You probably first became a fan of Andy Baraghani’s inventive, intriguing work at Bon Appétit, where he made us crave tahini smothered cabbage and salads of kale and coconut. Now the chef, a food writer and recipe just released his debut cookbook, “The Cook You Want to Be: Everyday Recipes to Impress.” Baraghani joined us on “Salon Talks” to talk about salad, baking and why your phone shouldn’t be your kitchen timer. Watch our episode here or read a Q&A of our conversation below.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Let’s talk about what it means to be the cook you want to be. You start out this book by saying you didn’t want to be a cook at all.
You ran from it. What sucked you in, what made you come back to this thing that you love?
I think it was very early that I loved food. I have proof in the book. There’s a photo of me with a Fisher-Price kitchen. I think at that age, when I was very, very young and adolescent, what drew me to it was just the act of eating and the pleasure you got. And how it just made me smile and how it was all about taste.
Then it evolved into something that clearly became a passion. Probably around the age of 11, 12, I really became more curious beyond just eating, but also cooking and experimenting in my parents’ kitchen. It was beyond flavor at that point, it was about how many other things it touched. Techniques, regional cuisines, different cultures. It was a way for me to really expand, not just my palate, but my mind. That’s why I decided to pursue it as a profession and then go into restaurants.
This book is also about, as you say, context. It’s about challenging us to rethink, what is American food? What is home cooking? It’s not just one particular thing. You make your family influences and your cultural influences as a Californian, as a New Yorker, as a Persian American, first generation. How do you incorporate that into what you’re doing for this wider audience, including foods and techniques that maybe some people have never seen before?
I really thought about the lessons I’ve learned throughout my life, working in this kind of funny, beautiful, delicious food space I refer to. Growing up Iranian-American, working in restaurants around the country, working in food media, I try to distill these lessons and try to put it in the book for the reader.
“I really wanted to write the recipes in a way where it didn’t come from this authoritative place, but more of a place where I’m right there with you.”
I realized that if you’re trying to push someone to try a new ingredient, that’s probably the one thing they’re going to get from the recipe. You don’t want to add a recipe that has 10, 12, 13 steps. It’s finding that balance. It is important for people in this book to not just fall in love with the recipes and make them and have it be a part of the repertoire, but really go the extra step.
If you’ve learned about an ingredient or a technique or about a regional dish, then I feel like I have succeeded. That is the big goal for me, is for people to go one step further with the recipes.
All of us have a different idea of that concept of being “the cook you want to be.” I don’t know how intentional this was in the book, but every recipe, the name of it sounds so good. Everything is fluffy. Everything is crunchy, extra crunchy. Spicy, extra spicy. You build these ideas of thinking about what our dishes are. I’m not just going to go into the kitchen and make eggs, I’m going to make fluffy eggs. I’m going to make crispy eggs. I’m going to make jammy eggs.
Thinking in terms of the love language for food feels like an important starting point in identifying what we want to cook, by identifying what flavors we like. How do we start that dialogue with ourselves?
I have a chapter that is really about my essential tools and ingredients. I say in the very beginning, these are the kind of tools that I find that I need that are essential to me in my kitchen. These are the ingredients that I continue to grab and they have become the foundation, the building blocks to the recipes you’ll see throughout this book.
That being said, use them, fall in love with them, but also explore and see what ingredients, what tools benefit you. I have no use for a garlic press, frankly. But if that is something that you want in your kitchen, that’s okay. I think it’s more about exploring and being okay with trying things. Things that you might like, might not like. Because the worst thing that’s going to happen is you just might not buy it again.
You don’t have an Instant Pot. You say you’re very meticulous and very compact about what you have.
A part of it is also living in New York City, having a very tiny apartment and having a very small kitchen. I have shipped away things that I don’t find essential. When it comes to knives, I really just talk about the three knives that I use — a bread knife, a chef’s knife, a paring knife. I have a few pots, skillets, a few good cutting boards. I find that too many tools almost cloud your judgment and get in the way, and also calls for more dishes.
When it comes to the ingredient part, I have understood the flavors that I’m drawn to. I know that I love acid in the form of citrus, in vinegars, plenty of herbs. Chili in the form of both dried and fresh. Fat in the form of nuts and seeds, but obviously a high percent fat content of butter.
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And yoghurt. You’re all about yogurt.
A lot of yoghurt. Full fat yogurt, all the way.
One of the pieces of equipment that you are very much in favor of is a real timer.
A real timer, yes. I think a real timer is dedicated to just that, timing your dishes or counting down. As soon as you start to grab your iPhone or your phone, assuming that people all have iPhones, it’s a place for so many distractions. Emails, phone calls, texts. I try to avoid that. I never use the timer on my phone, and I promise it’ll make you more focused.
I heard you’re renovating your kitchen now. As you’re laying out a kitchen, for those of us who can’t afford a redo right now but are maybe thinking of how to arrange it or structure it in a way that makes sense, what are you thinking about?
My kitchen is so small, but for me it was very important to have a proper amount of workspace. That was essential. So I am extending so I do have a good amount of counter space. And so that, the fridge doesn’t bump out, it’s flush so there’s a good movement. Gas stove, I prefer. And first time ever having a dishwasher in 14 years. So that’s going to be the big thing for me.
“Whether it’s a crunchy veg salad or a leafy green salad, I want a salad to be properly dressed.”
I feel flushed just as you said that. My heart just kind of stops.
Then everyone else outside of New York is just like, “You want a dishwasher?” It’s like, “Yeah, that’s going to make a big difference.”
A lot of us feel intimidated about cooking. Even approaching new cookbook feels like, “Oh God, I’m going to have to learn stuff.” But you get it, because you talk in the book about how you’ve only got five dessert recipes. You’re not a big dessert person. You admit that you’re trying to push yourself a little out of that comfort zone. How has it changed to you, starting a little bit more as a beginner and having that learning curve?
There’s so many things I could talk about right now. I’ve been very lucky to work for different food publications over the years. Part of that is developing recipes. When I decided to write this book, I really wanted to write the recipes in a way where it didn’t come from this authoritative place, but more of a place where I’m right there with you. I’m right there in the kitchen, I’m encouraging you.
There’s been so many great cookbooks over the years that I’ve seen. Obviously there’s a template. You have a head note, you have a list of ingredients, and a method, but I didn’t want it to be felt too strict. With the recipes I wanted to make sure that it feels like there’s movement and it’s fluid. And there’s my voice right there to encourage you and to let you know that it’s okay that it might not be this exact size or perfectly cooked in this way. I promise it’ll still be delicious.
I do talk about in the intro for the dessert chapter, that desserts have been my Achilles’ heel of sorts in food. I worked in restaurants and developing so many recipes, the majority have been savory over sweet. But I do love desserts. I genuinely want to just develop more dessert recipes. There’s only five in the book, I’ll admit that. What’s really important for me, and I think for anybody who is creative or has their respected craft, is to acknowledge that the process isn’t always linear. For me there’s been a lot of bumps and unprotected left-hand turns, but those have been essentials in my love for food and my career in this food world. Desserts have been that learning curve.
But I welcome it, and I think that’s what makes me the cook that I am. My goal is hopefully, if, when maybe I write another book, that the dessert chapter might be the biggest chapter in the book. That’s my greatest hope, is to continue to evolve and grow and never to stay stagnant.
All right, I’m going to reel you back into your comfort zone. I’m going to put you right where you are on top — salads. You are the salad man. What are the keys to a great salad?
Whether it’s a crunchy veg salad or a leafy green salad, I want a salad to be properly dressed. Dressed enough so there isn’t too much of a pool of vinaigrette or creamy dressed on the side. I want it to be light and airy and never weigh down. I want good acidity with each mouthful and an irregular bite and crunch. I want it to kind of fool the palette and keep you guessing. That’s what I think a great salad is.
You have a technique. I am on your side on this one, I believe it too. You are a hands-on.
Oh sure. I believe in tossing a salad with your hands, specifically I would say leafy salads. A vinaigrette, for sure. Because you’re taking these leafy greens, whether it’s endive or a gem lettuce, whatever that kind of green may be, it is quite delicate. Hands are a lot more easier to toss around and feel that each green is dressed, rather than wooden serving spoons or some kind of salad tosser. Because I think that end up bruising the greens very easily.
What are the cookbooks that changed your life, that really stick with you and you hear in your head?
First and foremost, I’d say all of David Tanis’s books. My mentor, my friend, a chef I worked under at Chez Panisse. From “A Platter of Figs,” his first book by him, to “The Heart of an Artichoke.” He personally and his books have taught me so much. He’s a very special human being. Friends of his, we call him the wizard. He just has the touch.
I would say “The Zuni Café Cookbook,” for sure. It’s very California, a lot of these.
But it’s what I grew up with. “The Zuni Café Cookbook,” the Boulevard cookbook. Very much when I was a teenager, I would look at that book all the time. So many of Nigel Slater’s books. I think, and it’s telling. I don’t know the majority of them, I really only have a relationship with David, but I would want them to read this book and hopefully I make them proud.
There’s something that I think all of those authors and in not just their books, but in their cooking, it’s very intuitive. That is something I really tried to push in this book, intuitive cooking.
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