At the end of every week, Ed Levine- a.k.a. Serious Eats founder, a.k.a. Serious Eats overlord, a.k.a. "missionary of the delicious," a.k.a. Ed "The Good Ones Eat Through the Pain" Levine- hosts intimate conversations with food lovers of all kinds, diving deep into the ways in which eating and sharing meals has shaped his guests' lives.
For this and next week's episodes of Special Sauce, we turned the tables on Ed and had Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and Ed's longtime friend, grill Ed in front of a live audience at Rizzoli Bookstore in Manhattan. The event was held in part to celebrate the release of Ed's memoir, Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, named one of the best cooking, food, and wine books of 2019 so far by Amazon.
The evening started off with a bang, as Meyer admitted at the outset that he was going to be a combative interviewer. He noted that he'd been hankering for a chance to interrogate Ed about his business decisions, in much the same way Ed questioned the integrity of Meyer's business when he wondered, quite publicly, about Union Square Hospitality Group's inability to make good French fries. Or, as Ed so diplomatically put it at the time, "Why Do the French Fries at Blue Smoke Suck?"
Despite saying that he should "have his head examined" for helping Ed sell his book, Meyer did a fine job filling in for Ed, asking him all the questions that Special Sauce listeners have come to expect, such as "What was it like at the Levine family table?" Ed revealed that his grandmother's cooking was what sparked his intense love of food, and he identified the source of his missionary zeal as his parents, who originally met at a Communist Party meeting and bequeathed their passionate intensity, if not their politics, to all their children.
Part one of the conversation begins with Ed's childhood and ends with his college years, when he discovered a love for music that rivaled his love for food, even as he dabbled in a life of petty crime with an associate who will forever be known only as "Jerry Garcia."
To find out what that means, and to hear the origin story of the man who would go on to create Serious Eats, you're just going to have to listen to part one of this Special Sauce interview with Ed Levine. (Or, of course, you can buy a copy of Serious Eater for yourself!)
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/06/special-sauce-ed-levine-live-part-1.html
This week, in part two of my conversation with chef and food writer Nik Sharma, we dug into the science-based approach to cooking that informs his terrific new cookbook, Seasons: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food.
Given Nik’s background in medical research, it made sense to learn that he thinks of his kitchen as just another lab. All of us, he pointed out, experiment in one way or another in the kitchen, even if we’re just tweaking a family recipe. In his case, though, Nik explains that he “had that training to do that…one of the things I really like about recipes, [is that] the way they're written is exactly the way I would prepare my buffers in biochemistry or in genetics… We call them recipes, we pretty much use the terminology, everything is arranged by volume or when it has to go in.” He even admits to using lab notebooks when he’s developing a recipe. It’s that analytical approach that he says allows him to make each iteration of a recipe better.
That said, Nik shied away from making <em>Seasons</em> read overly scientific. Instead, “I kind of wanted to introduce myself to people,” he said. “At the same time, I wanted to be really approachable, so someone who is intimated by being too science-y kind of understands that the simplest things that they're doing in the kitchen actually have a scientific basis to them.” He talked about something as simple as bruising an herb like mint to extract essential oils and introduce them to a cocktail. “You know, you're breaking those cells to release those essential oils so then they get solubilized in whatever solvent they're in, so like water.”
The moral of Nik’s story? Even if science intimidates you, “what you're doing in the kitchen is a form of science,” and even when it goes awry, learning from your mistakes is half the fun. Nik believes, like Bob Dylan once sang, "There's no success like failure and failure's no success at all.” When it comes to cooking, he told me "I want people to understand that when you walk in to the kitchen, you don't have to be compelled to succeed the first time, I think that's something very cultural where there is this impetus to push people for success, but I think we forget sometimes that it's okay to fail because it's your failures that you remember, you'll never remember what you succeeded at or why, but it's when you fail you start to remember what was wrong, how can you fix it, and it makes you much wiser."
I loved hearing what everyone's eating on Nik Sharma Day, but if I told you what it is, you might not listen to the whole episode. And that, serious eaters, would be a big mistake.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=445672
Cookbook author (Seasons: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food), blogger (A Brown Table), and newspaper columnist (A Brown Kitchen) Nik Sharma made the perfect Special Sauce guest. Why? He has a great, dramatic story, and he isn't afraid to tell it like it is (or was).
Sharma grew up in India, and as a man who recognized that he was gay at a young age, he had a tough childhood. "At least back then, it wasn't talked about. I'm talking about in the late '80s, early '90s, when I kind of realized something was different about me. It was difficult, because I had nothing to compare anything to. The only stuff that I heard about in terms of gay life was about Indians who were either getting arrested, or bodily harm, or even being killed. So for me, that was quite terrifying. As a child, then you start- you think there's something wrong with you."
Sharma resolved to leave India, initially coming to the US to study to become a medical researcher. But his interest in food eventually drove him to the blogosphere. "I'm really passionate about flavor," he told me. "I’m really curious to see how people in different parts of the world approach the same ingredient or the same technique. I find it fascinating, because a lot of it is also a reflection of society, the socioeconomics of a country.... I find that fascinating, and I wanted to reflect that in my work. I started reading a lot, and also cooking and experimenting with flavor. That's what I started to do with the blog and bring that in."
Though Sharma's blog brought him enormous pleasure and a devoted following, it also brought him lots of uninvited blowback about his sexuality and the color of his skin. He found himself at a crossroads. "I think one of the things people forget [is] that when you write or you do something and you put it out there, you're making yourself vulnerable.... Fortunately, I took a step back, just to reevaluate my decisions in life at that point, whether I really wanted to do a blog. I said, ‘Well, you know, this is something that I'm actually enjoying more than I was before. I would be a fool to give it away just because of the opinions of a few. Let me stick to it, do it in my best way that I possibly could.’ So if they had to critique me, they could critique me on the quality of my work, but not on anything else."
When reading Sharma's book, I came across a passage that I found particularly beautiful, one that summed up both his relationship with food and what he's learned from his chosen career thus far. I loved it so much that I asked him to read it on the air, and he graciously obliged:
"Mine is the story of a gay immigrant told through food. It has been a journey of self-discovery I embarked on more than a decade ago. One that taught me to recognize the inherent tension between originality and tradition, and to opt for the former without rejecting the latter. It's been a journey of acclimatization, adaptation, and acceptance. During times of discomfort, food became my friend and teacher. It taught me to reinterpret conventional techniques and flavors, and apply these reinterpretations to my food that would become a part of my new life in America. Seasoning is more than just a way to achieve flavor in the food we eat. It represents our desire to connect with our past, present, and future. It tells our story."
To hear more from this eloquent writer, you're just going to have to listen to the whole episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/06/special-sauce-nik-sharma-part-1.html
In part two of my delightful conversation with Priya Krishna, she delves into her book Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family in so many unexpected and revealing ways.
"Indian-ish" is not just the name of the book; it also describes her mindset and worldview. "For my whole life I always felt Indian and American but not quite fitting into either of those molds," Krishna says. "It was like I was too American to be Indian and too Indian to be American. But I think that as time has gone by I have found ways to really feel proud of that tension. You know, in my book I talk about how we wear our kurtas with jeans and we listen to Bollywood music alongside our top 40 hits and...these are all equally important parts of what we do. I love Indian food, but I also love Italian food and I don't think that those things need to feel mutually exclusive."
Krishna admits that she is no expert on Indian food. "I don't want to pretend to be an authority on Indian food because I'm not," she says. "I didn't want this book to be like, 'This is your guide to Indian food.' This is a guide to the food that I grew up eating."
Krishna is very comfortable being a missionary for Indian food we can make every day: "I feel like food media just, there is still this mentality that American cooking encompasses Western cuisines and everything else is the other. I still think Indian food is treated as this sort of strange esoteric thing and I really want to change that. I admire people who are doing that for other cuisines. I absolutely adore Andrea Nguyen, who just authored Vietnamese Food Any Day. I hope to do what she's doing for Vietnamese food for Indian food."
As an example, one of the things Krishna hopes to educate people about is the importance of chhonk, which Priya rhapsodizes about in the book. As she describes it, chhonk is "this this really fundamental technique in South Asian cooking and basically the idea is that you're heating up some kind of fat, whether that's tahini or oil, tossing in spices and/or herbs and basically crisping them in the oil. You pour it on top of a dish and it adds this unbelievable texture and extra layer of richness and complexity."
Of course, I asked Krishna what she plans on doing next. "There will always be some kind of collaboration with my mom and me," she says. "I think that the best recipe developers are people who kind of just have this intuition about cooking and I don't think I have that intuition. I think my strengths lie elsewhere. I'd love to develop more recipes, with my mom. My mom the other day told me, 'I think I have enough recipes for three cookbooks.' And I was like, 'Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Mom.'"
There's so much more in my conversation with Krishna that will resonate with Serious Eaters everywhere. But don't take my word for it, listen to the whole episode. I guarantee you won't be disappointed- not even a little bit disappointed-ish.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/06/special-sauce-priya-krishna-2-2.html