Bloggie breakthrough: I finally figured out .. .no, I faced the reality…of what I can and cannot do. I can make a lasagne Bolognese that will change your world. I can’t make gnocchi. I can make vinha d’ahlos that will remind you of your grandmother. I can’t stir-fry (I’ve got an electric stove) but I make great jams and pickles. I can concoct a ragu that would get me a marriage proposal anywhere in Northern Italy. My Asian marinades are delicious. My cakes are light and lovely. My breads are just passable. I will attempt anything. But much of it will be flawed.
Any cooking person that tells you otherwise is lying or way, way lucky.
Deep breath. I’m about to make a commitment. It’s this: I’m going to be Island/Mediterranean from now on. Mine is an olive oil, garlic, tomato kitchen. Also an Aloha shoyu, sugar, ginger kitchen. I’ve known that for years. But I keep trying to make things that are outside of my range. Recently, I’ve been reading various chef biographies and I’ve realized you CAN’T do everything. Food writers are expected to be interested in everything and capable of anything but the fact is, 99 percent of us aren’t that. So I give up.
I’ll still make local-style Asian food because I know that topic well and it’s in my mind and my hands and even some of my pots. But wild ideas about complex Chinese recipes, traditional Japanese food, Eastern European food (although I have been making a good Chicken Paprikash for years — don’t know how authentic it is)… I give up. If it’s Hawaii or the Med, we’re on. Also the Pacific Northwest, where I used to live.
Otherwise, who am I kidding? I can interview a chef, I can read a recipe, I can try my best but I’m not really recreating the food that I’m being told about. I don’t know it well enough to do it. If you think I’m giving up too easily, read “Heat” by Bill Buford, a culinary journalist who decided to find out the things he wanted to know not by asking but by doing and spent years in professional kitchens and came to an impressive understanding of the difference between knowing and doing.
It’s like the Hawaiian concept of manaleo, a native speaker, someone who understands the Hawaiian language from the na’au (the gut) and long life experience. It’s extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, for someone who studied the language in school to develop the same understanding of the kaona and the huna, the masked meanings in the language that a manaleo has. Same thing with learning to cook a cuisine that is not your own (whether it’s ethnically your own or one you were geographically born into).
With food, head knowledge doesn’t work. The knowledge must be in the hands, the senses, the body memory. Over and over again, as you look into the lives of great cooks, home or professional, what you hear is that they just know — they smell the thing and know if it’s almost done or not, they look at the thing and they can tell by the dullness or the glistening that it’s time to take it off the stove, they don’t measure because they don’t need to. It’s not that you don’t need head knowledge but it alone is not enough.
And even if you’re completely familiar with a dish, you can fail. I embarrassed the hell out of myself a few years ago making vinha d’ahlos for Alan Wong because I was making it in a forno, a masonry oven. I know all about forno, but I’ve never cooked in one. My dish didn’t work. Alan said he’d never had a good vinha d’ahlos and I was humiliated because I know I’m capable of a great one but that wasn’t my day because of the cooking circumstances.
Later, I spoke with him about guest-chefing around the world and he said most celebrity chefs do two things: they bring their own ingredients and they pick recipes they know for a fact they can nail no matter the circumstances. “Heat” has a touching story about a stellar Italian chef whose made-from-scratch pasta fails when she comes to New York to cook — the simplest thing she does and it fails and she isn’t even sure to this day why it happened.
It’s been my experience that your food is always amazing when it doesn’t matter, but that’s a whole ‘nother mysterious subject.
Anyway, bottom line: Focus on the things you do best. If that comes down to casseroles and bar cookies (in my experience the easiest things to make), fine, do them. You’ll be happy. Your eaters will be happy. Don’t let anybody tell you that you have to make perfect shu mai or amazing boeuf bourgignon in order to call yourself a cook. The key is: You cook. You like to cook. You stick to what you know well. You make your family and friends happy. They feel the love.