Ask a chef where he got his start and the answer doesn't usually involve Velveeta and cream of mushroom soup.
But that's exactly how acclaimed Chef Patrick Connolly began building his palate.
A St. Louis native, he says that growing up "we used to eat this chicken and cream of mushroom soup folded up in crescents and then bake those off. And we used to make it with lots of Velveeta."
"When you start getting into culinary school and cooking professionally and you start reading all these books you start to resent that part of your history," Connolly said. "I can't believe I grew up with this. I can't believe they fed me this. I can't believe she didn't make a roue and her own cream if mushroom soup, but there comes a point where you [remember] that was undeniably good. And no matter what technically might have been wrong with the meal -- your mother made it and you can never recreate that, you can never have that again… I've tried forever to just recreate that..."
"My mother sort of perfected the art of making dinners halfway," Connolly remembered, "and then my brothers and I would come home and finish them." He called his parents' plan of letting the kids finish dinner smart because "as a result we all learned how to cook."
Connolly, winner of a James Beard Award for "Best Chef Northeast" for his six-year stint at Radius in Boston, is now the executive chef at bobo in New York City's Greenwich Village.
Connolly said that when he decided at 22 years old to become a professional chef he moved briefly to Providence, R.I. to attend Johnson and Wales University before making his way to Boston and eventually New York. Connolly worked in a family-owned Irish pub to pay off his student loans.
After a time spent pouring beer he requested to move to the kitchen. That and a well-read copy of "French Laundry Cookbook" jump-started his career. His signature dishes blend French cuisine with Asian influences.
Connolly said that he wants people to be more thoughtful about where their food comes from and how it should be prepared. And he tries to do that for his customers.
"They could be eating a braised veal cheek that is so tender and you may think you want something really crunchy to go with this and you want to anticipate what they want," he said. "That's sort of the philosophy."
Connolly's father is a police chief, a profession that seems to be about as far out of the kitchen a possible. But Connolly said there are similarities in both their personalities and their careers.
"In some ways we kind of run this controlled fraternity," he said. "He gets what I try to run. And you have to lead by example … He has to play politician. He has to play mentor."
One of the hardest things about being a young chef, Connolly said, is "seeing the whole picture."
"You learn things in sections: how to cut this, how to season that and then trying to come up with things on your own and trying to put things together in a unique way seems like the most impossible thing," he said. "But then one day you are able to look at all these ingredients and it all makes sense."
Finding Middle Ground
"It is hard to be original," he said. "It is also hard to be consistent. Just being able to nail the basics is one most difficult things."
"I think I've mastered giving it a good try," Connolly said of being a chef. "I'll always think of something that could have been better."
"There is always gonna be something for me personally to be able to step back and say, 'You know that was perfect' kind of ruins it," he said. "I mean what am I going to do tomorrow?
"The greatest thing about this job for me is a balance of creativity and people throw around artistry and that sort of thing," he said, "but there is also another side of it which is purely athleticism and physicality."
He said the combination of creativity, sweat and sore legs was exciting.
"Art and athletics have always been important to me and I really think I found the joining of those two things in this profession," he said.
But while food is his passion -- he calls it the "great communicator" -- it's not always a good time.
"There are certain things that are excruciatingly painful to do, you know, dice tomatoes, peel carrots," Connolly said. "One of first jobs ever I had [was] to wrap 900 potatoes in aluminum foil everyday. It was like this and just foil, potato, foil, potato. It was awful!"
"But in many way it is the only peace you get all day long," he continued. "When no one is around and I'm doing something really monotonous and boring, but I maybe have a nice song on in the background."
Sausage Pizza and Grape Jelly
Connolly said he always imagines whom he might be feeding.
"In the kitchen we have the luxury of never seeing this person," he said. "Always cook as if you're cooking for your girlfriend or your wife or your best friend or mother. So cooking with love should come, that's part of it. Nobody, no cook, works like they do in the conditions that they do if that's not coming through."
And how does he cook for himself? He indulges in the occasional -- and eyebrow-raising -- snack food.
"I've done some pretty gross things. Back in the day I used to buy frozen sausage pizzas and the next day while it was still cold I used to get out grape jelly and squeeze it on there. It sounds awful but it's actually quite good," he said. "Now when I'm home generally it's more like a squeeze of mayonnaise, I mean I could just eat mayonnaise on a cracker or just about anything."
And there's more. Even with all the dishes Connolly has been praised for, he still reaches for the strange stuff.
"I don't know why I do this, but I eat dried maple brown sugar oatmeal packets, it's not that bad," he aid. "Not every night but there will be like a pasta sauce can and I'll make pasta sauce sandwiches.
"For the most part I eat very well," he said. "This is like rare occasions, when I can't sleep well."