Twice a month, when my daughter, Ella, spends the weekend with me, my apartment turns into a cooking school. Ella is thirteen and started to make cookies and scones a few years ago. She moved on to tarts, fresh tagliatelle, and, lately, croissants. Early on Saturdays, before heading to our local green market, we have impassioned conversations about her dinner plans. Pork adobo with citrus and coriander, she asks me, or red lentils simmered Ethiopian-style, with fresh tomatoes andberbere? And then she’s sure to ask if she can bake. I’m already thinking of the scabs of flour I’ll be scraping off my counter on Monday morning, and of how much pâtisserie I’ll have consumed, but I give in. I love watching the skill and authority of her fingers in a bowl of flour, eggs, butter, and chocolate; her intensity as she pipes ganache from a pastry bag or dusts éclairs with finely ground pistachios.
When she’s not cooking, she often watches shows like “Chef’s Table,” the sumptuously produced Netflix series featuring sombre, admiring portraits of culinary stars. With painterly cinematography and introspective voice-overs, “Chef’s Table” pays professional cooks the kind of homage once reserved for artists. Most of the dishes are impossible to replicate in a home kitchen — who has the time to make Enrique Olvera’s thousand-day mole, or even find all the ingredients? —But Ella doesn’t watch the show for recipes. She watches it for the spectacle of mastery, much as other teens hang out on YouTube watching Lionel Messi’s greatest goals orYuja Wangplaying “Flight of the Bumblebee. ”
The show’s self-serious musings on the mysteries of food make me cringe a bit, but I was once fluent in that idiom. From the time I was nine until well into my teens, I was determined to be a chef. I ran a catering business out of my parents ’house, in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and did apprenticeships with notable chefs. So when I watch “Chef’s Table” I can’t help experiencing the slight pang you get from seeing someone living the life you chose not to live.Could I have been a contender? When I was cooking, food was everything to me; I haven’t known as consuming a passion since. The kitchen is where I learned the only foreign language I speak:brunoise,pâte feuilletée, anddemi-glacewere among the first French words I knew, and they retain an incantatory power.
I started to cook after my friends — at least, I thought they were friends — began to bully me for being overweight and Jewish. Pudgy was my nickname, and as they threw change at me in the hall I learned that to be a Jew was to love money. I punched one boy in the neck when he called me a dirty Jew, and felt very pleased as he fell to the ground. But the problem of my weight couldn’t be handled by vigilante justice. I wasn’t ashamed to be Jewish, but I was embarrassed to be plump. While vacationing at the Jersey shore with my family, I began to hide food, furtively removing items from my plate and placing them in a napkin. I would bury much of my dinner in the sand outside the house my parents had rented. I counted calories, and spent hours appraising myself in the mirror, measuring my progress.
This wasn’t much fun. For one thing, I was depriving myself of the pleasures of my mother’s cooking. Some families are brought together by faith; we were brought together by food. By secretly not eating, I was isolating myself. As I grew thinner, I felt both proud and terribly lonely. Toward the end of the summer, my parents became aware that I wasn’t myself; in photos from that time I look gaunt and unhealthy. When we returned home from the shore, my parents took me to a child psychologist, Sidney Hyman.
Dr. Hyman was in his late fifties, wore a bow tie, and liked to crack silly jokes. He didn’t ask many questions, but I remember playing a lot of board games with him. I’d become very serious, and I think he wanted me to rediscover what it was like to have fun. Trying to have fun is what started me cooking. I opened a cupboard, found some chocolate — I’d hardly touched any since becoming obsessed with my weight — and decided to make what I called fudge. I put the chocolate in a plastic container and placed it in the toaster oven. The container melted a bit, but the warm, liquefied chocolate was delicious, and the fact that I’d melted it myself was exciting: I had transformed something.
The next thing I made was a simple chocolate cake. It came out well, and I even treated myself to a slice, although I was still carefully counting calories. Before long, I was spending all my free time in the kitchen. I worked my way up to more elaborate confections, likedacquoise, a hazelnut meringue layered with buttercream frosting, and then to making savory dishes. I especially liked sauces, which, in their textural variety — thick or thin, translucent or cloudy, syrupy or velvety — taught me the subtle poetry of haute cuisine. I became fascinated by emulsions, the mixing of liquids that happens in fancy sauces like beurre blanc and hollandaise but also in the simplest vinaigrette. I pored over my mother’s cookbooks and magazines, readingabout the great chefs who had defined what it meant to cook seriously. On weekends, friends would come over to sample new dishes. I became a connoisseur of local food shops and butchers. I orderedmagret de canardfrom a supplier in the Hudson Valley. Each month, I would prepare a dinner for my family, which I would “advertise” a few weeks in advance by tucking a menu under my mother’s pillow.
When I was eleven, I launched a catering company, Adam’s Edibles, leaving xeroxed copies of a handwritten menu outside our neighbors ’doors. I started with desserts and pastries, but a year later I expanded my repertoire:
Dr. Mr. or Ms., ******
My name is Adam Shatz. Last year I ran a successful dessert business. This summer I’m adding appetizers and soups to the menu. My food is delicious and not too complicated. All the ingredients I use are fresh. . . . I live on 106 Morningside Drive, Longmeadow, Mass. I have the only red house on the street. I know you’ll love my food!
The menu includedgougères($ 3. 50 for twelve), ravioli ($ 8 for four servings), and vichyssoise ($ 4 with onions, $ 6 with leeks, for four servings). I changed the company’s name to Le Trésor— “Shatz” means “treasure” in German — and began to cater multicourse meals, mostly for my parents ’friends. This meant that I was now cooking in other people’s kitchens. I would shop for ingredients the day before a dinner, arrive at my customer’s home the morning of, and spend the entire day cooking. The clients must have found my presence amusing, but to me it was no stunt. I couldn’t have been more certain that my future lay in the kitchen. I was already dreaming of going to cooking school, apprenticing in France, and opening my own restaurant.
Word of my exploits got around, and my art teacher made a documentary about me for the local cable-access channel. She called it “Adam Cooks,” and that’s pretty much what you see: a nerdy, bespectacled twelve-year-old in a chef’s uniform making a baked-goat-cheese salad, a chicken ragout with watercress cream sauce and morels, and a raspberry crème brûlée. Later, he pontificates on his culinary influences, against a musical backdrop of classical guitar. At one point, you see him apologizing for no apparent reason. The reason was that I’d just screamed “Fuck!” In front of the film crew, after burning myself on a hot pot.
The cable-access channel had very little content, and so “Adam Cooks” was shown on a virtually continuous loop for a couple of years. People assumed it was a weekly show, rather than a one-off, and I became a local celebrity. “Garbed in a chef’s hat and cooking jacket, Adam rattled off the names of his favorite chefs, debated the influence of famed female and male chefs, and the offerings of exclusive restaurants in America and Europe,” the LongmeadowNewsreported. In that article, I discussed “the cooking philosophies of Escoffier and Fernand Point,” my preference for gas stoves, and sexism in professional kitchens: “Men are afraid to let women cook.”
The same year, I had a more bruising encounter with the media, after my uncle, for my thirteenth birthday, scored me an invitation to a conference in Boston on wine and gastronomy. There I metRuth Reichl, who was then a food writer for the Los AngelesTimes. That’s where she wrote a short profile of me, under the headline “TYKE WITH A TOQUE”:
“The most important thing in cooking is to have your own style,” Adam Shatz, 13, is saying, when his mother taps him on the shoulder. “Look Adam,” says Adam’s Mother, “it’s Michael McCarty.” She turns so he can see the great chef. Adam squares his shoulders and walks manfully over.
Reichl described a boy with “extraordinary poise,” who boasts that he “never cooks a dish more than once,” and says “airily” that he charges “about $ 25 a person. ”I was devastated. And I’d got off easy compared with my parents, who’d done nothing more than take me to the event:
Adam’s father snaps a picture. . . . Before long there are four chefs surrounding the young prodigy. His proud papa is still snapping away. . . . Stage mothers were once all the rage, but now it’s time to bid farewell to the movie mama as we make room for the latest breed of pushy progenitor — the stove-top parent.
In fact, my parents tried to protect me from the media. When ABC television approached them about making a movie based on my life as a child chef, they immediately rejected the idea.
Still, Reichl was right about one thing: I was awfully serious. But cooking, far from being an expression of my “extraordinary poise,” was a refuge from the world of my peers. True, I had a new circle of friends, who appreciated my cooking and didn’t taunt me, and I was no longer seeing Dr. Hyman. Yet I still kept fastidious track of what I consumed and felt terribly uncomfortable in my body. Giving shape to food, turning it into something artful, was an escape, and the kitchen became a laboratory in which I could lose myself in experimentation.
And I had so much to learn. Cooking was not just a skill but a practice with a remarkable history,requiring absolute devotion. My parents encouraged my ambition, buying me equipment, taking me to restaurants, and coming home with menus signed by chefs I followed in the food press. I read everything I could find on pioneers of the “New American cuisine,” such as Jeremiah Tower, the brilliant, bitchy Harvard-educated architect who created Stars, a dazzling brasserie in San Francisco; andAlice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, where Towers had got his start before the two became bitter enemies over who had invented the Chez Panisse style. Once, I got to dine at the Campton Place Hotel, in San Francisco, where Bradley Ogden was developing a style based on local ingredients and regional recipes. “You seem to have a deep appreciation and dedication for this business, but don’t take it too seriously,” Ogden wrote afterward. Good advice that I wasn’t ready to hear; wasn’t taking it seriously the whole point?
Besides, my real heroes weren’t American but French: Paul Bocuse, the visionary of Lyon; the formidably articulate Joël Robuchon; the Troisgros brothers, renowned for their salmon with sorrel sauce; Michel Guérard, the inventor ofcuisine minceur, a low-calorie version of nouvelle cuisine. I was fascinated by Bernard Loiseau, the moody creator ofcuisine à l’eau, a style built around water-based sauces. (He later killed himself, fear that he was about to lose his third Michelin star.) But the chef who most seized my imagination was Alain Senderens, a bearded, bespectacled intellectual who looked more like a post-structuralist theorist or a Kabbalah scholar than like a cook. At L’Archestrate, in Paris, he made daring adaptations of recipes he excavated from ancient Roman cookbooks, and shocked the culinary establishment with wonderfully mad flavor combinations, like lobster with vanilla sauce.
I was in awe of Senderens. Not that I’d ever tasted his food — I hadn’t even been to Paris — but merely toreadabout Senderens was to know that he was a genius. I discovered him thanks to my favorite food critics, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who ran an opinionated, witty, literary rival to the staid Michelin Guide. They declared Senderens “the Picasso of French cooking.” He was certainly my Picasso, a bold and uncompromising revolutionary who’d reinvented the language of food.
My own cooking was more cautious. I was attached to traditional forms and intent on pleasing. I recently unearthed the menu for a dinner party I catered when I was maybe fourteen. The dishes— “Fricassée of Mussels with Yellow Pepper Cream and Spinach” or “Summer Fruits with a Sabayon Sauce Flavored with Framboise” —show that I was more interested in absorbing the great tradition of French cooking than in disrupting it. How could I break with a tradition if I hadn’t properly learned its techniques? Boning poultry, cutting perfect julienned carrots, peeling and dicing a tomato unblemished by skin or seeds, making a lumpless roux for béchamel, caramelizing onions without burning them, whisking pieces of butter into a wine reduction without curdling the sauce: such skills had to become second nature, like tying one’s shoes or swimming breaststroke. ******
These are physical as much as intellectual forms of knowledge. How do you know that a steak, or a piece of salmon, has been cooked to your liking? Not by a timer, or even by looking, but by the feel of its flesh when you press it, and the indentation left by your finger. I began to keep a food diary, charting my progress and recording my innermost thoughts about cooking. I was interested in its relationship to art and politics, both growing enthusiasms, and to sex, an unknown terrain that I was impatient to explore. (One of my friends came across a cassette I had made, full of poetic confessions about food and sensuality; after enduring hours of ridicule, I destroyed it.)
In the kitchen, I sought out meats that I’d never eaten — rabbit, quail, pigeon — and discovered the voluptuous frisson of offal, on the delicate line between succulent and repellent. There were a few disasters. Once, I made pasta with chanterelles that had been picked in a forest in Maine by a family friend, an old Russian Jew who claimed to be a mycologist. Suddenly, my grandmother said she felt sick and started to panic. Everyone put their forks down. The mushrooms turned out to be fine. While my parents made sure that I hadn’t poisoned my grandmother, I went back to the kitchen and whipped up a simplespaghetti aglio e olio, which I secretly preferred to chanterelles.
Not long after Reichl’s profile appeared, I found a French culinary mentor, Gérard Pangaud. In Paris, he’d become, at twenty-seven, the youngest chef ever to receive two Michelin stars. Then Joe Baum, the themed-restaurant pioneer, persuaded him to come to New York and head the kitchen at Aurora, on East Forty-ninth Street. The restaurant was a chic and dreamy midtown oasis in muted shades of blue and pink. Bryan Miller, the restaurant critic for theTimes, called it “the Versailles in Joe Baum’s impressive collection of culinary chateaus.”
I first went there for lunch with my grandmother, after writing Pangaud a fan letter. He was waiting when we arrived. For the next few hours, we ate rounds of lobster tail in a tangy, buttery sauce of Sauternes, lime, and fresh ginger, on a bed of spinach; a ragout of periwinkles, briny as the sea; and slices of grilled, rosy-pink pigeon breast with olives,tomato, and lemon confit, in a rich, sombre sauce that haunted the tongue. Pangaud wasn’t a revolutionary like Senderens, but he had a grippingly visceral imagination, an intuition for unusual combinations of flavor and texture, and an earthy elegance. After lunch, he invited me to study with him.
There was nothing unusual about a chef asking a teen-ager if he’d like to work in the kitchen. In France, culinary training is based on what’s known as thestage, an unpaid apprenticeship that all chefs pass through, beginning with the lowliest of activities and gradually rising to more complex tasks. French kitchens are deeply hierarchical institutions, run along essentially military lines. My studies with Pangaud weren’t quite astage– living in Massachusetts, I could train for only a few days every couple of months — but my education there lasted several years. The days began at dawn and ended well past midnight, and I made the most of them. I usually worked in garde-manger, preparing salads and chopping vegetables, but I was occasionally allowed to work on the line, searing steaks, duck breasts, and thick slabs of foie gras.
Restaurant kitchens are enclosed worlds, and now that I was inside one I wanted to know who its players were and how they operated. The chefs on the line were mostly blue-collar white guys, though there were a few women. The only thing the line chefs talked about — other than food, keeping up with their orders, and who had screwed something up — was fucking, and I guessed that some of that was happening downstairs, in the basement kitchen, where the meat was stored . The prep cooks chopping vegetables in garde-manger were mostly East Asian and Central American immigrants. Once they graduated to the line, they adopted the brassier, saltier argot that cooking in conditions of extreme heat and pressure seemed to require. The intensity of the kitchen — the speed, the insults, the burns from hot oil splashing — was frightening at first, but soon I was intoxicated. And it was satisfying to be welcomed as one of the team. Some of the cooks referred to me teasingly as the Kid. But Iwasa kid, and I didn’t know a luckier one.
In the summer of 1987, just before I turned fifteen, I went to France for the first time, with my family. The highlight of the trip was a visit to Lameloise, a Michelin three-star restaurant and hotel in Chagny, a small industrial town in Burgundy. I’d written to Jacques Lameloise, the chef and owner, before we set out, and Pangaud had sent a letter of recommendation, too. Lameloise greeted us warmly, and I spent the next day in the kitchen. Afterward, he asked if I wanted to come back to do astagethere. My parents said I could, provided that I covered my living expenses, which meant that I needed to get a job back home.
So, when I wasn’t in school, I started working in a very different kind of kitchen, at the Student Prince, in Springfield. Known to its regulars as the Fort, it was an old-school German restaurant, whose owner, Rupprecht Scherff, had fled the Nazis. The dining room was a festive place, but the kitchen was almost Dickensian in its sordidness and gloom. Whereas Aurora’s employees were ambitious and obsessed with the art of food, no one at the Fort imagined that they were doing much more than punching a time card. Many of the waitstaff seemed to be on chemical mood enhancers. The Polish woman who chopped lettuce and placed it in bins the size of garbage cans wore gloves, because she had severe eczema. If working at Aurora was an apprenticeship in haute cuisine, working at the Fort was an education in injuries of class that are invisible from the dining room. In school, I’d been reading “The Jungle, “Upton Sinclair’s novel exposing exploitation in the meatpacking industry. Soon I understood Sinclair’s fury that readers had been more alarmed by the book’s food-hygiene implications than by its indictment of working conditions.
The kitchen was on two floors. I worked downstairs, in a basement that looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned since the place opened. In the morning, I pounded veal cutlets for schnitzel; in the afternoon, I put scraps of pork through an electric meat grinder for bratwurst. One day, the grinder blew up. Sparks flew, and my face was pelted with bits of ground pork and slicked with brine. The only other person downstairs was Walter, a man in his sixties who bore a passing resemblance to Elijah Muhammad. He had recently returned to the Fort from a long leave of absence after being convicted of stabbing a fellow-employee; Rupprecht hired him back as soon as he was out of prison. Walter didn’t talk much and had a way of chuckling to himself. I didn’t think much about him, until one day he grabbed my meat tenderizer and chased me through the basement. He cornered me, and I pleaded with him. He broke out laughing, as if my terror was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. After that, we got along beautifully.
In school, meanwhile, I was changing my food obsession into writing. I contributed restaurant reviews to the school newspaper, closely mimicking the style of Gault and Millau. I was also writing about politics and culture: editorials denouncing Reagan’s support for the NicaraguanContras, essays on contemporary cinema. Reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and Claude Brown’s Harlem memoir, “Manchild in the Promised Land, ”I was discovering a New York very far from the exclusive restaurants I expected to make a career in — closer, in a way, to the basement at the Fort. New interests were taking hold of my imagination. I immersed myself in French literature, dressed all in black, and thought of myself as an existentialist, although I couldn’t have said what that meant. I looked forward to my adult life in New York, the only place in America where one could be an authentic existentialist.
In the summer of 1988, taking the money I had made at the Fort, I set off for France, and stepped into a gleaming modern kitchen where more than a dozen young chefs — mostly French, but also a few Japanese — worked with utter absorption, fired up by the idea that they, too, would one day run an establishment like Lameloise. I spent hours at a time paring turnips, trimming haricots verts, and shaving potatoes for potato tartlets; occasionally, I was permitted to sauté pieces of duck foie gras, which were then nestled on top of mâche dressed in sherry vinaigrette.
I became very efficient at my tasks — the whole point of being astagiaire– but the kitchen was monastically quiet, and I missed the banter of the cooks at Aurora, their pleasure in conversational combat, their improvisatory élan. If Pangaud’s kitchen was a jazz band of many voices, Lameloise’s was a symphony orchestra performing high-fidelity versions of the classic repertoire. Lameloise’s food was traditional Burgundian haute cuisine updated with nouvelle touches. I wondered what Alain Senderens would say, and was pretty sure that he would disapprove. One young chef, who had worked at L’Espérance, a three-star place an hour and a half’s drive away, glumly admitted that Lameloise was a letdown. Soon after, while we were in the middle of some task or other, I asked, “Is this how they do it at L’Espérance ?,” imagining he’d appreciate my sarcasm. With sudden vehemence, he told me never to mention L’Espérance again. He left before the summer was over.
Jacques Lameloise’s son, Armand, was only a few months older than me but seemed vastly more sophisticated, especially about girls, who frightened me. A self-styled intellectual who worshipedNew Wavecinema, he adored his mother, a reader of classical French literature with whom he would linger for hours in the morning over café au lait, croissants, and cigarettes. His father, who had probably never opened a book that wasn’t about food, was the odd man out in his own home. He was a kind, doting father, but Armand considered him a fool and believed himself to be cut out for grander things than inheriting the family restaurant, however manyétoilesthe Michelin inspectors had awarded it. I still wasn’t sure there were grander things than running a three-star, but I was becoming bored in the kitchen, so, whenever I could, I started joining Armand on excursions he took with his friends.
Our first trip was to Noyon, a hundred kilometers north of Paris, where Armand’s friend Jérémie, an actor-comedian, was throwing a Bastille Day party. Noyon had seen its share of luminaries — Charlemagne was crowned co-king of the Franks at its cathedral in 768, Calvin was born there, and through the centuries the town had fallen to Vikings, Habsburgs, and Nazis — but now it was a backwater. There were no adults in sight, and I watched a teen-age bacchanal unfold with fear and fascination. A group was roasting suckling pigs over a fire and opening bottles of beer and champagne; couples cavorted in the grass. Someone poured me a glass of punch. It went down easily, and I drank another. Next thing I knew, I had thrown a bottle into a wall and collapsed on the floor of someone’s bedroom. A couple came in and began to have sex on the floor next to me. “What’s wrong with the American?” The woman asked. “Oh, it’s just the jet lag, I hear he flew in today from California.” They continued their business and I passed out.
A few weeks later, in the Jura, Armand’s friends and I sped through a field on bicycles to a discothèque, and danced till early in the morning. When we left, a group of skinheads attacked us with baseball bats and stole our bikes. We spent the rest of the morning filing a report in a police station. Then we made fondue, smoked, and listened to Serge Gainsbourg, Sade, and the Cure. I had just read Camus’s “L’Étranger, ”but I’d never heard the Cure’s song based on it,“ Killing an Arab. ”I was stunned by its blunt, angry insistence on the identity of the man Meursault had killed. Later that summer, I found myself in a car with a group of middle-aged friends of Jacques’s, who were joking about “the Arabs” (no one said “Muslims” then). It was Eid al-Fitr, and the men were talking about the blood that flowed when the Arabs sacrificed their sheep. They seemed to relish the image of Arab “savages.” Only a quarter century had passed since the liberation of Algeria from French rule, and some of these men had probably served in the Army there. I sat in silence, understanding almost nothing, and yet understanding everything I needed to know.
The most importantthings I learned that summer were outside the kitchen. I still enjoyed cooking, but the idea of a life of eighteen-hour days at the stove had started to seem less enthralling. Perhaps cooking had achieved its unconscious purpose: although I didn’t exactlylikemy body, I was no longer counting calories or scrutinizing myself in the mirror. Finding a refuge from the world seemed less necessary, too — indeed, I was impatient to plunge in and make a difference in its conflicts. At one of my last stints at Aurora, I showed up wearing a “U.S. out of Central America ”pin; one of the chefs said that I should probably take it off when I was in the dining room, since many customers were Reagan supporters. He was teasing me, but I knew that he was right. Cook for imperialists? For a teen-age radical, it was unthinkable.
During my last two years of high school, I stopped working in restaurants, aside from a summer job at a McDonald’s in Enfield, Connecticut. The owner praised my skill at frying fish fillets and said I had a great future in his establishment. I discouraged customers from ordering Coke, because the company refused to divest from South Africa, and I came home every day smelling like cooking oil. I worked one final time with Pangaud, on the openi ng night of the Rainbow Room, where he was an adviser, an experience that felt like a beautiful last dance in haute cuisine. By then, Pangaud knew that I wasn’t planning a culinary career, but he was fond of me, and said that I was always welcome in his kitchen.
The last time I worked in a restaurant kitchen was in 1994, when I needed a job after college. I wrote to the chef of an acclaimed New American restaurant on the Upper East Side about my food experiences. He invited me to spend a few days in the kitchen on a trial basis. My immediate supervisor was in his fifties and had studied comparative literature under the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said, one of my heroes at Columbia, where I had just got my bachelor’s degree. “I didn’t realize they had a cooking school at Columbia,” one of the other chefs said when he heard I’d gone there. They didn’t.
I was assigned to garde-manger, where I chopped carrots, cleaned buckets of squid, and fixed the occasional salad. But my skills, especially my knife skills, were rusty, and my supervisor wasn’t fooled. He needed a trained chef, not a former child prodigy. After a few days, he took me aside, and said he didn’t think he could hire me: “You obviously have a real passion for food, and for cooking, but your skills aren’t where they need to be to work here . ”If I was serious about a career, he said, I could work in a lesser establishment, improving my technique, or I could go to cooking school. And if I wasn’t serious? I asked.
“You might give some thought to graduate school.”
I lost touch with most of the people I knew in my cooking years. Armand became a filmmaker, and his parents sold Lameloise. Jérémie, the host of the party in Noyon, killed himself. Rupprecht and Walter died, and the Fort was sold to new owners. Pangaud left New York to open a restaurant in Washington, and then became a private chef and a teacher. Ruth Reichl, of course, went on to become the chief restaurant critic for the New YorkTimesand then the editor ofGourmet. I wrote to her when she was atGourmet, reminding her of the “tyke with a toque” and suggesting that we meet, since I’d joined her profession rather than becoming a chef. She never replied.
Restaurant culture has changed profoundly since the eighties. Food is glitzier and more international but also more politically conscious — militantly organic and swirling with debates about cultural appropriation. It’s arguably more democratic, too. Celebrity chefs, competitive cooking shows, and the collapse of French hegemony have made haute cuisine seem like a relic of the past. My daughter is less interested in the French sauces I revered than inberbere,za’atar, and dried rose petals. Perhaps one day we’ll see the reign of haute cuisine as yet another Eurocentric fable that propped up unthinking assertions of cultural superiority. The preparation of high-end restaurant food hasn’t been entirely democratized, but the best chefs today often come from countries in Asia and the Global South. An increasing number of them are women, and #MeToo has begun to challenge a culture of sexual predation that was widespread in the restaurant industry. Restaurant culture is more worldly, and more reflective of the revolutionary turbulence of our world, than it’s ever been.
The notion that food can be art no longer raises any eyebrows. When I was spending all my free time in kitchens, chefs could be artistic, but they couldn’t be full-fledged artists, partly because their “work” was, literally, consumed. Today, this fact is no strike against them; on the contrary, chefs are the signature artists of Western consumer society, in which what you eat and where are defining marks of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “social capital.” In 2007, the contemporary art show Documenta featured the “molecular gastronomy” of Ferran Adrià, the most innovative of today’s cooks. At his restaurant ElBulli, in Catalonia, Adrià had devised novel scientific techniques to produce a “deconstructivist” cuisine that centers on foams.
I don’t even know how to make a foam, and so far I’ve resisted buying a blowtorch, which Ella wants for making s’mores and crème brûlée. The food I make these days — like seemingly everyone in the age of Ottolenghi — is Mediterranean, a mélange of Italian, North African, and Middle Eastern influences. The French technique I absorbed during my culinary education still comes in handy: I can chop onions with a precision and speed that occasionally impresses friends who don’t have a culinary background. I know exactly when egg yolks have reached the perfect texture for a sabayon, or egg whites for a soufflé; I can whisk butter into a reduction sauce in a way that imparts just the right sheen. Small things, but I am very glad to have remembered them.
Ella is not particularly interested in my tales of the kitchen, and she loves to remind me of one awful dish I prepared for her: a botched experiment of roasted salmon flavored with honey. But, watching me when we’re at the stove, she has refined her skills, and taught herself new ones. Her fresh pasta is enviably delicate, her pastry crusts a sublime balance of firmness and crumbliness. I’m still alarmed when I see how rapidly she chops vegetables, until I remind myself that she’s just doing what I’ve taught her, and won’t cut herself. She has the “poise” that I was mostly feigning and is a much more relaxed and patient cook than I was. For her, cooking isn’t a professional ambition but simply a pleasure, and a way of sharing her pleasure with others.
Recently, Ella made croissants for the third time. Croissants are notoriously difficult: if you’re not careful as you fold the butter into the dough, you can easily end up with something stiff and hard, rather than a flaky, airy, multilayered marvel. As Ella rolled the dough after completing the first “turn,” I thought I saw butter oozing. When I started to speak up, she said I had to leave the room, and I did as I was told. Whatever she ended up doing, the croissants were the finest she’d made. I’m learning that the best thing I can do to encourage her in the kitchen is to stay out of the way. Becoming a cook is about achieving mastery, independence, and, if you’re lucky, originality. My role these days, when Ella puts on my old toque, is to step aside, taste something if she asks, and wash the dishes. ♦ ******