Kitchen Aids: 10 Listens To Inspire Better Cooking (And Eating)
Can a novice find inspiration and confidence when she brings the voices of great chefs, restaurant critics, and "I've been there" advocates into her kitchen?By Kara CutruzzulaMay 18, 2017 10:35 AM
You have not lived until you’ve heard Meryl Streep narrate how to make the perfect four-minute egg.
Let me make one thing clear: I do not cook food.
Gulp, inhale, savor, exalt? Sure. But cooking — oh how the word “cook” hits my ears like a four-lettered insult! — has always remained a talent just out of my reach. I merely prepare food. We’re talking basic, embarrassing, canned-spaghetti-sauce stuff. Sorry, Grandma. All of those (to use the term loosely) “recipes” for Two-Ingredient Cookies and Super Quick Slow-Cooker Dinners are my shameful thirtysomething secret.
Still, you’re supposed to confront that which makes you feel most insecure, right? Instead of simmering in self-loathing about being cooking dumb, I decided to sneak cooking inspiration into my life with the help of chefs, critics, and experts who know their way around a wok. While it would be impossible to read their books while walking through the farmer’s market or squeezing loaves of sourdough in the supermarket — or even fit a cracked-open cookbook on the counter in my tiny kitchen — I thought that listening to stories and encouragement in their own voices might help calm my anxieties and perhaps coax out my inner Julia Child. I was right.
I start with 32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line by Eric Ripert. (Speak French to me, Chef.) Ripert is the man behind Le Bernardin, long hailed as one of the best restaurants in the world, and I know from chapter one (titled “First, Dessert: Chocolate Mousse”) that we will be fast friends — albeit with one sugary-sweet hitch: I must first have that mousse.
As he details life growing up in France as a precocious kid gourmand, it’s not hard to see how knowing a chef’s life story, how he literally grew to love the food that later informs his career, can make you appreciate that chef even more. I wonder, then, how much our relationship with food is frozen in place during childhood. If Ripert hadn’t spent his pre-pubescent years eating escargot at Michelin-starred restaurants, or turning to food as a salve for his unhappy childhood after his parent’s divorce and father’s death when he was 11, where would he be now?
I ponder this as he shares one of the highlights of his youth: le goûter, the French midday snack time apparently beloved by children. He makes them count; baguette and Nutella was a favorite. Incorporating small yet delicious moments throughout the day is a genius idea. Is my grocery store open 24 hours? My appetite is.
No one wants to get schooled by someone who thinks their schnitzel don’t stink.
The next course is The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn. Now that I’ve set the gastronomic tone for myself, I’m ready to become fearless. The author, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, emphasizes that her tips are practical and simple: “As long as an approach yields good, nourishing food, it isn’t wrong,” she says. Amen, Kathleen. As she rifles through the kitchens of the adopted students to whom she’s determined to teach proper food techniques, I feel less embarrassed about being a tenderfoot — and, fine, slightly smug that I don’t have Stouffer’s lasagna in my freezer. (Mine’s from Trader Joe’s.)
A teacher’s self-importance can be the quickest enthusiasm-killer for a wide-eyed student. (Remember your most-loathed college professor? Chances are he was a smug tool.) That’s why the food world can feel impervious to outsiders. No one wants to get schooled by someone who thinks their schnitzel don’t stink. Yet despite Flinn’s obvious bona fides, she’s understanding and accepting of life circumstances that don’t allow everyone to whip up Ripert-level meals. We’ve entered a judgment-free zone. One in which I now have a recipe for no-knead artisan bread!
From there, it’s time for Heartburn by Nora Ephron. Now, eggs and I are friends. I can make eggs, I’m not that hopeless. But let me just say one thing. You have not lived until you’ve heard Meryl Streep narrate how to make the perfect four-minute egg. Listening to our grande dame spend 30 seconds explaining, in Nora Ephron’s 1983 memoir-as-novel, that the perfect four-minute egg actually only takes three minutes, is illuminating; the context in which we learn about food matters. Like in her other books, Ephron casually weaves recipes throughout the text, as if her life and food are as intertwined as a single spaghetti strand and the tines of a fork.
The story about a husband’s affair and subsequent divorce (in real life, Ephron was married to famed journalist Carl Bernstein) presents food as life-giving, not a fetish to be merely Instagrammed. The recipes follow suit. What’s more comforting than knowing you are making Lillian Hellman’s pot roast? Late one night, with Meryl in my ear, I boiled water, patiently waited exactly three minutes, and then ate my egg. Nora was right. It was perfect.
It’s not that I wish to be a critic. But seeing her standards makes me want to elevate my own.
I finish up with Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. There comes a point in every audiobook binger’s life when she’s ready to trade in her IKEA pots and pans for a set of All-Clad. Metaphorically, of course. Most of what I’d learned so far was helpful in understanding why cooking feels intimidating. But as I listened to the words of Reichl, the beloved former food critic and Gourmet editor-in-chief whose descriptions of foods that have disappointed her (“squishy brown square of meat”)could make a grown chef weep, I was ready to become intimidating.
Reichl teaches me about setting high expectations, for everything from your amuse-bouche to your digestif. It’s not that I wish to be a critic. (Although the disguises she wore while reviewing the best restaurants in the world made me want to ransack my closet for wide-brimmed hats.) But seeing her standards makes me want to elevate my own. Her obvious love for the entire culinary world is addictive, and enthusiasm, much like her recipe for New York-style cheesecake, is best when shared. Although Reichl is an exacting critic, listening to her book makes me feel like we’re on the same team; and since she includes her favorite recipes, we can cook on the same team, too. Although I’m far from fluent, I’m finally beginning to understand the language of food.
Here’s a complete line-up of inspiring people to take with you grocery shopping and cooking, whether you want support following a healthy diet, or permission to pursue a delicious Epicureanism: