Twice a month, when my daughter, her, spends the weekend with me, my apartment becomes a cooking school. she is thirteen years old and started making cookies and scones a few years ago. she moved on to tarts, fresh tagliatelle and, lately, croissants. Early Saturday mornings, before heading to our local green market, we have passionate conversations about her dinner plans. Citrus and cilantro marinated pork, you ask, or Ethiopian-style cooked red lentils with fresh tomatoes and berbere? and then he will surely ask if he can bake. I’m already thinking about the flour crusts I’ll be scraping off my counter Monday morning, and the amount of pastry I’ll have consumed, but I give up. I love to see the skill and authority of his fingers in a bowl of flour, eggs, butter, and chocolate; its intensity as you pour ganache from a pastry bag or sprinkle éclairs with finely ground pistachios.
When she’s not cooking, she often watches shows like “Chef’s Table,” the lavishly produced Netflix series featuring somber, admiring portraits of culinary stars. With painterly cinematography and introspective voice-overs, “Chef’s Table” pays professional chefs the kind of homage once reserved for artists. Most of the dishes are impossible to replicate in a home kitchen—who has time to make Enrique Olvera’s mole de los mil días, or even find all the ingredients?—but she doesn’t watch the show for recipes. . she watches him for the show of mastery, just like other teens hang out on youtube watching lionel messi’s best goals or yuja wang playing “flight of the bumblebee”.
The show’s serious musings on the mysteries of food cringe me a little, but once upon a time I was fluent in that language. from the time he was nine until well into his teens, he was determined to be a chef. I ran a catering business out of my parents’ home in longmeadow, massachusetts, and interned with notable chefs. so when i watch “chef’s table” i can’t help but experience the slight pang you feel seeing someone living the life you chose not to live. could it have been a contender? when I cooked, food was everything to me; I haven’t known how to consume a passion since then. The kitchen is where I learned the only foreign language I speak: brunoise, pâte feuilletée, and demi-glace were some of the first French words I learned, and they hold magical power.
I started cooking after my friends (at least I thought they were friends) started bullying me for being overweight and Jewish. Chubby was my nickname, and as change was thrown at me in the hallway, I learned that being Jewish was loving money. I punched a guy in the neck when he called me a dirty jew and was very pleased when he fell to the ground. but my weight problem could not be handled by vigilante justice. I wasn’t ashamed of being a Jew, but I was ashamed of being plump. While vacationing at the Jersey Shore with my family, I began hiding food, sneakily removing items from my plate and placing them on a napkin. I would bury much of my dinner in the sand outside the house my parents had rented. I counted calories and spent hours evaluating myself in the mirror, measuring my progress.
This wasn’t much fun. For one thing, I was depriving myself of the pleasures of my mother’s cooking. some families come together by faith; food brought us together. By not eating in secret, I was isolating myself. As I lost weight, I felt proud and terribly alone. towards the end of the summer, my parents realized that I was not myself; in the photos from that time I look emaciated and sickly. when we got home from the coast, my parents took me to a child psychologist, sidney hyman.
dr. hyman was in his fifties, wore a bow tie, and liked to tell silly jokes. He didn’t ask many questions, but I remember playing a lot of board games with him. I got really serious, and I think he wanted me to rediscover what it was like to have fun. trying to have fun is what got me started cooking. I opened a cupboard, found some chocolate (I’ve hardly had any since becoming obsessed with my weight), and decided to make what I called fudge. I put the chocolate in a plastic container and put it in the toaster oven. the container melted a bit, but the warm melted chocolate was delicious, and the fact that I had melted it myself was exciting – I had transformed something.
The next thing I made was a simple chocolate cake. It turned out well, and I even treated myself to a slice, though I was still carefully counting calories. Before long, I was spending all my free time in the kitchen. I worked my way into more elaborate sweets, like dacquoise, a hazelnut meringue covered in buttercream frosting, and then into making savory dishes. I particularly liked the sauces which, in their variety of textures—thick or thin, translucent or cloudy, syrupy or velvety—taught me the subtle poetry of haute cuisine. I was fascinated by emulsions, the mixing of liquids that occurs in elegant sauces like beurre blanc and hollandaise, but also in the simplest vinaigrette. I pored over my mother’s cookbooks and magazines and read about the great chefs who had defined what it meant to cook seriously. on weekends friends came to try new dishes. I became a connoisseur of local grocery stores and butcher shops. I ordered magret de canard from a purveyor in the hudson valley. Every month, I would prepare a dinner for my family, which I “announced” a few weeks in advance by placing a menu under my mother’s pillow.
When I was eleven years old, I started a catering company, Adam’s Edibles, leaving photocopied copies of a handwritten menu on our neighbors’ doors. I started with desserts and pastries, but a year later I expanded my repertoire:
the menu included gougères ($3.50 for twelve), ravioli ($8 for four servings), and vichyssoise ($4 with onions, $6 with leeks, for four servings). I changed the name of the company to le trésor (“shatz” means “treasure” in German) and began offering multi-course meals, mainly for my parents’ friends. this meant that he was now cooking in other people’s kitchens. I would buy the ingredients the day before a dinner party, arrive at my client’s house in the morning, and spend all day cooking. the customers must have found my presence amusing, but it wasn’t a trick to me. I couldn’t have been more sure that my future lay in the kitchen. I already dreamed of going to cooking school, being an apprentice in France and opening my own restaurant.
Word of my exploits spread and my art teacher made a documentary about me for the local cable access channel. she called him “adam cooks,” and that’s pretty much what you see: a nerdy, bespectacled twelve-year-old in a chef’s uniform making a baked goat cheese salad, a chicken ragout with cress and morel cream sauce, and a raspberry crème brûlée. then, he pontificates on his culinary influences, against a classical guitar musical backdrop. at one point, you see him apologizing for no apparent reason. the reason was that I just yelled “fuck!” in front of the film crew, after burning myself on a hot pot.
the cable access channel had very little content, so “adam cooks” was shown on a virtually continuous loop for a couple of years. people assumed it was a weekly show, rather than a one-off, and I became a local celebrity. “Decked in a chef’s hat and chef’s jacket, Adam rattled off the names of his favorite chefs, discussed the influence of celebrity chefs and men, and the offerings of unique restaurants in the United States and Europe,” the Longmeadow News reported. In that article, I discussed “the culinary philosophies of Escoffier and Fernand Point,” my preference for gas stoves, and sexism in professional kitchens: “Men are afraid to let women cook.”
The same year, I had a more painful encounter with the media, after my uncle, for my thirteenth birthday, got me an invitation to a conference in Boston on wine and food. there i met ruth reichl, who was then a food writer for the los angeles times. that’s where she wrote a short profile of me, under the heading “tyke with a touch”: