Jeffrey Mora

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I love chefs.

Like, I love, love, love chefs.

Why? Because they’re food magicians, taking two apples, some coconut, yesterday’s chicken and a box of napkins and turning it all into edible gold. To watch a master at work is to observe the greatest of craftsmen. The master chef makes people happy. The master chef makes people crave. You can love someone’s music or hate someone’s music. You can see art and cry and see art and curse. But when something tastes good—man, it’s bliss.

That’s my long way of saying that today’s Quaz, the 393rd in this wackadoo series, is a king of kings. Jeffrey Mora is the CEO of Food Fleet, as well as the former Los Angeles Lakers chef and the man who set up and oversaw food service at the Burbank Airport. He knows everything about the business—from banana chicken to dirty bathrooms to making the perfect meal.

And now he’s the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Jeffrey—you’re a superstar chef who has cooked for everyone, everywhere. And I wonder this: Can anyone be a quality chef? Like, are some people born with the gift and others not? Or, with studying, love, etc, is yours a profession anyone can master?

JEFFREY MORA: I don’t think there is a simple answer to this question. Like with many things some people just have the gift. In my profession I would say that holds true with pastry chefs more than chefs. We say they have the touch, some have skills that no matter how long you are doing it you won’t get to that level. The difference between pastry chefs and chefs, is that pastry is more precise more exacting and involves more artistry on the level that we are talking about. You can look up the Coupe De Monde as an example of world class pastry chefs, and for chefs the Bocuse D’or. I think with anything, your love and passion for what your doing will help you become great. When teaching or lecturing, I always ask this seaming simple question: “We have all had good and bad hamburgers, what is the main difference between the two?” I always get the same answers—the meat, the bun etc. The real answer is the person cooking it—do they care enough about what they are doing to make it great? Do they toast the bun properly? How do they layer the lettuce and tomato? Do they put it on top or on the bottom of the bun? It does make a difference on how it eats.

This profession is a very difficult one with long hours, lots of manual labor, stress etc. People always tend to look at the glamour side of what we do, the celebrity chef side. The reality is a lot different. You really have to have a love and passion for it. Its hard work. that being said it can be very rewarding. There is no better feeling in the world than making something that people love to eat.

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J.P.: You’re the owner chef of Food Fleet, a food truck booking company. And, as weird as this might sound, I’ve always wondered why, exactly, humans in the 2010s seem to just love eating from a truck. It’s weird, right—this phenomenon. So how to explain it?

J.M.: Eating street food has always been a phenomenon globally. I think Anthony Bourdain helped bring it more to the forefront in the states with his shows, and his passion for it. People like the eating from a truck for the same reasons people like eating from hawker stalls in other countries. You can find one person making one great dish, and doing the same thing every day. This makes them become a master of it. That is one reason, the other is more variety, and convenience. Most of the time when you go out to eat from a truck there are a number of them so as a group you tend to have more choices.

J.P.: You were in charge of the Los Angeles Lakers food service for eight years. So what’s unique about the way professional athletes eat? And how would you say diet directly impacts performance at that level?

J.M.: I would say what is unique is the fact that food and nutrition is directly related to performance and recovery on that level. Most athletes these days have their own chef and nutritionist . Each individual is unique in his own way. What one body needs is not the same as another. Caloric intake on a daily basis changes from day to day. Game day as opposed to training days. The real key and what makes it unique for me, and what the real challenge was, was to incorporate their needs into foods that they liked and wanted to eat.

Otherwise it was pointless. For the Lakers the challenge was putting out 15-to-20 different dishes every day that each one could pick and choose from that was best for them.

J.P.: Specifically, what was it like feeding Kobe Bryant? Was he as intense about nutrition as he was work? What do you recall?

J.M.: Kobe was very regimented in everything he did. He had a routine that didn’t deviate. Most of the time he only ate breakfast at the facility.

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J.P.: How did this happen for you? What I mean is—when did you know you’d dedicate your life to food? When were you first aware you had legit talent?

J.M.: My mother was and is a great cook. Growing up she made dinner every night. My father and mother worked side by side growing up with another family, both of them immigrants. My family is from both eastern Europe and Italy. They would come for dinner and my mom would cook and most Sundays we be at their house for the big Sunday meal. I was fortunate that I grew up around great food and knew what that tasted like.

When I was in my teens working, they would do a pot luck once a week, and the others always complemented me on what I made. They began to look forward to what I would bring. I worked in some small little quick-serve places as well.

When I was 19, I told my dad I think this is what I want to do. My dad was a barber and one of his customers was the GM of Old Country Bakery. He was involved with the local chefs association. He made an introduction for me to a chef who was running a small little six-month program. Once I got in it, I couldn’t learn fast enough. I would spend all my time there. When I was ready to graduate, the Century Plaza Hotel was opening its new wing, and the chef got me an interview for an entry level position. This would hopefully allow me to be taken on as an apprentice in six months. Once at the hotel, I began to excel and grow. About one year in, the chef had me enter a contest for Westin Hotel chefs. We were not chefs but he required us to all enter. I ended up winning one of the categories—the first apprentice to ever do so.

I always felt like I was behind and needed to make up for lost time. The chefs, sous chefs and cooks at the hotel were mostly from Europe, so they began their careers at 14. I was 20. I felt like I had lost six years. I put in an average of 100 hours a week back then. I spent time learning from anyone who would teach me. The hotel—being so large with so many outlets and kitchens—was the perfect place to grow.

J.P.: How do you feel about the Food Network, and the 8,000 shows about people becoming chefs, trying to become chefs, proving their mettle as chefs? Does it cheapen your craft? Does it do the opposite?

J.M.: This question is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the Food Network has had a huge positive impact on our industry. The general public has a better knowledge and understanding of food overall. They seek out good food more than ever before. They have become better at knowing what good food is.

On the other hand it gives people a false sense of what it takes to be a chef. Everyone today uses that term as a generality: Chef, Master Chef. It lowers our standards. First and foremost you want to be a good cook, a great cook. Chef means a great deal of things but not everyone who is a cook is a chef. The show “Master Chef “is an example, There are only 70 Master Chefs in the United States. It’s a grueling 10-day test and if you fail one part your out. The success rate for passing is 1 in 12. To become a certified executive chef takes at least seven years after becoming a certified cook.

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J.P.: What’s the absolutely weirdest experience from your cooking career?

J.M.: It is hard to pick just one thing, I have cooked in over 20 countries. I fed President Clinton right after the Northridge quake, I participated in the cook’s tour for world hunger in South Africa, I went on an expedition in the Amazon with Cousteau. Being on that expedition was quite the experience.

J.P.: You set up and oversaw food service at the Burbank Airport. I never, ever, ever think about airport grub. So what are the complications and difficulties of such a task? And how do you think airport food options compare now to when you started at Burbank?

J.M.: Feeding 5,000 people a day for one. I would say when I started back in 1990, overall, people’s expectations were low. Quality food service at the airport wasn’t as much of a priority. Most of the time back then you got a meal on the plane whether you flew first class or coach. For me, I approached it in a different manner. Most other operators treated the customer like a captive audience. I never did. Burbank was a business airport, with regular customers. I wanted them to realize that they could get a good meal before they flew out. We made everything from scratch from the pizzas to the hot dogs. I remember having to change the way I made hot dogs . Coming from New York I wanted a great dog with the casing on it. The first day I had to refund $500 because people were peeling the casing off the dog. I had to make skinless dogs. It’s still true today—skin on hot dogs is only on done on the east coast.

In the beginning, the restaurant made the least amount of money. After the first year it was one of the highest grossing locations. We had a great group of regulars.

We received an award for the healthiest airport food service in the country back in 1992.

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J.P.: Is there a factually such thing as great food v. shit food? What I mean is—if a guy loves the Whopper and hates what he had at Per Se, is the Whopper good and Per Se shit? Is that person simply wrong, or incapabale of knowing good food?

J.M.: I think this question all comes down to perceived value. There is nothing wrong with the Whopper or Per Se. The main difference is did you get your money’s worth from both.

People will complain about a $5 meal as much as a $500 meal. You will be more pissed off at the $500 one. We all have our likes and dislikes. How and where we grew up and with what influences and exposure to different types of food helps.

I was asked once to go up and help a chef friend of mine who was struggling to understand the new restaurant he was working in. It was a very well-established place with a long history. They had abalone on the menu for $80 a portion. It came breaded with mashed potatoes and vegetables and a simple sauce. They would sell 5-to-8 orders a night. He changed it to a pickled ginger sauce with other garnishes. It went down to two orders per night and he couldn’t figure out why. It was white truffle season at the time, and a lot of places in New York were selling white truffle risotto or white truffle baked potato for $80. While they both go well with the truffle, I asked him why they paired the potato with the truffle. He didn’t have an answer. I told him, well, If I am going to take a risk and spend $80 on a dish like that, there better be something on there that I will eat if I don’t like the truffle.

He finally got it.

J.P.: Is there a way to look at food or a restaurant and know whether it was prepared in a clean and sanity kitchen? If so … what?

J.M.: The best answer to this question is when you go into a place, go directly into the restroom. If it is clean and well maintained the likelihood that the kitchen is will be a lot higher. If its dirty, you can see they don’t care at all, the chances are the kitchen isn’t clean either. I always look at the little details. Are the ceiling vents clean?

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• Rank in order (favorite to least): Brandon Rush, Melvin Mora, Mario Batali, Paul Stanley, Taco Bell bean burritos, scissors, a new roll of paper towels, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Capone: I would have to start with Melvin Mora, we have the same last name and he played for the Mets. Paul Stanley, Brandon Rush, scissors, paper towel. Taco Bell. The last three in no particular order, I would rather have to eat the Taco Bell then spend time with any of them .

• What are three foods you loathe?: Bad Chinese food, bad Mexican food , bad Italian food.

• What are three foods you cherish?: Celery root, truffles, chestnuts.

• I threaten my kids with the idea of “banana chicken.” Is there a way one could make banana chicken and have it taste OK?: I would say there are a few—one is make sure you dip it in coconut milk before breading, and use Panko. Second is to make a dipping sauce the kids like.

• The 46th president of the United States will be?: Leon Panetta

• Worst kitchen injury you’ve ever suffered?: I spliced off a piece of my index finger on a meat slicer and got 14 stitches

• In exactly 14 words, make an argument for Olive Garden: 14 words—the first is why, the second is why and the third is why. They are consistent. You will get the same meal at everyone of them.

• Who would you rather hang out with—Daryl Hall or Johnny Gill?: I think I would have more fun with Johnny Gill.

• Four memories from your first-ever date?: All I remember is she had bad breath when I went to kiss her.

• Who was the absolutely kindest athlete you’ve ever worked with?: There are many who stand out—Metta World Peace, Shaq, Lamar Odom to name a few.