People

Peter Hertzmann

The serially obssessive Peter Hertzmann behind ‘à la carte’ discusses learning French just to read ancient cookbooks, doing his stages across the Atlantic, and a few other signs of an extremely focused mind.

Date of Birth, website: Old enough for AARP, ‘à la carte’

Occupation title(s), both real and desired-in-another-lifetime: Sometime consultant. (I still haven’t figured out what I want to do with my life.)

Give us a brief walk-through of your love for French cooking, and how you seemed to go from amateur to a very knowledgeable chef.

As a serially obsessive person, from when I first got interested in French food in 1994, the interest just grew and grew. In 1997, I did my first stage at a restaurant in France. The result was an increased interest in French food. It was a short time later that I started learning how to read French so I could use better sources to obtain recipes and other information. Each time I spend a couple of weeks cooking in a kitchen in France, my interest seems to grow greater. I now consider myself relatively knowledgeable, but not a chef, just a good cook. In my opinion—irrespective of the name of Julia Child’s first television show—a chef is the head of a professional kitchen.

Favorite books: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1976 translation by Norman Denny), Gastronomie Pratique by Henri Babinski (5th edition, 1928, in French—arguably the best French cookbook of all time), and PHP Developer’s Dictionary by Wyke, Walker, & Cox (no plot, but very helpful for website design).

Define in your view the word ‘obsessed,’ perhaps with examples of proof in your affections for French cookery:

I use the term ‘serially obsessed’ to describe my life as being one where I become interested in a subject, and then spend much of my free time learning more about it, one subject after another for many years at a time. Since Webster’s 10th defines an obsession as ‘a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an unreasonable idea or feeling,’ I’m probably using the term wrong. I’d like to think of my obsessions as being neither disturbed or unreasonable. (My wife may disagree.) My desire to learn how to read French in order to read recipes in their original form is probably a good example of my obsession. I’m now spending much of my time delving into French cookbooks from the 19th century and earlier.

Writing in ‘Petits Propos Culinaires’ (issue 26), Joop Witteveen described the once-raging fever among French royals for dining on young herons, though the trend died out in the late 17th century. Have you found any similar peculiarities in your research?

Were ‘young herons’ the sushi of the 17th century? Those who participate in formal dining have always seemed to follow trends. It’s happening today and it happened 400 years ago. Sometimes, food only enjoyed by the rich and privilege classes, if it doesn’t become extinct, becomes the food of the masses at a later date. Now, if you are in fact referring to some of the off-the-wall dishes common to the haut cuisine of the rich of former times, elaborate presentations were an essential part of le service à la française. The most common usually referenced is a roast peacock that is reassembled into its feathers for presentation to the diners. (This practice became obsolete when turkeys replaced peacocks on the dinner table.)

In your travels, practice, and reading, have you run across the perfect gratin?

In French cooking, au gratin is a method of preparation, not a unique dish. In traditional cooking, a dish prepared au gratin is sprinkled with bread crumbs and baked until browned. There are many variations of this method, many which no longer use bread crumbs. Christophe Felder’s book Les Gratins of Christophe is an example of a cookbook made of totally of au gratin dishes, savory and sweet.

Heroes: Frêdéric Médigue (my mentor in French cooking and chef proprietor of Le Château d’Amondans, a Michelin one-star restaurant in Amondans, France) and Martin Yan (my mentor and teacher when I was doing Chinese cooking—he’s very different in person than when he’s on TV).

Who does your web production? The articles are frequently designed very well, and their style always enhances your stories and notes.

Me. I research and write the articles, test the recipes, do all the photography, create all the graphics, do the web design, write all the web code, handle the negative comments, and pay the bills. I have a couple of volunteers that provide editorial comment and hopefully catch typos and other errors.

What makes you laugh: A perfect sauce. Last week, I made my first ham from scratch. I think a chuckled when I tasted the first bite of it.

Have you any plans for new obsessions? Are there other countries’ cuisines you’re dying to explore?

Obsessions are never planned!

Charity worth giving to: The Exploratorium in San Francisco.

Five words that sound great: This meal was the best…

biopic

Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. He is the author of three books, including his latest novel The Last Kid Left (NPR’s Best Books of the Year). His nonfiction appears in a variety of magazines, mostly GQ. More information can be found at rosecransbaldwin.com. More by Rosecrans Baldwin