook something that comes out of one pot – stews, soups. It’s simpler and I’m not very good about putting together foods so that they look nice, which is one of the reasons I’m not good at appetizers. The concoctions are OK, but I don’t have the patience to assemble them.
Q. I’m quite sure I’ve never had a one-item meal in your home. You may announce that you’re serving soup but usually five or six other major dishes somehow magically appear.
A. That’s probably true, but each one comes out of its own pot. Anyway, the food is really just an excuse to get together with friends.
Q. Have you had any anxious moments cooking?
A. I don’t think I’ve had any real failures. I’ve never made anyone sick. There’s been a fire or two.
Q. You burn down the house, and you don’t count that as a failure?
A. That fate was always averted by my children, one way or the other. Yorkshire pudding, for example, which you may be familiar with, requires a 475- to 500-degree oven, and it also requires a lot of hot fat, so it’s easy, if you’re not careful, to set your oven on fire while you’re making it.
Q. I suppose whatever’s in the fire extinguisher must tend to muddle the taste. But on to the next question: What’s the best meal you’ve ever been served?
A. Marlene made a beef Wellington once that was just outrageously good. In restaurants, especially overseas, I’ve had some very good fish meals that I couldn’t have reproduced. I’m not sure I could pick any local favorites but I’ve certainly enjoyed a lot of good meals, as anyone who looks at me could tell.
Q. Do you have a favorite food?
A. As a genre it would probably be northern Italian – less pasta, more fresh vegetables and smaller amounts of meat. It’s fresh, it’s simple, it’s very tasty and except for the pasta it’s very healthful – and I guess you could argue that pasta is healthful too.
Q. You’re working at home in response to the pandemic. Are you cooking or eating more as a result of the virus?
A. That’s been a real problem. When I first started working from home and stopped eating lunches in Bartow restaurants, I lost a lot of weight and I thought that a wonderful thing. But two other factors have combined to reverse that trend, the first of which is that I have more time to cook but very little else to do. That, and the increase in the consumption of alcohol, means I am cooking – and eating – more.
Q. And enjoying it more, too, I trust.
A. Absolutely. I’m looking forward to tonight’s risotto.
Q. Let’s assume people are sitting at home, wondering what dishes they might prepare that are simple and nutritious. What can you suggest?
A. The possibilities are limitless. Pot roasts are always good – flavorful and reasonably nutritious. And people should get over the idea that it’s difficult to make a souffle. They’re not that hard to make and depending on what you put in them, pretty nutritious.
Q. Spoken like a true chef. Any advice on what not to do?
A. I don’t think it makes any sense to be elaborate and fancy just for the sake of being elaborate and fancy, so I wouldn’t try to overdo it. I’ve been accused of that myself, but mine concerns quantity, not so much style and presentation.
In short, simple is almost always better.
Thomas Oldt can be reached at email@example.com.