“I may have spent most of my life working as a professional chef, but in my heart of hearts, I am still a passionate amateur cook, a craftsman in the kitchen.” — Greg Atkinson
It’s easy to discount a book about home-cooking coming from a food professional like Greg Atkinson. After all, he has an unfair advantage. As chef-owner of Restaurant Marché on Bainbridge Island, Wash., and winner of the James Beard Foundation’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, Atkinson’s knowledge of cooking should disqualify him for writing a book about his own home-cooking. I suppose I feel that it seems somewhat unfair for a chef to expect average folks to live up to the standards of a professional.
But when Atkinson writes in “At the Kitchen Table: The Craft of Cooking at Home,” about his devotion to home-cooking, I believe him.
Atkinson writes from the point of view of a person who cooks for love: love of family, real food and the places we call home. Each story and recipe strives to connect the dots between these very personal elements. And it is because of the many connections he draws between food, family and the environment that I believe his assertion that he is not only a professional chef, he’s a passionate amateur.
Storytelling and family
Atkinson’s love of craft is clear. When he writes about co-hosting a traditional Pensacola-style fish fry at his home on Bainbridge Island, he explains the logic of the process in a way that makes it seem ridiculous to try it any other way. After reading this chapter, I believed I could host a Pensacola-style fish fry in my own backyard. Atkinson has convinced me that I could succeed at something new, simply by following his instructions. That’s the sign of a true craftsman and a great writer.
The most appealing element of “At The Kitchen Table” is that each chapter begins with a story. The story may be about a particular food. It may be about a specific recipe. Or it may be about Atkinson’s interactions with the rich and famous of the culinary world (like Martha Stewart or M.F. K. Fisher). And while the celebrity tales provided an enjoyable voyeuristic pleasure, it is Atkinson’s stories about his own family that I found most compelling.
Atkinson’s concept of “family” is an embracing one that includes not only blood relatives but staff and colleagues who work beside him. His discussion of the “family meals” — those meals served to restaurant staff before the restaurant opens — made me want to try the recipes in my own kitchen.
He tells of the camaraderie in making Okinawan doughnuts for his staff at Canlis Restaurant in Seattle. The doughnuts were always served at the end of a hard shift, he says, because they “kept everyone in good spirits, even on the toughest nights.” The story made me want to make the delicious treat, not only for the taste, but in hopes of creating the same sense of caring and support he clearly felt for the kitchens he has worked in.
I can now attest that these doughnuts work wonders with unruly toddlers as well. I made them in my grandmother’s deep cast iron skillet, and the simple but satisfying patterns of deep-frying dough not only intrigued my youngest daughter, but the fluffy, crunchy, sugar-covered results satisfied us both. I was cooking for my daughter in the same skillet that my grandmother cooked many a meal, and that knowledge made the doughnuts even better. This is exactly this kind of culinary linkage that Atkinson encourages by telling us about his own family stories.
How food movements become unintentionally elitist
Atkinson also puts his “craft” into historical perspective. He begins the book by comparing today’s organic food movement to the Arts and Craft movement of the 19th century. Arts and Crafts designers produced hand-made goods meant for everyone to use. Sadly, these beautiful artist-crafted objects were so expensive to produce that they ended up primarily in the hands of the wealthy. As Atkinson puts it, “their efforts at egalitarian art became elitist.”
Much like today’s fresh, organic, locavore gourmet foods that, ironically, only the elitist can afford.
Atkins makes the case that the recent farm-to-table movement has indeed produced an alternative to mass-produced agribusiness food, but he questions the viability of the often-high-priced movement for the average consumer.
Atkinson’s solution to this dilemma is simple: To offset the additional expense of buying sustainable food, Atkinson suggests that we all eat at home. Or at least eat there more often. Atkinson’s book makes the case that meals that come from non-professionals, using ingredients and recipes that have personal histories, are far better than any high-end restaurant meal.
The stories made me want to dig up my own family recipes and start cooking them again. By sharing his own stories, Atkinson makes family food seem vital. And perhaps more importantly, he fuels my desire to develop my own repertoire of family recipes and stories.
The gap between restaurants and home-cooking
Ultimately, I think Atkinson’s book — and others like it — point out the growing disparity between the kind of food we want to eat in restaurants and the kind of food we want to eat at home. He also points out that we are increasingly comfortable with this difference. There was a time when many cookbooks were geared to teach people to cook “restaurant food” in their own homes.
If the economic downturn has yielded any positive results, it’s been that people are looking inward and realizing that what they have at home is pretty good after all. Many of us have given up trying to do what restaurant chefs can do better. Restaurants like Atkinson’s have entire staffs to help them produce spectacular food. What do we have at home that no restaurant can provide? Family. And the stories that families share.
Those ingredients of family and stories are the ones that Atkinson clearly values above all.
Zester Daily contributor Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer. A native of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, she currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner. She also blogs about the subject at Eat Sunday Dinner.
Photos, from top:
Author Greg Atkinson. Credit: Karyn Carpenter
“At the Kitchen Table” jacket cover. Credit: Courtesy of Sasquatch Books
Okinawan doughnuts. Credit: Susan Lutz
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