Before chef Cal Peternell's oldest son went to college, they reviewed how to make roasted chicken and other dishes they frequently made at home. But after he left, Peternell's son kept calling with cooking questions like "Does the chicken go with the breast side up or down when you are roasting it?" Their conversations became the inspiration for Twelve Recipes. Peternell is a restaurant chef at Chez Panisse.
Rebecca Sheir: The book obviously focuses on home cooking. Do most professional chefs cook at home?
Cal Peternell: I would probably guess the answer to that is no judging by the articles I see in magazines where people show their refrigerator and they have Perrier, Champagne and ketchup. I think they don't.
For me, it's at least as pleasurable as cooking at a restaurant. It's a different sort of cooking. But cooking for friends and family, what's better than that?
It's sort of a funny thing for me to say as a restaurant chef, but my advice to my sons and to everyone is to cook at home at least most of the time. I think that you can eat better, more healthful food and at a more affordable cost than eating in a restaurant.
You know why chefs don't cook at home? I think a lot of it is because they're exhausted and they're tired of cooking. When they get home, they don't want to cook anymore, so they get takeout or they go out. They want to check out the competition.
A lot of my peers don't have children and don't have families because they work every night. It's the kind of work that doesn't really encourage that lifestyle. They go out and they get takeout. I get that; I do that too. But I do love to cook at home.
The other thing is that when you start as a line cook, you're actually cooking a lot. As you move up and you become a sous chef, or a chef, or an owner, you're actually not getting your hands on the food quite as much.
That is true for me. I'm in the kitchen all the time and I help with cooking, but I don't really grab hold of something and cook. I teach other people how to do it. It's a little bit of a respite and a sanctuary for me in my home kitchen to be able to really dive in and do some cooking.
RS: What was the aha moment when the whole idea for Twelve Recipes came to be?
CP: I have three sons. When my oldest son was getting ready to leave home for college, that last summer that he was home with us he said, “Let's go over some of the dishes that we love to cook at home.” We went over our canon of dishes -- different pastas, roasted chicken, braised duck, mashed potatoes, polenta -- the things that are comfort food, the things we really love to cook. He just felt like he needed a remedial moment for that summer to go over them. We did that and we had a great time.
He left, then the phone calls started to come in: Does the chicken go with the breast side up or down when you're roasting it? What were the ingredients in that pasta with the cauliflower? How hot do you turn the oven?
I was happy to talk to him of course. I was really happy that he was actually cooking. But I felt like, "I will put together a booklet for you. I'll just make a little family cookbook, a little binder of recipes, from father to son."
I started to write that. I guess that was the aha moment because I thought, "He's not the only one who's going to want this."
RS: One of my favorite sections of the book comes toward the beginning of it. You call it Breakable Rules. What are some of those?
CP: There are not really rules; I do title that section Breakable Rules.
Then I think the first one is a rule that you can't break: You have to taste everything. It's really what makes the difference between a good cook and a less good one. It's important to taste the ingredients as you go along. You taste them when they're raw; for the most part, you can taste almost everything raw. While you're cooking it, when you think it's done, put those last little touches on. That's the one unbreakable rule.
But then I have my little set of rules or just ways that I do things. I thought I'd pass them on to people and they can try them out. If they don't work for them, they can break the rules.
RS: Soaking dried beans, that was something that came up.
CP: If you're not quite sure what to do, what you're going to cook this week, soak some dried beans. Put them in lots of water, set them on the counter if it's cool, put them in the fridge if it's warm. Then you can forget about it and you're cooking while you go on with your day. They're just so much better if you soak them the day before.
RS: The book goes beyond recipes. You have these other sections of dos and don'ts, and you have two sections about equipment. One, things you do recommend. But even more interesting to me is the section called Equipment Unrecommended. [Ed. note: Find three of Peternell's unrecommendations here.]
Now that all this time has passed since those initial phone conversations with your son and you've written this book, what kind of a cook has he become?
CP: He's become a really great cook. He's a really good home cook; he has cooked meals for me. He has found, like I have, that it's a great way to feed your friends and make friends and make boyfriends and girlfriends.
It's also a great way to earn some money. During the school year he has a part-time job cooking. In the summer he's a chef at a restaurant in Massachusetts on the coast.
RS: You must be so proud.
CP: I am. I'm surprised and proud.
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Rebecca Sheir is the host of Metro Connection on WAMU 88.5 in Washington, D.C. She previously served as host of AK on Alaska Public Radio Network and reported for NPR member station KTOO in Juneau. Her stories have won numerous awards, airing on public radio programs such as All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, Latino USA, Only a Game, Here & Now, Interfaith Voices and Voice of America.