Pacific Northwest | April 18, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineApril 18, home
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Food To Call Our Own
An American master teaches us to honor the experience of the kitchen
In his new book, "Cooking By Hand," Oliveto Chef Paul Bertolli shows us the value of using local foods and making dishes from scratch.
"PEOPLE OFTEN get cookbooks for the recipes," says chef Paul Bertolli, but that wasn't satisfying enough for him. So in creating his new cookbook, he aimed for something different: "I wanted to document real moments in the kitchen, to encourage cooks to come to the stove with a more intuitive approach."

In "Cooking by Hand" (Clarkson Potter, $40), he is offering something new. Bertolli, executive chef and co-owner of Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland, Calif., eschews the familiar structures we have come to expect from celebrity-chef cookbooks. While the book does contain more than 140 detailed — even exacting — recipes, don't look for the usual chapters on bread, soup, salad or dessert. And don't expect to find a series of menus for gatherings of family and friends. Instead, be prepared to become completely and intimately familiar with the very sum and substance of a handful of foods that will never be the same once you have experienced them through the eyes and hands of this brilliant American chef.

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Bertolli, who served for 10 years as executive chef at the revered Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and was recognized by the James Beard Foundation in 2001 as "Best Chef: California," tends a garden, monitors a salumeria in his basement and ages homemade balsamic vinegar in his attic. He is an advocate of artisan foods, a lyrical writer and a passionate observer of what makes food good.

When he takes us back to the California of his childhood, we get a sense of how one cook's senses were gradually awakened to the nuances of the various ingredients that eventually became his medium. "The neighborhood," he writes, "was full of lessons in lemons, stone fruits, apples, pears, quinces, pineapple-guavas and our own exotic Rangpur limes. Wild mushrooms were less for eating than for kicking over in the rough and tumble of play under our hillside oak trees, but I remembered their damp smell rising from a compost of leaves, and I noticed its resemblance to that of dried porcini mushrooms in my mother's ragú."

A chapter called "Cleaning the Fresco" focuses on a handful of seemingly unrelated dishes that share a commitment to allowing each of the ingredients to shine. Bertolli mills his own corn for polenta, and his method yields an eye-opening polenta, indeed. Artichokes are handled so sweetly that reading the parallel recipes for braised artichoke hearts and soup made from artichoke leaves satisfied for this reader a hunger deeper than any mere appetite.

What I appreciate about these recipes is the combination of the sensibilities of a true gourmand and the thrift of a peasant who allows nothing to go to waste. (Perhaps I could appreciate this section because, as a restaurant chef, I, too, made soup with artichoke leaves that might otherwise have been discarded. But I never hoped to chronicle my efforts with the patient technical writing that Bertolli uses here.)

Other chapters are devoted to topics like "Aceto Balsamico," in which Bertolli describes both the heart-warming presentation of a cask of the stuff to his newborn son and a killer recipe for cooking short ribs in it. A "Pasta Primer" walks us through the preparation of whole-egg pasta that evolves into Pappardelle with Rabbit and Tagliolini with Crab.

There's "Twelve Ways of Looking at Tomatoes," about 11 of which were new to me, including Tomato Jam Tartlets and Spiced Tomato Pudding.

"Authenticity has its own taste, yet its principles are universal," writes Bertolli. "I do not attempt to duplicate at Oliveto . . . the risotto with cuttlefish I ate in Venice, the wild field salads I gathered in Chianti, or the Culatello I learned to make in a foggy cellar in Zibello. Instead, I approach my cooking with a similar commitment to present what is grown here, to make food from scratch, to gather in the wild, to maintain my vinegar loft in the quiet of the countryside and my curing cellar in the fog of the Berkeley Hills."

Some of Bertolli's recipes demand the skills and equipment of a professional kitchen. Most of the recipes in the chapter "The Whole Hog," for example, are out of my league. But many of the recipes in this book are so compelling, so elegant and so approachable that they're going to become family favorites.

Greg Atkinson is a contributing editor for Food Arts magazine and a culinary consultant. He can be reached at

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