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Interview Tue Oct 22 2013

The Flavor Matchmakers: Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg

JBA2009AndrewKaren.jpg
A revolutionary book called The Flavor Bible was published five years ago. Its theme was ingredients and their possible uses -- both common and classic, or unusual and interesting. A who's who of chefs acting as consultants in turn suggested pairings to go with each ingredient. Some selections were obvious and some odd- but all worked. More reference than cookbook (there are no recipes) you need a certain amount of ability and intuition to use it properly. While full of suggestions, it's up to you to be creative and savvy to extract its full potential.

In all, it was ingenious. As co-authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg say, they "chronicled new flavor synergies in the new millennium" -- inspiring the creation of new recipes based on imaginative, harmonious combinations.

Conceptually, it intrigued me. As a chef always up for a challenge, the fact that you need some chops to best use it appealed to me as well.

Say your ingredient of choice was lobster. Below it in bold type would be examples of other ingredients that were classic or commonly paired with it, say brandy or tarragon. Below that in another typeface would be a bit less normal pairings, like vanilla or fennel. One final typeface contains the wildest suggestions that could coax the most curious flavors from our lobster, passion fruit, cucumber or clove for instance.

It ended up winning a James Beard award it was also named by Forbes magazine as one of the ten best cookbooks of the past century. Accolades abound. The Flavor Bible has been called "must have", "brilliant " and "a masterpiece" by a litany of culinary titans.

In the ensuing years its become my go to gift or referral for my gastronomically well-endowed friends or colleagues. I've personally been responsible for dozen sales on three continents. Its tagline is "The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs," and I can vouch for the truth of that statement.

The authors are making the rounds, doing a victory lap for its five year anniversary, and at a recent stopover at the Spice House, I had the good fortune to be able to throw some questions their way.

Give us some background please. Where are you from? How did you meet?

KP: Graduate of Northwestern, I had my own food business. I delivered birthday cakes to students courtesy of their parents. They'd hire me and I contracted with a local bakery -- Bennison's. I think they're still there.

And you sir?

AD: I grew up in the Bay Area and started out working at McDonalds at 15 1/2 with my little work permit.

KP: He won't say it because he's too modest, but he was featured in a book called Golden Opportunity, which is about the most famous people in America who got their start at a McDonalds. He's sandwiched between, and this is the only way I'd allow it, Andie McDowell, that gorgeous actress, and some beautiful NY City restauranteur. [laughter]

AD: So I just sorta cooked while doing a lot of other things. I spent time in Alaska working in salmon fisheries... I was always in food in some type of form, I just always loved it. My roommate opened up Santa Fe Bar and Grill with Jeremiah Tower (his first restaurant post Chez Panisse) and I got exposed to California cuisine at a whole new level. I eventually moved to Boston and started working earnestly as a cook. I'd go in at 8am and do a double, finishing up at midnight or 1 o'clock. Then i'd go home and read cookbooks. I apprenticed my way up old school style and eventually moved to New York.

How'd you meet?

AD: We met through mutual friends. Karen was in NY and I was in Boston. On my first trip to NYC and her friends said, "You've got to call Karen, the most fun girl in NY." We got together, worked hard, played hard, and have been together ever since.

What made you start writing about food? Did you have an epiphany or something?

KP: Andrew was trying to decide if he should go to cooking school, and I said why don't you just go buy a book on becoming a chef and see what they recommend? But there was no book of that kind at the time. This was late '80s early '90s. I was in business school, so we went to the library and researched the US Occupational Handbook, saw that the chef profession was named one of the top ten growth careers, and thought there's a huge opportunity here. Someone should write this book.

AD: I'm a dyslectic line guy, not a writer.

KP: I said I'd help, so we wrote the proposal and sent it out. It was our second idea, the first one had been turned down, but we had all the rejection letters with the names of the editors on them and submitted it. All the agents said there's no market for a book like that -- you'd be lucky to get a magazine article, blah, blah, blah... There was no category on food writing in the bookstores like now, and that we take for granted. No Anthony Bourdain, no Ruth Reichl, it didn't exist then. We sold it more as a "how to" book, you know, like becoming an astronaut. One publisher said yes and we took the deal and was our entry to getting a book published (Becoming A Chef).

What it became at that point was something more than anybody expected, a sum of its parts greater than the whole, type of thing. Even though I majored in economics, my heart was in history and sociology and I saw in this realm of chefs an arena ripe for exploration. I mean you guys are fascinating. This was 1995. It sold over 100,000 copies and opened the doors to publishers. Our book and Mark Kurlansky's (NY Times bestsellers Salt, and Cod) proved that an intellectual single topic book on food would sell. Now there's a new bookstore category called writing on food, where you'll find our books and a host of others.

The Flavor BibleHow did The Flavor Bible come about? It really is clever and ingenious.

KP: It has its roots in our second book, Culinary Artistry. We were playing around with compiling a list of compatible flavors. So it's a book that's a reference about culinary composition -- about how chefs think about composing flavors the same way that musicians think about composing music. Or poets and poems...

How do you divide the labor?

AD: Karen's always has the vision for the books and has been the lead writer since day one. We just bring different things to it. I was in the trenches for years experiencing it, but we just have a really different skill set. I'm a nuts and bolts guy but Karen can really see a world others can't.

How long did it take to compile?

AD: Eight years.

What's the oddest/most interesting ingredient combo?

KP: It's a moving target, always adapting and evolving. One of our insights was we learned you can intensify the flavor of blueberries if you cook them with cinnamon. Likewise, if you're doing something with pumpkin. You want to make pumpkin taste even more like pumpkin? The secret is bay leaves.

What do you think is the most versatile ingredient?

KP: Salt, onions, garlic...

AD: It evolves by where you are in your life as a cook. Right now I'm a miso guy. You talk about unusual pairings, Michel Richard puts miso in his onion soup. I find that inspiring on so many levels because here's a classically trained French pastry chef that teaches himself the savory side, and he's putting it in his onion soup, which by the way is an umami bomb.

You want an umami bomb, try shio koji. It's a fermented seasoning made from rice and malt. Use it as you would miso. It's stunning. It's great with meat, fish, pickles and can be added into both savory and sweet dishes. If you're into the miso, do yourself a favor, get some and play with it.

AD: Will do. The other thing I've been into lately is smoked paprika (pimenton). All of a sudden it's one of the things I reach for.

Give me some ingredients that are always in your pantry.

AD: Champagne or a sparkling wine d'jour, good aged parmesan, shiitake mushrooms. I love granulated garlic. It's a quick bang for the buck. And there's always roasted garlic in the back of the fridge. Actually, organic wheat berries from this farmer at the Union Square Greenmarket are always there as well. I got a guy...

Where do you like to eat when in Chicago?

KP: We cannot get Mexican food like Rick Bayless is doing anywhere.

All due respect to our boy Rick, but I can take you to numerous mom and pop bodegas that will blow...your...mind. And for $10.

AD: No doubt, and we love that type of thing. Then there's Garrett's popcorn.

Most important food trends are...?

KP: Americans are eating less meat for the first time in history and that's good for our health. Good for the planet... As the population ages and you see the relationship between diet and health, it's a good, positive trend.

AD: I go to the farmers market three to four times a week and have never cooked more seasonally or organic in my life. I've never learned more about food than working with Karen on this book.

So what's next?

KP: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible comes out in the fall of 2014. We're so excited about it. The Flavor Bible ended up being about 125,000 words and I handed in over 200,000 words to my editor. If you can believe it, quinoa didn't make it into The Flavor Bible. Granted it was 2008, but how can you have a Flavor Bible without it? This one has grains galore, legumes, and probably twice as many types of mushrooms.


~*~

Alan Lake, aka "Jazzfood," aka "The Garlic Chef," has been a globetrotting professional chef for three decades and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's also the author of The Garlic Manifesto, the history of garlic Beginning 10,000 years ago in Neolithic caves, making its way to the pyramids, proceeding through Roman and Mongol invasions, past vampires, onto battlefields and up to the present day.

A lifelong musician, he coined the term "Jazzfood" to describe his cooking style "solid technique coupled with tasteful improvisation." Lake views his food as he does his music and writing, and has been known to bust a pout if subpar in any way.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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