Articles in Editor’s Letter
“California cuisine?” When my friend Evan Kleiman and Santa Monica’s public radio station KCRW dedicated a Sunday afternoon to discussing the topic, I was curious.
More from Zester Daily:
California has a rich and evolving food culture, but a distinctive style of cooking? Hardly.
Turns out I’m not the only naysayer on this topic. On the stage at New Roads School in Santa Monica were three people comfortable with the label sitting next to three folks who clearly weren’t. The difference was written on their faces — three older white faces next to three younger Asian and Latino chefs.
A turn toward fresh ingredients
California was stuck in post-World War II “continental cuisine” muck with the rest of the country, according to San Francisco cookbook author and chef Joyce Goldstein, whose new book, “Inside the California Food Revolution” (University of California Press), provided the background for the sold-out event.
In the mid-1970s, a group of young, largely self-taught California chefs decided to throw out the cream sauce and started building menus around fresh produce. Today the whole country talks about farm-to-table cuisine. The idea, however, said Goldstein, took root here then.
Unfortunately, “the ingredients weren’t here,” said Ruth Reichl, the former Gourmet Magazine editor who, at the time, was a cook in Berkeley.
Michael’s in Santa Monica, the first Los Angeles restaurant promoting “California cuisine,” flew ingredients in from New Zealand to serve produce good enough to take center stage, said Nancy Silverton, the chef behind La Brea Bakery and L.A.’s Osteria Mozza, who worked the cash register at Michael’s when it opened in 1979.
From the earliest days, Reichl said, California’s food revolution was part of an anti-industrial farming political movement. To get the food they wanted to serve, the chefs had to cultivate farmers willing to learn how to grow it.
“The big change — beyond just connecting with farmers — was when restaurants became personal businesses where you knew your purveyors,” said Goldstein. Chefs shared their sources with each other, something she said could not have happened in the secretive world of New York City’s better kitchens.
“We made sensible choices and cooked sensible food,” said Silverton. Formal dining gave way to raucous rooms with open kitchens; waiters dressed in khakis. Going out to dinner became fun.
California’s casual ingredient-driven way of eating spread across the country long ago, but the Mediterranean climate continues to give the state a distinctive edge. “If you go to our farmers markets, on our worst day, our produce is orders of magnitude better than what you have on any day in the Greenmarket in New York City,” said Sang Yoon, chef/owner of L.A.’s Lukshon. “California is all about celebrating that bounty.”
International influences make their mark
The difference is the personal histories of today’s California chefs. The European traditions that underscored the original “California cuisine” have been pushed aside in favor of the richer, spicier flavors familiar to chefs who grew up in immigrant communities.
“I see California beyond the food we cook as chefs and look at the way we grew up,” Kogi taco truck impresario Roy Choi told the audience. “It’s about immigration and how some of our food becomes stronger here.”
Take the taco, Choi said. “A taco from L.A. tastes like a taco from L.A. You can’t duplicate it in New York.” Yet, he added, “Korean food in L.A. is better than what you find in Korea.”
Mexican food has been slow to gain respect, said Chef Eduardo Ruiz. But the critical accolades for his Corazon y Miel in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell is evidence of change. Ruiz said he looks to his grandmother and mother for inspiration.
If he had the chance to start his career over again, Korean-born Yoon said he would skip the years he spent training in the “physically and emotionally abusive” kitchens of France’s top chefs. “I’d embrace my own culture and start there.”
“I’ve never been more proud to say I’m from L.A.,” said Yoon.
The hometown crowd erupted with applause.
“California cuisine” may have been definable back when farm-fresh, casual dining was novel. Today’s California chefs have more interesting stories to tell.
Top photo: Joyce Goldstein and Nancy Silverton discuss California cuisine at a KCRW event in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Timothy Norris
This Sunday morning, we filled our farmers market baskets with fragrant heirloom melons, the tastiest of the dozens of varieties of plums and pluots on offer and piles of fresh greens, lugging home a rough balance of fruits and vegetables.
Scientists might identify our fruits according to which produce started out as a flower. Sweetness, however, is the distinction that makes a difference to us.
ZESTER DAILY LINKS
The perfect accompaniment to the season’s intoxicating abundance is Yung Chang’s film “The Fruit Hunters,” a love letter to the world’s rarest, most delicious fruits and the people obsessed with finding and eating them, which is being released on DVD and digital on July 16.
Chang calls his cast of sweet freaks “fruities” and they are manic about the taste of their favorite fruits. “There is a need to grow the fruit, to cultivate the fruit, not just to taste it,” he says. “There is an explorative, adventuresome sensibility. They want to discover the origin of the fruit they love.”
Don’t call them “foodies,” says Chang. Fruities only love to eat fruit.
Inspired by his friend Adam Leith Gollner’s 2008 nonfiction book “The Fruit Hunters,” Chang spent two years following fruit obsessed scientists, anthropologists and conservationists around the world in search of nature’s sweetest treats.
Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell lead an Indiana Jones-like quest for rare mangoes in Bali and Borneo as they race to preserve disappearing varieties. Honduran scientist Juan Aguilar struggles to breed a banana capable of resisting a devastating fungus threatening the world’s banana crop. And in the hills of Umbria, Italy, Isabella Dalla Ragione researches Renaissance-era paintings for clues to where she might find the remaining examples of ancient cultivars.
As Gollner writes in his book, “These denizens of the fruit underworld are as special as the flora they pursue.” Largely hidden from the public eye, “they have devoted themselves to the quest for fruit.”
The passion is understandable, he writes. “Fruit is inherently erotic. After all, every time we eat a fruit, we engage in a reproductive act.”
Food porn for the smart set
“I’ve lived for the last 20 years for each day off when I can learn more about fruit,” Bill Pullman told the crowd at a Santa Monica screening of “The Fruit Hunters” earlier this summer. The star of Chang’s film, Pullman is a fruit tourist traveling to tropical fruit hot spots to meet his fruit heroes and learn their secrets, slurping and moaning over each local delicacy he discovers along the way.
At home, the actor is a fruit community organizer, leading his Hollywood Hills neighbors in a quixotic quest to turn abandoned land near their homes into a community orchard. He spreads the gospel of fruit through communal fruit harvests, known as gleanings, and homey canning parties.
There is urgency to the effort, Pullman explains. Industrial farming has taken a toll on fruit diversity. The race is on to save what is left.
Fruities believe a special bond connects fruits and humans, says Chang. Fruits nourish us and, through the act of consuming it, we ensure the future of that fruit species by dispersing its seeds.
“It is a love affair gone awry,” he says. “We need to reconnect with what it means to be a fruit hunter. These people we meet [in the film], these fruit hunters, take us through the world to rediscover our innate connection with fruit.”
As Gollner writes, “To love a diversity that, as limitless as it is fragile, both haunts us and fills us with hope.”
‘Fruit Hunters’ unearths an inner-fruit fanatic
“My connection to fruit was nostalgic,” says Chang. The people, not the fruit, drew him to the project. Several months into filming, he realized things had changed.
“At the beginning, I was very focused as a filmmaker, looking through the lens, so to speak. But people were always handing me fruit to eat. You can’t deny it. You have to taste it,” Chang says. The revelations “became overwhelming. Everywhere. Every second. Someone would have, for instance, a freshly fallen durian fruit [a spiky skinned Southeast Asian fruit with creamy almond flavored pulp] in the backyard of a grandmother’s home and at that moment that would be my favorite fruit.
“Then we’d be at a nursery in Hawaii and I’d be presented with a Burmese grape. It looks like it is in the lychee family. You open the shell, and inside is this semi-translucent pearl with swirls of pink. It tastes like Bubblicious gum.”
The tart, sweet blue Haskap berry that grows in arctic climates and has three times the antioxidant value of blueberries will be the next fruit craze, predicts Chang.
You don’t have to be a fruitie to enjoy “The Fruit Hunters.” The film is playful and joyous, a feast for the mind and the senses.
“When you watch this much food porn, you’ll want to eat fruit,” cautions Pullman. “Would you have come to a movie about vegetables?”
Hamdi Ulukaya was crazy about the tangy strained yogurt his mother made for him growing up in eastern Turkey. It was the simple, everyday food of a sheep farmer’s family. After he moved to America as a college student, Ulukaya wondered why there was there nothing like it in grocery stores in the United States.
As so many immigrants before him, Ulukaya thought he could make a living in his adopted country by sharing the food from home. In 2007 when he introduced Chobani, he bet everything he had on that dream.
When my daughter recently accepted her diploma from Colgate University, 41-year-old Ulukaya shared the stage with the class of 2013, grinning and flashing a thumbs-up like the other graduates.
More from Zester Daily:
“You invited America into your family’s kitchen when you founded Chobani,” Colgate President Jeffrey Herbst told the assembled graduates and their families. “For those who craved pure affordable [Greek-style] yogurt, there were no options. So you purchased a defunct Kraft plant in central New York and spent two years creating the perfect formula, using memories of your mother’s own recipe for inspiration.
“Finding the ingredients for success, you transcended mere merchandizing. Your remarkable attention to detail, willingness to take educated risks, and your candor inspires a workforce of more than 1,700 people in this region alone.
“Using a conglomerate’s castoff plant, you have disrupted the status quo, offered nature’s produce in its purest form and revolutionized the quality of life in central New York. In your native language, ‘Chobani‘ means shepherd, someone who gives and expects nothing in return. Through your determination, creativity and generous spirit, you have put that Turkish word firmly in the American lexicon.
“Hamdi Ulukaya you have asserted that when something is authentic and real, you do not have to say much about it. So I will be brief, it is an honor to recognize you and the impact of your entrepreneurial spirit.” With that, Herbst handed Ulukaya an honorary doctorate in humane letters.
Last year, Ulukaya sold $1 billion worth of yogurt, opened a second plant in Idaho, one of the largest yogurt-processing facilities in the world and expanded his operations into Australia, all of which seems to have made him everyone’s favorite entrepreneur. This month he was named the 2013 Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year. Last year, he was named the U.S. Small Business Administration National Entrepreneurial Success of 2012.
Chobani founder connects with Worlds of Flavor
Ulukaya told the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor conference in St. Helena, Calif., the story of sitting at his desk at his little feta factory outside of Albany. He’d dropped out of business school to make feta, just as his father had done in Turkey.
An advertising flyer was on top of a stack of junk mail he was throwing into the trash. An abandoned 1920s cinder-block yogurt factory was for sale in a town more than an hour’s drive west. He fished the flyer out of the trash. Maybe he could make the yogurt he so missed from home.
Just as they did at Colgate, the crowd rose to their feet in applause. This was a billionaire they could believe in.
Top photo Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya addresses a session of Colgate University’s Entrepreneur Weekend in April 2013. Credit: Andy Daddio
Follow Danielle Nierenberg, and you will end up in interesting places. I learned this reading the missives she e-mailed from developing nations around the world during her tenure with Nourishing the Planet and the Worldwatch Institute. The Tufts-educated Missourian delivered awful truths about the world’s broken food system with an upbeat focus on inspiring individual-sized solutions. I missed her ever-present freckle-face grin when the e-mails stopped.
Now she’s back! With her new venture, Food Tank, Nierenberg and partner Ellen Gustafson remain focused on solutions, but this time they are the sweeping, world-altering kind.
Food Tank will bring together farmers, policymakers, researchers, scientists and journalists with the funding and donor communities to participate in a clearinghouse of information and data. Solid information about what’s working, they believe, will lead to more and better research and development. It’s a step-by-step scientific process toward food justice and a sustainable agricultural system.
I recently asked Nierenberg to share some background on herself and Food Tank.
You have worked to raise awareness about food quality and availability for a long time. What led you to become involved in this cause?
I’ve always been obsessed with food. I’m the person who wants to know what she’s having for dinner at lunchtime. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of farmers right after undergrad as a Peace Corps volunteer and that really helped me understand the connections between how we grow food and the impacts on health and the environment. Since then I’ve really tried to highlight what farmers, business, entrepreneurs, researchers, youth, policymakers and others are doing to make the food system more sustainable.
How did that work lead you to create Food Tank? What do you hope to accomplish?
We want to build a network of eaters, producers and policymakers and highlight the solutions that are already working.
There is so much focus on investment in big, sexy technologies, and we want to highlight how many of the answers to our most pressing social and environmental problems are already out there.
If we start now, there is an opportunity to develop a better vision for the global food system. Fixing the system requires changing the conversation and finding ways that make food production — and consumption — more economically, environmentally, and socially just and sustainable.
We also want to work with our advisory group to develop a new set of metrics to measure the “success” of a food system. For the last 50 years, the measurements have been based on calories and yield and not on the nutritional quality of food, or whether a food system protects water and soil, or whether it promotes the empowerment of youth or gender equity.
What organizations and individuals are working with you on this project?
Ellen Gustafson is the co-founder of Food Tank. She and I have had a mutual crush and admiration for one another for years. Often she and I are the only young-ish women who end up at both industry conferences and sustainable food conferences. Ellen’s work has been more on the entrepreneurial side. She co-founded FEED Projects with Lauren Bush and started 30 Project.
My work has focused on more on-the-ground research and evaluating environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty. Over the last few years I’ve traveled to more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America talking to farmers and farmers groups, scientists and researchers, policymakers and academics, youth, journalists and others collecting their thoughts about what’s working to increase incomes, raised yields, improve nutrition and protect the environment.
People around the world seem to be far more aware of the issue of food quality and food security. What has caused this awakening?
I think that since the food and economic crisis began in 2007 and 2008 there’s a growing movement around how not just to feed people, but nourish them. Most of the investment in agriculture is on starchy staple crops and less has been invested in leguminous crops, protein-rich grains or indigenous vegetables. These are crops that are not only more nutritious, but tend to be resistant to drought, disease, pests, high temperatures, etc.
And more and more young people are getting involved in the food system — as producers in urban gardens in Asia, as bakers in New York, as seed distributors in Kenya, and as chefs, food manufacturers, etc. The food system and agriculture have often been something young people feel forced to do, rather than something they want to do. We need to find ways to make it more economically and intellectually stimulating so it becomes something that people want to do and know that they can make money from.
If you could snap your fingers and make one change in the food system, what would it be?
There’s no one thing that can happen to change the system, but a big thing I’d like to see is more investment in agro-ecological practices. Again, most of the investment in agriculture is in sexy technologies and commodity crops and starchy staple crops, and not in the things that are already working — everything from agroforestry and solar drip irrigation to combining “high” and “low” technologies through using the Internet and cellphones. The solutions are out there. They’re just not getting the attention, research and investment they need.
Top photo: Danielle Nierenberg at a site visit to the AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. Credit: Bernard Pollack
At Zester Daily, we scour the world for interesting food and drink stories to share with our fans. As luck would have it, we only had to drive an hour south to Orange County, California, to find our latest discovery: Best Wines Online, a new wine e-tailer we know you will enjoy.
We have trusted the talents of founders Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon since their years managing another wine store. Their well-earned reputations as wine sleuths able to sniff out values in the obscure corners of wine’s ever expanding universe are complemented by an encyclopedic knowledge of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Their picks reflect a preference for balanced wines that shine on the dinner table. Kyle and Tris take the time to learn the backstories of the wines they sell. With their guidance, wine shopping is more treat than chore.
When we learned this dynamic duo was opening a store of their own, we jumped at the chance to introduce the venture to Zester fans.
Discounts for hand-selected wines
Today, we are proud to announce that Zester Daily and Best Wines Online have launched a marketing partnership. Each week, Kyle and Tris will hand-select a wine they will make available to Zester subscribers at an exclusive 10% discount below the store’s already competitive prices.
Zester newsletter subscribers will find a Best Wines Online promotion detailing the weekly wine offer in our new Weekender newsletter sent out toward the end of the workweek.
On bestwinesonline.com, you’ll find detailed wine descriptions and a growing library of videos both from Kyle and Tris’ travels as well as interviews with winemakers who visit their shop. Their personal touch extends to customer service. When you call their store during California office hours, you’ll get a living, breathing human being on the phone.
They are limiting their stock to 1,000 labels — enough variety to represent the wide world of top-shelf wines along with stacks of tantalizing under $20 treats. Rare among boutique e-tailers, the pair also feature hard-to-get older vintages straight from the wineries.
We know you will enjoy getting to know Kyle and Tris and their particularly delicious take on fine wine at bestwinesonline.com. Sign up now for Zester’s newsletter so you won’t miss out on any of these delicious deals.
Top photo: Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon of Best Wines Online. Photo and video credits: Matthieu Silberstein
“People have the right to know what is in their food,” Whole Foods Market founder and co-CEO John Mackey told a gathering of customers at his company’s Pasadena store. And when it comes to eating genetically modified anything, he said, the folks who shop at Whole Foods have made it clear: “They don’t want it,” he says.
Mackey listens to his customers. Last week Whole Foods announced that, within five years, all genetically modified ingredients for sale in its stores will be labeled. He is the first retailer in the U.S. to take this step; the story ran on the front page of the New York Times.
In the battle over the American shopper, Mackey, a baby boomer vegan from Austin, Texas, has called out the big boys of GMOs — Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and other multinational chemical companies. If they want access to his customers, they’ll have to play by his rules.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Mackey told the group in Pasadena in February, smiling as he shifted his thin frame from one desert boot to the other. “But if the government won’t act, we will.”
Most of the corn and soybeans grown today in the United States is genetically altered, as is a growing list of fresh produce sold in neighborhood grocery stores. And while Mackey has 339 Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and Canada, he’s a junior varsity player in the North American grocery business. The Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a trade group representing major food companies and retailers, wasted now time in denouncing his GMO labeling decision.
But Mackey’s 30-plus years of paying extraordinary attention to his customers’ wants and needs have earned him a fierce loyalty that allows him to punch well above his weight. No one is counting him out in this fight.
It was Mackey’s business philosophy that took me to Pasadena last month to hear him speak during a stop on the promotional tour for “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business,” a new business management book he co-wrote with Raj Sisodia, a Bentley College marketing professor.
“I believe capitalism is the greatest force for good in the world. It alleviates poverty, creates goods and services and allows the culture to advance,” Mackey said in his opening remarks. His goal in writing the book was to help companies claim an individual sense of purpose, something he believes many businesses lose in the struggle to survive.
If the only goal of a business is to make money, he says, it will fail to reach its potential. In the book, Mackey writes, “Conscious businesses treat satisfying the needs of all their major stakeholders as ends in themselves, while traditional businesses often treat stakeholders other than investors as the means to achieving their ultimate goal of profit maximization.”
Doing it right starts by establishing a “core value” to guide your business, he says. At Whole Foods, it is to be a financially successful retailer providing customers high quality whole, organic products.
With its core value in mind, a conscious business then considers the needs of all of its stakeholders. Meeting the needs of the customers is first and foremost, but it extends to the needs of employees, suppliers, investors, the communities around stores and the environment as a whole. When a company gets the balance right, it can improve the lives of all stakeholders.
GMO labeling follows business philosophy
Viewing his decision on GMO labels through that prism, Mackey didn’t have much choice. His key stakeholders — his customers — made it clear that they wanted to avoid GMOs. But he took his suppliers’ needs into account as well. Rather than force them to immediately comply with Whole Foods’ new requirement, he gave them time to secure non-GMO ingredients or to accept the effect of being labeled accordingly.
Mackey has made similar moves at the Whole Foods meat and fish counters. Some customers won’t eat anything but grass-fed beef. Others think conventionally raised beef is just fine. Which fish are sustainably caught or raised? The labels tell the story. And while the effort is at best a work-in-progress, he is setting a standard that other grocery stores are struggling to match.
It’s all a process, he says. A “conscious business” gradually becomes more and more aware of its “reason for being,” or its core value. Enlightenment, wisdom and all of the higher thinking implied in those words, he says, gets easier with experience.
Conscious capitalism “is about leadership that serves the higher good of the organization, a culture that helps humans to flourish and self-actualize themselves.
“We are not retailers with a mission as much as missionaries who retail,” he wrote in the book. And his mission is to spread the gospel of conscious capitalism and change the world for better, forever. An optimist, Mackey believes any company can be saved. Maybe even GMO giant Monsanto.
Top photo: John Mackey. Credit: Chris Fager
Zester Daily readers have shown an appreciation for a stunning variety of stories over the past year. A quick scan of the 2012 reader favorites reveals a yen for Ruth Bourdain’s dishes, cuisine from every corner of the world, food preservation, photography, films, wine insider news and a treasured recipe for flavored marshmallows — as well as a critique of American taste.
Snippets of the 12 most popular Zester Daily contributors’ stories, plus the five most popular Soapboxes, are below. Follow the story links to read the complete text. Follow the contributor links to read more by each author.
The stories are listed in reverse order.
Top contributors’ stories of 2012
12. THE ORIGINS OF CURRY by Raghavan Iyer: Before I try to define the word “curry,” let me create an image for you from my college laboratory days in India where I pursued a degree in chemistry over 20 years ago. As I busied myself measuring crystals of …
11. OLD-SCHOOL SOY SAUCE by Manuela Zoninsein: There’s no one right ritual or rule to guide your eating extravaganza on Jan. 23. The Chinese New Year involves a number of great food traditions. Dumplings are reminiscent of coins in ancient China and will thus bring …
10. TEN BEST FOODIE FLICKS by David Latt: If cold weather traps you indoors for months each winter, you might run through your queue of streaming movies pretty quick. Why not entertain yourself with a library of the best …
9. HOW KERMIT LYNCH TAUGHT AMERICANS HOW TO DRINK WINE by Patrick Comiskey: Forty years ago, Kermit Lynch abandoned the handmade purse industry and opened a wine shop in Berkeley, Calif., and in doing so, became one of the great innovators of …
8. WINE’S ACCUSED GRIFTER, RUDY KURNIAWAN by Corie Brown: By the summer of 2006, when I first noticed Rudy Kurniawan at Christie’s in Beverly Hills, he had transformed the market for old wine from a sleepy backwater into a high-stakes free-for-all. Only the richest wine collectors knew him. Or thought they did …
6. EATING TO BEAT CANCER: DIET MAY PROVE TO BE A CURE by Harriet Sugar Miller: Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much …
4. IN DEFENSE OF TRUFFLE OIL by Lynne Curry: Midwinter is high season for fresh truffles in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With the help of an experienced truffle hunter (or a trained dog), I could spend …
2. CANNING JARS FROM FAUX TO BEST PRESERVING CHOICES by Susan Lutz: About six months ago, I salvaged a beautiful marinara sauce jar that I intended to refill with home-canned sweet pickles made using my mother’s recipe. And if I hadn’t taken a 12-week course to become a certified Master Food Preserver, I might have …
1. FLAVORED MARSHMALLOWS MADE FROM SCRATCH by Charles Perry: When you hand people homemade marshmallows, they’re always dazzled. These are actual marshmallows, but with a lush, moist texture you never find in store-bought versions. If you want your friends to keep thinking you’re a wizard, don’t tell them how simple it is …
Top Soapboxes of 2012
5. DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS IS FOR AMERICANOS, TOO by Veronica Gonzalez-Smith: In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of …
4. THE INFANTALIZATION OF AMERICAN TASTE by Michael Krondl: Though the plague of cupcake shops has not spared any city in this great union, it would be hard to find one that illustrates my point better than …
3. CALIFORNIA’S EXCITING NEW WINES BUCK THE MAINSTREAM by Eric Asimov: We live in the most wonderful era in history to love wine. Right now, Americans have access to a greater diversity of wines than ever before, wines made in more styles from more …
2. THE FORGOTTEN QUINCE by Jane McMorland Hunter: Nowadays most people hardly know what a quince looks like. Until the 19th century, it was a commonplace orchard fruit throughout North America and Europe; now it has become …
1. RUTH BOURDAIN DISSES AND DISHES WITH ZESTER by Ruth Bourdain: It’s been more than two years since the debut of Ruth Bourdain, the sensational and often raunchy Twitter persona whose name and sensibilities are a mashup/spoof of former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and outspoken celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. The true identity of Ms. Bourdain is still under wraps, but her tweets show her to be ….
* * *
And that’s our list for 2012 … Here’s to discovering Ms. Bourdain’s identity in 2013!
Photo illustration, clockwise from top left:
Ruth Bourdain. Credit: Ruth Bourdain
Indian spices (originally published in 660 Curries). Credit: Ben Fink
Homemade marshmallows dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Credit: StockFood
Photo illustration credit: Karen Chaderjian
Jamie Geller opens the door to the kosher kitchen at Joy of Kosher, her 2-year-old website dedicated to expanding the audience for traditional Jewish foods. Author of two “Quick & Kosher” cookbooks, her site is packed with thousands of her own recipes as well as tips and insights from the best kosher chefs.
A former CNN and HBO producer, Geller founded Kosher Media Network, which publishes the magazine Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller. Founder of Jewish Culinary Heritage Foundation, Geller seeks to connect the broader international community through traditional Jewish food. She recently moved to Israel from New York City.
With the lighting of the first candles of Chanukah, Zester Daily asked Jamie to bring us up to speed on the kosher kitchen.
Tell us why you created Joy of Kosher with a brief history of your site.
Let’s start with the name. If you didn’t grow up in a house that kept kosher, you probably think it’s some kind of a restrictive diet that takes all the fun out of cuisine. To most of the world kosher has a bad rep, it implies boring and limited. You know: syrupy sweet wine and Granny’s gefilte fish.
But nothing could be further from the truth! Today’s kosher kitchen is full of exotic dishes and culinary adventure. The range of kosher ingredients is broad, and kosher wines are winning prestigious prizes all over the world. There’s so much joy in cooking kosher, but who knew? So I wanted to share the news with the world.
The site premiered a little over two years ago as a place where people could think of kosher cooking in a whole new way, and to encourage sharing among kosher cooks. The response has been incredible, not only from traditional Jewish cooks, but from non-kosher chefs who want to expand their repertoire. We’re like family now.
There is a rise in the purchase of kosher products. What’s driving the new interest?
Kosher certification symbols on the package (like OU and Star-K, to name just two of many) do not mean that a rabbi came and blessed the factory, the food or the people therein. It means that every ingredient of what’s inside the package meets certain standards. There are representatives from the certifying agency checking every aspect of production, making sure that no unidentified flying objects or ingredients sneak in.
I want that kind of supervision with my food don’t you? Apparently, millions of people want that too and go out of their way to find kosher products. Moreover, foods or ingredients designated “Pareve” mean that the product has no traces of dairy or meat. This is very important to people with allergies or lactose intolerance. And the rabbis are very trustworthy about this. Another reason is that many Jews who never kept kosher before are turning back to tradition and want to keep kosher now. You’re talking to one of them. I didn’t grow up kosher. But I am now.
Why should someone who doesn’t keep kosher seek out kosher foods?
Because they’re good, and they’re reliable. Whatever is on the label is really there, and nothing else. You can have confidence in a kosher product. And remember all those people going kosher that I mentioned earlier? Often, when there’s a family get-together, many hosts will try to use only kosher foods to accommodate their newly kosher family members, guests or friends.
If you had to choose between Ashkenazic or Sephardic cuisine, which would you choose? Why?
No fair! That’s like asking me which of my kids I love the most. I adore the bold, bright, spicy Sephardic foods, and I’m mad about their music and culture. I often play Sephardic music when I cook, dancing round my kitchen, channeling my inner Sephardi. Did you know that in a past life I was a raven-haired Sephardic princess? At least that’s what my hubby thinks; says he has to watch out for my camel in the driveway.
On the other hand, Ashkenazic food brings me back to my grandparents table, sitting on telephone books, with my feet dangling off the floor. In a flash I can taste their incredibly rich, clear chicken soup, their mile-high perfect potato kugel, their homemade kishka. All of that is what we call “heimish” — literally homelike, but so much more. It’s like every bite comes with a big, warm, cuddly hug.
Now that I live in Israel, I’m culturally engulfed by Sephardic food and my palate is changing: I think everything is better with humus and tahini; I eat falafel for breakfast and sautéed eggplant with cumin and cilantro for a snack and baklava when I have a sweet tooth. I guess, eventually, it will all balance out.
Among the most frequently requested kosher recipes on your site, what surprises you?
Can’t say I’m too surprised by anything anymore. But I do see that kosher folks keep trying for kosher versions of foods that are inherently non-kosher and even more popular — they want tips for turning real decadent dairy recipes non-dairy.
Let me just tell ya, you can’t sub heavy cream with coconut milk and call it a day. And of course we have stuff like imitation bacon (called “Facon”) and mock crab, and you can melt soy cheese on a beef burger, but you can’t really sub out everything in a recipe and expect it to taste spot-on like the original. So while I’ll occasionally cook “mock” versions, there’s no sub for genuine ingredients.
What keeps the kosher cuisine on the sidelines of the international restaurant scene? I don’t think a kosher chef has been recognized by Michelin as among the top in the world.
Well, they should be. I think part of the reason they’re not recognized is that old stereotype about kosher food I mentioned earlier. People just don’t expect to find creative, tantalizing innovations in a kosher restaurant. But kosher chefs should be given a second look: They do real miracles with food, using only kosher ingredients. For instance, Moshe Wendel, at Pardes Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, is doing kosher progressive French food like you’ve never had it before (read: the likes of which has never before been done in the kosher world). Check out places like Solo and Prime Grill (both in NYC) and you’ll find plenty of award-worthy dishes.
What have you learned from JoyofKosher.com that has stunned you, really knocked you for a loop?
Jews love to eat even more than I thought! Everyone loves to eat more than I thought. And I used to think it was only me. I also found that food, especially kosher food, is serious business. And while we all enjoy a fun night out at a restaurant, where we can try new dishes, I discovered that hundreds of thousands of people want to experiment right in their own kitchens, serving up all kinds of fascinating cuisine day in and day out to their families. The demand for new and better recipes keeps us cooking on all burners. I’m always experimenting and tasting, and tasting, and tasting. That’s why I look this way.
Photo: Jamie Geller. Credit: Kosher Media Network