About the Author
I call myself a culinary communicator. Basically, I get paid to make people hungry instead of full. My job is to transform concepts and ideas into inspiring text, recipes, products, and images. For twenty years I’ve been perfectly happy working in “the back of the house” picking up freelance gigs; writing, developing recipes, testing, editing, and collaborating on books and promotional projects. Then I got this really great idea for a cookbook. On October 26, my first solo project Mastering Sauces: The Home Cook’s Guide to New Techniques for Fresh Flavors, was released by W.W Norton & Company. It’s time for me to change into a clean apron and introduce myself to the front of the house.
The concept came to me after working on Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine books. I spent a few years as a recipe editor, immersed in science and innovation, learning from amazingly talented and intelligent people. The only thing that I was missing was a slightly more personal application of the information. When I write about food, I want people to dog ear the page and march determinedly into the kitchen, not just nestle in with a cup of coffee or glass of wine. My book is scientific but very personal. It’s specific but still spontaneous, contemporary but respectful of the classics. My ultimate goal is to get people to cook and feel good about what they make – no matter what it is.
I am a native Seattleite. Growing up, we ate at the dinner table and talked about our day. Some of our family meals were just like those in the houses around us. We had casseroles, pork chops in mushroom soup, and truly awful meatloaf. But as often as those American staples appeared, we also enjoyed foods that very few of our suburban neighbors ever saw: mountains of fiery homemade tamales, soy-poached Thanksgiving turkey, stir-fried squid, and buckets of freshly caught Alaskan spot prawns. On weekends we would grind wheat for bread, make crazy-long noodles, and go foraging for mushrooms. Everyone was expected to help. I have absolutely no memory of not being able to cook.
At 20 I was waiting tables, trading forced perkiness for lousy tips and wondering how I was going to turn my passion for travel and books into a career. The world shifted when I noticed what the prep cook was doing. She wasn’t hollering and banging pans like the gorillas on the hot line, she was standing in a relatively quiet corner cutting up mushrooms. I realized that if I had the right credentials I too could get paid to cook, calmly and skillfully, anywhere in the world. I went to cooking school. I was taught how to properly roast a chicken, make robust stews, quivering soufflés, and delicate pastries. Then I learned how to holler and bang pots with the best of ‘em.
I did my stint in fine dining in the 90’s. I baked and catered for fancy crowds, but I turned in my whites when I realized that I was most passionate about home cooking. I believe the best food in the world is made by people who care about each other. It’s not always the finest food, but it’s definitely the best. It’s why so many of the world’s greatest chefs, like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria, follow up masterpiece cookbooks with collections of their favorite family recipes.
I have a knack at merging professional and technical information into accessible words, recipes, and images. I’m a very curious cook. When I’m interested in a subject I dig in. I read, research, and sometimes travel (though not nearly enough). I cook like a maniac until the next thing catches my attention. (see My Current Obsession page). I’ve visited Hawaiian seaweed growers, interviewed makers of herbal tonics, and toured large scale dairy farms. I bought edible tar syrup in Helsinki and learned how to make flat breads from women in four Indian states. I am magnetically drawn to international ingredients and markets. I watch the shoppers, taste whatever I can, cook it poorly, and then try again. I’ve been lucky enough to build a few loyal customers and, through word of mouth, maintain a small income without much self-promotion. Remarkably, cooking for friends and family as often as possible has become one of my professional strengths. Unlike many people in the industry, I get to see not just what customers are paying for, but what the constant stream of people at my dinner table actually like, eat, or shun. I see how “real” people interact with food. Some guests bring me backyard vegetables and growlers of homemade beer, some want to talk about sous vide or cricket recipes, others consider bean sprouts exotic and yellow mustard spicy. I always make sure that everyone, no matter what their preferences or dietary restrictions, has plenty to eat.
The extraordinary differences in people’s food knowledge, experiences, and dietary restrictions inspired the format of my book. The original title was Slather & Douse; Contemporary Sauces for Curious Home Cooks. It started out as a little book on how traditional, elegant sauces might be updated and made with less animal protein and more seasonal ingredients, but still be accessible: Dark brown vegetable stock, meatless reductions, bright purees, and classic sauces like eggless hollandaise and mayonnaise. I couldn’t stop imagining what Norman Rockwell’s grandmother would face at today’s Thanksgiving table, especially in Seattle. A dozen guests might include one vegan, one die-hard Paleo, two with gluten-sensitivities, and another with a severe dairy allergy. She would either dig for days through a giant stack of cookbooks and websites to find recipes or just fling off her apron, grab a box-o’-turkey-dinner and a crappy crudité tray and watch the football games. There needed to be a single volume that any cook could reach for that would include the classics as well as recipes for gluten free gravy, a vegan parsnip sauce puree, fresh cranberry sauce, and sugar-free salad-dressing. Slather & Douse grew into a nearly 500 page reference tool and the powers-that-be at Norton decided to rename it, Mastering Sauces.
I’m utterly gobsmacked about the responses the book is getting. I’m now working on a second volume on Pan Sauces. The project has also reignited a love of teaching, so I will be working at the Wine Country Culinary Academy in Walla Walla for the summer.
If you are a home cook, I hope you find my ideas helpful and inspiring. If you are a professional publisher, producer, or marketer, please let me help you communicate even the most obscure information in a clear and readable voice. I’m always up for teaching classes. No matter who you are, I hope you cook something and share it with someone you enjoy. Soon.