Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Cafe

Today, the cafe remains a place where awnings, tables and chairs awaite you; a place where you may arrive feeling blue, and then, for no apparent reason, find the mood magically lifting; maybe an idea comes to mind, a friend approaches, the coffee is served. Or perhaps the sun comes out, a breeze stirs, or a favourite song is played. But one thing is evident: at the cafe one realizes one is not so alone as previously supposed and that life itself can be grand. As Jean-Paul Satre once noted … ‘It is certain that the cafe by itself with its patrons, its tables, its booths, its mirrors, its light, its smoky atmosphere, and the sounds of voices, rattling saucers, and footsteps which fill it–the cafe is the fullness of being.’

Val Clark (ed), The Parisian Cafe: A Literary CompanionNew York: Universe Publishing, 2002.

Bill Buford’s ‘Heat’

Another good kitchen read.

images-2Staff writer for the New Yorker, Bill Buford was commissioned to write a profile of celebrated New York chef Mario Batali. To do so, Buford wrangled his way into Batali’s kitchen as his ‘slave’. Eighteen months later, Buford had progressed from lowly kitchen hand to line cook, along the way spending time in Italy with the people who nurtured Batali’s skill and passion–learning the craft of pasta making in a hillside trattoria and the art of butchery in Tuscany.

Heat is a fascinating book, masterfully written, full of the most gratifying kitchen voyeurism, endearing characters, intelligent reflection and priceless insights into the complex world of food and why it matters. I like it!

A concluding paragraph:

When I started, I hadn’t wanted a restaurant. What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef: just a cook. And my experiences in Italy had taught me why. For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer’s knowledge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it’s true, those who have it tend to be the professionals—like chefs. But I didn’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.

Gay Bilson’s ‘Plenty’

In Plenty: Digression on Food, the legendary Australian restaurateur Gay Bilson provides a compilation of intelligent observations about food and culture in Australia. She does so through the lens of her own experience in three notable Sydney restaurants. It is a pleasure to read.

9781920989835For me, Bilson provides one of the more eloquent testimonies to a sense of vocation in the kitchen. She writes of her earliest days cooking professionally, circa early 70s. As mother, spouse, business manager and dessert chef, her days were long and, for the most part, spent in a dingy corner of a grossly inadequate kitchen adjoining an equally modest little dining room: but one that would go on to become a legend in the adolescent days of Australia’s love affair with fine gastronomy.

Bilson recalls the end of another day;

I’d finish plating desserts and baking souffles in the Kookaburra, with Jordan in a papoose on my back, then clean up and sit on the laundry bags. In retrospect I see this connecting space as the one I never left, mentally or emotionally, in twenty-five years of running restaurants and cooking. It is the space still connected to the work and the working staff but edging towards the audience, towards a need for recognition.… I didn’t always sit there is contentment in those days, but there was that marvelously satisfying sense of fatigue and completion that all professional cooks, brilliant, middling or bad, understand and which seems sometimes to be what one works for.

She continues: 

What I learned on my naive feet was that the reward given to people who cook well and who do so with spirit and generosity and, in the best way, intelligence, is an enormous affection and gratitude. The cook in turn feels the same towards her diners, for she cannot cook without someone to cook for.

Bilson’s trinity of ‘spirit, generosity and intelligence’ is a rare and worthy gift in any context of service, be it the kitchen, the classroom, the office or pulpit.  I have thought much lately about how those three characteristics are nurtured in my own life and work–in what I do and what I offer to others.  It’s a challenging thought.