I was speaking with my stepson the other day and I mentioned a woman in her 30s who I consider a culinary mentor. He looked at me quizzically.
I replied, “yes, she is my mentor, not the other way around.”
Mentors for me have come in many forms. They have been older as well as younger, experienced chefs as well as great home cooks and entertainers. Some are more expected, like my mother; others from unexpected places — women I met overseas, an an ailing colleague. I owe my “voice” at the table and in the kitchen to this eclectic group, from whom I picked up so much. I learned how I wanted my food to taste, but also how certain dining experiences made me feel and how I wanted my cooking to reach other people.
My mom was my first role model. Growing up, my parents often entertained friends and relatives at home. Dinner was usually served family-style and the food was always made from scratch. My mother rarely joined guests at the table, preferring the nearby kitchen, within earshot of the conversation but allowing her to cook. She kept the table’s platters full of fresh food and sat down only after she was sure everyone had enough. Her cooking was mostly German and rustic, although she was also influenced by the New World, and served stylish 1960s canapes.
To this day, I make food from scratch, and worry about being sure there is enough for everyone, just like her. Unlike her, though, I hate missing out at the table and I plan ahead so I can sit with my guests.
After college, I was lucky to get a job in Human Resources at the Stanford Court, a five-star hotel in San Francisco. A wonderful old-school French chef named Marcel Dragon ran the culinary operations and did not mind me snooping around the kitchen on my breaks.
Marcel developed Parkinson’s disease, and in time had to retire early. His wife died, and we heard he was lonely. The office staff devised a plan to visit him monthly by asking him to give us cooking classes on weekends. We learned the classics: Hollandaise and vichyssoise, Poulet à la sauce aux champignons were among the many dishes over the two years we had with him. The best part was eating the meal we made together, drinking wine in the middle of the day, and hearing about his life in France. I have him to thank for taking the mystery out of French wine and preparing French food.
I met new mentors in the next phase of life, which took me to Hong Kong in my mid-20s. Two women, one Austrian, one French, taught me the art of stylish entertaining. The Austrian woman had lived in New York and worked as a food stylist for Gourmet magazine. She set an exquisite table and her plated food was always embellished with artful garnishes. She was also an excellent cook and she introduced me to tonnato. I still remember that picnic lunch on the boat; the tuna-based creamy sauce served with cold poached veal (fashionable in those days). It is hard to imagine this is good, but trust me, it was!
I met the French woman playing tennis and was fortunate to be invited into the French expat community through her. At dinner parties in their homes, I learned the value of serving salad after the main course and how one perfectly cooked artichoke on a plate can make a grand starter. Portions were small and meals were leisurely, often stretching late into the night. I still serve a simple salad after the entree, a nice palate cleanser after rich food. And I love a simple course showcasing a vegetable. Nothing beats sitting at the table sipping after dinner drinks and having philosophical conversations while the stars come out.
Both women taught me how to properly set a table, and how special (albeit sometimes intimidating) it feels to be seated with silverware and glassware specific for each dish and drink. There were always flowers on the table, a tablecloth and cloth napkins, and sometimes fingerbowls for washing. It was quite the education. These days, I like to mix up the formal and informal for my parties, with one set rule: Only use cloth napkins.
Shortly after I moved to northern Michigan, I became enamored with the restaurants Tapawingo in Ellsworth and Hattie’s in Suttons Bay. Tapawingo owner Pete Peterson’s influence can be seen in my use of herbs and seasonal ingredients to this day, but the restaurant’s focus on personal service plays a big part in how I strive to entertain. Formal conventions can make an evening special, but the most memorable nights are made when this is balanced with friendliness and warmth.
Hattie’s was our neighborhood hangout, a white-tablecloth vibe, served up with ease and personal attention. The tables were preset with a loaf of house made potato bread, a head of roasted garlic, and beaker of good olive oil. It was the kind of place where staff remembered what you drank and sometimes had it ready before you sat down. Following their example, I am also guilty of offering a nice prelude to dinner, no matter how simple the occasion, and I try to remember my friend’s favorites when I entertain. Keeping a food journal is a big help.
I met the 30-something chef — the one who caused my stepson to raise an eyebrow over who could be mentoring whom — when she was a partner at Bareknuckle Farm. Abra Berens began farm dinners there, a new concept in northern Michigan. I had attended one of their fabulous suppers and she invited me to help her with another one.
I was eager to work with Abra, whose food style and sensibility I admire. It is rustic, yet refined, seemingly simple but with a wonderful twist that makes you take notice of what you thought you knew about the ingredient. Her tables were set with ball jars, mismatched plates, and wildflower arrangements, all perfectly suited for the farm setting.
As often happens in the kitchen, Abra and I shared life stories as we chopped and baked. I asked her where she had learned to cook, and she told me about her time at Ballymaloe cooking school in Ireland. Within a few months, I signed up.
Going there was one of the best things I have ever done. The rigors of Ballymaloe gave me the confidence to tackle any culinary task. Abra, and Ballymaloe, taught me the importance of the quality and freshness of your ingredients to your cooking, and to be more fearless in breaking from convention. Abra is part of a new venture now, Farm Club in Leelanau County, and I look forward to learning more from her. Our community is lucky to have her back.
There have been many other people in my lifetime who have influenced my culinary voice, and, I am sure, there will be more to come. Thank you, mentors!
Vichyssoise (Potato Leek Soup)
My parents would say that every dinner party begins with soup. Here’s an easy cold soup you can serve in the summer. A homemade or good quality store-bought broth is key to this soup. Thank you, Marcel.
Serves 6 – 8
4 leeks, white part only, sliced (save greens for stock) or
2 leeks, white part only, sliced and 1 small onion, sliced
2 T. butter or olive oil
5 medium potatoes, Yukon Gold preferred, peeled and thinly sliced
4 C. chicken broth
pinch white pepper
Salt to taste
½ — 1 C. heavy cream
Garnish: Chives, parsley, or watercress, chopped
Drizzle of good olive oil, optional
Melt butter or oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add leeks, and onion if using, reduce heat slightly and sauté to soften. Do not let them brown. Add potatoes and broth and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cook, partially covered, about 15 minutes until potatoes are soft. Cool slightly. Place soup in blender and puree until smooth. Stir in ½ cup heavy cream and the white pepper. Add more cream if you want it richer, and taste for salt. Refrigerate until cold, preferably overnight. Serve cold in small bowls, cups, or glasses with garnish.
— Rose Hollander, adapted from a recipe by Marcel Dragon
The following recipe is wonderful on so many foods. You can serve it traditionally on cold poached chicken or turkey, or drizzle it on a platter of tomatoes, steamed beans, or grilled vegetables. It can be used as a substitute for mayonnaise on a sandwich.
Makes 1 ½ cups
¾ C. mayonnaise, preferably homemade
4 oz. canned tuna in olive oil (do not drain)
2 T. lemon juice
2 T. drained capers
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
Fresh ground pepper to taste, salt if needed
Blend mayonnaise, tuna, anchovies, lemon juice and capers in a blender or food processor until smooth. Add olive oil slowly while blending. Season to taste with fresh ground pepper and salt if needed. Keep refrigerated.
— Rose Hollander
Panzanella (Tuscan Tomato Bread Salad)
I took a cooking class from Pete Peterson who opened my eyes to variations on the “classic” panzanella. His roasted vegetable version was wonderful. You can make the following recipe “in your own voice” by adding your favorite summer vegetables.
6 C. sourdough or ciabatta, torn or cubed into 1-inch size pieces
2 – 3 T. olive oil for bread toasting
2 shallots or 1 medium sweet onion, thinly sliced
6 large tomatoes (about 2 lbs.), heirloom variety, different colors, cubed
1 C. cherry tomatoes, halved if large
1 T. capers (optional)
3 anchovy fillets, cut into pieces (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, minced or grated
¼ C. olive oil
2 T. white or red wine vinegar
½ c. fresh basil leaves, torn, if large
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spread bread pieces on a baking sheet, drizzle with the olive oil, and bake about 15-20 minutes until lightly toasted. Set aside to cool.
Place shallots or onion in a large mixing bowl. Add tomatoes, then capers and anchovies if using. Season with a little salt and pepper and let mixture sit at least ½ hour. Whisk garlic,oil, and vinegar together and pour some over the tomato mixture in the bowl, reserving a bit for later. Toss in the bread about 10 minutes before serving to let the bread soak up the tomato juices and vinaigrette. At the last minute, add basil leaves and toss. Taste for salt and pepper and vinaigrette, add if needed. If you like your bread crunchier, add it with the basil at the end.
— Rose Hollander