Adam Roberts, author of the always entertaining Amateur Gourmet blog, keeps up a vigorous roster of activities. He visits restaurants, reviews cookbooks, focuses a video camera on his Persian cat and occasionally sends his readers off on food treasure hunts. But many of his best blog posts are about cooking. Specifically, he seems to like inviting friends over and preparing plates of food that either remind him of dishes at his favorite restaurants or recipes from chefs’ cookbooks.
So his new cookbook “Secrets of the Best Chefs: Recipes, Techniques and Tricks from America’s Greatest Cooks” (Artisan, $27.95) is a perfect fit. Roberts and photographer Elizabeth Leitzell hopscotched around the country to cook with well-known chefs, including several from Atlanta. He took notes, asked zillions of questions and left with skeins of recipes to recreate at home.
Roberts is in town this weekend to appear and sign books at the Taste of Atlanta food festival, which wraps today.10/7 If you missed him at the festival, you can still catch him today signing books at the Emory University bookstore and at Empire State South, where the kitchen will prepare a three-course dinner inspired by the book.
I caught up with Roberts to ask a few questions about the book:
Q: I’m guessing many readers don’t know you started your blog in Atlanta, when you were attending law school at Emory. Do you miss the city?
A: I feel attached to Atlanta. I started my whole food career there. I really think it’s a wonderful and, to be honest, under-celebrated food city.
Q: You cooked with a lot of well-known Atlanta chefs, including Hugh Acheson, Anne Quatrano, Asha Gomez and Linton Hopkins. It was also nice to see you write about Omar Powell, then chef at the Sugarloaf Country Club in Duluth. How was his food?
A: He showed me one of my favorite recipes in the book. It’s a Jamaican squash stew, where you cook the calabaza squash along with a cut-up raw chicken. As they cook together, they make this really flavorful stock for the soup.
Q: After cooking with all these chefs, is there one big lesson you walked away with?
A: I think the ultimate lesson was that I’m the arbiter of a recipe. Before researching this book, I was a pure recipe follower. But after cooking with these chefs, I learned to trust my own instincts.
I also paid more attention to what tools are available to me and how to use those tools. So many home cooks are intimidated by these ideas.
Q: Does any story come to mind that illustrates this?
A: Yes. There’s a great anecdote where I cooked with Harold Dieterle at his restaurant Perilla in New York. We were making this creamed corn recipe, and he asked me to salt it. I shook some salt into the pot and thought it tasted fine. Well, he tasted it, took the salt shaker and turned the dial from from sprinkle to pour and poured a stream of salt into the pot. It was a thousand times better.
Q: Which famous chef was most unlike the person you expected?
A: Sara Moulton. On TV she’s like this chipper, smiley mom from “Leave it to Beaver.” In reality, she’s the most irreverent badass in the kitchen.
Q: Was there one technique that really stuck with you?
A: Juicing. Curtis Duffy, who’s about to open Grace in Chicago, taught me how to make this very flavorful, velvety corn soup with a juicer. But at home you can put the corn in a blender with a little water, then strain it.
Q: Any technique that doesn’t work at home?
A: Susan Feniger (of Border Grill in Los Angeles) made this black pepper clam dish and got her pan so crazy hot it let out a burst of flames. The way she reacted to that was a shoulder shrug. I tried it at home and was quivering.
Q: Did any theme come through as you were researching the book?
A: Absolutely. People’s stories and life histories inform their food. My favorite recipe in the book came from Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at Babbo in New York. It’s her mom’s recipe for lentil soup. When she found out she had ovarian cancer and was at her most ill, her mom made it for her all the time. It has sausage in it, and kale, and this hot oil you sizzle garlic in and pour into the soup at the end. You know, part of the journey was finding what kind of cook I am. What speaks to me. I learned a lot about the science of cooking, but I respond to the personal story.
See Roberts sign the book at 4 p.m. today at the Emory University Campus Bookstore. 1390 Oxford Road, Atlanta. 404-727-6222.
Tickets still available for the dinner tonight at 6:15 p.m. at Empire State South. Cost is $70, which includes a prix-fixe, three-course dinner inspired by “Secrets of the Best Chefs,” wine and a copy of the book. 999 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-541-1105.
– by John Kessler for the Food & More blog