Simon Wilson: The summer I started at Cuisine

I moved to Auckland at the start of February 2004 to become editor of Cuisine magazine and the thing that preoccupied me all summer was: I need to be a better cook.

I wasn’t bad. I could cook a whole fish and make a silky roux and I had a favourite, original dish with chicken livers that I still think is better than anything else you can do with livers I’ve ever come across.

But none of that was going to cut it.

I wasn’t a food professional. I’d been employed for my skills as a magazine editor, so I didn’t need to be an expert. The place was already crawling with them. But I did need to know what they were talking about, for my own self-respect and on the off-chance I could earn a smidgeon of their respect too.

Chefs used to stand in front of me, leaning back in disdain and ask if I’d ever worked in a restaurant kitchen. I told one or two of them yes, I’d had a job as a dishwasher for a while, which was true, but that wasn’t what they meant.

So I worked out a new line. I couldn’t do what they did, I told them, but I knew what it was and why it was the way it was.

It was sort of true-ish.

So that summer, while the beaches beckoned, most days I went home after work to the flat I’d borrowed and fired up the stove.

My family was staying back in Wellington until the end of the first school term, so I was free to cook and read the books. Jeffrey Steingarten and the art of the perfect potato. I bought a ricer, for mashing – and that changed my life.

I bought a Bourgeat pan, too. A big, deep stainless steel dish with a very heavy bottom I cooked almost everything in, on the stove and in the oven. I bought a decent knife.

I read Ruth Reichl, who wore disguises to review restaurants and proved there’s a class basis to how well they treat their customers. One of the Cuisine restaurant critics used to insist she didn’t get special treatment, until one Tuesday we were out together and the maitre d’ was having a night off. He arrived within 20 minutes.

I read A.A. Gill, who was so funny and also mean. Anthony Bourdain, for the excitement. Nigel Slater, for the quiet wisdom. The Moro team, Sam and Sam Clark, whose Middle Eastern revelations pre-dated Yotem Ottolenghi. Michael Pollan, for the politics of food.

I went back to my favourite New Zealand food writer, Lois Daish, who reinvented comfort food with artistry and panache. I immersed myself in the greatest of them all, M.F.K. Fisher, who made a place for herself among all those super-egoed food men, with elegance, insistence and such delightful storytelling.

The best food writing, I learned, reaches straight into your soul and affirms the best of things. Culture, community, love, skill and care and respect in what you do. Also much yumminess.

I wondered, could we make Cuisine like that?

I wrote little food essays in place of the usual puff-piece editorials. The pleasures of tomatoes on Vogel’s toast, alone in the early morning. Foraging for apples and blackberries for an Easter pie and making your own pastry. We always did that at Cuisine.

I even wrote about Scheherazade and the food she might have cooked to accompany her stories of the Arabian nights. It was a Middle Eastern issue and I may have overstretched in my attempts at a parable – but hey.

As for my cooking, the dish I was proudest of was crispy-skinned duck.

Duck was the star in most restaurants then, the posh ones and the cheap Chinese places too. And no, I did not reach the heights of Simon Wright at the French Cafe, nor any place you care to name on Dominion Rd. But mine was pretty good.

The dish I was fondest of, which is a different thing, was a whole roast eggplant. I can’t remember how I discovered it. Oiled, a few slits in the skin, roasted and then opened up and devoured. Simple and spectacular.

Simple was best. The part of Cuisine I liked the most was Ray McVinnie’s Quick Smart. Short paragraphs, each with an idea for a dish. No recipes, just a gift of the imagination to get you started.

It wasn’t long before I discovered most of our readers like Quick Smart the best too.

My chicken livers is a dish like that. No recipe. You choose one vegetable: asparagus is good, so are brussels sprouts and so, surprisingly, is tomato. You have to crank the heat right up for the meat, so you get crunchy outsides and soft pink in the middle. Serve in buttercup lettuce leaves with a side of toast. Do not make a heavy, alcohol-driven sauce: you’ll ruin everything.

And yet, despite Quick Smart, most of the work at Cuisine went into the recipes: testing, photographing, the remarkably complex process of turning a commercial cooking idea into a simple, tightly formatted, accurate and foolproof explanation of what to do.

Chefs, all good cooks, do most things with a pinch of this and a pour of that. Recipes require precise quantities: they are a fiction, layered over the top of how things really are.

Cuisine readers, it was thought, on the basis of some survey from yonks ago, tried on average only 1.5 recipes from any one magazine. Quick Smart was just as helpful and more fun. I always liked the idea of the 0.5: a dish abandoned halfway through.

As for ducks, much later Connie Clarkson took me to the Beijing Duck in Panmure, where the Peking duck is the real, real deal. Before that, shortly after I started at Cuisine, my boss took me to the French Cafe. The duck was amazing. And so rich. I felt ill for three days.

Later, I said to the Cuisine food writers, can we talk about butter?

No, they said.

It was not my job to tell them what to cook. I think they did respect me for my magazining. I like to think I made them all better writers and the magazine won awards so that was pretty good too.

But I did learn they were never going to respect me for my food. One of them made the point rather neatly at my farewell do, by bringing a packet of sausages.

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