Throwing stones

Getting a recipe from a chef, with the intention of including it in a cookbook, is really pretty easy. First, you pick up the phone and call the guy, or the gal, or the person they’ve chosen to represent them to the press (read: the person who takes the blame for the chaos on their calendar and threatens them with brutal whippings if they fail to comply to your timetables). You explain your project, and they profess undying love for you and it and the prospect of seeing their name and restaurant in print in six and a half years. (They can’t wait!) And then you get the recipe.

Or not. There’s always a little hiccup between the time you ask for the recipe and the time you press “save” on your own version, because only in a very small minority of cases does the person in charge of the business end of the knife have the writing skills to get a cohesive recipe together, the organization to get information to you before you’ve seen the same season twice, and the experience cooking at home to understand that we don’t all cure our own prosciutto and that eight quarts of stock is not a quantity most soccer moms can cook on one podunk kitchen burner.

Here’s how it really works: in June, a chef says he’ll send you a recipe by August 1st. On August 10th, you write him to remind him you’re still waiting. (You should have known to lie to this one about your deadline.) On September 1st, after several more emails, most of them from him promising he’s going to work on it THIS WEEKEND, you promise you’ll march yourself into his kitchen the very next day. Magically, the recipe arrives.

First, you gather the ingredients. You wonder whether he’ll mind if you change house-cured anchovies to regular oil-packed store-bought anchovies, knowing full well that in his true opinion, you’re ransacking his recipe and misrepresenting his restaurant. You create a mini internal struggle between the two of you in your mind, all over the anchovy, before even picking up the phone. Four days later, with his permission, you change the anchovies, then move through the ingredients list, pausing only briefly to consider whether your general tourist audience will be petrified by the mere mention of preserved lemons. You elaborate on coddling eggs, because surely there’s someone in your readership who thinks it has something to do with raising them without time-outs or swear words. You want your reader to end up with something that works, something that tastes so good they’ll make it again, something that’s true to the chef’s original intention—but you also need to make sure the reader starts cooking in the first place.

And so it goes for each recipe (all 75 you’re trying to translate). You scale flaky, creamy lemon bars down from a recipe that serves exactly 384, toying and tinkering until you’ve found a recipe that works and tastes almost if not exactly the same as the bakery’s, and uses 2 eggs, rather than 2 3/4 eggs. You insist on a recipe for homemade lebnah, because no, not everyone knows how to make it. (But for the record, it’s painfully easy: greek yogurt, salt, olive oil, stirring, cheesecloth.) You delicately skirt the directions for dehydrated olive oil. You beg chefs for permission to offer substitution suggestions for lamb stock, mustard oil, and pickled green garlic, not because you aren’t thrilled to use these things—you’re thrilled yourself, because they taste so good—but because you know this particular cookbook has to be a mixture of things that are a little exciting for those who qualify for that loathsome category, “foodie,” and things that are downright doable, for folks with any level of cooking skill and mouths they can’t make patient with an extra martini. And when someone picks up this book, in the spring of 2012, you won’t have any control over what page they see first.

One thing is clear: most of the recipes from chefs, both from Seattle and the rest of the state, are awesome. They’re creative and intelligent and unusual and useful. But sometimes, they’re also really long and complicated. So with that latter group of home cooks in mind, while you’re waiting for chefs’ recipes to come or not come, you test things that please you with their simplicity but scream “Washington” just as loudly—homemade corn dogs, like the ones for sale at the Chesaw Rodeo, and braised goat shanks that take no more work than a weekday pot roast, and potato soup from a farmer in Colville. You make grits with a smoky Mt. Townsend Creamery jack cheese called “Campfire,” and pair them with collard greens made with bacon, yes, but also apple cider and cider vinegar, for sweetness almost equal to the tang, but not quite. You layer local goat cheese into gratins, and make the easy herbed baked eggs a kind, kind woman made you at her bed and breakfast, before a horse ride through Washington wine country. And in their own sweet time, the chefs’ recipes float in.

And then, just when you feel like the number of chef’s recipes you have on hand to test might suddenly surpass the number of recipes you’re alternately asking, waiting, or begging for, and you’re thinking snarky things, a chef emails you, out of the blue, from Bainbridge Island. “So, about that simple bone marrow recipe. How was it?” Oh, gosh. You know the one. When you tasted it at the restaurant, it was topped with a gorgeous, sharp-sweet huckleberry and onion mostarda, and the recipe was written perfectly, with clear directions on how to buy the bones, what sort of knife to use for scraping them, and why it’s best to roast them on a shallow bed of salt. It fits neatly on one page. But you haven’t tried them yet. The huckleberries, once fresh-picked, are in the freezer in an unmarked paper bag. You even have the perfect spoons, the little teensy ones a friend sent you from Spain. “Um. Um.” You stammer. “I was hoping to try them this weekend.”

And so it is that writing this book has become, in a way, a nice, long stay in a culinary glass castle, where I alternate between throwing miniature private fits about the ineptitude and disorganization of restaurant chefs, and loathing myself, for being equally inept and disorganized (or more). I bitch about quantities fit for a fundraiser rather than a dinner table, then I’m humbled by recipes that appear on my e-doorstep in mint condition, from Seattle chefs like Tom Douglas and Holly Smith and Lisa Nakamura and Rachel Yang and Ethan Stowell, to name a very few, and remember that each and every one of these chefs is not giving me their recipes for fame or fortune (no, certainly not fortune), but because they’re proud of what they do, and proud of their place in the state’s general food scene. They’re proud, and deservedly so.

And in the end, when I’m done acting cranky and undeserving, and think how cool it will be when all these recipes and mine are bundled together in a project that’s as much a dinner guide as it is a relic of the Northwest’s gustatory times, I’ll be proud to have them all, too. I won’t remember who was late or who I had to call three times for an oven temperature. I’ll just remember that I want to go back to their restaurant, to eat, and to smile.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Throwing stones

  1. That’s funny. Definitely looking forward to reading the book…

  2. Too funny! I look forward to reading and cooking from the book!

  3. Great insight about what goes into these cookbooks. I’ve talked to many a cookbook author, but never heard a story quite like this. Thank you!

  4. If you still have “Masarap Manila” take a look at the restaurant section! A different time and a different country but now I think….wow were we disorganized!

  5. I actually do make 8 quarts of stock at a time at home – then again, I am not exactly normal. =)

    Although I have absolutely no idea what dehydrated olive oil is?

    Sounds like you are enjoying yourself.

  6. This all rings so true Jess! Great post.

  7. I think I will try to make the the lebnah…. cheers and thanks for the look into writing a book…

  8. Truer words were never spoken nor so well written. In fact, I’m sharing this post with my food writing class at Stanford Continuing Studies. It is so amazing to hold your own book in your hands for the first time. Can’t wait to hold yours in mind.

  9. Pingback: This is what I love. |

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