The Self-Taught Minimalist Chef
Interviewed by Linda Richards
From January Magazine
Understand, first of all, that super chef Mark Bittman is as opinionated as they come. He doesn't suggest that his ideas are superior, he demands your understanding and agreement. When he says, "Asian noodles are as good as Italian noodles," he's not looking for your understanding. He's stating something that, to him, is a plain and indisputable fact.
His recent book, The Minimalist Cooks at Home, is filled with such Bittmanisms. It's also a completely no-nonsense approach to what some would consider haute cuisine. For what else would you call Carambola in Grilled Fruit Skewers or Parmesan Cups with Orzo Risotto? However, Bittman does them with such a seeming lack of effort, he makes it all look like less work than your grandmother's pot roast. Better still, he shows you how to do it easily, as well.
The book was inspired by and is based on Bittman's widely syndicated New York Times column, "The Minimalist." Bittman uses both the column and the book to evangelize some of his radical theories on creating food for the modern kitchen. He likes things simple and straightforward. Not, he says, that a dish shouldn't be elegant, but, as he writes in the book, "The key to enjoying cooking is embracing simplicity. Simplicity in food is honesty, warmth, pleasure, modesty, even fairness. Simplicity in cooking is ease and grace."
This simplicity is something that dominates Bittman's approach to cooking. From his favorite lunch (a simple skirt steak, cooked by his own hand) to the "awful" kitchen in his Connecticut home, Bittman practices what he preaches in the minimalist department. "I have an electric stove, Formica counters, I have a Magic Chef refrigerator and a really old dishwasher. It doesn't matter. I have good knives. I have good cutting boards. I have decent skillets, but not great. It's bullshit. When people say to me: how can you cook in that kitchen? I say: it's heat. If you can't cook with heat, you can't cook."
The tools aren't important, says Bittman, it's what you do with them. The most salient thing, he says, is "knowing how to cook. And good knives, because when I go other places there's only one thing that can really drive you crazy -- except for 'where's the corkscrew' -- is like when people buy television knives and then they don't sharpen them. Bad knives are hard. But you know, my grandmother would have a steak knife and she'd use that. She'd peel a potato and she'd cut it in her hand. I mean, we all had grandmothers who did that kind of stuff. Big fucking deal. It's not about that."
At the heart of Bittman's message are a few simple rules: keep it simple and don't be afraid to try new things. For instance, "A lot of people want to cook duck at home. I'm clear on that. Because they all say: I want to cook duck at home, but I'm afraid to, blah blah blah. So at least people give it lip service. But the recipe for pan cooked duck in [the book], is different and it's really good. And it's easy."
Bittman is interested in and excited by the possibilities of fusion cooking. The average North American chef, he says, needs to get a better understanding of the types of food and ingredients available to them. "The average home cook has a zero repertoire when it comes to Asian food. In the average non-Asian home, of course. People think Italy, Italy, Italy, Italy, France, Italy. And OK: that's good food. No arguments there. But China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam: this stuff is great."
With that understanding, Bittman maintains, comes innovation. For example, "I think soy and butter is a really magnificent combination. It's one that only could have happened in North America and I think it's really symbolic of fusion that works. Fusion that makes sense. Because I don't think soy and parmesan, for example, works. There's a recipe in the book that includes the combination: there's a Soy Ginger Butter on a Sirloin Steak."
Part of what excites him is sharing this passion in a very public way: his column and -- subsequently -- his books. "I did a column with seared scallops on a bed of lettuce with a sort of peanut butter, soy, garlic, ginger salad dressing. To me it was a totally obvious dish and I hadn't run anything really like it [before]." Response, he says, was very good. "Often I make a dish and then I think: Oh. This would work as a column. And I got a lot of calls, 'Oh this is great. I always wanted to know how to make this.' People just don't have the resources. The really good Asian cookbooks have not been written. Not compared to Italian and French cookbooks."
Despite his evangelical passion, Bittman is not a classically trained chef. "I've never trained, but I can't say that anymore. I've never formally trained. I've never worked in a restaurant. That's true. But I just did two books with Jean-Georges Vongerichten," the second, Simple to Spectacular, was published by Broadway Books in October. "So in a way I've trained with the best. I learned a lot from that. I never had formal training. But now I can call any chef I want and say: Will you cook with me? And they all say yes. So, in effect, I'm getting private lessons from anyone I want."
A series of unrelated jobs -- from cab driver to radical community organizer -- saw Bittman move from New York to Massachusetts and back again, with the only connecting thread in his life being the food he increasingly enjoyed preparing. He did not, however, aspire to chefdom. "I wanted to write." And not about food. "What I really wanted to write about was politics because, after all, I knew how to fix everything. But, for some reason, no one wanted to listen to me."
A stint of stringing for various newspapers and magazines saw him covering everything from politics and labor to home repairs and the death of nuclear reactors. While Bittman was earning his bread -- as it were -- as a writer, he didn't feel he'd really found his niche. That changed when he started writing about food. "It was all sort of an immediate success. It worked. The column in The New York Times was suggested to me, but I'd been writing for 20 years by then."
Though Bittman's home base is currently in Woodbridge, Connecticut, he identifies most strongly with New York City. "I've lived my whole life between New York and Boston. I grew up in New York and then I moved to Boston and then I moved to Connecticut. And I mostly relate to New York. I have no friends in Connecticut. It's sad, but it's true."
Bittman says that he has, "a very weird life. I have complete privacy when I'm at home. No one ever comes to visit me, because it's a schlep. I have a terrible kitchen. It's one of the worst kitchens ever. It just doesn't bother me. If I wanted to spend $30,000 on something, it wouldn't be on that."
Linda Richards is editor of January Magazine.
Author Photo by David Middleton.