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Adam Roberts on His New Cookbook and Learning From America's Best Chefs

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Adam Roberts.
Adam Roberts.
Photo: Elizabeth Leitzell

secrets-of-the-best-chefs-cover.jpgFor Adam Roberts' second book, Secrets of the Best Chefs: Recipes, Techniques, and Tricks from America's Greatest Cooks, the food writer/Amateur Gourmet blogger traveled the US to study cooking with 50 of the nation's greatest chefs. Roberts cooked with the likes of José Andrés, Alice Waters, Nancy Silverton, Vinny Dotolo & Jon Shook, Sara Moulton, Susan Feniger, Tom Douglas, Anita Lo, Hugh Acheson, Daniel Patterson, and Roy Choi, all in the name of picking up a little bit of that special something that separates the amateurs from the big leagues. Below, Roberts discusses which chefs surprised him, which chefs gave him the hardest time (do not call Michael White's pasta "noodles"), and the foods he "never in a million years" would have made before writing this book. Secrets of the Best Chefs is out today from Artisan (buy on Amazon).

How did you decide which chefs to work with?
I reached out to Rebecca Charles from Pearl Oyster Bar [in New York City], and said I want to learn how to make restaurant fish dishes. I went to her house and she had these two pans and a pair of tongs and that's all she used. She would make these gorgeous plated dishes of restaurant quality food basically just by heating these two pans. Then in one pan she added oil and seared the fish, and in the other pan she had butter and cooked all the vegetables. So with the timing of it and the rhythm of it when everything was cooked, she would like flip the fish over with the tongs then put the vegetables on the plate, put the fish on top, dress it and it was gorgeous. From her, I learned to cook a la minute, make dishes to order.

It grew organically: now, I want to learn Spanish cooking. José Andrés will be good for that. I want to work with a French great chef, so Michel Richard did that. It was just filling in the gaps. I went to eleven different cities, and as I was going to each city, I would speak to food editors of newspapers and ask them about really unique people to cook with, so in Washington, DC, I talked to Joe Yonan of the Washington Post. He told me I should meet with a guy named Tim Artz, who grows everything himself and makes everything himself. So I went to Tim Artz's and he makes his own beer, his own wine, his own honey, his own everything. By the time I was done, I had this huge wall covered with all these different portraits of different people and different recipes. I'm trying to create a panorama of as many chefs and lessons and ideas as I could possibly get.

I was able to look at so many different cuisines and cultures and approaches to cooking that after writing this book, the ones that stuck were the ones that spoke the most to me. The kind of cooking I want to do is more like Alice Waters, going to the farmer's market and just making something with what I buy. Ultimately the lesson of the book was that all of these chefs have strong personalities and they all have strong opinions about how food should be made and I didn't necessarily before I wrote it. But having this experience forced me to ask myself, what are my strong feelings about food? And therefore gave voice to the food that I end up making now, for myself.

Susan Feniger, her flavor profile is often coconut milk, ginger, lime juice, fresh herbs, so it's just about seeing the options with those flavors. And when I came back from writing this book, I created an original oatmeal recipe. I made oatmeal, but I used coconut milk and then I put in ginger and at the end I squeeze lime juice into it. And it was delicious, but I never in a million years would have done that if I hadn't met Susan Feniger.

So did you have people giving you contradicting advice on how to make similar things? How did you navigate that?
A great example is chick peas — Peter Dale, the chef at The National in Athens, Georgia said soak them overnight with baking soda. And Alex Raij and Eder Montero at Txikito in New York were like just cook them, you don't have to soak them, just put them in boiling water. Obviously I tested both recipes, and they both work wonderfully. So when they conflicted it's not so much like one is absolutely wrong and one is absolutely right. A lot has to do with the traditions that people are cooking in, where they learned it from. So I threw it all into the book and let readers decide for themselves.

Writing this book made me realize that there is not an ultimate way to make scrambled eggs, there is not an ultimate way to make French toast. There's your way. Do you like [scrambled eggs] more hard cooked, or wet? It's very personal, food. There is no absolutely right or wrong way to cook.

Let's move on to your actual experiences with the chefs. Who were you surprised agreed to cook with you?
Oh, Alice Waters for sure. I mean, I met her once before, I'd met her years earlier when I was working for the Food Network and we had done a video. But just getting to her house in Berkeley, I got off at the wrong stop, so I had to walk really far. And there are all these gardens and all these Meyer lemon trees and it's almost like utopia. This woman's vision influenced the whole culture around her.

And just being there in her kitchen, it's historic. There are certainly detractors who don't like her, I'm aware of that, but I think that at the very least you have to say that Alice Waters has always surrounded herself with some of the most extraordinary people in the history of food in this country. So to go into her kitchen — just being there physically. I remember first getting interested in food and buying a Chez Panisse cookbook and just being in bed reading it and imagining this far away world of barrel aging your own vinegar. Then to be in Alice Waters' kitchen where she does barrel age her own vinegar with leftover wine, it was amazing.

That for me personally was extraordinary. But for example, José Andrés, to be in his kitchen...He's a really busy, globe trotting chef. The day I cooked with him he was about to go to the World Cup, so he was about to get on the plane to fly there. So many of these kitchens, to get to be at the stove with some of these people was really incredible.

Who gave you the hardest time in cooking?
Michael White, I would say. I made the mistake of calling his fresh pasta "noodles." Which he did not appreciate. I was there with him before the opening of Osteria Morini, so he was literally about to open his restaurant and there were teams of chefs running through. He was funny, so when I say he gave me the hardest time, he was kind of prodding me in a funny way. José Andrés didn't make it easy for me either. But anyone who did this book ultimately knew what they were getting into and they really did it, I would have to say, because they wanted to teach,. They understood that I was just there to absorb. I did not want to write an anthology book where I just posed for a bunch of pictures and had chefs e-mail me the recipes, and copy and paste them into the book. That wouldn't be interesting. What I wanted to do is really learn what they're teaching and then go home and make it again.

So for the most part people were in their home kitchens or in the restaurant kitchens?
It was pretty split on the middle. José Andrés, I went to his house, and then Michael White I was in his restaurant, but Alice Waters I was in her house. It really depended. Renee Erickson, she's at The Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle, we cooked in her home which was great because it was amazing to be in this really extraordinary chef's personal space. She lives in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle and she has bees on her property, and they come collect the honey every week and give her some of it. That's the trade off, she keeps the bees and they cultivate the honey for her.

Since writing the book, how has your cooking changed? Do you think it's become more restaurant-y?
I'm bolder when I cook. Harold Dieterle — I cooked with him at Perilla in New York — was teaching me how to make creamed corn. At some point like he says, now you season it, so I take the salt shaker and I sprinkled some salt into it, I stirred it around and I tasted it. He said, okay, let me taste it, and he turned the salt shaker upside down like a giant stream of salt went pouring in and then we tasted it and it was the difference between a little clarinet solo and a giant orchestra. The flavor with that much more salt just exploded, but it wasn't salty, he got it right to the edge.

Susan Feniger when I cooked with her taught me how to make this black pepper clam dish, where she put the pan on the heat with some oil in it and turned it on to high heat. Then we were just chatting and it kept heating and heating and heating and heating and heating and like the whole time in my head I'm thinking, are you aware that this pan is getting hotter and hotter and hotter and hotter? Like ten minutes into our conversation, she said, okay then, you just add the clams to the pan. So she added the clams to the pan and it exploded with fire and there was a huge flame. She didn't even flinch. She didn't react.

I went home to make that dish, but I'm not going to get it that hot. I was like, I can still get it pretty hot but I was in my kitchen heating the pan and oil. I'll get it a little hotter, a little hotter, and at some point I work up courage to throw the clams in. I had the same flame ball that she did but the difference was I was traumatized by it. When I was bringing out the bowl of clams I was shaking. I was quivering because I had this giant flame ball in my kitchen. But that boldness of chefs to add tons of salt and get your pan really hot, it really forced me to like be bolder.

Did you find that chef took it easy on you? Or did they just go ahead and make things exactly how they make them?
I don't think they took it easy on me, we were really making the food together in real time. Some chefs are born teachers, so like Jonathan Waxman when I cooked with him, he was literally the only chef when I walked in to his kitchen he said grab a knife, grab a pan, you're going to do everything. Basically he had his hands behind his back the whole time. And he actually walked me through six dishes. He's actually the first chef in the book because I felt so empowered by him to be a good cook because of the way he had me do everything.

I think that's the important thing about the whole book, is that people are like, "Oh, did you steal the chef secrets?" And that's not what it's about. The more confident the chef is, the less they think of what they do as "secret." It's more about the philosophy of how they approach food. When I was with Jonathan Waxman and he got a delivery of swordfish, he literally just sliced it into chunks or had me sliced it into chunks and cook it with wine and garlic and fennel and some mussels and we made this delicious stew. But it was not about the recipe, it was about the attitude and the approach to the ingredient, which is what the whole book is about.

One thing I think is really interesting about this book is that you went to all of these different people all over the country, and really have a good idea of what's going on in terms of food. What do you think is exciting that's happening in American food now?
When I cooked with Curtis Duffy, he actually was one of the chefs that was like "I don't know how you're going to adapt my recipes into this book." 'Cause he did this corn soup with a liquid nitrogen dome. It has coconut milk and burnt corn husk oil in it. So I said teach me how to make the corn soup and I'll put that in the book, and I did and it's a great recipe for home cook. You have like the really high-minded set, and on the other hand you have soul food chefs. You have Angelish Wilson, who taught me how to make fried chicken. I guess what you're seeing is you're sort of seeing America. So to me it's about the spirit of cooking, the spirit in which Americans approach food. It's not so much about the ingredients or chefs' conflicting philosophies about it. Angelish WIlson was using prepared pie crust when she taught me her pecan pie. Daniel Patterson is foraging for his ingredients in the woods.

It's about the spirit. All of these people want to ultimately delight and engage and feed others, and across the board that's what everyone is doing. I think there is a certain American spirit behind that. I don't know if that's true around the world, I mean in Europe, it could be a little snootier, there could be a little bit more of a distance.

Yeah. I mean I guess what came through for me is that each of the chefs is taking their own personal experience and it comes through so clearly in the food in very disparate ways.
And actually that's the really important part of it, is that channeling your personal experience. One of the chefs told me, we all have a distant childhood that we recreate. I think that's what chefs do, it's like they have this dish in their head, it doesn't have to be a dish from childhood, but to have it in their head what they want something to taste like and they get it to taste that way. I think that home cooks very rarely do that. What makes all these chefs so great is that they know what they want their food to taste like and then they get it to taste that way. As opposed to following a recipe to the letter. So they have all such strong personalities and such strong, interesting backgrounds.

I didn't fake my way through this. I mean I really did go through fifty kitchens and learn 150 recipes and that absolutely changed me in a lot of different ways.

It's like cooking boot camp?
Yeah. But not just for the food. I mean the food was part of it, but also putting yourself out there. All these chefs are putting themselves out there in a very major way. When you're feeding people with all the bloggers — myself included and you included — everyone out there reacting, you really have to stand by what you're doing. It made me more confident not just as a cook, but just as a person. I'm going to go out there in the world and here's my book and here's my food. Screw it if you don't like it.

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