You may have become a fan of Andy Paragani at first for his innovative and intriguing work at Bon Appétit, where he made us crave fermented cabbage tahini and salads with kale and coconut. Now, the chef, who is a food and recipe writer, has released his first book on cooking, The Chef You Want to Be: Everyday Recipes to Impress. Join us Bragani at Salon Conversations to talk about salads, bread, and why your phone shouldn’t be your kitchen timer. Watch our episode here or read the FAQ for our conversation below.
The following interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
Let’s talk about what it means to be the chef you want to be. You start this book by saying that you don’t want to be a chef at all.
I ran from it. What drew you, what made you come back to this thing you love?
I think it was too early for me to like the food. I have a guide in the book. There’s a picture of me with a Fisher-Price kitchen. I think at that age, when I was very young and a teenager, what drew me to him was just eating and having fun. And how that made me smile and how it was all about taste.
Then it developed into something that clearly became a passion. Perhaps at the age of eleven and twelve, I really became more curious about what was beyond just eating, but also cooking and experimenting in my parents’ kitchen. It was beyond flavor at that point, it was about how many other things he touched. Technologies, regional cuisine, different cultures. It was a way for me to really expand on not just my tastes, but my brain. That’s why I decided to pursue it as a career and then move to restaurants.
This book is also, she says, about context. It comes down to our challenge to rethink, What is American food? What is home cooking? It’s not just a particular thing. You create your family’s influences and cultural influences as a first generation Californian, as a New Yorker, as a Persian American. How do you incorporate that into what you’re doing for this broader audience, including foods and technologies that some people may not have seen before?
I really thought about the lessons I’ve learned all my life, working in the kind of funny, cool, and delicious food space I’m referring to. Growing up Iranian-American, working in restaurants all over the country, working in the food media, I try to extract these lessons and try to put them into the book for the reader.
“I really wanted to write the recipes in a way that it doesn’t come from this trusted place, but rather from a place where I am with you.”
I realized that if you’re trying to get someone to try a new ingredient, that’s probably the only thing they’ll get from the recipe. You don’t want to add a recipe that has 10, 12, 13 steps. She finds this balance. It’s important for the people in this book to not only fall in love with the recipes and make them and be part of the repertoire, but really go to the extra step.
If I’ve been introduced to an ingredient, a technique, or a regional dish, I feel like I’ve succeeded. That’s the biggest goal for me, which is to get people to go one step further with recipes.
We all have a different idea of the concept of being ‘the cook you want’. I don’t know how much that was intended in the book, but every recipe, its name sounds really good. Everything is thin. Everything is crunchy, very crunchy. Hot, very hot. You build these ideas to think about what our dishes are. Not only will I go to the kitchen and make eggs, I will also make fluffy eggs. I’m going to make crispy eggs. I will make jam eggs.
Thinking in the language of food love seems to be an important starting point in deciding what we want to cook, by identifying the flavors we like. How do we start this dialogue with ourselves?
I have a class that is really about my basic tools and components. I say at first, these are the tools I find I need and are essential to me in my kitchen. These are the ingredients I’m still taking and have become the foundation, the building blocks of the recipes you’ll see throughout this book.
Having said that, use them, fall in love with them, but also explore and learn which ingredients and tools work for you. Honestly, I have no use for a garlic press. But if that’s something you want in your kitchen, that’s fine. I think it’s more about exploring and getting along with trying things. Things you may like, you may not like. Because the worst thing that will happen is that you may never buy it again.
You don’t have a quick pot. You say that you are too meticulous and too pressured about what you have.
Part of it also lives in New York City, and has a very small apartment and a very small kitchen. I shipped things that I don’t find necessary. When it comes to knives, I’m only talking about the three knives I use – a bread knife, a chef’s knife, and a paring knife. I have a few pots, pans, a few good cutting boards. I find that many gadgets almost nullify your judgment and get in your way, and also invite more dishes.
When it came to the ingredient part, I understood the flavors that drew me in. I know I love acid in the form of citrus, in vinegar, and a lot of herbs. Fresh and dried chili. Fats in the form of nuts and seeds, but which are clearly higher in fat than butter.
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and yogurt. It’s all about yogurt.
Lots of yogurt. Full fat yogurt all the way.
One of her most beloved pieces of equipment is a real timer.
A real timer, yes. I think a real timer is for exactly that, timing your dishes or counting down. Once you start grabbing your iPhone or your phone, assuming all people have iPhones, this is a place for a lot of distractions. Emails, phone calls and texts. I try to avoid that. I never use the timer on my phone, and I promise it will keep you more focused.
I heard you’re renovating your kitchen now. While you’re setting up a kitchen, for those of us who can’t afford a redo at the moment but are probably thinking about how to arrange or structure it in a way that makes sense, what do you think?
My kitchen is quite small, but for me it was very important to have a proper workspace. It was necessary. So I’m scaling until I have a good amount of counter space. Thus, the refrigerator does not crash, it is flowing so there is good movement. Gas stove, I prefer. And for the first time ever a dishwasher in 14 years. So that will be the important thing for me.
“Whether it’s a crunchy vegetable salad or a leafy green salad, I want a salad that’s dressed appropriately.”
I’m blushing just like you said that. My heart just kind of stopped.
So everyone else outside of New York is like, “Do you want a dishwasher?” He’s like, “Yeah, that’s going to make a huge difference.”
Many of us feel intimidated by cooking. Even approaching a new cookbook feels like, “Oh my God, I’m going to have to learn things.” But you get it, because in the book you talk about how you only got five dessert recipes. You are not a big candy person. You admit that you’re trying to push yourself a little bit outside that comfort zone. How has it changed for you, starting out a bit more as a beginner and having this learning curve?
There are so many things I can talk about now. I have been very fortunate to work for different food publications over the years. Part of that is developing recipes. When I decided to write this book, I really wanted to write the recipes in such a way that it does not come from this trusted place, but from a place where I am with you. I’m right there in the kitchen, I’m cheering you on.
There have been a lot of great cookbooks over the years that I’ve seen. Obviously, there is a model. You have a key note, you have a list of ingredients, and a method, but I didn’t want it to be too strict. With the recipes, I wanted to make sure it felt like there was movement and fluidity. And there’s my voice there to encourage you and let you know that it’s OK that it might not be this exact size or perfectly cooked that way. I promise it will still be delicious.
Speaking in the introduction to the candy class, sweets were an Achilles heel of sorts in food. I worked in restaurants and developed many recipes, the majority were more delicious than sweets. But I love sweets. I really want to develop more dessert recipes. There are only five in the book, I’ll admit. What really interests me, and I think anyone who is creative or who has a respectable profession, is to acknowledge that the process isn’t always linear. For me, there were a lot of unprotected left-handed bumps and turns, but these were essential in my love of food and my career in this world of food. Sweets were a learning curve.
But I welcome it, and I think that’s what makes me a cook as I am. My goal is, when I write another book, I hope the candy chapter will be the biggest chapter in the book. This is my greatest hope, is to continue to evolve and grow and not to remain in a stagnant state.
Well, I’ll put you back in your comfort zone. I’ll put you in the right place – the authorities. You are a man of power. What are the keys to great power?
Whether it’s a crunchy vegetable salad or a leafy green salad, I want a salad that’s dressed appropriately. It wears enough so that there is not too much vinegar or cream dressing on the side. I want it to be light, airy and never overburden us. I want a good acidity with every bite and an irregular crunch. I want it to kind of cheat the color palette and keep you guessing. This is what I think is a great salad.
You have a technique. I’m on your side on this, I think so too. You are my business.
Oh, sure. I believe in throwing salads into your hands, and specifically I would say paper salads. Vinegar for sure. Since you are eating these leafy greens, whether they are Indian plants or lettuce, whatever that type of green is, they are very delicate. Hands are a lot easier to flip and feel like each green is getting dressed, rather than wooden serving spoons or some sort of salad. Because I think this ends up bruising the greens very easily.
What are the life-changing cookbooks that really stuck with you and hear it in your head?
First of all, I’d like to say all of David Tannis’ books. My guide, friend, chef I worked under at Chez Panisse. From “a plate of figs” his first book to “Heart of Artichoke”. He personally taught and wrote a lot to me. He is a very special person. His friends, we call him a magician. He just has the touch.
I would say “The Zuni Café Cookbook” for sure. It feels so intense in California, a lot of those.
But that’s what I grew up with. “The Zuni Café Cookbook,” Boulevard’s Cookbook. As a teenager, I would look at this book all the time. Many Nigel Slater books. I think, this is crossing. I don’t know the majority of them, I really only have a relationship with David, but I want them to read this book and hope to make them proud.
There’s something I think all these authors have not only in their books, but in their cooking, it’s very self-evident. This is something I really tried to push in this book, Intuitive Cooking.
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