In France it is traditional for great chefs to be following in their mothers' footsteps. Here, no such tradition has developed, in fact, Cindy Black, whom cooking teacher and author Madeleine Kamman has called "the best young chef in America," is following in her father's footsteps.
And it is even more complicated than that.
When Black was growing up in Washington, her father, Richard, was in the State Department; her mother, Dean, was an economist. Of her four siblings, two have become lawyers, one is in music and another in business school. So it was predictable enough that Cindy -- a bright, outgoing young woman with a mane of golden hair who looks more the image of a California golden girl than the chef of a major hotel restaurant -- would go to Wellesley and major in something like French.
By that time, though, Dick Black had retired from the State Department and embarked on his second career: chef. He studied with Kamman and went to work as a private chef on Cape Cod, where he is now teaching cooking and consulting for restaurants. He is also culinary mentor to Cindy, despite the distance between Hyannis, Mass., and San Diego, Calif., where for the last two years she has been chef of Sheppard's in the Sheraton on Harbor Island. Even so, she talks to her father nearly every day; "We talk about food all the time," she said.
While Cindy was in college, she frequently got involved in the preparation of her father's parties. And that preparation was not likely to be simple. Her father often told her "anybody can cook a vegetable," repeated Cindy. But cooking charcuterie and sauces and pastry distinguishes the real cook, he said.
"He's been researching the perfect puff pastry for a long, long time," said Cindy. He is obviously intense and scholarly in his approach. He has been everywhere, she explained, and now wants the food of his youth, "He is very involved with macaroni and cheese right now."
While she was growing up her mother was the primary cook, and her father was the party cook. It was a twist on the typical American home of the '70s: "My sister and I would be watching 'I Love Lucy' and the quenelles would be on the table." Her mother, she reminisced, was an excellent cook. Unlike her father, said Cindy, "She didn't try to perfect the croissant," she has always been "a natural cook." Reflecting on her mother's cooking for the family, Cindy said, "She could braise things so well. She loved butter and cream."
With both parents working, "We didn't have dinner until quite late -- 8 or 8:30," recalled Black. "The two of them were very infatuated by food. They went shopping every night. "That was when the Giant food store was in Spring Valley . . . and you could get sweetbreads." Summed up Black, "There is something that happens when you grow up with food."
After college, Cindy stayed in Boston to study in Kamman's school and worked in its restaurant for a year and a half, then went to France, to the Landes area, to work in a restaurant that was staffed entirely by women. For the next year and a half she saw Americans only two times. And she found the kind of cooking she loved.
"I was always interested in an earthy style of cooking," said Black; she likes food that "doesn't necessarily look beautiful but tastes wonderful." She doesn't do designs on a plate; "I love things in a bowl," she said. From the beginning her emphasis has been on flavor, not artistry, in contrast to most prominent young chefs.
Returning to Boston, Black saw an advertisement for help in a new restaurant, the Sheraton Hotels' first "signature" restaurant, called Apley's. And she was interviewed by another young, talented chef, Bob Brody, who is, since last September, her husband. She also became part of a crew who turned into a tight-knit group and who now, all six of them, are chefs in restaurants. "They were my friends . . . We played together and worked together."
From there, at age 25, Black went on to run her own restaurant, the Cranberry Moose in Yarmouthport, Mass., which she claims is even now the best restaurant on the Cape.
What brought her out to California? "A phone call." She had never even been to California before and had definite reservations about the move -- still does, especially when people call her food California cuisine.
What makes people mistake it for California cuisine -- whatever that may be -- is that she concentrates on using local ingredients, said Black. "Here we have fields of brussels sprouts and artichokes growing down to the sea," she explained. That she takes to readily, but, "I don't involve myself with the current faddism of pizza and such."
Acclimating to San Diego was not easy. "People didn't want sweetbreads," she recalled. And they didn't eat pa te'. "They wanted to eat a salad and wanted to have broiled fish." And they used to send the salmon back for more cooking. She was appalled to find San Diego restaurant menus with a list of fresh fish and another of frozen fish. Although she loves the West Coast's Dungeness crabs and king crab when it is fresh, she still prefers East Coast fish and Dover sole; her local halibut, she says, has worms and the petrale sole is likely to be mushy.
And she disliked the faddishness. The food in Southern California "is getting Bloomingdale-ized," complained Black. Northern California's food suits her more; "It's a lot more basics up there."
In addition to getting used to the local style, she had to learn to set up and run a hotel restaurant, to get a crew together a mere two weeks before the restaurant opened. She found that she prefered a crew she could train herself, her way, to people who were already knowledgeable. Her cooks, she insisted, must be "strong and free thinking" and understand the chemistry and the linkages between foods.
What she developed -- after she dropped the existing menu with its paella and banana-Oreo cheesecake -- was a menu of very personal dishes. Since she was fond of tartar steak, she kept the carpaccio but marinated and smoked it. The watercress salad with pears, roquefort cheese and walnut dressing came from making dinner at home with Brody -- who came out to San Diego after Black did, to run the Sheraton's other major restaurant, Chambrette, named after his teacher at La Varenne in Paris. Simmered Beef Pot Roast is her mother's recipe, which was always made for Cindy's birthday. Richard's Chicken Saute' with California Chanterelles is, of course, her father's. These two dishes, plus braised veal shoulder and bread pudding, are the kinds of things Black features on her fixed-price American Menu, which accompanies the a la carte menu.
As for the Puget Sound Oysters grilled with black caviar and lime butter, she developed the recipe while driving in the car; the finishing touch it needed was thin bean-thread noodles. "I think of my best things in off moments," she said; she is always looking for finishing touches.
From her stay in the duck-rich Landes section of France, Black developed an affinity for duck fat; she keeps a bucket of it in the kitchen and uses it, for instance, to cook game hens. She serves a duck confit salad, but her confit is made with considerably less salt with most, and marinated with basil, thyme, tarragon and sage -- certainly a departure from tradition. Even more original, it is sauced with a a warm tarragon vinaigrette that is made with duck reduction, and bedded on raw spinach, corn and red bell peppers.
Besides the duck fat, Black keeps on hand her own cre me frai che and five different stocks made in her kitchen. "When I first came here nobody made a stock," she said. In the summer she has softshell crabs flown in from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and though she saute's and sauces them for the restaurant, she really loves them the Eastern Shore way -- as a sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, "preferably commercial."
She wanted no fads -- no pasta, no goat cheese, no sun-dried tomatoes. And she doesn't cook her duck rare; "You might as well have beef," she explained.
Her food, said Black, is feminine, adding, "I don't tell that to my crew because most of them are men." But more important to her style, "You won't doubt there is flavor there." Her food is earthy; "I think it is women's cooking. My father thinks it is uncontrived."
"It is home cooking made in a restaurant setting," she claimed. "My criterion is, would I like this served at home?" She prefers old-fashioned methods, thorough techniques.
Much of that she attributes to having studied with Madeleine Kamman. "She taught technique. She taught good technique," said Black. "She taught to develop flavor." Kamman introduces to her students the kind of food found only in very small places, according to Black; "She opens up worlds you would never get exposed to -- a cuisine de femme, bourgeois cooking."
The development of flavor Black repeatedly refers to is created by reducing stock to a glaze or caramelization before it is made into a sauce. And in the finishing of the sauce some kind of puree or herb might be added, so subtle that you can't taste it but its being there affects the flavor. "Her sauces were the most exciting I've ever had," Black exclaimed. In Kamman's restaurant they made their own walnut oil, then fashioned a vinaigrette with it and quail stock, armagnac, vinegar and cream.
Kamman also taught her students to work with their hands, then use machines only after they knew how to do things by hand.
Black doesn't consider cooking an art; rather, it is a craft. She paraphrases Alexandre Dumas on the subject: "I'm not an artist. I'm only a craftsman who enjoys his craft a lot." That craft involves the senses directly; "I always ask that people taste and they touch, because ingredients change," said Black. She advises her staff -- or any cook, "Touch, taste, see with your eyes. It's a very sensual thing. Notice when ingredients change and adjust accordingly."
For Black cooking remains such a passion that she even cooks at home on her day off. "A lot of my thinking outside this restaurant is this restaurant," she confessed. As for competing with her husband, she explained that his restaurant is very different in style from hers. His is a "deli-bistro mix and a very ambitious menu -- great for lunch and breakfast." Hers is a small-menu dinner house. Besides, she winked, "It works real well -- for now -- because Sheppard's is the best one." DUCK LIVER SALAD (4 to 6 generous servings)
FOR THE CALVADOS CREAM SAUCE: 1/4 cup shallots, minced 1 cup white wine 1/4 cup calvados plus extra if desired 1/2 cup hard cider (available in liquor stores) 1/4 cup cider vinegar 1 cup duck or chicken stock 1 cup whipping cream 1/4 cup dijon mustard Salt and white pepper to taste
FOR THE SALAD: 4 tablespoons shallots, sliced thin 4 tablespoons red wine 2 1/2 tablespoons vinegar 1 1/2 tablespoons honey 4 to 5 strips bacon 12 ounces duck livers (or substitute chicken livers), cleaned and lightly dusted with flour, salt and pepper 1 pound fresh spinach, washed and drained Bunch watercress, washed and dried 12 stalks belgian endive, cleaned and dried
Prepare the cream sauce by combining the minced shallots, wine, calvados, hard cider and vinegar in a saucepan and reducing the mixture over medium heat to 1/2 cup liquid. Add duck or chicken stock and reduce by half. Add cream and reduce to desired consistency. Whisk in mustard, seasonings and additional calvados, if desired. Remove from heat.
In a saute' pan, combine shallots, red wine, vinegar and honey. Over medium heat, cook approximately 3 to 4 minutes, or until mixture turns to a light glaze. Set aside.
Fry bacon strips, remove to paper toweling, but reserve 2 tablespoons fat in pan. Saute' livers medium rare, about 2 to 3 minutes.
In a large salad bowl, combine bacon, shallot glaze, spinach, watercress and endive. Pour the sauce over the salad mixture and stir to combine well. Serve immediately, with livers arranged on top of the salad. SPAETZLE WITH SMOKED SALMON AND CAVIAR BUTTER
FOR THE SPAETZLE:
4 whole eggs plus 2 egg yolks
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup milk
FOR THE CAVIAR BUTTER:
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 cups soft butter
1/4 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons horseradish
2 tablespoons fresh chopped dill (or 1/2 tablespoon dried)
4 ounces salmon caviar
Salt and white pepper to taste
FOR THE GARNISH:
2 teaspoons butter
1 to 2 zucchini, sliced
1 slice smoked salmon per serving
To make the spaetzle: In a bowl, beat eggs and add flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add milk and blend ingredients. Sift batter through a colander into boiling salted water. Noodles are cooked when they rise to the surface. Remove from water and drain.
To prepare the caviar butter, place the wine, lemon juice and shallots in a pan over medium heat, reducing the liquid to 3/4 cup. Over low heat, whisk in butter. Add whipping cream and season with horseradish, dill, caviar, salt and white pepper.
Heat the spaetzle in the butter sauce and place in ramekins. Melt butter and saute' zucchini 2 minutes. Garnish ramekins with zucchini and a slice of smoked salmon. Sprinkle with caviar if desired. PEAR COBBLER (8 servings) 4 cups sliced ripe pears 1/4 cup lemon juice 1 cup brown sugar 3 tablespoons flour 1/4 cup butter plus extra for dish
FOR THE TOPPING: 1 cup brown sugar 3/4 cup softened butter 1 egg yolk 1 cup flour 1/4 cup bread crumbs 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg Whipped cream
In a large bowl, combine the pears with the lemon juice, brown sugar, flour and butter. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, make the topping by creaming the sugar and butter. Add the egg yolk and continue beating the mixture. Add flour, bread crumbs and nutmeg.
Place the pear mixture in a buttered baking dish and spoon the topping over the fruit. Place in a 350-degree oven and bake 1 hour.
Allow the baked cobbler to cool 10 minutes. Serve with whipped cream.