When was the last time you thought of a weeknight dinner as daily ecstasy? If your answer is "not lately" then try thinking like Leonardo da Vinci, says corporate consultant and passionate home chef Michael Gelb.
If you cook and eat the way Leonardo thought, says Gelb, "You can experience life's most reliable, profound ecstatic pleasure. And you can bring it into your life two or three times a day."
A think-outside-the-box kind of guy, Gelb is a motivational speaker and educator who has led seminars for branches of corporations like Dupont, Amoco and the former Chesapeake and Potomac phone company with an eye to building a more creative corporate culture. He's also written several books, which tend to emerge out of one or another of his passionate interests, like juggling ("Lessons From the Art of Juggling"), the Alexander Technique ("Body Learning") and Leonardo da Vinci. His two books about da Vinci ("How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci" and a hardback workbook to help achieve that goal) are centered around what Gelb calls the seven Da Vincian Principles: Curiosita, Dimonstrazione, Sensazione, Sfumato, Arte/Scienza, Corporalita and Connessione.
It's that third principle, Sensazione, that's essential to the cooking and eating parts of life (for more about the others, see box at right).
"It's all about that sensory experience," he says. (Remember the daily ecstasy?) "I'm trying to get people to apply that approach to food. Even the simplest meal is a sacrament."
In Gelb's view, the tragedy is that Americans today are uncomfortable with sensazione. "There is a puritanical prejudice in our culture against the senses," he says.
Maybe it's because we're approaching the millennium, but maybe, he says, it's an inevitable consequence of the Industrial Revolution. "We've got an industrial-age mentality. It's a churn-it-out production mentality--not a quality-of-life mentality. It affects us in every aspect of our lives."
Consider, for example, an all-too-familiar contemporary experience of going out to dinner. "Some people go to a restaurant because it's the place to go," says Gelb. "They'll drink the wine and eat the food, but they're missing the experience." In other words, they've checked the restaurant off their to-do list, but they don't pay much attention to what they're eating and drinking while there.
But why, at the end of the 20th century, turn to Leonardo for assistance? Well, for one thing, says Gelb, "He's helped in transitional times before. He helped take the world from the medieval era to the Renaissance . . . and he's perhaps the greatest genius who ever lived."
Even so, put aside the Da Vincian principles for a moment, and the revered Renaissance painter, inventor and engineer seems like an odd choice to look to as a culinary mentor. There's no evidence Leonardo ever was a cook--though, like a number of successful artists of the day, he did have occasional banquet oversight responsibilities for his noble patrons. We don't really know what he ate either, though there's a sentence or two in his notebooks about his distaste for eating scorched animal flesh.
And even if he had cooked, the unmarried artist certainly didn't have to sit down to dinner every night with a wife who'd been slaving over a hot fireplace. Or have his concentration distracted by kids eager to leave the groaning board.
Which may be one of the reasons he could devote his energies to thinking creatively, and to paying attention.
And that's what Gelb wants us to do. Taste. Smell. Observe. Experience.
"I go into too many people's homes who are good cooks who don't taste the food or the wine because they're too busy thinking, 'Did I do the recipe right?' A lot of people are driven by this kind of attitude that deprives them of the experience."
"Listen to the words we use," he continues. "We 'grab a bite.' We 'eat on the run.' We're not paying attention. We need to slow down and concentrate on what we are cooking/eating," he says.
To him that approach comes naturally: He grew up with a healthy dose of sensazione--which he says came almost inevitably with a mixed Italian and Jewish heritage. "I come from one of these total food and wine type families," he says. His grandparents cooked. His mother and aunt are great cooks. And his father was passionately interested in wine. "Once a week, he would bring home a bottle of wine, decant it, and tell us a little bit about it," says Gelb. "He wanted to expose us to quality without a sense of entitlement."
Alas, most Americans are raised in less evolved culinary environments, and, he fears, need help. To that end, he's designed exercises (based on those Da Vincian principles) to help us deconstruct our experience of a particular food or ingredient--its taste, its smell, its look and so on. "That's what a great chef does," he says.
Put into practice, this isn't as contrived as it might sound--if you can get past Gelb's calling the activity "comparative appreciation and articulation in a nonjudgmental context." His exercises stress appreciating the pleasures of really fresh food and cooking that doesn't muck around with the ingredients too much. Gelb demonstrates for a visitor by selecting a few cherries from a bowl he'd put out. He looks at their color, their gloss, their plump shapes. He smells one, tastes it, savors it and happily moves on to the next. He enjoys each of them one by one, slowly, and encourages his guest to do the same.
Try it out with friends too, he urges. "It creates a context of freedom, without being right or wrong." And there's always something you can replicate this process with--seasonal fruits or vegetables, he suggests, different olives, chunks of Parmesan cheese or even the same wine in different glasses.
That's what he does when his friends come to dinner at his Tuscan-style (really) home in Chevy Chase, and his friends seem to enjoy the experience. "Michael loves to have scenes," says Nina Lesavoy, a partner in a Manhattan investment firm. "He might have a series of goat cheeses that we'll try out with different wines and compare their tastes and how the wines affect the tastes and textures. It's fun. You learn about flavors you would really miss if you weren't paying attention."
Sometimes, Gelb encourages his guests to shop for a meal they'll share, instructing them only to look for the freshest, best-looking meat/fish/cheese/vegetable in the market that day, which he prepares simply. "Then, while you're eating, he'll savor every bite," says Marlene Weiss, a friend and an interior decorator who designed Gelb's wine cellar. "But he won't just talk about the taste and eating, but the total experience--enjoying the food, savoring it and about enjoying life and food."
In this respect, and in his attempt to get us to slow down, he's not alone: A similar approach to taste and pleasure is reflected in the international Slow Food movement, which has been gaining ground in both Europe and North America since its founding in Paris in 1989.
"I want my guests to experience the sense of creation and the joy of being alive," says Gelb. "I eat this way all the time. Anybody can do it if you pay attention to what's there already--and don't mess it up."
Risotto With Wild Mushrooms
All of Gelb's recipes are based on the fundamental philosophy of Italian cooking as handed down from his grandmother, aunt and mother. This can be interpreted as follows: Take the best ingredients and don't mess them up! Adapted from Gelb's "The How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci Workbook" (Dell, 1999).
2 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces mixed mushrooms (shiitake, cremini, portobello, morels, chanterelles, etc.)
3 to 4 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 or more shallots
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
About 3/4 cup white wine
1 handful freshly grated Parmigiano- Reggiano cheese
White truffle oil (optional)
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Set aside.
In a medium pan, bring the chicken broth to a simmer.
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle in the rice and stir to coat with the oil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the wine and stir gently and constantly. When the wine is completely evaporated, carefully add about 1 cup of the simmering broth and cook, stirring constantly, until it is absorbed. Repeat this process, using 1 cup broth at a time, until it is all incorporated. When the rice is just about ready, tender but firm to the bite, gently stir in the mushrooms and cheese.
If desired, drizzle with the white truffle oil. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 545 calories, 14 gm protein, 72 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 27 mg cholesterol, 7 gm saturated fat, 276 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
Michael Gelb says he always receives praise from guests when he prepares this tuna dish. He prefers to serve it with a side dish of capellini with basil pesto. From Gelb's "The How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci Workbook" (Dell, 1999).
8 slices fresh ginger root
8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 shallots, chopped
Splash balsamic vinegar
Splash dark soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 small jalapeno chili, seeded and sliced, or to taste
1/4 cup sparkling wine or white wine
4 tuna steaks
2 tablespoons olive oil
In a shallow dish, mix together the ginger, garlic, shallots, vinegar, soy sauce and pepper and jalapeno to taste. Then stir in the wine. Add the tuna steaks, cover and refrigerate, turning once, for about 3 hours.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Drain the tuna, transfer it to the pan and saute, turning once, until medium rare, about 6 minutes total. (Don't overcook!!) Serve immediately.
Per 6-ounce tuna steak: 228 calories, 40 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 77 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 322 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Figs Soaked in Tawny Port
Michael Gelb is a proponent of simplicity when it comes to dessert. Find some fresh, ripe purple figs, slice them in half and soak them in a tawny port for at least a few hours. Serve with a touch of fresh cream and a plain biscotti to dip in the fig-port juice.
Hammered Bittersweet Chocolate and Espresso
This is a simple and dramatically delicious dessert. Buy a block of dark Mexican, Belgian or Valhrona chocolate, wrap it in wax paper and then in a kitchen towel. Pound it with a hammer and serve the chocolate shards with espresso.
Just Like Leonardo
Michael Gelb believes you can use the seven Da Vincian principles to guide the process of creating a great meal as follows:
Curiosita--As you prepare to create your menu, ask questions like: "What are the likes and dislikes of my guests? What's in season?" As you walk through the food market ask: "What looks the freshest and most delicious? How can I combine the most inviting ingredients into a wonderful, new symphony of textures, aromas, colors and flavors?"
Dimostrazione--What does my experience and intuition guide me to prepare? What mistakes should I avoid?
Sensazione--How can I orchestrate the aromas, textures, colors and flavors for maximum delight? How can I create the most appetizing environment?
Sfumato--Can I embrace the tension of not knowing exactly how things will turn out?
Arte/Scienza--Do I know where to follow science (i.e., the recipe) and where can I let my imagination run wild (arte)?
Corporalita--Am I creating and serving a healthful, balanced meal? How will my guests feel after we eat?
Connessione--Have I visualized the way each thing I am preparing will connect with everything else? Do I take time to give thanks, appreciate the source of the blessing, be in the moment and savor every aroma and taste of this experience?