How many times I’ve said, “No not a chef, dear, just a cook…”

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

That’s my response to one of the guests I’ve just fed, often a good friend, very often a woman. Whether it’s in my own home, or at the home of a friend, where I’ve been enlisted to cook, sometimes the whole meal, sometimes part of it, often to consult on the ministrations of the host or hostess.

Maybe if I were Marcella Hazan, they'd listen. She had this to say, in an opinion piece just posted on the New York Times web site, here:

Cambridge is so, well, Cambridge, that it has three Whole Foods Markets, serving a city (and some surrounding towns) with a population of only around 100,000 people, and amply studded with nearby Shaw’s, Star Market (owned by Shaw’s), Foodmaster, and several other chain food market outlets.

The Whole Foods nearest me, on River Street, just a few hundred yards from the bridge that takes you to Cambridge from Boston, which I came to know quite well, for location of goods, etc. recently underwent a massive renovation. They remodeled the store, enlarging merchandising areas, and rearranging departments significantly. The greatest change was the amount of space they gave to prepared foods, especially hot foods, sitting in grand, freestanding stations, with dozens of dishes every day kept at serving temperature in bains marie.

They added an appetizer bar to the cheese and wine section, selling various savories, olives, and spreads, like tapenade and its variants, for $9.99 a pound.

All this, as I quickly discovered, at the expense of a significantly diminished inventory of varied SKUs. Favorite raw and dried, and especially bulk (as in "whole") foods, grains, legumes, flours, meals, etc., all these foods began disappearing months ago, as the store slowly and then more rapidly made its transition into, essentially, a glorified cafeteria. There has always been seating, mainly booths, at the front of the store, and these areas are always full of diners at lunch and dinner time. I suspect, however, that most of the prepared foods (they now have a pizza bar, where they are constantly turning out large oval pizzas in a stone oven designed to produce results that simulate a wood-fired brick oven. They sell the pizza by weight, reheating it in the oven if you like) go home with the customers, for a hurried meal, or a spread for grazing by various itinerant members of the household.

I've already lectured at least one assistant "team-leader" (they have no one called "manager" at these Whole Foods stores) saying there are still some of us who actually cook, you know? From scratch?

They are always sympathetic, but tell me that their observations passed along are essentially worthless.

I'd say the game is up, when one of the country's largest and most successful purveyors of the goodness of "whole foods" — well, duh, it's in the name, it's the brand guys — capitulates to the demands of a market that grows increasingly less self-sufficient, never mind the corrosive effects on our sense of family cohesion, community, and the meaning of friendship and the bond of closeness.

Give it up Chef Marcella. You're too late.

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One thought on “How many times I’ve said, “No not a chef, dear, just a cook…”

  1. Another op ed debunking today’s culture of cooking appears in today’s (i.e., 14 Dec 08) NY Times by Mark Bittman. He aims his critique at those who “spend tens of thousands of dollars or more on a kitchen before learning how to cook.” He doesn’t need help on this one, but gets support from a real chef (Mario Batali) and a real “grandmother” (Marcella Hazan, see the article for what he means). Cooking is about “devotion, passion, common sense, and experience”, not about one of the 21st century’s odder forms of establishing a social pecking order: the kitchen as potlatch.

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