If someone were to audit my bookshelves, they would find roughly the following breakdown: 40 percent fiction, 20 percent food memoirs, 30 percent cookbooks, and 10 percent old Gourmet issues. Suffice to say, I like reading about food. And this holiday season, there’s one book topping my personal gift list: Charlotte Druckman’s Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen. The adorably elfin Druckman is a longtime contributor to The Wall Street Journal and Bon Appetit, among other publications (she’s also a friend of mine), and for her just-published book, she interviewed 73 female chefs from all over the United States. The result is both literary and madcap, with fascinating asides and delightfully irreverent footnotes (who doesn’t love a good footnote?). Read on for Druckman’s dream dinner-party guests, chef recipes to try right now, and the three things everyone should know how to cook.
Where did the idea for Skirt Steak come from?
I wrote a more academic essay for the journal Gastronomica that was focused on how the media—and I include myself there—has either directly or indirectly contributed to our collective social perception of female chefs. Some of the most thoughtful responses were from chefs, and one of them said she wished I had asked the (women) chefs themselves about what they do. That’s where the idea for the book came from—or it was a way to justify talking to some of the country’s greatest culinary talents!
What’s your dream dinner-party guest list? Why?
These kinds of questions always trip you up, because there are those people you wish you could sit down with one-on-one and listen to/be inspired by, or ask questions of, but who knows what kind of party guest they’re going to be? They might be horrible—antisocial or, worse, belligerent; and God only knows what kinds of diet restrictions they’d all have. That said, if I had to corral a crew, I’d go with Patti Smith, William Blake, Judith Jamison, Fran Lebowitz, Jonathan Gold, Al Sharpton, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Mos Def.
There aren’t any recipes in Skirt Steak—why?
I deliberately did NOT include any recipes in Skirt Steak, because my goal was to avoid all the cliches we expect from a book about female chefs. If you say you’re writing such a book, people tend to presume it’s a cookbook. I don’t think this would be true if you said you were writing a book about male chefs.
Best advice you’ve gotten from one of your female chef interviewees?
As counseled by [New York chef] Alex Guarnaschelli: It’s best to park your gender at the door. Bring your attitude and park your gender.
What three things should everyone know how to cook?
You need to be able to handle eggs, know your way around a potato, and nail a vinaigrette. Or that’s what I think.
What are the best things you’ve eaten lately?
Recently, I had dinner with the incomparable chef Anita Lo and the wickedly funny Saveur editor Helen Rosner. We went to L’Apicio in Manhattan’s East Village. The chef, Gabe Thompson, is an underrated talent, and his business partner Joe Campanale is one of the most knowledgeable and passionate oenoscients (yes, I made that term up!) in the restaurant industry, and he’s distressingly young for having accomplished so much. There was this simple heap of tagliatelle with salumi ragu, and another of tajarin pasta with porcini mushrooms that I will dream of often and, I hope, go back and eat just as frequently in my waking life. Also, a beautiful charred octopus with pearly beads of fregola accented by thin strips of pepperoni.
What three recipes should everyone try right now?
I recently filed (although you won’t see my name on it; these things happen from time to time) a roundup for The Wall Street Journal of three family-friendly, family-style dinners from chefs who are opening restaurants this season. One, coincidentally, is from L’Apicio’s Gabe Thompson—his is a braised lamb shank ragu served over polenta. You’ll also find pike, seared in a cast-iron pan and served with white beans and bacon-studded greens from Colby Garrelts in Missouri. Then something I think everyone should try this fall: Oakland chef Sarah Kirnon’s stew of beef cheeks flavored with Caribbean spices, and the most insane squash puree I’ve ever had. Fear not the beef cheeks, people.