Several months ago, I received an unexpected UPS delivery: a cardboard box from my wife Liz's Aunt Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. Inside, buried among the packing peanuts, I found an old black leather knife rolla huge oneheavily worn and without a note. But I knew instantly what it was: the knives of my wife's grandfather, Mary's father. And I wondered if it might not carry a message from the past, if only I could figure out what.
I never met my wife's grandfather. He died relatively young, back when she was in second grade. But when I first met Liz, a picture of the man chopping vegetables hung in her kitchen, as well as in the kitchens of all her food-besotted cousins. "Papa"his name was Bernard Schimmelloomed like Moses in that family; over time, I grew more and more curious about him. A professional chef who had trained at the world's oldest and finest hotel school, in Lausanne, Switzerland, Bernie seems to have had an outsize, gregarious personality, a natural party host who loved his Scotch, his lemon drops and his three daughters, one of whom was Liz's mother, Judy.
- How to Chop: A Knife Skills Primer
- Best Kitchen Knives
- Become an Intuitive Cook: Thomas Keller's Cooking Lessons
Bernie was also the head chef and dining consultant for the hotels that his own father had built along the rail lines south of Chicago in the mid-20th century. At one of those hotels, Omaha's Blackstone, family lore has it that Bernie invented the Reuben sandwich for one of his father's regular poker buddies, Reuben Kulakofsky. (A competing origin story credits an earlier "Reuben Special," from a New York deli, but that sandwich had neither sauerkraut nor pastrami and was not grilled.)