Mitchell Davis is a cookbook author and food journalist with a Ph.D. in Food Studies from New York University. A graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, Davis majored in Food and Beverage Management and spent two years cooking and eating in France and Italy before settling in New York City to write about food. He joined the staff of the James Beard Foundation in 1993. Davis’s most recent cookbook is Kitchen Sense (Clarkson Potter, 2006), he is the author of two other cookbooks, Cook Something (Macmillan, 1997) and The Mensch Chef (Clarkson Potter, 2002), and is the co-author with Michael Ginor of Foie Gras…A Passion (Wiley, 2000).
Tell me about the James Beard Foundation?
The James Beard Foundation is a non-profit founded about 25 years ago. James Beard was an American chef and food writer and hailed as America’s first foodie. He wrote 26 cookbooks and helped inspire the food world we have in America today. Shortly after Beard’s death a few of his friends decided to preserve his home in New York City and that was how the foundation came about. His home was always a place where people would gather, network and eat, so it was only natural to continue using it to showcase established and emerging chefs from all over the world.
The James Beard Foundation is most widely known for our awards. They were started in 1991 and they are the standard set to shine a light on chefs. We also provide scholarships to help students follow their passion and attend culinary school. We recently started a series called Beard on Books, a series of intimate readings and discussions with acclaimed culinary authors. And in 2007 we created the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America, a National Food Conference , celebrating the importance and breadth of American food.
What was it like cooking and eating in France and Italy?
Eating a meal is an educational experience. I learned new ways to integrate food into my life. I came home knowing that our foods can be better. In France and Italy they are critical of their food and demand and expect a certain quality and that is part of developing a sophisticated food culture. In Italy, whether you are a poor farmer or a wealthy business man you all eat the same food and it is all fresh and delicious. You don’t see that in America.
You wrote a book in 2002, called The Mensch Chef – Why Delicious Jewish Food Isn’t an Oxymoron – why did you write this book?
I grew up with a lot of Jewish culture and Jewish food. My mother cooked gefilte fish and matzo ball soup and borscht and I always loved it. With my first book, Cook Something, I was addressing the Generation X crowd , my friends who loved to eat but didn’t know how to cook. When I was deciding on what to write next, my editor asked me what did I really want to write about, and I realized I really wanted to write about Jewish food, I wanted to spend some quality time with my mom, learning and recording her recipes and show the world that Jewish food is delicious when cooked right.
I remember when I got the recipe for gefilte fish and I thought why does fish have to cook for 3 hours, it should be much faster, why can’t we cut it down to at least 45 minutes. So I changed a few things but kept all the classics in there.
So, I wrote this book for anyone who wants to make the greatest hits of Jewish food. I really wanted to call it “Jew Food”, but at that time they wouldn’t allow it. It is really for someone who may not know how to make gefilte fish or chopped liver, who didn’t have their recipes passed down, but who wants to make traditional Jewish food.
What was your earliest memory of cooking?
I have always been into food. When I was about 6 or 7 I used to be an early riser. I would wake up around 5 and sneak downstairs and create crazy concoctions of eggs and flour and oil and bake them into cookies. They were always terrible and I would hide them all over the house so I wouldn’t get caught.
Then when I was 11 I was given Julia Child’s book for Hanukkah and I went on to make every menu in that book over the next year.
What is it with you and Foie Gras?
Nothing really, that was just an accident. The day after I got my first writing/editing job. Michael picked me up at 6 am to take me to his Foie Gras farm he talked about his desire to write a book on Foie Gras and Foie Gras…A Passion was born. Eighty five chefs collaborated on this book and it is really a great coffee table book. We even discuss the Jewish roots of Foie Gras. The Jews would grow the geese fatter to be used for schmaltz and there is a lot of historical evidence of the Jews making foie gras and even some recipes from them.
So, what is your favorite food?
I have to say good bread, whether it is challah or French bread, if there is a loaf of good bread and even better with a little butter, I just can’t control myself.
You were a judge on the Food Network show Best in Smoke – tell me about that experience?
It was a very grueling 8 days and I wasn’t even competing. It was also eye opening to see how these television challenges work. In a show like this, it is not really the person with the best barbecue who wins, but the person that can win the game. It is very different from a regular BBQ competition. It was a lot of fun and I would definitely do it again.
Please share with us some recipes for the classic High Holiday Meal that will prove to everyone why Delicious Jewish Food isn’t an Oxymoron.
These recipes were originally printed in The Mensch Chef cookbook and are classic Jewish dishes, enjoy!