by Cari Borja
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
I confess, I never liked cooking, and it never occurred to me to cook. It is something that other people do, like my grandmother. And my grammy Gladys was a great cook. Her ricotta gnocchi are my Proustian madeleine. I make things to go on the body, not in the body. But in 2011, which was my 40th year and also coincided with Chez Panisse’s 40th birthday, I apprenticed in the cafe with Cal Peternell as my mentor. I spent a few months there on Thursdays learning what to do with artichokes, asparagus and beets, how to make my first aioli, a Julia Childs-inspired soup celestine, how to clean 40 pounds of squid, how to taste and most importantly how to do it all with grace. The ritual of prep cooking was like the ritual of cutting and manipulating fabric; and the improvisation that seemed in many ways to happen daily in the Chez Panisse kitchen was similar to what I did in my studio. I got it. I made a bunch of gowns inspired by it; and began hosting salon dinners in my atelier soon after.
So I do in fact cook, and I cook often, but for me people are my true ingredients and making food over the past couple of years is in fact more of a performative act and an audience is necessary. So I admit I still rarely cook for my family. But when Cal’s cookbook was sent to me a few weeks ago, I read it through that very evening, and picked a recipe to try every night for dinner. And for my 52nd salon dinner—which happened last week—my friend Eve Love (who I met interning at Chez) and I did an homage to Cal, making quickles, toasts, a green goddess salad and a chanterelle pasta, all inspired by Twelve Recipes .
To me what is revolutionary about a cookbook is its voice, and its ability to bring you into it and make you feel at home, comforted yet inspired. Since starting the salon dinners in 2012 I have bought close to 100 cookbooks, have read some, used recipes from many, but analyzed them all. Yes, I’m an anthropologist at my core and want to understand the relation between chef/writer, voice/context and consumer/home cook—but I have also been developing my own voice in cooking, curating and putting together experiences around food. So I look to books like Daniel Patterson’s COI , David Kinch’s Manresa and Mourad Lahlou’s New Moroccan for how they each translate their own personal narrative, history and locale into a menu that gives a clear sense of place, person and vision. For recipes for my dinners I turn to David Tanis’s three cookbooks, At Elizabeth David’s Table , Joyce Goldstein’s Italian Slow and Savory , Shelley Lindgren’s A16 and SPQR , Suzanne Goin’s AOC and most recently April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig for simple-ish family style yumminess that I can easily serve to 22 or so guests … I love repetition, and continually improvise and add to and subtract from these favorites.
But Cal’s book is different. It has made me excited to cook at home and with my kids. And the kid element is integrated into the idea behind the book itself—it was when his son Henderson was about to leave for college that he came up with the initial concept of making a cooking handbook for his son to take with him. For me, it’s a combination of Cal’s inviting voice and the book’s convenient structure—its 13 chapters, with each one based on a particular “building block” like “eggs,” “toast,” “beans,” and “braising”—as well as the layout of recipes which beautifully conveys a possibility of creative improvisation. Of course it may also be my relationship to Cal as my first mentor and our similar at times laid-back “ways of doing,” but it speaks clearly to me and my way of thinking and creating. Below are excerpts from a conversation we had last week, after cooking and eating a few things from his book. We started with a classic green goddess salad (page 91), minestrone soup (ribollita recipe minus the bread, page 65), a bit of mid-day Syrah to go with it, and then talked about some of Cal’s favorite things, his ways of doing, and his journey to now.
First, let’s start with his name… “My name is Michael. ‘Cal’ came from when I was in college at Boston University and friends thought I was from California—blond hair, Frisbee, skateboard. For a long time both names were in play. They still are, but when I started at Chez Panisse there were like a dozen Mikes already working there so I said, ‘Well, I have this other name’…”
“The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”
On the way we do things:
“I think of myself as a forager as well as a cook. As a kid I foraged not edible things but frogs, turtles and snakes, and with a single-mindedness that I still have at markets and in the wood. I love it, it’s like a treasure hunt, finding things. And it’s free, but you have to have the sensibility to find it and know. If you know where to look, and what you’re looking for, you can find something precious; a chanterelle, sprigs of purslane, lambsquarters, little miner’s lettuce. There’s a sense of discovery just like when I was a kid that joy in small things because they’re new. I think cooking can be like that. Every time you approach it anew. That’s what I do in my kitchen at home and what we do at Chez Panisse—a fresh menu every day. Clean slate.”
On the past—getting to here:
“I went to SVA for printmaking and then painting—with oil painting there’s a certain physical similarity—the act of color mixing is kind of similar to flavor mixing, similar in the way that you bring a level of attention and deeper focus and observation to it. You have to really look at that tree and let the color come into your eyes and see how it lays next to the other color—how it looks in context. And cooking only takes place in context and the context has to be considered. There’s a lot of things that come together to make a successful meal. Some things you can control—the food, the lighting, the music. But who’s at the table, their personality and mood; what is the memory of the food they’re eating—those are not in our control. Sometimes the best night at a table isn’t the night when the food is the best.”
On creating the book:
“I wanted to faithfully stick to documenting what I actually do in the kitchen. (I thought at first I would have someone follow me around, taking notes.) I think that most of the chefs I know think about recipes in this way—they have a basic recipe but from there they can go any way they want. There’s that one bit in the book when I started out making a pork ragù for pasta and ended up making larb, the delicious Thai salad. It doesn’t often happen that way—a complete cultural shift mid-supper—but it shows how you can have total freedom in the kitchen, you can change things completely and have fun with it. At the same time, I didn’t want to do a book where it is all too vague. I heard an interview with Mollie Katzen where she said, “You need to tell people how much salt to use, not just say ‘to taste.’” That seemed right to me, so I try to tell people, ‘Here’s what I do, what tastes right to me’ but I also say, ‘This is how my kids do it.’ And you have to find your way, what tastes best to you. Cookbooks can intimidate, can push people away from cooking, and that’s the opposite of my intentions. So I also say if you don’t have a certain ingredient you can often cook anyway, but as you do, think about what’s missing when you leave out that carrot or celery. Do you miss the celery? What sort of flavor and texture might it have contributed? Maybe you want to get a head for next time.”
On patience versus intimidation:
“Yes, that’s how I like it, but that’s the culture there—at the restaurant. It comes from Alice’s sense of wanting things to be decorous. She surrounds herself with people who are not the typical macho, angry dudes. When you go to the Edible Schoolyard classroom and watch the way they teach thirty 7th graders all in a room with knives … It’s hard for me to see, but they have a confidence with the students, and the students feel that. I learned from that … We have so many interns at Chez … and they are nervous and thinking, ‘Everything I know is now called into question’ … but the intimidation is just by being in the place—so it’s about patience and outreach to them to meet them in the middle somewhere. And also it’s just selfish. If they freak out and cut themselves someone’s gotta take them to the hospital.”
On cooking as theater:
“But really, cooking in a restaurant is more akin to theater. The show must go on and the curtain goes up at 5 o’clock and however ready you are, it’s gotta go. It happens in real time. It moves forward and it’s done at a certain point. And you can always change your performance the next night but it is finished in a way, or sort of consumed in a way that painting and writing is not.”
On favorite reads:
“I love to read. Like every writer, I am influenced and inspired by what I read. Ondaatje. I love them all (next one please, Mr. Ondaatje) but Coming Through Slaughter and Skin of a Lion are my two favorites. I just re-read The Great Gatsby because my son Milo is reading it in school and I like to parallel-read. Last year it was the new translation of Don Quixote—hilarious! I like Jonathan Lethem’s novels quite a bit and I’m loving My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard which is in six thick volumes that are all such good reads and you can’t really figure out why.”
On formative books and films:
“As a young child, I remember loving The Biggest Bear . The story is sweet and a little disturbing and there are wonderful drawings, some of hams and maple syrup and ruined pantries. Later I got into Carlos Castaneda, Robert Ludlum’s full-speed story-telling in the Bourne series, Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund and Siddhartha , Salinger, Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories … For cookbooks, the number one for just fun, and funny, reading is Fergus Henderson. Fergus loves offal more than me, but the writing is just so true and compact. Richard Olney’s books are similarly amusing—I like his slightly snotty tone—and the recipes and sensibility are great. The cookbooks that have informed my cooking most are probably those by Paula Wolfert, Elizabeth David and Marcella Hazan.
For film, Vittorio de Sica’s Miracle in Milan ; and Umberto D. was amazing and sad and beautiful. The Night of the Iguana was an incredible movie and turned me on to all of Tennessee Williams’ plays … the literature that has most consistently been made into great films: A Streetcar Named Desire , The Rose Tattoo (Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster!), The Fugitive Kind (Anna Magnani and Brando!) Every one of them. Harold and Maude—I remember the first time I watched it, when it was over, I sat there, stunned, then rewound the VCR and immediately watched it again. It was the first time watching a subversive film and thinking, ‘Oh, WOW’.” Also, recently I saw this little Werner Herzog clip at the Mad Animals event at Creative Growth. It was about these penguins in Antarctica (filmed by his friend who films under ice—very eerie). One penguin heads inland and there’s a thousand miles of ice in front of him. The others are going off to fish or sit their eggs or something, but this guy, he’s crazy, suicidal. The narrator claims that even if they caught him and turned him back, he’d just do it again. I don’t think of myself as particularly single-minded, but I admire it in others.
On sharing knowledge:
“Part of the reason that I wrote this book was to teach my own kids to cook for themselves. I find great refuge in the kitchen, and realized I hadn’t always let them in enough. Cooking is a mindful ritual for me and the kitchen is a place where I can get very lost, in the best sense. I love the grandness of bringing a dramatically arranged platter to the table, sure, but I can also really get into shelling peas, cleaning a pile of squid, picking herbs. Fully engaging in the craft of cooking is very important—if you don’t like sitting down and snapping beans while you think about your menu, then maybe another career might suit you better. You should still cook at home though, nothing should keep you from that.”
And now nothing will. Thank you, Cal!
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Cal Peternell will read from and sign Twelve Recipes at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7 pm on Thursday, November 20. He’ll give a reading and talk at Kendall-Jackson Winery in Fulton from 6-9 pm on Monday, November 24. On Sunday, December 7 from 12:30-3 pm, he’ll appear at a book signing and Twelve Recipes-inspired lunch prepared by Chef de Cuisine Fabrice Marcon at the Left Bank in Larkspur. On Thursday, December 18 at 7 pm he’ll read from and sign copies of Twelve Recipes at Rakestraw Books in Danville. On Sunday, December 21 from 6-10 pm his sons and Russ Moore will cook at Camino Restaurant in Oakland. Click here for info on more events.
Cari Borja began her career as a clothing designer while earning her PhD in anthropology and film at UC Berkeley in 2001. Since then she has created collections inspired by film and food and has become known for her salon dinners in her Berkeley atelier where she weaves together people from different disciplines and professions. Cari is currently writing a book about the dinners with interviews with guests featured on her blog, and also consults with start-ups and other companies curating dinners and connecting people. Read more about Cal Peternell, as well as other chefs, winemakers and guests at Cari’s dinners on Cari’s FashionFilmFood blog. Click here to read about Cari’s salon dinners in Berkeley.
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