August 12, 2010

Q&A with Carol

This post has been languishing in the queue in draft mode, waiting for me to press "publish."  Duh.  But even so, some of you emailed a few more really great questions since I finished the initial draft, so I figured it was time to get everything answered and out there for your reading enjoyment.

For some background reading, and to offer yet another procrastination tool, I humbly offer these three posts:

French Laundry at Home: Q&A with Carol, Part 1

French Laundry at Home: Q&A with Carol, Part 2 (mentions the first time I ate at Alinea)

French Laundry at Home: Q&A with Carol, Part 3

It's been fun for me to go back and read those posts, because cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook was such a life-changing experience in ways I'm still learning about.  It was the best kind of preparation I can imagine for my being able to tackle the Alinea cookbook.  It opened the doors to some incredible dining experiences.  It made introductions to people whose writing or cooking I'd long admired and can now call my friends and colleagues.  It changed so much about my life, and yet, probably more accurately, allowed me to be more of who I really am.  All because I was bored and needed to challenge myself to do something out of my comfort zone.

In the time I've been cooking my way through Alinea, my eyes have opened wider, my palate has become better educated, my knife skills have improved, my understanding of flavor profiles continues to expand, I've become more patient, and the experiences and opportunities that have come my way are unbelievably extraordinary.  All because two very important (to me) food experts and writers told me I couldn't do it and was crazy to even consider cooking anything from this book.

I am not good at failing at things.  Ask my parents.  If I couldn't do something perfectly, the first time, as a child, I'd freak out.  Or, I wouldn't even try it.  My mom likes to remind me that for the first five times she dragged me to swimming lessons, I wouldn't even get in the pool because I wanted to already know how to swim before I went into the water.

It's a theme that runs pretty strongly throughout my life, this need to be perfect the first time I do something.  When I was about to turn 16, I hated practicing driving with my parents.  I thought I should just be able to get behind the wheel of a car on the test course and wing it, wowing the state trooper who ran the driver's license program with my perfect driving skills.

I eventually learned that this is not the way life works, and have more failures on my life's tally sheet than I care to count.  But every now and then, I can feel myself getting anxious before starting an Alinea dish because I feel like I should already know how to make it before I even go grocery shopping for the ingredients.  So, I guess I still have some growing to do, and doing it through food has been an enjoyable path on which to do it.


Let's get to your questions.  I've included names and cities from those of you who said it was okay to do so, and left the rest anonymous.  Here we go...

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What's Grant Achatz really like?  (Allison; San Jose, CA)

A lot of you asked this question, actually, which kind of caught me off guard.  I can only tell you what I know of him, and that is that he is smart, funny, tall, kind, and has been so incredibly supportive of this project that I only hope I've been able to do his work justice.  I was a little afraid of Grant before I met him.  Every photo I'd seen showed a stern, focused face.  Every interview conveyed an intense sense of purpose.  Even the look and feel of the restaurant's web site was bad ass and bold.  He intimidated the shit out of me.  And then, I met him.  And 30 seconds into meeting him, he cracked a smile and I thought, okay, he has teeth and he smiled.  I'm still intimidated by him in the way I'm intimidated by people who are just so freaking good at what they do, but I also feel lucky that I've gotten to see him in other settings and can tell you that he's the real deal.

First off, thank you for the very cool blogs.  I have really enjoyed reading them, and for the recipes I've tackled in The French Laundry cookbook, was glad to see that the pitfalls I encountered were not just applicable to me.  Do you think there is a better order of books to tackle (TFL/Alinea), and would you recommend bouncing between them or sticking to one at a time.  (Bob R.)

You're welcome.  Glad to give you some pitfalls of my own to commiserate with.  I wish more bloggers would talk about their dishes that failed, sucked, or just plain didn't work.  It would make the rest of us feel more human, and that even the great cooks screw up sometimes.  As for what order I'd tackle the books, I don't think there's a right or wrong answer here.  Figure out what's in season in your farmers markets or grocery stores right now, search the books' indices for those ingredients, and choose something that sounds good, and that you think you can do.  Or, read both books cover-to-cover for inspiration.  Make notes, add Post-It notes to the pages you can't stop thinking about and let that drive your cooking.  For me, The French Laundry Cookbook was great training.  It was a kick in the pants that built my confidence and taught me things I needed to know.  But there are dishes in the Alinea cookbook I know I could've done without having first done FL@H.  Trust your instincts, and then find a recipe that pushes you a little bit.  You'll find you probably have the skills to make it happen -- you just need to get out of your own way.


You (most of the time) make it look easy, but is this food really cookable at home? (Kevin; Tucson, Arizona)


And as much as I'd love for this to have been a one-word answer I don't want to be a jerk about it, but the honest answer is that simple: yes.  This food is cookable at home.  Is what I make as good as what they do in the restaurant?  No.  Do you need to make the dish exactly as it is in the book?  No.  And maybe that's the important point to make here.  One of the reasons I've really come to love the Alinea cookbook is because the dishes are comprised of separate elements that when combined on a plate make for an extraordinary dish.  However, many of those individual elements can be eaten singly or repurposed in some way.  Miso mayonnaise, licorice syrup, marcona almond brittle, and pistachio brittle come to mind.  The techniques in this book have influenced the way I cook, too.  I'm really good at cooking sous vide now and can cook lamb and duck that will make someone cry.  That might never have happened had I not done it over and over again as part of learning from this book.

You're recapping Top Chef and it sounds like you hate it as much as I do.  What happened to that show?  (Kendra; New York)

I can't tell if it's because I'm tired of the "reality" show genre altogether, or that cooking competitions are weird, or that this cast bothers me, or that it's hard for something that's filmed in your town to feel so foreign and detached.  Probably all of the above.  

On French Laundry at Home, we met some of your purveyors.  Who else have you started getting food from for this blog?  Anyone new? (Kristin; Terre Haute, IN)

On FLAH, you met Scott Weinstein and Forrest Pritchard.  Scott has moved on to some new venture he's not ready to talk about yet, and Forrest is still my meat and egg guy.  In the next few months, I'd love to do Q&As with Judy Shertzer from Terra Spice and Steve Stallard at BLiS.  Thanks for reminding me I need to get on that.

What did you have for lunch today? (John S.; Mandeville, LA)

Well, on the day I'm answering this question, I had two spoonfuls of peanut butter, leftover Rancho Gordo beans with rice, and an orange.  Livin' on the edge, aren't I?


You're more than halfway through the book.  What have you learned?  What more do you want to learn?

I've learned greater patience.  I've learned to be a better photographer.  I've learned to trust my instincts more.  I've learned more about hydrocolloids, but I still have a ways to go.  I've learned that pickled things aren't terrible.  I've learned not to gag on cilantro.

The one area I need to learn more about not just for this blog but for my entire food life is sourcing and growing my own food.  My neighbor, Holly, and I are learning about chickens right now so that we can determine if this is a path we want to go down.  And, I'm immersing myself in gardening and plant biology books and seed catalogs to better understand how to grow what I want to eat, year-round.  Now, I just need a yard.  A big-ass yard.

You sound kind of pissed off when you write about gluten or celiac.  Well, maybe not pissed off, but not happy about it, really.  (Mike; Arlington, VA)

Oh, Mike.  You are so right.  I try to be mindful of how and when and how often I talk about gluten and celiac because I never, ever want to become THAT PERSON when it comes to this issue.  It was one of the things that made me the saddest when I got my diagnosis... that I was going to become one of those annoying food allergy people.  You know the type.  I also am not earnest or joyous by nature, so to write about having celiac as if it were so wonderful isn't true to who I am.  Having celiac and not being able to eat gluten sucks.  It just plain sucks.  Knowing that I unknowingly destroyed my digestive system for years and have thus increased my risk of certain cancers by more than 400% is something I think about nearly every day.

I was sick for a long time. A really long time. Only, I'd gotten so used to these symptoms that my baseline for feeling good changed and I didn't know what healthy really felt like.  When you go to a doctor and they give you the list of things they want to rule out (cancer, ALS, MS), of course, those are the first things you run home and Google.  And you read the symptoms for all those diseases and say, "I HAVE ALL THREE OF THOSE THINGS, SIMULTANEOUSLY."  Then, when the gluten thing was figured out and I eliminated it from my diet -- I kid you not, in 36 hours I felt like a whole new person.  But while I'm back on the path to getting healthy (it takes years for your body to readjust), I'm still angry and continue to mourn the loss of a normal lifestyle.

When I'm at home, there are no worries.  There's no gluten in my house.  And, it's not so bad going to restaurants, because I go to places where I know the chefs and front-of-house staff and know they'll take care of me.  What's most difficult for me is going to someone's house for dinner or a dinner party and having them be worried about what they've made or how they made it, and hoping I won't get sick.  Cooking and entertaining should be fun.  For some, it's stressful, but then to add my annoying complication to it to make it more stressful just makes me sad.  My close friends are amazing and when I eat at their house, we don't even need to talk about it because they already know what to do.  I'm humbled and emotional every time I head back home because it makes me feel so cared for.

When it comes to this blog, gluten hasn't been a huge roadblock, though there are some dishes where my not using it and having to substitute something else will change the core of the dish.  But that's a fun challenge.  I have to mention it here on the blog when I cook because I want those who also have celiac to know they can cook high-end, avant-garde, Alinea-influenced food, too.  It can be done.

But yeah, you are right that when I do talk about it, it's largely negative or with an implied heavy sigh.  That's just the way it is for me right now.

In the past, whenever people ask the "what would your ideal last meal be" question, I'd fantasize about some amazing foods.  And now?  I want my last meal to be a grilled cheese sandwich, macaroni and cheese, Chinese food, a Chipotle burrito,  and ravioli. Give me gluten, then give me death.


Are there any foods you won't eat?

When I started this blog, I was pretty open to eating most everything, but really was squeamish about oysters, cilantro, celery, and tripe.  Oh, and softshell crabs.  I actually like oysters now, which surprises me more than anyone else.  Thanks to this article, I've started experimenting more with cilantro... though it still isn't a favorite taste of mine and definitely still tastes like soap most of the time.  I hate celery far less than I did before.  And tripe. Oh, tripe.  As long as Nick Stefanelli is making it, I'll eat it.

The one thing I can't bring myself to make or order is softshell crabs.  My friend, Carlos, keeps threatening me with them in his restaurants, but I won't do it.  I had them at a friend's house a month or two ago, and they were delicious. He's a great cook and prepared them in a way that didn't give me texture issues.  They were fantastic.  But I can't cook them and the thought of going to a restaurant specifically to eat them in the traditional way they're done just makes me skeeve. 

Do you miss cooking from The French Laundry Cookbook?

A number of you asked me this, and I gotta say: just because I'm not blogging about it doesn't mean I don't cook from this book.  I do.  I use it all the time as a reference, and go back to certain preparations and ingredient combinations all the time.  I still get emails about dishes I did on that blog, and that delights me to no end.  More and more people are cooking from that book and emailing to tell me about it, telling me how great it turned out or how my post showed them steps they were unclear about.  Hearing that something I cooked helped somebody else be a rockstar in the kitchen makes my cold black heart all warm and red.

Can I ask a non-food question?  What are you watching on TV these days? (Joel; St. Helena, CA)

I've cut waaayyy back on my TV watching.  I had to.  I enforced a two-week moratorium, while still TiVoing everything, and then paid attention to what shows I wanted to watch first once my self-imposed ban was lifted.  Those were the shows that stayed in the rotation.  Mad MenSo You Think You Can Dance (though I quit watching halfway through this season because it's gotten terrible).  ParenthoodAvec Eric. My Boys.  I did a quick scan of the listings for the new Cooking Channel, and while most of it looks annoying, I have TiVoed entire seasons of the original Julia Child series, The Galloping Gourmet, and Two Fat Ladies

On my Netflix list are the DVDs for whole seasons of Modern Family, Community, Breaking Bad, and United States of Tara.  I watched both seasons of Party Down via Netflix and can't recommend it highly enough.


Sometimes you Twitter asking for book suggestions.  What have you read that you've enjoyed?  I need ideas for the beach this summer.  (Kellan; Plymouth Meeting, PA)

And how nice of me to wait until the end of summer to publish this, huh?  I'm going through a Seinfeldian no hugging, no learning phase and just want to be entertained by the pages in my hand.  So, I'm enjoying fiction by Jonathan Tropper and Jane Green.  I loved JR Moehringer's The Tender Bar.  Steve Martin's memoir was a quick and entertaining read.  And, two friends of mine -- Tara and Laurie -- had their books published this year, and I devoured both of them.

Has Alinea been more expensive to cook through than The French Laundry Cookbook?

Oooo, this is a good question, and not one I'm sure I can answer.  I think they're probably about the same, truth be told.  I bet my soft costs -- electricity, water for the dishwasher -- have gone up a bit for this blog because of the long dehydration times and immersion circulator running.  But, just as I didn't do with French Laundry at Home, I'm not keeping a specific cost list or balance sheet.


What's the strangest thing in your pantry right now?

I had to go in there and look, and I don't know how to answer this.  I mean, I could go for the obvious and say tapioca maltodextrin, but that's kind of an unfair, leading question for someone who's cooking through this book.  So, if I eliminate all the Alinea-centric things in my pantry, I suppose the "strangest" thing might be some unidentified dried chiles I probably need to throw away.  Or, maybe that I have 15 different kinds of salt?  What's the strangest thing in YOUR pantry?

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When I went back and re-read the Q&A posts from French Laundry at Home, I came across this question and answer and wanted to repost it because even after two years, the answer remains the same.

Q. What's your culinary holy grail (besides cooking thru TFLC)? A food item, a dinner cooked by someone, a piece of equipment?

A. I was just talking about this question with a friend of mine, because I think my answer would have to be something I wouldn't have said a year or two ago. Before I started this project, I think my answer would have been "dinner at The French Laundry," but now that I know that's going to happen and now that I've had my world view of food changed pretty dramatically over the past two years, I think my culinary holy grail would be to own a few acres of land on which I would plant the most amazing garden, as well as have a few chickens for eggs and for eating. I'd love a normal-sized farmhouse, with an upgraded eat-in kitchen and a large dining room with a long table and many, many chairs so that I could throw some great dinner parties. Oh, and unlimited funds to make all this happen so that I could just plant, grow, cook and eat all the time, without that pesky thing we call work getting in the way.

Thanks, again, for all your great questions and thanks for being such amazing supporters of this blog.  I'm grateful every day that you're out there reading and cooking and doin' your thang.


Alinea Book


  • I'm cooking my way through the Alinea Cookbook. Because I can. I think.


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