By Alan Lake (Jazzfood)
In my 30 years of being a chef, searching the world for the finest foods and collecting the most interesting recipes to inspire my craft and satiate my belly, I’ve discovered that many of my favorite meals have been in homes, not restaurants – inspired meals served from the heart, with food that resonates on many levels besides “delicious.”
Food often produces a response similar to sex: sensual pleasure. Food provides for basic human needs that can be shared without impropriety or (in most cases) guilt. In fact, these days the word orgy is more commonly associated with food than sex, as in food orgy – at least, among my circle of friends.
And we all have someone special in mind when we think of certain dishes or occasions. Along with my father, who was not a cook but a dedicated glutton, two others significantly shaped my culinary proclivities early on: Lazlo and Lolita.
Lazlo, a.k.a. Les, was a Hungarian Jew who, in escaping the Nazis, eventually landed in Chicago where he and my father met and became lifelong friends. Les took great pains to cook sumptuous meals whenever we’d go to his home. A few days prior to our visit, abandoning his stores to his wife Claudette (a French woman with a similar backstory), he’d begin shopping, prepping and cooking the extraordinary feasts forever etched in my memory. These were usually French or Middle European in nature, but I can also recall a Peking duck banquet. That day, I remember eyeing a bicycle pump lying in the kitchen with curiosity. Seeing this, Lazlo explained that he used it to separate the duck’s skin from the meat in a way that helps assure optimum crispness – much to my disbelief. These meals were memorable for many reasons besides the food. At Les and Claude’s, we didn’t eat in the American way; instead, we DINED in the European style.
Lolita, on the other hand, was Italian through and through – she with the strange vegetables that didn’t come from a can, at a time that most did. Raw fennel, baked stuffed artichokes or bitter broccoli rabe braised with garlic, lemon, and chili flakes were pure Lolita. So were groaning buffets overflowing with ridiculous amounts of antipasti. Lolita was the mother of my best friend (then and now – he is pictured above). Many Christmas Eves were spent in her home. She called me “dear” in a way that made me believe she meant it. I cooked for her 80th birthday, and a couple of years later was a pallbearer at her funeral.
Les’ and Lolita’s dishes were the ones I tried to reproduce when I moved from home and began cooking, a decade before I’d turn it into a career. They provided the seminal experiences that would shape things to come – small to them, huge to me. They provided the catalyst for me to achieve that elusive, intangible spirit I so relate to. I can’t put it into words; I just know when it’s present and miss it when it’s not.
Throughout the years I’d continue my quest for this spirit anywhere and everywhere.
At a friend’s house in Venice, Calif., I’d find myself coveting some smoky collard greens with just the right amount of sweet-heat-to-sour-acid ratio, cooked by the son of a sharecropper whose own son was pissed off at him for giving me the family recipe:
“I can’t believe you’re giving up the mess-o-greens to that cracker you just met!”
This son of a sharecropper and I bonded, though; he knew I was worthy and would treasure the gift he was giving me.
“Shut up boy, I’ll do what I want!”
Who’d have thought a classic gastrique was part of the sharecropper’s secret?
I found it when I tasted the corn pudding recipe provided by a Captain at the Salvation Army Mission, where friends and I cook a Christmas meal every year for a couple hundred people. And many other places along the way. Many of these dishes ended up on restaurant menus of mine.
With this in mind I’d like to spread the wealth, share the results of my search with a series of profiles of the finest home cooks I’ve met along the way, and some of the special dishes they cook to nurture the people they love – because, to quote the Pillbsury Doughboy, “Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven.”
Postscript: Needing some photos of the food for this article, I made Lolita’s Lasagna. I’m quite happy to report that her spirit was in the house, and the goal of this series – to show the ability of some food to evoke a feeling – was attained. Love was in the air. It helped that her son (and my best friend) came for dinner. Her technique for cooking down the vegetables is so old school that it’s nearly a forgotten art. The end product couldn’t be better, though, so I’ll add it back into my repertoire.
Thanks for everything Lolita – from your hands to my heart.