James Peterson Shares His Cooking Wisdom

Instead of reading from his new cookbook Cooking, with its 600 recipes and 1500 photographs, James Peterson, cookbook writer, cooking instructor, and former chef, told an audience of inquisitive members at the James Beard House yesterday an abridged story of his life. Peterson became interested in food at a very young age despite his mother’s lack of culinary expertise and penchant for cooking frozen meals. He recalls the early 1960s in America as a time that was culturally deprived in terms of food. His two Southern Californian aunts eventually ignited a love for food in young Jim. From them Peterson gained an appreciation for liqueur at the prime age of 10. Jim would visit the two women for a few weeks at a time, and at one such visit he was asked what he wanted for dessert. His reply was Crêpe Suzette only because he had heard his mother say it was the fanciest. It took a long time for the dessert to be prepared, with Jim helping measure the Grand Marnier, but it turned out wonderful. At another visit, Jim’s mother sent along a gift of Irish Mist liqueur. His aunts gave Jim a drink of the liqueur and in the following nights for two weeks they tested all different liqueurs. At an upcoming show and tell at his school, Jim, a fourth grader, gave his presentation on the different liqueurs of the world to an uninterested classroom and a shocked teacher.

At the age of sixteen, Jim became interested in chemistry. Like cooking, he found chemistry intriguing because it was a process of discovering what happened to substances when heated. After going to school for chemistry, Jim found his choice of career disillusioning and decided to take a trip to the Far East in search of a guru. After a fruitless search in India, Peterson fell back, out of necessity, on cooking as a short-order cook. He continued his travels by making his way from east to west, even going as far as Japan and finally ending up in France, a place that became his turning point. In France Peterson truly discovered culture in food. He saw that the French cared enough about food to talk about it on a daily basis, whereas in America eating food was simply a time where conversation recounting the day might be held. A meal of chicken poached in cream with tarragon was Peterson’s moment of discovery. It was at that moment that he decided to make a career in food. He went back to the U.S. and worked again as a cook until inspiration struck in the form of Richard Olney’s book Simple French Food, which led him on a quest to find Olney, who at the time was living in France. Olney was happy to recommend restaurant apprenticeships and Peterson ended up working at two different three-star Michelin restaurants while taking courses at Le Cordon Bleu. At these venerable restaurants Peterson says he learned that cooking, even of the most extravagant kind, is doing a lot of little things right.

Back in New York, Peterson worked at various French restaurants until he became chef at Le Petite Robert, where he worked for four years until its closing. He then went on to teach culinary classes at both the French Culinary Institute, while also writing its curriculum, and the Institute for Culinary Education. Afterward he authored his first book Sauces, which won the James Beard Award for best cookbook of the year and is to this day considered seminal in the field. According to Peterson, the book made for the demystification of complicated recipes for French sauces by providing systematic descriptions for preparation that were missing in most sauce recipes of the time. Many more cookbooks followed.

Peterson finished his talk with advice for new food writers and cooks. For writers, Peterson says, it is very important to find one’s voice. In his own books Peterson says that his style has changed over the years, from an authoritative voice in Sauces to a lighter voice for home cooks in Splendid Soups. It is important for a food writer to develop that style and recognize the audience that he or she is writing for, be it an imaginary one at first. For cooks, Peterson says that first and foremost recipes must work. Good recipes only come about by having good technique and testing, testing, testing. Peterson finds cooking and jazz analogous: in jazz one learns many chords and notes to improvise the music; in cooking one learns technique which is then transferred to the preparation of the meal. Final words of advice from James Peterson: if it tastes good, use it; our senses are reliable, so season until it tastes good; and be generous with salt.

Peterson continues to create cookbooks, for which he shoots his own photography, and is currently working on a meat book that had been on the back burner—the missing link, according to Peterson, in his gamut of cookbooks. Peterson teaches food styling at the Institute for Culinary Education.