One of only two chefs in the world with 21 Michelin stars, the French master pays tribute to his grandmother’s farm-raised chicken
I grew up on a farm in the Southwest of France where my grandmother cooked for the whole family, and we invariably had roast chicken for lunch every Sunday. She prepared it with parsley, chervil, tarragon, garlic, black pepper, thyme, rosemary and four ounces of strained fromage blanc. My bedroom was just above the kitchen, and I can still remember the rich smell of the chicken being roasted coming through the oak floorboards. We were poultry farmers, my family, and now that I’ve incorporated this dish on my menus—at Ducasse in Paris and Benoit in New York—it’s important to me to choose a good-quality free-range chicken, so you can be sure it has seen the sun and ended its life in semi-freedom. This meal is also a reminder for me that cooking is all about loving and sharing. When I think back to those Sunday lunches, I remember that eating chicken was always a feast.
Alain Ducasse is the chef and owner of 26 restaurants worldwide,
including Benoit, a Parisian-style bistro in New York, and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London. He is the only chef with restaurants in three different cities with three Michelin stars, the guide’s highest rating.
Lidia Matticchio Bastianich
The beloved chef and PBS cooking show host forages for wild asparagus in the old country to make her grandmother's frittata
After World War II, Pula, where my family lived in Italy, became a part of Yugoslavia, and we lived under communism for a few years before my parents decided they had to move to America. We moved quickly, and it was startling: Suddenly, I couldn’t see my grandparents anymore. As a child, I loved being my grandmother’s helper. She lived down a little street with a garden in her backyard, and almost everything we ate came from there. During the olive harvest, I would go collect olives with my grandmother, sometimes climbing the trees to shake them into a blanket she held to catch them below. We collected eggs from the chickens. We kids were runners for her.
We foraged, too, which was satisfying, because so much of the food required a lot of hard work, and this was food you just found on your land. We looked for mushrooms and dandelion leaves, but my favorite was wild asparagus. It’s very thin and flavorful: I’ve never found asparagus in the United States that tastes anything like it. So I go back every year in the early spring to what’s now Croatia and forage for wild asparagus.
We own my grandmother’s old house still, and the memories when I’m there, eating like I did so many years ago, are overwhelming. As a girl, I remember listening to an owl hoot outside the house, and being scared; today, I still hear an owl there—I like to imagine that he is the grandson of my childhood owl. Not much has changed in her town. For me, food is so important, a way to feel connected to my grandmother, especially after I suddenly didn’t get to see her when we moved. It feels like destiny that I became a chef. I taste this simple frittata with asparagus, and instantly I feel a connection to her. —As told to Mary Jane Weedman
Lidia Matticchio Bastianich is the Emmy-winning host of Lidia’s Italy on PBS, and a New York Times best-selling cookbook author and James Beard Award-winning chef. Her memoir, My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food, is out in April from Knopf.
The James Beard Award–winning chef behind La Brea Bakery shares the secret to unwinding after a late shift: Italian red wine and Turkish pistachios
I’m 63, and I still put in a lot of hours at my restaurants in Los Angeles: Pizzeria Mozza, Osteria Mozza and Chi Spacca. Most nights, an hour or so before service ends, I have what the bartenders and somms know as a “10 o’clock Nancy,” a glass of Italian red. Might be a Barbaresco, or a Barolo, or a Sagrantino di Montefalco. Some of us gather around our high-top enoteca tables, have our shift drink and discuss the evening’s service. There are usually still customers nearby, and they often come over to chat and take selfies with us. I don’t have a plate of food then, though I often taste something new one of our cooks is working on.
But when I get home, usually around midnight, I’m famished. Lately, I’ve been smitten by a favorite treat my boyfriend picks up at a tiny market in Little Armenia: pistachios from Antep, Turkey. I grab only about five or six of these delectable nuts from a foot-tall glass jar on the kitchen counter. Then, almost in a trance, I start cracking—or, I guess, prying—them open, savoring each one as I drop the shells into the trash can. I get a little sad when I come across one my fingers are unable to pry open. In the world of food, an unpryable Antep pistachio is almost as sad as a well-done bistecca alla Fiorentina. Like I said, I only take about five or six from the jar. Then I’ll take another five or six. Then another. You get the idea. After a big night, these little nuts keep me sane.
Nancy Silverton is the co-owner of Osteria Mozza, Pizzeria Mozza and Chi Spacca and the founder of the renowned La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. In 2014 she was named the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef.
Brendan Francis Newnam
The co-founder of NPR’s Dinner Party Download explains the unexpectedly crucial role of a Croatian stuffed artichoke to his very existence
When my mother first took my father to meet her family, my grandmother ushered them to the kitchen table and presented them with one empty plate and a pot containing two steaming artichokes. My father, a poor Irish Catholic kid, looked upon the prehistoric orbs in horror. When he was growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, the most exotic thing he’d eaten was mustard on a soft pretzel. For my mother’s family, immigrants from Coastal Croatia who had settled in Trenton, New Jersey, artichokes were a tasty reminder of their Mediterranean roots.
My father was steeling himself, waiting for the silverware to arrive, when my mother’s brother’s hand shot out, plucked a leaf from the artichoke’s interior and placed it in his mouth. His hand was followed by my mother’s and then her parents’. One after another they pulled away spoon-heads of leaf, slipped them in their mouths and dragged them through closed teeth. Just as the empty plate was about to disappear under a pile of discarded green husks, my father reached out his hand and removed a leaf. He saw it was laden with a stuffing: breadcrumbs, herbs and Parmesan. He brought the artichoke piece to his mouth, raked it with his teeth, swallowed and, much to his surprise, his timid Gaelic stomach rejoiced. When the leaves were gone my grandfather carefully removed the artichoke hearts and divided them between the four of them. A year later my parents were married.
Throughout my childhood, when artichokes were in season, my father would bring them home from the farmstand on his way home from work. My mother would stuff them, place them in a cast iron pot with an inch of water and steam them. They arrived at the table still in the cooking pot, and my sister and I would dive in, eating with our hands. As we savored the rich flavor, my mother would inevitably tell the story: how my father once encountered something foreign and strange that he tried, out of love for her, and discovered it had a delicious heart.
Brendan Francis Newnam is the co-founder of the NPR-syndicated podcast The Dinner Party Download, the executive producer of The Paris Review Podcast, and the author of Brunch Is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party, out now from Little, Brown.
The chef behind Oakland’s only Michelin-starred restaurant preserves his Laotian heritage with a simple rice porridge
My father is from Laos, and my mother is from the northeastern part of Thailand that is culturally Laotian. They migrated to Oakland when I was 2, but my mother still always made congee—a kind of rice porridge. When I was young and guests came over, the first thing my parents would ask is “Have you eaten yet?” And sure enough, my mother would have a bowl of congee ready in case they were hungry.
It’s simple and delicious, and it was one of the very first things I learned to cook. You don’t need fancy ingredients or to put in a lot of work to make something great. All you need is stock or water and rice, and maybe throw in some meat. My favorite things to add are ground pork or sausage, soy sauce and scallions, but you can make it with whatever you like.
It’s a good way to use leftovers, so the day after Thanksgiving was always the best day for congee. Now I’m passing the tradition on to my kids, who are 4 and 6. Congee is the one food they won’t reject. They haven’t started making it on their own yet—my wife’s a doctor, so she worries about them getting close to the fire—but my daughter, she wants to help with tasks like pouring the rice in the pot.
These days, I find myself eating it all the time: When I’m sick and lose my appetite, I make a bowl of rice congee and it cures all. There’s an innocence to it that grounds me. You don’t overthink it, nothing’s measured; you just throw it in the pot and cook. I’ve never made a single bad batch. No one ever judges congee, anyway. It really gets to the core of comfort. —As told to MJW
The owner and chef of two Laotian-inspired restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area, Hawker Fair and Commis, James Syhabout is the author of Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes from a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai & Lao Roots, out from Ecco in January.
Inspired by Einstein and her Italian roots, the actor starts her day with fried eggs and honey fresh from her organic farm
I have about 100 chickens on my Long Island farm, and their eggs are delicious, with a different flavor and color than those from industrial chickens. The yolk is very orange. Once, in the winter, I bought some from a store and I was surprised—I’d forgotten how pale they are in comparison to fresh farm eggs.
In America it’s normal to eat eggs in the morning, but I’m still Italian: I like to start the day with something sweet. Someone sent me a story about how Albert Einstein’s breakfast had been fried eggs in butter with honey. I’m a beekeeper, too—I have eight hives. In any given year, we probably produce about 300 pounds of honey.
So now I have eggs and honey all the time, and it’s all made right here. I fry the eggs, and at the end I put a little bit of honey on top instead of salt and let it sizzle. It’s very simple: I’m not a chef, and I live alone. When I had my family and my children, I cooked more, but when you live alone, quantities are so little. If I’m staying in a hotel because I’m filming, I’ll ask for it, too. Sometimes they’ll say, “What? You want honey in your eggs?” But I love it. It makes me think of my farm, and it comforts me. —As told to MJW
Isabella Rossellini is an acclaimed actor, filmmaker and former Lancôme model. My Chickens and I—an illustrated book about the 10 breeds of chickens that live on her farm—is out in March from Abrams Image.
With doro wat, the festive Ethiopian chicken stew, Harlem’s foremost culinary impresario pays homage to his roots
The diversity of food in Harlem is so vast, and it always makes me think about the cuisine of immigrants like myself. I grew up in Sweden, but I’m originally from Ethiopia. And when I think about Ethiopian, I think about tribal food, like doro wat, from the Amhara tribe. It’s a traditional chicken stew. You start with berbere, a spice blend, and onions, and you simmer it with tomatoes and chicken, and then it’s eaten with injera bread. Most of the cuisine in Ethiopia is vegetarian-based, so serving doro wat is something special—eating meat is for weddings, funerals and big celebrations. We had it at my own wedding in Ethiopia, and we have it when friends come over. When you eat what your family ate, you think about them, and you think about the time when you were growing up. To be able to serve these dishes and have other families enjoy them brings me a lot of joy. —As told to MJW
Marcus Samuelsson is the head chef of Red Rooster, the founder
of the Harlem EatUp! Festival and the author of the memoir Yes, Chef. Named Best Chef: New York City by the James Beard Foundation, he was the youngest chef to ever receive a three-star restaurant review from the New York Times.
The pioneering molecular gastronomist doesn’t trust anyone who doesn’t like doughnuts. They’ve obviously never tried his great-grandfather’s apple cinnamon recipe
There are certain foods that make me feel warm and fuzzy. I’m not a shrink, so I can’t say for sure, but they’re dishes that feel linked to early positive memories. One of the reasons we make doughnuts is they fall into that comfort category. I find you suspect if you don’t like doughnuts. You could say “I don’t want to eat them because they don’t work in my diet this week,” but to say “Doughnuts are disgusting”? You seem untrustworthy. People are constantly pressing their nose up against the windows of the kitchen, ogling them.
My great-grandfather was a doughnut maker, and I have fond memories of being at his diner, watching him and his wife work. At Du’s, we make cake doughnuts based on his recipes, including his famous apple cinnamon. They have that friendly, give-you-a-hug feeling. Maybe sometimes we’re trying to ramp it up a little bit: We sell a simple sugared apple donut, but we also have a poppy-cranberry-seed one, which wouldn’t land in the middle on the comfort-food meter, but that’s how I’ve always operated. I try to take the unfamiliar and serve it in a familiar way, to get people to walk with us down our path. —As told to MJW
Named one of America’s Ten Best Chefs by Food & Wine, Wylie Dufresne is the chef and owner of Du’s Donuts & Coffee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the author of Wd~50: The Cookbook, out from Ecco. In 2013, after being nominated 10 times, he won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: New York City.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning memoirist remembers the real American cheese— distributed by the government and, to his working-class Alabama family, as precious as gold
I came into the world as a five-pound block of government cheese. Well, the whole truth is that a block of cheese was mistaken for me, across a busy town square. My mother was, it should be said, making a run for it at the time.
“Don’t matter the circumstance,” I told her. “It ain’t nothin’ to be proud of, to be mistaken for cheese.”
“But it was real good cheese,” she said.
My mother was involved in theft only twice in her long life, though it is doubtful you will see her name on the post office wall. She stole only one thing on purpose, which is not a bad record for 80 years; in the other robbery, the thievery was foisted upon her by fate.
“I did steal an onion,” she said, coming clean. “I did it. I did. But you be sure,” she warned me, “not to make it seem worse than it was.” (She was only a child.)
The second time, the one involving cheese, was mostly beyond her control. I was there when it was perpetrated—well, kind of. It was not my fault, either, but I suppose you could argue I was complicit, in accordance with the laws of the state of Alabama. If a bank is robbed, for instance, everyone inside the getaway vehicle is guilty. And since she was the getaway vehicle, since I had not yet actually been born into this world, I was still in on it, and essential to the caper.
It was one of the times when my daddy had gone on the lam—this time it would turn out to be for two whole years—and my pregnant mother and big brother had gone to live with my grandmother again. She took in laundry, and worked as a cook and a maid in other people’s houses, but still qualified for a smidgen of government assistance. She got a little card in the mail, testifying that we were indeed poor by a reasonable standard, and once a month she and my big brother, Sam, traveled to town, to the recreation center in Jacksonville, to pick up our dole of government food.
My people called it “our commodities,” from the wording on the little yellow card. It was always a grim day when she and my daddy reconciled, because she had to give up the commodities if she took him back. It was not, my kinfolks believed, a fair swap. All in all, they’d rather have the cheese.
For my people, commodity day was the single most satisfying aspect of being poor. It was not a check, or food stamps, but the actual bounty of the republic. The foods and the portions would shift over time, but in those days you got five pounds of yellow cornmeal, five pounds of plain flour, a two-pound can of good peanut butter, five pounds of rice, two two-pound cans of a processed mystery meat that tasted suspiciously like Spam, powdered eggs, powdered milk, a whole cooked chicken in a can (still one of the most amazing things my big brother says he has ever witnessed), a big can labeled “cooked pork chunks” and, per household, one five-pound block of blessed pale-yellow cheese.
It was not like that stuff you buy in grocery stores, that fluorescent-orange, gummy, petroleum-based cheeselike film wrapped in its individual plastic envelopes, which always remind me of the cellophane on cigarette packs. The government cheese was firm and dense and had taste, a mild, clean, but still, well…cheesy taste. It was so good that the old people still recall its flavor to this day; when they take a bite of the store-bought stuff, they make a face like a bug flew in their mouth.
It was not rich folks’ cheese, not an earthy goat cheese or a pungent Stilton or a rich Parmesan or such, not even the sharp, hard cheddar that my grandfather loved to eat on the riverbank with his saltines. But then, the government cheese wasn’t supposed to be exotic. It was, as purveyed by the government, an excellent source of protein and calories and vitamin D for the great unwashed; the fact that it tasted good, that it made other things taste good, was unintended: a happy mistake.
Other people, people who had the misfortune not to be poor, coveted our cheese. My brother’s friends always asked my mother for a toasted cheese sandwich, which was three times as thick, buttery and cheesy as a pedestrian grilled cheese. Sometimes, getting fancy, she spread on some fig preserves, or a little grape jelly. She doctored hot biscuits with a triangle of the cheese. It melted beautifully, creamily. She used it to make the best macaroni and cheese, which we consider a vegetable here. She mixed the cheese into creamy grits, and delicious scrambled eggs, and excellent molten, bubbling scalloped potatoes, which might be one of the most decadent dishes I have ever tasted. She laid it on hamburgers, a quarter-inch thick, and cut it into cubes to mix into the batter for Mexican cornbread and hush puppies.
She loved good black- and red-rind cheddar, which we called “hoop cheese,” loved its sharp taste, “but cheddar don’t melt good, and ever’body knows it.” In some dishes, she added a little sharp cheddar to the mild American cheese for contrast.
But the best thing she made, my big brother believes, was a kind of cheese-and-sausage pie, a simple and admittedly greasy thing she made for her children every time she picked up the commodities, to celebrate their largesse. Sometimes our other, close-in kinfolks gathered on the days the commodities were distributed like it was Labor Day or Independence Day, and my mother and aunts made a half-dozen pies, sometimes more. There are worse things to rally around, I guess, than a loaf of good mild cheese.
It may seem an odd thing, but word would spread, and people would even bring their own pie shells and pork sausage; my mother was the arbiter of the cheese, and so a very valuable member of the clan. They would bring a hand-cranked ice-cream maker, and would flavor the ice cream, sometimes with a can of peaches in heavy syrup, or fruit cocktail. They brought guitars, and played the music they had grown up on—gospel, mostly, like Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light.”
The pies came out of the oven four at a time.
I suppose, strictly speaking, we broke the law just by spreading the bounty of that cheese to our kin, which the government guidelines specifically forbade, as if that block of cheese were a piece of road equipment. She never sold an ounce of it, but she cut off one-pound blocks and gave it to her sisters, closest friends, or anyone unlucky enough not to be poor, so often and so regular that they, too, began to count down the days of the month to cheese day. In time, she spread our allotment so thin that the cheese ran out long before the month did, and a great sadness descended on our little corner of the earth.
It never occurred to her, she told me, to ask for more. For a people who made illegal whiskey in the pines, and sometimes went a whole lifetime without paying any federal taxes on anything, we were oddly honest about dealing with the government as to cheese. We waited patiently in line, took our allotment—no more, no less—and moved on, being sure to say “thank you.”
Besides, the holders of the cheese kept close, close track of it: one box per household.
When the lawbreaking happened, it happened, if not by accident, at least under extenuating circumstances. It was July 1959, just a few days before I was born. My mother was taking in ironing then, to pay the light bill and buy groceries, and the little frame house held in the heat like a chicken house. I’ve asked her if, considering I was about to come into the world, she might have tried to get some rest, maybe even gone to sit in the shade sometimes, for her sake and mine. She only shrugged; everyone worked then, till their time. I guess I should just be proud that she was not sipping on a Budweiser and smoking a Marlboro; I have friends whose mommas did, and, come to think of it, none of them became astronauts.
The trip to town was always a respite, I am told—the cool air rushing through the car window heaven-sent. The city of Jacksonville administered the distribution of the commodities then in the red-brick city recreation center across from the police station and jail; some days, we could get commodities and go see my daddy or one of my uncles or any one of several kin, all at the same time.
That day, the man in charge was Ernest Jones, who had given up farmwork and gone to work for the city. Ernest knew my people, knew my brother, Sam, the fat-legged little boy with the six-guns and the cowboy hat dressed like Billy the Kid, and knew their situation. It was clear, too, that the young woman was expecting.
Every recipient got an empty box at the start of the line—or brought a box from home—and it was filled at the table as the person slid it along. Ernest and my mother chatted for a minute, and as she moved on down the table he eased a second loaf of cheese into the cardboard box.
“I can’t…” my mother said.
“Sssssshhhhhhh,” Ernest said. “We had some extry.”
She still protested, afraid of what people might say, so he tried, halfheartedly, to hide it under the sacks of rice and meal. He did a poor job of it, though, and she just stood, horrified.
“You’ll get me in trouble, you don’t go on now,” he said kindly, and, feeling like everyone was staring at her, she finally moved on.
“Momma always said if she was ever gonna steal anything she would steal a hoop of good cheese,” my mother said, thinking back to that day. “She said that to ever’body.” So no one would believe this was not premeditated, since the whole world knew our family was a cheese robbery waiting to happen.
To make things worse, three-year-old Sam insisted on dragging the commodities in his wagon. It was too heavy for him to pull, what with a ten-pound allotment of cheese in it, so she took out the illegal, second block of cheese, cradled it in her arms like the precious bundle it was, and hurried to the car. With her free hand, she helped Sam pull the wagon, hoping the cheese wardens would not inspect it. It may seem silly now, but it was not silly then.
As they lurched away, she heard an ancient, quavering voice call her name. It was one of the old women who frequented the recreation center, which had a piano for psalm singing, a few card tables for Rook and bridge, and good chairs in which to visit and gossip about the heathen, the inebriate, and the unfortunate. My mother just kept moving, cradling her illicit cheese like a newborn, and tried to keep her back to the old woman. The old woman called for her to stop. “I want to see the baby,” she said.
Apparently, her vision was not superb. My mother just walked on, faster. We jumped into the car and fled, all of us—my mother, my brother and I. I already had a criminal record, and I do not believe my skull was yet fully formed. I think that might be some kind of gold standard, even for us.
I finally came into the world on the 26th of July. I weighed, oddly enough, just slightly more than a block of cheese.
There was no celebration, no gathering of the clan, when I came home from the hospital. There was not one damn pie to mark my arrival. Not only had I been confused with cheese, I was regarded, universally, as being of lesser value. I guess I should be grateful I had yet to be born the day of the cheese larceny. If my mother had been forced to choose which one of us to leave behind, I am not confident it would have been the second block of cheese.
“It was real good cheese,” she said.
Rick Bragg is the author of 10 books, including The Best Cook in
the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table, out from Knopf in April.