Cal Peternell of Chez Panisse on how travel changed his relationship with food, his upcoming book, and why the local markets are his first stop on any trip.
The year was 1985, and after a summer spent as substitute teachers in New York City, Cal Peternell, one of the head chefs of Chez Panisse Restaurant, and his wife, Kathleen Henderson, headed to Lucca, Italy, to pursue their art careers. They opened up a restoration business and spent their days restoring frescoes, breaking for long lunches, and exploring the Tuscan countryside. It was there, in the land of the Italian Renaissance, that an unexpected bottle of olive oil changed their lives.
“The first time I tasted great olive oil, I was just blown away,” he says, looking across the table at Henderson, who nods in agreement. “We brought tins of it home to people, and I remember wanting them to love it more than I think they really did. I almost wanted to say, ‘Wait, this not just nice—this is a new world!’”
This new world, as they describe it to me, was full of almond-milk granita, warm brioche, blood oranges, and shell beans with fresh bread. “We would eat in a restaurant and then Cal would spend the next couple of days trying to recreate what we had eaten,” Henderson tells me. “I had always worked in restaurants as a server or bartender,” Peternell clarifies, “but it was in Italy that I really got into food—and not just the actual food, but the way that people ate and the way that food seemed to naturally fit into everyone’s daily life.”
Upon returning to the United States, Peternell and Henderson settled in Northern California, where Peternell worked in San Francisco’s Bix, and later as a sous chef in Loretta Keller’s restaurant, Bizou. In 1995, as the couple drove through north Berkeley, Henderson pulled over in front of Chez Panisse, Alice Water’s famous restaurant and café, and Peternell went in to apply for a kitchen position. He got the job and became a chef five years later. Today, after working alongside Jérôme Waag (the co-chef, who recently relocated to Japan), Peternell and Amy Dencler head up the restaurant.
A Recipe for Cooking
A few years ago, when their eldest son (who had just headed to the East Coast for college) called home for a recipe, Peternell began working on his first cookbook, Twelve Recipes. The book touches on the fundamentals of everyday cooking—including where to shop, and what kind of ingredients to look for. “I wanted to remind him of the things we cook at home—the simple stuff: soups, salad dressings, pasta recipes.” His latest book, A Recipe for Cooking (which comes out October 25, 2016) takes it a step further. “This new book blends my home kitchen and the kitchen at Chez Panisse,” Peternell says. “It’s divided by courses, instead of types of food, and in many ways more accurately reflects the way that I cook at home when we are having friends over. It’s a little more advanced than Twelve Recipes.”
Making a kitchen away from home
It’s the little things, like finding a specific herb, or a perfectly ripe tomato, that play a big role in how Peternell cooks and travels. While many chefs are eager to try the hottest new restaurants (something Peternell also enjoys), the very first thing he does on a trip is to stop at the local market, a tradition that began when they started traveling with their three boys.
“There were a few neighborhood markets in Paris, Marché Charonne and Marché Aligre, that we loved," Peternell says. “We’d go out in the morning for a coffee and pastry, shop, have a light lunch out, and then cook dinner at home, open a bottle of wine, and put the kids to bed.”
In Barcelona, Peternell would wake up early, strap his youngest son into a backpack carrier, and walk down Las Ramblas. “On my way to La Boqueria Market, I remember there were all these kiosks where they sell pets, but in the morning when they haven’t opened them yet, you could only hear the birds singing.”
“In London,” he says, “we shop at the Borough Market—the market is amazing and there is always a lot going on there.” They had a trickier time finding a go-to market in Ireland, but Ballymaloe, a local cooking school, more than made up for it. “We had lots of lunches at Ballymaloe,” Peternell says. “They have huge gardens and a really great farm that the entire family works on, and there are a number of great hotels and cafés nearby.”
“Sometimes I check a bag specifically with cooking in mind,” he says. “I’ll pack a good knife, maybe a special salt, or some herbs, and I’ll be sure to leave plenty of room for the way back—for olive oil, of course.”
Check out Cal Peternell’s website for more on the release of A Recipe for Cooking.
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