It was a thrill to sit across the table from René Redzepi to record this episode of Special Sauce. The pioneering chef-restaurateur is the force behind Copenhagen's Noma, which has been declared the best restaurant in the world no fewer than four times. As you might easily imagine, our conversation was far-reaching and revealing.
Redzepi and I started off by talking about his new book The Noma Guide to Fermentation, co-authored by Noma's fermentation lab director David Zilber. Fermentation, he told me, is "basically adult Legos you play with. And then as we started fermenting, it was like two basketfuls of them and it's up to us as cooks to figure out how to build with them and what goes what, where, and how. And once you figure that out, cooking becomes easier and more delicious." René is a true believer in experimenting with fermentation, and recommends home cooks give it a shot. He told me that he thinks once people "discover and figure out how to use fermented products in their daily lives, [their experience] cooking will be better and easier."
Our conversation transitioned from fermentation to Redzepi's childhood, which was partially spent in Macedonia. "It was a very rural lifestyle," he explained. "If you wanted to visit a neighbor, you went on a horse....No refrigerators at home, every single meal was cooked. They were farmers, they worked the land. If you wanted a glass of milk, you milked the cow. If you wanted butter, you had to churn the cream." Redzepi said his extremely modest childhood helped fuel his passion, adding that "the reason why I have had the drive that I have is because when you grow up with nothing, and even going hungry to bed often as a child, this urge to make it was just a really, really powerful urge I had when we first started. I wanted to make it no matter what."
How did that drive propel him to open Noma 15 years ago, at the tender age of 25? And why did he close up shop at the height of the restaurant's acclaim? To get the answers to those two intriguing questions I'm afraid you'll have to tune into this week's Special Sauce. You'll be glad you did. I promise.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/12/special-sauce-rene-redzepi.html
In part two of my enlightening and heartfelt conversation with Chef Michael Solomonov and his partner Steven Cook, authors of Israeli Soul: Easy, Essential, Delicious we took a deep dive into- what else?- the soul of Israeli food.
First of all, I became really envious when they told me about the kind of research they did for the book, which involved going to over 80 restaurants in eight days. That's my kind of trip!
And, apparently, when you eat at that many restaurants, you end up discovering a lot about a place. Cook noted that in the book they try to explain where many of the culinary traditions in the country came from, and what makes them Israeli, by documenting "the stories of all these cultures that have come together in the last 100 years, and evolved the cuisine that was already there, and brought in new traditions." As Solomonov notes, too, part of what's unique about the country is that "most Israelis are a few generations away from their family coming from a totally different part of the world," which makes for an interesting mix of food traditions.
But Cook also had one observation that stuck with me about what makes Israeli cuisine unique. He said, "Because of the way that so many different cultures have established themselves in Israel, within the last several generations, I think that there's an attachment to tradition that is really special, and something that we see probably less of in America. As food obsessed as we are now, it's about what's new and hot. It's not about doing something, perfecting something over generations, doing one thing, handing it off to your children. And that's really an inspiring way, I think, to think about food, and I think it comes through in how it tastes."
I learned so much from these passionate, smart advocates for Israeli food, and I have a feeling that many serious eaters will feel the same way after listening to this week's Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/11/special-sauce-michael-solomonov-steven-cook-part-two.html
3:23 Kenji addresses a question about make-ahead savory foods for the holidays.
6:27 Stella’s tips for make-ahead desserts.
8:28 Kenji explains how to get the most out of kitchen space when planning your Thanksgiving menu.
10:25 Debate: Should pies be reheated?
11:57 The team debates the differences between stuffing and dressing. Kenji is going to steal Stella’s dad’s idea for including brown butter in a stuffing recipe this year.
18:51 Is it possible to make gluten-free pies or other desserts that are actually delicious?
22:33 Are expensive turkeys better than ‘typical’ turkeys? Kenji, Stella and Ed discuss heritage vs. organic vs. free-range vs. commercial turkeys. Advice from Kenji: Use a thermometer and don’t overcook. Animal rights issues and farmers.
27:50 Kenji and Stella offer suggestions of what to do with leftover pumpkin purée.
30:18 Is sous-vide a useful technique for Thanksgiving? Kenji says yes, it’s great for turkey, leftovers, and heating make-ahead dishes.
For the last couple of Thanksgivings, we've done call-in episodes of Special Sauce with Stella and Kenji to answer the holiday-cooking questions stumping the Serious Eats community. We love producing these episodes, and our audience seems to love listening to (or reading) them, so we've decided to make it a Serious Eats holiday tradition.
This year, we were treated to a mini treatise from Kenji on gravy, which, I'm not ashamed to admit, has vexed me so much over the years that I've resorted to tubs of the store-bought stuff. Kenji broke down the basic process of making it, then described one of his favorite secret ingredients: "The other thing I like to do with my gravy, which some people consider cheating—whatever, I don't care—is that we add a little bit of soy sauce to it. This is actually something that my grandmother did, my mother did. This is an Alt family, a Nakanishi family tradition, actually.... When I do it, I actually put enough to make it taste a little bit like soy sauce, just because I like that flavor, but even if you don't want that flavor, even just a little splash of it, I find, it gives it a nicer color, and it also really deepens the flavor and brings out some of the other, more roasty flavors in the turkey."
Meanwhile, Stella had reassuring words for cooks who think the best-tasting pumpkin pie depends on fresh roasted pumpkin. If roasting your own sugar pumpkins and scooping out the flesh adds to the coziness of your Thanksgiving experience, she says, then go for it. But "if you don't enjoy that process, if you don't feel like, man, this is really improving my day and my dessert experience, there's not really any huge benefit, because the companies that make canned pumpkin are using the most delicious type of squash product, pumpkin product, that they can. They have scientists and engineers and farmers, all working together to produce this one glorious thing. It's like, let them do their job." The upshot of all of this being that "if you've got a recipe that calls for pumpkin purée, don't beat yourself up. Grab a can of pumpkin purée, and just take it easy."
Stella and Kenji's Thanksgiving troubleshooting ranged far and wide, tackling the most challenging questions with their customary aplomb and grace: How to time the many dishes that go into a Thanksgiving repast so that they all end up on the table together? What kinds of pies travel best? If you have to make your turkey in advance, what's the best way to reheat it? And many, many more that we're sure serious eaters will appreciate. If that isn't enough to entice you into listening, in the course of our conversation, both Kenji and Stella revealed themselves to be lovers of white-meat turkey and explained why. (I was skeptical, as you'll find out, but you'll no doubt render your own judgment about this controversial position.)
This special episode of Special Sauce is our way of thanking the millions of readers and listeners who have welcomed us into your kitchens and your stomachs over the years. Happy Thanksgiving, serious eaters.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=439838
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/11/special-sauce-michael-solomonov-steven-cook-1-2.html
In part two of my repartee-filled interview with <em>New York Times</em> food editor Sam Sifton, we delved into the intersection of food and technology. When I asked Sam how he thinks the internet has impacted the food media landscape, he said "I think it has changed food for the better and for the worse. You know, there's something kind of delicious as a critic, at least in the first years of being able to go to the internet, to get the photographic notes that you would've taken if you weren't raised like a gentleman....You know, this is everybody obsessively photographing their food but, after a few years of that, now chefs are creating dishes that are meant to be photographed. That's a problem, right? The sort of Instagram-bait platings are a problem, so you've got to kind of be careful about it but, on the whole, I can go on my phone and get a reservation in two seconds and order a car and get there and take pictures of the food and then get a news alert or have the president send an alert to my phone, as he did today. That's amazing! That's cool! That's great!"
And, since Sam wrote a cookbook exclusively devoted to Thanksgiving, I also had to ask him for his top tips for the notoriously challenging holiday meal. "Okay, three things that you need to know about Thanksgiving that you don't really know already," he said. "Number one: everything is going to be fine. It really is. I promise you. It's going to be fine. Two: you need more butter than you think. You really do. Three: Thanksgiving is not the time to litigate that issue [Whatever the hot-button of the moment happens to be]. It really isn't. Let it go. Let it go for the meal."
For a whole lot more <em>New York Times</em> food wisdom, including the origins of the newspaper's cooking app, and a great deal of fun food-gabbing, check out this week's episode of Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/11/special-sauce-sam-sifton-part-2.html
Sometimes my Special Sauce conversations function as a reunion, and this week's episode represents one of those times. Almost 20 years ago, my guest, Sam Sifton, was my editor at the <em>New York Times</em> food section, and, as such, the person who encouraged me to take deep dives into iconic foods like burgers and pizza. Those deep dives have in fact become the hallmark of Serious Eats, sometimes taking the form of recipes and cooking-technique articles, and Sam is now in charge of just about all of the food coverage at the <em>Times</em>, including its cooking app.
I asked Sam about the genesis of his passion for food. "I'm a New Yorker, born and raised in New York, and my distinct memories of the Sifton family table as a kid involved exploring the city. I, like a lot of knucklehead kids of the '70s, was dragged off to music lessons, despite a distinct lack of aptitude in the musical arts, and did that on Saturday morning, after which we would drive around—my brothers and my father and I, sometimes with my mother along—we would drive around in the family station wagon, hitting various neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn to pick up ingredients for a sandwich feast, or a fried chicken feast, or whatever we were going to eat over the course of the weekend. I think that's when this mania of mine began, was during those trips."
Though he is now a serious home cook (and has in fact written a <a href="https://www.amazon.com/Thanksgiving-Cook-Well-Sam-Sifton/dp/1400069912/?tag=serieats-20">Thanksgiving cookbook</a>), Sam has always been a serious eater. "...I was a kid who liked to eat, and as a New York kid was able to eat widely and have wide-ranging opinions about the foods that I could afford, which were, what—slices of pizza, meat buns from the Chinese place, and the like. I was always up for a debate about <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/10/best-ny-pizza-slices-2018.html">where the best slice is</a>."
As you'll hear, despite the variety of important positions he's held at the <em>Times</em>, Sam has always been drawn toward participating in some kind of debate. "I think I gravitated toward opinion, for sure, and toward exploration, and as my career as a journalist developed, I realized that one of the great ways of exploring a culture, or a city, or a region, is through its food. As you mentioned, I spent time on the national desk, I spent time on the culture desk, and I can tell you, there are people who are not interested in dance coverage, and there are people who are not interested in coverage of Midwestern congressional races, but everybody is interested in food at some point."
Sam is as smart and opinionated and well informed as anyone I know in food journalism. If you don't believe me, just listen to his episodes of Special Sauce, and decide for yourself.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=438952
On this episode of Special Sauce, I asked <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/editors/daniel-gritzer">Daniel Gritzer</a>, our managing culinary director, to come on and talk about the work he's been doing recently, and about where he thinks the site is headed from a culinary point of view (I hope to have Daniel and other members of the culinary team on the podcast more regularly in the future). And just to spice it up a little, I had <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/editors/j-kenji-lopez-alt">Kenji López-Alt</a>, on, too.
We spent a fair amount of time talking about a magical and ancient cooking implement: the mortar and pestle. Daniel has done a <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/08/best-mortars-and-pestles.html">lot of research into mortars and pestles</a>, and Kenji has frequently <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/2016/07/quick-tip-faster-curry-paste-mortar-pestle-food-processor-test-best-flavor.html">extolled their virtues on the site</a>. (If you follow <a href="https://www.instagram.com/kenjilopezalt/?hl=en">Kenji on Instagram</a>, you'll have seen photos of Alicia, his adorable daughter, pounding away on her own mini mortar and pestle alongside her dad.)
The first thing I wanted to find out was what Daniel found so interesting about them. "It's a kitchen tool that we take for granted," Daniel said. "Mortars and pestles predate knives, right? Mortars and pestles go back to when we were still cutting things with chipped stone tools, they're that old."
Part of what Daniel was trying to figure out was whether his long-held suspicion that some of the mortars and pestles sold in kitchenware stores were just terrible at doing what they were supposed to. "I collected as many mortars and pestles as I could reasonably get my hands on," Daniel said, and he put them through their paces. "Making things like pesto, Thai chili pastes, grinding spices, mashing garlic to a paste." And he discovered, just as he suspected, that not all mortars and pestles are created equal. "This ceramic one that I picked up at a store that will not be named was just horrible, it didn't work for anything." Although Daniel did soften that criticism after noting that a reader had observed that it was a science lab mortar and pestle, one that's not intended for culinary purposes. "That thing is good if you're mashing up mouse brains to do some sort of experiment."
And a good mortar and pestle is necessary, according to both Daniel and Kenji, since it will lead to superior results. "If you taste a pesto mae in a mortar and pestle side by side with a pesto made in a food processor," Kenji observed, "it's a pretty significant difference." Kenji also noted that in his sequel to the Food Lab, which he's now writing, "there's an entire chapter on the mortar and pestle and what you can do with it." Kenji even claims he'd put it in his top five pieces of necessary kitchen equipment.
Once Kenji left the line I asked Daniel to reflect on the way he sees the culinary content on Serious Eats evolving in the future, and he had a typically thoughtful answer, but to hear him talk about that, you'll just have to listen. For now, suffice it to say that it was a pleasure to have Daniel Gritzer and Kenji López-Alt together again, if only on Special Sauce.
I decided to kick off the new season of Special Sauce by checking in with Kenji. It won't surprise the Serious Eats tribe that he's been a little busy lately. You probably know about <a href="http://www.wursthall.com/">Wursthall</a>, the restaurant he opened with two other partners in his adopted hometown of San Mateo, California. But you may not know that he's also working on his very first children's book <em>and</em> the sequel to his best-selling book, <dorado id="the-food-lab-better-home-cooking-through-science" class="text">The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science</dorado>, all while juggling the demands of being a relatively new father.
One of the first things I asked Kenji about is whether his absolutely adorable 18-month-old daughter is as into cooking as his Instagram feed would indicate. "Oh, yeah. I mean, we cook every day together," he said. "I made her a little helper stool so she can climb up and get at counter height, and she has a little wooden knife... She loves it. She likes to whisk things, she makes pancake batter. She pounds things in the mortar and pestle. She dances along when you chop quickly." I have no doubt Alicia will be reverse-searing steaks any day now.
I also asked him to talk about his children's book and why he wanted to write it. "I want to have a good legacy and I want to add joy to the world," Kenji said. "This seemed like a way that I could do [that], in a way that was both very personal to me but also could be shared." But, of course, because this is Kenji, part of it was also because it presented a challenge. "This is something I've never done before. I can tell you, writing a kids' book is not easy. In a way, it's even more difficult than writing <em>The Food Lab</em>."
And then we talked about his other book project, the sequel to <em>The Food Lab</em>, which he descibed as being more focused on how he cooks at home. "It'll be a much less American-centric book," he said. "Techniques from all around the world, ingredients from all around the world, and essentially breaking down those techniques and ingredients and showing everyday home cooks how they can use the knowledge that everybody from around the world has collected over millennia to make their everyday cooking easier and more flavorful and more efficient."
Finally, Kenji and I talked about challenges and rewards of opening Wursthall. "The most rewarding part of the restaurant," Kenji said, "is knowing that you're helping these 50 employees earn a living and all of your guests have a good time...Anybody who doesn't feel that way, shouldn't be in hospitality."
We covered an awful lot of ground in this episode, and I think Serious Eaters everywhere will enjoy every second of Kenji's return to Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/09/special-sauce-wheres-kenji-here-hes-here.html
In part three of my pizza nerd-cast with Adam Kuban and Scott Wiener, we go seriously deep into New York pizza, specifically the state of the NYC slice in 2018.
Scott observed that some of the best pizza in town is being made by a new generation of pizza makers, ones that have no connection with older pizzerias. As he puts it, "They're not someone who learned their recipe from somebody else. They're people who are taking it upon themselves to figure out how to do it and do it right."
When I mentioned that the quality of some of the old-school slice joints had become markedly worse, Adam reluctantly agreed.
"That's tough 'cause I came here from Oregon...and we had no slice culture. The first six months I was here, I probably ate a slice everyday, 'cause I could," Adam said. "But eventually I burned out on it, and then...the next time I ate a slice again, I was like 'What did I think was so good about this? This is like rubbery cheese.'"
Of course, I had to ask both of them for their definition of the New York slice.
Adam said, "Thin crust, it's crisp, yet flexible, it's got tomato sauce and cheese, but they're balanced and they're balanced with the crust. Like, you don't have too much sauce, you don't have too much cheese."
Scott's was slightly different: "A New York slice is low-moisture mozzarella, gas oven, served on a paper plate, but the slice is bigger than the plate."
Since we were talking slices, Scott also had some thoughts about getting a slice reheated, which was accompanied by a bit of hard-won wisdom about pizza in general. "It's not going to be the same after the reheat," Scott said, "but that's sometimes part of the game. It's like toasting; sometimes you want a slice of bread, and sometimes you want toast. They're different. It's not just like breadier bread. You know what I mean? So, you gotta know your pizzeria. If their fresh pies come out the way that you like it, great, but some places you will want the reheat. You just gotta know your place."
We talk about a whole lot more in this week's episode, including our favorite slices in all the five boroughs and the pleasures and perils associated with the metal pizza stands you find at some of the city's great pizza places. But to hear our picks and our collective pie wisdom, you're just going to have to listen.
And when you've done that, know that there's still more geeking out about pizza to come in the near future on Serious Eats. Adam, Scott, and I have collaborated on a multi-dimensional post on the State of the New York Slice in 2018, so stay tuned.
One final note: We're taking a break from Special Sauce next week, but we'll be back with a new episode on September 14th.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats:https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/08/special-pizza-sauce-adam-kuban-and-scott-wiener-talk-pie-part-3-pie-hard-with-a-vengeance.html.
The self-described pizza nerds Adam Kuban and Scott Wiener are back with me on this week's Special Sauce to continue our deep dive into our favorite food.
Scott took great umbrage at the widely disseminated origin story of the Margherita pizza, in which a pizzaiolo created a pizza with the colors of the Italian flag–red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella), and green (basil)–to impress Queen Margherita of Italy. "Well, number one, tomato and cheese were both on pizza at least 45 years before that Margherita pizza is said to have happened...So, [it's a] complete myth that the pizza Margherita was the first time that the cheese pizza was invented. I'm responsible, in part, for spreading [it]," Scott conceded. "Every year on the date that's thought of as the anniversary, I always, starting probably nine or ten years ago, would put up a blog post...If you track them, the post changes and every year I got more skeptical about that story."
We also explored why the myth of the superiority of pizza in Naples continues to this day. Scott pointed out that it probably has to do with the fact that Naples is seen as the origin point of all pizza. But he also made the interesting observation about how Neapolitan pizza is distinct from a lot of other styles. "It's such a defined product that the margin for error is so small," Scott said. "When it's done well, when it's done correctly, I should say, it's all the same."
Adam agreed. "I never thought about that, but that makes a lot of sense and that's why I find [Neapolitan pizza] a little bit more boring. I like toppings on pizza, I'm sorry...When I first moved [to New York] I was a big proponent of, 'You gotta try a plain pizza, a plain slice first to really get a feel of what it is,' but I got so bored eating plain slices and Neapolitan Margheritas that I almost can't do it again."
We also tackled some less controversial topics, such as what Adam and Scott think is responsible for the heightened interest in pizza all over the world. Adam thinks it's the internet and the way it brings people who share a similar passion for a subject together: "We're just nerds about pizza, other people are nerds about sports or movies. It just wasn't until the internet came that people who were nerds about pizza could get together and talk about it and then do it in such a way that everyone else on the internet could see it."
So if you want to geek out about pizza with these funny, smart pizza geeks, give a listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce. I hope it has you salivating for next week's final deep dive in pizza.
The full transcript for this episode can be found here at Serious Eats.
For the next three weeks on Special Sauce I will be geeking out about pizza with Adam Kuban and Scott Wiener, two of the smartest, most passionate, and most knowledgeable pizza nerds on the planet. Adam Kuban is the founding editor of the seminal food blog Slice.com, which Serious Eats acquired right before we launched in December of 2006, and as part of the deal, Adam became our first managing editor. Adam currently runs Margot's Pizza, a mostly monthly pizza popup in Brooklyn.
Scott Wiener is the founder of Scott's Pizza Tours, the author of Viva la Pizza!: The Art of the Pizza Box, and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest collection of pizza boxes on the planet.
Of course, I asked the two about their love for pizza. Scott said part of its appeal is that it has a wide reach. "It's the food eaten everywhere, and everybody understands it, and it's just sort of an open invitation for conversation...When somebody says, 'Oh, such and such place is hands down the best ever,' nobody ever says, 'Oh. Okay, cool. Thanks. You want to go play some hockey?' No, it's never like that. It's always a conversation, and nobody's ever right, and nobody's ever wrong. It's like this friendly thing you can talk about."
Scott's love of pizza led to him creating Scott's Pizza Tours, which in turn set him on the path to collecting pizza boxes, and he now has 1,400 and counting. "I just figured, I have to understand every aspect of [pizza]," Scott said. "I was driving out to Long Island to see pizza oven factories, and tomato farms. I needed to know as much as could about everything. When I started noticing beautiful-looking pizza boxes, I had all these questions...Why go through all the trouble of putting this sometimes beautiful art, and sometimes absolutely atrocious art, onto a box that's just gonna get thrown in the garbage?"
Adam's love for pizza has found its expression at Margot's, which is so popular that all the seats sell out in a matter of seconds when tickets go on sale. The pizza is a little difficult to pin down, but it's all Adam. "It's basically an amalgam of many different styles throughout the country that I fell in love with," Adam said. "My first love was basically the Midwestern thin crust pies. It's got that thinness. I love New York pizza. I love how it's crisp and you can fold it still. When I went about making my crust, I made sure that it was crisp but you could fold it." How do people get tickets for Margot's? Go to the website linked above and follow the instructions. The next one is on September 10th at Emily in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and tickets will go on sale September 3rd at exactly 10 p.m. Pro tip: You have to be on the Margot's Pizza mailing list to receive the link to buy tickets.
I promise that this special three-part Special Sauce series on pizza will have you craving your favorite slice, no matter where you live. That is, of course, if you love pizza. And who doesn't love pizza?
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats.
All right, I admit it: I've always fantasized about having one of the Obamas as a guest on Special Sauce. And while I haven't given up hope entirely, I realize that Sam Kass, my guest on Special Sauce this week, might be as close as I get to that particular dream.
Sam is an author and food policy activist, and I first heard about him when he was tapped by Michelle Obama in 2013 to be the executive director of her Let's Move campaign, which focused on changing attitudes about food and nutrition in America. By that point in time, Sam had already been working at the White House for about four years, both as a chef and as an advisor.
Sam has since taken some of the lessons he tried to impart there and written the cookbook Eat A Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World, which is also something of a gentle food manifesto.
We started the conversation off with what it was like for Sam growing up, and he said that he started cooking for his family when he was nine; part of his allowance was even budgeted for the shopping. But he didn't really use recipes. "I would just make it up," Sam said, "I remember I cooked chicken thighs with a bunch of dried herbs and some onions, and maybe some mushrooms that I just sort of threw together. It came out actually really well...I got lucky, I think. Because then I tried to do it the next time, and put so many dried herbs into it that it was basically inedible."
Such is life as a nine-year-old chef.
As we talked, it seemed like Sam and I were bonding quite nicely. Well, at least until I brought up Chicago's deep dish pizzas, which turned out to be a sore subject. Here's a bit of the transcript:
Ed Levine: How did you feel about Chicago pizza? Were you a lover of deep dish pizza?
Sam Kass: Of course. Are you kidding me?
Ed Levine: I ask that because when I, I wrote a pizza book. A book all about pizza. In it I uttered some blasphemous statements about Chicago pizza.
Sam Kass: I'm amazed you're still alive.
I hope you'll check out both this week and next week's podcast to listen to how the talented and thoughtful Sam Kass became an invaluable member of the Obamas' White House team.
The full transcript for this episode can be found here at Serious Eats.
On this week's episode of Special Sauce, the Pulitzer Prize–winning but ridiculously down-to-earth Rick Bragg digs deep into his mom, the subject of his latest book, The Best Cook in the World.For one thing, Bragg's mother was not in the least interested in trendsetting: "Well, the first time she ever heard the term 'farm-to-table,' the puzzled look on her face—like, 'Well, how else are they gonna do it?...' They had it back in her day, too. They called it a flatbed truck."
Bragg's mother wasn't initially keen on the idea of a book about her cooking.
"Well, it wasn't that she didn't so much like the idea of telling the stories of her food. She didn't like the ego it would require to call it The Best Cook in the World.... When I told her she said, 'What would you even call it?' And I told her the title, and she said, 'I wasn't even the best cook that lived on our road.' And I said, 'Well, that may be true, but calling it The Third Best Cook on Roy Webb Road don't sing.' So here we are."
But a diagnosis of cancer and the ensuing years of treatment helped break down his mother's reluctance, and strengthened Bragg's own resolve:"I began to think about what would be lost, but I did not want to imagine a world without my momma in it.... I would not do this when my momma was gone, I just couldn't bear to do it. I had to do it while she was looking me in the face."
Did Bragg's mother, who spent many years working in kitchens of all kinds, including restaurant kitchens, consider herself a chef? "She did but she.... The word 'chef,' and believe me, I understand the culture, and I understand the hierarchy. I mean, they insist on being called 'Chef' if they're a chef, and I get it, and I understand the importance. But to her, she went about it with the same blue-collar notion that she went about everything else, and she saw it as the best thing that she could do...with the limited resources she had, for the people she loved. Some people sew, some people kill themselves in a factory. My momma cooked."
And, he said, it was both the only thing she thought she could do well and a marker of prestige. "I never will forget her telling me, 'Your Aunt Jo can dance, and your Aunt Juanita can climb a tree like a man. But all I could ever do was cook.' And she said that not with any...in any kind of self-pitying way, but with a great deal of fierce pride. A cook holds an almost...and it's not just my culture, it holds an almost magical place in the eyes of, especially, working folks, and I've seen it in the Dominican Republic, seen it in Cuba, seen it in Miami and the Cuban community there, seen it in places all over the world. The cook is kinda like a high priest of good living."
There's truth and magic at work when Bragg talks about his mother and her cooking. Listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.
Barbecue pitmasters are amongst our nation's greatest storytellers—they learn that all-important skill tending to their 'cue all night. But Rodney Scott, South Carolina pitmaster and James Beard Award winner, might just have the best story of all to tell, as you'll hear on this week's Special Sauce.
You won't be disappointed, only inspired.
On this week's Special Sauce, seminal food blogger, pastry chef, and author David Lebovitz and I took a trip back into the past. And we had a blast.
David worked in the Chez Panisse kitchen for 13 years before he realized it was time to leave. "I left because I was getting older, and when your body hits a certain age," David explained. "It's hard to stand up for eight and a half hours. It's like, I need to listen to my body, I need to go to the bathroom when I have to go to the bathroom without someone knocking on the door asking where the desserts are."
How was his first cookbook Room for Dessert conceived? "I was kind of burnt out, and I'd had all these dessert recipes in my repertoire, and I had spoken to Alice Waters [about writing a book]. Lindsey Shere wrote the first Chez Panisse dessert book, and I said, 'Well, maybe I should write the second one. Would that be interesting?' And, she said, 'Write your own.'" And so David's first book was born.
That book was the reason why David started his eponymous food blog in 1999; David wanted to give readers an opportunity to ask him about his recipes, which made him one of the first food blogging pioneers. "I had thought my first book's coming out, and I should use this internet thing, and if people have problems with recipes they can contact me. Because, often you make something from a book and you think, 'Oh, well, this recipe, I don't understand what the author means,' or something."
Around the same time, David decided to leave the Bay Area for Paris. He explained that in part it was because his life partner died, which, combined with his leaving Chez Panisse, left him feeling unmoored. Or, as he said, "It gave me the moment to say, 'You know what? I don't have anything here left.' I pretty much lost everything, and it was like, 'What do I do now?'" David continued, "I just realized this recently, that the reason I moved to France was because it was sort of a horizontal move, it is very similar to Northern California, the climate, the food was similar—goat cheese, garlic, wine—and it seemed like a horizontal move to go to Paris."
From Chez Panisse to early food blogger to best-selling author, David's story is full of twists and turns. Which of course makes for an excellent episode of Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over at Serious Eats.
My guest on this week's Special Sauce is the extraordinary blogger, author, and pastry chef David Lebovitz, whose latest book is L'Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home. David and I started off our conversation with the early days of blogging, and I asked him about whether he had ever intended to make money from his path-breaking blog. It is a question he frequently fielded at blogging conferences, where attendees would ask how they, too, could make a profit, to which he'd respond, "Do it for free for eight years."
"The whole idea of monetization didn't occur [to me]," David said. "I remember the first there were Google Ads, and you might make like $9 and you were so excited." For some people, it started becoming a business over the years, but that was never the focus of my blog."
David has had a number of interesting jobs in Paris. He was, for a very short time, a fishmonger. "I did that because I wanted to learn how to cut up fish, and because the guys who worked at this fish shop were unusually handsome. Even my straight male friends were like, 'Yes, those guys are really, really handsome.'"
Though L'Appart is ostensibly about his misadventures renovating a Paris apartment, David said it's also about something else. "It's how to live like a local, and be careful what you wish for. Everyone's like, 'I want to live like a local.' I'm like, 'No, be a tourist. Come visit, have a great trip, go home with your sanity intact.'"
As to what he learned renovating his apartment, David says, "Well, I learned if you want to be comfortable, stay home. You know, if you want life to be...you know, you want to watch TV, watch your favorite shows, not have to worry about returning things, stay home and that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. You know, you take a chance and that's when...you took a chance creating Serious Eats. It might have not worked out, and it...you know, it happened to have worked out, but you took a chance. If you didn't take a chance, it wouldn't have happened. So taking a chance is usually an okay thing, and it's also okay to fail at things."
I will say, finally, that David Lebovitz is quietly one of the bravest souls I know. Why do I say that? Listen to this episode of Special Sauce to find out.
The full transcript for this week's episode can be found here on Serious Eats.
Listening to Roads and Kingdom co-founder Matt Goulding talk about the food culture in Italy on this week's Special Sauce was a real treat for me. Matt spent months eating his way through the country for his extraordinary new book, Pasta, Pane, Vino: Deep Travels Through Italy's Food Culture, and he explains that what he found in his travels was a vibrant and evolving food culture, not one that is frozen in time. Or, as he so eloquently says, "I wanted to toss off this idea of this calcified cuisine that's encased in amber, that Italian food is a museum piece...So what this book is really about is, yes, the traditions are beautiful and they shouldn't be screwed with half-heartedly. They need to be taken very seriously, but to say that Italian food is the same as it has always been...overlooks the fact that there are incredible chefs, young and old, and artisans and innovators that are doing amazing things with pizza in Naples or ragu in Emilia-Romagna."
Matt illustrated the tensions between staying true to time-honored traditions even as younger generations are looking to do something new with an anecdote about a burrata-making family in Puglia. "I realized very quickly that within their own family the entire complexity of this push and pull between past and present and future was contained between mother and father and then their three young sons...The mother and father thought the idea of putting matcha powder into burrata was fucking nuts and grandma's rolling over in her grave...These guys were like, 'Well we just came back from Japan. We brought burrata to them and now we want to bring Japan to burrata. Why can't we do that?'"
I do hope you'll tune in to this episode, as I expect you'll find Matt to be as entertaining as he is insightful.
The full transcript for this episode of Special Sauce can be found here at Serious Eats.
Having chef and memoirist Edward Lee on Special Sauce was the happiest of accidents. Sitting on top of a pile of books on Special Sauce associate producer Marissa Chen's desk was Lee's evocative and moving memoir, Buttermilk Graffiti. I read a chapter, was knocked out by it, and emailed his publicist asking if Lee–chef/owner at three restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky, and culinary director at another in Washington, DC, and Maryland–was going to be in NYC any time soon. By some miracle, he was, and you can hear the results of all this serendipity on this week's episode of Special Sauce (and next's).
Growing up in the then-polyglot neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn, Lee was exposed to all kinds of food, and he and his friends ate anything and everything: "We're going to get a beef patty, and then we're going to eat some Pakistani food, and then get a slice of pizza." But, he says, the household he was raised in didn't exactly encourage his interest in cooking from a young age. "It was interesting back then, coming from a traditional, patriarchal Korean family. I was not going to be the one to cook. I had an older sister, and it's the girl that the recipes get passed down to, not the boy in the family. I'm supposed to go off and do whatever boys do. I literally had to fight my way into the kitchen. I was very persistent, even as a little kid.... I basically said, 'Listen, I'm not leaving.' [My grandmother] would let me hang out in the kitchen. She wouldn't tell me what she was doing, but she would just let me hang out in the kitchen, and she would just be like, 'Well, if you're going to be here, be here, but I'm not going to tell you anything about this.'"
When he told his parents he was going to become a chef, they were not pleased: "For my parents, they said to me, they said, 'You're being a servant. You're choosing a life of servitude.' Of course, my rebuttal was, 'Hey, you become an accountant, you're still serving someone.' They didn't want to hear that. I was kind of a smart aleck. They didn't like those answers. There were no celebrity chefs back then. There was no ownership of your destiny, ownership of your career."
Before Lee truly embarked on that career, however, he fell in love with graffiti, an outlet that, to him, represented art at its most democratic and most ephemeral. For many of the young people he grew up around, it was a "futile attempt at leaving some permanence on the world, knowing that this thing was going to get covered up in a week or two, or month. There was something both tragic and beautiful about it.... Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but I make the comparison now that food is so much the same way. Food is so much about.... It's just a moment."
Lee eventually found his way to Louisville, where he encountered his first bowl of collard greens at a local soul food restaurant and was drawn in by the multiethnic nature of Southern food culture. You'll hear more about how his exposure to Southern culture transformed his approach to food, plus the important life lessons he learned during his stint as a short-order cook in college, when you tune in.
The transcript for this episode of Special Sauce can be found over at Serious Eats.
In part 2 of the Special Sauce interview with artist and author Maira Kalman, we were joined by <a href="http://www.barbarascottgoodman.net/Cookbooks.html">Barbara Scott-Goodman</a>, who co-authored <em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Cake-Maira-Kalman/dp/1101981547/?tag=serieats-20">Cake</a></em>, and, of course, we talked cake. What else would we talk about?
The first question I asked was how the book came to be. Scott-Goodman said that she had always wanted to write a book about cake, but not one that dipped into the realm of baking bibles or took itself too seriously. She wanted a book "about moments of cake." And so she approached Kalman (they have known each other for years) and simply said "I want to do a book about cake." And that was that.
Of course, the way the collaboration worked was slightly unorthodox. "That process took a little while to figure out," Scott-Goodman said. "I work as a cookbook writer and think in terms of, 'First we'll do this and that' and when I said something about the yellow pound cake Maira said 'Well, then that would be the picture of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein.'"
But an unorthodox process was totally appropriate, in light of what they produced. "'Is it a cake book? Is it a memoir?'" Kalman said. "It's both of these things beautifully tied together."
One of my favorite moments of the interview (admittedly one I engineered) was when Kalman read one of my favorite passages from the book:
<blockquote>The Cakes of People I Do Not Know
All over the world, all the time, people are eating cake.
They always have and they always will.
A group of children have stopped playing to have cake.
A man taking a nap on a comfortable sofa will wake up to a lovely cake.
Together, or alone, celebrating or sitting quietly and thinking, someone is savoring a moment of cake.</blockquote>
The words on a page don't do this cake poem justice. To really feel the power contained in them you'll just have to listen to the podcast.
I don't know how many serious eaters have heard of the brilliant, food-loving, and thought-provoking artist and writer Maira Kalman, but I've been a huge fan of hers for a long time now. So when I heard that she had recently co-written (with Barbara Scott-Goodman) and illustrated a cookbook, Cake, I knew I had to have her on Special Sauce.
As an artist, Kalman seeks to represent joyful, meaningful moments: "All comfort is temporary. We know that to be a fact. But when you understand that, then you can really allow yourself to look at those moments during the day, and they become very important, and they're very shining moments.... And I think those are the happiest moments that people have, when you're alone and a fleeting something happens, and you feel a sense of joy. So, I'm looking for those."
"Room service breakfast in bed. Let's start with the basics. Usually, I've spent time traveling a lot, and I order breakfast in bed because I want to see how they serve it and what the dishes are and what's the tray in, what's the napkin, and I photograph it, and I do drawings, and I've done pieces for magazines. So, it's professional on my part. It's professional research. But I adore all the trappings of table settings and what goes around it. I would like to work in a hotel. I worked as a maid in an Irish castle for a few weeks, and that was heaven. I can see doing that. I'd like to get a job in a hotel, serving somebody else breakfast.
In this episode, you'll hear about what she'd serve for that hotel breakfast (in great detail), plus why she dislikes dinner parties and her special love for chairs that have been abandoned on the street.
Next week, we'll get into Kalman's new book, Cake, but this week's conversation will provide plenty of sustenance in the meantime.
The full transcript for this week's podcast episode can be found at Serious Eats.