Chef Rossi’s RFH Homecoming: A Raging Skillet Full of Authentic

By Elaine Van Develde

Once upon a time, in a Rumson-Fair Haven world overrun with preppy pink and chartreuse, Lilly Pulitzer, alligator shirts, Fair Isle sweaters, khakis, topsiders and duck boots, there was a  pint-sized butt-smoking, brash-talking punk rocker with kinky hair and a Cheshire cat grin who packed a punch full of wild on the status quo.

She was Rossi. Just Rossi. She walked into her first class at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School (RFH) to muted gasps and gape-mouthed stares. And on the homefront, in a town where curb appeal was the ultimate social climber’s compliment, her Orthodox Hungarian Jewish mom’s idea of curb appeal was hanging out near the curb in a homely house dress spewing some Yiddish diatribe of the day — loudly. Very loudly, “for crying out loud!”

In fact, Rossi and her 1970s corner of Carton Street and Forrest Avenue family screamed everything that was the antithesis of Rumsonhood in its preppy heyday. You could say that the Rossi family finger was not planted on the preppy pulse. Not everyone’s was. That square peg thing didn’t faze Rossi in the least, though.

She, also a gay teen who didn’t really know she was gay yet, knew she was different. And that was fine. While she felt out of place, she knew in her somewhat unsettled, saucy heart that the feeling was a good kind of different. So she settled into her Rumson nook and sense of self a little more.

Rossi was barely a teen townie (or her own variation thereof) before she became restless and ready to rock and roll on, graduate early and hit a few dive motels and misfits in the process of making it to the big time somewhere under bright New York City lights. But, somehow, before Rossi rambled, she ended up first finding her way to a niche of accepting showfolk teens at The Barn Theater down the street from the high school. She felt at home.

She was home. Now, after taking that journey around the block a few thousand times and hitting major success as a sought-after chef (or anti-chef, as she calls herself), Rossi’s all “growed” up and coming back home at 51.

She’s coming home because she’s written a book, an anecdotal memoir and recipe book, dubbed The Raging Skillet: The True Life Story of Chef Rossi, a Memoir with Recipes, published by Feminist Press at The City University of New York. Well, the title, true to Rossi form (or maybe just to suit design purposes), has no initial caps. The book came out on Nov. 10, 2015.

And she’ll be doing a “reading” and book signing at River Road Books in Fair Haven on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.. Rather, as she said while sitting in a cab on the way to the airport in between gigs, “I’ll probably just talk. I cook like I talk. I like to talk. I find that I usually end up talking endlessly about my mother.”

Why? “I guess you could say that I wrote the book for my mother (Harriet, who died in 1992). But I also wrote the book because she was so crazy,” Rossi said.

Her mother, as she tells it, had a penchant for donning not so fashionable house coats or dresses, if you will, and checking things out on the corner, or the curb by her house in Rumson and elsewhere when she wasn’t screaming Rossi’s very complicated Yiddish given name (that she shortened right quick) up the stairs inside.

Yes, hollering Harriet was partial to the curbside. One time, in fact, Rossi said that her sister was strung out on a fad Dextrim-induced diet and Mom Ross was standing outside by the corner in a blue house dress. Her sister, holding a hand full of mail and rushing to get it mailed ran over to Harriet and “started shoving letters down her dress,” Rossi said, deadpan. “I still say to my sister, ‘Hey, remember that time you thought Mom was a mailbox?'”

She had her own turn of thinking Mom was a mailbox, too: “There was my mother, again hanging out on the curb (sort of the street) just when I had to mail a package. There she was … in a brown house coat. I thought she was the UPS drop-off box.”

And so it goes, and goes on and on … with Rossi. One story is crazier than the other and true — all true, she reminds, adding that you truly can’t make this kind of stuff up. So, the book is one of those stories after another accompanied by those relevant recipes.

But, wait, did Rossi’s mother really just hang around on the street wearing different colored house coats, scolding and posing unwittingly as as a mailbox?  “Yeah, pretty much,” Rossi says. Really.

And there really was a stabbing incident involving a good friend from her Barn days, she reminisced. She calls that entry in the book Stabbing Magdalena.

“I haven’t heard a word from her yet about that,” Rossi quipped. “True story. They’re all true stories.” And Harriet. Well, all of Harriet was as reliably real as monthly bills in the, well, mail.

But, really, besides the mail and many other adventures of life-with-Harriet-and-friends stories that inspired The Raging Skillet book and business, there was the advent of the 1970s microwave era that subconsciously set Rossi’s skillet into a salty rage. The microwave was Rossi’s mom’s modern kitchen miracle — or so she thought.

Until then, everything took all day long to cook in the Ross household — stews, goulash. There was no such thing as pizza and chicken fingers in that abode. Then came a miraculous minute machine — the microwave.

“When that microwave came, it abolished all cooking,” Rossi said. “Everything went in that microwave. And it was awful. It was then that I discovered that food was power.”

And so it went … and came back to haunt and inspire her … back home.

Yes, Rossi’s coming home!

And, no, this is not your typical RFH homecoming strewn with visions of pom-poms, pristine toothy grins, crowns, knee socks, kilt skirts and camel hair wrap coats. Not that there’s anything wrong with that …

She’s coming home after surviving the mom mail episodes, the microwave, some crazy theatrical antics (like the Stabbing Magdalena entry in the book), graduating early to get out of Dodge (or something like that), running away from home, surviving her parents shipping her off to Brooklyn to live with Chassids tapped to tame her wild child ways, escaping, being a dive bartender and serving up kooky chow for the regulars, and becoming a smashing success as New York City’s untamed anti-chef/caterer, hitting the hipster Brooklyn scene,  doing radio shows, writing blogs and, finally, the book about it all.

Phew! Yes, that’s pretty much how it went and still goes for Rossi — run-on style, one crazy, real life adventure after the other with barely a breath in between, all of it peppered with food and humor in The Raging Skillet.

And, true to Rossi form, she boasts “Oh, it’s an easy read. It’s fun. You can totally read it on the toilet!”

Hey. That’s Rossi. All real — the anti disestablishmentarian or whatever you want to call her. She cares deeply about not caring about the surface stuff or, worse yet, doing anything dull, status quo or gut passion-defying.

She’s Rossi. She’s the daughter of Harriet and Marty Ross. She’s an RFH grad. She’s a member that old Barn Theater Tribe — and that’s what they (we) call it. She is executive chef/owner of the trendy-because-it’s-not-trendy Raging Skillet catering service, as in the book title and vice versa.

What her “day job” means, essentially, she’ll tell you, is that she designs menus — very original menus, like none you’ve ever seen before, like, perhaps, jerk chicken and latkes for a multicultural Jamaican/Jew wedding — and she, as exec chef, does the dreaming up of all things thematic and the “fluffy stuff” to top it all off, like sauces, marinades and a helping of chutzpah.

“I guess you could say that I’m a fluffer erecting giant p—ses (BLEEP!),” she said. Yes, she said that, and it wasn’t the BLEEP that came out of her mouth. It was the other thing.

And so go the stories in the book and recipes to match. “You see, I’m a little afraid of boring … boring food,” she said. “I mostly cater weddings. I’m a theatrical caterer. We’re all about the big picture — not just the food. The food is 2 percent of what I do. I always hear, ‘What should I do? What do I have to do?’ My answer is always, ‘Who cares? What do you WANT to do? It’s not what you SHOULD do it’s what you WANT to do.'”

And Rossi, herself, always wants to serve up something authentic — authentic personality fueled by that gut passion of staying true to raw Rossi. And right now that authentic is getting home to her wayward gaggle of Barn Theater buds and a, yes, a few preppy RFH pals to celebrate her book. And in about a year from now the book is being turned into a play, or at least one act of it, by Jacques Lamarre and is set for a Hartford, Connecticut launch.

“I’m thinking Kathy Bates should play my mom,” she said. No, she’s not from Rumson. And, yes, it was just a little thought. But, that’s down the road. The homecoming comes first. And it’s foremost in Rossi’s mind.

“It should be a blast coming home!” she said. “I’m coming home! We’re gonna celebrate and come full circle together on Thursday night! It’s gonna rock! And we’re going to Barnacle Bill’s after the reading to hang out! Woohoo! I keep hearing that theme song from the (1970s) sitcom ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ in my head.”

Welcome back …

And which character would Rossi have been in that one? Hmmmm. They may have to do a rewrite.

*In the interest of full journalistic disclosure, yes, you guessed it, Rossi is an old friend of this editor’s! Oh, and call River Road Books to reserve your spot … 732.747.9455

John Caroli
BCS Wealth Management