Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Julia Child's Legacy, Beyond Tools and Techniques


CONCORD, N.H. — From the timesaving tools and French techniques she loved to a famously dropped dinner, Julia Child left a lasting impression on a generation of cooks.

In the forthcoming biographical movie, "Julie & Julia," Meryl Streep channels America's first celebrity chef. As the movie opens, chefs and food magazine editors remember the real Child's vast contributions to American home cooking — a scholarly yet accessible approach to recipes, an enthusiasm for efficiency and above all, a spirited sense of fun.

At the most basic level, Child introduced home cooks to their stoves, knives, pots and pans, said chef Jacques Pepin, Child's longtime friend and collaborator.

"We're in a country where we have to cook very, very fast with the microwave or very, very slow with Crock Pot cooking. Then you have the regular stove that's lost in the middle," he said.

He said he most remembers Child's great love for life and the great pleasure she took in cooking as well as eating.

"You often see people cook and never taste. For her, it was cook, taste, cook, taste, cook, taste. With a little sip of wine on the side," he said.

Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse said Child emphasized that cooking was important but need not be serious business.

"I think of her sense of humor, her joie de vivre about cooking and really about her interest in gastronomy — her academic insistence on writing the recipe right," said Waters. "It was curiosity and exploration and learning all folded together to make food an art. That's what she did."

And she gave novices the confidence to try, added Art Smith, former personal chef to Oprah Winfrey. He made a whole meal out of blanched asparagus for his first girlfriend after watching Child on TV.

"Julia Child was not only an amazing cook but taught America that it could learn to cook," said Smith. "That spirit continues to this day, and this why we have great cooking shows."

Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor at Food & Wine magazine, said she often thinks of Child when she has kitchen mishaps.

"I don't think, 'What would Julia do?' I just do what she would do: Keep on going," she said. "That was a really big part of the Julia liberation. Not only did she teach the techniques ... she said, 'It's OK. Relax. It doesn't have to be perfect."

That said, there are certain processes or gadgets that Ujlaki associates with Child. "I can't cut up a chicken without thinking of her and how lovingly she would cut it up," she said.

And Child did not shy away from modern appliances or tools if they made cooking easier, she said. She put her blender to work on a variety of classic soups and once told Ujlaki that she even used a stand mixer to make mashed potatoes for a crowd instead of the food mill she favored for smaller amounts.

"She probably used more gadgets than they used in typical French cooking," she said. "She was always very quick to embrace anything that made sense, but I don't think she had silly gadgets or gizmos. She didn't like clutter."

Her kitchen tools reflected her utter lack of pretense, said John Willoughby, executive editor of Gourmet magazine.

"If something worked well, for example, she really couldn't care less if it was traditional or not; efficiency in the kitchen was always to be embraced," he said.

The food processor is a perfect example, he said.

"When it was first introduced, I remember thinking that I probably should just ignore it, since chopping things by machine rather than by hand couldn't possibly be right. Then Julia endorsed it, and like hundreds of thousands of other American cooks, that convinced me to give it a try. Think of the millions of hours of chopping that she has saved by her openness to new ideas."

Child had a sure, unpretentious confidence in knowing who she was and what she loved, said Christopher Kimball, publisher of Cook's Illustrated magazine.

"She wasn't hopping around like so many food magazines doing the hot, latest thing," he said, recalling how he joined Child to watch the 2000 election returns on a small TV in an alcove off her kitchen. "It was just about the food and the company," he said.

It's all about the whisk for Lucinda Scala Quinn, editorial director of food at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Quinn cooked her way through Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" as a teenager, discovering the many uses for whipped egg whites and cream, from meringue to Swiss buttercream to butter.

"The alchemy of it all and the magical transformational possibilities of that one tool, the whisk, ... has never ceased to amaze me," she said.

Tanya Steel became a fan of Child's at an even younger age, after declaring at age 8 that she would not spend the rest of her life eating her mother's awful cooking.

"I literally learned every single thing from Julia Child," said Steel, editor-in-chief of, the online home for Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines.

Like others, Steel cites Child's ability to make cooking accessible and fun as her chief contribution to the culinary world. But in terms of technique, she counts roasting as the one that has meant the most to her over the years. She's passed the technique on to her own children, who tackled their first roast in honor of Mother's Day earlier this year.

"The one technique that became my infallible, go-to technique is roasting because the most basic thing turns out the most delicious dinner," she said. "I roasted a chicken about 10 different times based on watching her on the 'French Chef' until I felt like I had gotten it right."

Eve Felder, associate dean for culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America, said Child's legacy lies in taking the mystique out of fine cooking techniques that up until her time were not available to home cooks.

"I can't tell you the number of friends I have who self-taught themselves by going through her books," she said.

Felder, a former chef at Chez Panisse, remembers feeling in awe as Child toured the restaurant's kitchen.

"She just had such a spirit. Not only her physical size, but her emotional size, and the fact that she just embraced life."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Documentary Shines Light on Inner City Culinary Program

In 'Pressure Cooker,' a Culinary Arts Teacher Turns Up the Heat

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cooking class at Philadelphia's Frankford High School is all about composing salads, sculpting vegetables and weathering teacher Wilma Stephenson, who occasionally boils over. "Get your brain upscale!" Stephenson commands her students, whom she harangues and harasses in the present so they just might have a future.

Stephenson is the irascible star -- there's no way around it -- of "Pressure Cooker," a year-in-the-life documentary about the kids of Frankford's culinary arts class and their teacher, who runs the program the way Rommel ran his desert campaign.

Gordon Ramsay? The abusive TV chef would be reduced to an unhappy puddle of butter by the imperious Stephenson, although in the end she'd probably wipe his nose and buy him a new spatula.

The film, directed by Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker, follows Stephenson's class a semester after her students have won more than $750,000 in scholarships -- at a school where 40 percent of students don't make it to their senior year.

Consistently successful in getting her graduates out of the inner city and into such culinary cooking colleges as the Art Institute of Atlanta, the Culinary Institute of America and Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y., she is no-nonsense, all business.

Her manner may be brusque, but her students are responsive. And what you see in the course of the movie is what every educational trash-talker in America says schools should be doing, usually without providing any means to do it.

Often enough, Stephenson, 63, provides the means herself, which can range from money for cooking-school applications to a waiter's white dress shirt for Frankford football star and chef-to-be Tyree Dudley. ("What size is Dudley," she asks a teammate. Answer: "Gigantic?")

As good as she is to her kids, Stephenson admits she was "horrible" to her directors. "We stayed away from her as much as possible in the kitchen," Grausman said, laughing. "When I first went to her to make the film, she signed on, but she didn't really understand what we were going to do. We kept trying to explain it to her, but I don't think she ever really got it. She thought we were going to be there for a couple of days of shooting. Not a couple of days a week for a year."

Stephenson described herself as a person who needs to know in what direction she's headed and what she's supposed to be doing. "I kept asking, and they kept saying, 'Oh, we don't want you to do anything at all. We're just here.' It wasn't until I saw the movie that I said, 'Oh, that's what they were doing.' A couple of times I asked them to just get out."

The hardest part of shooting, said Grausman, was not getting locked out of the kitchen. "At one point, we were told not to come back to Philadelphia for a couple of weeks."

Read the rest of the story here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cooks Serving Others - And Themselves

Volunteers who feed the hungry put their best recipes to the test in a cook-off, and pass out checks to continue the good work.

By Dianna Marder

Inquirer Staff Writer

There's a sophisticated air at the annual chowder cook-off in Newport, R.I., and a down-home feel at the West Texas barbecue cook-off in Lubbock.

But here in the City of Brotherly Love, you'd better stand back when local church ladies compete in the annual Soup Kitchen Cook-Off.

Last week's contest, sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, challenged volunteers from the nearly 100 member soup kitchens and food pantries to compete for bragging rights.

Year-round, these church ladies (and a few gentlemen) prepare large quantities of meat-and-potatoes meals using donated ingredients, or they distribute bags of groceries to families in their communities.

But last week they took time out to put their personal best to the test at Resurrection Baptist in Parkside. From North, South and West Philadelphia they came; from Mount Airy and from Germantown, bearing main dishes, salads and desserts.

Pat Davis of the Open Door Sanctuary Kitchen brought a vegetarian taco salad made with seitan; and Curtis Robinson Sr. of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia brought the shrimp scampi that has made him especially welcome at all sorts of gatherings.

Marlene Harley of Living Water United Church of Christ in North Philadelphia set a new record: In the salads category, her signature chicken salad won first place and her potato salad took second.

Renai Ellison, of the MyPHL17 television program Better Philly, judged the first two categories while chef and cookbook author Delilah Winder, of Delilah's Southern Cuisine, judged the desserts.

After that, the contest entries were served for lunch.

There was sweet potato pie, beef tenderloin, honey-barbecue chicken, raspberry pasta, mango salad, fruit pie, double chocolate cake and Doris Shepard's prize-winning Six Layer Coconut Cake.

No broccoli, no spinach, not even any collards.

As they ate, the volunteers chatted about the way eating together and rejoicing in traditional recipes bound their families together - as the lack of food splits today's families apart.

As a girl, Rose Stephens, 87, cooked while her parents and older siblings worked their North Carolina farm. That's where she perfected her rum cake, her chopped barbecue and her sweet potato jacks.

"Not flapjacks. These were jacks," she says, describing a sort of pancake that was folded over like a stromboli and then deep fried. Not a low-cal/low-carb dish, but . . .

"I didn't feel burdened," Stephens said. "It was an honor to cook for the family."

Marlene Felton's corn pudding took first place in the main dish category and her cream cheese pound cake won second place in desserts.

Felton, 56, and her husband Derek, 58, left their day jobs a few years ago to make serving the hungry the family's full-time occupation. Fresh Start, the nonprofit the Feltons founded in Overbrook, gives groceries to 400 families a month.

But Fresh Start is also a resource center, says Derek Felton, who grew up in poverty and remembers going to school without breakfast. He went on to become a chef for Sheraton Inns.

Each of Fresh Start's monthly hot breakfasts features a self-help workshop directed at matching individual needs with existing resources. That way, Felton says, Fresh Start helps get people off drugs, into safe housing, and prepared for new careers.

Pat Davis of the Open Door Sanctuary said she sees more and more families in need of clothing too. It's sobering, she says.

After lunch, coalition officials distributed $140,000 in checks to 98 member food pantries and soup kitchens - a portion of the $250,000 raised at the Coalition's Walk Against Hunger in April. The $140,000 will be used for food, equipment or supplies at each program. The remainder of the money will expand the capacity of the feeding programs and perhaps bring more of the estimated 500 similar Philadelphia-based programs into the coalition.

Read the rest of the story (along with some tasty recipes) here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Like Father, Like Son

By NANCY CHURNIN / Associated Press

Fathers and sons often have powerful bonds

For Rafael and Ruben Torano, there's an extra sweet quality to that bond. Literally. They are both pastry chefs, a profession Ruben aspired to as a little boy as he watched his father conjure his colossal confections.

"When I was 7, I told my mother, 'I'm going to be like my dad,' " recalls Ruben at Charlie Palmer at the Joule, where he is the executive pastry chef. "When I was 10, he taught me how to temper chocolate and passed on skills that I still use now. Seeing my dad in a chef's hat, he always seemed majestic, someone I could aspire to be like."

Rafael, 54, stands beside his son, smiling and wearing his gleaming chef's whites from the Warwick Melrose Hotel, where he is executive pastry chef.

And gazing admiringly at both is Diego Torano, Ruben's 4-year-old son, who has quite a way around the kitchen himself.

"He's already cooking," his grandfather says proudly.

"It makes me nervous," his father says.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Rafael watched his own father weigh sugar and mix batter for the lavish wedding cakes he whipped up for family and friends as a labor of love. His father, a military man, never baked for a living and Rafael didn't think he would, either. Instead, he joined the Army in 1976 with the intention of becoming a dentist.

Then a man, hearing Rafael talk about how good he was with recipes, challenged him to make a Black Forest cake.

He made it, impressed everyone including himself, and never looked back. He switched his training to become a pastry chef for the Army.

The hours were long in those days — waking up at 3 a.m. and working until 11 p.m. to feed a company of 150. But Rafael loved the work. His father let him know that he was very proud. And he had a saying to get him through that he would later pass on to Ruben: "Face to the wind."

The apprenticeship between father and son did not always go smoothly. There was the time when Rafael was part of a six-man Army team constructing a huge cake with a U.S. flag and all the Army ranks. He was finishing a portion of it at home when Ruben, then 4, got a little too close.

"I was really curious," Ruben recalls. "I stuck my finger right in it. He yelled pretty loudly."
Rafael, grinning now, doesn't deny it. But he just went back to the beginning, working hard as he has always done.

"I fixed it," he says.

And Ruben learned from his mistakes. When he found himself working on an elaborate cake, he made sure his wife kept Diego on the other side of the house.

He made it up to Diego later. He made him a Cars birthday cake. And when he was done, Diego was allowed to crash his Hot Wheels into it.

Diego laughs when his father tells that story.

When Ruben landed his first job working for his father, Rafael promised to teach him how to ice a cake.

"He showed me how to do it really quickly in five minutes," Ruben says. "But I took forever because I wanted it to be perfect. I showed it to him and he wiped off the frosting and told me to do it again. I did it six or seven more times."

Ruben was upset until he understood.

"My father told me anyone can decorate a cake and hide the mistakes. But you need to learn to ice it mistake free. I'm glad he taught me that."

As a pastry chef for the Army and then for fine hotels and restaurants, Rafael's work led to a life of travel for the Torano family — Germany, Georgia, Tennessee. Ruben was born in Fort Hood, Texas. They moved to Dallas when he was 6 and he went to school in Arlington before they were off again to Kansas. But the common threads in their wandering life was always food and music, family and laughter.

When Ruben thinks about what he learned from his father, it is as much about attitude and character as it is about his innumerable baking tricks, he says.

"Sometimes when work is really long and stressful, you take all that life gives you and you roll, but always with integrity. You stick to your word and if you say you'll do something, you do it. Face to the wind."

Father and son talk constantly. Sometimes it is to make sure they don't put the same desserts on the menus at their two establishments. Sometimes it's just because Rafael, who collects cookbooks and incessantly studies recipes on the Internet and the Food Network, has an idea he can't wait to share.

They are both similarly motivated by their work, Ruben says.

"The term my dad tells us is 'instant gratification.' When you give your creation to someone and they love it, it makes you feel good."

And sometimes, if the customer doesn't say the words, they can tell in another way that the dessert was a hit, Rafael says.

"I like when they leave the plate completely clean."