I was very excited when Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal and Josh Lewin, Executive Chef at Boston’s Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro agreed to talk to us. Below they share their thoughts with us on how to cook simply and well, what Slow Food means to them, and how what they’ve learned in the back of the house has made cooking at home more efficient and cost-effective.
What was the inspiration behind collaborating for An Everlasting Dinner?
Josh Lewin: I was given a copy of Tamar’s book as a gift, by Slow Food USA actually. I had never heard of it before. And it sat on the shelf for months while I worked my way through a number of others. I did finally pick it up one day, read a few pages over the short subway ride home and then finished the entire thing at home that night. It was funny, exciting and certainly inspiring and it was during my first few months in a new job where I was struggling a little bit to really find the right path. This book gave me a much needed shot of clarity.
Tamar Adler: Last May I received the following email from someone I’d never met, but whose restaurant I’d heard of. “Thank you for writing such a beautiful book about the process of cooking! I absolutely love it and am going to buy copies for everyone on my staff. Maybe someday you’ll let me plan a dinner event around it. It would be a lot of fun! Stop by if you are ever in Boston, we’d be delighted to have you at our table.
I wrote back that it sounded like a delightful idea, and that we should remember to do it some day. Over the intervening months, Josh and I would email occasionally, until at one point he started sending me menus. We went through a few passes, and finally ended up with one that seemed right to both of us, and the next thing we knew, we’d actually done a lot of the planning for the dinner he’d thought up last spring.
As chefs, how have you seen food sourcing and preparation change over the years?
Lewin: The big thing about sourcing for us is that we combine planning with the ability to keep an open mind and stay flexible. We have a general idea about what will be available and when, but it’s not always in the quantity we expect and we have to do a bit of preserving to take things at their peak and spread out their usefulness. It’s not always easy but over time it develops into a bit of a routine. We may know what flavors will be available but have to think outside the box a little bit for how certain ingredients will be prepared or which cuts of meat we will be using. It’s a welcome challenge.
Adler: When I helped open Farm 255 in Athens, Georgia in 2006, the idea of only buying food raised nearby was alien. We had to put up signs everywhere explaining why we might have a vegetable or cut of meat or kind of fish one week and not another–that it was too hot for lettuce in the summer, and that okra would have to disappear from menus in November. I used to drive an hour to Atlanta each Saturday morning to pick up the whole pig I’d buy from one of our farmers, or meet her on the side of the highway, because it was otherwise impossible to get local meat. Seven years later, there’s incredible consciousness of foods growing in different seasons, of the environmental impact of food miles. It’s possible to have a restaurant that thrives using ingredients mostly from its own surroundings, because the logistics, while still harder than just buying from big distributors, aren’t as menacing.
Studies show that Americans waste nearly 40% of their food. How has working in restaurants shaped your approach to minimizing food waste at home?
Lewin: Yes, food waste has been a big story the past few months. And it should be. It’s a problem. Part of it comes back, again, to planning. Wash the greens right away. Start something cooking as soon as you get in the door, before it’s all even been put away, at least wash the greens and roots so they are ready to be used. Having your ingredients ready and waiting, in a state that can actually be used, will make a big difference. Don’t let them sit in some intimidating pile.
Adler: I couldn’t have written An Everlasting Meal–much of which explains how many of the foods and parts of foods we discard are actually not only good, but essential for great meals–without having worked at Chez Panisse. So much of the food we made there required stale bread, and parsley stems, and some combination of beef stock and chicken stock, or the liquid left over from braising something. I had grown up seeing my mother do much of that, but it was seeing how much of a restaurant with a rustic, provincial cuisine’s menu really required it that gave me the confidence and skill to write about it authoritatively.
What are tips you have for people wanting to cook well without spending a lot of money?
Lewin: Well it’s not that much different than our approach at the restaurant really. Most folks at home (although I know more than a few people for whom this will not be true) aren’t buying entire animals to feed their families. But you can take a similar approach at the butcher, don’t be afraid to look beyond the popular cuts and learn how to cook them. Plan ahead at the farmers markets. Learn how to use root vegetables creatively. Experiment with cooking food ahead, but actually planning to eat it. Stop throwing things away. Invest in clear containers and a roll of tape and marker. Then label your food! I promise you’ll save money by doing this. Learn basic cooking techniques that you can then use to build your own meals instead of simply searching the Internet for recipes. Read Tamar’s book.
Adler: Cook things in ways that create a second ingredient–if you boil or braise meat, you end up with broth or with braising liquid –whatever combination of vegetables and wine and water or stock the meat cooked in. That means that you have the meat itself for a meal or several, and then the beginnings of a soup, or several. It doubles the number of meals you get for your money and the time you’ve spent cooking. When you grill something, you have only the meat itself. A similar piece of advice is buying meat with its skin and bones. I’ve taken salmon skin off salmon and cooked each separately. After eating the salmon, I ate another meal of plain rice with a bit of sautéed spinach and salmon skin on top. Another, which sounds silly, but is actually meaningful is to look to dishes derived from peasant cuisines. There are a lot of wonderful meals that have been practiced over the years, that are all founded in having to make much of little.
You have both been supporters of Slow Food. What does Slow Food mean to you?
Lewin: Well there is the basic idea of what Slow Food is, to everyone. The whole idea of not accepting the factory, industrialized, processed diet that is advertised everywhere you look. But to me personally it’s just a reminder to stop and think. To literally, slow down. To return to the table, instead of eating out of a wrapper. To cook well. To care. It’s an important message, one that we are happy to continue to support.
Adler: You know, it’s funny, because with the ongoing–and good–conversation about whether Slow Food is a largely hedonic association–people getting together to share the pleasures of the table–or an inchoate social movement, I’ve actually only had experiences of Slow Food in the latter sense. I started working with SFUSA in 2002 on the Harvest Time in Harlem project. In Georgia, they paid my way to Terra Madre (and our restaurant in GA was certainly part of a larger schematic, social change.) When I moved to the bay, Slow Food Berkeley funded and supported my meat CSA, which grew to over 1,400 members and moved to the Internet. I’ve never been a member of a chapter that only gathered to eat and drink. So for me, it’s been a political and social organization the whole time. I know it’s always an internal and external tension, but I think it has enormous potential in the political/education/social realm.
An Everlasting Dinner will be held at Boston’s Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro on January 14, 2013.