The esteemed writer and essayist on the importance of cooking, going head to head with his galley’s labour union and the practical pleasures of chopping onions.
“Almost every recipe ever made – French, Italian, English, Indian – begins with chopping onions. That’s the foundational act of all cooking. So every night I find myself chopping onions at six o’clock and it’s both life-giving and monotonous, providing and draining.
I love to cook and I learnt from my mother. One of my earliest memories is of sitting with my sister beneath a modernist table in Philadelphia, where I was born, when my mother was rolling out pastry. We were sitting there and we pulled the little bits of dough that were hanging out over the edge of the table.
My mother is a very good cook. I remember the first dish she taught me. It was my 12th birthday and I loved beef stroganoff; I said that’s what I wanted and she said, ‘I’ll teach you.’ She taught me how to first sauté the onions, then the peppers, then the mushrooms, then to turn the heat up high to sauté the beef. I remember every step.
When I moved to New York [from Montréal] my mother sent me off with Escoffier’s dictionary of French cuisine and the Larousse Gastronomique encyclopaedia. I would try and reproduce these dishes for my young wife, Martha, and I would sauté and flambé in this tiny room until the superintendent of the building complained about the smoke.
I then went on hiatus as a cook. In New York in those days you could eat out well and cheaply: Indian on East Sixth Street, Ethiopian on Broome Street and the Moondance Diner. So we ate out, I’m ashamed to say, pretty much every night. It wasn’t until we moved to France in 1995 that I started cooking seriously again, partly because French markets were so wonderful but above all because we had a baby and couldn’t go out.
By the time we got back to New York we had two children. Cooking became essential. As a writer you spend hours locked in a room with only mental activity; the release of going at six o’clock to the practical business of chopping onions was – and is to this day – huge. For most of the 2000s, The New Yorker’s office was on Times Square and I would walk home via Grand Central Terminal, which has a wonderful market in it. I’d pick up dinner and take it home on the subway.
I’m the only cook in the family. Martha can cook a very good omelette and, oddly, a very good tarte tatin – but that’s the beginning and end of her cooking. I think it’s one of the truths of domestic arrangements that the bulk of the emotional labour of the household falls on the woman. The best I can do is remove one area of that so she doesn’t have to think about what we’re eating.
In the kitchen I end up yelling at whoever is my sous-chef. I have been through family sous-chefs as Henry viii went through wives. Martha was my original sous-chef and I fired her (she claims she quit). Then my son Luke took over but he was too absent-minded to be reliable. Then my daughter Olivia, who is the quickest of our family, became the sous-chef but she got tired of being yelled at. I encourage my staff to clean as I cook but they’re heavily unionised.
I love the combination of simplicity and authority in everything here [at St John]. I think of this place as one of the key restaurants in my life because it was here that Fergus Henderson [chef and founder of St John] said to me: “I can never understand how a young couple starting out in life can buy a bed or a sofa. Don’t they know a table comes first?” It captures a very profound truth: that almost everything significant that happens in life happens across a table. It’s where we court, where we get engaged, get divorced. My friend [chef and founder of The River Café] Ruthie Rogers said to me once that a keen understanding of the way a restaurant works is that at every table a little world is developing.”
Adam Gopnik grew up in Montréal and moved to New York in the 1980s, a time that the writer and essayist reflects upon in his latest memoir At the Strangers’ Gate. Best known as a staff writer for The New Yorker, Gopnik has contributed to the title since 1986 and has written on virtually every subject imaginable. He lives in New York and has a wife, Martha, and two children, Luke and Olivia.
When it first flung open its doors in 1994, St John was a revelation. In a city then largely in thrall to fine dining, chef-proprietor Fergus Henderson served a menu of unfussy but confident cooking, guided by his “nose-to-tail” philosophy of meat-eating. The dining room too was unpretentious, light-filled and stripped back – a design language that has since been often copied but rarely topped. 26 St John Street, London
Celeriac soup and crispy back fat
Whole grilled plaice, with sides of potatoes and greens
Spiced ice cream
St John Rouge (2016)