The First of a Two-Part Conversation with the Author of the new book Skirt Steak
When I re-booted this blog back in January, one of the things I had it in my mind to do was to meet up with fellow scribes and talk about what we do and how we see things in the chef world. For my long-delayed first rap session, I selected Charlotte Druckman, who I’d never met, but had read and admired, and had always heard nice things about. In addition to writing for the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, and myriad other publications Charlotte also collaborated on Anita Lo’s cookbook Cooking Without Borders.
The reason I picked Charlotte to kick off this new, occasional feature: her first nonfiction book, Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen–for which she interviewed more than 70 of the best female toques in the business–officially debuts this week. This is a topic I’ve long had an interest in, having discussed it with a number of chefs myself, and having noticed the almost total absence of women competitors in the Bocuse d’Or competition when I covered it a few years back.
Charlotte and I had a long conversation, the highlights of which I’m sharing in two posts. Herewith, Part 1:
TOQUELAND: Why food writing?
DRUCKMAN: Why did I choose it as my linchpin? I say this in the introduction of my book: For me food is the sugar that helps the medicine go down. You can talk, especially now, about politics, agriculture, economics. You can talk about, if you want, gender. And you can talk about any of that stuff using food because it’s become the fixation point for the country, high and low.
You can finally talk about things like hunger and the fact that it’s a problem because, thank God, Jamie Oliver is doing a prime time show on it. But for such a long time, you couldn’t do that. So I think if you love food, you already had that interest anyway. You’re interested in the people making it. But now I just think it’s cracked wide open. So I think writers should think about it possibly in a different way than food writers, right?
TOQUELAND: It’s funny, I saw Josh Ozersky recently and he asked me if I liked being called a food writer. And I kind of don’t. I always say I consider myself a “chef writer,” not a food writer, because that’s what I know more than anything else—-the people and the life. I don’t know why, but it’s become almost like a literary ghetto a little bit in that non-food writers sometimes don’t give it equal respect.
DRUCKMAN: Those ghostwriter stories in the spring solidified it for me by positing the whole question of ghost recipe testing versus ghost writing. Because I am full-on a writer. I like to test recipes when I do my Wall Street Journal stuff, but I am by no means professionally trained to be a recipe tester.
And, if you think about when you’re writing a cookbook, it’s left brain/right brain. The person who’s working on it–if it is a book that is really personality-shaped, the kind of work that you have to do to give it a point of view and organize it and then capture that voice is very different than what’s going into writing a recipe and making sure that the recipe’s okay. They’re two entirely different things.
So again, when you say “food writer,” what do you mean? Are you writing recipes? Are you coming up with recipes? Or are you sitting down and writing about maybe the culture of food, or the person behind the food?
So yeah, I think it’s easier to say, “I’m a journalist who writes about food” .. . [but] now I just say “food writer” because people seem to get confused or bored if you go into it too much.
TOQUELAND: Do people assume you’re a critic when you tell them you’re a food writer?
DRUCKMAN: Yes! And I’m, like, “No.” I have so much respect for the critics who do it and the ones who really do it well, because I wouldn’t want to be a food critic.
TOQUELAND: It’s kind of like testing in a way, isn’t it?
TOQUELAND: It takes this thing that ought to be fun and organic and free flowing . ..
TOQUELAND: . .. and turns it into a science in a way and makes you pay attention too much to the pieces.
DRUCKMAN: If you love food, if you truly love it, I think this idea that it could become this thing that you have to do. .. it’s really corny, but that would really upset me, to take that simple pleasure away. It’s kind of like after going to grad school [to study art history], for years I had a really hard time going to museums and just looking at art and enjoying it without thinking that I was supposed to be analyzing it. And I can’t imagine having that with food, you know?
TOQUELAND: My version of that is that I used to work in the film business, and a really great movie was one that could make me forget that I was watching a movie, so that I wasn’t sitting there going, “Oh, this is a really good script,” or, “Oh, the framing of these shots is so terrible.” But I do find that, even though I’m not a critic, it’s still that way a lot of the time when I go out to eat.
DRUCKMAN: Well, I’m critical. But to go back to the art or film thing: We seem to have it in our heads for no apparent reason, this almost polar divide between kind-of cerebral, progressive cooking and what everyone wants to call comforting, homey cooking. And I think it’s very similar in art or film where you have those things that you think are really heady and analytical, and then the things that you just purely enjoy.
But for me, with art, it needs to move me always visually first. I love things that are clever, but if it’s clever and the concept is clever but you weren’t able to execute that within the medium of art, it’s a failure. And it’s the same for, I think, film in that you should be able to get something out of it without having to bring all that other stuff to the table.
TOQUELAND: Without having to think about it.
DRUCKMAN: Right. If you then happen to have the kind of vocabulary and knowledge that you have and can then go back and apply it and get even more out of it, great. I mean, that’s amazing. But it should be able to speak to you on some level that transcends without your having to do that. And with food, I should be able to go to the restaurant of someone who is doing really cookoo, sci-fi, deconstructive, isn’t-that-clever, what-a-funny idea, and isn’t that a great play on surf-and-turf? But if it doesn’t speak to me on the palate, it failed. I don’t care how clever it is.
TOQUELAND: Food should be first and foremost . ..
DRUCKMAN: Yeah. And so I think that the real success in any field is to be able to use your medium. To take the medium itself farther, but also to take the person who’s experiencing it somewhere without them having to do a whole lot of work or to come in knowing stuff before . ..
TOQUELAND: This kind of dovetails with your book, I think. When you say progressive, are you talking the M word?
TOQUELAND: Is that your code for –
DRUCKMAN: As I was interviewing chefs for this book, they all said, “I hate the term molecular gastronomy.” So, now I try not to use it.
TOQUELAND: I’m working with Paul Liebrandt. He will not use it.
DRUCKMAN: People hate it. I use avant garde, progressive, modernist.
TOQUELAND: I have a lot of thoughts about that whole area: One is that I think it’s a false category.
DRUCKMAN: Me, too.
TOQUELAND: Except for a couple of extreme examples, people who are, let’s say, 35 and under, it’s just something they use now.
DRUCKMAN: Just another technique or tool.
TOQUELAND: But what I was going to ask was, having written this book, do you feel like women chefs are less seduced by it? Because I feel like it falls into the realm of gadgetry or things that, stereotypically speaking, guys are into. I feel like there aren’t that many women who I would say fit in that category.
DRUCKMAN: It is the one exception. In my book I started with the premise that I wanted to think about everything you would expect a book about women chefs to do or to be and then not do it. So the first thing I knew I didn’t want to do is have that kind of essentialist argument where it was,”We cook from the heart and the head and [men] cook from the ego” .. . I think that that’s a red herring. But so many of the women I interviewed were really, and sometimes quite vehemently, anti-molecular gastronomy or progressive cooking.
DRUCKMAN: A lot of them, I think, identified it as something as macho, but most of them just said that they really didn’t connect to it, and that they thought it was really ego-driven so that it was more about, “Let me show you what I can do” or “I am going to make sure that the conversation at your dinner table revolves around what I have put on the plate so that you’re constantly stopping what you’re doing to talk about how cool I am for having done this to your food.”
TOQUELAND: So is the unspoken thing that it’s a male thing? It sounds like it must be.
DRUCKMAN: They saw it as male. I mean, I don’t necessarily agree with that. One of the things I thought – and I kind of – I do a really small thing in the book because I don’t have the answer, but what I think is really, really odd is that you have on the other hand, women constantly being shunted to pastry. But women and men in pastry will both tell you that pastry is the more sort of Cartesian or scientific between the two brands of savory and sweet. I would also say that molecular gastronomy follows that same line of science and that same way of thinking. So what’s odd to me is that the things that are most male and most female in food culture are actually not that different. There’s not that much space in my mind between pastry and the science being applied to molecular gastronomy as there is, say, between home-style cooking and molecular gastronomy.
TOQUELAND: But doesn’t pastry have to be like that? In other words, even a lot of traditional recipes are based on weight, so you simply can’t wing it, right?
DRUCKMAN: If you ask women what drew them to pastry, a lot them will say they like that way of thinking. They won’t talk about it as, “I like baking because it’s homey.” Sherry Yard went into this whole thing of talking about how it really suits the way that her mind works and she likes the science of it. And so the question is, “If we were in a different age or a different era, might Sherry Yard have gravitated towards molecular gastronomy?” Who’s to say?
PS In Part 2 of my conversation with Charlotte Druckman, coming later this week, we discuss the genesis of her book Skirt Steak and trade notes on collaborating with chefs.
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at email@example.com.