Cal Peternell's guide to the kitchen

Cal PeternellCal Peternell might not yet be a celebrity, but the restaurant where he's a chef is certainly well-known: the legendary Chez Panisse. Chef Peternell has just released a cookbook, Twelve Recipes, inspired not by the restaurant but by his oldest son leaving for college. Peternell realized that, although he regularly made dinners for his family, he'd never taught them the basics of cooking. Twelve Recipes was based on the crash course in cooking he prepared and honed through phone calls with his son. (Enter our contest for your chance to a copy of the cookbook.) In this introduction to the kitchen, Peternell focuses on the core foods and dishes that comprise a successful home cook's arsenal, each building skill upon skill. We asked Peternell about his philosophy on cooking at home. Here's his response:

There is a Zen proverb that goes: When walking, walk. When eating, eat. I would add: when cooking, cook. And while everywhere it is getting harder to just do what you're doing--airline pilots are reporting feeling dulled and atrophied, their duties so computer-annexed that they barely get to fly our planes anymore; doctors (and surgeons! Yipes!) are giving up control, at least in part, to robots; cars are thinking about starting to drive themselves--cooking remains real, necessary, and available to all of us. We are compelled to the kitchen by something more powerful, if arguably less profound, than ambition, curiosity, and acquisitiveness: simple bodily hunger. Like drawing breath, we must eat, and what we eat must be cooked, often with fire, but also when the cooking is nothing more than picking, peeling, and slicing.

Home cooking has come under steady and sustained attack from cheap and fast restaurants and corporate food processors grinding out heat-and-serve meals. What's more, the cooking of one's own food has been accused of taking too much time and money, causing stress (see funny Virginia Heffernan in the Times), even of being elitist (see serious Amanda Marcotte on With a determined swirl of his conspiracy-pot-stirring spoon, genius farmer and self-described lunatic Joel Salatin responds that among other vices, Americans seem to find plenty of time for television. Indeed, a recent Nielson study found that we watch, on average, more than five hours a day. Surely one hour might be skipped - maybe one of those cooking competition/humiliation shows - to draw a breath and spend some real time in the actual kitchen. Thankfully, Michelle Obama has said as much, declaring what has been obvious to all humankind until very recently: the healthfulness and economy of home cooking. It's an unspectacular announcement, but the fact that it even needs to be said says a lot.

Thing is, folks have been cooking at home for quite some time. Most homes have, if not a proper kitchen, at least a designated cooking area and a few tools. It's not complicated. Spread butter or olive oil on a slice of bread that you've toasted and you've done some cooking. Mix vinegar and oil to pour over lettuce, boil salted water and drop in some vegetables, fry an egg - all perfectly legitimate home cooking. Of course you can, and should, do more, get more elaborate, and if you fail - when you do - you'll be risking far less than that jet pilot, surgeon, or car driver.

When we are hungry, we cook to eat. We also cook to offer sustenance to friends and family. Many of us cook for the pleasure of it, and sometimes, as an expression of love. And in the end we can cook to keep ourselves able and sharp, hanging on to creativity by creating, resisting Big Brother, Skynet, and SpoonRocket by grabbing a knife and getting into the kitchen.


  • sir_ken_g  on  11/7/2014 at 11:36 AM

    Too bad this book did not exist in 2009 when our kid got her first apartment. But we did what we could. A binder of family favorites, key cookbooks, and 3 loaded spice racks that are still a matter of awe and envy from her peers.

  • sallyjoy  on  12/3/2014 at 6:35 PM

    My daughter (and a few of her friends as well) learnt to cook because as she was growing up I almost always said I can cook something better and in less time than you can order a pizza or take away food and when she was about 12 I showed her that she could make a cake from scratch more easily than one that came as a packet mix. I remember one of her friends saying that she had never seen her mother make a cake. I've always worked full time in high pressure jobs and cooked for relaxation and so I would know what was in my kids food.

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