EPICured

Has Todd Hall, the chef boy wonder, grown up?

On the morning that Todd Hall realized his life was falling apart, he was lying on the couch watching cartoons with his two younger children, Todd Cody, who was 17 months old, and John, who was 4. His two older children were off playing with friends, and Hall was about to get ready to go to work at the swanky 8700 restaurant in Scottsdale.

Hall was the self-proclaimed bad boy of good food, at age 30 a talented young chef with a couple of prestigious national awards under his toque. He'd been at a half-dozen upscale Phoenix restaurants in as many years, not unusual for a chef on the fast track. But Hall had burned every bridge he'd ever crossed, and his career and personal life were about to jump completely off the track at midbridge.

Cody was a big, beautiful, dark-haired boy, just starting to speak. His father put him down from his lap, said, "Gotta be a working man," and headed for the bathroom for a shower. Hall's wife, Stacey, went to another room to iron her husband's chef's coat.

When Stacey brought the newly pressed coat to the bedroom, she saw John, the 4-year-old, cowering beneath the covers of the bed with a peculiar look on his face. She noticed the open door and knew something was wrong.

Stacey raced out to the backyard and her heart fluttered when she saw Cody at the bottom of the pool. He had followed his big brother outside, watched him climb the pool fence and unlatch the gate, and then tottered over to the pool and fell in.

Stacey jumped in and, panic-stricken, tried to thrash her way to the bottom.
"I finally came to the top and screamed my heart out," she recalls.
Hall was stepping out of the shower when he heard the scream. It curdled his stomach, and he ran naked to the backyard. And when he saw Stacey in the pool, fully clothed, he knew immediately what had happened.

He had been an EMT with the volunteer fire department in Sedona and he knew what to do: cleared the water from his son's airways and breathed a father's breath into him to keep the son alive.

John kneeled silently on the other side of the pool watching his father and his brother.

Hall remembers standing, still naked, as the med-evac helicopter fwop-fwopped out of his Scottsdale backyard, a surreal scene from real life, thinking, "You have fucked up. You have committed the worst a parent can do."

That night, Todd and Stacey gave the doctors permission to turn off life support, and Cody died.

Hall ran away from life in every way he could. He never went back to the house where his son drowned. He got himself fired from 8700. He got up to his nostrils in cocaine, and when he ran out of money, he took his family and fled first to Salt Lake City and then to California, leaving behind a reputation for drug use and erratic, temperamental behavior.

"I went into a big-time state of denial," he says now. "We kept running and running and running."

And when things seemed to be heading back on track, he derailed again. Hall was shot almost to death, the victim in an attempted robbery in a seedy Fresno neighborhood.

Now, a year and a half later, after extensive psychotherapy, Todd Hall is back in Phoenix to start over.

"I can go to L.A., I can go to Vegas. I can get--tomorrow!--big bucks!" he says. "I'm coming back to clean up the mess I left."

He's not sure he'll even find a job, not sure that the high-spirited celebrity chefs at the high-end Valley restaurants will welcome him back into the culinary fraternity, not sure they'll even return his phone calls.

"I want to see if they're going to forgive me," he says.
But regardless of how badly he behaved in the past (and may behave tomorrow), none of them will criticize Todd Hall's cooking.

"They can't touch my food," he says proudly. "It comes out on time, it's hot, and it tastes fucking good."

"Life I know very little about," Todd Hall says in his usual confessional tone. But he knows everything about food.

"In cooking you learn to understand not the formulation of ingredients or procedures," he says. "You learn to understand butter. Everything that can go wrong with butter, I have personally done wrong with butter.

"It takes years to understand an egg. . . . What happens when you put a potato in 300-degree oil? What happens when you put it in a roasting pan? What happens when you cut it lengthwise?"

On a recent afternoon, he is philosophizing over three cups of soup at a trendy Spanish restaurant just off Camelback. The seafood soup he decides to save for last. He pushes the gazpacho aside, mumbling that gazpacho is supposed to be chilled and this cup is close to room temperature. The third cup holds a steaming green-brown garlic soup, and he raises a spoonful to his lips.

"It touches all four parts of your palate: salt, sweet, sour, bitter," he says in a rapid-fire drone. "When you eat that soup, which part of your palate is standing out stronger, longer?"

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