By Ginna Parsons
FULTON – Not everyone can say they’ve cooked alongside Julia Child or taught Emeril Lagasse a basic cooking class.
Don Carlson’s done both.
The 65-year-old New England native led an interesting and colorful life before retiring in June 2013 and moving to Midway Marina where he lives on a houseboat with his fiancee, Betty.
Carlson grew up in a small town in Rhode Island – Wickford – around boats. His dad was a quahog, or clam, fisherman. Maybe it was nostalgia that drew him to Fulton for the last chapter of his life.
“I moved here because I wanted to be near water in a small town and I wanted to get where it was warm,” Carlson said. “About six years ago, my brother and I went to three different states – Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee – and visited marinas. I chose this one because it was quiet – more for old farts like us – and it’s close to town. Many marinas are an hour away from town.”
The slower pace suits Carlson, who has spent the past 37 years teaching culinary classes to more than 6,000 students. But that wasn’t always his plan.
After high school, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
“I became an Army cook,” he said. “The Army is great in how they give you authority and responsibility if they think you can handle it. I was very driven. I had a knack for being able to take charge, make things happen. I ended up running the mess hall at Camp Casey in Korea at 20 years old.”
After Korea, Carlson went to culinary school on the G.I. Bill, and not just any culinary school. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., which was the only one in America at that time. He graduated in 1973 and opened his first restaurant.
“I worked for so many chefs who taught me what not to be – screamers and swearers and throwers,” he said. “I ran a strict kitchen but the atmosphere was different. No fighting, no swearing. If I had two cooks who couldn’t get along, I’d fire them both. I can’t stand aggravation of any type. I like harmony.”
From there he taught culinary classes for five years at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., and for six years at Newbury College in Brookline, Mass.
And then Northern Arizona University came calling.
“They wanted to start a culinary program and so I was the first instructor in that program,” he said. “At the time, I was the only chef employed by the state of Arizona.”
Chef Carlson – or just Chef, as he was called – taught at NAU for 25 years and helped build the culinary school into a successful program. He was twice named Teacher of the Year while there.
“In my younger years, I regretted trading the kitchen for the classroom,” he said, “but not as I got older. Everybody thinks being a chef is glamorous, but it’s not until you get way up there.”
Julia and Emeril
Along the way, he met a few famous faces.
Carlson was one of the founding faculty at Newbury College, where there was a two-year culinary program.
“At the end of the second year, we asked Julia Child if she would consider speaking at the graduation ceremony,” he said. “She graciously accepted. Afterward, we had to wine and dine her. She came and spoke a second time at graduation, and we wined and dined her again.”
After the third time, Child invited the small faculty from Newbury to her small home in nearby Cambridge, Mass., for dinner.
“I actually cooked in her kitchen with her,” he said. “It was slam, bam – we were bumping into each other, and she was a big girl, too. I ended up going to her home on three different occasions to cook with her. Julia was passionate about food. That’s what I learned from her. She was the kind of person who would say, ‘That salmon gave its life for you. Treat it right.’ She never thought of herself as a chef. She considered herself a culinarian.”
At Johnson & Wales, Carlson taught a core class – one of the basic classes every culinary student has to take.
“About 20 years later, I was reading an article and I saw that Emeril Lagasse was in my core class,” Carlson said. “I don’t really remember him. But I wish I’d kept my gradebook to see what kind of grade he received.”
Today, Chef Carlson is happy to spend his time on the Dream Weaver, a 65-foot-long Stardust Cruiser that has three bedrooms and two baths.
“The only difference between this and a house is there’s a steering wheel in the living room,” he said.
You wouldn’t know it to look at him now, but for most of Carlson’s life, he was clean-shaven and wore his hair short in a military “high and tight.”
“I stopped cutting my hair and shaving in June when I retired,” he said. “I don’t know where I’m going with it.”
He and Betty, who plan to be married next month on the boat, spend their days quietly now, although he still cooks all their meals.
“We make simple stuff now,” he said. “Tonight we’re having sauerkraut and hotdogs. We can’t afford to eat the way I learned to cook.”
As for his 37 years of teaching students to cook, Carlson said he might have stayed a bit longer if technology hadn’t crept in so quickly.
“More and more technology was getting into the business and that was kind of frightening. I’m from a generation who didn’t grow up with a computer or even a calculator. In the classroom there were no more chalkboards or even whiteboards. It’s all PowerPoint now,” he said. “I thought it was time to leave it to the younger ones.”