On a recent episode of Milk Street Radio, the chef and cookbook author chatted with Christopher Kimball about the book, about cooking soup for his aging father, why he pours pancake batter with gochujang over asparagus and how his sense of food presentation was inspired by food stalls in Jerusalem.
Get a taste of the interview in the excerpts below, and listen to the full episode here.
On growing up in Jerusalem in the 1970s
I remember really kind of quite seminal experiences in my childhood would include going from West Jerusalem, which is the Jewish part where I was growing up, to East Jerusalem, to the Old City, which was just a kind of an incredible place to wander if you're like me, a hungry and eager kid. Wonderful bakeries with pita breads and bagels and the spice stores were very evocative with za’atar, and cumin piles and the sumac piles. And then the fruit and vegetable markets—everything was very intensely flavored and very colorful.
On making soup for his ailing father
My father passed away in December last year, so not even a year ago. And his mental capacities were deteriorating quite quickly towards the end of his life. So, in the last few weeks, I spent most of my time in Israel, alongside him with the rest of my family... I said, I'll make a Jerusalem artichoke soup...In the end, I let him try it. And I could tell that he was not quite sure that I followed the instructions. He made this voice of slight disapproval. And I loved that, that from everything, he was really suffering from pain and slight lack of inability to concentrate and all those things, but he could still cast judgment over the quality of my soup. And for me, that was just such a wonderful thing. It's just that vitality that food brings with it is so incredible.
On his food styling
People ask me, how did you develop your style of presentation and I often say I’ve got the instincts of a stall market, stall holders or any other food retailer... Maybe the one you came to was in Notting Hill in West London, and Sami Tamimi, who was one of the partners there too, almost subconsciously recreated the Jerusalem souk. I don’t think we knew that was what we were doing. But it definitely affected the way we presented the food. These kinds of big gestures, the big platters and everything looking spectacular and rich and interesting.
My job is to think of unusual combinations...We push the boundaries here. So, I’m under a railway arch in North London in Camden and this is where my test kitchen is. And, one of the things that we do here is try to create things that are delicious, but maybe a little bit unusual, or maybe very unusual when it comes to the Gochujang Asparagus Pancake. And I’m so proud that we managed to do that without it feeling gratuitous or unnecessary or, just being fusion for the sake of fusion.
There’s another recipe that I absolutely love, and I’d love everybody to try. And that’s the Za’ater Cacaio e Pepe recipe. So cacaio e pepe is probably one of the most loved of the Italian cheesy pasta sauces. And it’s not that complicated to make, but you need to get the right level of starch. So you want to get your butter and your cheese emulsifying in a particular way. And we add za’atar to the process. I thought, oh, they're going to say that it's the worst kind of fusion...Then when she made it, it just made so much sense.
Quotes have been edited for clarity.