Kitchen Careers is a regular feature that goes behind-the-scenes with chefs, bloggers, critics and others in the food industry to get the inside scoop on what its like to cook, or eat, for a living.
Peter Kaminsky is a food writer who wrote for New York magazine for four years, and authored the Outdoors column for The New York Times for twenty years. He is a longtime contributor to Food & Wine magazine, and he has written several books with well-respected chefs including Daniel Boulud and Gray Kunz. He is also the creator and executive producer of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song that air on PBS. We caught up with Kaminsky while he was promoting his latest book, “Culinary Intelligence,” which was inspired by health concerns in his own life.
With so many healthy cooking books on the market, what led you to write your book?
As a full time food writer I had an occupational hazard. I was forty pounds overweight and pre-diabetic. I didn’t have a choice. I had to lose weight but I enjoy food too much to ever go on a tofu-raw carrot-green tea type diet. I wanted to continue to enjoy wine and steak and chocolate and lose weight. I did it. Thirty five pounds came off and stayed off and during that time I wrote two grilling cookbooks and a dessert book.
Who is your culinary icon?
Like most chefs my inspiration was my Mom and her Mom. Onions were almost sacramental to them and they could turn almost anything into a feast with caramelized onions. Julia Child was a big influence but Irma Rombauer (Joy of Cooking) really got me started. I learned so much from Gray Kunz, Daniel Boulud, and Michel Richard. Those guys love food and it shows in their cooking. AJ Liebling’s food writing is hard to beat. Hemingway has a way of dropping food on the page so that it jumps out at you. The baked maccheroni scene in the great Italian novel, The Leopard, makes my want to jump on the next plane to Sicily.
Your book discusses maximizing “Flavor Per Calorie” – could you explain what that actually means?
If you chose the best full flavored ingredients you can afford and prepare them well, they will satisfy you. Mealy tough-skinned tomatoes, lackluster beef pork and chicken, January’s strawberries, flavorless white bread all need to be doctored up to give them flavor. Rich sauces, melted cheese, whipped cream, and lots of salt to stimulate your palate are the only answer to blah ingredients. If you think about prime ingredients it most often means eating food in season, which in turn means local but I’m not religious about it. Quality always wins.
And don’t let me forget chocolate. A few squares of great dark chocolate satisfies every craving in a way that a whole candy bar rarely does. Same goes for beer. One good beer is much more of a treat than a six pack of nearly flavorless “lite” beer.
What three PBS personalities would you invite to dinner?
The great Jacques Pepin, Elizabeth McGovern (of Downton Abbey), and Ernie
Your plate is rather full with work as an author as well as a television producer, so which one do you do in your “spare” time?
TV is my spare time. It’s very heady working with superstars but the real reason I do it is for my health plan and pension. Writing is so much more personally rewarding. Although bringing Paul McCartney to the White House for PBS [for In Performance at the White House] did turn my head. I mean Barack and The Beatles…..that’s about as big as you’re going to get. Come to think of it Tina Fey for the Mark Twain Prize was a lot of laughs. Still, give me a book contract and I’m a happy (or happier) camper.
As a lover of restaurants, how do you recommend people maintain healthy eating habits when they dine out?
Don’t fill up on bread and butter. Order one appetizer per person and one entrée per couple. One cocktail or two glasses of wine. Skip dessert or share it. With the exception of Chipotle Grill, skip fast food and franchises. Put soft drinks on the Do Not Order list.
What is your favorite food city in the world?
New York, hands down. Maybe you can get better French food in France and better Italian food in Italy, but New York has so much ethnic diversity and every nationality is present in enough strength to bring what I call cultural critical mass to ethnic food. If you open an Egyptian place in Omaha you’re not going to have enough people familiar with that food to demand accuracy or uncommon ingredients. In New York, the public is on to you in….well…a New York minute.
In your travels, which culture has your favorite perspective on eating?
It’s about a fifty-way tie. French, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Argentine, Southern U.S. especially barbecue, Korean, Japanese, Chinese………New York Deli. Okay, I’ll stop now.
You have worked on cookbooks with world-class chefs and non-foodies alike, so we have to ask – what was it like to work with sports commentator John Madden? Can you actually create a great meal on the Maddencruiser?John was a blast. We didn’t really cook on the Maddencruiser although John’s wife, Virginia, sent us on our way with some mean world class chili. The thing about John is if he knows you’re and expert and working on his team, he will seek out your advice and listen. When we were testing recipes with some of his pals in Caifornia I remember telling him that he had to put some things aside after a few bites. Coach–that’s what you learn to call him pretty quickly–is a big fellow and a big personality to be giving orders to, but he did as requested. Otherwise we never could have tested and tasted all those recipes.
When people are grocery shopping, what ingredients should people avoid?
Processed (white flour), fewer potatoes, store bought cookies and cakes, all sodas (even diet soda because it only stimulates your desire for more sweets). Look at the ingredients if sugar in some form is listed near the beginning and if it appears a few times, I pass. Likewise if white flour (and that includes unbleached flour) is first I look for something with whole grain first.
What is the most esoteric food you have eaten, and did you enjoy it?
Salmon eye as my “reward” on a fishing trip in Finland. I didn’t ask for seconds. Mopane worms in Africa (once was enough). Armadillo in Uruguay which, actually, was pretty good.
What is the one most-important piece of advice you have for people looking to eat a healthier diet?
Eat smaller portions, no processed food, and cook. That’s three pieces of advice, but a very short sentence.
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