Issue #68, Risk
Cooking for James
Cooking for James
Vancouver's streets were slick and wet, the pavement disappearing under iridescent puddles, the sky closing in on a Saturday afternoon in September 1982. I was avoiding my cooking school homework, soaking in Kitsilano’s shabby-chic ambiance, shop after shop blurring like their reflections in the puddles as I idled along West 4th Avenue on my bike. When I stepped through the door of the kitchenware store, the room was redolent of garlic and damp wool; the aisles, crowded. All faces were turned to the chef behind the stove.
James Barber was already really famous in Vancouver. His raspy voice had become familiar to Canadians over the CBC’s radio airwaves, first as culinary tutor to Don Harron and then, more recently, to Peter Gzowski, on Morningside. But within the decade, James would become a global figure. Following TV culinary pioneers like Julia Child and Graham Kerr, The Urban Peasant—as James called himself—would broaden the horizons and palates of his audience while championing simple, local cooking.
I took the last seat in the store’s small demonstration area, marveling at how James made everything seem so easy and straightforward as he chatted and chopped his way through a brunch menu. When he finished cooking, I joined the snail-like queue to meet him, clutching my courage like a wrinkled apron. Finally face-to-face, I tripped over my words but somehow remembered to tell him I was a culinary student, then surprised myself by spontaneously inviting him to dinner that evening.
When he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “What will you be making?” I blurted out a lie. In as airy a tone as I could muster, I said, “Oh, you know, crepes.”
But I hadn’t planned to make crepes. For months, as a newly minted vegetarian, I’d been investigating Indian food, entranced by the layers of flavor and color as beguiling as Indian women’s clothing, those flowing pants and tunics called salwar and kameez. As a preface to each meal, I grated ginger; pounded galangal, coriander, and fennel; and dry-roasted and ground cumin. I was slowly learning how to build subtle curries and refreshing raitas and spicy chapatis—all messy but delicious and worlds away from the restrained roast beef, pork chops, and mashed spuds of my childhood. For my supper that evening, I’d planned on simmering carrots in coconut milk with Indian spices, then grilling a few chapatis in my black cast-iron pan to mop up the juices. But crepes were French. Surely they had more cachet than curry, especially to this man about the world. There was a contradiction buried there, between James’s fondness for simplicity and my sense that he’d like something more nuanced than curried carrots, but I didn’t see it then, and Indian food did not yet have much culinary currency.
James had been raised on his English mother’s dreary overcooked stodge, then discovered the wonders of peasant food while he served as a corporal in the RAF, gathering military intelligence in France during the Second World War. French country folk served him simple stews, lip-smacking roasts, succulent vegetable gratins, and crusty breads, all made with inexpensive, locally grown ingredients. Their textures and robust flavors astounded the young Englishman. In Vancouver, he created a patchwork career as a theater critic, restaurant reviewer, and cookbook author before venturing onto the radio. There, James served up a potent homebrew of slightly outré French food and uncomplicated English pub-grub leavened with humor, a hint of sex, and an uncomplicated pleasure in cooking and eating. He somehow managed to bypass what would emerge as the curse of cooking shows: an audience glued to their chairs in the living room, not in the kitchen cooking.
“Hmmm,” James said to me, turning back to the young woman who was waiting for an autograph. “And will you be cooking anything else?”
Each word was Dover gravel on a patch of Old Country lawn, his teeth like a white picket fence. I’d only seen photos of him, and his forehead was more pronounced in person, his receding hair more tonsure-like, his laugh lines deeper, his nose more obviously pug. He was not as attractive as he’d seemed in those stills, but he still possessed a magnetically devilish smile that made me want something I’d never had: glamour.
I was a naive twenty-something, insecure as all young people are, with no faith in my own judgment, or the impartial judgment of my mirror. Looking down at my muscular cyclist’s thighs, I was convinced of their unappealing breadth; looking at my nose in my mirror, all I saw was its pronounced bridge. I was plain. And I was lonely. I’d grown up in a large family, cooking bland prairie fare for a tribe, sharing a bedroom with my sister, jostling for my share of everything from space tosecond helpings. When I’d arrived in Vancouver straight out of high school to discover coastal cuisine and enroll in culinary studies, I’d settled into a bachelor apartment and a string of unsuccessful affairs, latching on to whomever looked at me twice. Learning how to be a grownup was harder than I had imagined.
“Crepes,” I said again, feeling that familiar desperation as James Barber stood behind the counter, clicking his pen and winking at the young woman, who’d taken back his book with slow hands. I didn’t even like crepes. Their flabby texture made me think of a chapati that had failed at achieving selfhood. “And dessert crepes, too,” I added, “filled with chocolate.”
“All right then,” James mumbled as he signed a book from the stack the store clerk had thrust at him. I scrambled in my backpack to find a scrap of paper, wrote down my address and his arrival time—seven o’clock—almost kowtowing as I put the paper in his hand.
James would go on to write an impressive number of best-selling books to keep pace with his TV show, but he already had a reputation for prodigious and varied appetites. On my frantic pedal toward home, I tried to remember what else I had said to him during our brief encounter. Something about hoping I’d become as quick-thinking a cook. Liking his food. Appreciating his uncomplicated and casual style, his unabashed use of whipping cream and butter. A fan’s inane blatherings. Why couldn’t I have said what I meant without sounding like a total geek, opinion-less, and innocuous as a day-old quiche? And why had I said I’d make crepes?
We’d made crepes two months earlier in class, shortly after I’d read James’s offhanded account of making crêpes Suzette in his first book, Ginger Tea Makes Friends. At school, my first attempt had torn when I tried to flip it, the tender batter overwhelmed by hands that had not yet learned grace or subtlety. Chef René Jolicoeur, the head of the hot kitchen, had shaken his head, his immaculate apron lifting like a bellows across his rotund belly as he sighed.
“Slow down, mademoiselle. I keep telling you: the world is not a race.” He ladled melted butter, then batter, into the hot pan, swirled with a flick of his wrist, and set the pan on the flame. “Now, you wait. So. And now. . . you flip.” Another graceful motion, too quick to analyze, and the crepe lifted in a slow parabola and fell back into the pan. He watched me make a mess of another attempt, then pursed his lips and shrugged, that Gallic multipurpose self-absolution. “Encore une fois, mademoiselle. I require of you six crepes before class finishes today.” I had persevered, but the bell sounded before I could show Chef any more than two, both flawed.
• • •
It was still raining when I locked my bike outside the liquor store. Inside, I agonized for twenty minutes, knowing I was about to spend most of my month’s grocery budget. I finally sprang for a famously expensive French white burgundy I’d never felt quite up to trying before, intimidated not only by its hefty price tag, but also by its reputation and high score with the wine experts, unconvinced my student palate would do it justice. But those attributes—and its provenance—seemed perfectly aligned with tonight’s endeavor.
The wall clock read three when I maneuvered my bike through the building’s awkward entry and jammed it into the narrow hall of my tiny apartment. I found the crepes recipe in my class binder and clutched it in one hand as I pulled ingredients from the fridge with the other, then groaned. I was out of eggs. The clock’s hour hand was a spur, and my nerves were already wound tight.
The trip back to 4th Avenue and the health food store took just a few minutes, but the lineup at the only open cashier’s till was the normal weekend logjam. The woman in front of me had two whining kids, a cart full of frozen soy-cheese pizzas, mini-yogurts by the case, and a dozen school-sized bottles of juice. I saw her eyeing my carton of eggs, perched alone on the conveyor belt, but then she looked away and concentrated on picking lint off the hood of her daughter’s rain jacket. I vowed again never to have kids, to concentrate on my career and become a famous chef, to give all my change to panhandlers, to let people cut in front of me at the video store and at the grocery with impunity and a gracious smile.
“Will there be anything else?” the cashier asked when my turn finally came.
I hesitated, then snagged a handful of chocolate bars and flung them on the conveyor belt.
“Can you wait just a sec?” I asked. I bolted to the back cooler and grabbed the last glass pint bottle of whipping cream. “I’m cooking a French dinner,” I said to the scowling clerk when I returned. “Crepes.”
“That’ll be fifteen dollars and fifty cents.”
“What? For eggs and cream?”
“Organic eggs. And that’s Avalon Dairy whipping cream. Six bars of dark Ghirardelli chocolate. Fifteen—”
“All right, I got it.” I counted out coins and tightly folded bills sequestered in my wallet. The last of my food allowance and my month’s busfare as well.
The batter looked flawless. The cream sauce bubbled on the back burner, waiting for the carrots to be sautéed in butter. But my imagination kept intervening, smearing James’s pen-and-ink drawings from his cookbook into a bizarre live-action cartoon. “Crepe filling,” I heard him say in that gruff tiger’s purr, “is a vehicle for improvisation. Make a cream sauce, fry some sliced asparagus, add diced chicken or smoked trout. Snazzy. Sexy. Simple.” In my mind, he invited a young blonde who looked a lot like me onto a stage set up as a kitchen—similar to the store earlier that day, and to the television set when he’d host The Urban Pleasant several years later—and grinning, he fed her enormous mouthfuls, cream dripping down the fork to his cuff.
Peeling and slicing carrots in a frenzy, all I could think about was the look of pleasure on the real James’s face as he ate my crepes. As the carrots softened in a bed of butter on the stove, I picked up four chocolate bars, smashed them down on the counter, pulled off the wrappers, and dropped the broken bits into a small pot with the rest of the cream—chocolate ganache for the dessert crepes.
On the radio, John Cougar was singing: “A little ditty about Jack and Diane. . . .” The whole world was caught up in love, infatuated with the idea of coupledom, wheels spinning in tandem. Cooks had the inside track—James Barber’s success proved that people invariably let down their guard while enjoying a yummy meal cooked for them. Tonight, I was boarding the train.
I made a fresh pot of coffee, lit the front burner, tossed a knob of butter in my pan, attempted that insouciant swirling motion I had so envied, added the batter, and swirled again.
The batter didn’t swirl.
It set, in jagged arms and indentations like the inlets along the Georgia Strait. I tried to loosen it, recalling Chef’s admonitions—that the pan had to ready itself, that the first crepe was invariably spoiled, to make enough batter to account for loss. To account for loss. I was only twenty-three, but I’d been struck by the phrase, wondered if it extended to people, to families, to children, to pets. To careers. How to plan your life with sufficient resources to account for loss? Who would want to?
I tried again. Failed again. I added more milk and tried again. The third crepe broke as I flipped it. The fourth landed on the floor, as did the fifth. Ten minutes later, I was sweating, my pulse up again, my coffee pot empty, my hands shaking like a junkie’s. Of twelve crepes that eventually made it onto the plate, six were worth using. Six were sufficient. Maybe. I knew my guest’s reputation, his famous appetite. I recharged the coffee pot, refilled my mug, and set to work tidying up.
An hour later, I laid four crepes in a baking dish, stuffed them with the cooled carrots, poured on the sauce, turned on the oven, and spooned the chocolate ganache into the remaining crepes, my pleasure at the finished result attenuated by increasing anxiety. I paced the hardwood floor of my apartment, looking out the window every five minutes, trying to see through the dim twilight. I could hear raindrops pounding on the glass, water cascading down the cracked sill.
By seven, the doorbell hadn’t yet rung. When I opened the fridge, the French burgundy waiting all alone in its depths convinced me I had earned the first glass. Survivor’s due. Forty minutes later, the wine was half gone. By 8:30, my blood sugar plummeting, a headache creeping up, I put the carrot crepes into the oven then ate the last of the chocolate cream sauce, dipping salvaged pieces of crepe into the pot like a penitent before the grail.
I pulled the crepes out of the oven half an hour later and topped off my glass. The clock read 9:30, then 10. At 10:30, I finally ate the meal I’d prepared, alone, sitting on the floor with the television on, my plate of soggy crepes balanced on my lap, wine glass on the floorboards beside me.
I barely slept that night. At school, I didn’t mention the fiasco, although I did tell Chef I’d successfully made crepes.
• • •
A month later, I was at my stove before class, radio blaring for company, and I heard James’s growling baritone interrupt Gzowski’s voice: “Nothing is as seductive as cassoulet.” I imagined him stirring a pot of cannellini beans and crooking his finger at an attractive brunette working the soundboard in the radio studio.
You fraud, I thought. I added ginger and cumin to my lentils, and turned off the radio before I ate.
• • •
The crepe incident haunted me for years. I mostly blamed myself, although—in my thirties and living in Calgary, where I struggled to raise my sons while running my restaurant—I thought of James as a lecher. Then, in my forties, after I’d sold my restaurant, I reinvented myself as a successful and ever-curious newspaper food columnist—much as James himself had done. At first, I wrote about culinary celebrities and chefs, then graduated to advocating for local ingredients and sustainable food production. In 2001, I encountered James again when he came to town, his latest book in hand, to teach two classes at the city’s leading gourmet cooking school. He didn’t remember that we’d met previously, when I was still green, and I refrained from telling him directly that he’d stood me up, but I made light of the fact in my column. He hadn’t changed: life was still a series of seductions, and over noodles and barbecued pork in my favorite Vietnamese joint, he told stories of his fondness for women and of his long courtship of one in particular.
During our conversation, James wildly paraphrased a quote often attributed to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “Passion is more than four legs in a bed.” (Rilke had written about marriage, not passion.) Then he ascribed the aphorism to the English lexicographer and writer Samuel Johnson—a comment and attribution he would use more than once in conversations with journalists. “I fall in love regularly,” he went on, “with the sunshine, a color, an ingredient, a philosophy. And I am desperately in love with ankles.” Laughing—and blithely ignoring the double-barreled insult he was dishing out—he told me how he’d taught “a Virgo woman to make love to a risotto” in the previous evening's class. “It was the ultimate seduction, cooking in front of all those people. She'll never forget that. Food is always about seduction.”
Later, considering things over a cup of tea in my kitchen, I bludgeoned myself with the enduring conviction that back in Vancouver, I’d been a plain young woman with little to attract a potential lover. A few minutes later, tea cooling in the cup, I changed tack and reiterated my suspicion that nothing I might have cooked two decades ago would have been sufficiently uptown to draw the Urban Peasant to my door.
• • •
The simple fare of the Urban Peasant and his old-school attitude toward women in the kitchen were only precursors of what was yet to come. The Food Network launched into the kitchens of the world in 1993. Within a few years, New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse was shouting,“BAM!” on TV screens across the continent. A little more than a decade later, competitors on Chopped were battling for supremacy in kitchens designed as warzones, complete with sabotage.
By 2002, Anthony Bourdain, an irreverent New Yorker with attitude and a taste for the world, had inherited James Barber’s “sexy bad-boy chef” title, taking TV viewers into global markets and restaurants with sardonic good humor. Bourdain spoke openly about his double-edged rep as a recovering drug addict who suffered from depression, and his untimely suicide in mid-2018 left a large gap in the world.
On the plus side, though, before his death, and partly as penance for how he had glorified the professional kitchen’s “cowboy” culture in his book Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain played a role in exposing and hopefully ending the trade’s pervasive men-first/women-last, “bros before hoes,” ethos. He wasn’t the only foodie keeping pace with the zeitgeist of the #MeToo Movement: high-profile Toronto restaurateur and author Jen Agg has been loudly calling out abusive male chefs—in public, in newspaper essays, on her Twitter feed, and in her book, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch.
Agg is a rarity, though, as are the women chefs working in restaurant and hotel kitchens. In the early 1980s, when I was a culinary student, less than 25 percent of students enrolled in the Vancouver Vocational Institute’s cooking program were women. In 2016, the Culinary Institute of America in New York enrolled more than 50 percent women. But a depressingly low number of women stick with it, only to toil in professional kitchens as prep cooks, line cooks, and sous chefs, with only a few reaching the summit as chefs and restaurateurs. Why? Agg and Bourdain had the right of it, and TV’s portrayal of women chefs like Nigella Lawson or Rachael Ray as sizzling and sexy hearth goddesses doesn’t help. Things haven’t changed so much since James’s time, after all.
But it’s simplistic to blame TV. Those ubiquitous screens are symptoms of our collective losses, not causes. Food and cooking are complicated snapshots of our culture. Longer work hours, the outsourcing of jobs in our work-world, and the rise of the single-parent family, coupled with fundamental changes in how we view food and its production—as a commodity, as cheap fuel, and as an overworked and underpaid trade practiced by largely invisible hands, in stark contrast to the star-chef culture—has led to perhaps-predictable results.
On top of that, merely watching chefs cook on TV does not teach a captive audience the textures and smells and experience of actually cooking. Radio, with its room for the imagination to play, was better. Regardless, too many modern diners prefer to eat out or order in instead of tying on an apron. That passivity means that home cooking is a dying skill, and, with it, significant familial connectedness; when we give up control of our stoves, we surrender the stove and kitchen table as fulcrums for conversation and debate. On that score, James, who made his bones teaching people how easy it is to cook good food, would be appalled.
• • •
When heard the news of James’s death in 2007, I sat down to take stock of his influence, a glass of Riesling and a bowl of lamb curry in front of me. I wish it was as simple as saying James taught me to view cooking as something to enjoy, as something worth sharing, but my feelings of gratitude and loss were overlaid by my resentment of how women continue to cope with the morass of male approbation and disapproval. At nearly fifty, I was single, with a broken marriage behind me, and I had two almost-grown sons who embodied the grace and appetites of athletes. I'd taught my sons to cook and watched them go through the same uncertainty I felt at that age. I’d owned a restaurant, written cookbooks, fed other chefs, served food to possible partners, and learned how to mop up my heart when the prospective dates didn’t take root. And, despite my old chef-instructor’s warning, it never occurred to me to plan for loss. It always seemed self-defeating to me, as if it were too risky to bet on success or happiness. Risk is a necessary ingredient in a fully lived life. That, I learned from James.
Even after my years as a chef and restaurateur, I prefer to turn up the flame and write the menu fresh every morning. I’ve let go of believing I was a failure because James didn't come for supper. I unhesitatingly invite strangers to dine; there’s always room for another chair. I only serve dishes that flutter my heart, and I still swoon for a good curry.
* Illustration by Anna Hall
dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s former life in the culinary world flavors some of her poetry, essays, and fiction. Her work has appeared in... read more
Under the Umbrella
Awhile back, I was asked to help Dina Matos McGreevey, the former wife of former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, write her memoir.... read more
Creative Nonfiction #68: “Risk” explores how we balance the threat of loss against the promise of gain. Writers recall the...Creative Nonfiction #68: “Risk” explores how we balance the threat of loss against the promise of gain. Writers recall the... read more
"There's a cost to every decision, but how can we measure it?"
Like a flower at first, all daisy face and fairy blossom. Or a star, if you prefer, supernova of cellular splits. Aster. Suggestion of... read more