Take notes from Kevin West, for Home Ec has never been so cool.
Back in March, when former W Magazine editor Kevin West co-hosted Fritz Haeg’s “Domestic Integrities” installation at The Hammer, the Master Food Preserver’s contribution included a lemon-curd sweet made with Band of Outsiders’ Scott Sternberg and Ammo restaurant. In Saving the Season ($35; Knopf), excerpted here, the Deep Springs College graduate and Hollywood Hills resident consulted literary manuscripts, marquee farmers, and friends and legends like Valerie Gordon and June Taylor to pen the story-packed compendium. It’s a bounty of jelly, marmalade and pickle recipes, timely and timeless for today’s cult of domesticity.
When I was twenty, I took a year off from college, which turned into two years as I hung around Berkeley, California, vaguely hoping to find my way into the food scene there. The benefactor of my ambitions, such as they were, was David Tanis, who in 2011 retired from Chez Panisse after some 30 years, to write cookbooks full-time. David hooked me up with two stages, pronounced in the Gallic manner like “stahj”—restaurant lingo for unpaid internships.
The first was at Greens, the legendary vegetarian restaurant cofounded in 1979 by Deborah Madison, an alumna of Chez Panisse and the San Francisco Zen Center. In the history of American meat-free cookery, Greens was arguably the first American restaurant to justify the previously oxymoronic phrase “vegetarian cuisine.”
The day I was there, the kitchen smelled of simmering stockpots and baking winter squash. I was assigned a flat of wild mushrooms to prep, which was a lot of wild mushrooms when you consider that they were small, fragile, dirty things. A cook—I wish I could remember his name—demonstrated the light brushing technique for cleaning them. Then he gave me a word of advice.
“Treat each fruit individually,” he said.
That he classed the mushroom as “fruit” was striking enough, a pretty high-class way to put it, or so it seemed to me at that impressionable age.
But, more important, that he saw the mushrooms in front of us as specific and not generic shifted my worldview on its axis. That is to say, I saw a tiresome number of one thing—mushrooms—that needed to be improved. He saw many individual things that were unique in themselves and therefore complete.
“Treat each fruit individually” thus represented an important epistemological distinction between Plato (there is a perfect Mushroom, but perhaps no single mushroom) and Buddha (every mushroom that is, is yet another aspect of Mushroom in its infinite expressions). In the Greens worldview, food comes from nature, and the ideal function of the cook is to reveal an ingredient’s inherent qualities as unobtrusively as possible. Over time, that worldview has become my own.
My second stage has taught me something technical, so it’s easier to explain. David got me into the kitchen at Chez Panisse one particularly busy Saturday afternoon when extra bodies were needed to—literally—peel potatoes. I was nervous to be in the sanctum sanctorum of new American cooking, and as I worked, I let potato peelings drop everywhere, creating a mess that drew Alice Waters’ attention as she swept through the kitchen. She pushed me aside and crisply put everything in order, whole potatoes in one tidy pile and peelings in another. “Do everything neatly always,” she said before darting off.
I’d nominate that sentence as the single best piece of kitchen advice ever imparted.
Fifteen years passed before I went into a restaurant again, when my friend Akasha Richmond, proprietor of Akasha Restaurant in Culver City, asked me for a lesson on making jam. I was a bit nervous to be there as an instructor rather than a student, and frankly intimidated by the huge pile of Elberta peaches we had for making a restaurant-sized batch of jam. I forgot to consider each fruit individually. I wasn’t neat in all things. And it showed in the jam, which tasted good but had a sloppy, farmhouse look. Disappointed, I suggested to Akasha that we run it through a food mill to improve the appearance.
“No, I like it,” she said. “It’s rustic.”
And that was the third lesson I’ve learned in professional kitchens. The jam that we made didn’t need improving, because there’s no such thing as the perfect Jam. Instead, every jam that is, is yet another aspect of Jam in its infinite expressions.
Edited by Alison Clare Steingold
Images, recipe and text courtesy of © Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving By Kevin West, Published by Knopf, June, 2013.