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Every chef has a moment, a dish, a bite, an experience that transforms them. Whether it be a perfectly cooked piece of fish at Eric Ripert's restaurant, a casserole that your great-grandmother made when you were a child, that time a chef friend styled you the hell out when you went to their spot, or the fettuccine Alfredo at the Wendy's Superbar.
I grew up in rural Southwestern Virginia in the 1980s. If you know me, you've probably been subjected to me waxing ecstatic about heirloom beans or being in the kitchen learning old Appalachian preservation techniques from my great-grandmother, so I can see how my attachment to a meal at Wendy's may not seem very on-brand. I am however, in my time away from the kitchen, an ardent connoisseur of '80s nostalgia. I only wear Air Jordan 1s, patterned after the original 1985 sneaker. As I write this, I have on a Swatch watch and a purple Kelly Kapowski Saved by the Bell t-shirt. I could go on and on about the New Order posters plastering my house, juxtaposed with framed pages of Sears Wish Books.
As a child, I was surrounded by wonderful food, most all the time. I would spend summers in the garden with my great-grandparents picking pole beans and digging up potatoes. We would have wonderful evening meals of these veggies side by side with country ham, cornbread, pickles galore, toasted biscuits left over from breakfast, and more. When I wasn't there or in school, I was following my mom and the cooks around at my family's restaurant. Most every dish that comes out of the kitchen at Hickory — the restaurant where I now work as the executive chef — has its roots in something I experienced then. I hold such a special place in my heart for what I learned and what I ate back then, but I always wanted more.
Back then, my mother worked mostly as a server at the family restaurant, but on weekends she would pick up a front desk shift at their little roadside motel and I typically would tag along. The front desk office was kinda like if the '70s barfed up a random living room out of a Tarantino flick. Tan and orange furniture everywhere, with fake wood paneling with weird iron work covered in fake philodendron, an old telephone switchboard shoved behind the desk, and a decent TV in the corner. I would sit and watch Saturday morning cartoons until they stopped around noon, and that's the moment I was always actually waiting for.
At noon, PBS started a long block of nothing but cooking shows. Mom would always come over from behind the desk and sit down with me to watch. My mind was blown every single week. It always started with Julia Child but then carried into Graham Kerr and The Galloping Gourmet, then Justin Wilson, then Jeff Smith, and it kept going till around the time her shift was over. I had never seen or heard of, let alone, experienced the things they were cooking. I remember being glued to the TV, writing down the recipes for things like chicken piccata, or Black Forest cake. Nothing compared to the moment I saw one of them make fettuccine Alfredo.
The next day, with the ingredients burned into my brain, I bounced around from aisle to aisle in the local Piggly Wiggly, desperately trying to find the pieces to construct this dish. The trip turned out to be a fool's errand. I could only track down the Parmesan, and it wasn't even the fresh kind I needed. I was heartbroken, but my mom and I resolved to figure out how to try it one day.
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Months and months later, while I was sitting in the dining room after school, waiting for Mom's shift to end, one of the cooks, Faye, came in for their dinner shift and began chatting with her. I was a little fidgety, and not in any mood to sit idly by while the two struck up a conversation., but while bouncing around being annoying I heard those words again: fettuccine Alfredo. I sat back down to find out how and why this dish was coming up in casual conversation. As it turns out, just the night before, Faye had eaten the very dish I sought so direly. She'd found it at a new thing called the Superbar at Wendy's.
My Mom was sold, I didn't even have to ask, so it only took a couple of nights to pass for us to go to the nearest Wendy's, about 45 minutes away. We didn't go out to eat much, and part of the reason was how far away most places were. The only options in the little coal town where I grew up were the Village (the greasy spoon that my family owned), Ma's and Pa's (our competitor so we were never allowed to go there), and a Pizza Hut. Bristol, where my joint is located now, was the nearest city, about an hour and a half away, so it was a definite treat to dine anywhere. Luckily, because of this, I was pretty accustomed to long car rides, but this one seemed to go on for days. I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that I was about to experience one of the dishes that I'd seen on TV.
I still vividly remember walking in. The Superbar — essentially a giant hot and cold all-you-can-eat buffet — was set up in a zig-zag kinda pattern, with bright florescent lights beaming behind the overhanging labels: "Garden Spot." "Mexican Fiesta." and "Pasta Pasta." I was so overtaken by my initial obsession that I had completely glossed over the parts of their conversation that included the cornucopia of other options. I hit some form of mental overload and was rendered speechless. Looking back now, I truly understand why this amazing thing was also so fleeting, considering it was all you could eat for only $3.69 and $2.99 for children 12 and under.
My dad had barely handed me my plate before I took off running towards "Pasta Pasta." I proceeded to fill my plate with nothing but fettuccine noodles. The sauce was nothing remotely like I would make at this point in my life, nor would I eat, to be honest (not to sound snobby in my older age, but I am a chef). It was thick, much like what you would find pre-canned in a grocery store aisle these days, and dotted with flecks of black pepper. I coated every inch of my pasta with it, snagged two slices of garlic bread (toasted hamburger buns blasted with bright yellow garlic butter and dried parsley) and beelined it to our table.
"You only got a plate of pasta?" my mom noted as she sat down with a plate loaded with a build-your-own enchilada, rotini with meat sauce, some Spanish rice and a small salad. I never even got an answer out. I was already twirling my fettuccine around my tan plastic fork, anticipating that first bite, and then boom.
It was like nothing I had ever had before — macaroni and cheese, only 10 times more amazing. I could taste the pepper, the cream, the garlic, and the heavy Parmesan. I started trying to match up what my palate was experiencing to the ingredients I'd filed away in my brain from that afternoon of cooking shows. I couldn't stop smiling.
To this day, I can close my eyes and pick apart the flavors that my brain and uneducated palate were trying to ascertain. I will forever know precisely how it tasted, in the back of my mind. And, yes, I know, it wasn't actually anywhere near as good as I thought it was, but it was the first time I could ever recall my brain and my tastebuds working together like that. It was the first time that I got to experience a dish that others enjoyed in different walks of life and in larger places, far away. With 100% conviction, I can say that I may very well have never become a chef if not for that crappy, pre-made, boil-in-bag-sauced fettuccine Alfredo. I truly do owe you one Dave Thomas. Even though the last one closed in 1998, you really raised the bar.