Tell us about yourself.
To be honest, I have no idea how I ended up where I am. It all just seemed to happen. When I graduated from college, I took a year off to travel through Europe with nothing but a backpack. My grandmother, who loved to travel but had to eventually curtail her trips, told me to ‘go’ – that I would never have a block of time like that in my life again. So I split. When I came back to the United States, I moved to San Francisco and decided that I wanted to pursue a career working in restaurants. So I decided if I was going to do that, I should go to the best. So I went into Chez Panisse and asked for a job. I eventually landed in that kitchen, and spent thirteen years working there. I was really fortunate to write cookbooks after I stopped working in restaurants, since it’s really wonderful to create a book. Although it takes years to write a cookbook, once it’s done, you have a living document of how you cooked at a certain time and place in your life.
Let’s talk about your blog.
Blogging is more “temporal” and my blog is basically a notebook or diary of my life, which is why my blog is perhaps more “all over the map” than others. I might do a few recipes in a row, then write up an unknown wine bar that I found in Paris a day or so later. There might be a story about a cultural quirk that’s uniquely Parisian, then there will be an occasional rant (or rave), then a story about some place that I traveled to that I found fascinating, like Lebanon, Israel, or Sweden.
What is beauty to you and how do you define beauty?
It’s hard to define it, but it’s that moment when you taste a perfect chocolate or caramel, and the balance is right. When you eat something that makes you smile, or makes you think. Or when you are out with friends and look around and at that moment, you’re joyful to be with everyone and having a great time. I also like a well-made, slick bittersweet chocolate tart or tarte au citron, with tangy lemon filling piled up in a buttery-crisp tart shell. But I also find beauty flaws, whether they are in and food, or people. I like when foods fall apart, when things taste handmade, when they’re not overly presented on a plate. A perfect apple or lemon scares me. Blemishes are natural and part of the life of fruit and vegetables. If they’re perfect, they won’t taste good. Beauty to me is in the flavor, not how it appears. People are like that as well. I get confused by the usual images and ideas of beauty. Our image of “beauty” is often impossibly skinny women or men with perfect abs. Those things always seem so unattainable, and people work so hard to attain that ideal, that I don’t really find them beautiful. It’s like those fruits and vegetables – It’s what is under the skin that intrigues me.
What’s beautiful about food?
I like flakes that crumble off croissants and baguettes. I like lemon tarts that are smashed up, so you can see the buttery bits on the plate. I like messed up sauces, and well-used, crumbled up napkins after a good meal. A wedge of Brie that’s cracked and oozing out into a creamy flow at the pinnacle of ripeness is beautiful. I like food scattered onto plates or piled into a basket or bowl. I like leaves and dirt, and savory drips and sweet juices.
You started as a pastry chef. How was that experience? What are some common misconceptions about pastry chefs?
For some reason, people expect us to be fat. Which is odd, because I don’t think people expect bartenders to be drunk. Pastry chefs move and work fast. We are on our feet all day, and if you’re working in a restaurant or baking, you don’t have a lot of time to stop and eat. (Customers don’t like to be told that they are going to have to wait for their dessert because the pastry chef is having dinner!) Baking professionally is also a job for the young. Once you get older, it’s hard to work long hours and be on your feet all day. I loved working with very talented and dedicated people for most of my cooking career. And now that I don’t do it anymore, I miss working with other people. I’ve been thinking about opening up something in Paris for a while, and wonder if I will ever get the opportunity to do it.
You’ve released six cookbooks so far! Tell us about The Great Book of Chocolate.
I love exploring a single-subject in a book. When I was asked to write that book, it was when bean-to-bar chocolate makers were just emerging in the United States. It was a very exciting time for chocolate because in America, people didn’t have access to very good chocolate. It was mostly considered a “European” thing. But many of these people persisted, they worked hard to get their businesses going, and it’s exciting to see how many handcrafted American chocolates have flourished. As chocolate-loving friend calls it the “American Chocolate Revolution.” Writing the book, I got to meet so many of them when they were just starting out and a few I became food friends with, spending time watching them grinding and roasting beans, crushing the beans into chocolate, then pouring the miraculously smooth chocolate into bars. And – of course – tasting! I also spent time working in a chocolate shop in Belgium when writing the book, which was quite an experience. And, of course, when I had finished putting together the stories and chapters, I began writing the recipes – which was probably the best part.
What are some of your favorite recipes in the book?
My favorite story from the book is that after it was published, I got a message from Maida Heatter, who is the goddess of baking and chocolate. I wanted to include her in the book and adapted her Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake. (I also wanted to include it because I could see people wrinkling up their noses, and the cake is sublime.) She sent me a hand-written letter in her inimitable cursive script thanking me for featuring the recipe, which is on the cover. I’ve had that letter in my desk drawer for years and love re-opening and re-reading it. And I still bake a lot of those recipes today. Just last week I made the brownies here in Paris with the big block of unsweetened chocolate I got at my favorite professional baking store. Chocolate never goes out of style, does it?
Dessert is clearly one of your favorite meals, as you also have a book entitled, The Perfect Scoop. Do you prefer ice cream, sorbets, or sherbets? What are some of your favorite flavors?
I like them all, it’s hard to say that there is one I prefer over the other. But I’ll often combine them, such as a scoop of raspberry sorbet alongside a white chocolate ice cream. Or pair a rich chocolate sorbet with espresso bean ice cream, with bitter chocolate sauce ladled over the top. My favorite recipe from the book, I’ll admit, is the ice cream with malt in it. When I had an overload of ice cream in my freezer from recipe testing, and I was handing out ice cream to neighbors, friends, and even the people at my outdoor market as fast as I could churn it – that was the one flavor I kept for myself and couldn’t bear to give away.
You live in Paris. In your mind, what are the main differences between the food culture in France versus America?
Americans take more chances and we “attack” food when we’re cooking. We use high heat to sear meat, we season things with spices and chiles, and our cooking reflects the multicultural mélange of America. So we tend to take riffs from various cultures. And our produce selection is more varied. Whereas at the French markets, you’ll see people mostly growing the same things, in America, one person might have heaps of heirloom tomatoes and corn, and another stand might have chiles and Japanese eggplant. In France, people are a lot more traditional and it wasn’t until very recently when a lot of other cuisines were taken seriously. Most of that is because for years (and years), French cuisine was always considering the best. But with globalization, many young people in France have traveled and are more open to new cuisines and cultures, so you’re seeing a lot of exciting restaurants opening in Paris. Many of the young chefs are from Australia, America, and Japan, which is something you would not have seen years ago.
You must have eaten in hundreds of thousands of restaurants. What constitutes a “good” restaurant in your mind?
A good restaurant is, first and foremost, about the food. But when you walk in, you want to have a good feeling. The people should be happy and act professional, not scattered or aloof. You don’t want to eat food made by unhappy people. The restaurant should smell good (there’s nothing worse than a seafood restaurant smelling “fishy”), and the menu shouldn’t be too long. If there are too many items on offer, likely isn’t all the food isn’t freshly prepared. I don’t really care about fancy food, crazy garnishes, or complicated presentations. I think a good burger or Caesar Salad piled in a bowl is just as enjoyable as a fancy three- star Michelin meal – often better.
If you had to compile a list of favorite restaurants, globally speaking, what would they be?
Some restaurants I like are Nopi in London, Vivant in Paris, Nopa and SPQR in San Francisco, Le Mani in Pasta in Rome, Hill Country Barbeque in New York City, and circling back around to San Francisco, I love the burritos at Pancho Villa. Although now that I don’t live there anymore, I find I can barely eat a whole one. (Maybe I am just jealous of those who have those abs that I mentioned earlier!)
What are your favorite dishes that you’ve tasted in your lifetime?
I had an amazing Escarole Salad made with rabbit loin, potatoes, and pears made by Judy Rodgers, the chef at Zuni Café (San Francisco) and the hummus I had in Jerusalem in the old part of town was so good I wanted to pick up the bowl when I was done and lick it clean. I also like the Korean barbeque at Brother’s BBQ in San Francisco. And at the other end of the spectrum, the rice steamed in lotus leaf at the Shangri-La Palace in Paris still haunts me, and the roasted Bresse chicken with truffle-onion puree at L’Ambroise is a one-in-a-lifetime dish that I’ll never forget. (It comes at a price, though, and my only regret is that I couldn’t eat the whole bird that they presented tableside, in a copper roasting dish. And that I didn’t try to swipe the copper pan. But my favorite thing to eat was my grandmother’s chicken and rice with apricots. My grandfather was Arabic and that was the one dish that I requested over and over, and over.
What’s the secret to a tasty cocktail?
Who are your favorite food bloggers?
Yikes! That’s a tough one. When I started my website in 1999, I didn’t know anyone else doing it. Then when blogging took off a few years later, there were just a handful of us and we got to know each other. So it’s hard to whittle it down to a few since I know so many, but I am a fan of Amateur Gourmet (for humor and his openness), Smitten Kitchen (for humor and good recipes), 101 Cookbooks (for her amazing photography), Matt Bites (because I have a crush on him), and Simply Recipes (because I have a crush on her too).
What songs are on your personal playlist?
I don’t listen to individual songs, but use Pandora, which creates playlists for me. Right now on my lists are a wide range of artists, from Pitbull to Helen Reddy (she is particularly good to listen to when editing recipes, I’ve learned). I also have Linda Ronstadt, Green Day, Boston, Barry Manilow, Charo, Beyoncé, and Amy Winehouse, who every time I listen to, I realize was one of the greatest singers of our time and how awful it is that such a talent just went into a downward spiral.
What are three things most people don’t know about you?
1. I’m shy.
2. I have two black belts, in two different martial arts.
3. I am pretty confident that I’ll never master all those French verbs.