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Dad, Thanks for the Culinary Memories and Unconventional Training Ground

A chef acknowledges her father's inspired cooking as her own creative muse

By Joanna Pruess | June 11, 2013
family picture of gerald and harriet rubens with their children judi, harvey and
Author's parents, Gerald and Harriet Rubens, with three of their five children (from left): Judi, Harvey, Joanna
Courtesy of Joanna Pruess

My mother was never a passionate cook — she described the first meal she made for my father as “shoe-leather steak and soupy spinach” — but she did her best to feed our large family. Her spaghetti with long-simmered meat sauce and fork-tender pot roasts were more than satisfying, and we five kids never went hungry. But what we ate was hardly gourmet. 
 
Back in the ’50s, mothers typically taught their daughters the culinary ropes, but not mine. So what inspired me to become a chef? My Dad — his impromptu inventions in the kitchen fostered my love of creative cooking.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t know any chefs, and none of my friends’ fathers ventured close to the kitchen. (They were all grill masters, however.) But when Dad got the urge to create, whatever he found in the fridge or pantry was fair game.
 
Take a little of this, mix it with some of that, throw it all in the meat grinder and, a few cranks later, out would come some sublime mixture. The process mesmerized me, and Dad’s exuberance in eating each of his chef d’oeuvres was so infectious, I suspect it’s in my DNA.
 
It would be years before I ever connected Dad’s spontaneous weekend concoctions with the haute cuisine pâtés I learned to make (and adore) while studying at le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Although there are strict rules for classic French cuisine at culinary school, I always felt somehow … liberated … to explore and invent.

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Following his anything-goes philosophy, I’ve built a career on thinking outside the box. In the 1980s I ran a cooking school in a supermarket that welcomed visually, hearing and mentally challenged people. By adding soy sauce and cilantro to plum-cherry preserves for Sarabeth's Kitchen, I created what some have called "the best duck glaze ever." And once, when giving a lecture at a hotel and restaurant show about the evolution of tea time in England, I came in full costume as Isabella Beeton, complete with a wig and “mob” cap.
   
Dad's approach to cooking never left me. Years later, while writing D’Artagnan’s Glorious Game Cookbook with Ariane Daguin and George Faison, I used Dad’s method to create what I called Dribs and Drabs Game Bird Pâté out of leftover scraps of pheasant, squab and other meats, shallots, Armagnac and dried cranberries. Talk about making a silk purse out of practically nothing.

While Mom was purely steak-and-potatoes, Dad (like me) relished any kind of salad: from diced chicken with apples and walnuts to Caesar to everything in between. Not for nothing, my three grown kids accuse me of dumping the refrigerator into the salad bowl.
 
Mom knew vegetables were healthy, though, so almost every dinner included an iceberg lettuce salad with shredded carrots and tomatoes, and she’d place a Lazy Susan in the center of the table with five or six different (bottled) dressings. I vaguely remember my father mixing Milani’s 1890 French dressing with Girard’s vinaigrette into a tasty new hybrid. And I’m pretty sure he slathered a blend of Heinz ketchup and A-1 Sauce on steaks. In Dad’s hands, tweaking was elevated to a fine art.
 
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Both my parents loved to travel, and they bred that passion into their children. If Mom (a travel agent) was the field marshal who organized the trips, Dad was the role model for sampling a country's exotic offerings. The cream-filled pastries at the Konditorei in Copenhagen didn’t take much coaxing — nor did the Champagne we first sipped in Paris. But in Amsterdam, the pickled herring he dangled down his throat then offered to us was a huge leap of youthful faith for us. That tiny first bite didn’t kill me — in fact, it served me well decades later, when I attended the annual Baltic Herring Festival in Helsinki, where I had no problem sampling some 30 varieties of the stuff.
 
Our culinary open-mindedness was put to the ultimate test when a couple (turned out he was actually “His Excellency," the first adviser to then King Saud of Saudi Arabia) became intrigued with our large family in the Paris airport, where we were all waiting to fly to Geneva. Through an interpreter, they invited us to join them for lunch at their hotel in Switzerland — the 5-star Le Beau Rivage, where they had an entire floor.
 
As California teenagers, we’d never seen a woman in a flowing caftan with a breastplate of emeralds and diamonds before. Nor had we seen, let alone thought about eating, the cooked sheep’s eyes that a liveried servant was passing on a platter at table. Even Dad winced.
 
I don’t recall how we finessed that course — did we employ the “hide it in a napkin” trick or somehow gag it down? — but fortunately meatballs and a hindquarter of lamb followed. Her Excellency, as a courtesy to show us that the meat was edible, picked up the entire hunk of lamb and took a lusty bite. The meal ended as a diplomatic and culinary success, and our families exchanged holiday cards for years.
 
One of my sweetest memories is of Mom letting me invite a dozen of their friends for a dinner party in honor of Dad’s 70th birthday, some three decades ago. I served pasta with pesto — newly popular in the best Italian restaurants of the day — and rack of lamb, his favorite entrée. He seemed so proud that his daughter had made everything from scratch. My only regret is that I can’t find the pictures we took of us together that day.
 
I owe a lot to both my parents for becoming the person I am today. But when it comes to being a foodie, there’s no question who the guiding force was. So I’d like to say thanks, Dad, for all those extraordinary lessons you taught me — without even trying.