I wasn’t planning to write about Chef John Ash, the keynote speaker at IFBC 2016 (that’s International Food Blogger Conference). I have a library copy of his latest cookbook, Cooking Wild, on my desk at work. I’m contemplating buying it, but by now I have well over 200 cookbooks (seriously…when I counted them 6 years ago it was 200, I’m guessing it’s closer to 250, now). Decisions, decisions. Anyway, his talk started out interesting, but then it became deeply relevant…not just to the food bloggers and writers in the room, but to anyone who eats.
From Trout Tickling to Mad Men
Chef Ash, who has run his namesake Santa Rosa, California restaurant John Ash & Company since 1980 (that’s, like, a millennium in restaurant years), started out by talking about his childhood growing up fetching water and harvesting wild asparagus (so delicious it apparently never made it back to the house to be cooked) and catching enormous wild trout with his bare hands. (Really interesting.)
Then he talked about how he never intended to be a chef, that he actually got his degree in fine arts and worked in advertising during the real-life Mad Men era (one of his proudest moments was when he had the Del Monte account, and in 1972 he orchestrated the addition of basil to canned stewed tomatoes, which was an amazing thing at the time, given that basil was considered an exotic herb to anyone who wasn’t Italian), about which he confirmed that, yes, the ad men of that time did treat women horribly and started drinking around 10 a.m.
Anyway, he eventually made the change to the culinary world (“Everything I ever wanted to do with paint on a canvas, I found I could do with food on a plate.”), guided by some pretty notable mentors: Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher. Not only did he have the honor of having lunch at Fisher’s home on many an occasion (sometimes she prepared it, sometimes he did), but he also was present for the filming of many episodes of Child’s “The French Chef.” Wow. He had some great anecdotes about Julia including:
- When pairing food and wine, the acidity of the food must match the acidity of the wine. Often, that means adding an acidic element (citrus juice, vinegar) to the food to bring it into balance with the naturally more acidic wine.
- Quote: “People who love to eat are often the best people.”
- Quote: “You must thoroughly masticate!” (She was a big advocate of vigorously chewing, with mouth open if need be.)
- Quote: “I love to cook with wine. Sometimes it even ends up in the food.”
Food and Health
But here’s the point where I decided to write all of the above (and more to follow): Chef Ash said that Julia Child, and her compatriot James Beard, saved us from the path food manufacturers were leading us down, a path paved with processed, packaged food, a path billed as “saving women from the tyranny of the kitchen.”
Immediately, my mind juxtaposed what he said against a British Medical Journal study I learned about just that morning, as I was waiting for my plane to take off from Seattle. The study, based on data from the 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), found that ultra-processed foods like soda, candy, instant soups, packaged baked goods and processed meat products make up 60 percent of the calorie intake in the American diet, and 90 percent of the added sugars (given the first bit, that last bit’s not surprising).
Clearly, many Americans not only are NOT cooking, but they are not even reaching for healthier convenience foods to feed themselves.
Reclaim The Joy of Cooking
Chef Ash said he frequently teaches cooking classes, and it’s far from uncommon to have students rave about how amazing the recipes are, but when he asks them if they will try the recipes in their own kitchens, the answer is a variation of, “Oh no. We don’t cook. We eat at restaurants.”
“We seem to be of two minds in America,” he said. “Either you cook, or you don’t.”
That’s a shame, for three reasons, I think. One, preparing even the simplest of meals for yourself or others is supremely nurturing. Two, once you have basic cooking skills nailed down, cooking can become a form of creative expression, which is satisfying to both the palate and the psyche. Third, when you eat out a lot and you also care about your health, it becomes challenging to make the healthier choice and avoid eating more food than your body needs. (When you dine out infrequently, you have more flexibility because you’re not relying on those meals for your core nutrition.)
So if you love good food, celebrate it by making it yourself. And if you want to expand your culinary and gastronomic horizons outside of the kitchen, watch some old episodes of Julia Child’s “The French Chef” and pick up a volume of writings by M.F.K. Fisher. I already have The Art of Eating, which compiles five of her separate works, An Alphabet for Gourmets (which Chef Ash specifically recommended), as well as Gastronomical Me (see this recentish review from The Kitchn), How To Cook A Wolf (how can you not love that title), Consider the Oyster, and Serve it Forth. “I think she’s one of the most extraordinary writers in the English language, especially about food,” Ash said. Amen to that!
Note 1: The photo at the top of the post is of the huge tables set for the IFBC 2016 Farm-to-Fork Feast Saturday evening in the street behind the Sacramento Hyatt Regency, where the conference was held. Gorgeous seasonal food, great conversation, and the added bonus of seeing all the beautiful saris worn by the ladies who were attending a huge Indian wedding at the Convention Center on the other side of the street!
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