It is hard, though not impossible, to be cynical about food.
After college, I worked in the Los Angeles film industry for a few years, and though I made some good friends doing it, I started to feel pretty cynical about my work life. I started cooking at night. I started cooking at night—big roasts for no one in particular, Turkish casseroles and Mexican moles with too many ingredients to count. And then I decided brashly to start cooking for a living: first on the weekends, and then, full time. Suzanne Goin, who now owns great restaurants in LA like Lucques, AOC, and Tavern, was then the executive chef at Campanile. She hired me after making sure I understood that cooking for a living 1) would probably never pay off financially, and 2) that kitchens were very hot places to work. Really hot. She was right on both counts, but suddenly I was doing something that gratified me every day. At Campanile, I got a lesson not just in line cooking, but in the ethics of cooking from Suzanne and Campanile founders Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton. I learned how to source foods well: I would to taste green beans from every vendor in a farmers’ market before making a choice. I learned how not to waste food; and how to empathize with diners, not sending out any food that I wouldn’t care to eat myself. I even learned how, when making a sandwich, the aioli should not be applied in a careless smear, but spread so that every corner of the bread benefits from its delicious, lubricious presence.
Like many cooks, my education was picaresque: I briefly witnessed the brilliant, dizzying machine that is Spago; I butchered lambs and roasted them in the hearth at Chez Panisse. Here in Seattle, I made the pastries for Le Pichet when it opened, and witnessed the Nisqually earthquake from its kitchen. I scrambled revueltos for a crowd at the Harvest Vine and, finally helped set up the kitchen at Vios.
Somewhere along the line I realized that I might not want to own a restaurant. For one, I’m not hard wired for line cooking. Creatively I’m good, my palate is excellent, and I think I’m a hard worker. But somehow, I’m don’t have all the prerequisites to be a top-flight restaurant cook: I lack the flawless short term memory, the instinct for organization, the knack for juggling risotto pots and multiple sauté pans, and most importantly the dyed-in-the–wool unflappability in the battle that is a dinner rush. It’s been several years since I stopped cooking in restaurants, and though from time to time I miss the repartee and the adrenal thrill of a crowded night, I don’t miss oven burns my arms and screwing up tickets.
At the same time, I was discovering I could still work with food, but not be stuck in the same kitchen night after night: I could visit other kitchen-worlds and write about them. Sometimes I’d even get paid. And so I shifted my focus slowly from making food to writing about food. I was lucky to contribute to Slate early on, and continue to do so today. One piece I wrote for Slate earned me a James Beard award. Along the way I’ve also been the restaurant critic for The Stranger, the food editor of Seattle Magazine, and a contributor to The New York Times, Saveur, Sunset, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, and Chow. I’m a total generalist: I’ve created recipes, reviewed restaurants and cookbooks, and done historical essays on spices and kitchen technologies. I’ve been lucky, and I continue to eat well.
And I still remain, for the most part, uncynical about the power of food to nourish on many levels: to delight, to bring health, and to bring people together.