It all started with a tomato sandwich

Kitchen_Gypsy

FIRST PERSON | JOANNE WEIR

When I was 6 years old, a feisty little thing with a mop of red hair spiraling every which way, my mom made me a simple sandwich for lunch. Not peanut butter and jelly or tuna fish salad, mind you; my mom was a professional chef, after all. Mom’s version of simple was her tomato sandwich: homemade white bread, homemade mayonnaise and a ripe sweet red tomato plucked fresh from her garden.

As Mom arranged tomato slices, still warm from the sun, atop a generous slathering of mayonnaise, she looked me in the eyes and said: “Whenever you eat or cook tomatoes, they need a sprinkle of salt. Salt brings out the sweetness and acidity.” I watched closely, tummy grumbling, as she liberally dusted the sliced tomato with kosher salt.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was a kid; I just wanted to eat my lunch. But looking back, I think my lifelong love affair with food may have begun in that precise moment. Little did I know how right my mom was, or how often I’d think of her sage advice while cooking or teaching. But I swear it comes up in almost every single class I teach, and I tell the tale and pass her wisdom along.

My entire childhood, I was surrounded by a family that loved and appreciated good, quality food. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents ran farms in New England, where they lived off the land — preparing seasonal, homemade, homegrown, organic, artisanal food. Of course, at the time no one used those terms. It was just what they did.

I’ll never forget eating my Grandpa Sears’ incredible chicken salad sandwiches in the shade of his maple tree. Chicken from his own coop, silky homemade mayonnaise, baking powder biscuits warm from the oven and just-fried hand-cut potato chips.

Growing up like that, I was practically destined to follow a culinary path. After a slight detour through college and a few precarious years as a middle school art teacher, I found my way back to food. Studying under famed French chef Madeleine Kamman to earn a master chef degree, I spent a rigorous year learning to love food on a whole new level, by understanding it inside and out: the origin, history and science behind a dish; how to taste, recognize and balance nuances of flavor.

I took my newfound knowledge and moved to San Francisco. Cities don’t get much more food-oriented than this one. Wandering Fillmore Street, I immediately felt at home, despite the 3,000 miles that separated me from my family in New England. The beautiful painted lady I’ve called home for the past 25 years beckoned with its architecture, which mimicked the Victorian style of Grandpa’s farm.

I got my first cooking job at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, based in large part on the passion for food I’d experienced on my grandparents’ farms. Sure, I had a culinary degree from one of the most prestigious programs in the world, but it was when I spoke of lunch under Grandpa’s majestic maple that Alice’s eyes really lit up.

Chez Panisse was leading a movement to return to the food of my grandparents’ era. Committed to serving seasonal, local, organic and sustainable food, the restaurant was at the forefront of the California food revolution. It was a thrill and an honor to experience the new food movement firsthand, especially since my personal food philosophy mirrored the restaurant’s.

Many people — including me — thought I was a little crazy to leave after five years. But I was at a time in my life where I didn’t want to be tied down in one place. I could easily see myself spending my entire career at Chez Panisse — truly the perfect working environment — but I just couldn’t settle my wandering spirit.

Teaching cooking classes afforded flexibility and eventually led to incredible travel opportunities: Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Morocco, South America, Mexico and all over the U.S. My father once called me his “wandering gypsy,” and I’ve certainly lived up to the moniker.

While traveling the world, I continue to reaffirm my passion for quality ingredients. Most of my favorite travel memories include trips to the local markets. Whether shopping the Rialto in Venice, the souk in Marrakech, or a farmers market in San Francisco, the market is my happy place. Surrounded by beautiful, fresh, seasonal ingredients, I am inspired.

But as much as I enjoy wandering, I also love coming home. Some of the cooking classes I teach in my home studio kitchen near Fillmore Street are among my favorites. Students gather from all around the country, sometimes the world, to cook with me. Watching first-time visitors discover and fall in love with San Francisco makes me fall in love all over again. Pointing out neighborhood gems such as Dosa, Out the Door, SPQR, Delfina and Spice Ace, I remember how lucky I am to call this area home.

It was here in the neighborhood that I wrote my new cookbook-memoir, Kitchen Gypsy, while developing and testing all the recipes in my home kitchen, popping into Mollie Stone’s countless times a day for last-minute, must-have ingredients. In the midst of writing, I realized how clearly my life’s path was influenced by my experiences in childhood.

I guess it just goes to show how formative the childhood years can be. I may not have been paying close attention at the time, but my mom’s passion for food and my grandparents’ farm-to-table practice clearly imprinted on me.

You hear that, 6-year-olds? Pay attention to the grownups. They just may know what they’re talking about.

For more about Joanne Weir, visit her website.

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