The swan stopped him in his tracks.
Steve Geving had been running through an alley on his way home from school in Moorhead, Minnesota, when he saw the bird emerging from a block of ice behind a downtown hotel.
“It was Swan 101,” Geving said. And it would alter the course of his life.
The resplendence of the frozen waterfowl – along with something the ice sculptor had said to him – resonated: “If you always want to be stay warm in winter and cool in summer and have food in your belly, why don’t you come by and visit with the chef?”
That sounded pretty good to Geving, then 14.
“Two weeks later, I was in the kitchen working, and I never looked back,” said Geving, who later apprenticed in Europe and went on to cook for the likes of Elvis Presley, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones.
Nearly 50 years later, he’s still cooking.
“I could never walk away from the kitchen,” Geving said. “I could never walk away from food. And I could never walk away from entertaining people.”
Now 63 and largely retired, the award-winning master chef teaches monthly culinary classes at the Blanchard Community Center in North Idaho. For $25 a pop, guests get to watch Geving make four dishes in three hours. They also get to sample each one, take home recipes and hear stories of his culinary adventures.
“I’ve been blessed to have been to well over 60 countries,” said Geving, who – during his last class in early May – told participants about the time he procured a recipe for shrimp toast on the street in Vietnam.
His culinary students come from the StoneRidge Golf and Recreational Community, where Geving lives, as well as Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint and Spokane.
“After the first one, I was hooked,” said Lonnie Hough, 68, a fellow StoneRidge resident. She called Geving “a hidden treasure” and said she started coming to his classes shortly after moving here about a year ago. “It’s just absolute fun.”
Geving charges considerably less than most chefs in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, where cooking classes typically cost between $35 and $59.
“I know what my food costs me,” said Geving, who’s been inducted into Les Toques Blanches and Les Amis d’Escoffier, both societies of distinguished professional chefs. “I shop smart. I cook smart. And that’s what I want to get across to people. You can do a whole menu – decent portions – and not break the bank.”
At home, his favorite go-to meal is relatively simple: pulled pork. Sandwiches, enchiladas, burritos – doesn’t matter. He brines pork butt, gives it a good dry rub, then smokes it.
He’s also partial to Grey Goose vodka martinis, a good baguette and Reblochon, his favorite “stinky French cheese.” The bounty of North Idaho isn’t bad, either: farm-fresh eggs, huckleberries, wild mushrooms, garden-grown vegetables.
“Not everybody’s going to be a Food Network star. But this is a respected profession,” Geving said. “I love what I do. I love to cook.”
He also loves sharing his passion and finds his North Idaho cooking classes particularly rewarding.
“When you have a 280-pound lumberjack making the most perfect tomato roses, the most perfect radish roses, that – to me – is accomplishment,” he said.
Geving aims to demystify dishes that sound exotic or difficult to make. He also tells it like he sees it, narrating his moves in the kitchen and regaling his audience with plenty of jokes and stories from his long-lasting career. He’s jovial and down-to-earth – even when doing a little name-dropping. He tells his classes he’s cooked for Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen, Tony Curtis, Julia Child, Axl Rose and members of the L.A. Kings and L.A. Lakers.
Sinatra, he said, was most intimidating. Geving was catering a fundraiser in Palm Desert and chicken was on the menu. Old Blue Eyes wasn’t interested; he wanted a veal chop. So, Geving said, “We found him a veal chop.
“We called around. We have lots of good chef friends in Palm Desert. Everybody had veal chops. They must’ve had to put up with Frank Sinatra, too.”
Geving began teaching in North Idaho about seven years ago. Each class carries a different theme. In October, he’ll discuss cooking for rock ’n’ roll kings like Mick Jagger, Sammy Hagar and Ozzy Osbourne.
May’s session took a culinary trip around the world. Geving advertised the class as “Four Exquisite Dishes to Get Hugs and Kisses.” On the menu: fried shrimp toast and tequila-marinated smoked salmon with cactus paddles and tomatillo-avocado sauce. Dessert was cake made from a boxed mix but Geving added cayenne and black pepper and topped it with chocolate ganache with honey and candied jalapeño. It’s one of his signature combinations. Something about it inspires gratitude.
“I’ve had guys send me bottles of wine, Grey Goose vodka. I even had one guy send me flowers,” Geving said.
He caps his classes at 30 people. Even then, it’s a squeeze to fit everyone in a semi-circle between the kitchen island and metal shelving stacked with dishes.
Geving usually dons a baseball cap that declares his role: chef. In a booming voice – no microphone needed – he tells his students: “There is no hocus pocus. Anyone can make these recipes.”
Shrimp and Scallops with Five-Cheese Creamy Macaroni. Top Sirloin with Onions, Mushrooms and Red Wine. Port-Braised Chicken and Pork with Semillion Baked Rice.
Geving passes around samples of each dish, which are typically met with rave reviews.
“The rice, gosh, I could’ve eaten the whole pan of rice,” Hough said of the rice with pink lentils that accompanied chicken breasts with a mustard-maple-curry glaze. “It’s always real things that you can go home and do.”
Geving moved to North Idaho in 2003 almost on a whim. He had been on a plane to Alaska when he came upon an ad for StoneRidge in an in-flight magazine. When he visited a short time later, he fell in love. He had been living in Cabo San Lucas after a long stint in Los Angeles and found happiness in the natural beauty of the place and in the people.
“I love the people,” Geving said. “The people are real. They’re not fake like in California or New York or Boston or Chicago.”
Geving grew up in Minnesota with an absent father and a mother who “did the best she could.” He was the oldest of seven – six boys, one girl – and often did the cooking.
After he watched that hotel worker create an ice sculpture in the alley, he went into the business, working in the hotel kitchen for about six months, then a steakhouse and then “whoever was paying the most money.” He had worked in about five restaurants by the time he graduated from high school.
After culinary school in Montréal, he returned to the Midwest to work at the Decathlon Hotel and Athletic Club in Minneapolis, where he made and delivered a sandwich to his “most famous idol in the world.”
It was 1971. Geving was 19. There was a request from the private dining room for a clubhouse sandwich with extra bacon. It was between lunch and dinner, and the kitchen crew was slim. So after he prepared the order, Geving’s boss asked him to take it upstairs. When the intended recipient turned around, Geving saw that it was Elvis Presley.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Geving said. “I just stood there like I couldn’t move.”
Of course, Geving said Elvis said, “Thank you very much,” and gave him an album and tickets to the show that night.
“Heck yeah” he went to the show. “I was like a young school girl,” he said of how excited he was. “Everybody loved Elvis.”
After the Decathlon, Geving headed off to Rome, Lausanne, Switzerland, and Paris for apprenticeships. Those experiences helped land him jobs in restaurants at the Kona Kai Club Swim and Racquet Club and SeaWorld, both in San Diego.
North Carolina, where Geving worked as executive chef at a golf and tennis club in the Blue Ridge Mountains, was next, followed by another stint in San Diego. Then he took a job in a city where he would spend the bulk of his culinary career. He accepted an offer at The Biltmore in downtown LA.
“Everybody hated me in L.A.,” Geving said. “No. 1: I was American. No. 2: I was executive chef at one of the most prestigious properties in Southern California.”
No. 3, he was only 23.
Five years later, he was president of the Chefs de Cuisine Association of California. By then, he was a corporate executive chef at 1st Interstate Bank in Los Angeles. He also moonlighted as a caterer and consultant chef, traveling all over the world to cater private parties and special events – often for celebrities – and to compete in culinary competitions. He became – in his words – a “multi, multi millionaire” with homes in Oregon, California, Nevada and Arizona.
He’s made food for rock stars backstage at concerts, wrap parties for films, star-studded charity events, even the Academy Awards. He also did food styling for films such as “Hook” and “Chaplin.”
“I could go on and on and on,” Geving said. “I’ve had very good experiences, very few bad ones. I was very fortunate. I’ve always been at the right place at the right time.”
Now, the right place is North Idaho. “I’m going to die here. I don’t want to go anywhere,” Geving said.
His five favorite places to eat in the region are: Hill’s Resort at Priest Lake, Wolf Lodge Steakhouse in Coeur d’Alene, Mangy Moose Café in Priest River, Texas Roadhouse in Coeur d’Alene and – for fast food – Subway.
He’s never wanted to own a restaurant. “Catering you can control. A restaurant you can’t,” he said. “You gotta be open five to seven days a week. You never know how many people are going to come in. You never know how many people will be happy. In a restaurant, you have no control. The restaurant controls you.”
Geving isn’t into molecular gastronomy or hollandaise sauce that’s anything other than house made. He likes the traditional way, the way of Auguste Escoffier who simplified haute cuisine more than 100 years ago.
These days, Geving is simplifying recipes for home cooks in North Idaho. And, “I’ve been having all kinds of fun doing it,” he said.
“Steve is very special. He is our treasure,” said Gail Weaver, 66, a StoneRidge resident who has been coming to Geving’s classes for about five years.
They take place from mid morning through lunchtime and always end with dessert. As he was finishing the chocolate ganache with candied jalapeño during the May class, a few folks were skeptical.
“Wait till you taste this,” assured Geving, who – by this point in his career – has created more swan ice sculptures than he could count.
Sure enough, after the samples went around, there came a question from the audience: “Can I lick the bowl?”