The soul of a butcher lived within a teenage Debbie Gold. There's simply no other way to explain why she marched into the gourmet grocer, Foodstuffs, in Glencoe, Illinois, and asked if they had classes on how to break down a cow.
"I just wanted someone to teach me how to take primal cuts of meat and turn it into steaks or lamb chops," Gold says.
Nearly 30 years ago, it took work to start to develop some skills before you set foot in a restaurant kitchen.
"There was no Food Network, no celebrity chefs. I just had my magazines," Gold says.
But Bon Appetit and Food & Wine opened a new world to her, one beyond the packaged brownies and cakes she'd been baking. So she read the recipes, handed a shopping list to her mom, Sue, and then got to making dishes such as stuffed veal.
Her first restaurant jobs were in the front of the house as a hostess and server at Poppin Fresh Pies. And although her parents understood that she wanted to go to culinary school, they made it abundantly clear that she had to get a college degree first. While enrolled at the University of Illinois -- she would graduate with a degree in restaurant management -- Gold worked summers, including her first job in the back of the house at Don Roth's.
"He kind of looked at me and said, 'You know, you might break a nail,' " Gold remembers.
The state of her manicure aside, she got the job as an expediter, prepping food for the servers and watching the cooks work the line. She realized two things fairly quickly. She could do what they were doing, and she would need to find some way to make the chefs in the kitchen take her seriously.
"I'm not very tall, and, at the time, France was the center of the culinary universe," Gold says.
So she packed her bags. Gold spent two years studying at Ecole Hoteliere Tain l'Hermitage. She put what she was learning into practice during the summer, by manning the outdoor grill at a tiny restaurant and as half of a two-woman kitchen at a Bed & Breakfast. She also had the opportunity to stage at Jean Marc Reynaud and Le Gourmandin.
"I was the cute little American girl, and they would tell me to go stand and watch," Gold says. "But I told them, 'I have a knife. Put me to work.' "
When she got back to the United States, she ended up in another of the world's culinary hot spots: Charlie Trotter's kitchen. It was only two months after the acclaimed Chicago restaurant had opened. And for the next two years, Gold held down every position from the hot line to pastry.
"Everyone was there to work hard, and Charlie had a vision that was just starting to be put into place," Gold remembers.
She left behind his California-influenced cuisine for another shot at cooking in France. A friend had purchased a hotel in Nice and needed an executive chef. At 28, Gold was running her first kitchen. But it's hard to stay away from home and live in a tourist town on a chef's salary. Gold returned to Chicago, working as the pastry chef at the Everest before becoming the executive chef at Mirador.
Three years later, the American had an opening, and Gold figured that the worst that could happen was that she would see Kansas City for the first time.
"I knew the direction I wanted to go, and I wanted to make sure that my menu was approachable to Kansas City," Gold says.
Her first year at the American, 1997, she was nominated for a James Beard Award. Two years and two nominations later, she won (alongside her fellow chef and then husband, Michael Smith) in the Best Chef: Midwest category. She saw it as a victory, not just for herself but for her gender.
"I was excited to be one of the first women recognized. It's still tough being a woman in this industry," Gold says. "But whether you win or not, you still have to work just as hard."
In 2002, Gold and Smith left the American to launch 40 Sardines in Leawood. The idea was to offer a fine-dining experience in a place where diners could feel comfortable in jeans. Nearly a decade before the eat-local movement, 40 Sardines was focusing on finding and sourcing local produce. The restaurant closed in 2008, and Gold returned to the American.
"The second time around is different for me. The first time, it was a more collaborative thing," Gold says. "But now, it's just me figuring out what I want and what I see. I still like to talk about food with other cooks, though, because that back-and-forth is what helps to generate ideas."
And if she's ever stuck for ideas, she can flip back through Bon Appetit -- she's still got a few holdovers from her childhood subscription at her home in Kansas City.