Lest I fall into the black hole of regret, an abyss that beckons to me on a daily basis, let me state that I am not, nor have I ever aspired to be, a chef. That thought never seriously occurred to me at the appropriate time in my life. I was too busy messing about in an unfocused, disorganized way, an approach to living that I would not recommend to any child of mine. But life is what happens when you are busy making plans. Or in my case, not making plans.
I backed into the world of cooking by way of a spiritual quest that led me to a yoga ashram that led me to opening a restaurant that led me to finding a mentor that led me to learning to cook from a neighbor who happened to be a French chef. See what I mean? Non-choices become choices in their own sneaky way. In the early 1970’s women were not chefs. Of course, Alice Waters is the exception, but she had to open her own restaurant and figure out by herself how to do it. Instead of wandering around France stomping on grapes, eating vast amounts of cheese and discovering my bliss, I chased my bliss with a lot of deep breathing in a little town near Woodstock, New York. Oh, I should mention, we also opened a tiny roadside restaurant to give us something to do when we weren’t meditating.
When I inquired with all the innocence and earnestness of youth if I could intern at Quo Vadis, the restaurant of my dear friend/chef/neighbor Eugene Bernard, he smirked, chuckled, and shook his head.
Women have no place in the restaurant kitchen. Women cook with their hearts, not with their heads. Women are not allowed in the Quo Vadis kitchen.
In the 1970’s, the top restaurants in New York City were French, and entering one of them as a female cook would have been acause célèbre akin to the French revolution.
But enough about moi.
The reason I bring this up is to highlight the strides women have made in crashing that boys’ club. By the 1980’s, women were making headway in the professional kitchen, and Jody Adams of Rialto in Cambridge, Massachusetts was one of them. The other night, at Rialto, she cooked a dinner with another formidable female chef: Benedetta Vitali, from the restaurant Zibbibo in Florence. I suspect that Benedetta’s road to establishing herself in Italy was paved with more than a few bumpy cobblestones. But you would never know it by talking to her. She is lovely, soft-spoken, and unlike some of her male counterparts, totally unassuming. But don’t let those beautiful green eyes fool you. She is filled with the passion, talent and discrimination that makes her, like Jody, an inimitable chef. As Bernard confided to me some years later, after he began teaching at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., women were much better students than men after all (sorry guys). They are more meticulous, conscientious and diligent. In other words, women chefs rock!
Don’t hate me because I was at that dinner and you weren’t. Benedetta has a book, so you can cook from it yourself. In fact, if you could eat a book you would eat Soffritto. (Sadly it is out of print, but you can still find it.) It is filled with gorgeous photographs of Tuscany and the ardent words of a native Florentine who gives her readers the gift of the region’s food and a disappearing way of life. When she describes how to make soffritto—the underpinning, or base layer upon which a dish is built—she warns not to use a food processor, but to chop the carrot, celery and onion very finely with a knife: “Chopping an onion by hand might induce a few tears, but one should weep from time to time.” How can you not love her?
P.S. Watch Jody Adams compete on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters starting on Wednesday, April 7. And if you live in or near Cambridge, go to Rialto and sample Jody's menu for yourself.
Peppers in March goes against the grain of the true Tuscan spirit of using only seasonal ingredients, but in New England, sometimes you have to break the rules. With apologies to Benedetta Vitali, this recipe uses less olive oil for fat-o-phobes (the original calls for 1/2 cup) and thyme in place of oregano, because it was easier to find. If you are vegetarian, you can omit the anchovies, otherwise full steam ahead on the little fish; they add a ton of flavor. You could serve these as a side dish, over polenta, or on toasted bread as bruschetta.
Oven Roasted Peppers with Capers and Olives adapted from Soffritto by Benedetta Vitali
3 tablespoons or more olive oil
4 small to medium-size yellow and/or orange peppers
2 rounded teaspoons capers
8 anchovies, rinsed and cut into 2 to 3 pieces
1 /2 pint small cherry tomatoes
16 to 24 pitted Kalamata olives
About 1/4 bunch of thyme, or 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped oregano
1/2 cup or more red wine
1/2 cup water or chicken stock
1. Heat the oven to 450°F.
2. Spread 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the bottom of a large (9 X13-inch) baking dish. (If you like, use up to 1/2 cup of olive oil.)
3. Cut the peppers in half lengthwise through the stem, and pull out the stems and the clump of seeds attached to them. Set the pepper halves in the baking dish with the cut side up. Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon capers inside each pepper half. Top them with the anchovies, 2 to 3 cherry tomatoes and top the tomatoes with 2 to 3 olives. Sprinkle lightly with salt (remember, olives and capers are salty) and pepper. Lay a small thyme sprig on top of each pepper half and drizzle the peppers with a little olive oil. Pour the wine and water or stock into the pan to coat the bottom in a thin (1/4-inch) layer and cover the pan with aluminum foil. Bake for about 50 minutes on the lower shelf of the oven, until the peppers are soft.
4. Remove the foil and return the peppers to the top shelf of the oven for 10 to 15 more minutes, until the juices in the pan thicken slightly and the peppers have started to brown at the edges. If the bottom of the pan becomes dry at any time, pour in a little more wine. Remove the pan from the oven and serve.
Toast 8 slices of rustic-style bread under the broiler. The bread should be crisp and golden on the outside, but remain slightly chewy and soft on the inside. Drizzle some pan juices over the bread slices, top with a pepper, and drizzle with additional good quality olive oil.