Food Matters: What’s your food story?
BECAUSE THIS COLUMN is in the most frequently published magazine that I contribute to currently, friends and even some colleagues often describe me as a “food writer.” At first, I took offense at being pigeonholed — I write about many other topics, too, including art, design, wellness, travel. Yet looking back on how, exactly, I ended up in this role — and why I enjoy writing and editing articles about food more and more — the story makes sense.
As a kid, I loved playing in the kitchen. I started collecting cookbooks around 6 or 7, and baking cookies every Christmas with Grandma was a much-anticipated project. Just as my mom did, I’d make recipe notes on index cards, such as how to whip cream for strawberry shortcake using a glass bowl and beaters pre-chilled in the freezer. Sometimes we picked the strawberries from our backyard garden.
I also wrote a lot of short stories. Before I began facing the blank blue screen of DOS word processor after school sports, I composed little books complete with cartoonish illustrations. One standout was about a giant pumpkin that wreaked havoc when it broke free from its vine and rolled uncontrollably through the town, flattening houses and cars like a natural disaster. I read a lot of Stephen King from the library behind my mom’s back, so this early foray into the “garden horror” genre isn’t too surprising, either.
But the true kernel of this column may have germinated all the way back in second grade. We were asked to write about our Easter weekend; I submitted a food diary documenting every morsel consumed during our family’s Sunday buffet outing. I was an unapologetic tomboy — constantly playing soccer, kickball, wiffle ball, climbing trees, exploring woods, or ski racing when not reading books or doing crafts — so my appetite matched my endless energy. In that assignment I described each food elaborately: what it looked like, felt like, smelled like, tasted like, how many bites it took to finish, my final impression. It was my first culinary masterwork, returned with a teacher’s comment that makes me proud even two decades later: “Wow! You ate all of that?”
I was reminded of another part of my past that definitely shaped my food writing now while watching the “Great British Baking Show” on Netflix recently. Famed cookery writer and reality TV judge Mary Berry tasted a contestant’s cake and declared, “That is absolutely scrummy!”
It was a term I recall hearing during my first magazine internship, at BBC Good Food magazine in London. I was a college junior living abroad for the summer, and deciphering a whole new world of foreign lingo — from editors as well as our readers, whose dilemmas I was tasked with researching responses to — was as daunting as figuring out how to navigate the city via Tube. Based on the sound of it, I’d assumed the word was derogatory.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked the test kitchen editor, when she exclaimed that while we prepared a recipe.
Silly girl. That meant scrumptious. I’ve learned a lot more since then.
Today I meet industry folks in Aspen every week, many of whom have a distinct public persona — chef, bartender, farmer, purveyor, restaurateur, event organizer, grocer, sandwich-builder. Sometimes it takes a while to extract the nuanced backstory that led them here. Other times it’s the first thing we talk about. And more often than not, the seeds of inspiration were planted during childhood.
Since food is a universal human need — so basic yet with such potential for creativity — I always wonder: What’s your food story? How were you introduced to good food, and how did your experiences from a young age shape how you consume and appreciate meals? Did your mom fancy herself Betty Crocker? Or did dad do most of the cooking?
Perhaps it was your grandmother you remember looking up to, as she stirred a big pot of sauce on the stove? Did your family vacation in particular cities in the United States or abroad where you were exposed to regional cuisine? Were holiday gatherings sure to include certain foods? What was the first meal you made for yourself, by yourself? For others? The foods you hid in a napkin as a kid that you adore now? And how has all of this affected your current relationship with food?
“As far back as I can remember I had a knife in my hand and I was cutting stuff,” says Sebastien Chamaret, executive chef of La Crêperie du Village. He grew up on a 500-acre family dairy farm in the Loire countryside near the village of Montourtier — “It’s like the Nebraska of France,” he quips — where he preferred working in the kitchen to working the land.
“My mom, my grandmothers were always cooking,” he continues. “I liked more to be inside than to be out in the field — besides playing soccer. I grew up making omelets at 4 or 5; crêpes probably when I was 7, 8. I cooked dinner for my parents when I was 10 or 11. You have the seasonal harvest: string beans, strawberries, apples. We slaughtered a pig a couple times a year (and) did all the charcuterie stuff. I’d feed the rabbits everyday; chickens, pheasants, anything we could eat (we raised).”
Since joining Crêperie a year ago in June, Chamaret has cooked numerous dishes that hark to his childhood: “All of the dairy stuff — from simple custard to gnocchiflette with Reblochon and bacon — to strawberry jam (for crêpes) that I was taught when I was really young.”
Despite a 20-year career in New York City, at the helm of Le Comptoir in Brooklyn (as well as Bagatelle and La Goulue, the famed bistro shuttered in 2009, which he’s helping to reopen soon), Chamaret’s approach to food is ingrained in his DNA.
“In Aspen, we are very fortunate, there’s a lot of foodies,” he says. “And they kind of know what a crêpe is supposed to taste like. To me, I know exactly how it’s supposed to taste. Whether you’re French, Italian, Spanish, Vietnamese, Thai — you don’t know how, but you just know. That doesn’t go away.”
Executive chef Emil David, new leader at Aspen Kitchen, has a similar story.
“I was 8 when I started cooking rice and eggs,” he says. “My mom had a business in the Philippines and she used to come back really late, so I had to feed my siblings. I would climb my mom’s table and start cooking rice in a rice cooker. When I was 10-and-a-half I was the grill master of my family. They would throw barbecues. I asked my grandma to teach me how to cook fish in aluminum foil or parchment paper with onions, celery, tomato, pepper, a little bit of chile flakes, herbs, olive oil. I learned how the different sizes of proteins (cooked). I never overcooked fish since I was a kid.”
Eventually David worked in fine dining establishments in Italy for a number of years before moving to Manhattan, begging for a job under Tony May at San Domenico (SD26). He got it, later moving to posts with Giorgio Armani and Bobby Flay. But it was a knack for timing that he learned from relatives.
“Our chicken (at Aspen Kitchen), I cook it twice: confit three hours then during pickup we sear it,” David says. “It gives me the memory of when I used to cook when I was 10, because it’s so juicy. Fish-wise, we sear the Colorado striped bass, leave the middle slightly raw, then fold it so the steam cooks the inside. That reminds me of childhood, brings back memories of what my grandma and mom used to cook. I’m lucky that I grew up with my family.”
Surely if not for family starting these stories, we wouldn’t have as many passionate chefs cooking for us today.
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