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posted: 3/11/2014 5:45 AM

Cook of the Week: Cary dad rediscovers the joy of cooking

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  • Video: Cook Charles Kraft of Cary

  • Charles Kraft says he rediscovered what it means to bring family and friends together around the table.

       Charles Kraft says he rediscovered what it means to bring family and friends together around the table.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Charles Kraft makes a roux that will flavor and thicken his gumbo.

       Charles Kraft makes a roux that will flavor and thicken his gumbo.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • A variety of vegetables go into Charles Kraft's version of gumbo.

       A variety of vegetables go into Charles Kraft's version of gumbo.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
By Sally Eyre
Daily Herald Correspondent

Charles Kraft, of Cary, admits he is something of a hybrid.

"I'm half Italian and half German; it depends of what mood you catch me in as to how I behave … I can be a task master and the life of the party!" he laughs. It is this unique combination that drives his style of cooking.

"I've got the German engineering side that needs to be efficient, but also the Italian side that thinks of cooking as art and a way to care for people. Everything I do is an exercise in creativity; the two sides are finally coming together -- both the creative side and the analytical side."

Charles grew up helping his Italian Grandmother cook in her basement kitchen on weekends.

"Grandma and Grandpa worked all week long and so Grandma would cook all her meals for the week on the weekends." Charles, a busy dad of four, likes to do the same thing.

"I don't do meals per se; I cook parts of meals so that I can assemble them all throughout the week."

If Charles' first influence was his grandmother, the second was his first job as a dishwasher in a pizza restaurant in Palatine.

"I wanted to get into the front window and spin the dough!" Charles recalls. Working late and showing initiative garnered him that spot and an extra dollar an hour. He still retains the tricks of the restaurant trade -- such as partially cooking pasta and freezing it in serving-sized bags so that it can be easily thawed and quickly cooked.

Oddly enough, he says growing up with two sisters also has influenced his cooking.

"I noticed that they dressed by mixing and matching pieces until they had an entire wardrobe. It's really cool and efficient. I assemble my meals with the same approach." Charles may make a stew over the weekend that works as the basis for a breakfast burrito one day, and then is served over a bed of rice on a different day.

Charles cooks what his friends like to call "wet stuff."

"It might be extremely wet, like a soup, or less wet, like a stew" he explains. One favorite is gumbo.

"Gumbo is one of those things that is always different, but always good. You can change a single item, or many, and it can come out 100 different ways."

You might get the idea that Charles rarely uses recipes.

"I never write anything down," he admits. "When I want to make something new, I gather together about half a dozen different recipes and figure out what the basics are, then I play with those as I go."

A favorite tool in his cooking arsenal is a three-pot slow cooker so that he can experiment with different variations on the theme.

The only thing Charles likes better than spending time in his kitchen is spending time in his kitchen with friends and family.

"I love to have a group of people over. I have this three-sided breakfast bar so I have cooks on one side and eaters on the other." Charles designed his kitchen with this idea in mind.

"I was a contractor before the economic armageddon struck. I designed my kitchen for group production!" Charles likes to joke that he plans his guest list very carefully.

"You need the doers and the watchers, and the occasional person who follows instructions!"

Charles is enjoying what he calls a "renaissance of what's important in life."

"I used to spend $300 to put gas in my boat for an afternoon of fun. Now, for the same amount of money I can fund my cooking mojo and invite people over every weekend for a month! It's more fun cooking and entertaining for my family and friends. It used to be how many dollars per hour -- now it's how many hours per dollar."

To suggest someone to be profiled here, send the cook's name, address and phone number to food@dailyherald.com.

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