Highlights and insights from live interviews with two food world icons
Max Taylor Photography
The Atlantic and Atlantic Live held our third Food Summit yesterday, and it had a happy and sometimes surprising mixture of glamor, gravity, and profanity. I was doing much of the interviewing, so my notes are incomplete, but you can get a good sense of the day from Brian Fung's concise summary of the hundreds of tweets from the afternoon. And as they become available, we'll be posting links to the full video clips of the four interviews I did and of the two panels moderated by my colleagues Steve Clemons, on sustainably feeding a world of 9 billion, and Clive Crook, on addressing the ever-more-ominous obesity crisis.
You'll want to watch the panels for the typically wide-ranging views, in interesting conflict, from the speakers--very different approaches to improved seeds and improved soil in the feeding the world panel, and to food access, cigarette-style taxes on foods that are thought to promote obesity, restricting food advertising to children in the obesity panel. I did get an advance look at the first two interviews, with Martha Stewart and Mario Batali, and listened closely to some of the points that most struck me during two fairly rollicking conversations.
Stewart made a rare Washington appearance, and had a chance to show the audience a few of the themes that have been the backbones of her work since the days of her first book, Entertaining (when we first met), themes that are often submerged in the endless coverage of her celebrity: self-reliance--which is easily parodied in the care she takes with details, including by herself in the famous commercial in which she lays a mosaic at the bottom of her pool, but which originated in the desire to save money, learn, and teach--and scholarly depth of research. She doesn't want to know enough about the subject she's working on to get an article, a chapter, or a TV segment. She wants to know everything, and she'll do not just the paint, glue-gun, and pastry-rolling work herself, she'll do the reading.
Stewart is ahead of the curve on most trends in the food world, and has been since her first book. The local-sustainable mantra, for example, is something she practiced from the time she made her Westport house famous. She told me that this, like many of the lessons she values, was something she saw in her own house growing up in Nutley, New Jersey. Her father would start plants from seeds--"never seedlings"--by the one picture window in the house, which allowed enough light to get them going in the victory gardens, still called victory gardens, in Nutley. Fertilizer was fish heads and bones from the fish he would catch on "party boats" leaving Asbury Park--never anything bought. As with most of the history of agriculture, everything they grew was organic just because that was the way everyone knew and that worked best.
"It's a way of life," she said of sustainability--a way of life she's making much clearer in her company's Whole Living magazine, whose recent growth she proudly mentioned, and whose executive editor, Jocelyn Zuckerman, spoke on the feeding-the-world panel. "You have to choose that way of life," she added. Even she balks at the price of produce at farmer's markets: there were nods throughout the audience when she said she could go through $20 in a very few minutes. But she prefers going to farmers markets, or growing and raising her own food, to going to the store. And "I can't blame the farmers" for their high prices; "I'm glad they're there."
Even today, she relies on low- or no-tech solutions to household and garden problems--for example, the runny noses ("yes, chickens get runny noses") and "naturally cruel" behavior of the chickens she raised decades before they became a mania, a mania she can claim credit for having begun. She listed some she has learned from a Chinese woman who works at her Bedford farm, who has taught her more, she said, than the many, many books she's read about Asian cuisine (a particular interest of hers I've long noticed, and a natural love--given her choice of restaurant, she'll go to an Asian one). For those runny noses, put Vicks Vapo-Rub in hot water near hens; for the water by, make hot rocks in an open fire or on a barbecue. To stop chickens from pecking each other, hang cabbage scarecrows ("no, they're good crows!") at beak height that the chickens can peck instead. If you burn your hand while, say, making hot rocks, plunge the burn into a bed of coarse salt and it won't blister.
High tech is a fascination, too. Before the rest of the food world became obsessed with the Microsoft general genius Nathan Myhrvold and before he created the research lab where his team of about 45 collaborators wrote the landmark five-volume Modernist Cuisine (which I actually read, and wrote about at length), she went to his home kitchen and started playing and filming. I knew she'd have been one of the first to buy an immersion circulator for the sous-vide cooking method that was overtaking chefs when I wrote about Dan Barber's unexpected embrace of it; I didn't know that she'd ruled out cooking anything sous-vide for herself, because she doesn't trust the chemicals that might leach out of the thick plastic in which foods must be vacuum-sealed before they are simmered for many, many hours. I did expect that once she saw it in action, she'd have to own a centrifuge, if only to make the incredibly thick, smooth spreadable "pea butter" he does from fresh peas. Indeed she did, finding a used centrifuge for the bargain price of $600 on a used-equipment site Myhrvold directed her to. She summarized--typical Martha--"You don't know what you can do with those centrifuges until you do it."
At the end, I asked what she thought about the barriers to women entrepreneurs she herself had faced, and what it would take to lower some of them for women why try to follow her example. Her whole answer is worth listening to, not just because of her surprising assertion that "I didn't know what a glass ceiling was" when she started her company, but because of the remedy she recommends: allowing more women in positions of power to be shown raising families while doing their jobs.
Mario Batali, too, has always stood for a good deal more than the good-natured bonhomie and infinite buoyancy he brings to his TV appearances. First, like Stewart, intense interest in learning. He made himself into an encyclopedia of the food and ingredients of Italian regions, because he loves all 21 of them. I was very glad to hear that he plans to open a new restaurant in New York, "something I said I wasn't interested in," featuring the food of southern Italy, including rehabilitating the litany of warhorses of what people understood to be Italian food when he started out: spaghetti, lasagne, manicotti, tiramisu. (I was also glad to be reminded of manicotti, which I haven't thought in years). Eataly, which he opened with his business partner Joe Bastianich and which I wrote about here and here, has been the huge success it has because it brought primary artisanal products that hadn't previously been available here--and good gelato and coffee you eat and drink right there, not to mention Dave Pasternack's fish bar, a pizza counter, a birreria, and a restaurant devoted to meat.
It's Martha-style curiosity to learn about all of those that makes cooks into chefs, he said, and not just knife skills. "I can teach a chimp to make linguine and clams," he said. "I can't teach a chimp to dream about it and making it better." Plus patience with repetition. "The hardest part of anything is making a dish consistently great--you order it seven years later, if it's still on the menu, and it's still as good as what you remember." Keeping both qualities fresh is another long-term challenge. Batali likened himself and Bastianich to an "indie band" when they opened Babbo, in 1998, but now, he said with rue, they're more like IBM. So they have to work to keep that "rebel vibe."
What turns chefs into real restaurateurs, is a quality he kept coming back to: generosity. "That's the most important part," he said. "Even if you're charging, you're still giving. What you do every night is repetitive and mundane, but fundamental to the job. You have to learn to find happiness and satisfaction and fulfillment in continually serving somebody else something good to eat."
That's something not immediately apparent to culinary-school grads with visions of instant executive-chef jobs and TV stardom coming through their resumes. First, "the only chefs we hire are line cooks," Batali said. "Over time"--when they've shown their enthusiasm, appetite for repetitive work, and starting forming emotional bonds--"they become my partner."
As for TV, well, that's what got Batali going--as I hoped it would, since I wanted to know if he thought, as a lot of very young cooks do, that you can't get traction without a TV show. And I showed my own hand by asking if any of the competition shows had anything to do with real cooking. To my surprise, as a chef whose career was hugely helped by television--"Molto Mario," his instructive show--he said that chefs don't need it. In fact, going on a show can be "counterproductive" for a chef.
"All of the people who lose in the first three rounds of these sadistic television shows are not going home to crowded restaurants," he said. Not to mention when "you haven't been sleeping and suddenly you're seen making out with someone who isn't your girlfriend." Still, he agreed that even the Washington chef he had in mind when mentioning that instinct had benefited from the exposure, in the no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity line.
Those "sadistic" competition shows have little to do with real cooking, he said, not just for home but for restaurant cooks. He likened them to gladiator matches: "They go out, they gladiate, and then they have to go to work again"--to the mundane, repetitive work, powered by generosity, that must fuel every successful chef. "That's the less shiny part to recent college graduates" he said of the restaurant life. "It isn't always shiny. And that's what makes it good."
He himself has soured on competition shows, for reasons he made hilariously clear when he talked about being judged by actors who'd never cooked rather than critics he respected. The only printable part of his thoughts about their saying they wouldn't have cooked something he'd worked hard [substitute colorful synonym] for an hour to make delicious was, "Who let you in the room?" Unexpurgated segment below:
Keep watching the site, and watching the clips--particularly to learn how one company, Revolution Foods, has succeeded in improving the quality of school lunches where many, many others have failed, and on a very large scale, and to hear Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan talk about what Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign has achieved, her own cross-department program Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, and her wish list for the current farm bill. I'll be watching for those clips, too.