Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kidby Melanie Rehak
With grace, humor, and irresistible recipes, the author of Girl Sleuth takes us on her journey as an amateur chef, amateur farmer, and amateur parent
Melanie Rehak was always a passionate cook and food lover. Since reading the likes of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Wendell Berry, she’d tried to eat thoughtfully as well. But
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With grace, humor, and irresistible recipes, the author of Girl Sleuth takes us on her journey as an amateur chef, amateur farmer, and amateur parent
Melanie Rehak was always a passionate cook and food lover. Since reading the likes of Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Wendell Berry, she’d tried to eat thoughtfully as well. But after the birth of her son, Jules, she wanted to know more: What mattered most, organic or local? Who were these local farmers? Was it possible to be an ethical consumer and still revel in the delights of food? And why wouldn’t Jules eat anything, organic or not?
Eating for Beginners details the year she spent discovering what how to be an eater and a parent in today’s increasingly complicated world. She joined the kitchen staff at applewood, a small restaurant owned by a young couple committed to using locally grown food, and worked on some of the farms that supplied it. Between prepping the nightly menu, milking goats, and sorting beans, Rehak gained an understanding of her own about what to eat and why. (It didn’t hurt that, along the way, even the most dedicated organic farmers admitted that their children sometimes ate McDonald's.) And as we follow her on her quest to find the pleasure in doing the right thing—and become a better cook in the bargain—we too will make our peace with food.
"Hilarious, moving and full of life, Eating for Beginners restores joy to its rightful place at the dinner table. Melanie Rehak's absorbing journey will appeal not only to people who want to spend less time worrying about what to cook, eat, or feed a family, but to those of us who are looking for a way to feel more confident in all of our choices. Whether she's picking kale or picking Cheerios off the floor, Rehak is always excellent company." -- Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project
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Read an Excerpt
In the Beginning
THIS IS HOW you butcher a duck. Make a slit down one side of its backbone, then insert your knife and scrape down carefully along the breastbone, swinging the tip of the knife in smooth arcs while pulling the breast meat away with your other hand as it comes loose. When it’s free, slice it off. Repeat on the other side. Trim off fat, sinew and vein. These will be everywhere. Things will be slippery. You could make the wrong cut. When the breasts are trimmed and set aside, remove each leg from the body by bending it back and cutting through the joint. You will feel as if you’re wrestling with someone covered in oil. Put the legs aside for confit. Then stand up the carcass and, with a big cleaver, chop it down the center so it falls into two pieces. Cut each piece crosswise. Put the four pieces in a pan and into the oven to roast for stock. Repeat with nine more ducks until the breasts are coming off a little less raggedly and you think you may be getting the hang of it.
The next day, try to trim your one-year-old’s fingernails. Things will be slippery. You could make the wrong cut. You will feel as if you’re wrestling with someone—a small someone—covered in oil. As you try to hold him still, reflect that it was much easier to cut his nails when he was a newborn and couldn’t move, then on the startling fact that a duck is about the same size as a newborn. Realize with surprise that you genuinely feel it’s easier to butcher a duck, something you had never done before yesterday, than to give a one-year-old a nail trim. Realize, too, that your life since you became a parent has been one long learning curve with no end in sight. That you long for a sense of accomplishment and that maybe butchering ducks is a way to get it. Scrape, slice, trim, cut, chop, and you’re done. When a duck is butchered, it’s butchered.
I was posted, with no fanfare and little introduction around the kitchen, at the garde manger station. Garde manger, which means “keeping to eat” or “keeper of the food,” traditionally referred to the cold room in which meats, fish, and other foods that had been preserved were stored, and also to the art of that preservation in forms like charcu¬terie, terrines, and cheese. It also included using produce creatively. In other words, coping with all the stuff that goes bad if you don’t figure out what to do with it in fairly short order, the stuff that in my household gives rise to remarks in front of the open refrigerator along the lines of, “What could we make tonight with beef, heavy cream, kale, mushrooms, and a bunch of radishes? Oh, and also chicken.” (One of the skills I hoped to gain at the restaurant, where the chefs stand in the walk-in refrigerator every afternoon in exactly this same way, was how to answer this question with words other than “Um.”)
At applewood, garde manger is the station that makes salads and cold appetizers during the dinner service, and it consists of exactly one person. Once things got under way at five o’clock, I would be able to ask questions of anyone I could grab between tasks, theirs and mine, but otherwise I was on my own.
Fortunately, having correctly assumed they wouldn’t let me anywhere near the stove on my first day, I’d studied up on my subject the night before. I’d gotten hold of Garde Manger: The Art and Craft of the Cold Kitchen (2000), published by the Culinary Institute of America in the Hudson River valley. David and Laura had both gone to cooking school at the CIA—they’d met there, in fact—so I figured its book was a reasonable place to start. I pored over it the night before my first shift and found certain passages popping into my head the next day.
“The opportunities and challenges of the area of cooking known today as garde manger are fascinating,” it trumpeted. I couldn’t have agreed more. “It is in this specialty that artistic sensibilities can find their outlet.” I liked the sound of that. “The quality of the food is still the most important key to success.” Check, thanks to applewood’s commitment to fresh local products. But then came this. “The visual appearance of the food is a close second. Presenting foods to look their best is a skill that you can spend a lifetime perfecting.” Hmm. This must be where the artistic sensibilities came in. But somehow I doubted that David really wanted me to take a lifetime to perfect my salad-plating technique when he had a full book of reservations that night.
I had no chopping skills, I’d never even heard of some of the vinegars I was using, and I had heard of but never seen some of the vegetables (ramps, morels). It hadn’t occurred to me to bring my own knives. (When I did the following week, their dullness produced looks of barely suppressed hysteria. Liza, David’s other full-time chef, marveled, “It’s like they’re not even knives!”) Apparently there were chefs commuting all over the city with bags of freshly sharpened cutlery—a realization that gave me new perspective on whom to seek out in a crowd during an emergency.
On my list of cold starters that first night were a pea shoot salad with crawfish and brown butter vinaigrette; marinated yellowtail with beets, cilantro, and black bean purée; a cheese plate; and a plate of house-made charcuterie (already prepared, luckily) with garlic crostini. On my to-do list were making the vinaigrette; roasting, peeling, and sectioning the beets; making the black bean purée; and making crostini, which involved cutting loaves of bread into very thin slices, drenching them in garlic-infused olive oil and salt, then baking them in the oven. In other words, a long list of things I had never done before.
But my inexperience didn’t seem to faze David, who was used to having externs from cooking school in the kitchen and had once let an art student work garde manger because she wanted to learn about the aesthetics of food. Tall and broad in his chef’s jacket, navy-and-white-striped apron and pants, and tortoiseshell Buddy Holly glasses, David thoroughly enjoyed himself in the kitchen and would often ask me, “Did you have fun?” at the end of a night of disasters of varying degrees. He rarely ventured beyond the kitchen during dinner service. Once, when we were discussing the animated movie Ratatouille, about a rat named Remy who becomes a chef in a fancy Parisian restaurant, he described the scene he related to most: the one in which the head chef (a human, not a rodent) is summoned to speak to a patron, steps through the swinging door into the dining room, goes bug-eyed with horror at the sight of actual diners, and retreats right back into the kitchen.
David’s attitude was, of course, what allowed me to be there at all. In a more typical kitchen filled with tempers and hierarchy, I would never have survived if I’d even been invited in to begin with. But the applewood kitchen didn’t run on viciousness or hypercompetitiveness or secrecy; it was the opposite of Kitchen Confidential. There was no macho there, not even at the grill, which is traditionally the most macho station (at least according to David, and certainly according to Bill Buford, who wrote memorably about his ferocious, and, it must be said, very macho, efforts to master it during his time in the kitchen at Mario Batali’s restaurant Babbo). Instead, the grill at applewood was presided over by a young woman named Sarah. When I asked how she’d ended up working there after a night of “trailing”—standing by and watching the kitchen operate at full tilt to get a sense of the place—she told me, “It was the busiest Saturday night they’d ever had and everyone was calm. It was peaceful, no one was yelling, and the food was beautiful.” Or, as the pastry chef put it when I finally got around to working at his station, “When you work for somebody who’s already famous, the famous person is not in the kitchen, of course, because they’re famous already. Nobody there is your friend because they all want to be famous, too. It’s a backstabbing atmosphere.”
Laura, small and strong with dark curly hair to her shoulders, was the perfect Harriet to David’s Ozzie. The public face of the restaurant, she was charming and social but not soft, and she had a lightning-quick sense of humor. She could read a customer in an instant, and if she saw someone could take it, she was a master of the snappy retort. She was also utterly unapologetic for her tough manner. If you told her teasingly that she was cranky, she played it up, replying with a cranky “So?” When she was in a bad mood, she stormed through the kitchen leaving worried glances in her wake, but she got over it quickly. When she was anxious before dinner service, she barked orders at the servers to clean fingerprints off the glass in the kitchen door or to straighten the napkins on the tables. David was a silent worrier, Laura a loud one; he ran the kitchen and she ran the front of the house, and they never interfered with each other.
What David and Laura had in common (in addition to their marriage and their children, of course) was their understanding of what applewood was. This was something that dated back to 1996 and the first summer after they met in cooking school, when they’d had restaurant jobs at a place in upstate New York called the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, about a forty-five-minute drive from the Culinary Institute of America.
Old Chatham was then the largest sheep dairy in the country, with more than two hundred head of sheep. Besides the restaurant, the company included a ten-room inn, a bakery, and a cheesemaking operation. Laura described it for me. “They grew everything for the restaurant but tomatoes and corn. All their own greens, herbs, vegetables. There was a huge greenhouse for starter plants.”
Set on six hundred acres of rolling farmland, Old Chatham was, David remembered, “an absolutely beautiful place. In a lot of ways it was like Chez Panisse, but intensified because instead of going out to the farmers they brought all the farmers to them. They had the farm staff, the guy who took care of the sheep, the guy who did the produce.”
For David, working at Old Chatham was, in an odd sense, like going home. He grew up in Manhattan’s West Village, but a place he refers to simply as “the farm” figures prominently in many conversations with him about food, family, and a lot of other things. A piece of land in Pine Plains, New York, that belongs to the parents of his closest childhood friend, Sean, the farm was where he and Laura and the kids went on their rare days away. It was also where, as a child, he had his first experience of the kind of food he would cook as an adult. “I’ve been going there all my life. Sean’s mom is like my mom,” he said. “His little brother was eight years old when his mom had to sit him down and explain to him that I wasn’t his brother by blood.” The bar David installed at applewood, which Sean’s mother had salvaged from a tavern on Twelfth Street in Manhattan, was stored in the cellar at the farm for twenty years until David came calling for it, as if it had been waiting for him all that time.
The job at Old Chatham Sheepherding Company provided David with his first Proustian moment, which came not with a cookie but with a vegetable. “It was tasting the food there,” he recalled one day as we were shelling peas, “and realizing I had this vague sort of sense memory of eating tomatoes off the vine up at the farm, munching on them, the dogs running around.” Old Chatham reintroduced him to something he’d always known but had buried as he went through chef’s training. “At school they teach you that cooking is all these steps and all this secretive stuff and you have to work at it for this long and know all these things, and that’s not the case. It just isn’t.”
For Laura, who grew up in Chicago without a farm to visit, the job at Old Chatham was even more eye-opening. “It changed my ideas about food,” she said as I helped her fold napkins for dinner service one afternoon. “Once you pull baby spinach out of the ground and eat it, warmed by the sun, it never tastes as good any other way.”
Of course other people already knew this. Out in Berkeley, Chez Panisse had been around for more than twenty years, while in New York City, the Greenmarkets, which had started in 1976 on a single lot, had blossomed into a citywide network of sources for good local food. The Sheas weren’t strangers to the idea of local products, either, but those early mornings in the Hudson River valley were the beginning of their real commitment to it. When it came time to choose the suppliers for applewood, those memories were still very much on their minds.
“It’s clean food,” Laura told me, talking about how they decided where to buy their food. “Clean local food.” In essence, they wanted to re-create, whenever possible, their own experience at Old Chatham—or at least give people the opportunity to have it. It wasn’t so much that they insisted everything had to be organic, more that they wanted to know how it was grown and why it was grown that way. Had it been overly processed, or could it be traced back to someone who had put thought into raising it? The guarantee of a person they trusted was worth more than a USDA organic seal or a no-pesticides label. “If you had to choose between an organic product and a local product,” Laura explained, “David and I immediately said local. I could call up the farmer, and ask why they treated the Gala apples and what they used. I learned about eco-friendly pesticides from that. You become less closed-minded.”
Once, when I was pestering her about defining the restaurant as organic or local or some other term, Laura said, “We wanted to open a place where we could feed everybody the way we feed ourselves and our children.” Because I already knew about Sophie and the Cheetos, I pressed her a little further. Where her daughters were concerned, she said, “We’re realizing that it’s good enough to present good options. That lesson will be learned. They may blow us off and go eat pizza followed by ice cream followed by candy, but they’ll know the difference.” The same applies to applewood, where the Sheas know they aren’t changing the world on a nightly basis, but hope they are at least affecting the way people think about eating. Though they may, in dreamier moments, believe that a single bite of salad has the power to provoke “an epiphany about food and make people not go back to that bag of Dole lettuce,” as Laura put it, “we know that’s not how it works. We don’t advocate for anybody. We’re doing what we do within our own framework and not outside of it. I don’t really get my face into anyone else’s business.”
Except, of course, for David’s. Restaurants, even small ones like applewood, are complicated organisms. They require constant smart management of a variety of things, which need totally different kinds of attention: food products, bookkeeping, service, and chefs. Every aspect has to be in perfect balance for a meal to go smoothly. For Laura and David, being not only business partners but also married and the parents of two young children complicated matters even more. “Some of the really bad moments for me and Laura are when it’s just too much togetherness,” David confessed to me once. Their relationship was on display in front of everyone in the restaurant all the time. If Laura was up in the office during prep hours, it was not uncommon to hear her yell “Dave!” in a voice loud enough to echo through the kitchen. This usually resulted in him stopping for a moment, perhaps pulling a face for the rest of us, and yelling back, “In a minute!” He never went to see what she wanted before he finished whatever he was doing, but he always went. If he and Laura were having a disagreement about something unsolvable, he just came back to the kitchen and started cooking again. Even the best-run place has moments of getting through the evening dinner service on sheer guts, and I saw David and Laura bury their argument and do just that more than once.But I learned all of that later. On my first afternoon at the restaurant, I was far too scared of the food itself to think about where it came from, let alone about the intricacies of David and Laura’s marriage. At the garde manger station I faced, in addition to the ingredients for the starters listed on that day’s menu, a huge box of morels: damp, dark brown forest mushrooms with narrow stems and honeycombed tops covered with little ridges and pits. The first of the season—it was early May—they had just arrived from Virginia. They would end up in a special appetizer, a “verbal” that wasn’t on the written menu, along with veal sweetbreads. David grabbed a few out of the box, split them a bit between finger and thumb, then turned to me and said, in a voice as normal as if he was asking me how I wanted my coffee, “They’re filled with worm eggs that are undetectable to the human eye.”
The cardboard morel box, which was stained and damp and half-crushed and smelled vaguely like the New Hampshire woods where I hunted for salamanders after summer rainstorms as a child, was sparsely filled at best; this was what eighty dollars worth of fancy mushrooms looked like. And I was supposed to prep them, cut away parts of each one, with some kind of judgment I did not possess. The confidence David either had or was faking in me was unnerving—though I soon learned that one of his great gifts as an employer is divining almost immediately how to use what he has, people and ingredients alike, and then getting the absolute most out of them.
My task was to quarter the morels, except for the ones about the width of my thumb, which I was supposed to leave whole other than trimming a bit of the stem off the bottom. As I took each light, spongy mushroom out of the box, I devised a method of standing them up like little wizened soldiers in a row across my cutting board and stepping back a few paces every now and then to size them up. No doubt I looked as foolish as I felt, but everyone had the grace to go about their business, pretending there was no awkward elephant in a borrowed chef’s jacket in the room.
And what a room it was. From the moment I stepped through the glass-paned green door into applewood’s kitchen, I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole. Even though it was quite big for a restaurant kitchen (as I learned after arriving and exclaiming “It’s so small!” like a true neophyte), it wasn’t actually all that big. And it was incredibly full. Below my counter were many jugs holding vinegars (champagne, red wine, white wine, balsamic, sherry, Banyuls), oils, honey, maple syrup, and anything else even remotely saucy. Above it were several dozen quart-sized plastic containers filled with dried fruits, spices, and various nuts. To the left of the counter was wire shelving stretching up toward the high ceiling and stacked perilously with plates, random kitchen utensils, and empty plastic quart containers.
(It would be hard to overemphasize the role of plastic quart containers in the applewood kitchen. Not only was everything from duck innards to blanched peas kept in them, but they served as drinking glasses, too. After a few months of working there, I was constantly reaching for a nonexistent one at home and wondering how I had ever cooked—or quenched my thirst—without them. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I kept trying to work out a way to communicate to the world the profound efficiency of drinking one’s morning coffee out of a quart container instead of a ridiculously inadequate mug.)
The door from the dining room swung toward me. “Order in!” called one of the servers. He stuck the top layer of his order ticket into the stainless steel rail above garde manger. It was a table for two (a “two top”), and they wanted a cheese plate and the pea shoot salad to start. Because the pea shoot salad had sautéed crawfish in it, the fish station was in charge of that. That left me with the cheese plate, which I thought I could handle, albeit rather slowly, as it was taking me forever to get the plastic wrap off one of the cheeses.
“You can just cut right through the plastic,” David, who was at the fish station, said, swooping over to save me. “Just like this. And then—” he whisked away the piece of wrapping he had sliced off with the neat section of cheese. As he went back to his crawfish, I wondered why it had never occurred to me that I could cut through plastic wrap.
I had many moments like this as I learned about kitchen work. On the day I began by trimming morels, Liza set up my cutting board by soaking paper towels and laying them on the counter, then pressing the board down on top of them. When I looked at her quizzically, she demonstrated the no-slip properties of wet paper towel against stainless steel. Who knew? Several months later, while David was showing me how to make a pork terrine, I discovered that you can bake Saran wrap, and my life has never really been the same since. In the less useful category, I became so accustomed to wiping my hands on my apron or the front of my chef’s jacket that I nearly destroyed several sweaters by doing the same thing at home. In a triumph of the banal over the sublime, it was this, rather than my newfound ability to purchase produce with abandon and make a meal from it, that came to mind whenever people asked me whether cooking in a restaurant had changed the way I cooked at home.
But I was happy in the applewood kitchen from the start, squashed in amid the chefs and the shelving and countertops under a ceiling hung with ladles and spoons and strainers and dominated by a huge stainless steel air duct that ran almost the length of the room. The floor was red linoleum, the walls tiled white about three-quarters of the way up, the light fluorescent. The overall effect was overwhelming, but I had left the familiar world behind and I liked having done so. It would be several weeks before I could remember where to find a vegetable peeler or which lowboy refrigerator had the sugar in it. I rarely ventured to the back of the room, which was more or less the domain of the pastry chef, August, though he shared the space with Johnny, who washed pots and pans in a huge double sink at an amazing clip every day starting at three o’clock. Something entirely other was going on back there in pastry, something that involved precise measurements and what looked to be a few actual recipes, two things I had not seen (and never would see) in the part of the kitchen that produced the savory food.
Just beyond the pastry chef’s ice cream machine was the door to the office, which was in a loft above the room where Sophie and Tatum had slept every night for the restaurant’s first two years. Still painted with scenes of sheep having a tea party, the girls’ old haunt was now filled with extra wineglasses and their old futon bed. I tried sometimes to imagine what it would be like to have Jules asleep back there during a long shift, but really, once the controlled frenzy of the dinner service began, it was hard to even remember sometimes that he existed.
Each week the hours flew by while I chopped, diced, and blended. On Thursday the produce arrived in the morning and the meat was delivered in the afternoon—whole goats, pigs, and lambs, and often an enormous hind of veal weighing in the vicinity of a hundred pounds. The animals were stashed in the walk-in to be butchered later, or, if there was not enough meat for dinner service, butchered right then.
When everything was ready, the kitchen door, which remained open in the afternoon, was closed, the lights were dimmed in the dining room, and the candles on the tables and around the room were lit. Depending on how busy the restaurant was, the hours that followed took one of several forms. On a really busy night at applewood, which seats forty-five people at a time (plus six at the bar and another six on the patio in good weather), they’ll do a hundred or a hundred and twenty meals (“covers”). Sixty dinners on a weeknight is a decent take, but often they’re spread out over the evening in agonizing fashion, four at six o’clock, then nothing until seven-thirty, then a rush at nine and one last gruesome walk-in table at ten-fifteen—“sixty the hard way,” in David’s parlance. Those were the nights when the chefs did “projects” to keep busy between orders. Sausage got made, rinds and vegetables got pickled, fish got cured.
Those were also the nights when I had time to exercise my artistic sensibilities, time to linger over every plate at garde manger, dressing, garnishing, and organizing each salad and arranging each cheese plate. I didn’t know how to make myself useful with brines and meat grinders like the rest of the kitchen staff, but for me every plate was a “project” in itself. It was a little like practicing feng shui on a tiny scale—perhaps the garde manger book was finally having an effect on me—and I was getting into the aesthetics of “presenting foods to look their best.” Lettuce leaves went into the bowl with the spine down, ruffled edges turned up so they were open to diners. Cheese wedges, placed next to the accompanying stack of garlic crostini, always had the uncovered end pointing toward the edge of the plate, an invitation to cut in. When it came to the arrangement of the wedges and crostini, though, there was room for individuality. No two of us did it quite the same way—in the fluidity of such a small kitchen, even though everyone had an official station, no one was above stepping over and helping out if needed—and ¬David, as much as his standards were impeccable and his sense of hospitality enormous, liked it that way.
Once when David was training a new chef, I asked what he planned to tell him. “Cook for yourself,” he answered. “Whatever anybody has to say shouldn’t impact you all that much. If you’re trying, if you care, that’s enough.” He paused, then added, “I’m going to say, ‘Just pretend you’re at home cooking for you and your wife.’” Then he tied on his apron and headed for the grill.
And though of course this was not the whole story and the new chef didn’t last the week because, however he cooked for his wife, it was not the way he needed to cook at applewood, I knew David’s sentiment was genuine. After all, there are ideals and reality in everything.
Meet the Author
Her column on food books, “Paper Palate,” appears in Bookforum.
Melanie Rehak is a poet and critic. A recipient of the New York Public Library's Tukman Fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she writes for the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Vogue, and the Nation, among others. She lives in Brooklyn.
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