In the kitchen, Parker Bosley -- wearing a long white apron tied loosely at the waist -- scrutinizes a defrosted chicken. With his round, gold-rimmed glasses, tufts of salt-and-pepper hair, and long, serious expression, the restaurateur looks a bit like a doctor prepping for surgery.
He presses the poultry lightly with two fingers, testing its resiliency. Satisfied that it's "springy" enough, he lays the bird flat on the counter and slices into it with a butcher knife. "It's a little bit flabbier than I like," he says, poking at the pink skin. "This chicken did not get enough exercise."
Bosley cuts an incision, lifts a flimsy layer of skin, and tucks in spoonfuls of sage, butter, and basil. He sets the bird in a hot frying pan, where it sizzles and bubbles, turning a satisfying caramel color.
At the counter, Bosley whisks together olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and Dijon mustard, watching carefully as the mixture turns from brown to gold to maize. Bosley dabs a finger into the mix and brings it to his lips. With a smile, he drizzles the dressing over a bed of spinach leaves and chopped green zebra tomatoes.
He completes the meal by placing a bowl of perfect, skinless peaches on the table.
"This," he says, "is good food."
Bosley should know. The father of Cleveland's upscale-cooking scene, he's been called a "genius" by Zagat Survey of New York and ranked one of the top 30 chefs in America by Gourmet magazine. New York Times food critic Johnny Apple called Parker's a can't-miss spot.
Yet for all his accolades, Bosley is hardly the cliché celebrity chef so often seen on the Food Network. He lives in an apartment befitting a college student. He eschews fellow gourmets to spend his days with farmers. And he speaks his mind like a five-year-old with Tourette's syndrome.
Although Bosley was hailed on the national scene for his prescient culinary vision, there was a time when Cleveland viewed him as an oddball. Ten years ago, area chefs dismissed his locally grown/sustainable-foods movement as an idea better suited to a commune in California. Now that the movement has become trendy, they're rushing to catch up.
If Bosley doesn't fit the stereotype, it's because he's a true original. Far from the moneyed urban corridors that produce America's haute cuisine, Bosley grew up on a farm in Northeast Ohio. He came to the chef's trade at the comparatively late age of 37, after a stint teaching school. A gay Republican, he's accepted by neither group.
Bosley is the anti-celebrity chef. And that's just the way he likes it.
"I was not one of those people who were born to cook," he says, rolling his eyes. "It's a job I took up because I needed one."
Five years ago, in Chicago on business, Bosley stopped for lunch at Blackbird, a nationally acclaimed French restaurant. After a long, leisurely meal that included a poached-egg salad with bacon bits and a plate of almond-crusted pork belly, Bosley sought the chef to tell him how much he enjoyed the food.
But before Bosley could utter a word, the cook turned the tables. "I know who you are!" he exclaimed. "I just saw you in a magazine. I've been meaning to come to Cleveland to eat at your restaurant."
For decades, national food critics dismissed Cleveland as a bland, meat-and-potatoes town. All the innovative cooking ideas were happening in big coastal cities like Los Angeles and New York.
"Food writers tend to look at these cities as the center of the universe," says Kristin Eddy, a San Francisco-based food critic. "With smaller midwestern cities like Cleveland, they think, 'Oh, that's fly-over country, why should we stop here?'"
Bosley gave Cleveland chefs a reason to hold up their heads. Instead of looking at Ohio's geographical location as a negative, he used the state's vast farming resources as his personal pantry. He combed the countryside, zigzagging over unnamed roads, in search of local produce -- eggplant, peaches, mushrooms, apples, sage, lettuce, and corn.
Returning home with his bounty, he would stay up all night, experimenting with dishes like lemon soufflés, carrot-ginger soup, and chicken medallions, coaxing the natural flavors, textures, and colors from the ingredients.
In those days, the movement toward locally grown foods was pooh-poohed as an unnecessary extravagance in Cleveland. Chefs thought it silly to spend $7 a pound on locally raised chickens, when they could get the frozen variety for $3 a pound.
But nationwide, Bosley's ideas gained traction with tastemakers. In 1988, The New York Times declared that "Parker's may be the wave of Cleveland's restaurant future," pointing specifically to his locally grown ingredients. The Mobil travel guide gave Parker's four stars. Bosley became the father of Cleveland's gourmet scene.
"The reason I knew that I could open a gourmet restaurant in Cleveland and be successful is because I saw Parker's succeed," says Marlin Kaplan, chef-owner of One Walnut, another nationally acclaimed local restaurant.
Critics deemed Bosley a "culinary artist," but his dishes were never designed with the Whitney Museum in mind. He still adhered to the meat-and-potatoes formula, only he sauced his meat with beurre blanc and roasted his potatoes with white wine and shallots.
"What I love about Parker's main courses are their simplicity and lack of architectural pretension," David Farkas, a reviewer for The Plain Dealer, wrote in 1998. "Bosley doesn't resort to building edifices of food."
Parker's became a downtown hot spot for local titans of industry. Barry Hurtz, a former employee at the restaurant, recalls looking at the guest list and recognizing the names of buildings around town. "You'd get the Jacobses, the Gunds, the Rockefellers," he says.
Meanwhile, Bosley walked around in faded blue jeans and Old Navy parkas, surprised when anyone recognized him. While other chefs were tooling around in Cadillacs, Bosley was content to drive a green Subaru with a cracked driver's-side window.
"Parker's never really marketed himself," says Donita Anderson, a close friend. "He doesn't think about it. For him, it's all about the food, not about the person behind the food. He's the anti-celebrity."
Bosley sits on the stoop of his Ohio City apartment, skimming through Tom Wolfe's newest book, I Am Charlotte Simmons. Seeing his guest arrive, he smiles, his dimples breaking up the mathematical symmetry of his face.
"Come in, come in," he says, unlocking the front door and bounding up a creaky flight of stairs. At the top, a retriever named Maggie bounds into his arms. Bosley buries his face in the dog's thick fur, then moves aside, letting his visitor in. "So this is it," he says, nodding at the apartment. "This is my home."
Though Bosley is in the process of renovating his apartment, it's safe to say that the modest flat won't be featured in Architectural Digest anytime soon. It's as musty, dark, and drafty as a museum. The windows are painted shut and stuffed with old newspapers. ("A cheap cooling system," says Bosley.) The bedroom is as sparsely decorated as a jail cell. The only sign of habitation is a pair of slippers sitting at the foot of the bed.
Maybe when the overhaul is finished, the kitchen will be more chefworthy, but at the moment, Bosley's resembles that of a college student. The cabinet doors hang unhinged, with bottles of olive oil threatening to spill out. There's no counter space, just a wobbly brown wooden table buried under unopened mail. The refrigerator is nearly bare; the freezer contains three pints of Ben and Jerry's, a frozen hanger steak, and some raspberries.
"People see the prices for a dinner for two and think, 'Oh, my God, these people must roll in the money,'" Bosley says, "but the overhead is just astronomical."
Make no mistake: He's not complaining. The youngest of five children, Bosley's used to making do. He grew up on a farm a few miles west of the Pennsylvania border. His childhood was spent milking cows, baling hay, and mucking out stalls.
But if his outward life was like a Norman Rockwell portrait, it didn't reflect Bosley's private knowledge that he was gay, a circumstance of which his parents did not approve. "He was not outright rejected by them, but his father thought really ill of him, and that affected him," says his longtime friend Cyrus Fields.
He doesn't like to talk about that part of his life -- when pressed, he lapses into bland second-person truisms. "Life was different then. You didn't really talk about 'coming out' the way we do now," he says. But those who know him say this rejection affected him deeply.
"For the rest of his life, he went looking for the love and compassion he didn't have," says Fields.
It wasn't the only time his sexual orientation would interfere with his dreams. After graduating from Baldwin-Wallace, Bosley accepted a job teaching sixth grade in Berea. For a man who used to worship his own teachers and who spent his spare time with his head stuck in history books, the job was a dream. He was an unorthodox teacher. He took his students on trips to Cleveland banks -- not for any kind of economics lecture, but to study the architecture in the lobbies.
In the '60s, however, the administrators of his school began to question the need for such outings. They also questioned what a gay man was doing teaching children. They started observing Bosley's classes, criticizing his teaching methods, and generally making his life miserable. "They made it obvious. Gay men could not teach elementary school. Period," says Bosley.
So he quit. At 37, when some of his peers had begun eyeing retirement, Bosley had to start over.
He turned to an old love: food. As a child, Bosley would sit at the kitchen table, inhaling the sweet cinnamon scent of fresh-baked apple pie.
"I really fell in love with the idea of food and the culture of food, and the importance of food in one's life," says Bosley. "I just wanted to cook all day and have people come to dinner at night."
To learn the trade, he traveled to Europe, where he studied at the prestigious Restaurant Michelle Pasquet in Paris. He rented a room in a Parisian hotel that had more in common with a homeless shelter than with the Ritz-Carlton.
"I had to double-check that I had everything I needed in the morning, because I didn't want to walk up the seven flights of steps again," Bosley says.
Upon returning to Ohio, he was offered the head chef position at Sammy's, an up-and-coming restaurant in the Flats, which prided itself on its innovative cuisine. Five years later, he was ready to strike out on his own. He opened his first restaurant, Parker's, across the street from a biker bar in a dicey neighborhood on St. Clair.
"I was in my urban-pioneer phase," he says. "And I found a cheap place to put the restaurant."
With the employees he hired, Bosley sought to recreate the family he'd lost. He required waiters and bellboys to show up 45 minutes early, so they could all eat together before the shift started. Before they arrived, Bosley would spend hours in the kitchen, cooking breaded pork shoulder, lasagna casseroles, and rigatoni with stewed tomatoes.
"Parker would like everyone to strive to be an idealized version of how people were in the '50s," says Barry Hurtz. "He'd like a pie cooling in the window of every household."
But in 1990, the idyllic vision crashed into the hard reality of urban life. He had hoped that a four-star restaurant would gentrify the neighborhood. Instead, it just cast a harsh spotlight on economic disparity. Inside Parker's, Hurtz recalls, the Rockefellers dined on $20 breasts of chicken. Outside, drug boys dealt weed in the bus shelter.
Bosley's neighbors weren't shy about voicing their displeasure at his intrusion. A year after the restaurant opened, Bosley found his windows shattered. A neighborhood deli owner posted a sign on his window: "I have invested over $100,000 in the East 68th Street area. What have you done, fag?"
It all reached a head on November 24, 1991, when Bosley awoke to the smell of smoke. Someone had firebombed his restaurant. He scrambled out, but the building was a total loss. No one was ever prosecuted for the crime.
"At first I thought, I'm through with this, no more restaurants, no more urban pioneering, no more trying to do good," says Bosley. "It's a lost cause. The bad people win."
But a former student argued him out of early retirement. In 1993, Bosley reopened Parker's in Ohio City with a new partner, Jeff Jaskiel.
At first, it looked as if Bosley were doomed to repeat his folly. Back then, Ohio City was a rough neighborhood, its buildings kept like homeless men. "We'd be arriving for our morning shift as the prostitutes were leaving from their night shift," recalls Jaskiel.
But this time, Bosley's risk paid off. "Parker's turned Ohio City into a destination point," said Mike Flickinger, an Ohio City Development Corporation board member. "It became a place that people wanted to go to."
Yet for all the accolades Parker's received in the national press, few Clevelanders seemed to realize that they had a celebrity chef in their own backyard. "If Parker's were in Berkeley," Gourmet magazine lamented, "it would be jammed on a Friday at 8 p.m., not nearly empty."
At 6 p.m., Bosley sits outside his restaurant, savoring a glass of white wine. Soon, a waiter arrives with the menu. It's a large, cream-colored affair, imprinted with dark blue ink. Bizarrely, it opens with a declaration of war: "Difficult as it may be to use the dinner table as the bully pulpit, we must be responsible. We must raise our voice. We must ask the tough questions."
Bosley disregards the old injunction not to discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. If you are to dine on his food, you must first swallow his opinions. That has made him a controversial figure. He's shunned by peers even as he's celebrated by outsiders.
When Tom Wiandt, owner of Killbuck Valley Mushrooms, mentioned Bosley to a well-known Ohio City chef, the man could barely conceal his disdain. "There's something I should tell you," the chef said, a smile tugging at his lips. "Nobody here really likes Parker."
"Parker's definitely stepped on some nerves among the chefs," Wiandt says. "They've really not appreciated some of the things he's said and done."
Bosley's never been one to hold his tongue. Seven years ago, when Scene's new food critic, Elaine T. Cicora, bashed the Ritz's revered Riverview Room, Bosley complimented her on her harsh appraisal. "If you only review restaurants that are worth reviewing, you'll be done in four weeks," he said.
Bosley's criticisms weren't limited to food. He strenuously disagrees with Ohio City's focus on subsidized housing. So recently, when one of the neighborhood's development-board members dined at Parker's, Bosley made his feelings known by whipping up a chocolate soufflé with icing that spelled out the words "No low-income housing."
"Compliments of the chef," said the waiter.
Being a gay Republican, Bosley is accepted by neither group. He even pisses off other gay Republicans.
Bosley is one of 15 members of the local Log Cabin Republicans. Last year, the group's then-president, John Farina, received a deluge of hate mail from gays, who called him a sellout for supporting the GOP at a time when the party was pushing to outlaw gay marriage. In response, Farina defected to the Democratic Party.
Bosley loudly denounced the decision, calling him a weak leader, a disgrace to both the party and other homosexuals. A former friend, Farina now refuses to talk publicly about Bosley. "I'm not comfortable being quoted in a paper about Parker," he says tersely.
Jaskiel, Bosley's business partner, admits that Bosley's outspokenness can be a liability for the restaurant. And his chef, Andy Strizak, dissociates himself from Bosley's politics. "When people ask, I tell them I just work here, that's all," he says.
In the last few years, something about Bosley has mellowed. His jaw has loosened. Even his cheekbones seem less rigid.
Driving out to the country, Bosley withdraws into his own mind. He leaves the radio off, losing himself in the scenery whirring by. Outside a two-story clapboard house, a mother sits on her front stoop, watching as her two sons play catch in the front yard. A girl, lunchbox in hand, climbs confidently up the steps of a bright yellow school bus.
"There's something therapeutic about the country," Bosley says.
He's slowly letting go of his restaurant. Three years ago, Andy Strizak, a disciple of Bosley's local-foods movement, came to work in Parker's kitchen. The quiet 21-year-old impressed the master chef with his creativity and skill. A year and a half ago, Bosley put Strizak in charge of his kitchen and his legacy.
"Andy is the most talented person I've met around Cleveland," says Bosley.
"I have a great attraction for and respect for talent; the person who is working the hardest should be the person who's in charge. That wasn't me anymore."
Bosley is now focusing on resurrecting the farms that were so important in his youth and helped him make his name as a master chef. He's working part-time with the North Union Farmers Market to teach farmers how to raise and market high-end specialty poultry.
After an hour in the car, Bosley arrives at Tea Hill Farms, an organic, all-natural operation in Ashtabula County. Bosley waves hello to the owner, Doug Raubenolt, a jolly, rotund farmer in a pale yellow shirt and paint-stained jeans.
Five weeks ago, at Bosley's request, Raubenolt started raising Belle Rouge chickens -- French-bred birds known for their dark, rich meat. Bosley tasted them once in Paris and has craved them ever since.
Now, he's seeing the chickens for the first time since they were hatched. His eyes light up, like a child who's just glimpsed the ice-cream truck rounding the bend. He pokes a finger through the hatch, then crouches down for a closer look.
"Were you thinking about them as pets?" someone asks.
"No," Bosley says. "I was thinking about dinner."
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