Sharing a meal is a sacred act that brings people together, encourages conversation, and helps us relax, digest, and take pleasure in the small joys of civilized everyday life: friendship, good food, lively discussion, and maybe a bottle of wine to share. Food that calls too much attention to itself and demands quiet adulation gets in the way of lusty enjoyment.
I am inspired to cook food from places that I’ve traveled to or have had the opportunity to learn directly from local cooks. Earlier in my career, as chef of a Northern Italian restaurant, I studied Italian for five years to connect with Italian culinarians and learn their stories and culinary secrets. In my cooking, I emphasize food from the Mediterranean region, especially Greece and Turkey, where I’ve studied cooking;; from Tunisia and Morocco, cuisine that I learned by working with local chefs; from Mexico where I lived in my early teens: from Israel where I attended first grade; and from Brazil, India, and the Caribbean, all places where I’ve had the opportunity to travel and cook.
I believe food should look like what it is, not something else:
To me, presentation should showcase the essence of the food, not because of elaborate plate-painting and arranging food with surgical tweezers. Too many hands and too much fussiness get in the way of flavor and simplicity. I avoid plate painting, complex plate designs, tiny, precisely-cut vegetables, and molded food. Instead I might cook whole lamb shoulder on the bone, rub it with homemade Ras el Hanout spice then slow-roast it, pull it from the bone and serve it surrounding a whole roasted lamb shoulder on the bone.
Make it, don’t fake it:
At Baba Olga’s Cafe & Supper Club, where I serve as chef, we make all our own foods including hors d’oeuvres, desserts, sauces, stocks, even our own spice and herb blends. The vanilla in our baked goods comes from vanilla beans that we soak in rum. The flavorful butter comes from Vermont, famed for its high-quality dairy products, and our eggs are brown shell that we crack (never from a carton). We ripen our fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and peaches to increase juiciness and flavor. I avoid purchasing processed foods so, as many people comment, “our food tastes clean.” Oil is extra-virgin olive or canola for light, fruity flavor.
For our own health and the health of our planet’s environment, I aim to cook and eat deliciously healthy by serving foods that are 80 percent vegetable and legume based and 20 percent animal protein. I emphasize local vegetables, greens, legumes, and fruits. My first book, The Bean Bible published in 2000 was an early look at the amazing variety of flavors, colors, and shapes of legumes. Beans are beneficial to our health and put needed nitrogen back into the soil and we should all be eating more of them and less red meat. So, I make dishes like red lentil cakes with date-tamarind chutney, hummus with chipotle, and Moroccan white bean and tuna salad with chermoula.
I cook food with roots:
My cooking is inspired by traditional foods in many parts of the world, often the food of women who pass down their knowledge from generation to generation. I avoid arbitrary combinations and foods with too many, often unrelated components. Foods have a reason that they go together—basil and tomato, beans and greens, lamb and mint, lemon and olive oil–for the sake of the garden the palate and for ease of digestion so you won’t leave feeling uncomfortably overstuffed.
I cook seasonally and locally:
While I live in a part of the country with cold winters, so our growing season is not year-round, I work with as many local farms as possible, something I’ve been doing as a chef since 1980. We work closely with Common Market, a local aggregator of foods from farms in the Tri-State region, Green Meadow Farm in Gap, Pennsylvania, who I’ve been buying from since the late 80s, and from the closest farm of all, Heritage Farm, on the grounds of the Methodist Home for Children on Belmont Avenue. I serve only local strawberries when they are in-season so they are a late spring treat rather than more of the same commercial berries shipped unripe across-country.
I aim to be creative with trimmings and by-product:
I do my best to use every part of the food in the interest of environmental awareness and lower food costs, which allows me to buy the best quality ingredients and keep prices reasonable. We treat the food with respect and don’t waste it. So, chard leaves are cooked as greens while the stems become part of our Greek vegetable Briami; corn kernels are cut off the cob while the cobs go into the pot to make sweet, golden corn cob stock for soup; herb stems are saved for soups and stews, while the leaves flavor and add shape and color to finished dishes;; chicken trimmings become stock while its fat is rendered to make chicken schmaltz.
Leftovers are an opportunity to make new culinary delights:
One of the tests of a chef is how well he/she can turn excess of one dish or its components into a wonderful new dish. So, I roast mushrooms for a warm mushroom salad and turn leftover mushrooms into a rich filling for our hand-formed mushroom fillo turnovers. Prosciutto is sliced for salad and other appetizers, the valuable skin and fat are simmered with red beans to make Caribbean style red beans and rice or Tuscan white bean soup.
Preserving allows me to work with high-quality local ingredients out of season:
I pickle vegetables like Roma beans, okra, and mushrooms to serve on mezze and antipasto trays. To build up my stash for winter, I freeze things like corn kernels cut off the cob, raspberries and blackberries, and even local tomatoes. We use tomato juice pressed from local tomatoes and packed in glass jars throughout the year.
The uglier the produce, the better it tastes:
Lumpy produce with bad spots here and there that must be trimmed will be the best tasting, ripest produce. I buy large quantities of deliciously colorful heirloom tomato seconds to make into tomato-basil sauce which we freeze and then use in our catering menus and for other dishes where that taste of summer is so welcome in cold weather months.
I focus on environment awareness:
I cut down on waste by using every part of the product, save all our food scraps for composting, use compostable, recyclable paper goods, serve filtered rather than bottle water, buy local so shipping distances are less, and work to serve foods lower on the food chain, which require less water and other natural resources to produce.The fish I purchase is MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified. The meats I serve are sustainable and come from smaller local farms.