A few, quick administrative notes:
1) A big ole THANK YOU to everyone who emailed, called, IMed, or in some way sent me birthday wishes last week -- that was so incredibly kind and very sweet, and I'm hoping that I've gotten back to everyone individually. I've been traveling with limited access to email and Internet (which, admittedly, has been some kind of wonderful), and between my Blackberry and my not-always-perfect webmail server thingamabob, I may have lost a few emails here and there. Ooopsie.
2) I changed the text in my banner at the top of the page. It used to read "Can't get a rezzie at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry? Yeah, neither can I. Instead, I bought his cookbook and I'm making the menu at home." I figured since I have now eaten at The French Laundry, I needed to change the header to "keep it real," as the kids today like to say. I, however, like to say, "GET OFF MY LAWN!"
3) My actual birthday day was sandwiched in between two amazing dinners -- one at The French Laundry on Saturday the 16th and one at Per Se on Saturday the 23rd. I decided to turn 40 with great culinary gusto, and there was nowhere else I wanted to be. Making the pilgrimage to Yountville was an incredible experience that I'm still trying to find the words to describe, and the energy of New York as the backdrop to my dinner at Per Se made for an amazing evening and, collectively, the two dinners were the opening and closing chapters of the most memorable, and most personally fulfilling, birthday of my life. I surrounded myself with my family and closest friends, and celebrated what has been a pretty freakin' amazing year. I can't wait to tell you about it, and those posts are taking a long time to write because there's just so much to say.
4) That said, posting may be a little slower than normal over the next two weeks. Call me a tease, but them's the facts. Some renovations I was having done on my house while I was traveling didn't exactly happen on-schedule (do they ever?), so I can't get back into my house for another week or so, which means things will be a little whackadoodle schedule-wise for me. However, I know you'll want to come back to this very post time and time again if only to see this glorious, gossip-inducing photo that my friend, Heather, sent me in the hopes that I might someday soon have some engagement news to share with the world:
Ah, my Bloomie. Not a VP pick on either ticket, but still the president of my heart.
Did I just hear you throw up? Oh wait... that was me. Nevermind.
Alrighty then, let's get going with today's post. Doing this Q&A with you all has been so much fun for me. I hope you've enjoyed it, too. So without further ado, here's the final installment:
Q. If you could make a last meal what would it be?
A. It depends on the time of the year, because in the summer I would want it to be a bowl of fresh blackberries, a hunk of good and stinky cheese, grilled steak, corn on the cob with tarragon butter, a bottle of really great wine (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon comes to mind), and a few squares of dark chocolate for dessert. In the wintertime, I think I'd go for something like roasted marrow, shepherd's pie or cassoulet, mashed potatoes with garlic, homemade chocolate ice cream, and a really nice bottle of scotch (Macallan 30 single malt would do nicely, I believe).
Q. Going on the last-meal question which band would you have play?
A. I'd put together an all-star supergroup featuring Prince, Neil Peart, George Michael, Paul Hewson, Daniel Lanois, the guy who sang "Der Komissar," Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, Stewart Copeland, Air Supply, Eminem, Carly Simon, Janet Jackson, REO Speedwagon, Busta Rhymes, Boston, Steve Perry, Christina Aguilera, Don Henley, the Doobie Brothers, Chuck Brown, Lyle Lovett, Billy Idol, Al Green, Herbie Hancock, Jennifer Holliday, Jeffrey Osborne, Jenny Lewis, James Brown's band, Claudine Longet, Alison Moyet, Elvis Costello, Fiona Apple, whoever's still alive in Foreigner, Joaquin Phoenix filling in for Johnny Cash, Carole King, Grandmaster Flash, Madonna, Annie Lennox, Joe Cocker, Julie Andrews, Kate Pierson, Bananarama, Sheila E, Neko Case, Tone Loc, Manilow, Donny Osmond, Greg Kihn, Axl Rose, Marshall Crenshaw, Ted Nugent, Sebastian Bach, Robbie Williams, David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Seal, Ed Kowalczyk, LL Cool J, Darryl Hall, and I suppose John Oates, too, Ann and Nancy Wilson, Richard Marx, Jack Wagner, Rick Springfield, Pat Benatar, Justin Timberlake, Dennis DeYoung (and the rest of the boys from Styx, with the promise that they'll all get along), the Beastie Boys, Cyndi Lauper, Chaka Khan, David Bowie, Dianne Reeves, Dionne Warwick, the ghost of Karen Carpenter, Peter Gabriel, Donna Summer, Mel C, Phil Collins, Toni Tennille, Roger Daltrey, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Curt Smith, Roland Orzibal, Thomas Dolby, a few of those DeBarge fellows, Tom Waits, The Pogues, whoever's still alive from Yes, ZZ Top .... and I'd make them write a song about me, perform and record it that night (while also shooting an awesome "Do They Know It's Christmas"/"Live Aid"-type video) then sell millions of copies to benefit a hunger relief organization. And, I'd also have it in Sebastian Bach's contract that he had to make out with me.
Q. Who would you invite to dine with you?
A. My family, my closest friends, and my dog. We'd eat in a grand house with glass walls overlooking the water in my favorite beach town.
Q. What was your biggest fear throughout this whole project?
A. When I first started doing this blog, I never wrote to anyone at The French Laundry to ask permission; I just did it. Then, one day (about 6 weeks into it), I got an email from Michael Ruhlman with the subject line "Your blog" and I almost passed out. I thought, for sure, it was some sort of cease and desist order or perhaps just an email from him along the lines of, "you are a crap cook and you should never write anything because you suck at writing, and also did I mention the crap cook bit? How about the sucky writing? Did I mention that? DID I?" I was afraid to open the email (I literally closed my laptop and hid it in another room for a few hours), but when I finally got up the courage to read the email, I was pleasantly surprised to find a very nice note from him which paved the way for me to be able to not just meet one of my literary heroes, but also honestly and gratefully being able now to call him my friend.
So, getting that particular email from Ruhlman that early in the blog's life showed me that my biggest fear was two-fold: I was afraid I wouldn't be able to honor this food and this book in the way it deserved and would thus be told to knock it off; and, I was also a little afraid to write in my own voice because I'd never really done it before and hoped I wouldn't suck too badly. When you do what I do for a living, you're always writing in someone else's voice about someone else's business or issue. I didn't know what it was like to write like me about my own stuff. A few weeks ago, I got an email from a friend with whom I worked nearly 20 years ago. We haven't seen or spoken to one another in at least fifteen years, if not longer. She'd Googled me, found this site, and said in her email to me that when she read through the entries it was like could hear me talking as if I were sitting right next to her in our old offices and it was 1991 all over again. Coming from an accomplished writer (and someone who knew me in my professional formative years), that tells me I'm doing something right -- and I think at the core of it all, that's all any of us wants to hear: that what we put out there is true to who we are.
I don't know how other writers feel about this, but I think it's hard to put yourself out there in writing, in this relatively new medium, in a really transparent way and be who you are, and not a cariacature of who you think you might be/want to be/are supposed to be/wish you were. But honestly, having the amazing support, feedback and participation from all of you (and some of you from the very first weeks) has alleviated any fear I might've had along the way. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do this, and also to have such amazing, smart and funny folks join me along the way. This blog wouldn't exist if you all weren't reading it. Otherwise, I'd have folded it up and gone away ages ago.
Q. The earnest, respectful and thoughtful comments of your readers speak volumes about your blog. Seriously, do you even get trolls?
A. I love that someone asked this question (and thanks for the compliment leading up to it, because it's so true -- you guys are the best!). Do I ever get trolls? Nope. And I'm amazed by it. In the entire lifespan of this blog, I've only ever had to reject/delete four comments. Two were entirely inappropriate because they attacked other commenters for no reason. Another one was really disrespectful (and a tad threatening) toward me because I didn't have a positive experience making tripe. And, the last one had to be deleted/rejected because it went a little something like this: "lol i luv blogs of fud and h00rs and r u kute srsly?" It was after I got the "I know where you live you tripe-hating bitch" comment that I posted my Comments Policy because I think there's a certain social compact we all have with one another in life that doesn't always carry over online, and it should. I will be the first to admit that I've been guilty of being an anonymous bitch toward others from time to time online in the past, and you know what? It's not right, and I've knocked it off. If I'm gonna say something or comment about something, then I need to stand behind what I'm saying. So, I figured I need to walk the walk and be sure that what I say online is something I could honestly defend or say to a person's face if I were speaking to them directly.
Q. What part of this project did you love the most, and hate the most?
A. What I loved the most is being given the opportunity to cook amazing food, write about my adventures in the kitchen, and meet some pretty amazing people. I love being able to write about something I love that is mine and not a client's. I have loved being able to entertain in my home nearly every weekend for the past year and a half, and to have learned so much about food and cooking. I also loved that doing this blog and cooking every dish in The French Laundry Cookbook has changed my life in ways I'm not yet able to articulate, but that I see in random little moments when I least expect it. I love that doing this blog has made me aware of how different and much fuller my life is as a result of taking new kinds of risks.
What did I hate? Softshell crabs. I loved writing about the crabs, but, damnit, I hated making those stupid things. I'll never do that again. Never. Not even if Mike Bloomberg begged me to. That's how much I hated it.
Q. If someone offered you the chance to make a fabulous living cooking or writing, which one would you choose?
A. Writing. But, writing about cooking. I never wanted to cook professionally, as in work the line in a restaurant, but if I could find a way to incorporate writing and cooking, I'd be a pretty happy camper.
Q. Who or what are your biggest influences in your writing?
A. I'm largely influenced by reading great writing -- whether it's a book, newspaper or magazine piece, or an essay or blog post online. I also count among my influences the proximity to really great stories. I think because of what I do for a living, I can tend to be quite cynical and jaded about a lot of things -- and it's my job, quite frankly, to poke holes in things to make sure my clients have every i dotted and every t crossed, and that they're buttoned up and ready for action. So, I have a decent crap detector and a pretty solid nose for news, and I enjoy being able to ferret out what makes a good story and what doesn't. I consider myself fortunate to be one of those people who is surrounded by great stories every day, and great storytellers. It definitely has an influence on my writing.
But reading really strong writing has an influence on me because it motivates me to be better at what I do. I have a small stack of eleven books on the bookshelf next to my desk that serves as a constant reminder of the kind of writing I like -- whether it's the author's tone, style, sense of humor, or the way they tell a story. And they're not the great classics, or anything like that. They're simply books that have stuck with me for one reason or another, but largely because the writing made it memorable.
Q. Are you an avid reader of things non-food-related?
A. I like to think I am, although I've been spending quite a bit more of my free time in the kitchen these past 20 months than I used to, so I haven't been able to read as much as I'd like. I also feel like there isn't a lot of good fiction out there right now... or at least fiction that appeals to me and my interests. I just get tired of non-fiction every now and then, and I want something a little different. I'd welcome any fiction recommendations you guys have -- with the caveat that I really don't like sci-fi/fantasy, chick lit, abuse memoirs, anything that starts out "It was 1913 and while the rain was coming down hard on the streets of Berlin, a young boy in Chile was haunted by the ghost of his great-grandfather's mailman who carried with him envelopes of doom," or anything with the Oprah logo on it.
Books aside, I read four newspapers (the print editions) cover-to-cover each day, as well as more magazines than is probably healthy for any one person to admit they read. I do read food books and food-related literature from time to time, but I like a healthy balance of subjects/stories to read about.
Q. Any tips or advice for those of us who like to write but want to get better at it?
A. Write every day. Read Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird. And, find a good editor or a mentor who will be honest about your work, and who will pick it apart and edit to help it evolve to where it needs to go. I think you learn by doing, so really, write every day. Every day. The adage "practice makes perfect" exists for a reason.
Q. What made you pick The French Laundry Cookbook out of all the other tomes out there?
A. It's all in the timing, I suppose. You can read the story of how this whole blog started here. But I suppose the reason I was attracted to this book is because I thought it was impossible to cook from. And, I think you guys probably know me well enough by now to know that I'm the kind of person that if someone tells me I can't do something (even if the "someone" is just one of my other personalities), I'm stubborn enough to want to prove them wrong. And in this case, I felt like it was not just me doubting myself and/or suffering from general malaise in the kitchen, but also the mainstream consumer food media telling me through their programming and articles that real cooking is hard work and shouldn't be attempted because I'm clearly not smart enough. Apparently, processed foods and shortcuts are the way to go. In all honesty, it was either bitching about the state of dumbed-down food media to my friends (which I'd already done, and they were sick of hearing about it) or actually doing something about it. So, I decided to do something about it, and this is what clicked at that exact moment.
The French Laundry Cookbook, at first approach, is incredibly difficult, intimidating, a tad frightening and completely perfect, and made me feel like I had no clue what I was doing... until I got over myself and actually COOKED FROM IT. And the big secret of it all? None of these dishes are impossible for a home cook. It's true. It's all in the patience, organization, and willingness to take risk and try doing something you haven't before... and, the dedication to not half-assing it, and really trying to do it right, because there are reasons these dishes are done the way they are -- and I'm a far better cook (and a far better person, honestly) for having worked my way culinaryily and mentally through this book. It's not for everybody, but it was right for me.
Q. How has cooking from The French Laundry Cookbook changed your approach to cooking, and, aside from learning new techniques, how has it made you a better cook?
A. If anything, it's taught me that being a neat freak and a compulsive, list-making, hyper-organized planning maniac has its benefits! Doing this project has been illuminating in so many ways; let me see if I can capture them all...
It's made me a better cook because I've always wanted to be able to go to the market and be able to see an eggplant and instinctively know sixteen different ways I could do eggplant and be able to pick up all those ingredients while I was there, as well, without relying on a specific recipe from a magazine or book.
It's made me a better cook because I've really slowed down and thrown off the cloak of laziness and learned to love my kitchen all over again. It can be really hard sometimes to get excited about food and nourishment when you work all day, and for those who have kids, manage a job and your family and still be able to make something delicious when you come home at night. However, I think sometimes we can all fall into a trap of thinking that making good food is difficult, and it's really not. I applaud people (especially all those parents out there) who can get great food into themselves and their families without any stupid gimmicks or processed crap. It's not always easy for us single folk either, because so many of us are busy with a multitude of things and sometimes it's just easier to take the path of least resistance. But I've found great reward in reprioritizing some things in my life, and food is one of them. I don't eat in front of the TV anymore -- I set a place at the table (even if it's just me), and I pay attention to what I'm eating. Sometimes I read; sometimes I listen to music; but mostly, I have made it a priority to make time to cook well and eat well, and it's really made a difference in my overall health and happiness.
During the week, it might not be possible for any of us to cook the kinds of adventurous, more complex foods we want to try. But if this project has taught me anything, it's shown me that there is great reward in setting aside an entire Saturday to cook and have people over for dinner that night, and feel really good about what I put on the table.
Q. What's your ONE best piece of advice to anyone looking to cook on The French Laundry Cookbook level?
A. Yeah, right. Like I'm only gonna be able to narrow it down to ONE thing. You'll be lucky if I can even stay on topi...... hey, look, a bunny! I would say: have fun, and be willing to learn and make mistakes. The earth won't stop turning if you screw up lobster jelly. I'm living proof of that. Are some mistakes or mishaps more costly than others? Absolutely. But that's just one possible outcome of taking risks, I suppose. Laugh at your mistakes, learn from them, and try it again or move on to something else. OH! And this applies to any kind of cooking projects or endeavors: always, always, always start with a clean sink, an empty dishwasher and an empty trashcan. You're welcome.
Q. Some recipes have earned a place in your permanent repertoire. What techniques from The French Laundry Cookbook are now indispensable for you?
A. I talked about this a little bit in my last Q&A, but I do think, upon reflection, that now I tend to strain things more than I used to. I also steep my lobsters instead of just tossing them in a pot of boiling water. The recipes for stock in The French Laundry Cookbook are the best I've ever made, so I'm sticking with those from now on. And, even though it might not be detectable in my photos, my knife skills have gotten so much better, so that's an added bonus.
Q. Do you think you'll ever cook any of the recipes from The French Laundry Cookbook again once the project is over? Which ones?
A. Absofreakinlutley. Creamy Maine Lobster Broth, Gougères, Cream of Walnut Soup, and the Foie Gras with Pickled Cherries, because in my mind they're all pretty easy to do and in their simplicity are quite stunning and impressive while being really good and not fear-inducing for non-adventurous eater friends of mine. I'll also probably do the Maine Lobster Pancakes again when pea shoots are back in season because they are really easy, too. It's probably easier to list the things I wouldn't make again (softshell crabs, tripe).
Q. Are you going to give watermelon lipstick, etc. a shot when Keller's new book comes out?
A. You bet. Now, who wants to buy me a Cryovac machine?!?!?! Anyone? Anyone? But in all seriousness, I hope Thomas Keller's new book Under Pressure will have an important impact on the home kitchen. It may not happen right away, but I think it will, at the very least, get people thinking about cooking sous vide. The equipment involved in making something restaurant-quality sous vide is cost-prohibitive for many, and Chef Keller was the first to say that at an embargoed press event for the book back in June. Cryovac machines are not cheap, and a new immersion circulator can run anywhere from $1,200-2,500. However, there are ways a home cook can cook sous vide. In fact, I've already cooked sous vide in this very blog -- before I really connected the dots in knowing I was using this technique.
Chef Keller was also very clear in saying that you can't use a FoodSaver to vacuum-pack your food to prep it to cook sous vide because in addition to sucking out all the air, it also sucks out moisture. So, the trick is to learn how to wrap food tightly in Saran Wrap and be patient with keeping the proper temperature of the water or whatever liquid it is you're cooking in.
I'll write more about and cook from Under Pressure as part of the new blog/website/etc. that I'll roll out this fall, so stay tuned. I think it's exciting stuff, and having recently eaten some surprising food (corn!) done sous vide, I can say it yields the most incredible flavor. It really is a phenomenal technique/process and I'm excited about trying it.
Q. Would you ever consider a similar undertaking like this again? Cooking your way through an El Bulli volume, perhaps? (Although you'd need a lab, not a kitchen, for that)
A. Without giving too much away, yes, I would consider a similar undertaking.... only, I've got to up the ante, now don't I? So, while I may not cook my way through an entire El Bulli volume, I am going to continue to push past my comfort zone to see what I'm capable of in some new arenas. I'll tell you more about it in the fall.... and yes, it is KILLING ME not to be able to talk about it in great detail right now. There are just some pieces that need to fall into place before that happens, so it's good I improved my patience in the kitchen while cooking my way through this book or else I'd be a basket case by now with the anticipay-ay-tion. You already know it's going to involve this and this... the rest you'll just have to wait for.
Q. What's the latest on the TV deal?
A. The latest is that we're "having conversations" with a few media entities, and that's all I can say right now.
Q. Are you working on a book deal?
A. I'm "having conversations" with a few media entities, and that's all I can say right now.
Q. When you're done, how long will the blog stay online, or are you planning to take it down?
A. I have no plans whatsoever to take down the blog. I doubt once I'm done that I'll update it (unless, of course, a new, revised edition of the book comes out with new recipes, then all bets are off and this puppy will be up and running again full-force). But I'll certainly keep it up and running for reference purposes as long as the internet will allow... which is maybe forever.
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Quite a few of you asked about my top 5 favorite dishes, or what I would recommend someone start out with to get their feet wet. I'm going to do a post in a few weeks (once I'm done cooking every dish) that will outline all these things -- I'll tell you my favorites, my least favorites, which ones are good for those ready to jump in and try something, and I'll also put together a few suggested multiple-course menus for you, since some folks asked about that.
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Up Next: French Laundry at Home Extra: Eating my way through Yountville, CA
Read My Previous Post: Chocolate Fondant with Coffee Cream and Chocolate Dentelles
Saturday, August 30, 2008
A few, quick administrative notes: