Sunday, March 21, 2010

Teach a Man to Cook...

I sat in the front row in the demo kitchens at the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side last week, listening to legendary French chef Jacques Pepin talk about cooking fresh, good food fast, just as he does in his new PBS Series and book, More Fast Food My Way.

It just so happened that he was talking about a recipe for chicken and olive tapenade that the JCC has adapted for one of its many cooking classes, "Famous Chefs' Famous Chicken Recipes." It just so happened that he was on hand at the urging of kosher brand Manischewitz, who was staging the cook-off finals for five home chefs who had figured easy 8-ingredient recipes using their new all-natural chicken broth with no MSG.

Mr. Pepin graciously complimented the JCC chef who had overseen the Chicken Supremes with Tapenade and Mushroom Sauce that the room of writers was allowed to sample. "You did a great job," he said. She smiled. "Thanks," she said, sheepish but clearly pleased. It must have been awesome for her to hear kudos from the great chef himself. He spoke about how he "uses the supermarket as a prep cook...", cutting complicated too-time-consuming steps by purchasing some easy prepared products, good ones of the kind he could get behind, ones that made cooking at home a minimal effort, like canned Manishewitz chicken broth.

A JCC rep spoke about Manishewitz as a brand that, "if you grew up Jewish, evokes so many memories of family..."

At that, the woman next to me let out a loud, "Oy..." I laughed and looked over at her. "Trauma..." she whispered, in memory of Manishewitz family moments past. Hilarious. I immediately gave her a gold star. After the presentation we chatted. It turns out, the "Oy"er, Rachel Willen, is a student at the French Culinary Institute where Mr. Pepin is Dean of Special Programs. She writes a blog, "Mrs. Fabulous Goes to Culinary School" ( and plans to combine efforts with her nutritionist husband to retrain Americans to start cooking again, something she thinks will go a long way toward solving the obesity problem.

"Our generation of women has looked at cooking as domestic drudgery when really it is zen, meditative, a chance to connect," Ms. Willen said. As a result, she said, "they are saying we are the first generation who will have a shorter lifespan because of major diseases driven by things like high fructose corn syrup." She shook her head. "Cooking has become a spectator sport, where we allow someone to come in to our home, a TV personality, someone who's cooking but yet we can't smell anything..." Sad. Something's gotta give.

I gave a gold star to Mr. Pepin for the 26 books and 11 cooking series he has created since the 50s to help Americans fight their fears of cooking. I had him sign a photograph for my friend and Brookvin Chef, Dave, who had told me he had been inspired by Mr. Pepin.

Downstairs, at the cookoff, I met Jamie Brown Miller, a home chef from Napa, California who, she told me, had been flown to three cook-off finals since first starting to seek out cook-offs at this past September.

"What did we do before the Internet?" I wondered aloud. She told me she had been one of the first to have the Internet, the daughter of a Silicon Valley technology exec. But, she said, "I'm done with technology, that's why I cook...I kick out everyone from the kitchen, although I let the dog hang out, and I just get to chopping. It's so relaxing."

Of course, I gave her a gold star and good luck, though I found out later that she lost, her excellent Rosemary Duck Cassoulet, while delicious, apparently not as popular among the judges as Sara Freedman-Izquierdo's Mandarin Dumpling Soup.

I spoke to Manishewitz Co. CEO David Yale and commended him for the event, for his efforts to come out with a no-MSG broth.

"I know how hard it is for you, as a marketer, to come up with products people will actually buy, to get people to make the changes to their palates necessary to appreciate better-for-you flavors," I said, remembering a decade's worth of articles I wrote on the subject as a packaged-goods reporter for Ad Age. "People need help."

He nodded. "They do," he said, "they do..."

Looking around at the event, talking to people, there are clearly a lot of people trying to be part of the solution. Gold stars to them all...

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