A year ago about this time chef Colin Moody posted this on social media: "Nothing ever gets easier ... you just get stronger."
Meant to motivate, the message also signaled a slight crack in his chef's armor. Moody never chose the easy way; thought it was too humdrum, vanilla if you will. He could stand for hours on the steamy, chaotic kitchen line and laugh off the pain and pressure. He powered through, sacrificed much, made the rent.
But last year he found himself on the wrong side of 50, with two teen sons sprouting wings with intent to fly. The single father sensed a shift in his universe. He felt queasy as the hamster wheel spun faster, annoyed at its incessant squeak.
He wanted off.
You may be asking yourself: Who is Colin Moody, and why do I care?
First of all, Moody may very well be our region's most talented chef, once mentored by Roland Henin, the only French-born certified master chef in America, and the inspiration behind some of the most renowned chefs in the world, including Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame. (Check out his book "Roland G. Henin: 50 Years of Mentoring Great American Chefs," with the foreword from Keller and a collection of anecdotes from dozens of top chefs, including Moody).
Moody worked the past 10½ years in relative obscurity inside the Pebble Beach gates as the executive chef at Monterey Peninsula Country Club. The world-renowned platinum- and emerald-rated MPCC serves more than 1,100 members, with seven kitchens and a culinary team of 30, creating more than $5 million in food and beverage revenue annually.
In May Moody left MPCC with only positive memories but a keen eye toward a different future. The good news for us is that we can now enjoy Moody's food through his new venture Ardent Culinaire, a catering company with a focus on pop-ups and special events (he half-jokingly calls himself a freelance mercenary chef).
His first foray into this realm takes place Friday at The Wine Experience on Cannery Row. Limited to 30 guests, the five-course, wine-paired pop-up dinner costs $95 (tickets available on Eventbrite).
We also should care because there's a life lesson within his decision to forgo a steady paycheck, listen to his heart and step into the abyss. His social media post last week? "Take care of you; because if you died today, your job will be posted online before your obituary."
"You get to that point where you ask yourself, 'what do I really want to do?' " Moody said. "The club was great but I needed a change. I'm a single parent (his sons Connor and Matthew are 16 and 20 respectively) and it's my last chance to have an impact on them."
Our perception of a country club chef may not jibe with reality. At least not when it concerns MPCC. Moody started most days at 8 a.m., preparing for a full onslaught of meals and special catered events. There were meetings with restaurant managers, sous chefs, lead cooks, clubhouse managers, catering managers, remote outlets. He needed to respond to member emails and requests (sometimes it felt as if he had 1,100 different bosses), finalize menu proposals, identify dinner specials, work on prepping, cooking and overseeing production, all before expediting dinner service for the dining room and the chef's table. Around 9 p.m. he would place orders and wrap up a myriad of other pressing details, arriving home to his boys around 10:30 p.m.
"I have no regrets," he said. "I've never worked so hard in my life. It was crazy, couldn't believe how hard we slammed it. Everything was 'make it happen, do it better.' I finally reached that wall, physically, spiritually and emotionally."
When he left MPCC a myriad of opportunities opened up, but none on his own carefully calculated terms. "I had to find balance," he said. "I needed to know what it felt like to be relaxed for more than a week, to be more creative, to do more chef stuff."
After taking a few mini vacations, he resurfaced for the first time as a liberated chef at the Monterey BaconFest of all places. He went all out, creating double-smoked bacon and bourbon-roasted bread pudding, brown butter avocado hollandaise, pinot noir-steeped hen eggs, and greens with fig-bacon emulsion.
The dish blew everyone away.
Throughout the summer he cooked at winery events, festivals and private parties, including one for the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance (he made coffee-rubbed ribeye steaks and seafood paella). He also created his own red wine blend at The Wine Experience for the pop-up dinner (guests can buy a bottle to take home).
But most cherished were moments that felt almost stolen they seemed so rare: teaching at-risk students at Rancho Cielo's Drummond Culinary Academy; joining green-minded chef Soerke Peters (Village Corner California Bistro in Carmel) on a committee for the Monterey Bay chapter of the American Culinary Federation to help local chefs embrace sustainability (Moody is past chairman of ACF Monterey); cooking at home in Pacific Grove with friends and family; camping along the Russian River; walking the beach with his blue-eyed husky Kaya; and becoming a more active parent at a precarious time between innocence and independence.
In the end, he realized that the present moment was the most important moment.
"It's pretty (expletive) awesome to tell you the truth," he said. "I'm never jumping back on that wheel."
He'd rather jump on a paddleboard, and reignite his creative spark at more pop-up dinners inside restaurants (he's talking to Carmel hotspots La Balena and il grillo, for starters).
"I've talked to other chefs, and want to do a series, exploring cuisines without an agenda or budget to hit," he said.
The first pop-up menu is fun, from abalone eggs Benedict with a quail egg and green goddess Hollandaise to porcini-dusted ahi tuna with truffle-scallion soubise and aged black garlic coulis.
"It's going to be a blast," he said. "That's what it's all about, right?"
Mike Hale can be reached at [email protected]. Listen to his weekly radio show "Food Fodder" at noon Wednesdays on KRML, 102.1 FM.
What: Chef Colin Moody Pop-Up Dinner (five courses paired with wine)
Where: The Wine Experience, Cannery Row
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Cost: $95, all inclusive