“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
I came to cooking by getting involved. I would be in a specific place, and someone would ask me to do something. I never had the confidence to offer up my inadequacies unsolicited, so I waited til I was asked. People would ask, and I would comply, awkwardly…but then it all changed. Over the course of several months I learned what carrots looked like in their true form (at least those at chez panisse); how to rub off the skins of beets with towels, clean squid without putting my knife down, and make a perfectly gorgeous version of Julia Child’s soup celestine to be served, with creme fraiche, in the cafe. I had arrived in my own little world of confidence in cooking. I finally began asking to help, to be involved. But how does one get to that place ~ from here, to there…?
Of course it’s the combination of mentor and student, but it has to be at precisely the perfect moment. You both have to meet in that place of balance, where words said are conveyed and interpreted in the most beautifully pragmatic yet persuasive form. I have been around cooks my whole life ~ grandmothers and great aunts who spent their days making sauces and handmade gnocchi and ravioli to be consumed by us grandchildren; restauranteurs in Italy who would treat me to some of the most extraordinary deliciousness in the Veneto, and my husband who cooked in his early 20s and who attempted (and failed) to instill in me a sense of wonder in making things to be consumed by our family. For me, it was something others did. I appreciated it, but never really indulged in the idea, until after a couple years spending time cooking and staying in Telluride with one of the icons of California cuisine, I would watch Alice Waters move through the kitchen with such grace, that I wanted to learn how to do that too. Still, it took a few years, but finally one day it made sense to me ~ and then a dinner, a conversation, an a-ha revelatory moment in which I declared I would learn to cook through apprenticing at Chez Panisse. There was a pause, and then encouragement, and finally an email exchange with Cal Peternell, who at that time was the chef at the Cafe. I was good to go, to finally become involved. I started a 12 week stage at Chez Panisse in the spring of 2011. I tell that story because people wonder ~ how a designer of gowns and elegant coats ends up making a collection inspired by prep cooking at Chez Panisse right around its 40th birthday. But it’s also telling. You never know when inspiration will hit, when the chance comes along and when carpe diem is on the mind. It’s a beautiful moment of intersecting possibilities that can come to be when the timing is right and the stars are perfectly aligned.
Another early mentor is Samin Nosrat. My first experience cooking for others was not at Chez Panisse, but actually at Samin’s Tartine Afterhours ~ this amazing get together of friends and friends of friends who gathered in a series of dinners at Tartine Bakery in SF. It was the first time I cooked outside my home, and one of those poignant memories was considering things like what was I to wear ~ on my body, on my feet? And I remember asking Samin and then interpreting what I felt most comfortable in… And after 3+ months at Chez, I look back at that time as luxury. For me to feel fully in my body whilst making food to feed others, I have to feel comfortable and elegant. It’s the designer in me. And that first meal that I cooked, or rather prepped, introduced me to the beauty of spontaneity, trust and pure instantaneity of the kitchen ~ wearing a dress and apron and my Frye boots. I was completely focused, and in the moment. I loved it. Samin would tell me I was going to make a Moroccan carrot salad; and I would look at her perplexed, first because I would realize it’s for 40 people… and I had no idea what was Moroccan about carrots, or what harissa was, or how to even shave the pounds of carrots that laid before me; but she would show me, and I would follow, and watch her taste, add lemon, taste, add salt and then ask me, involve me… I learned the world from that one evening… and honor it. We all have our first mentors, and they change our lives.
Here are some beautiful and absolutely spot on words about Cal, by Samin, his long-time friend and collaborator, who not only went on to teach Michael Pollan how to cook (which links back directly to what inspired me to cook at Chez) but also to write her own book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: The Four Elements of Good Cooking, forthcoming, and published by Simon & Schuster. Again, how does one get from here…to there…
Samin, on Cal ~ “Cal’s influence on my life extends far beyond the kitchen, because Cal is so much more than just a great cook: he is a great human. I’ve known him and his wonderful family since I was 19 years old. Being brought into their fold, and seeing how they engage with the world as writers, artists, gardeners, musicians, and cooks has been a constant source of inspiration, and continues to be.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Cal is his easygoing nature, which seems somewhat improbable considering just how accomplished he is. How, you’ll wonder, can someone who is so good at so many different things, be so….relaxed? But Cal isn’t successful in spite of his kind, gentle nature. He’s done what he’s done because of it. And no part of his personality so perfectly sums Cal up as his notoriously dry sense of humor. The head tilt, the eyebrow rise, the confused smirk–these are what I think of when I think of Cal, and why I love cooking alongside him more than just about anyone else. Cooking with Cal is really, really fun. And isn’t that what cooking is all about?
One day when I was a novice cook in the Chez Panisse Cafe, I was tasked with making gravy to be served with fried chicken. I made the chicken sauce, and I made the roux, but couldn’t remember how I was supposed to combine them. Was I supposed to add the flour to the sauce, or the sauce to the flour? Using roux is a pretty basic part of French cooking, and I was really worried that I’d get in trouble for not knowing. I sheepishly went to ask Cal for help, and he came over to the stove to take a look.
He took the whisk from my hand and started to tentatively flick roux into the simmering sauce. Just as I was about to thank him for showing me how to do it, the roux started to bubble and explode in the pot. Clearly, he was doing it wrong! Cal looked at me with a devilish expression, and we began to giggle. We quickly figured out how to proceed, and made a really tasty gravy. In almost any other restaurant, by almost any other chef, I would’ve been chastised and shamed for not knowing what to do. But at Chez Panisse, Cal just shrugged, laughed and admitted that it was a learning experience for him, too. We’ve been giggling together at our mistakes in the kitchen ever since, and sharing some really delicious meals along the way.”
Above ~ Cal, Charlie Hallowell, and Samin at BN Ranch Dinner in Bolinas, Oct. 25th 2014 (the same evening Eve and I did our homage to Cal, at dinner #52). Photo: Lora Zarubin.
Below is a visual diary/collage that came from that initial apprenticeship at Chez Panisse, but also a little homage to Cal and his new book (my original article for EatDrinkFilms, with an interview with Cal, is HERE). Cal, through 12 Recipes has taught me “patience not intimidation,” how to poach the perfect egg, i.e. just DO IT, what braising is and how flour can change the texture of everything, and how a mom can integrate it into her hectic post-pick-up schedule; how easy it is to make a Californian-inspired Leblebi, how NOT to eat the raw sesame cookie dough because I need to document it. These are just a few of the things that Cal, now chef of Chez Panisse Restaurant, has taught me over the years.. but it is also how do you discover your voice? What is the story you want to tell? And how do you make that story meaningful to everyone out there ~ whether through your food and the prix fixe menu in the downstairs restaurant, or through the words and voice in the cookbook that you just wrote.
Above ~ my co-conspirator Eve Love, at Chez Panisse… “Carrots in Silk” and “Cauliflower in Fleece” Photo: Gabriel Harber
Above ~ A Chez Panisse lunch menu that I translated into a selection of looks for a runway show (right), covered in the SF Chronicle.
Above ~ a week before Chez Panisse’s 40th Anniversary in August 2011, we have a reception at the Gardener on 4th Street in Berkeley for the pop-up installation of the collection. From top ~ Alice Waters and Alta Tingle, Cal Peternell and I; Denny Abrams and I. My assistants Ashley McKinley, asst designer Racheal Matthews and ex-asst Katherine Summer O’Neal. With my academic mentor Laura Nader. Photos: Drew Altizer.
Above ~ my 40th birthday party at Chez Panisse, with 35 friends. Menu created in collaboration with Cal, Beth Wells, Nathan Alderson and Stacie Pierce.
Above ~ Salon dinner #5 (April 2012), Menu for Salon dinner #36 (December 2013), and guests, photo: Lana Bernberg.
Above Collage ~ Cal’s poached egg, August eating my very first poached egg, a poached egg in Cal’s Leblebi; Image of Cal with his wife Kathleen Henderson and son Liam, some of my favorite drawings by Kathleen from the book, and one of Kathleen’s drawings that is in my studio; Cal’s 49th birthday party at Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Cal’s book-signing at Chez Panisse Oct 26th ~ with Charlie next to him, and finally, signing my many books, one to a “future cook” at Kaiser Elementary.
“The best teacher is not the one who knows most but the one who is most capable of reducing knowledge to that simple compound of the obvious and wonderful.” ~ H.L. Mencken
Left ~ Cal, and his sons Henderson and Milo talking with winemaker Andrew Mariani at Scribe Winery, where we all came together to celebrate the wedding of Nico Monday and Amelia O’Reilly, both originally cooks at Chez Panisse, who went off to open The Market Restaurant and Short & Maine, two amazing restaurants in Massachusetts…
Last night, another beautiful combination of people who inspire and really re-ignite the spirit and creative process in a super wonderful way… Beginning with a conversation between perfumer Mandy Aftel (who I worked with years ago in one of her classes to create a personal perfume) and Coi’s Daniel Patterson at the JCCSF and ending with the most divine tartufo bianco experience atop of a ravioli with an egg in it, fragrance, appetite and memory all came into play for my co-collaborator Deb Durant and I, who recently finished her month long show 50/50 LIGHT of 25 artists all inspired by concepts of “light.”
Above ~ last night, Mandy Aftel and Daniel Patterson; RN74’s Adam Sobel shaving white truffles over our egg yolk & ricotta filled ravioli. Deb and I, happy.
Books on my mind ~
12 Recipes by Cal Peternell
Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi (which is my co-host Suzanne Drexhage’s inspiration for salon dinner #53 this saturday)
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” ~ Plutarch