It is the good fortune of Lawrence diners that Don Fortel is a poor speller. The 39-year-old chef at Teller's restaurant once considered a career in journalism. He turned to cooking only after a Kansas University professor advised him to look for another line of work.
``She sat me down and said I wasn't a very good writer and didn't spell very well,'' Fortel said.
He took the advice. And Fortel, who first worked in restaurants washing dishes at age 15, ultimately found his way to the New England Culinary Institute. It remains one of the country's premiere cooking schools and one of the costliest, Fortel said, at $20,000 for a six-month course.
``When I went, there was a 6-1 student-to-teacher ratio.''
His instructors were French chefs who had learned their art in that country's rigorous cooking apprenticeships.
The school also had a working restaurant. It graduates about 75 chefs a year, he said.
``It was real-time pressure,'' Fortel said. ``Not a laboratory situation. It was a lot like boot camp. Nothing was prepared ahead of time. We didn't even slice a shallot until the order came in.''
His instructors adhered to a style of cooking called, ``cuisine vivant,'' which translates as ``cooking alive.'' The style's ideals emphasize the use of the freshest available ingredients and meals prepared start-to-finish as the orders reach the kitchen.
Starting from scratch
After school, Fortel worked four years at Periscope, a now-defunct restaurant in Santa Fe, N.M.
``It was a great restaurant,'' Fortel said. ``We made everything from scratch. We made our own cheeses, our own prosciuttos and hams, our own tomato paste. And there was great cookbook collection there.''
Co-owner of the restaurant was Joe Pisacane, the son of a New York green grocer.
``Joe called his mother every Sunday to talk to her in Italian,'' Fortel said. ``I consider him a mentor. I think mentors are very important in the cooking business. He's given me a lot of advice over the years.''
Fortel later had his own Santa Fe restaurant, called On the Water.
``The menu changed every day,'' he said. ``We had three soups and six appetizers and six entrees and we changed those every day. We focused on what was fresh and in-season. We were blessed in Santa Fe with a good growing season and a lot of organic growers. New Mexico has great churro lamb. There are really great ranchers in New Mexico. We had everything from wild-gathered mushrooms to great produce to fresh meat and the kind of clientele to support that kind of experiment.''
Wining and dining
Fortel and his wife, muralist Missy McCoy, later had a restaurant in Fayette, Mo., which they sold before moving to Lawrence. There they did their own canning and pickling and served fresh bread daily. They sought out blue-ribbon hams from the county fair to include on the menu.
Fortel transferred his passion for freshness and high-quality ingredients to Teller's where he became head of the kitchen almost two years ago. He leads a kitchen crew of about 25 people.
Since his arrival, the restaurant has done periodic ``wine dinners'' for groups of about 40. For $50 to $70, diners are treated to a three-hour meal specifically tailored to the evenings featured wines. Growers or representatives from the featured wineries attend to describe how the wine is grown and made.
``They're special events,'' Fortel said. ``We always fill up and we don't really advertise. We do send out a mailing to those who have attended before.''
The next wine dinner is June 8, featuring wines from the Maryvale Winery. Seats for the meal are still available for reservation.
In preparation for the wine dinner, Fortel and three or four others taste the wines to be used. Then they put a menu together based on what dishes they think will best accompany the wines.
They prepare the dishes and then try them once again with the wines, adjusting the menu, if their initial notions don't meet expectations.
By the time the wine dinner is served, the food and wines are the closest the cooks can come to ideal pairings.
``By the time the thing is over the diners will have tasted probably six different wines. It's quite festive, as you can imagine.''
-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.