Chef on Call

Nathalie Dupree, Keeping It Juicy

Nathalie Dupree, the doyenne of Southern cooking, teaches Chef on Call student Olga Berman to cook pork properly.
By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 26, 2008; Page F01

Olga Berman had something to confess: She is frequently guilty of involuntary porkicide. "I'm the girl who kills pork," she wrote in an e-mail to Chef on Call. "I always overcook pork chops, and they come out dry."

Even after three years of a part-time culinary program at Sur La Table, Berman didn't have the chops to cook chops.

Berman, 28, is Russian; she, her twin sister and her parents came to the States 15 years ago. Her father is the go-to source for a mean borscht, but in these parts, if you want to learn how to do pork right, you go to a Southerner. Or the Southerner comes to you -- in this case, from Charleston, S.C.

As luck would have it, chef Nathalie Dupree was in Washington for a seminar this month, and once we told her of Berman's predicament, she was eager to help. Dupree showed up at Berman's studio apartment in Arlington with two small bags of groceries, a personal supply of Diet Coke, abundant charm and knockout credentials.

What was missing? Any trace of pretense.

At 68, Dupree is the doyenne of Southern cooking. Her accomplishments span a 40-year career that almost didn't happen. She resisted the calling in her 20s because, as her mother insisted, ladies didn't cook for a living. But in the late 1960s, Dupree enrolled at the Cordon Bleu in London and didn't look back. She has owned three restaurants, opened a cooking school and hosted three television shows, most notably "New Southern Cooking With Nathalie Dupree" on PBS; it debuted in 1985 and ran for 300 episodes. She has written 10 cookbooks and has another on the way, along with her memoirs.

Some memoirs they will be, but more on that later. First, the pork.

As she unloaded the groceries, Dupree guessed at some of the reasons Berman was having problems with chops.

"I have a feeling that the cheap ones you see in the market are not center cut. Or they are too thin and overcook before they're browned. Or you're using boneless. In my part of the country, a chop has a bone," she said firmly.

Whatever the cause, Dupree tried to steer her pupil in a better direction, bringing two pork tenderloins along with the chops. "The tenderloins are so much nicer than the chops because they're set in the backbone," she said, and an animal's "non-moving parts" will always be more tender than the muscles that get more use.

Dupree laid out the plan. They would sear the chops and tenderloins on the stovetop, then finish cooking half of them there and the other half in the oven, so Berman could get a feel for both methods. Then Dupree would demonstrate how to make simple pan sauces, easy flavored white sauces and some quick accompaniments.

Just then, the photographer began to shoot a picture. With the instinct of a media pro, Dupree stopped what she was doing, faced the camera and struck a pose.

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