A restaurateur makes her case for simplicity, good ingredients, and not overwhelming eaters with fat and salt
I like to say that my success as a professional cook is about putting out home-style food in a restaurant setting. I come from a long line of great home cooks, starting in my memory with my grandmother Dorothy Thorndike Harmon, who came from a long line of extremely self-sufficient Maine Yankees for whom gardening and preserving and raising at least your own chickens was just what you did. Well into his eighties, my grandfather maintained both an ornamental and a vegetable garden, even though he had long outgrown an economic need to raise his own vegetables. He did it out of habit and genuine pleasure in the sense of purpose gardening gave him—and, I hope, genuine pleasure in the seasonal produce he enjoyed on his table.
My favorite memories of eating at my grandparents' table, other than amazing lobster feasts, are of dipping tender, new, bitter romaine leaves from the garden in Heinz distilled white vinegar and then sugar, and the spring asparagus that poked up out of the ground late in May, which we ate simply steamed for breakfast with a pat of melting butter and cracked black pepper. While olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese were not things one found in my grandmother's pantry, I would call her very aware of the pleasures of good food on the table. The pantry was filled, up until my grandmother's death, with crab apple jelly from the wild trees on their property and various home-canned pickles and relishes whose recipes had been passed down through the generations, helping to extend the garden bounty well into the winter. A habit that came out of need but was continued out of pleasure.
My mother, dazzled and fascinated with the cuisines of the Mediterranean, began planting a garden almost as soon as the ink was dry on the deed for our tumbledown farmhouse in the mountainous wilds of Tuscany. And while she planted all the great Mediterranean vegetables that grow so well in that climate, she also brought over sweet corn and planted it too. She loved to cook and throw dinner parties, Mediterranean-style: there is always enough for one or 10 more guests, and the midday repast takes place outside and goes on for hours—appetizers, mid-courses, entrees, salads, demijohns of wine. The sun sank low in the sky and the grown-ups slunk off to snooze under the haystack, and we kids ran wild and exhausted ourselves running through the scrub of forest and blackberry bushes and broom that kept trying to take back the land.
It wasn't until I went off to college in cold and gray early 1980s Providence Rhode Island that, somewhat desperate for the flavors I loved and missed, I started trying to cook for myself. It never occurred to me, though, that cooking for myself wasn't the best way to eat good food. Somehow I knew from being part of an unbroken chain of home cooks that this is what you do for yourself.
So while my fellow students lived on Kraft mac and cheese and ramen noodles, I tracked down a sweet little vegetable store miles from my apartment that had magnificent fresh strawberries in the spring and asparagus and arugula and beautiful bunches of basil that perfumed the air. I lugged home five-liter containers of olive oil from Italy to dress my salad with; I scoured the Italian neighborhood of Providence to find decent bread and canned tomatoes and imported pasta. And slowly I taught myself to cook well.
When I started cooking professionally, I threw dinner parties on my days off because that's when I could cook what I wanted to, experiment with the techniques I was learning, and recreate the big convivial meals of my golden Mediterranean childhood. When I became a chef for the first time, I really knew nothing about cooking in a professional setting. I didn't know that soup was something you made and kept simmering on a burner to be shoveled out effortlessly, one scoop into the bowl and there it's gone. I didn't know the menu was supposed to have a chicken, a beef, a pork, and a veal, or that the main course should be a protein, a starch, and a vegetable garnished with a sauce again kept simmering on a burner ready when needed. I didn't know stock was supposed to be made with a mishmash of vegetable trimmings collected in a giant vat lurking in the deepest recesses of the walk-in, slowly rotting over the week.
I did know what Italian food was and I knew it meant shopping well and following the seasons, I knew how to make food taste really good, and eventually I figured out how to put out food all night for a lot of people that still tasted really good. And that, I like to say, is what I do best—make food in a restaurant setting that tastes like the food I make at home.
So I'm perturbed that people have gotten so turned around that they think restaurant food is the best food, and that today's modern, self -aware "foodie" thinks that the highest level of cooking is to cook restaurant-style food in the home. Even in the finest restaurants, restaurant food, while delicious and deserving of its place as entertainment and theater, is really not the best food at all. It's over-sauced and over-salted and over-rich, because the only thing restaurant chefs have to worry about is that the food tastes exquisite on the table. They don't have to worry about whether you should eat less salt and fat or eat more vegetables or if you are consuming trans fats or saturated fat or petroleum. Even very good restaurants buy industrial commodity chicken and veal bones for their stock, and bulk up the plate with cheap commodity vegetables. What you pay for in most restaurants is for the transformation from ordinary into good or exquisite. And one of the ways that food is transformed is through copious amounts of butter, salt, and stocks.
If you really want to put great food on the table day in and day out, restaurants are not really what you want to emulate. What you need is a few techniques and a few standards and eventually you will have the ability to improvise and adapt. Learn a couple of recipes well and then build on them. I'm a huge fan of broiling a fish filet or even a fish steak. It's quick, it's easy, it's healthy, and you can change it endlessly depending on what you season it with. I like to have a couple of different dried grains and beans in my pantry, because you can cook up lentils so quickly and mix them with olive oil and herbs, and have a simple and quick dish anyone can make in 20 minutes. I keep a couple of great cast-iron pans, and because they hold and transmit heat so well I can pan-sear things as diverse as shrimp, chicken breast, or lamb steaks. On weekends I am more likely to make a slightly more complicated braise or stew that can get extended later in the week with some beans or grains.
I control the amount of salt and fat that goes into my cooking, and know that I have bought high-quality ingredients I want to put into my body. Best of all, because I'm cooking for two or three or at most for 10, I control what I cook so much better than in my restaurant kitchen. As proud as I am of the food I put out professionally, I know the best food of mine you can ever eat is what I serve you at my home table.