Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast Cooks Through a New Orleans Cookbook
"This is fun, following a white man's recipe. I've never done that."
Your first clue that 30-year-old musician and writer Michelle Zauner is into food is the name of her band: Japanese Breakfast. She named it in 2013, when it was a pet project she started while focused on another band. “At the time, a lot of the blogs that I followed were [about] anime food,” Zauner says. “I grew up watching a lot of anime, and Japanese breakfast was always this very homey, cozy image, and I thought it would be a good moniker.”
In 2014, her mother died, and not long after that, Zauner’s side gig took off and its name became “slightly more confusing to people,” she says. “After my mom passed away, I started exploring Korean dishes and writing about it a lot. People were going, ‘Well, why?’” But it was too late to change it, and besides, Korean Breakfast “doesn’t have quite the same ring.”
She has written about the impact her mother’s death continues to have on her and how she has used food as a means of coping with her mom’s absence. She addressed it in an essay titled “Crying in H Mart” for the New Yorker, which led to a book deal for her memoir, inspired by that piece.
Now, she cooks all the time—four or five nights a week, when she isn’t on tour. And it’s always Korean food.
All the same, she’s looking forward to giving chef Justin Devillier’s debut cookbook, The New Orleans Kitchen: Classic Recipes and Modern Techniques for an Unrivaled Cuisine, a try. It was the seafood recipes that piqued her interest, so Pumpkin and Shellfish Bisque with Pumpkin Seed Pistou and Blue Crab Beignets were on the afternoon’s agenda.
“I feel like a real American now that I’ve toasted pumpkin seeds,” the native Oregonian says as she gets started on the pistou, which is a pesto seen through French eyes. Standing at the counter of the small, open kitchen in the Philadelphia apartment she and her husband call home, she sets the hot seeds aside to cool while gathering the prescribed garlic, parsley, oregano, lemon, salt, and chile flakes. She blitzes them in the Vitamix her mom bought her when Zauner was in college, in which she blended smoothies for breakfast that morning. Next, she tosses in the seeds and pours in some olive oil, whirs everything together, then slowly streams in more oil until she’s reached perfect pistou consistency. “This is fun, following a white man’s recipe,” she says, laughing. “I’ve never done that.”
Despite the significant differences in their cuisines of choice, she and Devillier have something in common: Food is a connection to their parents. In the introduction to Devillier’s book, he tells readers that his mother, who had a catering company in addition to her day job as a health care professional, “was a total kitchen workhorse, plowing through prep,” and let him tinker in the kitchen from a very early age, teaching him vital life skills like how to make grilled cheese and fried eggs.
When his parents divorced, young Devillier spent a good deal of his weekends with his dad flipping through Paul Prudhomme’s cookbooks. His Louisiana-born father had these “not because he wanted to master the art of Cajun cooking, but because he missed the food of his childhood.”
Once Devillier left home for culinary school, he got a job at a New Orleanian–leaning restaurant, which, he writes, “I specifically sought out because of my dad’s influence. We’d gone to New Orleans to visit his side of the family when I was a kid, and I’d always loved the Creole and Cajun food, rich in French and Spanish traditions, but mixed with West African and Southern influences.”
Today, he’s the executive chef of NOLA’s La Petite Grocery, the restaurant he co-owns with his wife. There is nothing random about his ending up in that city or his writing this cookbook. Having become proficient in the techniques of the multi-hybrid cuisine he fell in love with as a child, he wants a new generation of home cooks to discover it and acquire those skills he first began to pick up in the pages of his father’s books.
Your second clue that Zauner has thing for food comes as she squeezes a lemon. Watch as she closes her bright green citrus press on a halved section of the fruit and clamps down on it. Just when you think she’s wrung as much liquid out of that lemon as is humanly possible, she puts it back in its crushing device and manages to tap it for more juice. This she will add to the pumpkin bisque (made, today, with butternut squash and lobster stock). “If a dish doesn’t have acid, it’s inedible. I need it to feel fulfilled,” she says.
The soup is found more than fulfilling; it is, she announces, “the brightest bisque I’ve ever had.” And this is the third clue: her genuine excitement in discovering just how bright a soup—and one she made, without much effort—can be. Or how she thrills to the thought of other applications for the remaining pistou (which is also a knockout): toast (ricotta optional) or “even in a spring noodles dish.”
In The New Orleans Kitchen, Devillier and co-author Jamie Feldmar have armed readers with the necessary information—the right details, clearly articulated. What the book might lack in narrative or anecdotal material, it makes up for in functionality. For Zauner, food—and the act of preparing it—is personal, but she appreciates Devillier’s cookbook for steering her repertoire in a new direction and acknowledges that a story isn’t always necessary, so long as the shrimp and grits or seafood boil (or whatever it is you’re trying to reproduce) comes out the way it should—and tastes good. Besides, Denny Culbert’s photographs of the dishes and the city that inspired them are so evocative that Zauner doesn’t miss the “sharing” on the part of the chef.
What Devillier does share is a technical warning about the beignets, telling readers that this is one of the trickiest recipes in the cookbook. Practice and patience are required. Zauner has set expectations accordingly. Good enough to eat on its own as a rich crabmeat salad, the filling is bound by mascarpone, a revolutionary idea as far as the musician is concerned. She is surprised people don’t put it into other things.
Although she knows she should wait a few beats, she can’t resist tasting the fritter only seconds after it has left the hot oil. The beignet, she says, is like “a cross between a crab cake, arancini, and a takoyaki, kind of.” Only someone who spends a lot of time thinking about and eating food would find references to Italian rice fritters and a Japanese ball of octopus in a New Orleans classic. “I think we did an above-average job,” she says, grinning.