focaccia and a new pope…
The day the world got a new Pope, Pope Francis, I baked my very first loaf of focaccia. The pope is going to be the religious and spiritual leader of over one billion people, more than a seventh of the world’s population. He was born in Argentina and is known for his humbleness. He rode the subway to work, renouncing his privilege to a chauffeur. I shared my humble loaf of bread, made of only flour, water, yeast, oil, and salt, with several people. The Pope effects many more people than the loaf of bread. Yet to me, the bread feels significant. Bread is so elemental. It can elevate a sandwich to become the best meal of the day or even the week, being that the bread is home made, pillowy, moist, oily, salted, golden-brown, fresh-out-of-the-oven. This bread can be a gift or even a barter. And it is thanks to the ladies of Saltie in Brooklyn, my favorite lunch haunt, one that I crave and think about when not in New York. Saltie, for which I make a special trip into Brooklyn when I visit The City. Last time I was there, I ordered two entrees, and saffron rice and the Captain’s Daughter, as well as two sandwiches to-go. Check out the super-easy recipe for focaccia in the Saltie Cookbook. Vineyarders: Bunch of Grapes bookstore is carrying this book!
Saltie, the cookbook that’s like a blanky…
I ordered my Saltie cookbook, by Caroline Fidanza with Anna Dunn, Rebecca Collerton, and Elizabeth Schula last summer. My friend and fellow Saltie-lover, Melissa, sent me a link to Amazon showing that the sandwich shop, a humble name for a such a powerful food haunt, was coming out with a cookbook. I opened the link. I saw what was to come. I closed the link. I didn’t know if spending money on cookbooks was for me. I was using the library frequently to do my recipe research. Days later I re-opened the link. What was I thinking. I needed this book. This book did not want to be returned to a library. This book wanted to be mine. mine mine mine. Greedy me. I ordered it. Then I realized it was not even published yet. I would not receive it until the fall. Boo hoo.
Fall came around. I received a notice in my email that my book was not coming. I had to confirm that I still wanted it, and I had neglected to do so for too long, so it would no longer be arriving. Amazon.com assumed my love for Saltie was a splash in the frying pan. A cheap romance beach-read rather than a saga. I re-ordered the book. I checked the P.O. box daily. I never check the P.O. Box (don’t tell my dad). I have to drive there and make a special trip, and the mail is always for my dad. The day we had a package, I leaned way over the counter before the lady showed me who it was for. She handed it to me and I wanted to kiss her. Sort of. “It’s for me! Yay!” I think I made her day, or at least made her realize her line of work can make cookbook-expectant people very happy.
my first job as a cook, the good and the bad, and the restaurant where Caroline Fidanza was the founding chef…
Here are my attempts to get across the feeling I have toward this book, the feeling that it is something warm and fuzzy like a blanket. It’s like a conversation with a close friend who gets me. Some quotes below, and my story, too.
“She would linger at the pastry counter in those early days, maybe to listen to Tom Mylan yammer on about whatever obscure Japanese knife or food curio had caught his eye that week, or to quietly consider a cup of coffee, usually deciding against it but never denying its appeal. Then, down to the basement: chef’s whites, clogs, a Sharpie and some torn butcher paper for notes, a trip through the walk-in, and the day began. That considering she lent so graciously to the cup of coffee seems to me, in fact, to be the genesis and catalyst of Caroline’s genius…I’ve seen it time and again. Caroline will pause, sometimes just for a split second, sometimes prolonged, to discover the nature of whatever it is she is faced with and decide how best to honor it. A spiny artichoke, the ubiquitous egg, a piece of bread.” — introduction to Saltie, by Anna Dunn
Perhaps I love what is written above so much because I worked in the same kitchen where Caroline did. It was my first professional cooking experience, at the age of 23, just after graduating college. I walked down to the basement just as she did, put on my black pants and white shirt, and my clogs and bandana. And when I worked there, the chef and sous-chefs still used butcher paper for their notes and the writing and re-writing of the menu, which really did change daily. That place sent shivers of fear through my body. I left there and arrived there more exhausted than I had probably been in my life. I endured more criticism there than ever before, and perhaps the novelty of it is why I was able to take it without it breaking me down.
“While I had only the vaguest idea of what I wanted out of a life in the kitchen, I knew with certainty what I didn’t want: I didn’t want to get yelled at and/or slammed every night for six hours in a two-hundred-fifty-seat restaurant working next to hyped-up boy line cooks. I wanted to avoid kitchens that were adrenaline and testosterone-fueled endurance labs. Every fear and cliché was alive in my mind. I didn’t want to be a chef. I just wanted to learn how to cook.”– Caroline Fidanza
But eventually the atmosphere there did break me down, and I left, suddenly, after four months. I guess I could dismiss that experience as a complicated relationship and leave it at that. I was new and green, and it was my first ever full-time job. The restaurant was popular and fast-paced and had to maintain a high standard and consistency. As my friend and fellow-but-way-more -experienced-line-cook told me as we set up the line one evening, THIS IS A BUSINESS, NOT A FUCKING SCHOOL. It was a week that I had been yelled at time and again to move faster. To use my brain. To be better. I got that. The chef and sous-chefs were not there to be my teachers.
“My first job, at Savoy in SoHo, was a dream by industry standards: a civilized schedule in a sane and respectful house run by smart, thoughtful people who were able to teach, be firm, and inspire, all without the drama and pain associated with restaurant life.”–Caroline Fidanza
But wait, why not? Why not, at least, to be my MENTORS? There I was, someone moldable, unsure of my place in the world but certain of my deeply rooted, unshakable passion for food and what a good meal can do for people and for humankind. I was the only woman in the kitchen, save the pastry chef and cooks, who worked in a separate space and did not work with us on the line. I needed a mentor. Just one person who would, while showing me the ropes and even being harsh–something which every new cook might need at first to understand the significance of why, say, each dish must be treated as if its the ONLY dish, and why the burger under the heat-lamp cannot be waiting on a salad lest it overcook before getting to the table–would also see my potential, my love for food, and encourage me that there were humps to get over but it would get easier.
But I was overcome by fear. Others were afraid, and I felt it. Afraid of the chef. Afraid of….of what? That fear was passed on to me, as pans were grabbed out of my hands in frustration–I was not moving fast enough–as I was yelled at for not approaching my prep list in the right order, etc. I did not want to go to work silenced by fear. I did not want to be an inhuman machine who no one wanted to talk to or get to know. I don’t know, maybe that’s all normal for a brand-new cook. Maybe no one can talk to the brand-new cook because the brand-new cook needs to focus all her concentration on the prep-list in her hand. But I craved relationships. I was working 10-12 hour shifts, living in a new borough, barely seeing any of my old friends because my schedule was so different than theirs. I wanted to befriend the others at work. But they were living in a universe beyond me.
Listen, I think it was all a matter of timing. Where I was at in my life and career was fragile, probably too fragile, for what I jumped into knowing full-well it would be a challenge. I had no culinary education. Never been to culinary school. I did not have the education-inflated confidence, even if a false confidence, in my skills when I stepped into that kitchen. It might have been the right place at the wrong time.
food memories from Diner and Marlow & Sons…
I still talk about the restaurant often and fondly. I remember my first meal there, after my stage, when the chef offered me to sit down and order, and I had the brick-chicken, their signature dish, with sautéed lambs quarters, a green that, unbeknownst to me at the time, is a an edible weed. I remember the bags of purslane, also a weed, that I had to pick through for my salads, and its citrus, lemony-fresh taste and crunchy texture. I remember the stone fruit salad with beets and whipped, herbed ricotta. I remember the citronette dressing and the fried whitebait and okra and green tomatoes. I remember the herbs in the salads. Always throw lots of herbs in the salads. I remembered the chow-chow and the bread-and-butter pickles tossed into the farro and fregola salads, with feta cheese and grilled chicken livers or hearts on top. I remember the cow tongue and the bone marrow (whose melted fat practically burned another cook’s hand off as he pulled it from the salamander) and the country-bread grilled in duck fat. I remember the mustard vinaigrette that used three or four different kinds of mustard. I remember not to garnish the soup in a way that looks constructed. Natural. Things should look natural, not too dainty. Of course I remember the delicious crostini of whipped ricotta and sautéed plums, and sautéing the plums with thyme and salt and sugar, and the caramello that I was looking for in the pan to know it was ready.
And those principles of food are why I love eating at Saltie, too. The balance of fats, acid, fresh herbs, salt….the flavors.
“Always have a good supply of lemons. Lemons are often all you need to elevate a dish from bland to alive. Developing a sense about when a dish needs acid is crucial to your success and one of the most essential things to know in the kitchen.”
conclusion and everyone lives in a bubble…
So, this post all started with yesterday’s focaccia. And the new Pope. I talk about the pope to show that I do not live in a cloud of flour or a bubble that is my kitchen, or under a rock (although I do live on one…shout out to Martha’s Vineyard). But who am I kidding? I do live in a kind of bubble. But it is this bubble of my world, formed by the objects around me, the dishes in my kitchen, the foods in my fridge, my friends on their farms, the plants in the ground, that inform me about the world that I live in, and keep me inspired by it and connected to it. It is my immediate world, the one that effects me, and it is a sensory world, thank goodness, and for that it feels all the more real and alive.
“I believe, perhaps with a touch of mysticism, that the pans, bowls, spoons and machines you use to prepare your food impart themselves into what you are making. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with using a food processor; it just means that the food processor has an effect on the final result that should be considered going in.” –Caroline Fidanza