Hi— I’m Hugh, Hugh O’Neill. I’m new here. This is my blog and I love to eat and I love to cook and I love other people who love to eat and love to cook. I also love people who just love to eat and not cook at all. I think that’s fine—if a little odd. I strive to understand those souls who lack the love of eating, who eat purely for function, as if to fuel a mechanism of parts.
I used to be a professional chef, but now that part of my life is over, and one of my favorite things to do, and I do it every day, is to cook for my wife Ionah deFreitas. I thought a personal food blog would be a fun way to document and share our daily culinary habit. She leans towards the vegan—and we both love to cook and eat fresh vegetables— I tilt towards the omnivorous. So as you’ll see, we mix it up a bit.
We choose to eat fresh, local, organic, unrefined foods as much as possible. During the growing season we tend a small, chronically disheveled kitchen garden, which— despite the fact that we haven’t a clue what we’re supposed to be doing— produces an astonishing amount of food. So much that I recently bought a dehydrator to make our own back-packing food.
I began life in Dublin, Ireland. As I approached my twenties I left— like most kids my age back then— a good home where my mother was queen of her kitchen. She was an inspired and curious cook, a rarity in Ireland at the time. Sunday lunch was always something to look forward to—it helped one through the boredom of Sunday mass. She was ahead of her time. Few people were making Ratatouille in Dublin in 1965. In those pre EU days you couldn’t find an aubergine. She made do with what she had, making delicious curiosities with home-grown courgettes, leeks, tomatoes and handfuls of garden herbs. It was only after she died when I was going through some of her books that I came across a very tattered 1975 paperback copy of Elizabeth David’s, seminal work, French Provincial Cooking.
After leaving home, I messed around Europe awhile. I did a two-year stint teaching conversational English in Bilbao, Spain. I fell hopelessly in love with the food. I had never eaten squid stewed in its nocturnal ink. I had never had a soup of moistened day old bread in garlicky chicken broth. I had never heard of Bacalao: the survival kit and righteous obsession of the Basques. I had never gorged on Angulas a la Bilbaina: little eels cooked and served in clay cazuelas, with garlic, olive oil and peppers, which if even available today are restrictively expensive. Back then you could down bowls of the stuff for a handful of Francisco Franco’s pesetas. They’ve now been swallowed up to the verge of extinction by us — the über invasive species. During that time I spent a summer bumming around Morocco, devouring lamb and goat tagines and having adventures on the hashish trail.
I moved to London in ’75 and after a year’s foray into the world of manual road sweeping, I began working in restaurants, starting as dishwasher and working through the ranks, always learning. I worked at one place near the Baker Street tube station—they had their own farm in the country, and a farm shop and restaurant on Baker Street, and almost everything in the restaurant— the turkeys, the chickens, the fruits and veg— came from the farm. We sprouted seeds in the basement for salads. Everything was seasonal. At some point they made me the head cook. Farm to table? Sprouted salads? They’d been doing it for years. We composted. We had a pig bucket. This was 1976. Pre culinary hipster age. Oh, we had kale alright, but in those distant times it was used strictly for cattle feed. Hipster bovines.
I migrated to Denver, Colorado in ’78. It was pretty much a steak, potato, bad coffee and pie kind of town. Cow town was the affectionate appellation. Shot guns and pick-up trucks aplenty. Never did get my head around those canned fruit pies— but I loved the people, the climate, the city, the mountains, the rivers and the plains.
I worked a few places, starting over as dishwasher and working my way up. I got to listen to a lot of very loud, very bad rock music. I ended my shifts twice in the ER— once for a wicked hand burn and once for a partly missing thumb. I picked up some nasty, self-inflicted knife wounds, saw many tempers flying, a few fists flying, and a flying plate or two. God I think back— I worked with some mad men.
In ’85, with the help of a couple of partners. I opened my place, Greens Natural Foods Cafe, on Denver’s renowned East Colfax ave, the longest continuous street in the world. We had that for 8 successful years. My partners moved on and gradually I evolved my style, concentrating on fresh, healthy food. Over time the place kind of morphed into the eponymous, (don’t you just hate that word?) Hugh’s American Bistro. That was in ’93, as I recall. 15 years went by in the flash of a pan. That’s a long time in cooking years.
Fairly exhausted by all that, Ionah and I opened a little cheese shop, St Kilian’s Cheese Shop, in the old Scottish Highlands neighborhood close to where we live. We had it for 10 years and I walked or rode my bike to and from the shop most days. I added up the mileage on a rare rainy day recently. It came close to 13,000 miles. That’s pretty good. We sold it to a Mr Marsh and It’s still there today.