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It’s rare these days to pick up a cookbook and peek into an entirely different world. A new language; new colors and shapes; sensations with which we aren’t familiar; and, of course, new tastes. “D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients” (Phaidon, September 2013) by acclaimed Chef Alex Atala of São Paulo, Brazil, is an exception, an exciting — and, if I may, an exotic — exception.
Atala, chef/owner of D.O.M. in São Paulo, Brazil, has consistently been rated as one of the world’s best chefs in recent years. He grew up in Brazil, then moved to Europe, where he worked in construction and as a DJ. The next chapter of his story seems almost predictable these days — like so many chefs, he “fell” into cooking. He became deeply interested in the modern experimentation emerging from Spain’s elite restaurants, but also built a skill base in classic French technique. And then, at last, he returned home.
By Alex Atala
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Since beginning his life as a chef back in Brazil, Atala has been tirelessly interested in excavating indigenous Brazilian ingredients and bringing them into view in the world of fine dining. Though he has published a number of gorgeous volumes in Brazil, this is his first book in English and released by a non-Brazilian publisher. In addition to acting as an entry point to the emerging scene of contemporary Brazilian cuisine, the book acts as a political statement, a flag staked in the ground of place and identity that asserts Brazilian cuisine as a distinct entity. The title, “D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients,” is a pointed one — these ingredients have been used for thousands of years by indigenous peoples, but have long been ignored in the realm of haute cuisine. The book is historical tribute, but devoid of nostalgia; Atala’s cooking is decidedly modern.
Before I go any further, let it be known: “D.O.M.” is not destined to become the workhorse of the adventurous home cook. Indeed, it may not even be a book intended for chefs. Like so many of Phaidon’s books, it is a thing to read and see. Many of the recipes give incomplete instructions for how to prepare recipes or their various components. And, truth be told, having observed Atala in his kitchen on a cookbook research trip last summer, I wouldn’t want to attempt what he and his staff do in my Brooklyn kitchen. For one, I’m not that skilled a cook. Second, and more important, the ingredients that make Atala’s cooking so exceptional simply aren’t available here in the U.S., even in my home city of New York.
Europe, West Africa influences in Brazilian cuisine
Brazilian food today is an amalgam of influences. Portugal and West Africa have played major roles since colonial contact and are still seen prominently. The fluffy white breads and taste for custardy sweets have lasted from the Portuguese, and stews and many ingredients from West Africa — okra, yams and collards, to name a few — have deeply embedded themselves into the Brazilian culinary identity. Spain’s influence is seen both in the spices that traveled along the old Moorish trade routes and the intermingling of Brazil’s own foods with those of other Central and South American countries formerly under the crown’s control. In the 20th century, Italian, Japanese, Arabic and German influences have come to play prominent roles as well. But indigenous ingredients still reign. Brazil’s diversity of fruits — coconut, papaya, jackfruit, guava and a whole host of drippy sweet tropical fruits — have always been abundant. Hearts of palm are a Brazilian specialty — often served fresh, rarely canned. There are fish — both freshwater specimens from the Amazon region and oceanic varieties from Brazil’s vast stretch of coastline — wild game and tree nuts, too. Perhaps most important is manioc (otherwise known as yuca or cassava), a starchy tuber indigenous to the Amazon basin that serves as the basis for all manner of dishes, acting as a thickener in stews, ground into flour for baking, meal for pone and toasted into a sandy condiment called farofa.
A cook’s manual it may not be. But “D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients” is many things, among them an artist’s statement, and a business card; a beautiful volume, filled with full-page photos from across Brazil — urban and rural, arid and lushly forested — and a love letter to Atala’s native land. It serves an encyclopedia of sorts, introducing American readers to the ingredients for which Atala has become famous — foods indigenous to Brazil known barely, if at all, outside of Brazil.
It is, too, a testament to a cultural moment. With tourism booming, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics fast approaching, and its national economy steadily on the rise, Brazil is, at last, emerging on the world stage on its own terms. Since the first colonial ship docked in Brazil’s ports in the 1500s, cultural sophistication has been code for European. Especially when it comes to food. Until very recently, fine dining in Brazil meant French and Portuguese fare would be on the menu. But Atala’s restaurant — along with those belonging to a handful of other trailblazing Brazilian chefs — is helping to change that. D.O.M., the restaurant, and “D.O.M.,” the book, are meant to help introduce some of the foods unique to Brazil to a wider audience. It is also a book of sensual enticements. I, for one, even after years of traveling to and eating in Brazil, still swoon at the sound of words like coxinha, jambu, tucupi and jabuticaba — all foods that I first encountered in Brazil and which now, to me, taste as distinctly of the place as they sound — rolling off the tongue.
As far as I know, cooking that represents Brazil’s singular gifts has yet to appear in restaurants in New York, or elsewhere outside of Brazil for that matter. We live in an age of seemingly endless culinary curiosity, ready global appetites, and demand for food attached to place. Why Brazil hasn’t yet had its Andy Ricker, its Sean Brock or its Madhur Jaffrey is a mystery to me, but perhaps Brazil’s moment has finally arrived. Until Brazilian food can come to us, Atala’s new book is just the armchair passport we need to dream, to imagine, to learn and — almost — to taste.
Top photo: D.O.M. Chef Alex Atala with fellow Brazilian chef Teresa Corção of O Navegador in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: Sara Franklin
It’s mid-August, and my local farmers markets here in New York City are bursting at the seams, groaning under the weight of sweet corn, peaches, carrots, onions and their seasonal brethren in the produce department.
“It’s a buyer’s market!” columnist Mark Bittman recently proclaimed in The New York Times Magazine. Shoppers, myself included, scurry from stall to stall, overfilling bags and lugging home more than they can eat. It’s a terrifically good thing, and I’m heartened to see how many people — especially those who once didn’t give a hoot about food or cooking — are faithfully turning out to support local agriculture.
With the windfall of choices this time of year, it’s a buyer’s market indeed. But recently, I’ve noticed a worrisome trend that makes me wonder whether the sellers at said markets — that is to say, the regional, small farmers we’ve elevated to the status of cultural heroes — aren’t taking a little advantage of their popularity.
See, for a couple of years right after college, I farmed for a living. I worked in a few different places with varying approaches; in each, the quality of the food we grew, and the pride with which we presented it to our customers, was paramount. The farm crew didn’t complain about the backache and rashes we accrued during days spent harvesting 1,000-plus pounds of tomatoes and carefully slicing young zucchini from their prickly stalks. After all, we were in the business of selling food. Good food.
So last summer, when I saw a “special” of flowering basil stalks at Union Square, I thought, this is a joke, right? I, and everyone I worked with, had been taught to pinch the tops off of basil plants before they came close to flowering, harvesting them in such a way so they would continue to produce and so the leaves we put on the stand were full of sweet, pure flavor. If a basil plant had just begun to flower, we’d pinch the buds off, leaving it to put its energy into growing leaves instead of flowers. If the plant were left to keep flowering, we knew the basil leaves would grow bitter.
I was hopeful the basil I saw that day would be marked down, “on sale” as it were, like milk about to expire in the supermarket. I was looking for a sign that said something like, “pinch off flowers, scatter over salads or float in cocktails, and use the leaves for pesto or ice cream.” But no. Instead, the basil was marked up, listed as “special” because of the attractive buds. I twisted my face into a scowl and wrote it off as a one-time error.
Then I saw it again, and worse this time. Flowering kale. Flowering arugula. It was spreading from market to market, farm to farm. Again, the greens were marked as “special,” priced above the “regular” kale, the “run-of-the-mill” arugula. At first, my annoyance had been with the gullibility of shoppers who were purchasing these products, but my frustration quickly turned toward the farm staff. Honest, hard-working, food-loving. Those were some of the words I used to describe the farmers I’ve known. But this? Who knew there would be deceit running rampant in our most wholesome arenas?
Trust is key to making farmers markets effective
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Tips for shopping at farmers markets
1. For prime herbs and greens, look for stalks with broad, unmarred leaves and no flowers or buds. Avoid bolted greens, which often look elongated and have thickened center stalks. They will be bitter in taste.
2. Keep your eye out for flowering herbs and greens. If you can't wrangle a discount on these (you're not getting much bang for your buck, and they certainly shouldn't be marked as "special" or "gourmet"), take them home and use them for their flowers only. The leaves on flowered plants are bound to be too bitter to be true to taste since all the sugars have gone into producing flowers. Herbal flowers can be lovely in salads or cocktails, and flowers of leafy greens are nice as a bitter note on pizzas or in sandwiches.
3. Tomatoes can be tricky. With all the heirloom varieties popping up in farmers markets these days, identifying the varieties of tomatoes can be tough. As a general rule, rounded tomatoes (which tend to be very juicy and full of seeds) are best for raw eating or can be slow-roasted to develop a sweet flavor, while tomatoes that are elongated and tapered are paste tomatoes, which have less liquid and more pulp.
4. Deborah Madison's "Vegetable Literacy" (Ten Speed Press, 2013) is the most helpful cookbook I've come across to date in terms of learning to identify edible plants and herbs by sight and understanding the differences between varieties and various stages of life cycles. Websites and catalogs for seed companies such as Johnny's are also terrifically helpful. Keep a paper catalog on your bookshelf as a reference guide.
On the matter of the first, we took full responsibility. We turned our greens back into the soil when they started to bolt or bud, and diligently topped our basil. Never did bolted spinach or flowering bok choy appear on our stands. It would have been dishonest, we felt, to pawn off a subpar crop on our loyal buyers. Per the second, while we had grown comfortable tossing around terms such as speckled trout (a romaine lettuce) and bull’s blood (a red beet variety), we knew those names wouldn’t mean a thing to our average customer. So we took it upon ourselves to act as translators. When setting up the farm stand, we’d carefully separate varieties, writing their names and descriptions on our board. When people asked, “What do you do with a fairy eggplant?” we gave them suggestions or pointed them toward a favorite cookbook or website for more advice.
We wanted them to be empowered enough to experiment in the kitchen while leaving growing and harvesting the best products possible in our reliable hands. Trust was key. It still is. The whole thing — this scheme of local food, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture groups and the like — hinges on trust. We bemoan a “lack of trust” in Big Food, decrying E. coli outbreaks and mislabeling of “natural” foods. Big, we reason, can’t be trusted. All it wants is to make a buck. But what happens if even the local farmers — who, by definition, are intertwined (and benefiting, for that matter) in this whole local food movement — aren’t keeping us in the loop?
Yes, part of the burden of knowledge falls on consumers. Part of it, too, I like to think, falls on the media. Thankfully, a bunch of fine cookbook authors, such as Deborah Madison and Joe Yonan, are answering the call. But farmers have to do their part to aid in transparency. Honest marketing that helps buyers understand the difference between a paste tomato (for cooking) and a beefsteak (for slicing) and why flowered greens are past their prime is imperative if we want people to take interest in, and control of, the food they purchase, cook and eat.
Farmers, give us the best you’ve got, and give it to us straight. You want those buyers to keep on buying? Remember, it turns on trust.
Top photo: These heirloom tomatoes purchased at a farmers market are meant to be eaten raw, not used for sauces. Credit: Sara Franklin
“Let me just finish up what I’m doing, and then I’m going to step outside and talk to you. Give me 30 seconds.” I had called Annemarie Ahearn on the phone on a recent Friday morning. She sounded breathless. Whirlwind. And who can blame her? Slightly more than a month ago, Salt Water Farm, Ahearn’s cooking school and food garden in Lincolnville, Maine, underwent a major growth spurt, opening a new venue at Union Hall in nearby Rockport, Maine.
Not that I was surprised. I’ve never known Ahearn to be anything but busy. She has always come across as almost bionic, with a storehouse of energy to match her penchant for innovative food entrepreneurship. She invited me to stop by when I was driving south along the Maine coast just after the first December snowfall of 2010. A long email correspondence had preceded, sparked by shared interests and about a half degree of separation in the Northeast’s food and farm world.
That wintry day, we perched at Salt Water Farm’s wide island and sipped tea, looking out across the terraced garden beds and over the pristine bay. Back then, long hours and full weeks were devoted to establishing a cooking school celebrating traditional cooking methods and regional products in her custom-built kitchen, a beautiful open space in a former sheep barn on her family’s property. Becoming profitable was proving challenging, Ahearn explained to me, but she seemed enlivened by the challenge of running her own business and the tight-knit nature of the mid-coast Maine community to which she had moved after several years of cooking, writing and working with the food cognoscenti in New York City. And she was full of ideas for the future.
Only a few years ago running one site may have felt like a logistical feat to Ahearn, but these days, she has a whole lot more ducks to keep in a row. The month-old cafe and market at Union Hall, the latest iteration of Salt Water Farm, is open for three meals a day, five days a week, and for brunch on Sundays. Breathless indeed!
Nearly two years of planning and work went into the expansion, including a loving restoration of the Union Hall building itself, a historic building that sits on the edge of Penobscot Bay. Ahearn cast a wide net, searching for the best of the best to helm her stoves and manage the restaurant. She told me she couldn’t be more pleased with the team she found, including Chef Justin Barrett, a former architecture student who cut his teeth cooking in New York before moving to Vermont to delve more fully into all stages of food production and preparation; and Andrew Kesselring, a native of Kansas City, Mo., who began working in restaurants in Nashville, Tenn., before going on to bicoastally hone his front- and back-of-the-house skills at Chez Panisse, Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Frankie’s Spuntino. Most of her team moved from either New York or California to join her in Maine. “It’s been insanely busy, with everyone working such long hours, helping everyone find housing and trying to integrate them into the community,” she said.
The restaurant’s concept is bold and deeply rooted in tradition. The food is simple and identifiable, meant to showcase Maine’s burgeoning smallholder agriculture and artisan scene. “We came out of the gate with this concept that we would serve one meal each night, with a few sides, like a supper club,” Ahearn told me. “We put a mission statement on the back of the menu explaining that what you’re eating is what was harvested nearby today, or maybe yesterday. That this is a progressive, sustainable restaurant.” But there was some pushback, with customers expressing a desire for more flexible dining options. The staff quickly responded by slightly diversifying the menu and putting out a variety of small plates and tastings, including foraged items from land and sea.
Ahearn has more plans for Salt Water Farm
As if opening a restaurant weren’t enough to keep her busy, Ahearn kept moving and shaking in a number of directions.
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Asked what the biggest challenges have been, she explained, “reworking with very small farmers. We’re not buying anything except salt, lemons and olive oil — you know, things you can’t harvest in Maine — from commercial purveyors. We have no waste, literally no waste. The goal is to build relationships so that a year from now, they can start making investments on their end to increase production, but in the meantime, it’s us taking the risk.” Still, she was quick to articulate that the challenges have in no way swallowed her and the staff’s excitement and successes. “The food has been outstanding since the day we opened. And I’m really excited about growing the cooking school, which is easier now that there are more eyes on us and we have a bigger audience.”
For Ahearn, the vision of Salt Water Farm has always been one of cooperation and community, and the business’ growth is helping to manifest those plans. “This space is just so conducive to collaborative events with other like-minded people,” she said, citing a recent dinner with Maine cookbook author, radio personality and Zester Daily contributor Kathy Gunst and an upcoming event with Dogfish Head brewery as examples. “Plus,” she added as her dog began to bark in the background, beckoning for her attention, “The view from the deck is crazy beautiful, and our chefs look out over the water from the stove.” I laughed, “Not like those windowless, cramped kitchens in New York?” I asked. “No,” she responded thoughtfully. “These guys have all worked at the model places that are great, but fell short of the ideal.” But, she concluded, “We’re trying to make it happen here.”
Top photo: Salt Water Farm. Credit: Annemarie Ahearn
Daniel Nguyen is not your average farmer, and VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative in eastern New Orleans is not your average farm. At a time when urban agriculture seems stuck between taking flight as a scalable and real solution to urban food supply and being written off as another harebrained and all-too-precious scheme of flannel-clad hipsters, an inspiring story of scrappy success couldn’t be more welcome.
VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative’s current agricultural operation, previously known as Viet Village Urban Farm, is sandwiched between an old playing field, rows of tidy brick ranch-style homes and a ditch filled with debris leftover from Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 ambush on the neighborhood. In mid-March, its 3 acres accented with neat stripes of green — early signs of newly planted crops ready and waiting to take off in New Orleans’ early summer — seemed misplaced, or perhaps like peace offerings to some unruly god.
Nguyen, too, seems anomalous in the neighborhood. A tireless worker in the fields, he’s also a provocative thinker helping drive the farm’s cooperative organizing and marketing strategies as well as its agricultural inventiveness.
Young, toned, tanned and with a mane of dark hair that stretches most of the way down his back, Nguyen recently greeted a group of students and me to the farm. Clearly unaccustomed to speaking in front of crowds, he spoke quietly and waited to be prompted with questions, zigzagging and veering as he recounted the story of the farm.
“NOLA East is home to nearly 60% of the metro area’s population,” Nguyen explained, glancing down at his rubber boots. “But we’ve got only one supermarket.”
I let this sink in for a minute. After years of working with food-security measures, I couldn’t recall another area so underserved by retail food outlets.
As a result, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative operates with an eye toward production and efficiency. And they’ve gotten there remarkably quickly.
Urban farm a bright spot in struggling community
When the farm took hold, the community had been looking for innovative strategies to bolster economic resilience. At the time, things were looking bleak, even for a community that had been living on the fringes for years. Katrina struck in 2005, and when British Petroleum’s rig started leaking into the Gulf in 2010, the community’s strongest resource — both in terms of food and income — became off limits almost overnight.
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“Before the spill, 1 in 3 people in the community were involved in the fishing industry,” Nguyen explained. The pressure was on. The cooperative needed a poverty-alleviation strategy, ideally one that would supply calories as well, and they needed it fast.
“We began in 2011 with funding from [the charity] Oxfam,” Nguyen continued. “And in 2011, we officially formed a co-op.” Meaning each of the farmer-members working the land — who range in age from their mid-20s to their late 70s, and half of whom are women — has partial ownership in the business. Nguyen, whose parents are Vietnamese immigrants who settled in San Diego, arrived in New Orleans after Katrina with verve, a green thumb honed in childhood and a head full of ideals inspired by union-organizing.
He worked as a bus boy in some of the city’s finest restaurants for a stretch, interested in the world of food, but itching to do something with a long-term impact. He began working to organize Vietnamese fishermen, and as he grew close to members of the community, he saw that many gardened at home. Some were even selling off surplus to neighbors. His first thought was to create a cooperative of backyard gardeners, but he quickly realized production would be too disparate to make marketing efficient. So the community began the search for land.
Today, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative is growing on the kind of acreage rarely seen in urban America. For what’s known as a “dollar lease,” the group has secured long-term use of the land for a minuscule fee, just enough so the land isn’t officially “gifted” to them in the eyes of the law. The plot we visited is 3 acres, plus another 1 to 2 acres in brambly wetlands, where the group has plans to raise ducks, expand its composting operations and experiment with aquaponics. Another 7 acres are in the works.
The farm doesn’t come without challenges. Space is a limiting factor, and even with sophisticated techniques like closed-system aquaponics, companion planting and heavy mulching, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative is, like any outdoor food operation, subject to weather, ever wary of another dramatic climatic (or man-made) event. Even more complex are the neighborhood politics: Many are wary of cooperatives, Nguyen explained, because of the economic devastation communism wrought in Vietnam.
Still, the farm has garnered a lot of attention. Today, there’s a wait list that includes African-Americans, Latinos and young adults. A youth training program is in the pipes, as are expansions into farmers markets, local gas stations and quick marts, a strategic way to intercept the stream of junk food locals consume based almost entirely on convenience.
For now, the farm regularly sells out of traditionally Vietnamese crops and more common vegetables. Nguyen’s connections in the restaurant industry have proved invaluable. Relationships between chefs and farmers can be tough to navigate, but cooperative members show up at approximately 15 restaurants several times a week with a van full of produce, making it easy for chefs to pick and choose what they want. Close to 70% of the farm’s produce goes to restaurants; a small percentage is sold at the local Vietnamese Saturday morning market, while the other 20% goes to member-owners.
When pressed about measures of success, Nguyen said a survey showed some members have used the farm to increase their income more than 100% since before the BP spill. Nguyen said the goal is to hold steady or increase that statistic for all member-owners.
But Nguyen, like most farmers, is still scraping by on what he makes from the farm. Still, he shows up every day, doggedly committed. “I have no social life,” he laughed. “But most days I get to drink a beer with these guys,” he said, gesturing to a slender older man bent over a newly tilled row, leveling out the soil with a piece of worn plank.
Top photo: VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative founder Daniel Nguyen in fields at the farm. Credit: Sara Franklin
“I grew up thinking that real families were at the kitchen table,” Alison Schneider explained to me. We were sipping tea and nibbling at the last of our lunches at a wood-plank table in Haven’s Kitchen, a year-old recreational cooking school, food boutique and event space in New York’s Greenwich Village. I glanced up. A group of cooks moved easily about the kitchen. They chatted and poked fun at one another, stopping to laugh. A handful of young women — employees every one — tapped away intently at laptops at the other end of the table. Staff hurried up and down a curved staircase, carrying bouquets of flowers and calling out to one another. It felt like we were, indeed, sitting at the nucleus of a cozy, bustling home. And that’s just the way Schneider wants it.
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Schneider grew up in New York, the only child of a mother who had adopted an anti-housework feminist ideology. But, enamored with television images of happy-go-lucky families who congregated for family meals, Schneider caught the cooking bug anyway. She taught herself by reading cookbooks (“I devour them like novels,” she told me), and by high school, she was cooking for anyone who would sit to her table.
Fast forward. Schneider, in her mid-20s, found herself working in urban development, and before long had racked up a couple of years of professional experience and become a mother of five, one who cooked dinner for her family every night.
After taking a handful of classes at the Natural Gourmet Institute, Schneider began to teach informally out of her home. “I wasn’t comfortable asking people for money. I didn’t feel qualified,” she explained. Her friends goaded her on, though, and Schneider began to contemplate pursuing a graduate degree. “I was interested in ingredients and techniques, and why people eat what they eat,” she said.
Culinary school didn’t seem right — a career as a chef didn’t seem possible with a passel of kids at home — and neither did the more policy-oriented fields of nutrition nor public health appeal to her. So in 2009, Schneider enrolled in the food studies program at New York University, taking one course at a time to accommodate her role as a parent. “I went back to school when my youngest was in nursery school, and back to work when he was in kindergarten,” she recalled, counting backward on her fingers.
The idea for Haven’s Kitchen is born
Work meant leading tours for GrowNYC, where Schneider came to intimately know the farmers and the market. She was struck by the disconnect most adults seemed to feel with the food available at the Union Square Greenmarket and began doling out her contact information to participants who wanted to learn more. She was soon overwhelmed by inquiries. “I became really interested in this gap between something that’s catching on — Michael Pollan and his call to buy local and organic— and something that’s not. Beans, grains,” Schneider explained. The need to bridge thinking about good food and cooking good food was one she didn’t see being met anywhere else.
That’s when the seed for Haven’s Kitchen was sown. “I began dreaming of a space near the market where I could have a recreational school, for people who were not going to be chefs or nutritionists, but who needed basic knife skills and the like in order to make them want to cook when they get home from work.”
In fall 2010, she began looking for a place to set up shop. At first, she only looked at kitchens, envisioning something with a “beautiful table for classes, parties and maybe a small retail space.” But when Schneider stumbled across an abandoned carriage house on West 17th Street, just a few blocks from Union Square, her vision of something that could “feel like a home” expanded to fill the space.
The building needed restructuring in addition to kitchen infrastructure. When I asked what gave her the courage to open in such a large space, in such a notoriously expensive area to boot, she chuckled. “I had to be naïve and guileless to take it on.”
Today, the space is a beautiful retreat from the city’s noise. Livable elegance was Schneider’s approach. Full of light, bright tile, framed artwork, and rustic accents, the three-story space feels more like a page out of Dwell than a sterile teaching kitchen, replete with “living rooms,” bars, cafe tables and two kitchens.
For Schneider, comfort is paramount. “There are so many people telling you what not to eat and do. Too many rules! It’s a big problem in the food movement. For me, sustainability is not a stamp, it’s about longevity. It’s about learning to shop with thought, keep your pantry stocked and use what you have.”
Today, Haven’s Kitchen is walking its walk through a number ventures. There are cooking classes taught by Schneider herself and the immensely well-credentialed kitchen staff; supper club events that feature an impressive array of guest chefs (think Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Mark Bittman, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and the Franny’s crew); a private event space that has been host to weddings, dinner parties and corporate events; and a bustling cafe and retail store.
Since Haven’s Kitchen opened its doors in January 2012, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And though continued success isn’t guaranteed, especially in a city whose celebrity chef worship and restaurant dining culture seems contrary to encouraging home cooking, Schneider has reason to have faith. “Class attendees write daily saying they’re cooking at home, and my kids can sit at the counter and do homework after school and help in the kitchen, too,” Schneider said, beaming. “Plus, Joan Gussow has been here twice. How lucky am I to be a human being who got to meet her idol? I realized that everything I was scared of was not having that kitchen table, and I made that happen. It’s pure joy.”
Top photo: The Haven’s Kitchen staff prepares for a dinner party in the main kitchen. Credit: Sara Franklin
I’m here in Austin, Texas. The beer’s good, the weather is better and the barbecue trumps both. High on quirk and low on fuss, it’s as fun a place as any in the U.S. to sample cooks’ wares, be they experimental (think cornflake fried shrimp and avocado served out of a retrofitted Airstream) or entrenched (one word: brisket). So it makes sense that Molly O’Neill chose Austin as the site for her latest LongHouse Food Revival, the traveling food writers’ salon-cum-feast series she hosts together with local members of her “tribe,” Cook N Scribble.
Last time we were at a LongHouse event, my friend and colleague Neftali Duran (baker/proprietor of El Jardin Bakery in South Deerfield, Mass.) and I were frenzied parts of the planning and cooking team. This time, we got to sit back and absorb the evening. Good thing, as the topic — what is “authenticity,” specifically in the context of the Mexican diaspora and its food ways — is one we have long been debating.
Over lunch at La Barbecue “Cuisine Texicana” the next day, Nef and I caught up to recap.
Food authenticity widely debated among professionals
Sara: Last night, there seemed to be a distinction that emerged between “authenticity” and “our-thenticity.”
Gustavo talked a lot about this, the idea that the “authentic” in food is sort of a false one, full of imagined nostalgia. He says all foods are shaped by place and time, and contact between different cultures, especially in this global age. But you’ve been an ardent supporter of “local ownership” in food culture since I’ve known you. What are your thoughts on that these days?
Nef: I agree with Gustavo. But I also truly believe that if a Oaxacan cook wants to call his or her food “authentic,” it’s their right to do that. But I don’t think gringo chefs should be able to pull the “authenticity” card when cooking ethnic food. Furthermore, I believe in a term called “greater Mexico” that comes from Américo Paredes, a University of Texas anthropologist, that basically states that as Mexicans, we bring our culture and therefore our food anywhere we go. For example, I cook in New England, and my cooking has been adapted to the local ingredients.
Sara: So is what you cook still Mexican food?
Nef: It absolutely is. I don’t believe it’s losing anything, I believe it’s gaining. By using ingredients where we live, the cuisine evolves. We’re creating. But it’s still Oaxacan-inspired food.
Sara: What’s distinctly Oaxacan about your food?
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Nef: For example, in Massachusetts, I can assemble a mole amarillo because I can get most of the chiles dried from NYC, and instead of fresh yerba santa, I use dried. So it’s not the same — the flavors may differ — but it’s still a dish whose roots are in Oaxaca.
Sara: So here in Texas, you have a constant overlap of two worlds — what you would call “gringos” and then Mexican culture. How would you characterize the Mexican food scene here?
Nef: Well, I’ve had different kinds of experiences here. The other night I ate at El Naranjo, where Chef De la Vega adheres very closely to Oaxacan technique and would rather leave something off her menu than try to re-create it with non-traditional ingredients. And I really admire that. But then, today, at La Barbecue, we had distinctly Texas barbecue, which is Americana, really, but the chef is giving tribute to the Mexican influence on this city’s food culture. For example, he calls his sausage chorizo and his signature sandwich El Sancho. By the same token, he’s not calling his food Mexican, he’s called it “Texicana.”
Sara: So what’s the difference, then, between cultural appropriation and being inspired by another culture to create something innovative and new in food? Isn’t it a fine line?
Nef: I think that as cooks, we all borrow from different cultures all the time. Especially in the U.S. We’re inspired by many different peoples. What crosses the line in my book is when people think of themselves as an authority on an ethnic cuisine which is not their own.
Sara: Define for me. What makes a cuisine one’s own?
Nef: This is something where I’ve grown a lot in my thinking. You make a cuisine your own by cooking it and practicing. For example, if a Mexican cook is in the kitchen at a French place and he’s doing it well …
Sara: … So a Mexican chef can claim French food, but a chef with German roots can’t call him or herself an authority on, say, Brazilian food?
Nef: He or she can cook it. But to claim authority … let me give you some examples.
Sara: Well, first let me ask you this. Are you in agreement with Gustavo Arellano about Rick Bayless being a “prima donna” and a “liar,” as he said last night?
Nef: I wouldn’t say that, but I would say he’s been disrespectful. For example, for him to come to New York City and say that there is no good Mexican food except for Alex Stupak’s is obnoxious. I assure you that many a Mexican vendor selling tamales out of a cooler in Queens makes a better tamale than Stupak does.
Sara: So did anything about the conversation last night change your mind or surprise you?
Nef: I think that having had Iliana’s food and then hearing her say on stage that she would not compromise reassures me that we’re going in the right direction, in the sense that there are still cooks that care about their food and the integrity of what they’re serving. I’m encouraged to see that there’s a generation of first-generation cooks who are sticking to their guns and traditions. It gives me a lot of hope. It pleases me that the American palate is changing, and people are willing to be adventurous in tasting things that aren’t necessarily translated or watered down, but are still largely indigenous and culturally intact.
Top photo: Artist and pit master Kiko Guerra tends the slow-cooking cabritos. Credit: Sara Franklin