Articles in Chefs

Dishes of Portobello Mousse by Dirt Candy. Credit: Sofia Perez

When people talk about eating local food, the first thing that comes to mind is often produce-related — shopping for fruits and vegetables at a farmers market or joining a community-supported agriculture group, or CSA. While those actions do help support a local food economy, an event I recently attended made me realize how much broader the idea of being a “locavore” has become.

“Let Us Eat Local” is an annual benefit for Just Food, a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on making good-quality food accessible across the city by promoting community gardens, CSAs, urban farms and the like. Its tasting event brings together chefs, bartenders, farmers, fish and meat purveyors, beverage producers and representatives of other New York-area culinary businesses to showcase the region’s bounty.

Local food not just about fruits and vegetables

Although I’ve attended this fundraiser before, I was struck by the sophistication and “big-tent” feel of this year’s iteration. Not surprisingly, the event included some of the city’s stalwart veggie-focused and vegan eateries, but their tables were just a stone’s throw from those of Jimmy’s No. 43, known especially for its meat and beer offerings, and Momofuku Ssäm Bar, whose founding chef, David Chang, famously delivered the line “Let’s put pork in every f****** dish” when he appeared as himself on the HBO show “Treme.”

There were also farm-to-table brunch spots and an Italian perennial, but the remainder of the restaurant lineup was filled with some of the heaviest hitters on New York’s fine-dining scene — tony Michelin-star recipients and Zagat-list toppers such as Blue Hill, Esca, Gramercy Tavern, Perry St and Riverpark. The sheer preponderance of these types of places made it clear that local food is no longer the sole domain of the ascetic or preachy.

Some of the most intriguing participants were the artisanal craftspeople whose wares defy the pious crunchy-granola expectations that (often unfairly) get pinned on anything relating to sustainability. It’s nice to see the movement become established enough to let down its hair and have some fun. Here are three examples of products that break the mold:

Mixing it up

The next time you sit down to a meal of organic local produce, cheese and poultry, consider pairing it with a glass of soda. Wait, what? At first glance, soda might seem like a strange bedfellow, but when you taste the syrups produced by Anton Nocito’s P&H Soda Co., the combination makes perfect sense. Eschewing extracts, Nocito creates his blends in a commercial kitchen in Brooklyn using only sustainably sourced whole ingredients. In addition to six year-round varieties — cream, ginger, grapefruit, hibiscus, lovage and sarsaparilla — he experiments with flavors such as the tart, aromatic lemon verbena he served at the event.

The P&H Sodo Co.'s lineup of soda syrups. Credit: Virgil Bastos/P&H Soda Co.

The P&H Sodo Co.’s lineup of soda syrups. Credit: Virgil Bastos/P&H Soda Co.

Available at retail locations and via the company’s website, P&H’s complex concentrates can be mixed with seltzer to your desired level of sweetness, but they’re also terrific in cocktails, which is how they’re being used at some of New York’s hottest bars and restaurants. Looking to put a spin on the classic margarita? Nocito recommends adding a little of his hibiscus syrup, which is made from a blend of dried hibiscus leaves, organic ginger and cane sugar.

Worth her salt

If you’re making the hibiscus margarita with P&H syrup, you might want to rim the glass with New York sea salt, produced on a rooftop high above Manhattan. Although Urban Sproule did not have its own table at this year’s event, Sarah Sproule’s company was represented in the evening’s gift bags, which included small tins of her “Virgin” salt. (She also produces several infused varieties, such as celery and grilled ramp.)

Urban Sproule’s New York sea salt. Credit: Sofia Perez

Urban Sproule’s New York sea salt. Credit: Sofia Perez

The idea for the venture came to the young chef when she was doing weekly cooking demonstrations at the Union Square Greenmarket. As she prepared dishes using market ingredients, she dreamed of topping them with her own locally made seasonings. The seawater she uses is gathered 30 miles east of Montauk, Long Island, by two area fishermen and transported to a building in Chelsea, where it is brought up to the roof (16 floors by service elevator, plus two flights by stairs) and placed into an evaporation house. Once the crystals form, the salt is harvested by hand and baked by the sun before being infused or packaged in its pure form.

Your pick of pickles

The Rick’s Picks product line. Credit: The Watsons/Rick’s Picks

The Rick’s Picks product line. Credit: The Watsons/Rick’s Picks

One of the veterans of New York City’s resurgent artisanal food movement, Rick’s Picks has been brining local produce for the past decade. Based on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood filled with pushcart pickle vendors a century ago, founder Rick Field has helped transform the image of this ultra-traditional food-preservation technique. His product line — which includes “Phat Beets,” “Hotties” (Sriracha pickle chips), “Smokra” (pickled okra) and “Pepi Pep Peps” (pickled red bell peppers) — is clearly marketed to appeal to those who would breeze right past the supermarket Vlasics and B&Gs. These are not your Nana’s gherkins.

While you could certainly go the conventional route and top your next burger with the company’s gently sweet “Bee ‘n’ Beez” (bread-and-butter pickles), the promotional postcard handed out at the event also featured this recipe for Pickletinis.

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Ginger Apple Honey Pie from Bubby’s Restaurant. Credit: Sofia Perez

Pickletinis

Recipe courtesy of Rick’s Picks

Yield: Makes 1 drink.

Ingredients

2½ ounces gin

½ ounces dry vermouth

½ ounces Rick’s Picks Classic Sours brine

1 Classic Sours spear

Fresh dill, for rimming the martini glass

Directions

Pour the ingredients into a mixing glass filled with ice cubes. Stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the Classic Sours spear. Rim the glass with fresh dill.

Main photo: Dishes of Portobello Mousse by Dirt Candy. Credit: Sofia Perez

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The Cooking Times They Are a-Changin'. Illustration Credit: iStock

Cook or chef? If asked, chances are most of us would opt for cook. But what does that mean? Cooks cook. Chefs cook too. So what’s the difference? Most obviously, chefs are men who cook in, and for, the public, while the rest of us labor away as unsung heroines (and a few heroes) on the domestic front to please family and friends.

The heavily masculine world of chefs has its roots in the military model formalized by the French in the 17th century. The chef de cuisine —  the “head” of the kitchen —  literally commanded the meal. So too in the modern restaurant that emerged over the 19th century; the chef gave the orders that lesser mortals carried out. The movement toward professionalization over the 19th century excluded women. (The iconic 1987 food film “Babette’s Feast” is totally off-the-mark. No woman would have been a chef in a top Parisian restaurant in the 19th century. Even today there are few.)

When we look closely at what chefs actually do, we may be astonished that “mere” cooks undertake many of the same activities. Perhaps cooking and “chefing” differ less than the fancy white chef’s toque would have us believe.

A continuum from cooking to chefing

In reality, from cooking to chefing is a continuum. The more foods involved, the more elaborate and complex the preparations, the more people involved as staff and consumers, and the greater the pressure for innovation, the closer we come to chefing. The more extensive the division of culinary labor, the more leadership and management skills come into play. It is not by chance that the restaurant kitchen is still known as a “brigade” and that “Yes, Chef” the only possible response to the kitchen commander.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

But the domestic cook uses many of those same skills — even if she has no one to order about. Just think about what is involved in putting together an elaborate meal for a special occasion or special guests say, a birthday party for 10-year-olds or an anniversary. The cook knows that time spent at the stove is the least of her tasks. She becomes an Executive Chef for the occasion, commanding the meal, setting the menu, ordering the food and seeing to the pleasures of a demanding public. Such a meal requires skills, time, energy and imagination. You may not be a chef, but you certainly are chefing.

The contemporary food world is incomparably varied — from high-end restaurants bent on innovation to the neighborhood diner —  so the hierarchical model, even for the professional kitchen, is only one mode. Is there an ideal balance between cooking and chefing?

The answer depends on the moment, the place, the occasion, the company. Cooks and chefs find their place on the continuum from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the unseen to the spectacular.

The worlds of cooking and chefing have never been closer than today. As I argue in my recent book, “Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” the explosion of talk about food in the past quarter century has blurred the lines between eating in and eating out, between the ordinary meal and the extraordinary feast, between the plain and the fancy.

From blogs to television shows and even films – think of Remy the rat as chef in “Ratatouille” —  food talk diffuses ideas, techniques and savoir faire beyond the professional sphere. All this talk brings the chef and the cook ever closer together. We cooks may not be chefs, but we sure do a lot of chefing.

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Frédérique Jules and David Lanher. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

A bright bolt of energy is flashing through the food scene in the City of Light. In just five short years, Paris’ hippest food couple — David Lanher and Frédérique Jules — have worked their collective magic directing Parisians on how to eat and drink.

Today’s casual restaurant showcase farm-to-table vegetables, sustainably raised animal proteins and what Lanher calls “natural, clean wines” that are minimally processed with the least amount of technology and additives, especially sulfites. These wines — some organic, others biodynamic — are often the reason people flock to his restaurants.

The initiative started in 1996, when Lanher took off for a year of adventure and to achieve his dream of working in New York City, where he snagged a bartending job to practice English. Once back in France, he worked a few years in Paris’ upscale catering industry and then got his feet wet by opening two restaurants, Rue Balzac and Café Moderne.

Like Lanher, Jules had a dream of living in the U.S. and learning English and was drawn to a year of San Diego sunshine. All her life she had endured stomach problems, asthma and eczema and discovered in California she was both lactose- and gluten-intolerant. She changed her diet, and her health problems virtually vanished. Feeling physically strong, she returned to Paris with the dream of opening a gluten-free bakery and health spa.

In Paris, the empire continues to grow

Longtime friends, the 43-year-olds met again and became business, as well as personal, partners in 2008. Right around this time, Lanher found his personal mecca, Racines (which translates to “roots”), in the glass-domed Le Passage des Panoramas passageway built in 1799 in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement. Non-sulfured wines were, and still are, Lanher’s focus and the wine bistro’s pride. Wooden boards piled with superb charcuterie, foie gras de canard, plenty of organic produce and stunning cheeses rule. A hit from the start, people continue to covet the 20 seats at Racines and are willing to reserve well in advance.

Plan a visit

Racines: 8 Passage des Panoramas, 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 40 13 06 41. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays. www.racinesparis.com

Racines 2: 39 Rue de l'Arbre Sec, 75001 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 60 77 34. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Wednesday; noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 11 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 7:30 to 11 p.m. Saturdays. www.racinesparis.com

Paradis: 14 Rue de Paradis, 75010 Paris. Phone: +33 01 45 23 57 98. Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.restaurant-paradis.com

Vivant Table: 43 Rue des Petites Écuries, 75010 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 46 43 55. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.vivantparis.com

Vivant Cave: 43 Rue des Petites Écuries, 75010 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 46 43 55. Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Mondays to Saturdays. www.vivantparis.com

Racines NY: 94 Chambers St., New York, New York 10007. Phone: 212-227-3400. Hours: Bar opens at 5 p.m. and dinner service begins at 6 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.racinesny.com

La Cremerie: 9 Rue des 4 Vents, 75006 Paris. Phone: +33 01 43 54 99 30. Hours: Noon to 2:30 p.m. lunch service and 7:30 to 11 p.m. dinner service Tuesdays to Saturdays. www.lacremerie.fr

Caffé Stern: 47 Passage des Panoramas 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 75 43 63 10. Hours: 9 a.m. opening for coffee and pastry, noon to 2:30 p.m. lunch service and 7:30 to 11 p.m. dinner service Tuesdays to Saturdays.

NOGLU Cafe: 16 Passage des Panoramas, 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 40 26 41 24. Hours: Noon to 3 p.m. lunch service Mondays to Fridays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. brunch Saturdays; 7:30 to 11p.m. dinner service Saturdays. www.noglu.fr

NOGLU Boutique-Atelier bakery: 49 Passage des Panoramas, 75002 Paris. Phone: +33 01 42 36 52 50. Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. www.noglu.fr

In 2011, Racines 2 opened a few blocks from the Louvre in the 1st arrondissement — a larger, more ambitious restaurant with a battery of serious chefs in an open kitchen with a garage-door-size opening to the dining room. A bottom-lit translucent stone table with casual communal seating for about two dozen anchors the L-shaped space with tables for 30 more.

One specialty at Racines 2 is chef Alexandre Navarro’s translation of impeccable produce: a bowl of summer-sweet teeny baby turnips, carrots, beets and impossibly delicate greens with large chunks of poached lobster — a fine match for the always-interesting cellar.

Gluten-free takes hold

With the bakery concept still on her mind and Lanher’s restaurant knowledge, Jules nixed the spa idea and in 2012 opened NOGLU, a bakery and cafe in the same charming passageway as Racines. A year later, a separate bakery across the walkway followed. In a city renowned for baguettes, who would have thought gluten-free baking would flourish?

The always-busy cafe is perfect for a quick lunch or take-away sandwich on gluten-free bread; a small room up the spiral staircase is just right for terrific Gianni Frasi coffee from Verona, Italy, and never-too-sweet sweets. NOGLU’s cookbook is the bible for French gluten-free cooks and is set to be published in English this year to spread Jules’ gospel.

With eagerness to promote his beloved natural wines, Lanher opened Paradis, a modern, boisterous brasserie in the hip 10th arrondissement. And then all hell broke loose in 2014 when Lanher opened the wildly popular Vivant Table, also in the 10th, in a 1928 storefront designed as a pet bird shop with original tile murals of birds. Soon after, Vivant Cave wine bar made its appearance next door, to the delight of the neighborhood.

Fast forward a few months, when Lanher spotted La Cremerie available in Paris’ 6th arrondissement. He snapped up the original dairy shop with its bright blue façade and kept the bistro/gourmet grocery shop/bar à vin interior as close to original as possible. It’s now the place for a glass of you-know-what kind of wine.

Racines debuts in New York

Lanher turned dream into reality when Racines NY debuted in Tribeca this spring. Business partner and sommelier Arnaud Tronche pours from the substantial 600-bottle wine list offering about 80 percent French and 20 percent Italian wines, along with a few others — most sulfite-free, “natural, clean wines.” French chef Frédéric Duca (one-star L’Instant d’Or in Paris) is in charge of the kitchen and continues to surprise with a market-focused menu. Pete Wells of The New York Times awarded Racines NY two stars in August.

Lanher loves spaces packed with historical and architectural details and seeks them out for new ventures. In August, he opened his latest project — Caffé Stern, an Italian restaurant with major wow factor. It occupies the most-coveted space in the now extraordinarily popular Passage des Panoramas, a wine cork’s toss from the original Racines and NOGLU. This historic monument location was the original Stern printing house (1849) for engraved cards coveted by royalty and dignitaries. Philippe Starck designed the interior, emphasizing the original carved wood paneling splendor. Massimiliano Alajmo, the celebrated Italian chef (Le Calandre in Padua, Caffè Quadri in Venice), pilots the kitchen.

So, what’s next up for the dynamic duo? Jules has her eye on New York and Los Angeles for NOGLU. Lanher is in the planning stages for Racines 2 NY. Their initial focus of clean wines and gluten-free foods continues to be their superhighway to stardom.

Main photo: Frédérique Jules and David Lanher. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky 

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Foragers' feast: Goat leg braised in forest floor and mugwort beer, parsnip chips and wild watercress. Credit: Seth Joel

When I first met Pascal Baudar he was driving a stripped-down red Jeep Wrangler with a bad muffler. Not exactly your typical image of a professional forager tiptoeing his way into the wild.

We were heading north toward the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles with a shopping list of stinging nettles, sycamore leaves, elderberry, rabbit tobacco, white clover and small ants. Try finding those items at your local Trader Joe’s.

Pascal is a certified master food preserver with a passion for the flavors of California. He’s the real deal and the culinary community in Los Angeles knows it. Chef’s eager to create uncommon and flavorful gourmet dishes rely on Pascal’s local food sources and his ability to provide unique ingredients with rousing flavors.

His partner, gourmet chef Mia Wasilevich, shares his passion for a cooking lifestyle based on self-reliance and sustainability. Together these soul mates created the Wild Food Lab Dinner Party series — the perfect opportunity for experimentation and culinary exploration. The items on our shopping list were the last bits and pieces Mia needed for their next big wild-food dinner party at the historic Zane Grey Estate in Altadena. What could be more intimate or more Californian?

Thirty people were about to share a 10-course wild food dinner hosted by Gloria Putnam and Steve Rudicel, founders of Mariposa Creamery. The evening began at 6 with mountain vinegar shrub cocktails on the back porch. The kitchen was alive with action. Mia worked with a handpicked group of four chefs skilled at multi-tasking. Posted on the wall was a course timetable. Moving around each other like ninjas, they sliced the duck prosciutto, clay-baked the trout, prepared the quail, braised the goat and rolled fresh chevre.

Gloria kept a crew of six servers plating and waiting on guests. Steve, a restaurateur, directed a wine pairing that included Chardonnay from Slovenia, Chenin blanc from Loire Valley, Champagne Delamote Brut Blanc de Blanc, and a rare Vigneti Massa Derthona Timorasso from Italy.

Pascal served as the master of ceremonies. As he introduced the wild food elements in each course and fielded guests’ questions, his French accent lent a stylish tone to his foraging expertise. With the approach of the final course — elderberry frozen custard with candied buckwheat flowers and coconut milk flan — the guests grew louder. A hearty round of applause arose for Mia and Pascal as the group toasted the flavors of California.

Main photo: Foragers’ feast: Goat leg braised in forest floor and mugwort beer, parsnip chips, wild watercress. Credit: Seth Joel

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Boston-area kids try their hand at making healthy lunches while chef Jody Adams works in the background at the Let's Talk About Food Festival 2013. Credit: Courtesy of Let's Talk About Food

I remember the moment very clearly. I was moderating a panel discussion after a special screening of “Food Inc.” in September 2010. More than 300 people had come for this free weekday screening. The staff at Boston’s Museum of Science, the hosts of the event, had told us to expect maybe 30 or 40 to attend.

During the presentation, a woman stood up and proudly announced she was working on a farm-to-school program with primary school students in Dedham, Mass. A few minutes later, another good soul described her curriculum teaching kids in Cambridge about edible gardens. A third woman offered up her school gardening program in Milton. I paused, and then asked, “Do any of you know each other?” Nope. Nope. Nope.

How was this possible? A distance of less than 20 miles separated the three thriving initiatives, but there was no cross-fertilization, no sharing of successes and strategies. Each one was a good-food activist toiling away in her own private silo.

That’s when I conceived the idea ­­– and more important, the need — for Let’s Talk About Food. So many people, organizations, websites, meet ups and special programs are aimed at mobilizing a shift in our food system, and each one is dutifully tending or protecting its tiny bit of turf.

Let’s Talk About Food based on simple premise

My big idea was pretty simple: Let’s get everyone talking together. Let’s get the myriad initiatives aimed at ensuring better food out of their tidy little silos and into one big tent.

If we start to work together, stimulating and sharing, connecting with like-minded souls, we can leverage our impact and move a lot faster to our goal — a healthier food system. Whether our individual passion is school food, cooking, animal welfare, sustainability or GMO labeling. Whether we agree with each other or not. Whether we care about the oceans or obesity, food security or food waste, or wonder what the heck happened with the farm bill. We need to be talking to each other, and to the public — the people who buy groceries, hate the food their kids eat at school, and hope they are feeding their family food they can trust.

We need to bring the experts, the advocates and the public into the same conversation. If we don’t, we are just talking to ourselves and a tiny group of like-minded people. To grow a food revolution, we need to go beyond the usual suspects.

I know there’s a problem. We all have egos. All the organizations and individuals who work in the food space feel a little protective and perhaps a little competitive about their turf, but we have to get beyond that. There isn’t one single recipe to change food in America. We need to come at it from every angle, inviting in every sector of society.

Forming collaborations

So, I started Let’s Talk About Food in 2010. It’s a tiny organization with one employee — me. I’m working for free and wondering what happened to all the smart lessons I learned in business school. I am a lapsed restaurant owner and was a reasonably successful journalist in Boston. I’m nobody special, not particularly well-connected and certainly not rich enough to take on the volunteer post I’d given myself.

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You can find out more about the Let’s Talk About Food mission and its events and initiatives at www.letstalkaboutfood.com or on Facebook or Twitter (@LTAFood, #talkfood).

The annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival kicks off with a Vote With Your Fork Rally on Sept. 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Trinity Church in Boston. The free festival will be held Sept. 27 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Copley Square. Visit the Let's Talk About Food Festival page for more information.

Since starting Let’s Talk About Food, I have curated, with a handful of volunteers, more than 60 public food events in and around Boston, all aimed at bringing experts and the public together. Each event was more successful than the last. We started with that first screening of “Food Inc.” at the Museum of Science and marched forward, leveraging the expertise in our own community, forming collaborations with museums, hospitals, science fairs, law schools, public health schools, an aquarium, churches, libraries,  and state and city governments. Event by event, step by step, we formed partnerships with local media, such as our presenting sponsorship with the Boston Globe and with our public radio station, with magazines and local nonprofits, so the community knows what we are doing.

We’ve tackled diverse and specific topics, including “What’s Up with Food Allergies?” “How Do We Sustain the Fish and the Fishermen?” GMO labeling, the farm bill, the economics of aquaculture, the ethics of food and food labeling, and we’ve asked important questions: Can New England feed itself? How close can we get to sustainability? We even sparked a group of people who are now collaborating on an action plan for a regional commissary for healthy school food in Massachusetts.

Festival attracts thousands

Our annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival attracts more than 15,000 people who come together in Boston’s Copley Square for one spectacular day to engage and learn more about food — and have fun in the process. We have a huge demonstration cooking stage where chefs and “expert conversants” are paired, we have an open-air seminar that we call The Endless Table and co-create with the Museum of Science. We have hands-on cooking for kids, an edible garden, an ask-a-nutritionist booth and our Kitchen Conversations project — a mobile recording studio that invites people to come into our cozy kitchen and share a food story or memory. We have chefs, cookbook authors, fishermen, farmers and foodies of every stripe.

We don’t have a single agenda, and we don’t provide any specific answers to the questions we pose. Our goal (and note, in four years we have moved from being a “me” to becoming a “we”) is to get people talking. Our philosophy: Engage the mind, and you spark the change. Because talking about food leads to action about food.

Let’s Talk About Food is based in Boston because that’s where I live, but the idea of a community-wide conversation about food should not be confined to my hometown. Any city in America could have an organization like Let’s Talk About Food. I’d be glad to help you get it started where you live. Like a simple recipe, it’s an idea that is easy to share.

Silos keep grain safe, but they don’t store all the ingredients to make a full meal.

Tom Colicchio from Number 44 Productions on Vimeo.

Main photo: Boston-area kids try their hand at making healthy lunches while chef Jody Adams works in the background at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival 2013. Credit: Courtesy of Let’s Talk About Food

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Anne Willan's

Although it has been a while since I set foot in a formal classroom, each year at this time, with the beginning of school fast approaching, I tend to think about new skills I can learn or old ones I can improve upon. It seemed fitting, then, that I recently received an email from a friend asking which cookbook he should purchase to help him become a better cook.

For me, the choice was quick and easy: Anne Willan’s classic cookbook “La Varenne Pratique.” Ever since I acquired it on my first day of chef’s school 18 years ago, it’s been my go-to resource whenever I’ve needed to reference a cooking technique or learn more about a specific ingredient.

The original volume, weighing close to 5 pounds, was published in 1989 and has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. Thankfully, this essential book, long out of print and challenging to find in a secondhand store, was recently reissued as an e-book.

During the first half of her 30-plus years running the legendary France-based cooking school La Varenne, Willan, a Zester Daily contributor, and her staff continuously researched and wrote about essential French cooking techniques and the importance of understanding every aspect of an ingredient. The laborious effort of distilling all this culinary information resulted in a 528-page tome that provides in-depth knowledge of how to choose, store, identify and handle ingredients. This knowledge of good ingredients is paired with clear, encouraging instructions and action photos of foundational cooking techniques, such as how to dice an onion, fillet a fish or prepare different types of meringues.

Willan’s cookbook goes beyond the surface

Many cookbooks these days take us on a wonderful culinary journey, tasting a region’s or country’s culture and table, yet only provide us with a fixed GPS map of how to get to the finished dish. When you get to a point in your culinary journey where you want to veer off course and understand why certain time-honored gustatory routes are so adored, “La Varenne Pratique” is the culinary guidebook to help you navigate your or any country’s kitchen.

The new e-book has been sliced and diced into four parts, each sold separtely. Part 1: The Basics discusses herbs and seasonings; soups; stocks; and sauces, as well as eggs, dairy and oils; Part 2 covers meat, poultry, fish and game; Part 3 examines vegetables, pasta, pulses and grains; and Part 4 dishes on our sweet tooth with baking, preserving, desserts, fruits, nuts and freezing. Each part also comes with a weight-and-measurement table (worth bookmarking for regular reference), list of cooking equipment, glossary of cooking terms and bibliography.

Because the book was written before the advent of modernist cooking, it does not include these techniques. However, if this is an area that interests you, I am sure Willan would recommend you check out her onetime student Nathan Myhrvold’s exhaustive six-volume series, “Modernist Cuisine.”

Having used the e-book version on both an iPad and laptop for the past month, I can vouch that the electronic version is reliable when adapting to different formats and layouts. Simply adjusting the font size or page orientation offers you a variety of almost personalized layouts. Because the images are scans of the original book and not high-resolution digital photographs, they can be enlarged only to a certain point. This is not much of a problem, as the images are large and easy to view.

How to purchase

The e-book version of “La Varenne Pratique” can be purchased through many major online retailers, including iTunes, Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Copia. Each of the four parts is $6.99.

The greatest challenge I’ve encountered is using the search function. In this day and age where we type anything into a search engine and get countless results, using an e-book’s search function can initially frustrate. If you type in a technique such as “how to cut up a chicken,” zero results show up. However, if you are more specific and type “cutting a bird in pieces” the exact result pops up. I’ve found eliminating the term “how to” and being more direct with your keywords drastically increases the likelihood of getting precise hits. It’s also just as easy to simply thumb through a section’s e-pages to find the specific subject you’re searching for.

Aside from the comprehensive information about ingredients, the best thing about this book is the countless technique shots that teach you lifelong, fundamental cooking skills. It would be fantastic to have a single website that aggregates all the “how-to” photo instructions “La Varenne Pratique” demonstrates as videos. But until someone invests the time and money to produce those videos, you will need to visit many websites to find all this information.

Simply put, “La Varenne Pratique” is a cooking school in a book, and certainly cheaper than tuition. It is the best gift you could give a new culinary student, a child heading to college, a newly married couple or your friend who writes a food blog. Fortunately, the e-book version is both lightweight and affordable and will not take up much space or weight in their culinary backpack.

Main photo: Anne Willan’s “La Varenne Pratique” is now available as an e-book. Willan photo by Siri Berting; e-book photo by Cameron Stauch

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A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn

Across the lane from Napa Valley’s French Laundry restaurant lies a 3-acre farm that produces many of the fresh vegetables that have helped give the three-star restaurant its reputation as one of the best in the world.

Presiding over the rows of tomatoes, beets, melons, cucumbers and microgreens is culinary gardener Aaron Keefer. “We’re right across the street from the restaurant,” Keefer says, “and there’s this beautiful space that people are allowed to walk around. You can come up to the garden and see the stuff you’re actually eating. It’s funny how detached people are from what food actually is. People say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a potato grow before.’ ”

Keefer will preside over a different garden for a day when he gives the keynote address at the eighth annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Keefer has become a fan of the president who has been called “The Founding Foodie,” and whose revitalized Revolutionary Garden at Monticello continues Thomas Jefferson’s legacy of raising heirloom fruits and vegetables. Keefer says his garden at The French Laundry mirrors Jefferson’s 2-acre garden at Monticello in many ways.

Keefer is always experimenting with new vegetable varieties in the garden and believes that vegetables — and the farmers who raise them — have become an exciting new resource for chefs. He explains, “I think that it’s coming around now and vegetables are really becoming the star of the flavor profiles on a plate. Every single starred restaurant out there — and really even other people — are using their relationships with farmers to get new inspiration and to create these new dishes for themselves.”

At home in the kitchen and the garden

Keefer is not only a resource for chefs, but also a liaison between the garden and the kitchen at The French Laundry. As a former chef, Keefer is uniquely qualified for his job as culinary gardener. As Keefer puts it, “I think it definitely helped me to be in the kitchen, even though it’s a completely different animal, but I think the thing to take home from having both careers is the communication. I know what’s going on on both sides of the equation, and I’m able to meld them together a little better.”

Aaron Keefer, culinary gardener at The French Laundry. Credit: Courtesy of TKRG

Aaron Keefer, culinary gardener at The French Laundry. Credit: Courtesy of TKRG

Eleanor Gould, Monticello’s curator of gardens, believes that The French Laundry “captures Jefferson’s spirit of innovation and experimentation.” The focus for both gardens is curiosity and passion.

Jefferson felt strongly about gardening. He grew 330 herb and vegetable varieties in his 1,000-foot-long garden terrace at Monticello and raised 170 varieties of fruit on his property. He encouraged others to garden with similar passion by hosting an annual contest with his neighbors to see who could harvest the first peas each spring. To further fuel his neighbors’ passion for gardening, he made sure one of them won the contest — even if his peas were the early champions of the season.

Keefer also shares Jefferson’s passion for the soil itself. In 1792 while serving as secretary of state in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote a letter to his daughter Martha who was caring for Monticello’s garden in his absence. Jefferson told Martha that the only way to rid his garden of insect-infested plants was to cover it with a heavy coating of manure. When I mentioned Jefferson’s obsession with soil to Keefer, he echoed Jefferson’s sentiments, saying, “That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the soil. You can give your plants chemical-based fertilizers and they will grow. Just like if you give your muscles steroids, they will grow. But it’s not the same.”

Peas sprouting in Jefferson's garden in springtime. Credit: Susan Lutz

Peas sprouting in Jefferson’s garden in springtime. Credit: Susan Lutz

Keefer believes that the flavor in vegetables comes from the cycle of life in the soil. “When you take a handful or two of really truly rich organic soil, there will be millions of microorganisms and fungi in there. And those are the things that create the nutrition for the plant. They need the life in the soil to break it down for them so they can uptake it and somehow that creates a completely different flavor profile.”

The lesson of Jefferson

Jefferson didn’t have access to chemical-based nutrients — and chances are he wouldn’t have wanted them. Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, contends that what made Jefferson a truly revolutionary gardener was his belief that everyone should eat a diversified diet — a rare occurrence in 19th-century America. Now, America has begun to catch up with the founding farmer. Rausse says, “Today I look at the market and I think of what Jefferson had. I compare it to when I came to America 40 years ago, and I think finally they are listening to Jefferson. There are artichokes and chicory at the market now. People are starting to figure it out, but it took 200 years.”

Keefer’s revolutionary approach to gardening mixes the great traditions of heirloom farming techniques with the innovations of West Coast cuisine. Jefferson would have approved.

Main photo: A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn

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Daniel Patterson, left, and Roy Choi during their LOCO'L presentation. Credit: Carla Capalbo

“What is cooking?” This was the central question being asked — and answered — at the latest edition of one of the world’s most stimulating food events, the MAD Food Symposium. Now in its fourth edition, the two-day event is held in a circus tent pitched on the outer reaches of Copenhagen’s harbor and attracts the brightest stars of modern cuisine, young and old. MAD draws speakers in all aspects of food culture: chefs who have made lasting contributions to the art, scientists and historians with specialized knowledge, and activists trying to change the way food is produced, sold or eaten.

Organized by René Redzepi, the Danish chef at the helm of Noma – No. 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — MAD was this year co-curated by Alex Atala, the highest ranking chef in South America. The event aims to broaden the gastronomic horizons of young chefs from around the world. The 400-strong audience also included local farmers, scientists, thinkers and a smattering of journalists.

“Our business has changed in the last 30 years,” Atala said as he introduced the symposium. “Restaurants are no longer the model of excess they were back then. MAD4 examines different aspects of what’s happening, away from the glamour of the limelight. What’s working? Food is about expressing ourselves, about reflection, and above all, food is about getting together. Food is life.”

If last year’s theme, “Guts,” provoked strong, sometimes visceral reactions from its list of speakers, this year’s mood inspired reflection. It began in silence. The audience watched transfixed as Japanese udon master Tatsuru Rai set about creating his iconic noodles: mixing, kneading and rolling the dough before folding, slicing, cooking and serving a few symbolic portions of the dish. The seemingly simple act of combining flour and water, choreographed over time, took on ritual significance.

Udon chef Tatsuru Rai rolls out his noodles. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Udon chef Tatsuru Rai rolls out his noodles. Credit: Carla Capalbo

 

“We didn’t want to repeat the high drama of last year’s theme, but instead to shout silently about the importance of craft, gesture, economy and offering in cooking,” Redzepi said. “We also want to tackle problems that take away from the pleasures of the table.”

MAD about wasted food

One of the most inspiring of the activists was Isabel Soares, a 30-something environmental engineer from Portugal. Incensed that half of the food produced in the world is thrown away, Soares has found an innovative way to fight that waste. In 2013, she founded Fruta Feia, meaning “Ugly Fruit,” a nonprofit, farm-to-table cooperative. “Each year 1.3 billion tons of food are discarded, an ethical problem with a huge environmental impact on climate change,” she began. “In Europe, 30% of fresh produce is left to rot in the fields just because the fruit or vegetables’ size does not conform to the European Union’s ‘aesthetic’ regulations.” Thirty farmers sell produce that the supermarkets would reject because of size or blemishes to 420 consumers, at a fair price. The cooperative’s role is to collect the food from the farms, sort it into mixed boxes twice weekly and offer a collection point. In its first year, Fruta Feia reports it saved 41 tons of food in Portugal from being wasted. Soares says she plans to expand to other cities.

Urban guerrilla gardens

Ron Finley, a self-styled “eco-lutionary game changer provocateur” from Los Angeles, launched right into his presentation. “Gardening is the most defiant thing you can do in South Central — plus you get strawberries,” he proclaimed. “Change your food, change your life.” His reaction to living in a food desert was to plant his own garden, on the abandoned sidewalk strips around his home. Initially, the city of L.A. wagged a citation at him and demanded he remove the unpermitted plants, but since then Finley’s story has helped compel the city to change its parkway ordinance. After a TED talk that went viral, Finley is creating urban garden projects in L.A.

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Evolution as seen by Ron Finley. Credit: Carla Capalbo

Brazil’s jails turn to the kitchen

Atala introduced several healing food projects from Brazil. Working with Atala on one were Jayme Santos Junior, a criminal court judge in Sao Paulo, and chef David Hertz, who runs a cooking project in some of Brazil’s most notorious jails. “Cooking can be an effective tool to change the dynamics of the prison system and facilitate social reintegration,” the judge said. “By becoming members of a group in the kitchen, prisoners feel less isolated and learn life-affirming skills.” Hertz started the nonprofit Gastromotiva to help young people who are vulnerable or on the margins of society. Another of Atala’s projects through his foundation, Instituto ATÀ, involves distributing portable water filters for use in the Amazon and other rural areas where clean drinking water is not available.

LOCO’L takes on fast-food industry

Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi, and Los Angeles chef and activist Roy Choi used MAD4 to officially announce their ambitious new food venture, LOCO’L, which will start in 2015. “We’re going to go toe to toe with the fast food industry in the U.S., to challenge the status quo,” said Choi, who cooked an impressive “food truck” lunch at MAD for the audience. Patterson explained: “We have an eating problem in the States. It’s taken one generation to lose healthy eating habits, and it will take one generation to fix that.”

All 24 talks will be available to watch on MAD’s site in the coming months, including those by veteran master chefs Alain Senderens (on wine and food pairing); Olivier Roellinger (on biodiversity and giving back his 3 Michelin stars); Fulvio Pierangelini (on humble ingredients and the travails of being a chef); and Pierre Koffmann (on how to make an omelet). The conference closed with chef Albert Adrià — formerly of elBulli — who owns four restaurants in Barcelona. His disarming admission that it is fear, as much as talent, that drives his creativity was an inspiration to everyone present.

Main photo: Daniel Patterson, left, and Roy Choi during their LOCO’L presentation. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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