So celeb-obsessed are we these days that even the cooking world will do anything it can to attach itself to that cult of stardom. When mega-chef Mario Batali toured Spain for a book a few years ago, he took Gwyneth Paltrow with him. And, seriously, when is the last time Gwynnie ate a full meal, let alone a lusty, full-bodied Spanish one? But the monthly cooking mags are even more pandering. They do a back page on some star who doesn't cook a lick, but either pretends to or waxes poetic about her mother's fried chicken, even after you find out that the only thing in her fridge is coconut water.
But, oh, that chicken! Back when she used to eat it.
In the spirit of trying to make Hollywood people normal, I am here to proclaim that I am "normal," too, and so, I am going to ask myself some questions about my eating life to prove it so.
What is the earliest meal that you remember preparing?
Actually, I remember my brother preparing it. My first year in college. He had a dinner party. I was the only guest. He served Cold Strawberry Soup and Beef Bourginone and something else, all recipes that came out of The Three Rivers Cookbook, a Pittsburgh cookbook that my mother had given to him and which he later gave to me. Two years later, as a junior, I was living with him and three other guys in an apartment, where we took turns cooking. I made a lot of dishes out of that cookbook. It was the only one I had.
What is your favorite kind of food to cook?
I don't really have a favorite ethnicity. I guess I most like to cook small plates, to get together a bunch of different things that might be from any number of cooking traditions. Based on what's in my cupboards and fridge. Last night, for example, I had chicken salad-stuffed tomatoes, using the leftover Parmesan-crusted chicken from Carraba's, vegetable egg rolls out of the freezer, Rosemary ham open faced sandwiches with hot sweet mustard and pickles, a cheese board with New Zealand cheddar, Maytag blue cheese, and goat cheese with spiced plum jam and crackers, roasted beets with honey, black pepper, and blue cheese, and some other stuff I can't remember. I like the challenge of seeing what I can come up with on a moment's notice.
What are three things that can always be found in your refrigerator?
Well, beer and....actually, I guess I'd say carrots, celery, and onion because I am a regular maker of stocks, and they always call for those vegetables. Or maybe add green pepper, because if you are going to make many New Orleans dishes, you need the "Holy Trinity" of celery, onion, and green pepper, plus garlic. And I love New Orleans cooking.
Music and cooking--a good mix or not?
A great mix! I think cooking is enhanced, and movement around a kitchen is enhanced, when there is music playing. I also like the wall it creates so you can think about what you're doing. But it can't be too loud or frenetic, or it will create anxiety, especially if you are cooking for a party that is imminent. I like Van Morrison or the Dead or something else with a good beat that isn't too electric. Steely Dan is very good.
I understand that you collect cookbooks. Which one do you cook from the most?
Embarrassingly, the one I cook from the most is my own. For my 50th birthday, I collected recipes from friends, relatives, and my own cooking and gave it out. So all of my favorites are in that one place. My wife and I make a lot of cakes and coffee cakes for people who need a pick-me-up, and our go-to recipes are in that book.
What was your last diet? How long ago? How did it go?
I tried a month-long vegan diet sometime in the last year. I mostly made it through. It was the no-alcohol piece that eventually broke me. I have nothing against vegan. It's an interesting cooking challenge. If you are going to cook vegan, I think Mexican and Asian are your best options. You can make really flavorful offerings.
What is the most important trend in modern cooking? Local ingredients? Slow food? Something else?
My most important trend, which I identified a long time ago, courtesy of my parents and grandparents, is to avoid chemicals and other food additives as much possible. I am not the healthiest eater in the world, but most everything I eat, I make myself, so I know what is in it. If you are going to buy anything that is not an original ingredient, like a vegetable, you have to read the label to see what is in it. People are eating so many additives, and they either don't know or don't care about what kind of toxic stuff is in their food in order to extend its shelf life. If you buy bread in a grocery, for example, you are making an unnecessary health mistake.
If you could have dinner with any 3 people from throughout history, who would they be and why?
Actually, it wouldn't be with anyone famous. The dinner I'd like to have would be with my friends Billy, Tommy, and John. It would be at the Acme Oyster House in New Orleans. We would start with the chargrilled oysters. The fact that we were at Acme would mean that it was the first night of our trip, since that is always our first stop, and that we had the whole weekend ahead of us, with all of the possibilities of that amazing city.