October 2005

The joy of simple cooking

Behind the Book by
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The success of my cookbook How to Cook Everything (Wiley, 1998) and my ongoing New York Times column ("The Minimalist," now entering its ninth year) has given me, in the last couple of years, the opportunity to realize two of my lifelong dreams. First, I began working on the book I've always wanted to write, a broad survey of simple home cooking from all over the globe. The Best Recipes in the World will be published on October 11, and though the jury is still out on it, I'm hopeful that it will be favorably received.

The other project a public television series and accompanying book called Bittman Takes on America's Chefs was as much fun as it sounds. (The book is available now; the TV series continues to run on stations nationwide.) The idea behind the show was this: a home cook that's me says to a bunch of chefs, essentially, "I may not know what I'm doing in your kitchen, but I know what I'm doing in mine, and I'll put my finished dishes up against yours. I'll show you that simple food cooked at home can taste as good as four-star restaurant cooking." The bridges between the simple work of the home cook and the more complicated tasks of the grand chef had become apparent to me during my work with Jean-Georges Vongerichten on our second book together, Simple to Spectacular (Broadway, 2000), which was based directly on our work patterns. Often, we'd start with a simple recipe mine, his, his mother's, a friend's, a classic and build on it, turning it into something grand, and our goal was to demonstrate how those bridges are built.

In "taking on" America's chefs, I had a similar but slightly contrary notion. I'd encourage chefs to do what they do best and respond by showing that at the heart of their grand creations resided a simple recipe, one that could be prepared on a weeknight by a single person cooking alone at home.

I love cooking with chefs, whether they're trained in the classic French style or essentially self-taught. They all know unique methods, flavor combinations and dishes, and each has a personal style. Furthermore, their passion for food is usually what drove them into the field, and that passion is admirable, as is their work ethic. But when we proposed Bittman Takes on America's Chefs, many chefs were taken by surprise. Still, it was meant to be a fun concept, and was eventually seen that way. (I cannot threaten the day-to-day position of any chef. Not only have I never run a restaurant, I have never been to cooking school or even worked in a restaurant. I cannot slice an onion in 10 seconds with my eyes closed neither could a few of our chefs, as I found out and my cooking remains straightforward and very much home-style.) The show worked like this: our chefs prepared a dish of their choice, as complicated as they liked, with as much help as they liked and with whatever ingredients they liked. I followed with a dish that was somehow related either in concept, spirit, main ingredient or major flavor working by myself, as a home cook, with "normal" ingredients and (for the most part, though this was not always possible) normal cookware. Some chefs took the challenge as a one-on-one thing and did almost all of the work themselves; this took a long time. It was an honor to work with our chosen chefs (though when you watch the series, it may not appear I actually felt that way), who run the gamut from Jean-Georges himself to my old friend Chris (Thrill of the Grill) Schlesinger; up-and-comers like Suzanne Goin and James Boyce, both from California; superstar Asian chefs Charles Phan (Slanted Door) and Suvir Saran; and a host of others.

The Best Recipes in the World is next up for me, and I'm proud of it as any book I've ever done, but as an experience it can't beat Bittman Takes on America's Chefs.

How to Cook Everything: Bittman Takes on America’s Chefs
By Mark Bittman

ISBN 9780764570148

Mark Bittman

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