James Oseland — Saveur editor in chief, Top Chef Masters judge — is a man who loves all levels of cuisine, high to low. But his greatest passion may be for the humblest, most rustic, and most unadorned food of untrained chefs and home cooks, and it’s these people who are represented (alongside a few big-name food people) in a new coffee table book from Saveur called The Way We Cook. It’s a picture book, mostly, and a kind of photo essay about the act of cooking, with a small selection of 50 greatest-hits recipes from the Saveur archive at the back. Oseland was in San Francisco last week, signing books and speaking at the San Francisco Cooking School, and Grub Street sat down for a few words with him about the book, and about the state of food media in general.
Tell us about the story you were trying to tell with this book.
The unspoken narrative through-line in the book, and in all the images we chose, is a very simple one. It’s cooks cooking. We wanted to celebrate the great, common synchronicity of the act of cooking, which is not so terribly different if you’re in a three-star kitchen or if you’re in a village in Africa. The essential act is still the same.
I think in our culture we’re very good at making points of differentiation about what we, as people do. But really what we do, in kitchens across the world, is essentially the same. That’s what the book salutes: the common humanity of cooking food for ourselves. What could be more essential, and more frequently beautiful, than this aspect of humanity? And it’s something that doesn’t often get a concentrated shout-out, so that was our aim with book.
And it’s primarily made up of photos?
Yes, I had this idea one day while I was in the shower. Basically I realized that there was a common theme, and a way to use all of these action shots that we had in the Saveur archive that had never been seen. You know when we send a photographer to shoot a story in, say, Iran, he or she might come back with three or four thousand images, and we only ever run like eight in the magazine. So we had this vast trove of images, and over the course of several months I sat down with our photo editor and pored over them and this is what came out of it.
So did you do a lot of travel yourself, for the book?
Indirectly I have. I haven’t done a precise tabulation, but five or six percent of the images were my own. A whole lot of traveling was done, but not specifically for the book. We were just sitting on these pictures, and I wanted to find a way to use them.
Tell us about this recent road trip you took.
Well, it was pre-Storm in New York. (Which, by the way, in my almost 35 years of knowing New York I’ve never seen the city stranger.) I was back just in time. The trip was in large part research for another book I’m writing, unrelated to my Saveur life. It’s really a memoir about being in the Bay Area in the late seventies and being a very bad kid. It’s likely not to be a food memoir at all. I wanted to take the road trip to recreate what’s likely to be an important part of the narrative, which is basically a trip my mom and I took, making our way back to California after my dad dumped us both when we were living in the Twin Cities.
And I ended up eating some very good food along the way, which I wasn’t expecting. It was some almost shockingly good food. I tasted these melons, in the middle of Utah, and this farmer there grew some varieties of melons I’d never seen, and they were the best melons I think I’ve ever eaten. There were a number of restaurants, too. There was a Mexican market in this place called Grand Junction, Colorado that just had some amazing tortillas and really excellent food. And also, we started off the trip pretty spectacularly. There was a diner in St. Paul and we had this side order of potatoes that was just so fucking delicious. [Pulls out iPhone, finds photo.] They were just pan fried, probably in canola oil, and they had some strange name. But they just tasted so great, not greasy at all.
What was the first thing you ever cooked?*
Caesar Salad. And it was a recipe from Julia Child, on an episode of “The French Chef,” which I had just watched that afternoon. I was about seven or eight years old. And I asked my parents permission to make that Caesar Salad, and we had all the ingredients already on hand. And I can tell you, I remember it very vividly, it’s a moment that really hasn’t changed in my life some 43 years later, when I’m cooking. That really exquisite sense of being able to control the world for a second. And of course you’re not. All the ingredients you’re using, the recipe, and the environmental conditions, are still mostly controlling what comes out. But it was this really divine, lightning-bolt moment for me. It felt like this great path toward understanding the world and feeling a little bit safer in it, and from that moment on I was always cooking.
Okay, so, as the editor of one of the last remaining, prominent food magazines, how do you see the state of food media in general?
It’s easier for me to talk about Saveur, specifically. It sounds so California, but we’re in California — one blessing of Saveur, and its core mission, which is to celebrate the great and beautiful world of food, is so pure and so airtight, that though we may have morphed in the last twenty years of existence into different unexpected directions, including our digital life, what we do now in 2012 is not so very different than what a small and ragtag group of people was doing back in 1994. It’s really pretty much the same. There are just more channels. The mission, the message, is unchanged. Just from my selfish perspective, I’m jreally turned on by the possibility of the moment. The edit staff at the magazine can approach storytelling in all sorts of creative, fantastic ways that I would have never imagined were possible ten years ago. For instance, we’re starting to arm all of our photographers with cameras that also shoot video. Still images can only tell a part of the story, and moving images with sound can tell so much more. So we’re starting to be able to feature videos of people cooking from around the world on our website, and that’s a whole new direction.
Do you think the proliferation of food television has helped print media?
It’s hard to say. I tend to think the people who watch food TV are probably different people than our core audience. But there’s really no way I could know. And my being on Top Chef Masters may have increased our profile, but I’m not sure how it’s increased our general audience. But anyway, it’s a fun thing for me to do, and that’s the main reason I do it.
Has Saveur filled the void, do you think, since the death of Gourmet, in terms of international food-travel stories?
It is probably safe to say that is has. But our conversation hasn’t changed. Fundamentally we’ve just stayed the course. I just think an entity that was part of a greater conversation is no more, and that’s a shame. That magazine didn’t have to die. I think that was an error. I don’t think that should have happened. If they [Condé Nast] were that concerned about revenue, surely there could have been another way to craft things without completely demolishing it.
What are some of your favorite food memories of the last year, from Top Chef Masters, or your own travels, or whatever?
Chris Cosentino’s ultimate sequence of dishes on the last episode of this season. It was one of the best sequences of dishes I think I have ever eaten. It was really, really incredible. And those diner potatoes were pretty good. And just last night, I had Fra’ Mani hot sopprasatta. It reminded what an extraordinary company that is. It was without a doubt one of the best things I’ve put in my mouth all year. And I don’t even like to eat meat. I would probably be a vegetarian if it weren’t for this job, and bacon has never been a gateway meat for me. It’s always been charcuterie. Good, salty, pungent, intensely flavored charcuterie, and eating this stuff last night reminded me of that. I couldn’t stop eating it.
You get to the Bay Area a fair amount, so what are your favorite spots here?
Incanto. I love it there. I had a really splendid meal recently at this little joint in San Mateo called Little Shanghai. And also had some great food at this South Indian chain called Saravanaa in Sunnyvale. And I wish the original Original Joe’s was still there. (The new one is just OK, but it’s not the same.) I’m not naming any real fancy food, but I guess that would be my wont.
* This question was actually asked during the public Q&A;, after our interview.