Angeli Caffé has been a Melrose Avenue fixture, a destination, a refuge, the source for a fine plate of spaghetti alla checca, for a quarter of a century now. Twenty-six years, to be precise, as Evan Kleiman celebrated her restaurant's 25th anniversary last December.
Kleiman herself is an L.A. fixture, at least for anyone who cares or thinks about food, or who listens to public radio. Kleiman has been the host of KCRW's Good Food since 1998. In the last 12 years, Kleiman has conducted, she estimates, about 6,000 interviews, including Jonathan Gold (very often), Anthony Bourdain (a number of times), and not a few overly reticent Swedish cookbook authors (far too often). Add six cookbooks to the pot, and a very public obsession with pies — Kleiman's second Pie-a-Day project relaunched last month — and you quickly see why Kleiman describes herself as having culinary ADD. Fortunately for the rest of us, she appears to be self-medicating with iced cappuccino, as she did the other day when she sat down for a chat at her restaurant.
Turn the page for the first part of our interview with the chef, and check back tomorrow for part 2, as well as for Kleiman's recipe for peach, tomato and burrata salad. Did we get a pie recipe? We did not (check her pie blog), but she did give us a recipe for spectacular individual peach tarts instead.
Squid Ink: So let's start with pies. Should we start with pies?
Evan Kleiman: Sure, why not. There's always something to say about pies.
SI: Pie-a-Day, part 2. You're not tired of pies?
EK: No, because I took a little break. And there's just something about seeing all that fruit in the farmers market. I mean, yes, you can eat a ton of fresh fruit, but somehow throwing them into pies just seems ever so much more tasty.
SI: How many pies has it been so far? Did all the pies last year make it onto the blog?
EK: Last year, everything made the blog. It was sort of like a look behind the veil of Oz. The great Oz. And you see what people are like when they're really trying to master something. And I didn't know a lot of stuff about a lot of kinds of pies. Like I'd never made a cream pie in my life. There are a lot of things I didn't know. So last year it was all about trying to unveil the process. When I teach cooking classes I see that a lot of people have attempted to make a dough once, and it doesn't come out perfect and they never do it again. I mean, those of us who cook for a living, or home cooks who are expert, become expert over time, doing it over and over. So I wanted to show people that I had to do things over and over. That it never stops in life. Learning. And why should it?
SI: So was it like an object lesson? One long object lesson?
EK: Yeah. It was great. I loved it. I thought it was hilarious. Whenever I would have a terrible failure, I just stood back and laughed. I mean, I made this lemon meringue pie and I had been having so many problems with meringues. I think it was like the third attempt, and I thought I would do something different — that I'd cook the meringues separately. I'd make an Italian meringue, I'd broil it separately, and then I'd lay it on top of the pie like a little hat so it would be perfect. And it became like the ever-shrinking toupee pie. So funny.
And I just have to give my colleagues at KCRW their due, because, man, they just ate every one of those pies. They didn't care if it was perfect or not perfect; they just saw the word 'pie' in the email and came running from wherever.
SI: Well, there is something intrinsically happy about pies. I can't imagine doing this with osso bucco.
EK: No. And I know that Melissa Gray, at NPR, did that Year of Cakes. All Cakes Considered was the name of her book, and I thought to myself, I would never do that. Cake isn't pie. I think pie is very personal.
SI: And you can throw them when you're done.
EK: Yes, you can. And in fact today we got a Flickr stream from a listener who was inspired by our Pie-a-Day project and on Christmas Day they had a pie fight. And my favorite part of it was that the women who were part of the teams put their hair in shower caps. So they were totally prepared. So yeah, there's something homey and whimsical and really personal about pies. And I just really wanted to have a summer project. This year it's a little different, because this year to not have the onus all be on me: I'm making one pie a week that we're posting and then we're asking other people in the culinary and blogging community to contribute pies.
And I love that, because I never went to culinary school, I'm self-taught, and I became self-taught because I'm just a vacuum cleaner for information. And watching other people cook, whether or not they're professionals, or listening to someone describe a recipe or a certain dish–you can pick up a tiny little tidbit that informs what you do.
SI: Well, like with Good Food. How many interviews have you done over the years?
EK: I think I once counted, and it's somewhere in excess of 6,000 interviews. That's a lot of talking about one subject. Food.
SI: That's a thousand culinary schools.
EK: Yeah. I love it because the range of topic is so wide. When I look at my word files and all the folders that are titled: they're culture, politics, science, diets, health, beverages, spirits…
SI: Have you thought about starting a library? Really. Ronald Reagan gets a library.
EK: Well, I've been trying to actually de-book myself. I had too many books, and I looked at them and a lot of them were sentimental books from the 70s and 80s, and about two years ago I went through of them and I got rid of about a thousand of them. So I decided to have a huge book sale, and of course I sold way too much and now I look at my bookshelves and I'm very disturbed. But I realize that they've shifted. And now I would say that the preponderance of books I've kept are books on food policy and politics. Single subject disaster stories about food.
SI: Disaster stories?
EK: A lot of books on fish and the oceans and how terrible things are. Fish, fish don't eat them. And books from authors who I just love: Paula Wolfert, Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford, Patricia Wells and Anne Willan. People who really went to the places they talk about and they become the sort of–I've talked about this before–the pseudo-grandmother mentor. Because I learned probably as much in the kitchen reading books as I did from someone in real life. And I know that that is often disparaged in this day and age of everybody thinking that the only path to follow is to go to culinary school. But it didn't used to be like that. It used to be more free-form. You would see a lot of chefs actually complete a college education–because a lot of us couldn't imagine not doing that–only to discover that whatever path we were on didn't fulfill us. Most of us had been hobby cooks at home, and in my case I had put myself through school cooking.
SI: You got your MBA?
EK: Yeah, I got my MBA. I got my undergraduate degree in Italian literature and film; that was the Italian connection. Then I got my MBA in nonprofit management, which made me uniquely suited to run a restaurant. (Laughs.)
After I catered all those years and I decided I was ready to go into a restaurant–and I'd never worked in one before–I went in and I convinced the owner to give me a try-out for free and I went in there and it all clicked for me. I discovered I loved it, and I discovered that I was good at it, and that I had something to give through that.
SI: Do you think that things would work better if we abandoned the 40K culinary school model and we went back to the French apprenticeship system?
EK: I think as a country right now we'd be much better served to have an apprenticeship system in many, many, many arenas. All areas of manufacturing, and also for the culinary arts. I've never really understood why we feel that going and spending $40,000 to $80,000 for a culinary education which will make you fit for getting a $10/hour job [makes sense]. It's insane. And it also perpetuates the fantasy life of young people who now have grown up a couple generations already on food TV, which exposes them and makes them really interested, which is wonderful, but it isn't about being a star. It's about doing the work. And the work is brutal, hot…
You know it's interesting, in Anthony Bourdain's new book, Medium Raw, he talks about who isn't suited to be in a kitchen. You know, if you don't like being hot; if you don't like sweating, don't think that you're going to enjoy being in a kitchen. If you're afraid of heat. If you're fat. He said you're allowed to get fat. (Laughs.) Which made me feel really good, once you make it as a chef, but if you're really heavy and you're not fit, then it's going to be harder for you to run up and down stairs carrying 50 pound bags of potatoes. On my line I'm lucky because I work with smaller Latin man and my chef is four foot eleven.
SI: It's like you want the same demographic as a submarine.
EK: Yeah, it is, exactly; it's like being in a submarine. It used to be you worked and you felt gratification from working and taking care of your family. And all of a sudden, you should get applause when you work and you should make pots of money and have a television show. And that happens for so few people. For most people in the restaurant business, people who own restaurants, chefs and non chefs alike, it's a grind, and you have to be in it for more than just the money or you're not going to last.
The thing about apprenticeship is that it's so perfect for anything that you have to do with your hands. I mean, for God's sake, plumbers go through apprenticeship and that's how they learn to do it. And machinists and all different kinds of manufacturing. And there are a lot of young people who aren't at their best verbally, reading and writing and parroting back. It doesn't make them less smart; it just means that their abilities, their genius, their comfort zone, is somewhere else. I mean, if your kid is dyslexic, have him be a pastry chef, you know?
SI: So you just celebrated your 25th anniversary. Only 10 more years and you'll match Chez Panisse.
EK: Oh, I don't know if I'll last that long. I don't know, I can't even imagine that. One day at a time really.
Check back later for the second part of this interview, and a few recipes from the chef.