You probably first became a fan of Andy Baraghani, his inventive, intriguing work at Bon Appétit, where he made us long for tahini braised cabbage and kale and coconut salads† Now the chef, a food writer and recipe maker has just released his debut cookbook, “The cook you want to be: everyday recipes to impress.” Baraghani joined me on “Salon Talks” to talk about salad, baking, and why your phone shouldn’t be your kitchen timer. Watch our episode here or read a Q&A of our conversation below.
The following interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.
Let’s talk about what it means to be the cook you want to be. You start this book by saying that you didn’t want to be a chef at all.
You ran from it. What sucked you in that made you come back to this thing you love?
I think it was very early that I liked food. I have proof in the book. There’s a photo of me with a Fisher-Price kitchen. I think at that age, when I was very, very young and adolescent, what attracted me to it was just the food and the fun you got. And how it just made me smile and how it was all about taste.
Then it evolved into something that clearly became a passion. Probably around age 11, 12, I really became more curious than just eating, but also cooking and experimenting in my parents’ kitchen. At that point it was more than taste, it was about how many other things it touched. Techniques, regional cuisines, different cultures. It was a way for me to really expand, not just my taste buds, but my mind. That’s why I decided to practice it as a profession and then go into restaurants.
This book is also about, as you say, context. It’s about challenging us to rethink, what is American food? What is home cooking? It’s not just one particular thing. You make your family influences and your cultural influences as a Californian, as a New Yorker, as a Persian American, first generation. How do you integrate that into what you do for this wider audience, including foods and techniques that some people may have never seen before?
I’ve really thought about the lessons I’ve learned all my life working in this kind of funny, beautiful, delicious food space that I refer to. Growing up Iranian-American, working in restaurants across the country, working in food media, I try to distill these lessons and try to put it into the book for the reader.
“I really wanted to write the recipes in such a way that it didn’t come from this authoritative place, but more from a place where I’m with you.”
I realized that if you’re trying to push someone to try a new ingredient, that’s probably all they take from the recipe. You don’t want to add a recipe with 10, 12, 13 steps. It’s finding that balance. It’s important for the people in this book to not just fall in love with the recipes and make them and let them be a part of the repertoire, but really go one step further.
If you have learned something about an ingredient or a technique or about a regional dish, I have the feeling that I have succeeded. That’s the big goal for me, is for people to take the recipes one step further.
We all have a different idea of that concept of ‘being the cook you want to be’. I don’t know how intentional this was in the book, but any recipe, its name sounds so good. Everything is fluffy. Everything is crunchy, extra crunchy. Spicy, extra spicy. You build up these ideas about what our dishes are. I’m not just going to the kitchen to make eggs, I’m going to make fluffy eggs. I’m going to make crispy eggs. I’m going to make jammy eggs.
Thinking in terms of the love language for food feels like an important starting point in identifying what we want to cook, by identifying which flavors we like. How do we enter into that dialogue with ourselves?
I have a chapter that is really about my essential tools and ingredients. I say at the outset that these are the kind of tools I need and that are essential to me in my kitchen. These are the ingredients that I continue to grab and they have become the foundation, the building blocks for the recipes you will see in this book.
That said, use them, fall in love with them, but also research and see which ingredients, which tools help you. I honestly don’t feel like a garlic press. But if that’s something you want in your kitchen, that’s okay. I think it’s more about exploring and being okay with trying things out. Things you may like, you may not like. Because the worst that can happen is that you might not buy it again.
You don’t have an Instant Pot. You say you are very precise and very compact about what you have.
Part of it is also living in New York City, with a very small apartment and a very small kitchen. I’ve sent away things that I don’t consider essential. When it comes to knives, I’m really only talking about the three knives I use: a bread knife, a chef’s knife, a paring knife. I have a few pots, skillets, some good cutting boards. I find that too many tools almost cloud and get in the way of your judgment, as well as asking for more dishes.
When it comes to the ingredient part, I’ve understood the flavors I’m looking for. I know I love citrus acid, vinegar, lots of spices. Chili in the form of both dried and fresh. Fat in the form of nuts and seeds, but of course a high fat content of butter.
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And yogurt. It’s all about yogurt.
Lots of yogurt. Whole yogurt, all the way.
One of the devices that you are a big believer in is a real timer.
A real timer, yes. I think a real timer is especially meant for that, to time or count down your dishes. Once you start grabbing your iPhone or your phone, assuming people all have iPhones, it’s a place for so many distractions. Emails, phone calls, texts. I try to avoid that. I never use the timer on my phone and I promise you will be more focused on it.
I heard you’re renovating your kitchen right now. What do you think about while you’re decorating a kitchen, for those of us who can’t afford to redo it right now, but maybe thinking about how to organize or structure it in a way that makes sense?
My kitchen is so small, but for me it was very important to have enough work space. That was essential. So I’m expanding, so I have a good amount of counter space. And so that the refrigerator does not knock out, it is flat, so there is good movement. Gas stove, my preference. And a dishwasher for the first time in 14 years. So that’s going to be the big thing for me.
“Whether it’s a crunchy vegetable salad or a leafy green salad, I want a salad to be well-dressed.”
I feel red just when you said that. My heart just stops a little.
Then everyone outside of New York is like, “Do you want a dishwasher?” It’s like, “Yeah, that’s going to make a big difference.”
Many of us feel intimidated by cooking. Even approaching a new cookbook feels like, “Oh God, I’m going to have to learn things.” But you get it, because you mention in the book that you only have five dessert recipes. You’re not a big dessert person. You admit that you’re trying to push yourself a bit out of that comfort zone. How has it changed for you, starting out a bit more like a beginner and having that learning curve?
There are so many things I could talk about right now. I have been fortunate enough to work for several food publications over the years. Part of this is developing recipes. When I decided to write this book, I wanted to write the recipes in such a way that it didn’t come from this authoritative place, but more from a place where I am with you. I’m there in the kitchen, cheering you on.
So many great cookbooks have come out over the years that I have seen. There is clearly a template. You have a main note, you have a list of ingredients and a method, but I didn’t want it to be too strict. With the recipes I wanted to make sure that it feels like there is movement and that it is flowing. And there’s my vote to encourage you and let you know that it’s okay it might not be this exact size or cooked perfectly this way. I promise you it will still be delicious.
I mentioned in the introduction to the dessert chapter that desserts have been my Achilles heel in food. I’ve worked in restaurants and developed so many recipes, most of them were savory over sweet. But I love desserts. I really just want to develop more dessert recipes. There are only five in the book, I admit. What’s really important to me, and I think to anyone who is creative or has their respected craft, is to recognize that the process isn’t always linear. For me there were a lot of bumps and unprotected left turns, but they were essential in my love of food and my career in this food world. Desserts have been that learning curve.
But I welcome it, and I think that’s what makes me the cook I am. My goal is hopefully, if I might write another book, the dessert chapter might just be the biggest chapter in the book. That is my greatest hope, to keep evolving and growing and never standing still.
Okay, I’m going to get you back in your comfort zone. I’m going to put you right where you are at the top – salads. You are the salad man. What are the keys to a great salad?
Whether it’s a crunchy vegetable salad or a green leafy salad, I want a salad to be well dressed. Dressed enough so that there isn’t too much vinaigrette or creamy dressing on the side. I want it to be light and airy and never get heavy. I want good acidity in every bite and irregular bite and crunch. I want it to kind of fool the palette and leave you guessing. That’s what I think a great salad is.
You have a technique. I’m on your side in this, I believe it too. You are a hands on.
Oh, sure. I believe in throwing a salad with your hands, in particular I would say leaf salads. A vinaigrette, yes. Because you’re taking these leafy greens, whether it’s endive or a chamois, whatever that kind of green is, it’s pretty delicate. Hands are much easier to toss around and feel each green dressed, rather than wooden serving spoons or some sort of salad tosser. Because I think that bruises the greens very easily.
What are the cookbooks that have changed your life, that really stick with you and that you hear in your head?
First and foremost I would say all the books by David Tanis. My mentor, my friend, a chef I worked under at Chez Panisse. From ‘A Platter of Figs’, his first book, to ‘The Heart of an Artichoke’. He personally and his books taught me so much. He is a very special person. Friends of his, we call him the wizard. He just has the touch.
I would definitely say “The Zuni Café Cookbook”. It feels all of California, a lot of these.
But I grew up with that. “The Zuni Café Cookbook”, the Boulevard cookbook. When I was a teenager, I looked at that book all the time. So many Nigel Slater books. I think, and it’s telling. I don’t know most of them, I’m really only in a relationship with David, but I wish they would read this book and hopefully I’ll make them proud.
There’s something that I think all those authors and not just in their books, but in their cooking, is very intuitive. That’s something I’ve really tried to push in this book, intuitive cooking.
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