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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bacon, Apple, and Sage Turkey: A Holiday Hit

It's All About The Barding

Holiday time is once again upon us and flocks of “perfect turkey” tips are waddling around everywhere. (Turkeys don't fly, you know; ask the folks at WKRP in Cincinnati.)

I hit upon this simple recipe for moist, tasty turkey many years ago. We've adapted it slightly and it is now our “go to” preparation for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any time we want to serve a really perfect turkey. We usually cook three or four turkeys every holiday season and we've never had a bad one yet. It's all about the barding.

I know what comes to most minds when the word “bard” is used, but the culinary application has nothing to do with Shakespeare. Not that The Bard didn't have a few things to say about culinary matters that could be appropriate for the holidays: “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his.” – Henry IV Part I: act 2, scene 1. Or perhaps, “Eight wild boars roasted whole at breakfast, and but twelve persons there; is this true?.” – Antony and Cleopatra: act 2, scene 1

Barding involves preparing a cut of meat for roasting by covering it with strips of fat. The fat of choice is almost always some form of bacon. You can bard almost anything. Even the cheapest cuts of meat will benefit from the application of bacon, and the more expensive cuts – bacon-wrapped filet mignon, for instance – will be that much more delectable. But barding works particularly well on poultry. It's basically a deliciously foolproof self-basting method. We'll get to the details in a minute.

First, gather your ingredients:

1 medium onion, cut into 8 wedges, divided
2 apples (any sweet variety), cut into wedges
1 tablespoon dried sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 (12-lb.) turkey
1 (12 oz) package bacon
1 (6 oz) can apple juice concentrate, thawed

A quick note about the bacon: this is not the time or the place for expensive cuts of lean, meaty, artisan bacon. Nope. You want the cheapest, fattiest store-brand bacon you can find.

Equipment-wise, you'll need a roasting pan with a rack, and a thermometer. I highly – I'll emphasize that again – HIGHLY recommend a probe thermometer. Buy it for the big bird and you'll find yourself using it for lots of other things, too. The probe part of the thermometer gets stuck in the bird. A cable runs from the probe to a monitor that you place outside your oven. Set the monitor to 165° F and just walk away. When the thing beeps, the bird's done. No hassle and no guesswork. Yes, you can use an instant-read thermometer, but it's a pain, what with having to open and close the oven door – which affects the temperature and hence the cooking time – and makes little holes all over your bird unless you manage to hit exactly the same spot every time you check the temp. An old-fashioned meat thermometer works, too. But I'll swear by the probe variety any day. Please,whatever else you do, don't rely on those stupid little plastic “pop-up” thingys that they package with some turkeys. They are absolutely useless and are the cause of more dry, overcooked birds than almost anything else. Optionally, you may also want some butcher's twine, a bulb baster, and some turkey lifters.

Now, here's what you're going to do:

Make sure your turkey is thoroughly thawed and patted dry with paper towels. Don't forget to remove the plastic bag with the giblets. Unpleasant things happen if you forget.

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Scatter half of the onion around the bottom of the roasting pan and put the rack in place. Place the turkey on the rack. Some people advocate placing the bird “upside down” (breast side down) on the rack, as this allows the juices to flow into the breast meat as the bird cooks. And that's okay. For this recipe, though, the old “right side up” placement works best.

Make a compound butter by combining the sage, the thyme, and some salt and pepper in a small bowl. Mix the herbs and spices thoroughly with the softened butter, then gently lift the skin of the turkey and apply the butter mixture directly and liberally to the breast, taking care not to tear the skin as your work. You might want to remove extraneous rings and things. Save about a tablespoon of the butter for later. (You're doing this because it will add flavor, help retain moisture, and aid in achieving a nice, crispy skin.)

Rub the reserved butter around the inside of the cavity, then place the remaining onion in the cavity, along with the wedges of apple. (You're doing this for flavor and moisture. Apples and onions are very juicy and as they cook, they will release their moisture and flavor into the interior of the bird.)

If you're going to truss your turkey, here's how you do it: Place the turkey breast side up. Cross the legs and loop a piece of butcher's twine over, around and under the crossed legs several times, tying it off securely. Tuck the first joint of each wing under the body of the bird. Now you've got a nice compact package that will cook evenly and be easier to carve. This is where most people stop. And that's fine. Some people go a step farther and lace up the cavity. Meh. If you want to go to the trouble, you'll need to do it first. And you'll need trussing pins or needles. Then you start by passing the pins through the skin on both sides of the cavity. Beginning at the top pin, lace a piece of twine back and forth as you would shoelaces. Pull it snug and tie it securely at the bottom. Pull the neck skin over and fasten it underneath with trussing pins or toothpicks. Now you can truss the legs and tuck the wings under as previously directed. Me, I just truss and tuck. The lacing is usually reserved for stuffed birds (keeps the stuffing inside) and we're not going to get into a discussion here of the health hazards presented by actually stuffing a bird with stuffing.

Arrange slices of bacon over the breast and legs. (Again, moisture, flavor, and crispiness.) Some people do elaborate basket weave patterns and such. Some even tie the bacon blanket in place with twine. Again, meh. Just make sure the bird is covered. Then loosely tent the breast with foil.

If you're using the probe thermometer that I highly recommend, now's the time to place the probe. Proper placement is essential. Insert the thermometer about 2 1/2 inches into the thickest portion of the turkey breast or into the inner thigh near the breast. Make sure the thermometer does not touch a bone. This applies whether or not you're using a probe thermometer; same rules go for instant-reads or plain old meat thermometers. (Another quick tip: when inserting a regular thermometer into the turkey breast, insert it from the side. The thermometer is easier to read and more accurate than when you put it in from the top.)

Okay, into the oven! Bake for about an hour, then remove the foil and the bacon. I usually discard the bacon. Some people break it up and serve it like cracklings. Your choice. Some people also leave the bacon in place for the entire cooking time. Again, your choice. But if you choose to do that, you'll sacrifice your golden brown skin because the bacon will insulate it and keep it from browning.

Assuming you have removed the bacon, continue to bake the turkey for 30 to 40 minutes; then baste with the pan juices. Bake an additional 30 to 40 minutes and baste again. Now, pour the apple juice concentrate over the turkey and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes.

A word about basting: it's not entirely necessary, especially with the compound butter and the bacon providing lots of fat and moisture. Most people do it because Mom did it and Grandma did it and Great-Grandma did it, etc. Because poultry skin is fairly impermeable, you're not doing much for the moisture content of the meat. From that aspect, basting is like pouring water on a raincoat. Most of what you achieve through basting is extra flavor and extra crispness. The only place you really need to baste with this recipe is when you add the apple juice concentrate near the end of the process. And besides, all that opening and closing of the oven door makes it harder to maintain even heat in the oven, thus prolonging your cooking time.

Your turkey is done when the temperature reaches 165°F measured in the breast or 175°F measured in the thickest part of the thigh.

Using lifters or tongs, tilt the turkey to drain any juices from the cavity into the roasting pan. Remove the turkey to a carving board, cover it loosely with foil, and allow it to rest at least 20 minutes before carving. DON'T SKIP THIS STEP.......unless you like dry turkey. Trust us, the bird will remain nice and hot until you're ready to serve.

(Note: if you plan to make gravy from the pan drippings, be aware that the smoky flavors of the bacon and the sweetness of the apples and apple juice concentrate may affect the character of your gravy. You may like a smoky, sweet gravy. If not, prepare a more traditional gravy using butter, flour, and chicken broth.)

Buon appetito! And Happy Holidays!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

An Explanation Of Why Some People Massacre Italian

Lookin' At You, New York and New Jersey!

I have long ranted and raved about misspoken Italian, particularly the brand misspoken along the Eastern Seaboard.

In the My Fair Lady song “Why Can't The English?”, Henry Higgins comments on the state of the English language, lamenting:

One common language I'm afraid we'll never get.
Oh, why can't the English learn to
set a good example to people whose
English is painful to your ears?
The Scots and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely
disappears.
Well, in America, they haven't used it for years!

I got news for ya, Hank; they ain't been usin' Italian in America for years, either. And never mind the Scots and the Irish. You want close to tears? Listen to New Yorkers and/or New Jerseyans/ites mangle and massacre the most lyrical language on earth.

“Mootz-uh-RELL?” “Pruh-ZHOOT?” I once heard somebody talking about getting some “ruh-GOAT” and I didn't even know what they were saying. Never mind “gah-bah-GOOL.” I mean, what the hell language is that? It certainly isn't Italian, where those miserably tortured words are actually “mozzarella,” “prosciutto,” “ricotta,” and “capicolla.” And don't even get me started on “MARE-ee-oh” versus “MAH-ree-oh.” Where do these people – millions of them – get these horrible mispronunciations? And why do they persist in using them even when they know better? I've seen it on TV: somebody like Anne Burrell will properly pronounce “prosciutto” in a sentence, and then somebody like Rachael Ray will repeat basically the same sentence and call it “pruh-ZHOOT.” Mi fa impazzire!

Here's the answer: it's all Grandma and Grandpa's fault. Or maybe great-Grandma and great-Grandpa. And the point is, these progenitors of two or three (or more) generations ago weren't really ignorant; they were simply speaking another language; a language other than Italian.

The political entity we know as Italy did not exist until 1861. Before that time – and actually for a few years after – the Italian peninsula was populated by fighting, feuding, warring, struggling principalities and city-states that were, in effect, separate countries. And each country had its own language. Today we call the countries “regions” and the native languages “dialects.” There were linguistic similarities, to be sure, but it was not uncommon in those pre-Risorgimento days for people from one area to travel to a neighboring area and not be able to fully understand one another.

The unification process started around 1815 and continued until about 1870, with 1861 marking the establishment of a “unified” Kingdom of Italy. Some contend that actual unification was not complete until after WWI. But they still had to work out a few bugs. One of the biggest bugs was a lack of a common language. How do you govern a country where nobody uses the same words to describe the same things? Garibaldi could have been in Higgins' shoes, singing “one common language I'm afraid we'll never get.” Except ultimately they did. I'm not going to do pages of history here: suffice it to say that the choice was made to elevate the Tuscan dialect – the language of Dante and Petrarch – to “official” status, and the language we now know as “Italian” was born.

It was not a universally popular or accepted idea at the time. Think of it: if you lived in Atlanta and the government came and told you you had to start saying “youse guys” instead of “y'all,” you would probably resist a bit. And even the people who grudgingly acquiesced to the new “Italian” still used their native way of speaking in their homes and among their families.

Now comes the relevant part – and yes, there is one: The unified Italy was a great concept on paper. The problem was that “unification” wasn't all as equal as it sounded. There developed a class struggle between the northern and southern parts of the new country. Kind of like what happened here in America except with different issues and different end results. The power wound up being consolidated in the Italian North and the South felt that they got the short end of the stick. But rather than take up arms, the disenfranchised people of the South headed for the boats. Tens of millions of them. En masse. Which would actually be “di massa” in Italian. Most of them sailed to America and most of the ones that landed here landed in New York. They spread out a little, eventually covering Long Island, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and the area around Philadelphia. They brought with them their native customs, their native foods, and, of course, their native languages; languages that were not always the new “Italian.” Sicilians, Campanians, Calabrians, and others brought their unique dialects with them from the Old World to the New and settled in enclaves and neighborhoods where those unique speech patterns were perpetuated and passed on to succeeding generations. Even though they technically came from the same “country,” none of them were “countrymen.”

To make a really long explanation much shorter, the people in America who say things like “mootz-uh-RELL and “gah-bah-GOOL” are actually speaking a dead language. It's not “Italian.” It's an Italian dialect, but one that really doesn't exist anymore. If a dyed-in-the-wool Italian-American from New Jersey were to go into a salumeria almost anywhere in Italy and ask for “gah-bah-GOOL,” the proprietor would look at him like he was speaking a foreign language. Because he would be; one that died out over a hundred years ago, but is kept alive based on nothing more than tradition. You say “gabagool” because that's the way your nonna or your bisnonna said it when she came here from the Old Country, wherever that might have been. That wasn't necessarily “Italian;” it was whatever dialect she spoke when she came here. And that pronunciation got handed down through successive generations and that's why you say it the way you do. You might find a 90-year-old shopkeeper in Palermo who knew what you were talking about, but good luck with that in Rome. Because it's not Italian.

There's a mind-numbingly scholarly piece over at www.atlasobscura.com that goes into all the details of vowel deletion and voiceless consonants and raised sounds and other linguistic arcana. You can read about it at http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-capicola-became-gabagool-the-italian-new-jersey-accent-explained. But there's one sentence there that sort of sums it up: “Italian-American Italian is not at all like Standard Italian; instead it’s a construction of the frozen shards left over from languages that don’t even really exist in Italy anymore with minimal intervention from modern Italian.”

The Italian side of my family hails from Emilia-Romagna and they got to North America before Italy was Italy. So I have no doubt there were some odd pronunciations somewhere in my family's past as well. But we wound up in Canada. French Canada. Just thinking about how “gabagool” would translate in French makes my head hurt. So when I learned Italian, it was “proper” Italian and not something filtered through a dialect.

Now I don't think for one tiny little second that anything I've written here or anything at Atlas Obscura is going to make the slightest difference to any of the Italian-American crowd who loudly and proudly say “pruh-ZHOOT” and “mootz-uh-RELL.” It's their piece of the Italian experience and they're gonna stick with it no matter what some Internet brainiac says. Especially an Italian-French Canadian. I mean, what do I know? Other than the fact that most of them probably don't know any “real” Italian at all and are limited to a few mangled words from their ancestral past. Another quote from Atlas Obscura seems appropriate: “There’s something both a little silly and a little wonderful about someone who doesn’t even speak the language putting on an antiquated accent for a dead sub-language to order some cheese.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

“Improved” Campbell's Chicken Soup? Here's A Better Recipe

Better Because It's Homemade

I can't remember a time when there weren't at least a few cans of Campbell's soup in the pantry. Like most of my generation, I grew up with the stuff. But times, they are a-changin'. And so are some of Campbell's soups. Chicken Noodle Soup is the first to undergo what the company says is “closing the gap between the kitchen and our plants.” Okay. We won't talk about how the “gap” got there in the first place. Or maybe we should.

The pressure is on Campbell's and other food manufacturers to catch up with more discerning consumers. Going, going, and soon to be gone are the days when shoppers strolled down the aisles of supermarkets loaded with literal tons of processed foods and somewhat automatically tossed boxes, bags, and cans of whatever additive and preservative laden junk the big food companies put out on the shelves into their carts and dutifully toted them home, heated them up, and served them to their families. People trusted food manufacturers. Of course, they also trusted lawyers, police officers, and used car salesmen. There was an innocence and naivete among the food buying public, one that assumed that the products they were buying at the altar of convenience were also healthy and wholesome. Many of the labels used those very adjectives. Surely they wouldn't mislead us for the sake of profit! You mean some of those ingredients I can't even pronounce aren't really good for me? Perish the thought! Today's shoppers are beginning to expect actual food in their food stores, not chemistry sets in a can. Hence the panicked rush on the part of some manufacturers to close “the gap.”

Campbell's says they're reducing the number of ingredients in their chicken noodle soup from thirty to twenty. Some of the excised ingredients are potassium chloride, monosodium glutamate, maltodextrin, and lactic acid. They're also removing onions and celery from the new soup, which is is a bit puzzling. Along with carrots, onions and celery form the basis from which nearly all soups are made. How do you maintain the flavor profile? Unless, of course, you've discovered a new chemical way to replicate the taste of onions and celery. Which sort of defeats the purpose, right?

Now, bear in mind, they are not messing with the ingredients in the “classic” condensed version of the iconic red and white can. No, the revamped soup is one that's being marketed for kids under a “Star Wars” theme. Campbell's plan, according to a spokesperson, is to take what they learn from remaking the kid's version and apply it to their other chicken noodle recipes over time. For now, the “classic” soup still contains MSG, sodium phosphate, soy protein isolate and a lot of other “classic” ingredients. Including good ol' “dehydrated chicken.”  

Anyway, I have a solution to the whole situation: cooking. You may have heard of it?

Now, I'm not gonna lie. I mentioned up front that Campbell's soups have been in the pantry for as long as I can remember. That includes this morning. There are six cans in there right now; three each of chicken noodle and tomato. They're my “emergency stash.” Also in the pantry are several cans of chicken broth and tomatoes. And there's chicken stock in the freezer. Those are the things from which real chicken soup and tomato soup are made. I'm a little short on modified food starch, flavoring, beta carotene, yeast extract, and MSG, so if you want those things, you'll have to go buy your own can of Campbell's. Otherwise, try my recipe for chicken soup. Who knows? Maybe it will help you close “the gap” in your kitchen.

A couple of ingredient notes before we get started: you really can make your own chicken stock. It's just not that hard, but it does take a little time and effort. So, with that said, packaged product is okay. The can of broth I'm holding contains chicken stock and 2% or less of salt, natural flavoring (an ingredient I'm always leery of), yeast extract, carrot juice concentrate, celery juice concentrate, and onion juice concentrate. I buy the stuff that's labeled “100% fat free, no MSG added, 33% less sodium.” It's not as flavorful or as good as the homemade stock I've got in my freezer, but it's an acceptable substitute.

As far as the chicken goes, just about any form of cooked chicken will do. Even the canned stuff, if you really must. But leftover chicken is really good, especially if you have some whole roasted rotisserie chicken from the deli left over. Adds a nice roasted flavor. Or you can get them to slice a couple of good thick slices of your favorite deli chicken and you can bring 'em home and shred 'em up.

Okay, here goes:

First, gather together the following ingredients:

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium carrot, small dice
1 rib celery, small dice
1 bay leaf
2 qt (64 oz) chicken stock or broth
8 oz dried egg noodles
1 cup shredded cooked chicken
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
Flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Now find a sufficiently large soup pot like a stock pot or Dutch oven. It's got to be big enough to hold a half-gallon of liquid with room to spare. Place the pot over medium heat and coat the bottom with a little oil. We're not deep frying anything here, just sauteing some vegetables. Start with the onion. Season lightly with a little salt – called “sweating” in fancy kitchen lingo – and let it cook for a few minutes until it starts to soften. Then add the garlic and let it cook with the onion for about a minute. Don't let it brown; browned garlic is bitter and nasty. Now add in your carrots and celery. You're building layers of flavor. Don't dump it all in together. Altogether, the vegetables should cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until soft.

Next, add the chicken stock or broth and bring it to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and drop in the bay leaf and the noodles. Simmer until the noodles are tender, about 5 or 6 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and stir in the shredded chicken. Season with salt and pepper and continue to simmer for another few minutes, tasting for seasoning as you do. Sprinkle the soup with parsley and serve in warmed soup bowls.

Yields four servings of chicken soup that fills not only that “gap” Campbell's keeps talking about, but your tummy, as well. It'll be better than anything Campbell's can can and better for you because you made it yourself and you know what's in it.

Buon appetito!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Rachael Ray Says She's Not A Chef: A Lot Of People Aren't

But She Plays One On TV

Food celebrity Rachael Ray has reiterated her longstanding objection to being called a “chef.” In a recent Huff Post interview she states that she prefers to be called “a cook.” Why? “I have pause when people refer to me as a 'chef' because I'm simply not.” She says she didn't go to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and she thinks that calling her a “chef” would be “disrespectful of people who did.” But let's think about that one, Rach. There are certain distinctions to be made.

In the 21st century food and entertainment world, anybody who cooks on TV is called a “celebrity chef.” And sometimes the inaccuracy really grinds my gears. Wolfgang Puck is a chef. Mario Batali is a chef. Cat Cora is a chef. Emeril Legasse is a chef. Bobby Flay is a chef. Like her or hate her, Giada De Laurentiis is a chef. On the other hand, Sandra Lee is not a chef and former “Bag Lady” Paula Deen is definitely not a chef. (That's not a pejorative: when she started out in the food business making bag lunches for office workers in Savannah, Deen called herself “The Bag Lady.”) Her sons aren't chefs either. “Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond is not a chef. Neither is the ubiquitous and vastly annoying Guy Fieri, although he at least has a degree in hotel management. Nigella Lawson may be a “Domestic Goddess,” but she's not a chef. And yet the undiscriminating public lumps them all together as “celebrity chefs.” Emphasis, I think, on the “celebrity” part.

Let's look at the word “chef.” Literally translated from French, it means “chief.” It refers to someone who is the head or the leader of a group of people. Old French-Canadian records indicate that all my male ancestors were chefs because that was how they were designated on the census forms. In that instance, the word related to their status as heads of their households. In the food world, the “chef” is the head of the restaurant staff. At it's most basic form, the position of “chef” is merely an indicator of the person who oversees the kitchen. The “chief cook.” And that certainly does not require an extensive and expensive culinary education. In simple terms, a “chef” needs to be able to cook to a degree that enables him or her to lead other cooks.

But, alas, we no longer live in simple times. The reality of life today lends itself to specialization. Everybody has to have a very specific job that includes a very specific title. And so it is with chefs. Most people define a “chef” as the person who creates the menu and oversees all back of the house functions like ordering and scheduling. They have to be up on food costs and they need to know their way around health codes and regulations. According to some purists, a chef has to meet the stringent criteria of the American Culinary Foundation. They have to be certified in nutrition and sanitation. There are exams and practical skills tests involved. They have to take management courses and have at minimum a two-year degree from an accredited culinary school. And, oh yeah, it helps if they can cook.

On the flip side, there are just a hell of a lot of chefs out there who never saw the outside of a culinary school, much less the inside. Their exams and practical skills started with washing dishes and working their way up. Let me be there when you tell Tom Colicchio, Jamie Oliver, or Thomas Keller that they aren't really “chefs” because they didn't go to culinary school. Certainly the world renowned Ferran Adrià is a classically trained chef, right? Surely he met all those stringent educational criteria before basically inventing molecular gastronomy, right? Nah. He dropped out of school and worked as a dishwasher in a hotel restaurant. Then he learned his trade from a bunch of other people who probably didn't meet the criteria for being “chefs” either.

Want to know who else doesn't qualify academically as a chef? How about the aforementioned Wolfgang Puck? His education came through apprenticeship. Does anybody debate the inclusion of Alice Waters among the pantheon of American chefs? She has a degree in French Cultural Studies, but no culinary school. Internationally recognized chef Jacques Pépin started out in his family's restaurant and later apprenticed in Paris. But no “Le Cordon Bleu” or other “formal training.” Similarly, French legend Paul Bocuse studied under Eugénie Brazier, the first chef to attain six Michelin stars. She also had no “formal training.” Daniel Boulud was a finalist in France's competition for Best Culinary Apprentice at age fifteen. No culinary school for him; he apprenticed his way to culinary stardom. Hunky Aussie chef Curtis Stone worked his way up ladder. Lidia Bastianich may head a restaurant empire now, but in her first eatery in Queens, she copied recipes from successful Italian restaurants and hired an Italian-American chef to execute them. No culinary school for her. And the late Cajun and Creole king, Paul Prudhomme, was entirely self-taught.

And, by the way, do you know what one of the highest culinary prizes in America is? I'm referring, of course, to the James Beard award. And did you also know that James Beard, the Dean of American Cuisine, never spent a day in culinary school? He was an unsuccessful actor who started up a catering business that ultimately led to cookbooks, speaking engagements, and to the establishment of his own cooking school. Not bad for someone who was never certified in nutrition and sanitation and all the other fal de rol that some people associate with chefdom. James Beard was nothing but a cook, and yet all the hoity toity chefs want his name associated with their restaurants. Strange, huh?

There are four generations of food professionals in my family. My grandfather and a couple of uncles were restaurateurs. I do what I do as a cook and a writer, and my son has worked his way up from fast food to management of a couple of pretty nice upscale places. My grandfather and my uncles cooked. My son and I cook. Despite the fact that we've all had a hand in creating menus, ordering supplies, supervising operations, and, oh yeah, preparing food, do any of us qualify as “chefs?” Meh.

The people for whom I cook often call me a chef. And for lack of a more comprehensive term, I sometimes bill myself as a “personal chef.” All that means is that I cook for people who pay me to do so. Perhaps “personal cook” would be more accurate, but such a term does not exist in the industry, so I go with what works. I do not, however, delude myself or others into thinking that I am a classically trained chef. Sure, I'm a better than average cook. If I weren't, people wouldn't be paying me to cook for them. Yeah, I know a lot about food and technique because I've taken a gazillion classes and read a gazillion books. And I've been cooking for a gazillion years. But am I a “chef?” Like Rachael, the word makes me squeamish, largely because I know my limitations.

Here's why I'm not a chef: Give me some basic, everyday ingredients and a decent kitchen and I'll whip up some unforgettably good food for you. A gas stove, some good pots and pans, a handful of tools and utensils, a few tomatoes, some onions, garlic, herbs and spices and I'll have you drooling over a delicious tomato sauce mixed with some of my handmade pasta. And you can sop up any leftover sauce with some of my fresh-baked bread. It'll be good, I promise. As long as I'm working with ingredients and techniques that fall within my comfort zone.

Now...drop off somebody like Mario Batali in the middle of the woods with nothing but a knife and a box of matches, and in ten minutes he'll make you a feast. THAT'S a chef! Oh, and did I mention that Mario dropped out of culinary school? He never got that minimal two-year degree that qualifies him as a real “chef.”

I mean, I watch “Chopped” and “Iron Chef” and “Top Chef” and similar shows and I sit there, mouth agape and eyes glazed over, as people throw together real, honest-to-goodness, edible dishes made from weird things, some of which I didn't even know existed. C'mon! Cactus flower buds, rose water, quince paste? Goat brains? Sea cucumbers? My wife and I are are like, “what the hell is that?” And then Ted Allen explains it and we're still like, “what the hell would you do with it?” And then the competitors do something wonderful with it in twenty minutes. Things that I couldn't conceive of in twenty hours. No, I'm not a chef. I'm a really good cook, but those people, the ones who can make something out of anything or nothing, are chefs. And some of them never went to culinary school either.

So what it really comes down to in the final analysis is the ability to walk the walk and talk the talk. Like James Beard, I came to the kitchen by way of the theater. There's another place where ability often trumps education. There are a lot of bad actors out there with good educations. A diploma does not make someone with no talent into an actor. You either are one or you're not. Same thing applies to being a chef. Give me somebody with raw talent and gut instinct any day. The old joke goes, “you know what you call a med student who finished last in his class? Doctor.” Just because you got a piece of expensive paper that says you went to school for two years doesn't mean you're any good in the kitchen. I've probably logged a thousand hours in online and hands-on cooking classes. In more than fifty years of standing at a stove, I've thoroughly tested my practical skills. I've even studied the ServSafe exam for food professionals. So I'm a chef, right? Nah. Not once you take me out of my comfort zone. I know a lot about food because I've studied it inside and out. I can make a phenomenal American breakfast and I can handle myself well in an Italian kitchen because those are the things I know and understand. The things with which I have great experience and familiarity. Take me out in the woods with a knife and a box of matches and I'll cut myself and burn down the forest just before I starve to death. So, no, I'm not a chef. And a whole lot of people who call themselves “chefs” aren't either. They're nothing more than over-hyped and/or over-educated cooks. Or celebrities.

Kudos to Rachael Ray for recognizing her limitations. That's the real difference between a cook and a chef.