When A Cookbook Is Not Enough,
You Need A Kitchen Whisperer
By Sylvie Bigar
"Reader alert: Better eat before you curl up in your favorite chair with Dorothy Kalins’ new memoir, The Kitchen Whisperers, Cooking with the Wisdom of Our Friends (William Morrow), or you will find yourself ravenous!
Yes, you’ve heard of her. Maybe while she was founding editor-in-chief at Metropolitan Home? Or executive editor at Newsweek, or you remember her as the co-founder of Saveur? Or wait, maybe you (like me) read cookbooks in bed, and devoured Michael Anthony’s Gramercy Tavern Cookbook or Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook’s Zahav, two favorite cookbooks she produced? She’s won two James Beard Awards, among many other distinctions. We know her as an editor, writer, and book producer, but this is the first time she puts herself out there as a cook. There is no list of recipes here. Instead, a guiding voice in the kitchen.
“It’s not a memoir,” she said recently at lunch. “It’s a personal book about cooking.” Turns out Kalins has been walking around and cooking around with voices in her head for decades. “Of course, if I said it like that, people would think I’m crazy.” One look at her insightful eyes, her tranquil demeanor, and the way her curls come alive as she recounts watching Chez Panisse’s David Tanis cook with his hands, and you know she’s everything but.
“With The Classic Italian Cookbook, Marcella Hazan brought Italian cooking into American kitchens,” says Kalins, before instinctively ordering risotto. The two worked together on numerous stories and became friends. For Saveur’s issue on Venice, Hazan taught Kalins how to make risotto “creamy and wavy,” and also “why the shape of the rice grain matters as much as the shape of the pot.” On Long Island, Hazan convinced Kalins that bluefish was better than striped bass. Even though she played a part in introducing balsamic vinegar to American palates, Hazan called its popularization “a calamity.” Why should salad be sweet?
We’d kill to have such voices in our heads. There’s Gramercy Tavern’s executive chef, Michael Anthony, who as a young cook in Japan “mastered kinpira, a delicate simmer of slivered root vegetables cooked in dashi and served as a salad.” Kalins watched, tasted, and learned. Now she makes it her own way. He teaches her (and us) how to pan-roast fish filets, how to make an omelet of garlic scapes while they work on another cookbook, V is for Vegetables.
For Colman Andrews, author, scholar, and co-founder of Saveur, “The plate should tell the story.” From the plate to the dish, he scrutinizes each ingredient all the way to the land, the soil, the terroir. Cod is crucial to his beloved Catalan cuisine and Kalins invited him to cook salt cod in her kitchen. She started soaking the desiccated fish two days before he showed up, changing the water several times. Once there, Andrews prepares sofregit (the Spanish version of sofrito) and soon she watches, mesmerized, as he grates ripe, peeled, and seeded tomatoes. He explained “what it takes for a cuisine to be its own thing.”
It’s author Joan Nathan who first got Kalins to visit Israel, but it’s chef Mike Solomonov, who opened her taste buds to the richness and variety of Israeli cuisine. He introduced her to sabich, a pita full of fried eggplant and amba, the tangy, pickled mango sauce he also used to marinate chicken. She discovered all the toppings one can drizzle on top of hummus (in their cookbook Israeli Soul, they featured twenty-four). He showed her how he flings laffa dough on Zahav’s massive oven’s walls. She dug into sesame seeds, learning the best are trucked from Ethiopia to Israel.
There are many more voices in The Kitchen Whisperers: Among others, Christopher Hirsheimer, author, photographer, chef and now co-owner of Canal House Station in Milford, New Jersey; Anita Lo, chef and author, former owner of starred Annisa restaurant; Farmer and Chef Patty Gentry now the subject of Roger Sherman’s fabulous film, Soul of a Farmer.
In her introduction, Kalins recounts other memorable meals and, full disclosure, mentions coming into my kitchen on one of my cassoulet tastings—preparation for my upcoming memoir, Cassoulet Confessions.
Kitchen Whisperers’ first chapter is centered around the author’s mother, the artist Gil Kalins, and in the last she introduces us to her stepdaughter Sandrine as she tries to guide her through the cooking process. She doesn’t distill recipes or tricks. “Be calm and just cook,” she says, stirring her gently towards simple deliciousness. She’ll do the same for you."