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My Daughter, the Chef

A mother who prides herself on her kitchen prowess learns to step back and leave it to the pro.

There comes a time in the lives of most parents when they realize that their offspring can do something ever so much better than they can--often something that the parents pride themselves on doing well. For me that moment came a year ago last summer, when I was struck by the notion that my thirtysomething daughter, Sara, was a much better cook than I'd ever be and could throw together a lunch party or a dinner with a confidence and ease that I could never summon. It was a roasted-corn risotto that brought the truth home--a dish so simple, so delicious, so utterly right for an August Sunday lunch that it took my breath away.

I'm not a bad cook, but even at the best of times I'm not gifted with organization. Too often company arrives while I'm still vacuuming dog hairs off the rug or making a sauce that's far too complex for the occasion. Worst of all, I've been known to forget entirely that guests are expected.

That was what happened on that August Sunday: I was sitting in the garden, happily struggling with the crossword, when I heard a car door slam and recalled, with a pang, the couple who were passing through our neighborhood and had been improvidently asked to lunch. My recourse on such occasions is to throw together anything in the larder that's edible, chop it into small pieces and dress it with the good olive oil and vinegar that we always keep around.

Sara, home for a visit, caught me as I was opening a can of tuna fish and putting a couple of eggs on to boil. "You can't give them that," she said, firmly but without scorn. "They've come a long way. They've got a long way to go."

"But..."

"Just sit down and relax. Let me handle this." Ever since she became a professional cook, she speaks to me like this. (She's currently the chef at I Coppi, a Tuscan restaurant in New York City's East Village.) It's a role reversal I'm not always comfortable with, but sometimes a person has no choice. I found a bottle of chilled wine (my son is a sommelier, but that's another story) and took it out to the garden.

Forty-five minutes later, the roasted-corn risotto emerged, as summery to look at as it was to eat, and produced, apparently, with no effort at all. It was an imaginative, well-balanced use of what was available to her, which fortunately included a few ears of fresh corn. Sara could have thrown the corn and the basil together with some tuna and hard-boiled eggs, as I would have done, and given it an Italian name. But her professional conscience wouldn't permit it. Something with a little elegance, something that makes guests feel they're being offered a special treat--that's what she was aiming for, and that's what she created.

It takes more than a sensitive palate to run a restaurant kitchen and put out 80 to 150 dinners every night. It takes organization and a sense of authority. I love to be in a restaurant when Sara is in charge and watch her work the line, constantly moving, face flushed, tongs at the ready, quick to snatch a piece of meat off the grill or wipe up a sloppily dribbled sauce. She is quietly competent, her authority infused with good humor.

I look at her and think, Where did she learn all that? Certainly not from me. In addition to talent and organization, Sara has one other advantage. Because of her father's job as a foreign correspondent, she experienced from infancy a world of flavors that's simply not available to kids who grow up in the United States. She had English strawberries with clotted cream for her first birthday, and she quickly learned to adore escargots bourguignonne in Paris when she was three. In Beirut, she remembers, her breakfast toast was often piled with Caspian sevruga, brought back by her father from trips to Tehran.

Experiencing the food of many diverse places and then coming to rest, as we did, on a farm east of Cortona, where she learned about Tuscan cooking at the source, taught her two important principles that she carries with her now in her professional life. One, she says, is the importance of ingredients, of what Italians call materia prima. The second principle, a close corollary of the first, is simplicity of presentation. You can't hope to disguise inferior ingredients with elaborate presentations. Beyond that, Sara's sense of the adventure of food sends her traveling and tasting whenever she can break away from work--to Southeast Asia, Beirut, Tunisia and every part of Italy, looking for flavors and ideas about how they can be combined.

I should have known it would turn out like this. When Sara was 11, she persuaded her Italian best friend's mom to show her how to make filetto di tacchino saltato, a simple dish of sautéed turkey breast in a light tomato and rosemary sauce. Over and over again, our budding chef refined this masterpiece, until one day her father, his voice quivering with something like palate fatigue, said, "Why don't you learn to cook something else?" And she hasn't looked back since.

Published October 2000
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