Geography is Destiny, Except When It’s Not

IMG_0091In 1984 When I opened Square One Restaurant I decided to focus on the food of the Mediterranean because that was where my heart and stomach were happiest. I had lived there, traveled widely and adored their food that I learned to cook with passion and care. The cuisines of Italy, Spain, Southern France, Greece, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East inspired my recipe repertoire.

After a few years of running the restaurant, some of my customers asked me to cook Passover food during the Jewish holidays. I explained that because Square One was a Mediterranean restaurant, the food I would cook would not be Ashkenazi but would be the food of those Jews who lived in the Mediterranean: Sephardi, Maghrebi (North Africa) and Mizrahi (Jews in the Middle East). For me the familiar Ashkenazi diet that I grew up eating was too heavy on meat and saturated fat. It did not seem a diet designed for longevity. I loved that the Mediterranean diet was more diverse, based on lots of vegetables, fruit and grains, with small portions of meat, poultry and fish and lots of herbs and spices for flavor interest. Besides I was no longer living in New York and New England where my immigrant parents settled and where I went to school. I was in California, with its Mediterranean climate and agricultural bounty.

As a result of doing recipe research for the holiday cooking at Square One I subsequently wrote three books about Mediterranean Jewish Food for Chronicle Books. They were Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen, Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean, and Saffron Shores Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean. Last year I wrote my “magnum opus” on Jewish cuisines of the Mediterranean for University of California Press It is called The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home.

There is great irony here. I am of Ashkenazi descent. My parents were born in Russia. But my mother’s maiden name was Salata (which translates as “salted”) so I thought there might be a secret Sephardic Jewish leaf in our family tree. Naturally I did DNA tests with 23 and Me and Ancestry.com to see who that mysterious “salted” Sephardic relative might be. My hopes were dashed when I got the results. My family is 97 percent Ashkenazi, from Russia and Poland. Possibly a few stray Tatars in there. Sadly, not a Sephardi in sight. (Maybe a Salata was in line before my grandparents at Ellis Island and they gave them that name too, a common occurrence in years past.)

So while my geographic gene pool says I should be living on matzoh ball soup, pickled herring, brisket, chopped liver, kugel, lox and bagels and gefilte fish, my personal palate and culinary experience say no. I may cook those Eastern European foods from time to time, but for every day meals and holidays. I stay rooted in my California inspired Mediterranean Jewish Kitchen. Geography may be destiny but I can change my fate and location at will when I tie on my apron and step behind the stove.

My next book: Jam Session

JamCollectionFor the past year I have been writing a book on preserving. The book is called Jam Session, a fruit preserving handbook and it will be published in the spring of 2018 by Ten Speed Press under the Lorena Jones imprint. I have been putting up preserves since the late sixties. What began as a fun hobby has turned into a full-fledged obsession. Over the years I have refined my technique and broadened my palate. I cannot walk through the farmers’ market and see fruit without thinking of what I can prepare with it. Farmers who know me recognize that contemplative look in my eyes as I taste their fruit samples and know that I am cooking in my mind.

My preserves are not only sweet jams to spread on toast or be spooned into yogurt. Many are savory condiments to serve with cheese, salumi or to accompany roast chicken, turkey, pork and lamb. Some are traditional Mediterranean preserves and some are more my modern interpretations. Not only does my family enjoy these treats but I have friends who raid my jam cellar every few months for the latest creations. To get refills they return the empty jars.

For Jam Session I have had the great pleasure of working with the very talented photographer Ed Anderson. His closeups of fruit and my preserves make you want to lick the page. Last week we had our last photo session, making plum jam and damson plum “butter.” Earlier this month we photographed all the stages of making black raspberry jam. Black raspberries are not a local crop so I cannot find them at our famers’ market. They are cultivated in Oregon and Washington and on the East coast. My friend Cliff who works at our local produce company special ordered them for me. I had not been able to make black raspberry jam for over five years, so I really appreciated his efforts on my behalf. I froze some extra berry puree so I could make black raspberry ice cream for my family as it is one of their favorites.

We are entering fig season full force. I am excited because now I get to make spiced fig jam, fig preserve with Meyer lemon and fig chutney. CUESA, (Center for Urban Education on Sustainable Agriculture), the organization that runs our farmers’ market at the Ferry Building has an annual fundraiser called Sunday Suppers. This year on October 15 I am working with chef Staffan Terje of Perbacco restaurant. To accompany his delicious roast quail I have prepared fig jam with porchetta flavors (pepper, lemon, bay, cloves etc.) And maybe a spicy plum mostarda too. Preserves give pleasure!

Update on my activities

I know it has been a long time since I posted any news or essays to this web site. Mea Culpa. But what is more important is that the site has been redesigned and cleansed after it had been attacked by malware. Took a while but the problems are cleared up and we move on.

Since last I wrote, my latest cookbook The New Mediterranean Jewish Kitchen: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home  has been published by University of California Press and has received wonderful reviews. I had written about the food of the Sephardic Jews and the Maghrebi Jews of North Africa before, but this new book has lots of recipes from the Misrahi Jews of Arabic lands, Syria, Iran ,Iraq, and Lebanon. Middle Eastern food is now on everyone’s radar. Timing is everything in life. We were cooking this food at Square One Restaurant in the 80’s and 90’s, well before the newly fashionable focus on Israeli food. There is now zaatar and sumac on everything. Too much of a good thing.

On the plus side, today Mediterranean food is getting renewed attention because it is considered to be the healthiest diet you could eat. Not really a “diet” but a way of life with fresh ingredients, lots of fruits and vegetables, herbs, spices, whole grains and less animal protein. Food with flavor, accompanied by a glass of wine and a relaxed atmosphere at the dining table. What’s not to like.

I am also in the middle of completing a book on fruit preserving for Ten Speed Press that will be published in the spring of 2018. Preserving has been my passion since 1968. My jam cellar is overflowing and friends and family have been stopping by for samples.  After years of drought the fruit this season has been spectacular. I was even able to get my hands on black raspberries and red currants. Both have been in short supply for years. Even made black raspberry ice cream, one of my family’s favorites.

Of course, I’ve been busy with projects other than books. I am consulting for a restaurant in a new hotel under construction in Menlo Park that will be opening in the new year., They want a Mediterranean menu and I am happy to create one for them and their future guests.

That’s all for now. More to come.

End of the old year and in with the new

I know, I know. It’s been way too long that I added a new post to this blog. Mea culpa.

In part I have been busy with “book tour” , promoting my latest tome, Inside the California Food Revolution, which came out in September.  It has been critically well received and  has great reader comments on Amazon. Food Arts Magazine and Plate magazine, two prominent trade publications have recommended the book to their readers. But there  has been no response from the East coast. No events.,No reviews.  It is a bit like being trapped  in that old Saul Steinberg New Yorker magazine cover where Manhattan looms large and the West coast is but a dot on the horizon. Naturally this has messed with my head. After all, they are eating a lot better on the East coast because  of what we did here in California. I guess it’s hard for some people to recognize it and say thank you.

Because of the book I  have given lots of talks to food groups, women’s groups,  and book aficionados.These have been well attended and stimulating. There are more talks on the horizon so please look at the event calendar on this site.

I have been greatly saddened by the passing of Judy Rodgers. Too sad to write.  I so admired her work, her cookbook, and , above all, her amazing palate. She was not obsessed with trends and the need for constant change, concentrating instead on refining and perfecting her cooking every day, supporting our farmers and seeking the best ingredients. I knew how sick she was and kept in touch during this terrible time. She is quoted at large in my book and all of us are poorer because her voice is stilled and her amazing palate no longer in action at Zuni. Ironically the only time my book was mentioned in the New York Times was in her obituary written by Eric Asimov.

So what is on the horizon for me in 2014. Good question.

I have been enjoying writing  the California Local column for the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday food section, interviewing  chefs and telling their stories.  Change is coming to the paper and the fate of the food section  is still unknown.  I hope the column will continue but no one knows what will befall this esteemed, award wining food section. Fingers crossed that the powers that be  don’t mess it up. And that I can still keep writing  for them

I had been writing for The Sommelier Journal  since their inception, but they are out of business. A fine publication, has gone under and that is really too bad.

I am in conversation  with University of California Press about another book and we are talking about topics.  Any requests??

So I am in limbo for a little while.   I am a workaholic, always chomping at the bit to start a new project. But taking some time to think and wait patiently (not my best  skill)  is  going to be a good  lesson  for me,  I hope.

Happy New Year to all. Stay tuned…..

 

Inside the California Food Revolution

Hooray!!My new book, Inside the California Food Revolution will be out in early September.  It is a very detailed study of the changes took place in California in food, food production, artisans, chefs, restaurants, restaurant design, menus. service and wine and how they ultimately influenced the rest of the country. It truly was a revolution!

 It is , I think, a good read for those who want to know how we got to where we are today in cuisine via the pioneers and entrepreneurs who changed  our  culinary consciousness over thirty very intense years.

I will be doing a number of events all over the Bay areas, and in Southern California as well. Be sure to check the events page to find out where I will be.   I hope to see you at one of the book signings or panel discussions. 

The fist time books will be available to the general public will be August 31 at the Ferry Building, after my demo at 11 AM. I will be cooking with ingredients that you cound not buy before 1980.  Should be fun and an eye opener.

 University of California Press and my great editor Dore Brown have done a wonderful job with the book. Hope you enjoy it.

Service

Service and The Third Place    

In the restaurant business there is service and then there is Service. Basic service is the polite greeting at the door and the party seated on time. The menu and the wine list are presented. The table is set appropriately and the silver wiped to a shine. The glasses are polished. The order is taken accurately. The food is served to the person who ordered it. The wine is at the perfect temperature. The label is presented and the wine poured correctly. The glasses are refilled as needed, and never over poured. Plates are cleared only when everyone is through dining. The check is presented in a timely fashion and the host says a warm think you and goodnight. That is service.

 And then there is Service. 

The greeting at the door is warm. If the guest is a regular he or she is recognized by the host and seated at a preferred table with a long time waiter that the guest probably knows.  In fact, most of the staff is as regular as the guests. They don’t move around because they like the place where they work.

Then there are the small things that count. Are the menu and wine list free of misspelling? Are the wines in the cellar as listed, correct vintage and in stock? At the right temperature? That is Service.

Was the wine list presented to the right person at the table, even if it was a woman? That is Service.

Did the waiter or sommelier refrain from obviously correcting the guest’s mispronunciation of the wine’s name? Did the sommelier offer a taste to the person who ordered the wine? That is Service. 

If the guest did not like the wine did the sommelier refrain from arguing with the guest even if the wine is perfect, and quickly suggest another? That is Service. 

 In other words service is more than being right or correct. Service is being in charge, but with a smile. It means serving with grace as well as confidence.  A restaurant with great service is one where guests are treated with dignity and warmth and where they want to come back to repeatedly. That last word is the key. Everyone can be a good first date. But do you want to establish a lasting relationship? 

 In this day and age where the restaurant business is so competitive and the economy is tighter than we all would like, correct service will no longer suffice. It is important to deliver Service. You need to establish and maintain a real, not just technological, relationship with the guest. Computer programs keeping track of birthdays and anniversaries are a convenient way to show you remember them, but, really, any place can do that now. How do you go the extra mile in forging that bond with the guest? If you are the sommelier do you remember your guests’ preferences in wine? Do you stock a few special wines that are not on the regular list for preferred guests?  Do you call them to let them know of a rare bottle that has come into your cellar or some really cool close-outs  that you may have but are not on the list? Do you have carefully chosen bargain wines for those regulars who are not Titans of Industry? Or who are no longer Titans of Industry? 

 In 1989, sociology Professor Ray Oldenburg wrote a book called The Great Good Place. It talked about the three places that are an integral part of our lives. The first place is home. The second place is work where we may spend most of our time. The third place, like the third leg of a stool, is equally important for our well-being and stability. It is in theThird Place where we connect with others of our community. (And if we telecommute, we are even more isolated and in need of contact with others on a three dimensional plane.) It is an informal social space that brings people of diverse backgrounds together. A place where old friends can gather and new friendships are formed. It is a welcoming, comfortable place we return to regularly because it completes this societal triad essential for our equanimity. TheThird Place does not have to be expensive or exclusive. It can be a wine bar, a café, or casual dining spot. It provides comfort, familiarity, and delivers Service in its best sense. It takes care of guests, not just waits on them.

I met Professor Oldenburg when I had Square One Restaurant in San Francisco. While doing research for a follow up book on Third Places, he heard about us, visited the restaurant and we started a long correspondence. Square One is long gone but I constantly run into people who say “we really miss your restaurant.”  Why? Because we were theirThird Place. Yes, we had great food and an award winning wine list. We actively supported community events and participated in local fund raisers. But most important, we had a loyal staff who delivered on Service. Most of them, kitchen and front of the house, were there for ten to twelve years and were an integral part of the Square One community. We didn’t need computer programs to jog our memories. We knew our guests and they knew us. And we enjoyed each other’s company. This is especially important in this day and age where people are increasingly isolated by the technological aspects of their work, the pressures on their family, and worries about the future. To succeed and survive in this business it will be necessary to learn how to make real contact with guests. We must embrace service and community and strive to create a Third Place.  

 

Seasonality and Common Sense

This was posted on  May 7 2013  on  Inside Scoop  at the San Francisco Chronicle  

Seasonality: Common Sense and Sensibility

When you are in Italy or Germany in the spring, all of the restaurants have white asparagus on the menu, you don’t think, oh those poor dumb chefs. No originality!  They all have white asparagus on the menu. How boring…..

Well, why shouldn’t they all have asparagus on the menu? They’ve been waiting all year for the asparagus to return to the market and their seasonal arrival is cause for celebration. The same is true for the first wild mushrooms, the first little peas, the first white peaches. These chefs have the same seasonal vegetables or fruits on the menu and but they don’t lie awake thinking they will be accused of being unoriginal. They think how can I cook these and make them shine? Let me use my skill to show them off at their best.   

Which brings me to chef Rick Bayless who put his feet on the ground in SFO and then inadvertently put them in his mouth. When interviewed off- the- cuff, after having eaten at Aziza, Slanted Door, Local’s  Corner,  Flour +Water, State  Bird  Provisions and My China , he said “ I have had great food on this trip but what’s interesting to me is that there is a real similarity from restaurant to restaurant. All the restaurants are doing the seasonal thing and getting the same ingredients from the same farms and what not…it’s all a little bit too alike.” (I was just in NY and everyone had ramps on the menu.)

Bayless added, “The food here is incredibly steeped in Italian food. Everyone has pizza and pasta on the menu.”  Really? At Aziza ? At State Bird?  At Slanted Door?  Are pizza and pasta on the menu at Nopalito? Benu? “Manresa?   Piperade ?  Nojo?  Namu? Commonwealth?  Their chefs all cook with seasonal ingredients and they do not cook them the same way. The chefs put their personal touch on the ingredients. And even if chefs are cooking the ingredients in traditional ways, is that so wrong, as long as the food tastes good?  This obsession with originality can go too far and create a lot of “interesting” but not necessarily delicious food.

Bayless’ off the cuff remark harkened back to Daniel Patterson’s 2005 article in the NYTimes Magazine called “To the Moon, Alice” where he said that the Bay area restaurant scene at that time was trapped in the Chez Panisse idiom and that chefs needed to break out and  use “local ingredients, precise execution  and a generous helping of imagination to create a modern, innovative and highly personal style of cooking.”  Eight years later, after seeing all of the new restaurants in the Bay area where chefs have gone off in multiple directions, he says the cooking in the Bay area has changed quite a lot and thinks that maybe even some have gone a bit too far in the other direction.

 In this era of instant and constant communication, with photos and reviews on food blogs and magazines reported daily, every chef can know what other chefs are cooking. Despite the quest for originality, all across the country, NY, Chicago, Boston, LA, the Bay area and even in Europe, many of the plates in the high end restaurants look stylistically the same!  

Years ago as part of their classical training, French chefs were  taught  to create a recipe, perfect it, and then cook it the same way all year long. So if you had a recipe with asparagus you had it on the menu 365 days a year. For a few months of the year the asparagus was fresh and local and the rest of the time it might be fresh and flown in from far away.  If you have ever cooked asparagus that you found at your market in September, flown in from a distance, you know for sure that it did not taste as sweet as those that were in season and local. Just like strawberries and tomatoes in January do not taste like strawberries in June and tomatoes in August.

There is a common sense aspect to seasonality.  The produce is at its flavor peak and that flavor does not fade in long distance transit. It is also cheapest and most abundant. Supporting local farms is crucial to the sustainability of the region. Cooking with local ingredients contributes to a regional cuisine. It is our terroir that makes us unique as opposed to other parts of the country.

So while many chefs may be cooking with the same seasonal ingredients from some of the same farmers, by supporting these farmers we now have better and more varied ingredients to cook with. It is up to the chefs to use their skills and take those ingredients and make them sing. They can choose to cook them traditionally as at Chez Panisse,  Cotogna , Nopa and Delfina or more elaborately or exotically as at Manresa or Aziza or Commonwealth . That is the chef’s personal choice. 

I know Rick Bayless and I cannot believe he believes what he said on the spur of the moment. I have been to his house where he has a huge garden. And I have been there when he personally harvested a hundred squash blossoms to bring to his restaurant. They were fresh, in season and local. He would not have it any other way.  And neither should we.