Esca

Tags

, ,

IMG_0758

A simple but successful amuse-bouche at Esca: crostino with cannellini beans and parsley.

When I go out for a serious meal, especially at a restaurant serving exquisitely fresh and carefully-chosen fish with a pricetag to match, I don’t expect to hear Teenager in Love on the playlist.

I had been looking forward to a meal at Esca for a long time. Though I respectfully disagree with Mario Batali’s “restaurant empire” approach to his business, it’s clear he has excellent taste, at least in food. A meal that I had at Babbo was one of the highlights of the past few years, and Mario deserves a lot of credit for promoting authentic Italian cooking in a city with deep traditions of red-sauce Italian-American joints. He not only popularized authentic Italian cooking in his New York restaurants, he introduced the US to the Italian tradition of raw fish, or crudo, at his fish restaurant Esca.

It was the pesce crudo which had brought me to Esca. Although raw fish in the Italian style has now made its way onto menus throughout the country, back in 2000 when the New York Times first reviewed Esca, William Grimes rightfully called the crudo appetizers at Esca “the freshest, most exciting thing to happen to Italian food in recent memory.”

I had read several profiles of Esca executive chef Dave Pasternack, a rare breed who is both a chef and literally a fisherman, who sometimes serves his own catch alongside fish flown in from around the globe. From the little I know of him, I admire him. He seems humble. He has been content not to open eight other restaurants or become a celebrity chef. In the short-term-relationship culture of American restaurants, he has stayed committed to Esca for 17 years now. And he’s actually there — cooking in the kitchen, answering the phone — having chosen to stay actively engaged rather than delegating that most hallowed duty of cooking to a team of anonymous and poorly-paid line cooks.

So I arrived with high expectations, which were completely satisfied in some ways, but greatly disappointed in others. The highlight was indeed the pesce crudo. I selected a mixed sampler of six types of fish, each one treated individually to its own proper olive oil and sea salt, chosen to complement the type of fish it accompanied. This appetizer was one of the finest things I’ve eaten in a long time — everything I expected and more.

IMG_0759

Unfortunately, not much else impressed me about Esca. My horror at encountering 1950s doo-wop continued. “Teenager in Love” was followed by any number of hackneyed hits from what is certainly a valid musical genre, but one which seemed completely and utterly out of place in a fine-dining establishment dedicated to exquisite fish cookery. The music contributed greatly to the feeling that the restaurant, located in the touristy theater district, was indeed a tourist trap, an engineered product meant more to sell than to enlighten.

The service was also concerning. Given that I was listening to “Earth Angel” in the background, the service was surprisingly stiff. I love elegance and formality, but not stiffness. I was clearly excited about being there, but my server reciprocated no such warmth, nor did he sense or feed off of my enthusiasm. I sensed no passion or commitment, just a guy doing a job in the stilted way he’d been trained to do it. It made me a little sad.

Equally concerning was the wine list. There were many wonderful bottles on the list, even some high-value ones alongside a disturbingly high percentage of $100+ bottles and a $1200 bottle of Barolo (rich bankers, anyone?). But I also saw a lot of red wines which might be well-known (Barbera, Chianti, Barolo), but which seemed totally out of place with a fish-driven menu. Why did their list include a $550 bottle of rich and jam-like Amarone but no example of the light and refreshing wine Bardolino from the shores of Lake Garda? One thing I love about all Batali restaurants is their use of the coravin device to extract a glass of wine from a bottle without removing the cork, which is a great way for a restaurant to offer, by the glass, an expensive wine which might go to waste if whole bottles were opened. I have drunk some memorable Barolo in this way. But did I really need to spend $82 on a 6 ounce glass of 10 year old Barolo from Oddero? Really? Overall, it was one of the most disappointing wine experiences I’ve had in a good restaurant.

My pasta was disappointing as well: trofie with pesto, mussels, and cherry tomatoes.

IMG_0760

This is a classic dish from Liguria, but it was oversauced with pesto which was muddy rather than bright, and neither the mussels nor cherry tomatoes contributed any clear, memorable flavor, shocking given the laser-precise flavors which characterized my appetizer.

I lost a little confidence in the kitchen and was having childhood flashbacks of Top Gun, owing to the refrain of “You’ve got that loving feeling” clearly emanating from the sound system. I decided to skip a secondo course and move to dessert.

I can think of no better way to end a meal, especially of fish, than with sorbet. I really only wanted one little scoop of something, but in the contemporary American restaurant fashion I was permitted no less than three scoops when one would have been better.

IMG_0761

They were very successful, if perhaps lacking just a bit in personality or character.

IMG_0762

I gave Esca one last chance to wow me, ordering a macchiato to conclude. It was decent, in a standard sort of way, but if only more restaurants and coffee bars would master the art of frothing milk properly! What one wants is frothed milk not reminiscent of soap suds but thick cream.

Having made no real connection to my server, I didn’t regret not seeing him on my way out. It took a few blocks to shake the soundtrack from my head. It has taken longer to shake my disappointment in a restaurant that is doing some things so well, and others with mediocrity. It’s been that way a long time, if one is to believe William Grimes’s first review of Esca, 17 years ago. I certainly haven’t given up on Esca, and it is cruel to make any conclusions about a place based on one visit. But maybe next time I’ll just sit at the bar, enjoy my crudi, and have appropriate expectations.

Please note that this is not a formal review. Among other things, a professional review is based on repeated visits to an establishment and eating through a larger portion of the menu. Instead, I simply offer some impressions of my first visit to Esca.

Chicken Liver Pâté, My Way

Tags

, , ,

Crostini

There aren’t many foods I won’t eat. Tripe is one, despite my best efforts. Another is liver. In my early days of cooking, I was assured that what turns most people off about liver is its flavor and texture when overcooked. Cook a nice, high-quality piece of liver to a nice pink medium, I was told, and it would be a revelation. I tried. I really tried. But every time I couldn’t get it down. It always ended up in the trash.

Then, about 11 years ago, during a very brief stage at Osteria Pane e Salute, I was given crostini with chicken liver pâté, prepared in the classic Tuscan manner. They were wonderful, flavorful but mild and smooth in texture. This was liver I could eat gladly.

Somehow, once I got home from Pane, my efforts couldn’t quite recreate the flavor of Caleb’s. The liver flavor was too strong. Something wasn’t right. I put it aside for years.

But this year I was tired of my wasteful practice of discarding the gorgeous livers from the whole chickens I buy from Forks Farm. I was tired of my lazy habit of freezing them — always planning to use them some day, which never came — and I resolved to master the art of chicken liver pâté.

Most recipes call for capers and/or anchovies, aiming for what Samin Nosrat would call a “layering of salt.” Usually I have both capers and anchovies on hand, but that day I had neither. And so, once again I learned the wonderful principle that mistakes or shortcuts often lead to better results. Since I didn’t have capers or anchovies, I just increased the proportion of onions — the sweet onions I grow on the farm — and crossed my fingers.

The results were great, exactly the taste memory I possessed. I still can’t eat a piece of liver straight, but this pâté is one of my very favorite foods. We serve it whenever possible as an amuse-bouche at the restaurant, a gentle and mild introduction to liver for the skeptical. I love the simplicity of this recipe, untraditional but good, and I hope it encourages you too to give chicken liver pâté a try!

_________________________________________________

Crostini with Chicken Liver Pâté

Factory-farmed meat is always immoral and very unappetizing, but for organ meats it seems especially sad. The livers of a conventionally raised bird just look unhealthy. Pastured birds by contrast have nice looking livers, fresh and plump. This is a dish I would rather not make than make with factory-raised meat.

Begin by heating a large pan to high heat with a generous bit of olive oil, and when the oil just begins to send up faint wisps of smoke, add about 12 ounces of chicken livers (rinsed and dried) along with 4 to 6 ounces of coarsely chopped or sliced sweet onion. Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, some fresh sage if you have it around, and saute for just a few minutes until everything has lost much of its raw color.

Deglaze the pan with broth, water, or wine (or a mix), adding enough to come up at least a half-inch or so up the side of the pan.

Simmer in the oven at 325 degrees F° for about 20 minutes, then return to high heat and cook over all but a little bit of liquid. Add a pat or two of butter if possible.

Process in a food processor, adding generous grinds of hot pepper, along with broth and/or olive oil to create a smooth pâté. It should be smooth, but still have some texture. It might look very runny, but it will firm up after resting in the fridge.

Add a little freshly grated parmigiano and freshly minced parsley. Taste for salt, keeping in mind that a bland or mild pâté is an abomination. It needs to be aggressively seasoned. Allow to rest in the fridge for at least an hour or two until firmed up.

To make the crostini, lightly toast little cubes of high-quality bread. I do this in a pan with a little olive oil. Top each piece of toast with a little dollop of pâté and bake in an oven for about 5 minutes at 350 or 400 degrees F°.

Just before serving, garnish with additional parmigiano, pepper, and fresh parsley.

Justin Naylor (chef & proprietor, Old Tioga Farm)

An Interview with Victor Hazan

 

victor

Victor and Marcella at home in Florida in 2008.

This is the second interview in our new monthly series of interviews with prominent voices in the field of food and wine. You can read last month’s interview with Samin Nosrat here.

Victor Hazan is a hero and role model of mine. His wife, the late Marcella Hazan, is widely considered the godmother of Italian cooking in America, and it is her books that have formed the foundation of my own understanding and practice of Italian cooking. For more information on Victor before delving into the interview, you can read my profile of him here.

In this interview, we discuss his rich life in food and wine, from his earliest boyhood days in Italy, to collaborating with Marcella on her cookbooks, to his own book on Italian wine, and his everlasting affection for Venice. Enjoy!

______________________________________

July 19, 2017

Justin Naylor: Thanks so much for making the time for this interview today. Your writings and Marcella’s have influenced me tremendously, so it’s very meaningful for me to speak with you.

I learned quite a bit about Marcella’s childhood in Italy from her wonderful memoir Amarcord, but I’d like to hear your story of growing up in Italy in the 1930s.

Victor Hazan: It was fairly close to most Italian boys’ childhoods. I was born in a small town called Cesena, only about eight miles away from where Marcella was born. Her town was called Cesenatico. My mother and father had a fur store in Cesena. My father was always a furrier from the beginning, and we had a house with a nice courtyard and fruit trees. I have one dramatic memory of that. I must have been about five, perhaps. I had a little lamb. I thought it was my pet. But it wasn’t my pet. It was a lamb my parents had bought, and were feeding, and planned to have slaughtered. When the man came to kill it, he took this little lamb by the hind legs – he was a strong man – and brought it very hard down on the pavement, smashing its head. Unfortunately, I saw all of that. It’s very vivid. Odd, isn’t it, how certain memories get planted and never eradicated?

JN: Did that memory affect how you thought of eating meat, later in life?

VH: No, not at all. It didn’t connect. I’m very sorry about animal suffering; I feel sorry, for example, when I’ve gone fishing and I see what happens to fish when they are hooked and caught and brought up and allowed to flop their way to death on the deck of the boat. I feel very sorry for them, but I don’t connect that with the food on the table. I don’t know whether you have that problem or not. I think we are just wired to disconnect at that point.

JN: How aware were you of the political events unfolding in Europe during your childhood?

VH: More than aware; they were a part of my life. We were all Fascists at that time, we were all very proud of what Mussolini was telling us from his balcony. My father had lots of customers who were very highly placed in the Fascist hierarchy. Everybody was in favor of everything.

Then in 1938, Mussolini and Hitler made a pact and suddenly everything changed. [Being Jewish,] I was no longer going to look forward to going to middle school, not to speak of university. I could not plan to enter any of the professions. That was in the mild beginning of the racial trauma. However, my father, who was an exceptionally far-seeing and astute man, said, “This is not going to get better, and there is no point in our staying here.” So, he took a year to divest himself of everything he had, even at a great loss. He bought tickets to the United States. My father left everything behind: all his property, all his stores; he had five at that time. We had moved to Bologna. I did my elementary school in Bologna, and I stayed until the spring of 1939, so I completed grammar school in Italy.

Then we came to America. It certainly was a shock. I didn’t speak any English. We had no connection with any family here. My father had business connections in the fur business, because it was an international business, but it was summer, so I didn’t even have school friends. Then in the fall I was entered in school. My father had gotten someone to teach me English, but more than the person that I was having conversations with, I was reading. I read an immense amount in English. I had a dictionary, but I very quickly picked up most of the vocabulary – to the extent that when I went to school, I had a spelling competition, and of all people, I was the one who won it.

JN: I love it. During your teenage years, did you always have a return to Italy on your mind?

VH: Oh, very much so. This is really how the rest of my life came to be, from the beginning. First of all, I was very attached to my grandmother, and I suffered tremendously not to be with her. Both my mother and my father were very busy businesspeople, so I was mostly in the care of my grandmother and of the housekeeper. It was my grandmother that I missed, very much.

I also missed the food. Food became almost agonizing to me. I could not adapt to the kind of food that was easily available. On weekends, my mother would cook. But, you know, she hadn’t been a cook; she had been a businesswoman. She cooked; she made meat sauce, meatballs, veal scaloppine, so there was a semblance of Italian food coming to the table at one point during the week. But basically I was cut off from that. I had none of my old friends from school, and I was having difficulty making friends with American kids. It didn’t come easy.

So, I thought about when we would go back to Italy. But by that time, the war had broken out. It went on and on for years; there was no contact with Italy. I never heard my grandmother’s voice again, and I never saw her again, because sometime during the war she died. But all the time, I kept thinking about the food I had been eating when I was eight, nine, ten, eleven.

I wrote a piece about this for a magazine once: one of my earliest memories was going to Venice at the age of eight. We were living in Bologna and going to Venice was a snap then; there wasn’t much traffic. We went to Venice for lunch, and I remember the gamberetti – tiny, tiny, sweet shrimp from the lagoon. I have a very, very vivid memory of that when I was only eight. Of course, we lived in Bologna, and we would occasionally go out to a restaurant, or the housekeeper would make pasta at home. We ate extraordinarily well. Suddenly, all of that was subtracted from my life. I never adapted completely to American life. In the back of my mind was when I would go back to Italy. I started going to college – the war was still on when I went to college, but I became ill. I developed tuberculosis and spent two years in bed up in New York state – all the time, thinking. And there the food was unspeakable. Two years of that.

JN: Probably worse than the illness!

VH: Worse than the illness. I was lucky because at the end of the two years, it coincided with the discovery of streptomycin, and massive doses of streptomycin wiped out the tuberculosis. It also wiped out my hearing, because large doses of antibiotics do that. I recovered, and I didn’t feel like going back to school. All I was thinking about was: how do I get back to Italy? It was in 1948, and I went to work for my father so that I could save some money. I went to The New School in my time off, and I discovered art history along with an extraordinary teacher. I saved money until 1952, and bought myself a ticket to go to Europe.

JN: Based on your love of food from a young age, many people might think – wrongly – that that was what drew you to Marcella. But of course, when you met Marcella, she didn’t cook at all, so it wasn’t that.

VH: She didn’t cook at all, but she didn’t have to. First of all, she was very beautiful, very attractive. We felt an immediate mutual attraction. We were young and we had hormones flying around. But, the food – that was the great, wonderful discovery. It was like being accepted into Heaven again. The seafood I had in Cesenatico – this was in 1950 – it was only the seafood being caught every night out in the Adriatic by the boats. That was it. It was everything that I had been thinking about coming to. Very few experiences in life are like it, but this was. It happened to coincide with a romance that was growing between me and Marcella. You couldn’t have a better combination of sensual pleasures.

JN: And what was it about Marcella’s personality or character that drew you so strongly to her?

VH: It was something that, in retrospect, I realize was the key to who she was, to who she became. Marcella was very direct, very straightforward. She had no euphemisms. Everything was plain talking. In fact, the people of Romagna are very much like that. In Italy, if you made the mistake of asking someone how they were, they would give you the particulars of their health. That’s how it was. Anyway, Marcella didn’t have the forms of kindness. It was very difficult for Marcella to come up with an expression that could be described as kind, because that didn’t enter into normal relationships. She was direct. She wasn’t unkind or cruel. This was the way she talked. This was her relationship with students. There were many students who thought Marcella was hard. She wasn’t hard. This was just the way she was.

JN: You’ve described her elsewhere as “not easy, but true,” which I think is a very descriptive way to get at it. After you met Marcella, you were back in Italy – it was sort of a dream come true, but a few years later you find yourself back in New York again, this time married.

VH: Well, a couple of things happened first. I cashed in my return Pan American airplane ticket, because I didn’t have any money. Then I wrote to my father, who, in the end was a very patient and understanding man. I wrote to him and I said, “What I really want to do is to write. I don’t want to come back and get into the fur business. I don’t see that as my future, but I’m here in a place where I finally feel at home.” My father said, “Okay, I’ll give you a small allowance.” It really was very small. I didn’t say anything about having met Marcella. You know, she was Catholic. What happened to my parents was, when they were living in Italy before, [Judaism] didn’t really mean very much to them. They ate pork, sausages, and crustaceans, and they didn’t particularly observe the holidays. Once the laws went into effect and they had to change their life because of them, they came to be very religious Jews. They had a very unaccommodating attitude toward mixed marriages. So I didn’t say anything about Marcella.

They gave me some money, I got a beautifully-located apartment on a hill outside Florence, and of course I didn’t do any writing. I kept going back and forth to Cesenatico to be with Marcella. I told my parents, “I found this woman, I love her very much, and I would like to get married.” They were very, very upset, and they no longer sent me any money. My father came over and tried to talk Marcella’s father into withholding his approval from the marriage. My father told him I was completely irresponsible, extravagant, and could never make a proper husband for anybody. But Marcella’s father said, “Well, she loves him, and he loves her, and I think we have to leave it up to them.” And so, we got married. But at a certain point – I don’t remember the exact way this worked – I was on my way back to New York. I think my father had been ill, I think I had been ill – but, there was a reconciliation and they said, “Come home.”

JN: This was long before Marcella’s teaching and writing career. You were working for your father in his business, which you did not want to do. Were these difficult days for you, back in New York?

VH: Very difficult, Justin. Very difficult. I did it as well as I could, because part of my character is, whatever I’m involved in I do it conscientiously, whether I enjoy it or not. I did it as well as I could, but I was not happy. Marcella – you know about her education and her science background – she found a job with Bellevue Guggenheim dental research institute. She worked there in the laboratory as a laboratory technician.

This would have been between 1955 and 1960. In 1958, our son Giuliano was born, and Marcella stopped working. I had gradually become more intolerant of the business I was involved in, and in 1962 I told Marcella, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore. We’re going back to Italy.” She was not all that happy about it. Marcella was a very practical woman. She said, “Where is the money going to be coming from? What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know what I can do, but I don’t want to live here. I want to go back to Italy.” And that’s how it happened, we flew back to Italy in 1962. We went to Cesenatico. I started looking at the newspaper classified ads, never finding anything suitable until one day I saw an ad for copy chief in Milan for BBD&O. I got a letter from a friend who has a good advertising agency, telling a few lies about me, and I went to Milan and got the job. I just had to fake it the first year or so. I did work hard at it and had a talent for communication, and I did well.

JN: Moving ahead a little bit, by the late 1960s, you’re back in New York.

VH: We got back in 1967, and Marcella didn’t look for laboratory work again because she didn’t feel like it. She had started taking a class in Japanese flower arrangement. I had always been very interested in Oriental art from my first year in college, and we decided to go to Japan for a month. In the meantime, she had enrolled in a Chinese cooking class. The Chinese teacher decided to go to China for a sabbatical, and the women in the class were at a loss as to what to enroll in next, and they asked Marcella. This was 1969. She started teaching this group of women, and they came every week for a year, until she got fed up and said, “I don’t want to see you again.” She told me, “I guess I’m not going to teach again.” I said, “No, wait a second, I’m going to write to the Times, and see if you can give cooking classes.” And of course, that’s what happened. Craig Claibourne came over, and he gave Marcella a big page, and it never stopped after that.

JN: Could you describe a little bit about what it was like to collaborate with Marcella in writing the books? She, of course, would write in Italian, and you then would take her Italian text and turn it into English, so it’s a combination of your voice and her voice.

VH: One of the aspects of that is that Marcella wrote a perfectly functional recipe based on the dishes she had cooked. I hadn’t been doing any cooking. None, period. I hadn’t even been watching her in the kitchen because at that time I was working with my father again. So she would give me that notebook, and I would look at it and try to imagine how the recipe would develop in the kitchen. I would ask her a lot of questions, and she would be very impatient – because to Marcella, everything was obvious, common sense. We’d have arguments about that. I suppose my questions led to a re-editing of the recipes, very often. Sometimes I would ask a question about what she did with an ingredient. She said, “Isn’t it obvious?” “Well,” I said, “it’s not obvious to me.” So, she would go back and describe it. That was the hard part of it. When it came to the actual writing, it wasn’t that difficult. I tried to imagine Marcella as an English speaker, and I tried to recreate. The actual English version isn’t always a 100% transposed version of what Marcella wrote. It’s what Marcella intended, recreated for an English-speaking reader. This was 1971; I wrote everything on a portable Smith Corona. I typed everything at night when I came home. I would work probably at 2 or 3 in the morning. It was agonizing.

JN: Today, especially in the last ten or fifteen years, Italian cooking in America has changed so much and become so much more authentic. Can you describe what Italian cooking in America was like in the 1970s when Marcella’s first book was published?

VH: Well, we ate out as seldom as possible in Italian restaurants. It just was unrecognizable to us as Italian food. It was a caricature of it. There was an Italian family that had emigrated from the same place where my parents had emigrated, and they would have us over for Thanksgiving. They would have what they called an “Italian” Thanksgiving dinner, of which I understood nothing. But aside from that, you know, the pasta with meatballs: I couldn’t understand pasta with meatballs. And the special sauces. And lots and lots of vegetables without any special flavors to them. It was very painful to me. That was one restaurant on 47th Street called Del Pezzo. My father had become friends with them, and they were genuine. They were better than any Italian restaurant I’ve eaten in in America since. They were really cooking the way I remember the food was at home, or at a restaurant in Bologna.

JN: Why do you think your friends, who were from Italy – why do you think their cooking changed so much and became so unrecognizable once they were here in the US?

VH: You know, this is a mystery, but it’s a classic Italian fault. Italians, unlike the French — and unlike Italians this very day — Italians generally are always ready to modify their traditions to show that they can do what other people expect them to do. For example, Italians have always had the best clothes: the best fabric and the best tailoring. But for a long time, all the good Italian clothes manufacturers would use English labels. Clothing had to be merchandised as English. The food was the same. A lot of Italians who came here and became intimate with Italians who had immigrated here and had created Italian-American cuisine assumed that was the kind of cuisine that was expected from them, and that’s what they cooked. It’s still a lot like that. There are very few dishes made at Italian restaurants here in Sarasota that I enjoy eating. When I go to New York – and I have rarely gone to New York since Marcella died – when she was teaching her seminars at the French Culinary Institute, we would go out to Chinese and Japanese restaurants. We would have very little experience of what Italian restaurants were making. So I think we were ignorant of that. I have eaten in a couple of well-reviewed places. They’re not – you know – if you lifted them and dumped them in the middle of Rome, or Bologna, or Florence, you wouldn’t recognize them as Italian restaurants. They wouldn’t survive a weekend.

JN: What about them isn’t quite right?

VH: Well, it’s no longer a question of people being unfamiliar with Italian cooking. I think the familiarity with Italian cooking is astonishing. It’s astonishing the number of ingredients, and the number of dishes, and the awareness of regional tradition that are now being used in this country. But what happens is, they always have to put a spin – something has to be modified. It’s not like Marcella. As I said, Marcella was direct and she made no compromises. This is how it was, you know, and you either liked it or you didn’t like it, but this was the truth. The Italian cooking that I’ve experienced in New York and in San Francisco and lately, when I went on a tour, in Marin County, is not the truth. It’s a little bit of a white lie to ingratiate yourself with a public that may be looking for something different. I think it’s possible to have absolutely genuine, sterling Italian food in this country. I’m sure there are places like that. When the Culinary Institute had a event for Marcella, a dinner, a man called Mark Ladner, who had been cooking at an Italian restaurant called Del Posto cooked. He cooked beautifully, there were close to one hundred people. He cooked a beautiful lunch. It could have been served anywhere in Milano, successfully.

JN: I would like to ask a little bit more about Marcella’s cooking. You have said that her cooking was simply spellbinding – magical – and that even though she was a great teacher, others couldn’t quite reproduce the magic of her cooking. What was so spellbinding about her cooking?

VH: You would like me to disclose the secret of magic? Isn’t that a lot to ask?

JN: (Laughter) Yes, it is!

VH: You just would have to see it or taste it, just like a ballet performance or a particular recital or a painting. I don’t know. Some of them work, and some of them are just everyday stuff. You have to take this into consideration too. It was not extraordinary 100% of the time. It was always very good, but there’s a certain line she crossed sometimes that put it in a different territory. What Marcella had, among her many qualities, was the quality of observation, which she got in part from her father. Her father was extremely observant. He wouldn’t talk much. But he would remember afterwards everything a guest might have worn, the clothing, the way they did their hair, the sound of their voice, the way they moved across the room. He would notice everything, and Marcella was the same way. There’s a photo taken near the end of her life. She’s evidently very old. She hasn’t gotten dressed yet. She’s still wearing her night clothes: her nightshirt and her robe. And she’s cooking. She’s cooking something in a skillet and she’s bending over, almost as though her gaze were to get inside the nature of the food that she was cooking. That was her observation: she was checking everything. Something was either cooking too fast or too slow, or needed to be turned over. I think that’s one of the things that contributed to those instances when what she brought to the table was extraordinary.

JN: It really makes the point that to learn to cook you need to see and smell and observe at the side of a master.

VH: I think it’s paying attention, using your senses. She had a very acute sense of smell. She always said she didn’t have to taste whether something was salted or not, she could smell it. She was smelling, she was touching, she was moving things around. She was hearing the sound of whatever it was she was cooking. This is one of the reasons she didn’t like ovens. There were some things that had to be cooked in an oven, but basically, to her, cooking was something that had to be done on a stove. It was a live act. Of course, she had this intuition that could not be quantified about how things should be. It isn’t enough just to look at something, if you don’t know how it should be. And she had that. Instantly. That’s as far as I think I can go on the topic.

JN: Sure. What are some dishes, Victor, that Marcella used to cook for you that you especially miss?

VH: Well, the jewel of them all was her lasagne. I’m not even going to attempt it. That was really a combination of various moments of paying attention to an infinitude of details and knowing the right decisions to make at every step. Her lasagne was something that I’ve never had anywhere. The people who were lucky enough to have tasted them were all but paralyzed by the flavor. They had never known that could be a dish of lasagne.

I also miss her stews. She would make a lamb stew or a beef stew. She didn’t use pork very much. The flavors of the vegetables that were in it, of the oil, the butter, the flavor of the basic component of the meat. Her stews had this extraordinary flavor, a beautiful flavor. It wasn’t just tasty. It just had an expressive flavor. When you see a performance on a stage, someone dancing or performing, it isn’t just competent or proficient. It goes beyond that to something extremely expressive of feeling, and this is how Marcella’s stews used to be.

Frying is something I’m really clumsy at. I don’t even like to do it at all. She would fry zucchini or finocchio. You know, some of those things people don’t even fry. I don’t hear anyone talking about fried finocchio. She would slice and blanch and bread the finocchio and fry it, and it was marvelous. Just as her fried zucchini flowers were. People are doing all kinds of funny things with zucchini flowers. They can’t leave them alone. They open them up and put in ricotta or some other kind of cheese, or who knows what else. They have to be stuffed with something. Marcella didn’t stuff them at all.

JN: Yes. I also prefer them unstuffed, because they’re so delicate.

VH: When you fry them, you convey the fragility of their texture, which is very moving. So, those are the things I don’t make because I know I will not be able to do it, and I don’t know anybody who can. I can go to a Japanese restaurant and have tempura, you know, and it can be very very good, but it doesn’t taste like Marcella’s.

JN: If I had to pick one thing – the most important thing I learned from Marcella’s books – it would be that I learned from her the importance of salting food correctly. Every time she published a book, it seems like her opinion on this subject was expressed more strongly. In her last book, Ingredienti, as you know, she gave her strongest statement yet: “Learning to salt correctly is the most important skill a cook can learn.” Could you discuss this concept?

VH: Well, it is, Justin, because without it there is very little flavor. As time went on – and this was one of her disappointments – she found that people wouldn’t use enough salt, or wouldn’t use any salt. We’ve run into people who said, “I don’t have any salt in the house. What do I need salt for?”

JN: That’s awful!

VH: People who don’t put salt in the pasta water. To Marcella, the ultimate goal – the object of all of this business of shopping, prepping, cooking, and serving – was taste. How does it taste? Not how does it look, not how healthy it is, not how new it is, not how creative it is. But, how does it taste? If you make a practice of not reaching for the salt, it’s not going to have any taste. Period. And then you get accustomed. She would say there are people she had met whose palates were atrophied because their palates had not been exercised. They had never been exposed to food that had taste. So when they were confronted with a dish that somebody else had made that had taste, they didn’t even enjoy it. They were put off by it.

JN: Yes, I always compare it to someone who spends all their time indoors. When you finally go outside, the sun is completely overwhelming.

VH: Yes.

JN: Did Marcella convince her students of the importance of salt, or did they leave the classes still skeptical?

VH: I don’t know. Marcella, of course, when she was demonstrating to her students, used salt. When the food came to the table, they said it was delicious. She explained what the role of the salt was that she had used, and how they wouldn’t be able to duplicate that flavor without salt. But once they went back home, who knows what they did? I don’t really trust people. My gut sensation is that maybe 90% of the people in this country who are cooking – and I’m only talking about the ones who are cooking – do not use enough salt in their food.

JN: Yes, I agree.

VH: And so, 90% of the people in this country who are cooking are eating food that doesn’t have the full expression of flavor that it could be capable of. However, to them, this is what it’s supposed to be like, because they’ve accustomed themselves. Habit.

JN: Let me ask about one of Marcella’s most famous recipes, her lovely pasta sauce with tomatoes, onion, and butter. Could you tell the story of how she developed that dish?

VH: Well, Justin, it’s an instance of intuition. There is a sauce in which you cook some onion and butter and you add tomatoes. It was basic in her family and in many families in Emilia Romagna who make tomato sauce. They’re as likely to make it with butter as they are with olive oil. Which, you know, enrages the self-appointed defenders of Southern Italian cooking. It does. Marcella used to get letters all the time. “This is not the way my grandmother did it.” But in Emilia Romagna, you do use butter. You didn’t make a tomato sauce to have with pasta. You see, that is where the thing takes a different road. Because the tradition – I’m not talking about late 20th century, but early 20th and late 19th century – the tradition in Emilia Romagna was handmade egg pasta. You don’t use tomato sauce with handmade egg pasta.You either use butter and sage, you use just plain butter, you use meat sauce, you use some other kind of sauce, but not tomato sauce. Or you may use a patch of tomato to give color to something else. There is no such thing as pasta with tomato sauce in the lexicon of Emilia-Romagnan cooking. Marcella’s mother made this very good sauce – absolutely delicious – that she used with veal involtini. She made stuffed zucchini using it. She used it a few other dishes that were vegetable or meat dishes, but not with pasta.

Then we stroll forward to 1955 or 1960, and we’re living in America. Marcella didn’t always make meat sauce; sometimes she made her mother’s tomato sauce. She looked at, she tasted it; suddenly, one day she said, “Well, yes, I’ll use the butter and onion, but I’ll just put everything in the pan [without chopping the onion].” How did this intuition come to her? You answer that. You know, that’s magic. Where does that come from? Somewhere out there. If you have a direct line to out there, maybe you can get the answer, but I don’t.

JN: I’d like to transition to wine and talk a little about your wonderful book on wine. By the 1970s, you and Marcella are running a cooking school in Bologna. You are preparing courses in that school on wine, and that leads to the publication of your book, Italian Wine, in 1982. It was a very important time, because so much was changing in Italian wine in the late 70s and early 80s, for better and worse.

VH: Yes, it was a fortunate time, in fact. I had, of course, never expected to write a book on wine. I had to select the wine for Marcella’s classes, and I wrote descriptions of them because I was still working in the fur business. I wrote descriptions which I left with Marcella on cards, and I went back to New York, and Marcella’s editor at Knopf, a woman by the name of Judith Jones, visited Marcella’s school and she read the wine descriptions. She came back to New York and called me. She said, “Victor, you must do a book on Italian wine. We don’t have a very good book on Italian wine. I read your descriptions and it sounds as though there is something interesting going on.” I said, “Well, okay, I’ll try it, but it will take time; I just don’t know that much.”

This was in 1977 that she asked me. Marcella started the school in 1976. When she came back to New York, we talked and I signed a contract in 1977. At that point I had disengaged myself from the fur business. I told my parents, “Look, this is developing into a career that I think is suitable to me.” I went back to Italy and I traveled. I traveled from 1978 to 1981. I think I probably visited every respectable wine producer in Italy at that time. I sensed that a great new world in Italian wine was developing. I met people who had been doing wine as it had been done forever. Sometimes the wine was good, many times the wine was not good. Then I met people who believed in their grapes, believed in their territory, but said, “What we’ve been doing up to now is not worthy of the wine that we can make. So we are looking for improvements.”

At that time I met Antonio Mastroberardino, the most inspiring of all. Because whereas Angelo Gaja and others were very sophisticated, very well-acquainted with the international wine trade, and what they were looking for was to produce a wine that would have international acceptance, Antonio Mastroberardino simply was a man of his territory. He loved the aglianico grape. He recognized in the aglianico grape the potential to make as good red wine as you could make on the planet, and he set himself to doing that, without thinking where in the world he was going to sell it. And he produced in 1968 a single vineyard examples of three select locations on his property of an extraordinary wine. I’ve had that over the years – he gave me a case of it – and I still have one bottle. It’s an amazing wine.

So that was the world of wine that I was being introduced to. I was being introduced to wine being made in smelly, old Slavonian oak barrels that hadn’t been cleaned in 25 years, and wine that was being painfully, carefully brought up like Little Lord Fauntleroy, that had great promise. I thought, In a few years, nobody is going to be able to surpass what Italy will be able to do. That was where I left it.

JN: Is it sad to you that it seems that many producers couldn’t stop with making the good improvements that they needed, and maybe went a little too far in many wines that lost the sense of place?

VH: Yes, that is correct. You read my piece in Town & Country on that?

JN: Yes, I have.

VH: Yes, I found that all over. This is a situation that I describe in the following terms: a great many people in fashion, in business, in personal relationships, and in making wine, you know, are concerned with image. What Marcella and I, and many other people that I’ve met, were concerned with was identity. There’s a difference between identity and image. Image you prepare, image you polish. Identity you inherit.

JN: And winemaking in Italy shifted so much toward image that you no longer recognized many Italian wines by the mid-90s, and declined to write a second book?

VH: Yes, there were too many wines that were being produced to capture the attention of people who are used to drinking wine from California, or maybe from Australia. Italian producers who were very intelligent, very competent, technologically as advanced as any in the world said, We can make wines to suit their palate. We’ll buy our barrels in France. Italian wine shouldn’t have been tasting like that. That’s not every Italian wine, but there is an enormous number of Italian wines that are like that.

I’ve become very friendly with Angelo Gaja. We visited him many times, he came to Venice many times. We had many frank conversations about his objectives. I once questioned him about his ripping out a Nebbiolo vineyard. He said, “When I bring a wine to the international market and I put it down on the table, I tell them it’s Nebbiolo. They look at me, they taste it, they don’t recognize it. It doesn’t register. If I put a Cabernet Sauvignon on the table, they say it’s very good.” So, Italian wine became recognizable to people not accustomed to drinking Italian wine. That was his big objective. I said, “Why are you planting all these different reds?” He was planting Sauvignon-blanc and Syrah. He said, “I don’t see why I have to be stuck in the ghetto of Italian grapes.” I remember that phrase. It really poured out of him. But, of course, he is still stuck in part of that ghetto. And he is making Barbaresco and Barolo, and they’re very, very beautifully-made wines. Who can take exception to wines which are so harmonious, so well-balanced? I don’t know what you think about them, Justin. I’ve had a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco, and I don’t drink Gaja’s Barbaresco with the expectation that I’m drinking something from Italy. I drink them knowing they’ll be very good wines made by a master. If I want a Barolo that tastes like a Barolo, there are half a dozen other producers whom I enjoy better. They have soul. You know what is missing from the Gaja wine? Soul. S-O-U-L.

JN: As a result, are we better off or worse off than we were in 1980?

VH: I think we’re better off. You know, we have to be realistic. It would be difficult to pick up a bottle of Italian wine today and not find some merit in it. In 1980, I drank many glasses of very mediocre wine. I think that is becoming less and less probable.

JN: Can I ask you about a few particular wines, and can you say a little about what you think the soul of that particular wine is? I would actually like to start with Barolo. You just mentioned Barolo from producers who have some soul, as opposed to the polished, international variety. What should we look for in a Barolo with identity and soul?

VH: It’s personality. Look for the kind of impression you would get from meeting someone like Marcella. It’s a vague term – truth – you look for truth, not technique. It may have a slight defect – but it does something to you. It fills you with what it is, but not how it is made. You’re not impressed by how it is made. You’re impressed by what it is, by who it is, by where it may be coming from. It just gives you a sense of satisfaction that you get from having spent an evening with someone who is terribly compatible, not someone who is flashy and entertaining or witty and smart, but someone who is perhaps kind of plain around the edges, but who is thoroughly compatible and enjoyable. I get that from Barolo.

The aroma would have to be very deeply layered. You get a successive wave of things from a really great and well-aged Barolo. Keep in mind that I’m drinking Barolos from the ’60s and ’70s. I’m not drinking Barolos from this century at all. If I’m lucky to get some ’89s, I drink ’89s, because that’s a terrific year. You know Vietti?

JN: Yes.

VH: Or Cavollotto. Even Burlotto. These people are making wines. The wines they’ve made in the past, because I’m drinking their old wines: the aromas have different stages. I remember many years ago, when I first started traveling, I met a man in Piedmont who was working in a territory where the recognized wine name was Gattinara. But he didn’t bottle his wine as Gattinara, he bottled it under another local name, Spanna. I remember tasting them with him. He said, “When you’re tasting wines from this grape” – from the Nebbiolo grape, obviously – “you begin by holding the glass at the level of your belly button.” You just hold it there, and you breathe in. And you begin to get these wonderful, ethereal odors. You don’t know whether they’re coming from dried flowers, from undergrowth; a combination of musky and delicate perfumed odors, and very light. You take the glass close to your nose, you move it around a little bit, and you get some heavier odors: odors of asphalt, of tar, rubber, of very heavy substances. Powerful. But these are not in conflict at all with the lighter, more flowery odors. Odors of jam and licorice are a very common component of those aromas. Then you swirl the glass, and then the whole panoply of odors bounces out of the glass. However, what I see here when I go to a formal wine tasting and they want to show me how well they know wine, they pick up a glass and they swirl it with a velocity that just shocks me. Wait a second, wine is not supposed to be beaten about like that, to be whipped around a glass like that! If you really want to know what the wine is saying to you, sniff it. Then you whip it gently, and all of it – if it’s a Barolo, it has about seventy components of aroma – each one of those components then begins to come out in harmony. If you just whip it around quickly, you lose half of the most delicate and ethereal aromas that just hover at the top surface of the wine.

So, Barolo has those aromas. It also takes possession of your palate. You take a sip of Barolo and hold it in your mouth, press it with the top of your tongue against the bottom of your upper palate, and you feel a roundness, a fatness, a thickness, a muscularity. Then you swallow it, and it is so kind to the back of your throat, but it’s not insignificant. Gulping wines are very delicious wines to have on a casual meal. But if you’re paying a lot of attention to the wine, both the strength and gentleness of the movement of Barolo through the mouth, down into the throat, is almost unique. Then you get that length. And the length of that swallowed wine seems never to give up. If you’re really paying attention, it almost never gives up. It tapers to an infinitude.

JN: That’s a very beautiful description, and I’d love to talk another hour about Barolo, but I need to move on. Could I ask next about carefully-made Chianti?

VH: Well, I don’t know that you can find it very easily. Look for Chianti that describes itself as being made from all Sangiovese. They can do that today. There are a few Chiantis that still respect the old Chianti taste sensation. Paolo di Marchi’s Ceparello, for example. He makes a genuine Sangiovese. Castello di Ama is a very good producer. Except that all of these are making wines that are very much designed to make an impression. I can’t help it that I am old enough to have experienced the Chianti of another era – Chianti that was young, that was fresh, that even may have been very slightly spritzy. Some were acidic, but some were very flowery – very, very flowery, and very enjoyable. You could go to a trattoria in Tuscany then – I’m talking about the 1950s and 1960s – and you could order a wine, a litro or half litro, or a quartino. You would order the house Chianti, they would bring you a flask with maybe two liters in it, you would pour whatever you would need during the meal. They would bring the flask back, they would give a tenth of a second of a look, and they would charge you what they would think you drank, which was an insignificant amount. I can’t help it that I remember that, and I enjoyed that so much, and I wish that I could find that again.

JN: That Chianti doesn’t seem to exist anymore, that style.

VH: No.

JN: Let me ask about one more wine, a favorite of mine, a wine that is very misunderstood in this country: true, well-made Lambrusco. Of course, it is not profound like Barolo, but it is a wine of fellowship, and happiness, and laughter, and so on.

VH: Exactly. What you look for in a wine! It’s pure pleasure. It’s the company of someone whose company is pure pleasure. You’re not looking for profound, philosophical insight. You’re just enjoying the vibration between body and body. I think a good Lambrusco – and unfortunately, that has been ill-served by its introduction to the American market – I think a good, well-made Lambrusco, that’s delicious. What else can you expect from a few hours in the middle of the day with a well-cooked, simple meal? I mean, there is no better happiness.

JN: Could you explain why Lambrusco is such a good match for the cooking of Emilia Romagna?

VH: It’s the acid, Justin. It’s what the Chianti used to have. It’s that quickness, that sharpness. It’s the reason you cook with a little bit of vinegar, or a little bit of white wine. Acid is a very great component of taste, in good measure. Lambrusco has a lot of fruit in it, it’s really a crushed bunch of grapes in the glass.

JN: And the acid helps to balance the rich cuisine of the region?

VH: Oh, sure.

JN: One term that is very popular today, but that you never used in your book, is the term minerality. I feel that thirty years ago, people didn’t use the term, while today people use it all the time.

VH: It puzzles me, too. I don’t think it ever appeared in my book.

JN: Back then, did anyone use the term minerality?

VH: Nobody. I talked to squadrons of winemakers up and down Italy. They talked about everything in the world. Minerality? Boh! No. People may be right. I don’t know what it is exactly. I’m sure there is something there; everybody can’t be wrong.

JN: But it’s certainly not a term the producers themselves were using back in the 1970s?

VH: No. They probably described that sensation, but with different terms.

JN: Such as?

VH: The flavor, the odor, the texture of the wine. They no doubt described it with different terms and tried to interpret those terms. But the decision to use minerality to cover that is something that happened very late. I would say the first time I heard minerality was around 1980, and I can even remember where it was. It was with a producer of Soave, a producer who used only single-vineyard Soave – made an excellent Soave. His name is Pieropan. A very high-end producer.

JN: Oh yes.

VH: He talked about the minerality of his wines in passing. It was so unexpected, I just ignored it. I said, “I don’t know what that is,” and then we went on. But I remember very clearly hearing it for the first time in that context. I never got anybody down and said, “Now, tell me exactly – what is minerality?” Do you know what it is exactly?

JN: Well, I think it means different things to different people. Sometimes people mean “salty” or “saline.” I think sometimes people mean the sensation of wet stones after a rain, especially in white wines, of course. I think the term has absolute value and validity, but it interests me that it is clearly a new term in the lexicon and one which people seem very fuzzy about.

VH: Yes.

JN: I’d like to end our interview by talking about Venice, a city which is very dear to both of us. You mentioned visiting Venice as a young boy, and of course you and Marcella lived in Venice for about twenty years. What led you to suggest to Marcella that you move full-time to Venice?

VH: When I was eight years old, my family took a day off from work, from the business, to go to Venice and have a seafood meal. The excitement that I experienced when we got off at Piazzale Roma – because they had driven there – and I got into a vaporetto, and we went into the Grand Canal: I can feel that excitement today. And then when we sat down and we had those gamberetti – those gamberetti olio e limone, which we had as an appetizer – I had never tasted anything so sweet, so delicious. And then we had time to walk around a little. I said, This is like – this is like – some place out of my dreams. When Marcel Proust went to Venice, he wrote back to someone a postcard saying, “I’m in Venice, and I’m living in my dreams.” It is dream-like, and I had that dream all my life. The moment came when we had the opportunity to do that. We had the wherewithal, we had the kind of business that we could move to a place in Venice. In Bologna we had a big kitchen, and a big class, and it was really exhausting. There was no reason why we couldn’t go back to the format of Marcella’s original classes – six people in a kitchen. We charged them a lot of money to make it worth our while, and we had waiting lists up to three years. We could still be teaching there if we wanted to.

You’ve been to Venice. It’s like no other place. It has to affect you, though, in that way. A lot of people say, It’s like no other place, and I don’t want to spend another minute here.

People complain about the smell – and, of course, Venice today is not the Venice that I knew originally. It’s the Venice of 15 million tourists a year. But if you know the city, you know where to go. Even in the middle of August, you can escape 90% of the people visiting there. So I wanted to go back. I loved the market at the Rialto that I was acquainted with. When I had visited Venice as a little boy with my parents, something went through my mind. I looked up at the windows, and thought, Is it possible for someone to come here from outside and go behind one of those windows and open the window and look outside, and see that he’s living in Venice? Is that possible? This was going through my mind at age eight. By the time that I said, “Let’s go to Venice,” – we bought our apartment in 1978 – I was fifty years old then. It was exactly that same feeling: of wanting, of dreaming, of having a place there where you could go up, open the window, look outside, and say, This is where I live. This is the street I live on. This is my canal.

JN: And I guess that when you left, in 1999, you probably still felt that same magic. It must have been excruciating to leave.

VH: It’s excruciating even now. I’m almost 90, and I’m having trouble getting about, and I still need to go back. To go back for three weeks is OK, it’s a gift, but it’s not like having our own house. The house we had was a home of my dreams. There were two traumatic experiences in my life: one was when my mother was killed in an automobile accident, and the other was when I left Venice. Marcella’s death was very sad, and I have missed her a lot, but she had been dying. It was natural. It came in a very natural and irreversible way. But leaving Venice didn’t have to be. It had to be only because Marcella couldn’t walk.

JN: People often talk about the magical affect of light in the city of Venice, the way that light in that city seems different from any other place.

VH: Of course, because it is a compound of the light in the air, the light in the atmosphere, and the light that is received by the water and bounced back. It’s that kind of light. There are so many components. There are all those reflections in the water, Justin: the reflection of the Istrian marble of the buildings, the reflections of the peeling facades that once were pink or green; the reflections of the shapes of the volumes of the buildings that sit upon the water. That is in the water. The light of the atmosphere is in the water, and it is all blended by some master painter like Monet, and bounced back at you. It’s unlike any other place.

JN: Do you find a ride in a gondola to be meaningful, or an empty tourist experience?

VH: If you can get a gondolier to cut away from his fellows and take you separately through Venice, that is still an extraordinary experience, because that is the way that Venice was meant to be experienced. It was meant to be experienced from the surface of the canals. Not by walking up and down the bridges; those were merely a necessity.

It must have been mentioned in Marcella’s memoir, I don’t remember, about the time we got married [to renew our vows] in San Giovanni Paolo. At night we took a gondola and we set a dining table in it, and one of the restaurants piled this table with wonderful food and wine. Our gondolier set off in the dark, down canals that have never seen a tourist, and that was wonderful.

JN: You and I share a love for the tiny restaurant Osteria alle Testiere, in Venice. Could you say something about what makes that place so special to you, what makes the cooking so magical?

VH: Well, I’m hoping that it continues to be, because it’s very hard now that it’s become so well-known, and it has so many customers that are not from Venice. Again, we pull up one of the words that we bandied about this morning: truth. The truth of those ingredients, the identity of those ingredients that are served to you not to deliver an image, not so you look at them arrive at the table and say, Wow, isn’t that gorgeous! They’re not even meant to look gorgeous. They’re meant to taste pure.

JN: I think the grilled radicchio tardivo of Venice is the best example of this.

VH: It’s not beautiful when it’s grilled; it’s very beautiful, though, when it’s raw.

JN: That’s true. I think many people wouldn’t think to order it, but it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten in Venice.

VH: It’s one of the greatest dishes of Italy, I would say, grilled radicchio tardivo. One of the very great dishes. A restaurant is entitled to charge as much as what you might pay here for a prime ribeye steak.

JN: One reason I find the cooking at Testiere to be so magical is that the only person doing the cooking is Bruno [Gavagnin]. In other words, he has not hired a team of people that he has trained and is overseeing. He is doing the cooking, always, all the time. I feel that his personality, his standards, and his taste are communicated in every dish – in a way that when you have two, or three, or six assistants, no matter how hard they work, it is very difficult to replicate the taste and the sense of the master. I wonder if that makes sense to you.

VH: That is correct, yes. Absolutely. When we lived in Italy, that is the way it was. Well, of course, I’ve always wondered about the system of chefs. So many times I’ve encountered chefs where basically what they do is, they sit in an office and talk on the telephone. Somebody else is doing the cooking. No, Bruno is doing the cooking, but he also knows that he has to satisfy Luca [di Vita, his business partner, who manages the dining room]. If Bruno’s cooking didn’t measure up to Luca’s expectations, it wouldn’t go far. We have a lot of executive chefs. That’s true in my experience of the French restaurants in New York. I’ve been to a couple, and I know some of the men. Some of them are wonderful men, working very hard, but they’re no longer active chefs. They’re CEO chefs. That’s what it is.

JN: Victor, we should end there, I think. Thank you so much for so generously giving of your time and wisdom.

VH: Thanks for taking an interest in this old relic.

JN: Not a relic at all. More like a priceless treasure. Thanks again.

A tribute to Victor Hazan

Tags

,

victorBehind every successful man, as they say, is a great woman. In the case of the late, great Marcella Hazan, however, it is her husband Victor who played a quiet but instrumental role in her long and impactful career as a cooking teacher and writer.

Marcella and Victor met in the early 1950s in Marcella’s hometown of Cesenatico, on the Adriatic coast of Italy. The match wasn’t necessarily preordained to succeed. Victor was jobless, hoping to become a writer, and his father actually flew to Italy from America to talk Marcella’s parents out of giving their consent. Victor was obsessed with food. Marcella didn’t think about food much. She was just finishing up her PhD in biology and natural science. Victor had decided to return to Italy instead of finishing his college degree in the US.

And yet, it ended up being a match for the ages. The Tuscan winemaker Paolo de Marchi recalled to me recently that though their visit to his estate had been more than 30 years previous, he clearly recalled Marcella and Victor as a striking and memorable couple. They always made an impression. Marcella died in 2013, after 58 years of marriage to Victor.

After their wedding in 1955, they relocated to New York and Victor became resigned to work for his father’s business, an undertaking that never truly fulfilled him. Marcella spent time working at a lab and for the first time learning to cook. As she recalled later in life:

There I was, having to feed a young, hard-working husband who could deal cheerfully with most of life’s ups and downs, but not with an indifferent meal.

Despite her lack of experience, cooking came naturally to Marcella. More than a decade later, her passion for and mastery of her native cooking led to a career first as a cooking teacher, and later as an author of cookbooks.

It is no exaggeration to say that Marcella introduced an American audience to Italian cooking just as Julia Child did for French cooking.

But Marcella didn’t like to write in English, even though she was completely fluent. And so she would write her books in her native Italian. Victor would then take her Italian text and translate it into English as he imagined Marcella speaking or writing it. Thus began one of the great collaborations in cooking in the 20th century.

Even more grueling than the translation was the editing of the recipes. Victor himself didn’t cook much, and so he offered Marcella the perspective of a beginner, a novice, as so many of her readers and students would be. When she omitted a detail she found obvious, Victor would counter, “Well, it’s not obvious to me!”

Later, Marcella taught week-long courses in Bologna, and then later still in Venice. Victor was more interested in wine than Marcella was, and because he was still working for the family business in New York, he would leave with her written descriptions of the wines that would accompany the dishes Marcella was cooking for her classes. Her editor Judith Jones was impressed by these descriptions and suggested to Victor that he write a book on Italian wine, which was at that time (the late 1970s) finally starting to make inroads in America.

Victor agreed. He finally ended his work for the family business and spent several years traveling throughout Italy, tasting wines, meeting with winemakers, and deepening his understanding of Italian viticulture. The resulting book, Italian Wine, published in 1982, remains my single favorite book on Italian wine written in English. For sure it is dated in many respects – so much has changed in the last 35 years – but its foundation and principles are amazing sound and relevant.

And because Victor is a talented writer, it reads far more compellingly than most books on wine. How could one, for example, not wish to explore the rich world of dessert wines after reading this:

[Dessert wines] disclose to us, as no dry wine is capable of doing, the sensuous power of this miraculous drink, a transubstantiation of fruit and sun into honeyed liquid.

Or perhaps this description of Bardolino, one of my very favorite wines:

There is no prettier landscape anywhere than the sweet hills of Bardolino facing lake Garda and the sunset, a serene pattern of vineyards, olive trees, cypresses, castles, and Veronese villas in pale pink stone, arranged on gently inclined slopes, lit by the cheerful shimmer of the lake-reflected light. It deserves to be called charming as well as any place on earth, probably more so than most, and produces a wine to match.

Or this description of another favorite:

No wine is so reviving to a toiling palate or flagging spirits as [Lambrusco]. Whenever I reach Bologna after a long, taxing drive on the high-speed Italian turnpikes, there is no other drink I want at the table.

And finally this depressing but important insight about appreciating the aroma of wine:

Another problem is our impoverished store of remembered smells. The fragrances of honestly ripened fruit of wild berries and mushrooms, of field flowers, of wood have been edited out of everyday experience and replaced by those of plastic film, metal foil, polymers, and acetate.

For many of us, it will be necessary to replenish the depleted stores of our olfactory memory, conducting our noses through produce markets, gardens, fields, woods, wherever it can assemble the most varied collection of well-identified impressions. Most of what a wine has to tell is spoken by its odors. Smelling is the most intimate contact we have with wine, when we draw close to, as it were, its very breath.

Such evocative and powerful writing about wine is rare, and for this reason Italian Wine remains relevant 35 years after publication.

Many of us hoped that Victor would update his book or write a new one. He nearly did. But when he revisited the topic 15 years later, he found a changed Italian wine world: too many producers who had sacrificed an emphasis on terroir and place with an emphasis on style and international grape varieties. He had never found so many well-made wines in Italy, but he had never tasted so few that truly spoke with an Italian character.

Instead he continued to collaborate with Marcella on cookbooks and with her classes in Venice. As she got older and it became harder for her to get around, Victor would walk to Marcella’s beloved Rialto market to shop for meat, vegetables, and especially fish.

Marcella had rightfully earned respect, fame, and adoration. But Victor remained in his quiet but essential role as adoring husband, thoughtful interlocutor, helpful collaborator, and companion at table. Almost every dish Marcella ever cooked or published first passed through the table she had prepared for lunch or dinner with Victor. Their enjoyment of food, their conversations about food, made Marcella’s teaching and writing so much better.

After Marcella died in 2013, Victor decided to maintain her Facebook page as a vehicle for people to continue to share the influence which Marcella had on them and also to update her fans with his own projects and travels. He completed a manuscript on ingredients that she was working on when she died, and had it published in 2016 as Ingredienti: Marcella’s Guide to the Market.

Victor is role-model and powerful influence of mine. I raise my glass to him for a life well-lived and for sharing so much of himself in pursuit of his and Marcella’s mission to promote a deeper of understanding of Italian food and wine. Their work changed the course of my life and of many others’ lives as well.

For more on Victor Hazan, read my long-form interview with him here.

Strawberry Sorbet

Tags

, , ,

Strawberry season has just ended in our area, and we spent the month of June serving this lovely sorbet at the restaurant. Although it will have much better color if you use vine-ripened local berries, even store-bought strawberries will produce an acceptable result.

We make more sorbet than gelato because sorbet is more forgiving with the slow-churn home ice cream makers available, as I’ve written about here and here.

We keep our sorbet-making simple: no sugar syrups, egg whites, or other unnecessary steps; just fruit, sugar, water, lemon, salt, and a blender.

One of the most important aspects of sorbet-making is to include a little lemon juice — not so much as to taste strongly of lemon, but enough to accentuate the natural flavor of the primary fruit. Lemon juice functions in sorbet as salt does in savory foods, allowing the natural flavor to blossom.

Another important aspect of sorbet-making is to monitor the temperature of your freezer. Depending on the setting, ours ranges from -10 degrees to positive 10 degrees, a huge different which will affect the texture of your sorbet or gelato. We make sure the freezer is as cold as possible when freezing the ice cream machine insert, but once the sorbet is churned and moved to the freezer for aging, we try to keep the temperature between 10 and 20 degrees, which is the temperature of gelato freezers in Italy. This will keep the sorbet or gelato from becoming rock hard quickly and will give you a nice half-day window to serve the sorbet. Unless the freezer is warmer than 10 degrees, we keep the sorbet covered.

Strawberry Sorbet (makes 1 quart, about 8 modest servings)

In a blender, process 450 grams strawberries (about a quart) with 300 grams water, 150 grams sugar, 2 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice, and 1/8 teaspoon salt.

Chill at least 8 hours or preferably overnight, and freeze in an ice cream machine. We like to make ours at 5 pm to serve at 8 pm, but if you keep your freezer between 10 and 20 degrees, you can keep your sorbet at the right temperature for at least half a day.

Couldn’t be easier!

Justin Naylor, chef & farmer at Old Tioga Farm

 

An Interview with Samin Nosrat

Tags

, ,

samin

Samin Nosrat is the author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (2017), a longtime cooking teacher, and a former chef in the San Francisco Bay Area. We recently had a chance to chat about her new book, her experiences in the restaurant business, and the importance of careful home cooking. Many thanks to Samin for taking time from her busy schedule to speak with me.

____________________________________________

Justin Naylor: Hi, Samin, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.

Samin Nosrat: Thank you for caring enough!

JN: In the fifteen years that I’ve been cooking and paying attention to cooking, I have never seen a cookbook that had such an immediate and deep effect and impression. Not only did I want to congratulate you for that success, but I wanted to start by asking if you’ve been at all surprised by the success of the book. Obviously you’ve hit a nerve in a good way, and there was a niche that was clearly needing to be filled. Did you know during the process that you were onto something big, or were you a little surprised as well by just how successful the book has been?

SN: Oh my gosh, thank you for asking this really thoughtful question, and thanks for the nice words. There were a lot of precursors that sort of clued me in to the fact that I was doing something new. I had had the experience, when we sold the book [to publishers] to see what an incredible and almost unprecedented response – in my understanding – that we got from the publishers. That was a wake-up call, at that time.

On the one hand, I knew I was creating something that was different from anything I’d ever seen, because way back when I had the idea I knew that there wasn’t anything like it, and I always kept following that thread. I only wanted to make this thing because it spoke to me, and all along I was very aware that I was making something new. I wasn’t sure for a long time that it would speak to anybody else, but then as more and more high-profile people were piping up that this was interesting – then I thought, I’m onto something. That started with Michael Pollan, and then I got a bunch of residencies, and then we sold the book.

Selling the book was really bananas. It was a huge auction, every publisher we went to wanted it, the money was much more than I ever expected, so that was all very overwhelming. In a big way it was almost unnerving, because they had given me the money and I was like, Oh, God, now I’ve really got to deliver. 

JN: The book probably had been written in your mind, because you had been teaching based on this framework for years, but you only had a proposal at that point?

SN: Exactly. I had the proposal, I had the written curriculum, and I had the vision for it. When we sold it, they gave me a year deadline. And I was like, Oh, I can totally do this in a year. But something in me knew that I couldn’t do it in a year. I wasn’t able to articulate it, but I knew that it was a big project and there was a lot of work to do to distill and refine and connect everything. It was just a lot. So, yes, it’s been really successful and I’m so pleased. You never can guarantee that something will be successful, so I’m really glad that it seems to be not only selling well, but people really seem to be getting what I’m trying to say. And a lot of times, people don’t get what I’m trying to say!

JN: That’s one thing that really interests me as well. What do you think it is about the way it was presented that was so compelling? Let me just add, anecdotally: I have some friends that I’ve been talking to for years about cooking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told them that probably the most important thing they could do is salt more courageously, but with some of them it fell on deaf ears. But I heard from some who bought your book that they really understood now. Obviously, there’s some magic. So I’m just curious if you have any insight – whether it’s the tone of the book, or your voice, the gentle handholding, as opposed to the stern taskmaster approach?

SN: I definitely think it’s some combination of those things. I thought a lot about all of that stuff, and I think the proposal gave us a really great opportunity to put it into practice. It’s many-layered. First of all, I had a lot of years to figure out what it was that I was trying to say. I had a lot of cooks under me who I was constantly trying to teach. Then, by the time I came to work with Michael [Pollan], he really encouraged me to go put it out and make it a curriculum for the public. So, again, I had more and more opportunities to go out and teach people and see what worked for them.

In a [restaurant] kitchen, when you’re under pressure and you’re in a bad mood, and there’s money at stake, maybe I was using a different tone, you know? (Laughter) Then I go out and I’m teaching people who’ve paid to be there and they’re home cooks and I’m trying to be gentle with them. Over time, because I’ve been saying the same stuff for so long, I’ve become familiar enough with the message and I’ve done it with enough different kinds of people that I’ve come to learn what people actually do hear.

A big part of it, too, in terms of the writing, was: I’ve always been a reader, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I make myself a student of things, and I was certainly a student of Michael’s long before I ever knew him, because I read everything that he wrote really closely. One thing I found that he’s so successful at is this: he has this remarkable ability to take really complicated topics and present them in a super clear and non-condescending way to people, so that they all of a sudden can start talking about GMO corn as if it’s in Us Weekly or something. It took me a minute to figure out what his formula was, and I realized what he does every time is he makes himself a student. So when he’s writing something, you’re going on this journey with him.

JN: Absolutely.

SN: He’s having the dumb moments and he’s not embarrassed about showing the dumb moments, so then you trust him. So, actually, in one of my very first attempts of starting to write samples of the book, I tried to be Michael Pollan. And I really quickly realized that that couldn’t work for me because: a) I’m not Michael Pollan; and, b) my job here is to be the authority and to get you to trust me because I know this thing. So, that was like this rub for me – because I thought, how do I do that without talking down to you and being condescending?

I saw what was working in my classes – which was, I was sharing my own ah-ha moments and I was always trying to put myself back in the shoes of that person who didn’t know anything and who was really scared and terrified. By sharing all of the experiences of the million mistakes that I made, by going back to that point in time where I was in the same shoes as you are now, I felt like I could connect to you and speak to you in a way – and then bounce forward into the future where I’m talking to you from this place of confidence, so that I could get you here. I think that was a really important realization for me, that has really impacted the way that I teach.

And also, I am a dweeb. I am a dork. I still always ruin stuff all the time. I don’t think I’m the best cook in the world, and I don’t present myself with that thing, and I think that’s endearing for people to see. Like, I had to go to Food52 a month before the book came out to make these little videos. They had read the book and decided which lessons they wanted to do. One of them was making these buttermilk biscuits, and I hadn’t made them in probably a year since I wrote the recipe, so I was kind of nervous. And then the other one was searing these steaks. My agent was in California and we were flying back to New York together, and I was like, Don’t they know that 90% of my charm is that I mess stuff up, and they’ve chosen two things that I’m really bad at?

JN: I think you’re right, that in this age of social media presence, there is so much posturing and image over substance and unwillingness to show any vulnerability and any humanness. I think that when someone is willing to do that, it’s immediately endearing.

SN: Totally, totally. I spent my whole childhood, my whole adolescence trying to fit in in San Diego, where everyone was, like, blonde and white and good-looking. And it was just this thing where I never fit in. I was this black-brown kid with this funny name, from a family that ate different food. I was not ashamed of my culture or my heritage, but I think I exhausted the need to try to pose. Do you know what I mean?

JN: Absolutely.

SN: And so, I just sort of gave up on that a long time ago. But I do think that that worked. I think that that’s a part of the magic.

I think that a big, big part of the magic is Wendy [MacNaughton, illustrator]. And I think that that’s two-fold. I will take some responsibility for that because it was something that I really pushed for. I knew that it was going to be a risk – or that publishers would look at it as a risk, even though I didn’t think it was risky at all – because books are not illustrated. But I knew it was the right thing for this book. I knew that she was the right person for the book, because not only is she immensely talented and it’s so beautiful, but also she’s really funny. The work has a very whimsical feeling. In order to balance the science and anything that would be task-mastery that I would be doing, I knew that the visual tone that she would set would help, to make it look not  intimidating, to make it look very accessible and fun. So, even though there are words like Maillard reaction in there, there’s a way where it still comes across as something that is pretty approachable, I think. So that was always on my mind.

CorrectCover

JN: You say something as well about not wanting to have these perfect photographs, which would only discourage people from doing their own cooking.

SN: Totally.

JN: A few things have been coming together for me recently. I thought it was so profound that Victor Hazan, husband of the late Marcella Hazan, said recently that – I don’t think he does much Instagram, and I don’t think he used the term “food porn,” which is a term I hate in any case – but he basically said that all of this food photography has been harmful for home cooks. It creates this expectation or standard that is just not something that can be lived up to it many cases.

SN: –Replicated!

JN: And in the guise of promoting food culture and cooking, it actually undermines a healthy food culture and cooking. That was, to me, a pretty profound insight. And it seemed like one that you might share as well, at least to some extent.

SN: Yeah, I definitely share– I don’t think photography is the only culprit. I have to say, I am a huge fan of beautiful food photography. I just recognized pretty early on that it wasn’t the right thing for this book. Maybe it’s not great for people who are super intimidated, in a way. Not to say that images aren’t good–

JN: Of course.

SN: But a food photo is super representational, and it’s capturing something in its most ideal state. What it doesn’t show – what you don’t know when you open Bon Appetit magazine, or a really highly produced cookbook – is that there was a team of multiple stylists there, there was perfect lighting, photographers and photo assistants. Even a lot of people who write cookbooks, they don’t actually – or maybe they’ll cook the food for their own images, but there is a professional food stylist there who knows how to make food look really perfect, for an image to do it. Any time my food is going to be photographed, I always insist on cooking it myself, but I also insist on having a food stylist there, because I don’t know how to make food look photo-perfect.

So it is a little bit of a sham we’re selling, do you know what I mean? It’s a little bit of makeup contouring, or whatever. Yeah, and I’m complicit in it too. Because I think it’s also beautiful to make things – I don’t know, it’s also nice to have things to aspire to and be inspired by. But that’s not the message that I wanted to send in my book. And I do agree with Victor, because I do think it’s much more pervasive than just food photos. The entire food culture, how it’s changed, certainly since I started cooking – I mean, we started cooking at the same time. I was still in college, and I had friends who were, like, You’re doing what?

JN: It wasn’t cool.

SN: Yeah, and my family didn’t understand. I think now if I started cooking at Chez Panisse when I was in college, it would be this amazing thing for my peers and they would be, like, kissing my feet. So times have just changed so much, and the attention of the culture toward cooks and chefs and food has changed so much. Now it’s gone from being not even worth attention to being on this massive pedestal, and I think there’s something really unfortunate about that.

A distinction has yet to be made for the broader public, that what is done in restaurants and what is done for these cookbooks and magazines is somebody’s profession. What we do at home is what we do to survive and to bring joy to our lives and to feed one another. And there’s a difference between those two things. There’s a difference between their aim, there’s a difference between everything.

There’s this amateurism that has been devalued and forgotten about, I think. It’s so complicated, because food is such an important part of everyone’s life. In some ways, I feel like there’s this added layer of complexity added to what I do, because everyone who I encounter has a relationship to the work that I do. Everyone who I encounter – everyone in the world – is an expert in food, because they’re an expert in what they eat and what they know. And so if I were a doctor, or something, you wouldn’t just come up to me and say, Well, I prefer to do surgery like this, you know?

There’s a way where people forget that there are professionals whose job and aim and purpose is something completely different from what you do at home. Then, when you start measuring yourself by those standards, it’s really unfortunate, because you don’t spend ten hours a day for ten years practicing this thing. So you’re not going to be that good. Nobody’s saying to you that that’s okay, and that [perfection] shouldn’t be your goal. My hope is that I can be that person, starting to break down that wall for you.

This is really something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Even within restaurants, there are restaurants that exist for wildly different reasons. And so for all restaurants to be compared on the same sort of plane – you know, there’s a reason you go to a diner that’s totally different from the reason you go to Chez Panisse. Those people who are cooking those foods shouldn’t be compared against each other. That argument, or that point of view, I haven’t seen made to the broader public yet.

JN: Could you describe Chez Panisse for those readers who don’t know it? What drew you to it and why is it so special?

SN: Chez Panisse is an American institution… it was founded by Alice Waters in Berkeley, California in 1971, and it is the epicenter of the local, seasonal, sustainable food movement. Guided by the chef’s whims and what is in peak season at any given moment, the menus change each day. A series of serendipitous events brought me to Chez Panisse, but what kept me there was how utterly inspiring the place is.  I felt lucky every single day I worked there — lucky to work with and learn from some of the best cooks in the world, lucky to be given an aesthetic point of view, lucky to cook and eat on a daily basis the most delicious produce, fish, and meat I’d ever encountered.  I cannot overstate how important my experience at Chez Panisse was, for both my career and my life.

JN: For you, clearly, Chez Panisse has been the seminal influence in your cooking life. For me it’s been writings of Marcella Hazan more than anyone else. I never had a chance to meet her before she passed away, but her writings affect almost everything I do, almost every day. One of the things I find so compelling in her attitude, at least about Italian cooking, and cooking in Italy, is the way in Italy – although this is a little bit of a stereotype, or romaticizing – the best compliment you can give to a restaurant is that it tastes of the home.

SN: Yeah!

JN: Which is almost the exact opposite in this country: we go to restaurants, and if we’re ambitious home cooks, maybe we try to imitate something we had in a restaurant. Whereas in Italy, at least at one time, it was sort of turned around. And so, for me, what I look for in a restaurant is, however elegant, however careful the cooking, I feel like I’m always looking for a restaurant that still captures something of the home – spontenaity, freshness, some significant degree of personality. I understand exactly what you’re saying, that in some ways it’s just unfair to compare, but in another way I hold out this idea that when we learn to cook well, hopefully our cooking begins to resemble or even exceed a lot of American restaurants.

SN: Oh, absolutely. I would one hundred percent [agree].

JN: Talk about things changing – when I learned to cook, obviously there were great restaurants, but a lot of times I would rather eat at home because I felt like I could eat better in some ways. That has changed so much. I’m close to Philadelphia and New York, and the sheer number of places doing beautiful, authentic, wonderful work is just so high.

SN: It is really amazing to see. It’s a renaissance time for restaurants in America, for sure. It’s exciting to me, and inspiring. For probably the first ten or twelve years as a cook I was so interested in eating out. It helped that I had a friend who was really dorky about it. We would go eat out and just decipher and dissect everything that we were eating, and we were really sort of very thoughtful and critical about it. We were total nerds. But at a certain point, I realized I just didn’t have it in me anymore to care. I’m starting to come off of that now. Part of it, also, was the last five years, writing a book – the last thing I wanted to do was go to restaurants, because every restaurant I go to in the Bay Area, I know people, and they would come up to me and be like, How’s your book? And I’m like, Oh my god, I don’t want to talk about it, so I just became a hermit, eating rice and eggs at home.

JN: Why did you decide at one point to turn your attention to home cooking? Obviously, you were working at Chez Panisse, then Eccolo. At what point did you decide not to pursue a career in restaurant kitchens and to do something else?

SN: In 2009, Eccolo closed. I would say it was never a wildly financially successful restaurant, but it  opened in 2004, and by 2008 we were fully in the black. We were holding on. Then when the crash happened, I think it was the last straw. To me it was a great relief to close the restaurant. It wasn’t my restaurant, but I carried it on my back like it was.

JN: You were the executive chef at that point?

SN: I was the equivalent of the chef de cuisine. Chris Lee was the executive chef, he was the boss. But I was for sure running the kitchen, day to day. And Chris is my mentor. He’s the one who taught me how to cook at Chez Panisse, he’s the one I went to and said that thing about salt, fat, acid, and heat and he was like, Yeah, we all know that. He is the one who opened the door for me into restaurants and I will always be indebted to him. I think that sense of responsibility to him is what kept me in the restaurant, but I was pretty miserable. I wasn’t that nice to be around. It was really hard on me emotionally and physically. I never let go of the dream of writing, and I don’t think I really ever had ambitions of being a restaurant chef, or of it being my thing. I sort of knew, after Eccolo, that that would be it for me.

I was really grateful for the off-ramp the closing of the restaurant offered me, and I did go back to Chez Panisse for about a year after that. I was in the kitchen for about a year. In 2011 it was the 40th birthday of Chez Panisse and Alice [Waters] hired me to do a national campaign, so I worked more on the Edible Schoolyard side. I was really grateful for that.

Very consciously, in 2009, I decided I was going to start writing, and I became a tenant in this office that I share still with a bunch of other writers. I really tried very hard to start making writing, if not part of my daily practice – at that time I started trying to go the office about three times a week. It was really scary – not that cooking is so lucrative, but I had a steady paycheck. Then all of a sudden I had no money. But I was really grateful to have a way out.

JN: What did you find the greatest stresses to be in the restaurant kitchen? I don’t think people realize just how personally and, as you said, emotionally destructive restaurant kitchens can be. Families torn apart, drugs, depression, alcohol, everything. There are exceptions, but the restaurant kitchen is a very hard place to be. I’m just curious what some of the stresses were for you.

SN: For me, I absolutely was depressed, and I didn’t really know it. So that’s a big part of it. I was 23 or 24 when I came back from Italy to Eccolo, and then within a year I was pretty much the sous chef – running it, you know? I’ve always been an overachiever, and I was an okay cook – I’d probably been cooking five years by then – but just because you’re a good cook, doesn’t mean you’re a good manager. I think because of the pace of restaurants, there just wasn’t a great deal of investment in my, or in anyone’s – I’m not blaming Eccolo, I think it’s pretty common in restaurants – I just didn’t have the chance to be trained in the best way to be a manager of people. Plus, I was younger than a lot of the people I was in charge of, I was a woman in charge of mostly men. That was a big part of it. I didn’t know how to get through to people, which then just made me angrier, because I have a bad temper. I was really not that fun to be around, I think.

I also think another big part of what was particularly stressful for me was, it wasn’t my restaurant, but I felt like it was. Our main investor, our main source of money — especially when we were not making money — lived in New York. He owned a bunch of other restaurants in New York and other places that were financially successful. He felt like he knew what would make a restaurant work financially, and those things were not fundamentally aligned with many of the ways we believed a restaurant should be run. This seemed like a problem, just going back to the original business union between the investor and Chris. Maybe they just weren’t ideal partners, or they should have clarified – like, Hey, I do think buying organic eggs is important, or something. It was one of those things where they never talked about it at first, and as long as things were okay, it was fine, but then when the financial stresses started – every single one of our purchases, every single one of our actions became scrutinized. All of a sudden it was like, Why are you buying real Parmesan cheese instead of this fake stuff? Or, Why are you buying real maple syrup? And I was like, this is insane that these things are being questioned.

JN: Even being talked about – how can we even be talking about this? Right.

SN: Right. There was this way that we were being forced to give reasons for our most basic actions. I felt like we had never hid it – we come from a philosophy of cooking that’s pretty outspoken about this! So, that was just hard, and I felt very motherly and protective toward the cooks. There was a lot that I held onto and didn’t want to share with people when we were struggling, and that was what was really the hardest for me – not the day-to-day, actual work. I’m a good worker, I’ve always been a good worker. I really enjoyed immersing myself in that. The best things were the things that I think other people would assume were drudgery. Like, I really loved going through all the tomatoes, finding the ones that were becoming overripe, roasting them all, and canning the sauce. All that kind of stuff, I loved. I loved teaching young cooks and interns who came. I loved finding people that we could believe in, and all that kind of stuff. It was just mostly the financial end that was really stressful.

JN: Besides the financial pressures, why do you think the Chez Panisse model hasn’t been adopted more widely? It seems like the farm-to-table model has plateaued with a lot of places, and certainly almost no restaurants are changing menus daily. And as you mentioned, very few restaurants put the time and resources into the staff to make their kitchens true teaching kitchens, as Chez Panisse has done. Why do you think Chez Panisse’s influence has been limited in these ways?

SN: It’s an interesting question, but I’m not surprised. The restaurant business is just so tough that the CP model is essentially untenable outside the magical bubble of 1517 Shattuck [Avenue]. Not everyone shares the same values. And, as much as I am a believer, I also acknowledge that the model has its flaws: the prices aren’t accessible to most people (to be clear, it’s not like anyone is getting rich off of CP — it costs a lot to pay farmers and cooks and dishwashers fairly). So the experience is for the limited few, and not everyone wants to run a restaurant that serves only the wealthy.

What I do think is interesting (or more accurately, disturbing) about the limits of CP’s reach is this: I think Alice has unfairly developed a reputation for being an elitist, when she is anything but, and for being twee. And I believe with all of my heart that if she were a man, and not a tiny woman with dreams in her eyes and a soft voice, things would be totally different. I think she’d be a lot more vocal about claiming her and CP’s place in culinary history if she were a man. I think people would yield it much more readily to her. I think she’d be lauded for holding fast to her ideals instead of being ridiculed for doing so. Dan Barber (who is just one of many chefs who passed through the CP kitchen as a young cook), for example, extols the virtues of sustainable farming practices and speaks in koans about carrots and beets, but I don’t really see folks making fun of him… instead, he’s lauded and rewarded with a Chef’s Table episode.  I need to spend more time considering all of this, but I definitely think misogyny plays a big role in the lack of credit that Alice is given for her work, or the readiness with which lots of folks are willing to write off her influence these days. But the fact of the matter is, her stubbornness, her lack of willingness to compromise, her single-minded vision–all things about which she is given a hard time–are the same qualities that make us bow down at the feet of all of those fancy male chefs, and not much of what is considered fine dining today could exist without the extraordinary amount of trailblazing Alice has done over the past 46 years.

JN: Feel free to disagree with this, or to push back a little bit – this is definitely an extreme view I’ll express. My favorite restaurants, and these are mostly in Italy, are the ones that are still small enough that the owner is the one cooking. Maybe he or she has an assistant, but basically there’s one chef whose personality permeates everything. There’s not an anonymous team of line cooks, etc. This is very different in the US, where someone like Mario Batali starts a wonderful restaurant, and if he’s not doing all the cooking, certainly he’s supervising everything. Then, you know, he’s very successful, he’s no longer there, there are eight restaurants, and now he’s running a company more than cooking. Do you think, even in a restaurant context, can you teach a team of cooks who I’m sure are hard-working, I’m sure they want to please – but can that circumstance produce food that is as memorable and has as much personality as a situation where you have, you know, basically a single chef?

SN: A visionary behind it.

JN: Yeah, and I don’t mean some guy who’s full of himself. One of the chefs I’m thinking of is Bruno Gavagnin of Osteria alla Testiere in Venice. He is one of the most humble chefs I’ve ever met. But I’m absolutely convinced that the reason that his restaurant is just about my favorite place in the world is because he’s there, all the time, doing the cooking, and everything’s perfect. It reflects his personality. It’s a model that, for whatever reason, is rare but exists in Italy. It hardly exists in the US. I’m curious if you think I’m being too much of a purist and a romantic, or if you think that phenomenon is real.

SN: I think that you’re onto something. I would agree with you almost completely. I think I have a couple of exceptions to point out. I do think that it is possible to teach cooks to carry out your vision and to care about it as much as you do. And the only reason I’m able to believe that is because that is what I saw happening and I still see happening at Chez Panisse. In fact, to be completely honest, I think the vision of many of the cooks at Chez Panisse, and certainly the cooking skills – and Alice [Waters] would agree with this – far surpass Alice’s, right?

JN: Sure, absolutely.

SN: But I think what’s been done there is, that place has been created and endless resources have gone into creating it as a pedagogical model. It’s a teaching kitchen. Everybody in that place knows that, and Alice prioritizes that. It permeates the place.

In fact, I remember when – I can’t remember whose goodbye party it was, but it was somebody who had worked there for many years, 20 or 25 years. We were having a goodbye party and this guy, Steve, who had been the cafe maître d’ since they opened,  got up to give a toast and he said Chez Panisse is structured like a pyramid. The guests are on the bottom, the people who work here are on the middle, but the cooks are at the top. This restaurant exists for its cooks. There aren’t any other restaurants that I know of that exist for their cooks. That was part of what was hard for us at Eccolo: we were trying to replicate that Chez Panisse model without endless resources.

So, I do think it can happen. I think it’s extraordinarily expensive and labor-intensive and requires a lot of patience and a lot of vision, which is why it doesn’t happen. So, there’s that. Then I will say that another place that came to mind for me, actually, is this restaurant in Oakland called Camino. Russ [Russell Moore], who was one of my teachers at Chez Panisse, opened it. Russ is still at the grill every single night, which I wish for his sake – he’s got to be over 50 by now – that he didn’t have to be.

JN: Right, I understand that too.

SN: And he also just opened another place, a little kabob place. A lot of nights he’s at the kabob place, helping that place get going. But, to me, you can taste it when Russ is there and when he’s not. Also, because the kitchen is basically in the dining room, you can see it and you’re very aware of it. I would say most of the time I would fall on your side of the argument, that it isn’t possible to really get people there, because it’s just so much work to get them there. But I do think it’s not impossible.

JN: Yes. That’s an excellent corrective to my extremism! I think that’s absolutely right. Just to change the subject a little bit, I’m interested that in the book you didn’t talk very much about health. Although I think that we’re on the same page on these issues, I can imagine some people picking the book up and saying, She wants me to use more salt? She wants me to use a quarter-inch of oil for pan frying? Forget it. That’s not healthy! Could you say a little about that, and what your understanding is about the effect of salt and fat and any aspect of cooking on health?

SN: I do try to be pretty clear. I do have a line in there with the salt, saying, I know this is going to be scary that I’m encouraging you to use more salt, but unless your doctor has recommended – there are people who were born with just one kidney or have really high blood pressure, and they need to listen to their doctor, not to me. I am not a health expert; I’m a cook. I also am not a science expert, and I was already going into one place that was new territory for me. So I thought, should I put in these health claims – should I do this, should I do that? It just seemed like I was going to get somewhere where it was not steady footing [for me]. So I decided to stay out of it.

I knew it was sort of bold to have salt and fat in the title. I knew that would already turn some people away. But my answer to them is that, first of all, I think almost all home cooking is more healthy for you than anything that you could eat out. Right now, what I find to be my main obstacle out in the world is not so much changing the way people cook, it’s getting people to cook in the first place. Because I think so many people are not cooking. My main goal was to get people who aren’t cooking, cooking. And, yeah, let’s get people who are cooking, to cook better. That’s just built into the thing. So, the message is, anything you can cook for yourself will be more healthy – that’s been proven by studies – than eating out.

The other thing is, I take so much issue with health claims being made out of context. This is something I just keep realizing over and over again with every passing day of my life: everything is part of a system. Your salt intake and your fat intake are part of a larger system of your entire life – whatever you’re taking in and the energy you’re putting out. To just focus on one element, on one thing that you’re eating or not eating and saying that’s the cause of all evil – or, like, if I just eat nine tablespoons of flaxseed per day, everything will be fixed – is just so crazy.

There’s a really beautiful argument that Michael [Pollan] made in In Defense of Food, where he looked at all of the molecules in a single leaf of thyme, just how complicated one tiny leaf of thyme is, and that so much is in there. For you to say that this one tiny vitamin or this one tiny molecule or this one element is going to be the thing that makes life healthy or unhealthy is, to me, so blind. I have a lot of injuries in my body that I’m trying to fix right now. I have a knee injury, but what we’re trying to fix is my core, and my hips, and my ankle – not my knee – because everything affects everything else. If you read any Wendell Berry, you know that you can’t just take one thing out of the system. Nature is a really complicated system.

Also, the science for salt and fat, the health sciences, are every fifteen minutes sending contradictory messaging out. In the ’80s, it was Don’t eat fat, and now everybody’s like, Just give me some more ghee! I felt like if that was where you were coming from, I wasn’t going to be able to say anything to change your mind. So let me just speak to the people who want to listen to what I have to say. And what I have to say is about what I know, and what I know is about cooking.

JN: That makes a lot of sense. I mentioned a little while ago that Marcella [Hazan] has certainly been my greatest influence. You mentioned a few authors in your book. I was wondering if you would pick two authors that you have been really influenced by, and say something about why they inspired you or what you learned from them.

SN: A big one was Patience Gray. I’ve only ever read one book by her, which is Honey from a Weed. It was on that original list of cookbooks that the Chez Panisse chefs gave me and told me to go read as part of my essential cooking canon. It is so lyrical and so beautiful. To be honest, I haven’t really cooked out of much of it, I just read the book, and it just sounds so intoxicating, yet it’s pretty much all, like, weeds. So, I was set on this path very early on which was only fortified and justified by all of the places that you need to go, like Italy, where good food doesn’t have to come from fancy ingredients. There’s so much that goes into what makes food and what makes it delicious, and very little of it has to do with buying the most expensive cheeses, or whatever. It’s a love letter to cooking, it’s a love letter to good living, and certainly to the Mediterranean, and these were all things that were really important to me and that I really loved. So, that one was really important.

I have always adored the writing of Nigel Slater. Again, same thing, where there’s a way he’s so un-fussy in his writing and in his cooking. The Kitchen Diaries is so beautiful: in one entry it can just be saying, Oh god, I was working in the kitchen or in the garden all day and I totally forgot to eat, so when I came in I just cut tomatoes open and smeared mayonnaise on them, and that was such a satisfying lunch, and I’ve totally had that for lunch too! Then he can write the most beautiful holiday meals, and there was a way where one wasn’t less or more. That kind of un-fussiness, that un-pretentiousness is certainly what I aspire to. In a way this goes back to what I was saying before – I spent so many years of my life trying to be something that I wasn’t, and so in a way I cannot bring myself to care about fancy things. So it’s really refreshing and wonderful to read about people who care about [this]. There’s a big difference between good living and fancy living. They’re not necessarily the same thing. Good living is what I aspire to, and reading about it plants good seeds for me and makes me want to share that vision with other people.

JN: Of course, you had the good fortune to learn most of your cooking skills when you were at Chez Panisse, whereas most people these days are trying to learn from books. You actually learned side by side with master chefs. Obviously, what you’re trying to do with your book is fill a niche, so that people can learn to cook better from books. But I’m curious whether you think you could have learned the same way that you have, had you only had books, as opposed to the hands-on experience at Chez Panisse.

SN: No. Definitely not. I would say – maybe this is crazy to say – even more powerful than the cooking lessons that I learned at Chez Panisse, I would say the most important thing I learned there was: that place gave me an aesthetic education, it gave me a sensual education. It taught me what beauty is and what beauty could be, it taught me what deliciousness tastes like and good flowers smell like. I was immersed. It was like a graduate school for the senses. I couldn’t have gotten that from a book, I don’t think. That taught me to prioritize those things. I don’t think I could have gotten that from a book.

Going back to something we talked about earlier, I’m a professional cook who is hired to make inspiring photo shoots for Bon Appetit, etc. If your job is not to do that, then, yeah, I do think you can get a basic education from books and from watching a lot of the really inspiring and beautiful food TV that’s out there. A whole generation of people learned how to cook from Julia Child. But I do think that if it is something that you aspire to do professionally, then go surround yourself with the most inspiring people that you can find. I always tell people, if you love a restaurant and you love the way you feel when you eat there, the way it feels to be a guest there, and the food tastes so good, then write them a letter and ask them if you can come into the kitchen. It doesn’t have to be the best restaurant in the world. It’s not something that’s that impossible. In fact, right now, at least in the Bay Area, there’s such an intense crisis – lack of cooks – that they would probably be really stoked to hear from you!

JN: In the book, you were dismissive of culinary school, and I have had a similar attitude at times. Can you say a little more about what you think is superfluous, for lack of a better word? I think, at its worst, you come out of culinary school with all kinds of technical training, thinking you know something, but if you haven’t developed good taste. You think you know something, whereas in reality you’re lacking in the most important trait. I’m curious what you think.

SN: I think, fundamentally, it’s a financial thing. I think it’s insane that these schools charge so much money. You go into these massive amounts of debt, with no hope of really ever getting a job that will ever make the kind of the money that will allow you to get out of that debt. Today it’s sort of selling a lie, just by the way that it’s priced. So that, I think, is the main thing. And also, in my experience, in most of the restaurants where I have either spent time or worked – anywhere – I have noticed that there’s almost been an intense kind of un-training that’s had to occur with the culinary students, as opposed to blank-slate people who come in.

JN: What sorts of things?

SN: There’s a rigidity in culinary school students, because culinary school is very much structured like the military, and restaurants are also structured like the military. There’s a rigidity in there that I haven’t found reflected in the kinds of restaurants where I’ve spent time enjoying eating.

And, I one-hundred-percent agree with you, I think that there is no substitute for the actual, practical experience of what it is to go through a ten-hour or twelve-hour day on your feet, to go through many of them. I don’t think this is true for all of the schools, but for a while it was a prerequisite for those culinary students to have spent three or four months in a restaurant kitchen. I think you don’t even know what you’re getting into when you’re going to this school, and the school sets up this really disingenuous picture of what you’re going to be prepared to do. That’s just not the way that good food is made. And I don’t think they prioritize teaching you how to taste. For me, all of my cooking is about being guided by taste.

I also think, frankly – this is something I haven’t yet articulated, and I don’t even know if it was part of my initial distaste for culinary school – all of culinary school is based on a super-Eurocentric kind of cooking. There’s some value in that. It’s probably the most efficient way to learn basic French cooking, because then you can connect the dots to other cooking. But there’s a whole world out there. There’s a whole wide world out there, and we don’t need to view that world through French glasses.

I feel like the most interesting people in my life are people who have traveled widely, whether or not they are cooks. There’s nothing more powerful and important – especially at times like these – than going out into the world and meeting different kinds of people, eating different kinds of food, experiencing it for yourself and then getting to come back and filter that experience through your work.

As a side note, I will say there is in my experience as a cook, no substitute – zero – for having tasted the original thing in the original place. How can you know what you’re riffing on if you don’t know what the original thing is? How can you know what you’re going for if you haven’t had bolognese in Bologna, or cochinita pibil in the Yucatan? I get that there is very intense privilege involved in that, but I’m saying do this instead of spending $80,000 [on culinary school]. You could probably go around the world for $20,000!

JN: Let me end by asking a little more about publishing. You’ve had what seems like a fairy-tale publishing career, which is wonderful. But there are many, many people out there who would love to publish a cookbook, or fiction, or whatever. I’m curious what advice you might have for would-be authors. I have a friend who published a cookbook a year or two ago, and in a blog post she made it sound like getting an agent is the easiest thing in the world, and then it gets harder.

SN: That’s funny.

JN: But I know a lot of people for whom even finding an agent is nearly impossible. Just curious what advice you have for would-be authors.

SN: I have two pieces of advice, and one is more real-world practical, and one is more writing-practical. Let’s start with the writing-practical. There’s nothing until you have good writing. Nothing else matters.

When I was teaching Michael [Pollan] how to cook, very quickly he picked up on the salt, fat, acid, heat system, and he was like, What’s the deal here? What is this? I was like, This is my system. I hadn’t really articulated it to him, and at the time I was bringing him a different book idea every week, and they were really bad ideas. One week I was like, What if I tell the story of how I taught this gutterpunk how to cook? You know, just bad. And he was always like, Don’t do that, that’s bad. He was the one who said, This is your book; go do this.

I resisted at first, because I knew how hard it would be. I just knew it was not an easy thing. I said, Oh, that sounds so hard, and it won’t have pretty photos. And he said, Listen, you live in a delusional universe where everyone you know who is publishing books is already a celebrity of some kind – like Alice Waters. So, you have this very messed-up vision of what it takes to make a cookbook, or to make a book. Really, what publishers want is unique and really strong ideas that just never have been told before. And that’s what this is. I’ve never seen this before, so you would be a fool not to pursue this. 

He was like, You’ve got to go do this. But first, go do this hard work. And so, I think there was strength in the uniqueness of the idea. It really was my thing, that I had had in my head for a long time. It was very true to me.

Also, I continued to work on it for three years before I started my proposal. It takes time to come up with a strong and unique idea. It takes time to write and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and to really focus and distill what your vision is. A lot of the stuff I see happening, especially in the cookbook world, is just churned out. Those are the books that maybe last on your shelf for a little while before you take them to a used bookstore. There’s a lot of value in taking time.

All of the work that I put into making the proposal, and rewriting it, and really being very clear – man, it paid itself back ten-fold. Not only financially, but also, when I was in the depths of despair writing the book, I always had this beautiful thing that I could return to that reminded me of what I originally wanted to do, what I intended to do, and what the road map for that was. There is no substitute for that hard work and that clarity of your vision and your message.

Then, the more real-world practical thing – just what I hear from my agent. Sometimes I’ll meet somebody and I’ll say, Do you want to talk to this person, maybe talk to them about representing them? And a lot of times what she says to me is, she’ll go look at their Instagram, or whatever, and she’ll say they don’t have a platform. And I didn’t have much of a platform either, it’s not always that.

JN: I wanted to ask about that, because I know that at least in the cookbook world – it has sometimes been expressed to me, that very thing – if there’s not a vast platform, the game is over. Elizabeth Minchilli, who writes about Rome, wrote that she actually had to start her blog to build a platform in order to get her book published.

SN: Yes, I definitely think that does seem to be a practical thing on behalf of publishers. Not everyone knows Michael Pollan and Alice Waters.

JN: But at the time, you didn’t have a vast platform.

SN: I think I had about 3,000 Instagram followers. But what I did have was: I had been cooking for a long time in the Bay Area, everyone knew me. I had mailing lists of probably over 25,000 people. I was a really unique case in a lot of ways, because I didn’t have a blog that had 2 million followers. I think that they could see that I could do it – and I think I’m doing it, so I think it’s okay. But I think that I was the rare exception, and I’m glad because I’m not super stoked on having to Instagram every part of my life. I’m sorry that I’m even suggesting that other people do, but I guess if what you really want is a cookbook, then you probably have to do it.

JN: I understand! I would love to chat all afternoon, but I feel like I should let you go. Is there anything you would like to add that we haven’t had a chance to discuss before we go?

SN: You’ve asked so many great questions. Thank you!
JN: Thank you!

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

CorrectCoverOne of the four sections of Michael Pollan’s wonderful book Cooked is dedicated to Pollan’s own home-cooking education under the careful tutelage of chef and teacher Samin Nosrat, an Iranian-American raised in California. Pollan’s profile of Samin emphasizes her down-to-earth love of cooking, her knowledge, her good humor, and her gifts as a teacher. When I heard news a few months ago of Samin’s upcoming first cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, I was intrigued.

Immediately after the book’s publication in April, the press onslaught began.

The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Splendid Table, All Things Considered… all of a sudden Samin Nosrat was everywhere. In my 15 years of paying attention to cooking, I’ve never seen a book make such a sudden and profound impact. The first sentence of Michael Pollan’s preface pretty much sums it up:

As I write these words, this book hasn’t even been published yet, but already it feels indispensable.

Publishers thought so, too. There was an intense bidding auction for the book, and Samin was given a large enough advance to write full time. This is a dream come true for a first-time author; enough to give a new author a bit of vertigo, I should think.

But Samin delivered. Her book takes a bold thesis: the essential elements of good cooking are simple and easy to explain, and mastering them frees a cook from reliance on recipes.

Samin’s book fills a niche completely overlooked, not because the content is completely unique, but because it is assembled in a package which is both deep and accessible at the same time. Much of the science in the book is covered elsewhere, but in larger tomes daunting to novice cooks. Many of the recipes are covered elsewhere too, but seldom with Samin’s rare combination of complete confidence, good humor, and gentle encouragement. It’s the latter which I think really distinguishes the book and makes Samin’s approach so irresistible. Like any good teacher, she is passionate about her subject, full of desire to share her knowledge, but humble and sensitive enough to meet people where they are. One gets the sense that Samin really cares about other people and has the “hospitality gene,” as Vetri Ristorante’s Jeff Benjamin would say.

Many Americans, lacking a tradition of careful home cooking, find themselves adrift and without moorings, grasping here and there for recipes – not realizing that a recipe is no more able to produce delicious food than a musical score can produce beautiful music without an experienced and sensitive musician. As Samin quotes the late Judy Rodgers,

Recipes don’t make delicious food. People do.

Samin’s aim is to explain the grammar behind the language of cooking, emphasizing why certain practices and techniques work, so that we can be freed from simply playing notes and empowered to make music.

She argues that there are four aspects of elements of good cooking. Thus, the title of the book: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

I love the fact that salt is the first word of the book’s title because it is indeed the primary tool a cook has to develop flavor in food. As Marcella Hazan wrote in her last book Ingredienti:

Learning to salt correctly is the most important skill a cook can learn.

Indeed. Samin relates an experience she had early on, cooking at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. She was preparing polenta and thought she had done a good job. She took it to her chef for tasting, and he promptly added three palmfuls of salt to the pot. Samin was sure he had ruined the dish. Instead, upon tasting, she realized that it had come alive, that its flavor had been allowed to blossom. Such is the critical role of salt in the kitchen. Samin has plenty of helpful advice about how salt works, what kind of salt to choose, when to salt, etc. But that anecdote about the polenta perhaps sums it up better than anything else can: salt is what allows food to bloom in flavor. The anecdote also shows why the typical cookbook advice “salt to taste” is woefully inadequate. It begs the question: how should it taste? The young Samin thought her first attempt at the polenta tasted great, but she didn’t know what “great” could really taste like until her chef showed her.

Just when I thought Samin was courageous enough to put salt in the title of her book, she follows it with fat – the other bogeyman of modern nutritional science. As with salt, Samin understands that the proper use of high quality fats is indispensable for good cooking. She tells another great anecdote about Chez Panisse, about how Alice Waters was judging some tomato sauces and could instantly tell which chefs had used old, rancid olive oil instead of the world-class oil they use at the restaurant. Too often we think of fat simply affecting texture (i.e. juiciness). But just as important is fat’s role in developing flavor. As Samin writes,

Italians’ remarkable relationship to fat is essential to why their food tastes so good.

This is true not only for olive oil, but for animal fats as well. It’s why a rich ribeye steak is more flavorful than a lean tenderloin fillet, or why whole milk is more flavorful than skim. Samin’s discussion of fat is wide ranging and includes a valuable discussion of the role of different fats in baking desserts and how emulsions such as mayonnaise and vinaigrettes work.

Perhaps the most surprising element, even for experienced cooks, is acid. Samin argues that acidic ingredients – whether citrus, wine, tomatoes, yogurt, etc. – provide balance to our food and that when our food lacks acidity it lacks a certain zest and liveliness. Having been raised with Iranian food, Samin tells the story of her first traditional Thanksgiving, finding the food bland and boring. Later, when she tried the same foods prepared with a little more acidity – sour cream in the mashed potatoes, white wine in the gravy, brussels sprouts tossed with sugar, vinegar, and hot pepper – many of the same dishes came alive. She learned that while salt enhances food, acidity balances it. This doesn’t mean that every dish needs an acidic component, but it does mean that in the course of a meal, acidity in the right place at the right time brings balance, elegance, and grace to our foods. It keeps our dishes interesting, and our mouths watering (literally).

Finally, Samin addresses heat and the way different forms of heat are used in different circumstances to produce the textural results we’re looking for, whether a crisp french fry or a meltingly soft short rib. She discusses smoking and slow-roasting to create tender meats, braising to break down the connective tissue that would otherwise be tough. She explains how to pan-sear so that the outside surface is browned just at the moment the interior is cooked through. She discusses how to handle the fact that even the best ovens have thermostats that are wildly erratic. She attempts to restore the unfairly maligned reputation of frying, and she eloquently discusses the power of plain old boiling.

The second half of the book includes recipes. Samin was at first reluctant to include these, wanting instead to emphasize how to cook without recipes. In the end, she realized that everyone needs starting points. Her recipes are interspersed with a continuation of the conversation about the elements of good cooking. In her recipes, she shows you how to apply the principles she has taught.

It’s hard for any book to live up to so much hype, of course, and no book is perfect. But Samin’s book is very, very good, and it is just what American cooks need right now. It saddens me, of course, that American cooking culture is so disconnected from the principles of good cooking that such simple insights (use salt!) seem so revolutionary. But, as Samin might say, we need to meet people where they are, and Samin has a gift for this. Right now, American cooks need a gentle but confident presentation of the elements of good cooking. They don’t need one more celebrity chef offering oversimplified recipes from their restaurants. They don’t need one more cooking fad. And they don’t need an encyclopedia of cooking. What they need is a patient but authoritative, funny but wise teacher, and that’s exactly what they’ll find in Samin Nosrat.

In praise of brining

Tags

,

I admit it, I am a late convert to brining. When I first began cooking about 15 years ago, I read all about brining – the submersion of meat in a solution of salt, sugar and aromatics meant to enhance the flavor and texture of meat – but it always seemed like too much trouble. Many authorities recommend, for example, brining a Thanksgiving turkey. But to submerge the turkey in water requires a huge container, copious amounts of salt and sugar, and a place to keep the turkey cold. My un-brined turkey, carefully seasoned and properly cooked, was plenty flavorful and tender, thank you very much.

And so I discounted brining for years. Even though salt is hardly a scarce resource, whipping up a brine solution felt very wasteful, especially since it’s not supposed to be reused. Instead, I adopted a practice which Alice Waters and others have called “dry brining”, simply seasoning with salt far enough in advance to allow the salt to become fully incorporated into the meat, allowing the salt time to modify the cellular structure of the meat to ensure juiciness and to unlock the flavor compounds trapped in the meat. Dry brining by salting a few hours in advance seemed to accomplish the same goals as wet brining, but with much more economy of effort.

And it does… mostly. Dry brining works for almost every meat, and it is one of the most important techniques in the kitchen. But I was troubled that certain lean meats still were too dry, even when salted in advance. In particular, pork loin – whether cut into chops or left as a roast – continued to elude me. No matter how carefully seasoned and cooked it was, even when keeping it at a rosy medium-rare temperature, the results were underwhelming. I despaired of ever cooking a pork loin that I was really proud of.

But some time in the last year, I decided to give wet brining another try, hoping beyond hope that it could do something to enhance the loin. I carefully prepared my solution of salt, sugar, and aromatics. I submerged the pork. I hoped for the best.

It didn’t help that different sources give wildly different recommendations for brining solutions and brining times. Messing this up means meat which is under or over-seasoned with no way to fix the problem. I settled on a ratio of 2 quarts water to 125 grams salt and 60 grams sugar, and a brining time of 12 hours for a small boneless pork loin roast weighing several pounds.

I admit I had low expectations, but when I cooked and sliced the roast, I was blown away. Even though it was slightly overcooked at around 165 degrees, the meat was still moist. I couldn’t believe it. I knew that salt changed the cellular structure of the meat, allowing water to be better retained, but I had thought that dry-brining could accomplish the same thing. I’m not sure at this point why wet brining does this job better, and my interest in food science is not so great as to research it, but there’s no doubt that it does make a difference, at least for pork loin. Finally, I had found a way to redeem pork loin and turn it into something succulent and delicious.

Because of the extra time, materials, and space involved, wet brining will not replace my  time-honored practice of dry brining for most meats. Most meats can be served juicy and succulent simply through careful cooking. But at least for pork loin, there’s no question that it’s an essential technique.

IMG_0412

Juicy pork tenderloin with a noble, golden-brown fat cap

Cannellini bean soup with garlic & parsley

Tags

, ,

When Marcella Hazan passed away almost four years ago, tributes came pouring in from every major newspaper, and from chefs and home cooks from across the country. Invariably, the eulogist would mention Marcella’s most simple and exquisite pasta sauce with tomatoes, onions, and butter. It’s a sauce I’ve never had in Italy (perhaps Marcella made it up herself), but it became a symbol to many people of her forceful dedication to simplicity and flavor.

Another dish that comes to mind in this way is Marcella’s cannellini bean soup with garlic and parsley. It exemplifies the same extreme minimalism as the pasta sauce and demonstrates the principle that Marcella was always preaching: what you leave out of a dish is as important as what you include. Her understanding of her native country’s cooking was not only at odds with the caricature of Italian food in America at the time, but it was also at odds with the great majority of cooking from restaurant chefs, with their fixation on presentation and technical execution over freshness and taste.

We’ve been serving the bean soup this month at Old Tioga Farm, and though I’ve been making the soup for myself and family for almost twenty years now, I hadn’t served it at the restaurant in a while. Making it for the past few weeks has given me the opportunity to reflect anew on the recipe and on Marcella’s understanding of good cooking.

Marcella knew that it was not presentation, but flavor, which matters most in cooking. The bean soup is not going to win any prize for beauty, nor is it likely to appeal to the food porn crowd. But that’s not the point. When you taste the soup, if it is well made, you’re struck by a few very simple but powerful flavors: the beans themselves, soft and rich, substantial but yet dissolving; an underpinning of garlic, not so much as to overwhelm but just enough to serve as a sort of bass line, aromatic but not browned or harsh; parsley, the most common herb in Italian cooking, which provides freshness like no other herb; a light meat broth, refined and delicate, never intense and concentrated; and last but not least, olive oil of the very highest quality, an ingredient whose quality will make or break this soup. The oil infuses the beans with and enfolds them in its glow. A great oil will elevate the beans. A poor one will flatten them.

This, to me, is what good cooking is all about; at least, good Italian cooking. A few ingredients of highest quality, assembled in a way which just develops their full potential without confusing everything with excess complication. This is food meant not to impress so much as nourish. This is the philosophy of cooking which I learned from Marcella, which changed the course of my life, and inspires me every day in my home and restaurant kitchens.

Cannellini Bean Soup with Garlic and Parsley

I make this soup almost identically to Marcella. Of course, Marcella knew that not even the same cook prepares the same dish identically every time. My version is definitely a little more liberal with the garlic, and I also like the soup less thick but more pureed than Marcella. According to Marcella’s husband Victor, Marcella learned the soup from her father. She taught it to countless cooks through her classes and books, and now I share it with you.

Begin the night before by soaking one pound of dried cannellini beans. Certainly, if you must, use canned beans. I certainly have on occasion. The best canned beans I know of are the ones from Goya. Be aware that other brands might be over- or under-seasoned with salt. But do try to use dried beans for the full experience. If you forget to soak them overnight, you can skip that step, but it will take a little longer to cook them. Not a big deal. Cook in a big pot with water to cover and 2 or 3 teaspoons salt until tender, about an hour or two. Or you can go all out and mail order the Tuscan heirloom bean Sorana, which Marcella considered perhaps the best bean in Italy and which is marketed in this country as the Marcella Bean.

The soup also requires good homemade broth, which is one of the very simplest things you can do to improve the quality of your soups. The simplest vegetable broth just contains an onion and a few carrots and celery stalks, simmered for an hour in about 2 quarts of water. A more complex broth adds a whole chicken, or just a carcass, or just some chicken parts thrown in with the vegetables and simmered for closer to 3 hours. Another layer of flavor would involve adding some beef scraps or bones. There would be no harm in adding some tomatoes, or sweet peppers, or potatoes, or zucchini. But all of that is icing on the cake. A simple vegetable or chicken broth will do just fine.

When the beans are tender and the broth is made, you can begin to make the soup by sautéing one tablespoon garlic (Marcella used only 1 teaspoon) in 1/2 cup highest quality olive oil. You might find this an excessive amount of olive oil. It most certainly is not. It is an essential flavor component of this soup. As the winemaker Paolo di Marchi once told me: “In Tuscany, we think of olive oil as just another vegetable.” And so it is.

When the garlic is sizzling and taking on just a hint of color, add the beans, which should have been drained from their cooking liquid and tasted for proper seasoning. Let the beans absorb the flavor of the olive oil over moderate heat for about five minutes, and then add 2 cups or so of broth.

Pass about one third to one half of the beans through a food mill, or (if you must) put them in a blender, and then return them to the pot. This will thicken the soup a little.

Add more broth as needed to create the consistency you want. Some like it very thick. I like it more like a traditional soup. After the flavors have married for 10 minutes or so and the seasoning is just right, add a generous bit of freshly chopped parsley and several grindings of black pepper.

Garnish with a little drizzle of olive oil, what Italians would call “a benediction.”

IMG_0368.JPG

A kindred spirit at A Mano

Please note this is not a formal review. Among other things, a professional review is based on repeated visits to an establishment and eating through a larger portion of the menu. Instead, I simply offer some impressions of my first visit to A Mano.

I recently wrote about my idea of a restaurant, about how I most prize those few establishments where the chef is actually doing most of the cooking instead of relegating that responsibility to a team of line cooks, poorly paid and anonymous to restaurant guests. This is usually a function of scale, with smaller BYOB restaurants more likely to have kitchens where the chef is actually cooking. For me, the best cooking is a reflection of the personality of a particular cook or chef.

And so I was delighted when I walked through the doors of Philly BYOB A Mano to find chef Michael Millon at the helm of the open kitchen.

I had high expectations, owing to Craig LaBan’s glowing review and the repeated recommendation of A Mano from good customers of ours from Philly.

I was not disappointed. The only aspect of the experience less than ideal was the rather deafening noise in the dining room, which made it difficult even to hear my server clearly. In every other way, the experience was one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in some time, and I will surely be back soon.

IMG_0241

The menu is divided properly into antipasti, primi, and secondi, and I was delighted to learn that the portions were moderate enough to order all three, which is the intention of the restaurant. Excessive portion size is the hardest aspect of dining out these days, both in the US and even in Italy, and it makes multi-course dining challenging to say the least.

IMG_0242

The meal began with well-made, classic focaccia, not unlike the style we make for the CSA and restaurant. More surprising was the olive oil infused butter served with it. I have always been a skeptic of mixing olive oil and butter, but I must admit it worked in this case. Every authentic Italian restaurant in America struggles with what to serve with bread, because in Italy bread appears at the table unaccompanied by butter or olive oil. Yet, in the US, guests are so accustomed to a condiment with bread that faithfulness to Italian tradition would come across as negligence. A Mano’s solution to this dilemma was a successful one.

IMG_0243

I began with seared octopus with cockles, chorizo, and white beans. It’s a dish that might appear on menus all throughout the city, but I imagine few would have the balance and grace of Chef Millon’s. The flavors were simple enough to be clear, but rich and nuanced enough to surprise and interest through the last bite. Cockles, tiny and briny, are really the only clam in the US which resemble the Italian clam. Pastanecks, littlenecks, manilla clams, and all the rest in the US are simply too large and tough.

IMG_0245

The lumachelle all’Amatriciana was an untraditional approach to a traditional Roman dish. Instead of the classic Roman pairing with spaghetti or rigatoni, chef Millon used house-made and house-extruded lumachelle. And instead of the traditional Roman pecorino cheese, Millon employed the Sardinian sheeps’ milk cheese fiore sardo. Finally, he incorporated majoram, which has never graced any plate of Amatriciana I’ve been served in Rome. But none of these innovations detracted from the dish, and none were done merely out of a sense of novelty or creativity. The combination simply worked.

However, for me the jury is still out on the nascent trend to serve house-extruded semolina pasta, a path blazed by iconic chef Marc Vetri. Unlike rolled egg pasta, which should always be made in-house, semolina pasta such as spaghetti and penne have been traditionally made on an industrial scale. I’m not sure if much is gained by doing in-house extruding rather than using high-quality imported pasta from Italy. But I have to give both Vetri and Millon credit for pushing outside of the comfortable and familiar and continuing to explore and grow.

IMG_0247

In Italy, secondi are rarely the most memorable course of a meal. At our own restaurant, we struggle to serve secondi which are not eclipsed by the pasta that precedes them. Although my braised short rib with carrot puree and trumpet mushrooms was delicious, it too perhaps suffered just a bit from the excellence of what had come before. The rib was exquisitely tender and deeply flavorful, but the raw carrots, peppers, and greens on the plate felt just slightly perfunctory, slightly out of place, the only example the whole night of a dish which perhaps placed too much emphasis on plating. Still, it was delightful and a benchmark for how such a dish can be prepared, and any slight imperfections were dwarfed by the overall success of the dish.

IMG_0248

A bunet is a sort of custard traditional in Piedmont. Often made with chocolate, Millon presented a version with almonds and espresso, one which could perhaps have  evoked more powerfully than it did those two noble ingredients. Still, it’s a minor quibble, and the dessert was an excellent and light way to end an exquisite meal.

A Mano, which opened a little more than a year ago, is an excellent addition to Philadelphia’s wonderful dining scene. Michael Millon feels like a kindred spirit, and I’m looking forward to many more visits. I can only hope he stays in the kitchen and continues to produce dishes with character, depth, and personality.