Tough Love

Chris Styler - June 2006

Chris Styler's collaboration on Barbara Kafka's latest book, Vegetable Love, was the culmination of a 25-year working relationship. Here he tells the back story.

About 25 years ago, I was working on Manhattan's Upper East Side as a private chef for a couple who ate fried eggs and toast every morning and steak and potatoes every evening. It was not any more exciting than it sounds. Looking for more, I spoke to a friend, who suggested I call Barbara Kafka, then a restaurant consultant as well as food writer, to see if she needed someone with a restaurant chef background like mine. I phoned one morning, and Barbara suggested I come over right then. When I told her I wasn't dressed for a first meeting, she responded, "Then I won't get dressed either." I rang the buzzer for the downstairs door of her Carnegie Hill town house and was greeted by a woman wearing a knee-length pumpkin-colored nightgown and a pair of Dr. Scholl's sandals. She wielded a can of Tab in one hand and a lit Carlton in the other. Not being one to presume, I said, "I am here to see Mrs. Kafka." Barbara's immediate response was, "This is about all of her you're likely to see, dear."

Barbara began exerting her influence on American food and cooking more than three decades ago and has continued unabatedly. In the early and mid-1970s, she teamed up with two other titans who changed the way America eats--Joseph Baum and James Beard. With Beard she taught classes in New York City and at San Francisco's Stanford Court Hotel, a practice she continued for several years. Barbara met Baum while she was working on the English version of Revue de Vin de France. Not long after, Baum began working with Michael Whiteman on the restaurants and foodservice operations in the World Trade Center. Barbara was part of a team of consultants put together by Baum and Whiteman that also included Jacques Pépin and Beard. (Oh, to be a fly on that wall! Nick Malgieri, then executive pastry chef at Windows on the World and current director of the baking program at the Institute of Culinary Education, has a host of priceless stories from that period. He told me that Barbara arrived on the scene one day in a splendid mink coat over what appeared to be a nightgown.)

Windows on the World was more than a room with a view. Former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes, in an article written eight days after the September 11 attacks, called Windows a "grand experiment" and credited the restaurant with changing public perception about the World Trade Center from overwhelmingly negative to generally positive. It's not difficult to credit the diverse food operations created for the World Trade Center by Baum and Whiteman and their consultants with raising the stakes for New York City and the country's restaurants.

I met Barbara not long after her stint at Windows. I was to be her "translator"--the person who turned her sometimes eccentric and always original visions into items that could actually come out of a restaurant kitchen station. Barbara and I worked on a host of projects: the opening of Gotham Bar and Grill; a pizza place in Greenwich Village meant to be a prototype for a chain; and a waterfront restaurant in Long Island City with a spectacular view and a young chef named Brendan Walsh.

Barbara was then, and is now, miles ahead of trends. She foresaw the improving quality in national food chains and predicted their race toward more menu choices when most of us couldn't conjure up the image of Burger King serving chicken. Her 1981 book American Food & California Wine steered clear of regional or traditional clichés and headed right for recipes that spoke of American inventiveness, shad roe soufflé with string bean frappé and watercress mousse with raw ham among them. At that early stage of the American food revolution, she credited us with tastes we hadn't yet acquired and a level of sophistication we hadn't yet reached. We eventually caught up. Barbara was also well ahead of "fusion" cuisine--not dopey blackened-redfish-over-wasabi-polenta-fusion but the marriage of ingredients from around the world in a thoughtful and intelligent way to create surprising and surprisingly good dishes. Barbara looked at where cooking techniques, cultures, flavors, and ingredients overlapped. Then she pulled them apart and put them back together in ways that amused or delighted her. Often they did both.

Back then, nothing infuriated Barbara more than a pat response or taking the easy way out of a culinary problem. "Taste, goddamnit, TASTE!" was something I heard frequently. Barbara turned cauliflower into Bavarians, challenged conventional kitchen wisdom (telling readers to roast in a home oven set to 500°F is most notably and successfully in that category), and cooked bravely, pairing avocado with liver or horseradish custard with smoked salmon. Once, when working with Barbara to re-create a dish of fried whole hot peppers and garlic cloves tossed with linguine that she had eaten on the Amalfi coast, we made several versions that I thought excellent. "Yes, they're good," she said, "but they're not what I'm looking for." Apparently what she was looking for was schmaltz--as in rendered chicken fat--which in our final version was liberally spooned over the fried peppers and garlic before being tossed with the pasta. It was spectacular, and I long for it as much on this balmy spring afternoon as I enjoyed it on the slushy winter morning we shared it.

That kind of curiosity, her refusal to settle for the everyday, and her drive for knowledge inform everything Barbara does. While working on a restaurant project in Greenwich Village, I had heard the term "postmodern" bandied around quite a bit. When I asked Barbara what that meant to her, I got not an answer but a tour. Barbara picked up the phone, called the garage to get her Jaguar ready, and hustled me into the passenger seat. As we drove--screeched, really--through Manhattan, Barbara pointed out buildings, explained why the winged Mercury from the old AT&T building ended up in the lobby of their new building, and gave me enough to think about for weeks. ("Have you ever looked, I mean really looked at the Seagram's building at night?") It was like the scene in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters in which Sam Waterston leads Diane Weist and Carrie Fisher on a tour of his favorite buildings, only with whiter knuckles and a much more elevated heart rate. (Though my vehicular time with Barbara has been limited, it is the source of some of my favorite BKisms: "Thank God I learned to drive in Paris!" is one of these. "That'll give 'em something to talk about back in Omaha," uttered seconds after nearly clipping a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, is another.)

A couple of years ago, while speaking to Barbara on the phone, I realized something was wrong. I offered to come for a visit. It was one of the most difficult hours I have ever spent, watching my friend and mentor, and one of the most intelligent people I know, struggle to finish a sentence. Clearly she was ill and concerned not only about her health but about her long overdue book on vegetables. She asked for help. I didn't hesitate.

As always with Barbara, I got more than I bargained for. For the first few weeks, we sifted through mounds of material that were to become Vegetable Love. This material was stored in everything from an empty case of Budweiser to an oversized Baccarat shopping bag. All of my suggestions--for deleting material, combining chapters, and reorganizing the recipes--were met with a simple "Whatever you say, boss." It was somewhat difficult to adjust to this new arrangement. Fortunately, adjustment wasn't a problem, as the new arrangement didn't last long. Within weeks of our collaboration, Barbara underwent a procedure that restored her to her feisty, preternaturally curious old self. Things returned to normal, with daily e-mails containing links to Web sites that dealt with foragers of wild plants, fennel pollen, heirloom seeds, and more. An already staggering mass of information was rearranged on a regular basis and subject to constant scrutiny, revisions, and, of course, additions. ("How can you write a book about vegetables and not include wild sea kale?")

Rejected from the start was organizing the book alphabetically by vegetable. Too ordinary. We cycled through arranging the vegetables by botanical family, growing season, and where they grew (above ground, below ground, on vines, etc.) before settling on dividing the vegetables into chapters based on place of origin. This, too, led to some unusual groupings, like putting vegetables that originated in Asia and Africa together in one chapter. ("At least as long ago as there was a Silk Road, there was a brisk trade among sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, and Asia," Barbara writes in that chapter's intro, as if that explains everything, which, in fact, it does.) This organization raised some prepublication concerns among some and, indeed, a few reviewers did mention what they saw as an "odd" organization. But reading a book by Barbara Kafka isn't about finding expected things in expected places. If, while reading through Vegetable Love, you should find yourself lost in Asia and stub a toe on a pea shoot, that is not an accident. It is intentional.

Some of Barbara's books, Roasting and Party Food among them, bring a restaurant chef or caterer's perspective to home cooking. Others, I think, turn the tables and serve as inspiration for professional chefs. Vegetable Love is among this second group. There is a glut of information on preparing and cooking vegetables, some of which will surprise seasoned pros, as it did me. There are also recipes that will cause some to look at certain vegetables with a fresh eye. I would never have thought to team beets with rhubarb or turn endives into a sweet-and-sour sauce. Barbara did.

When I first started working with Barbara, people would ask--often, it seemed, "Isn't she hard to work for?" My standard response became "It's better than working for someone simple." But the truth was Barbara was difficult to work for if you thought by rote, cooked by rote, or were afraid to spend a few days working toward one of Barbara's dream dishes, only to find that she was on to something else by the time you got there. I looked at it as getting paid to go to school. I had already learned to cook by the time I met Barbara. She taught me--and all of us as a community and profession--to think while we cooked. Thankfully, she is still going at it.