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Dorie Greenspan Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

Splitting her time between New York and Paris, Dorie Greenspan is one of the world's great authorities on baking with nine books to her credit. Greenspan is known for her ability to put to page the pastry secrets of great chefs, and was Julia Child's personal choice of collaborator for the American icon's 1992 book Baking with Julia. When I sat down in the cafe of a downtown hotel with Greenspan she had only a few days before won two James Beard Awards: a lifetime award as an inductee of the James Beard Foundation Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America and this year's Baking and Dessert book category award for Baking From My Home to Yours (her fourth and fifth JBA's, respectively). Greenspan also publishes a popular baking and food blog at doriegreenspan.com and is a Special Correspondent for Bon Appétit.

Gremolata: I have to admit, I don't do much baking.

Dorie Greenspan: The world is divided: there are cooks and there are bakers.

Gremolata: I have no patience for measuring.

Dorie Greenspan: That's the defining difference. I think there's a different mentality between baking and cooking. I don't think there has to be, but I do think it exists. Another way I divide the world is between 'housekeepers' and 'cooks'. The people who like everything to be just perfect are the vacuumers and dusters of the world. And then there are the people in the kitchen, And only then, once you get into the kitchen there are the bakers and the cooks. And cooking can very much be about a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But you can't do that with bakinGremolata: you have to follow the recipe. But, people can be awfully creative. And there's room for - I was going to say, 'playing around' - but you can see the variations on recipes in my book. You can't change the formula, but you can change the form and there are ways to personalise a baking recipe.

A professional said to me that pastry chefs can become great cooks, but it's harder for great cooks to become great pastry chefs. I can't tell you why that is, but there does seem to be a difference.

Gremolata: Is it discipline?

Dorie Greenspan: No. If we start talking about discipline, then we're talking about professional chefs and bakers where the discipline is extreme and the same.

Gremolata: Then, what's the difference between professional baking and home baking? You've made a career translating one to the other.

Dorie Greenspan: I'd say it's all show, but I would just be trying to be funny. Every time I go to a professional kitchen, whether it's the savoury side or the other, I'm always amazed at how what the crews do is the same as what we do at home. There is that sprit of adventure and more expensive equipment, and they may cut more beautifully than we cut, and more precisely. But, essentially what you need to do is exactly the same. They just do it a little more precisely, a little better, a little faster - for sure. Faster than I do it.

I think it's the power, the 'wow factor' that professionals look for. Whereas at home at home we're really doing it for the love of the act of doing it and the sharing. We don't really have to worry if our ganache isn't perfectly shiny.

Gremolata: You're self-taught, right?

Dorie Greenspan: I am self-taught. I got married as a baby and learned to cook because I had to. I never cooked before. I burned down my parent's kitchen when I was 13 and wasn't allowed to go near it after.

Gremolata: The French fry accident!

Dorie Greenspan: Yes, this was the French fry accident.

Gremolata: I read that in the introduction.

Dorie Greenspan: When my first cookbook came out, my brother called me and said, "I see you didn't mention the fire." It was my very first book I thought, who's going to listen to me if they find out I burned down my own kitchen! But this is my ninth book, so I thought it would be ok to mention it.

I really wasn't allowed in the kitchen afterwards. My parents didn't cook, so they didn't think it was a big deal. So when I got married at 19 as a college student, I learned to cook because someone had to. And, of course, I just loved it. And then, I got into baking... I taught myself from The New York Times Cookbook, and the Sunday magazine, since Craig Claireborne was writing there at the time. I also worked my way through all of Maida Heatter's books...

Gremolata: She's 'The Queen', right?

Dorie Greenspan: She's The Queen, period. Her first book, Maida Heater's Great Book of Desserts, is fabulous. That's how I learned at home. I got a Doctorate in gerontology - or just up to my dissertation, then I had a kid. But I didn't want to do anything else but bake. So, I got a job at a good restaurant. Then I got, fired...

Gremolata: Why did you get fired?

Dorie Greenspan: Prunes. I was the apprentice and my job was to make these great chocolate cookies, which I made every morning and this grand chocolate cake, which had almonds and whiskey soaked raisins. And I got bored, so I swapped the almonds for pecans and I swapped the raisins and whiskey for prunes and Armagnac. I didn't tell anyone, I just sent the cake up into the restaurant.

Gremolata: And Chef didn't appreciate your initiative?

Dorie Greenspan: I got hauled din at the end of the day, and she said, "That was some cake you sent up this afternoon." And I said, "Did you like it?" And she said, "That's not the point." And when I said I would never do it again, she said, "That's right, you're fired." So that was my firing for creative insubordination!

I wasn't really very good at being in a restaurant and baking in that environment, so a friend of mine said, "why don't write about food, instead?" so I started developing recipes and working with chefs. As you said, I'm self taught, and I never went to culinary school. There was a point when I thought about it, but I couldn't. I had family obligations. So instead, I learned from Pierre Hermé, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alain Ducasse. I was able to work with all these chefs in their kitchens. and watch them, and have them put their hands over mine. So, I feel I got a pretty solid education.

Gremolata: When you watch these star chefs (and also "starred chefs") work, what separates them from the mere mortals? What happens when they attack a dessert?

Dorie Greenspan: That's an interesting question. I don't know if I have answer, but I've thought a little about his. There are so many amazingly talented people on this planet, and yet only a few get to rise to the top of their field. So, what is it about them? Some of the guys, their skills are extraordinary, but it take more than skill. You mentioned discipline before, and it that and training, testing and a word that means so much, yet is over used terribly: passion. Real passion. These are guys who are working today the way they were working when they first got started. there's this profound love, and interest, and curiosity and intelligence that was always there. It just seems to grow.

I remember when Jean-Georges first came to New York in 1986. I was in the kitchen with him, at his first restaurant Lafayette. It was the end of service. He'd had a full house and an extraordinary menu and he had done special things for everyone. The kitchen was getting cleaned up, but there was one table left in the dining room. It turned out it was the woman's birthday. So the pastry chef, Jean-Marc, said he'd send out a chocolate cake with some raspberries. Jean-Georges said, "Why don't we do a ginger sauce? Let's try it with ginger." Now it's the end of service and the guy's been in the kitchen since seven o'clock in the morning! All he had to do was say yes and send out the ready-made chocolate cake and raspberry sauce and everyone would have been thrilled. But instead, he starts scraping ginger and putting the sauce together.

It's that never-ending curiosity and interest. The excitement of doing something new. They're never at the top of their game.

Gremolata: Any other examples?

Dorie Greenspan: I think of Pierre Hermé. He's constantly reading books, going to museums and draws inspiration from everything. I remember doing a book signing with him in Paris and a woman came up with a little baby. Pierre signed the book, and then asked the woman for the baby's name. She replied, "Celeste." He said, "What a lovely name, beautiful name." Before the next person's book was signed, Pierre took out his note book and I saw him write "Celeste". Two years later, an entire line of his pastries was called Celeste. So I said to him, "What are you hearing? What is it?" He said he just loved the sound of it. But he also said, "It's a pastry name. I see pastry in it." So I guess they live it. They live what they do.

Gremolata: Like writers: everything is material.

Dorie Greenspan: Yeah. There's just this curiosity and interest.

Gremolata: Speaking of curiosity, I have to ask you about Julia Child.

Dorie Greenspan: Oh... Wonderful, wonderful Julia.

Gremolata: How did you end up working with her?

Dorie Greenspan: I'm tempted to say luck, but my husband says I'm just too lucky and I can' keep saying that.

I met Julia in 1991 when my first book came out. I don't know how I got invited to this, but we were part of a day-long series of demonstrations, Jacques Pepin was there too. There was a dinner for all of us afterwards and I got to sit with Julia. So, at some point in the dinner, she turns to me and says, "Have you ever seen the Saturday Night Live imitation of me? The one in which Dan Akroyd has the chicken?" And I said, "I might be the only person on Earth who hasn't seen it." "Oh!" she says, "Let me show you!" And then she stood up and there she was: Julia Child imitating Dan Akroyd imitating Julia Child. She was an extraordinary woman.

So, that's how we met. Later I would see her at a few things here and there, and we would always talk and say hello. I remember she said to me, "You know, you write recipes the way I do." And I said, "You mean long?" Julia's famous for that. There's her recipe for a Baguette in Mastering the Art of French Cooking that runs for 17 pages. And my recipes are also often long. So, anyway, she said, "No. They're not long. They're just complete."

At that time, Geoffrey Drummond her producer came to her with the Baking with Julia TV-series. She agreed to the series, but she didn't want to have to write the book. When my name came up, she said yes because she thought I wrote recipes like hers. I got to work on it and it was the experience of a lifetime.

Gremolata: How did you work together?

Dorie Greenspan: I lived in Cambridge [Massachusetts] for eight weeks, while the show was being taped. So, I had breakfast, lunch and dinner with Julia. I really got to know her. A remarkable woman. She changed food in America. It's hard to imagine now - It's hard to believe that Mastering was published more than 40 years ago. When you look at food now, it's really hard to understand what it was like when she published that book 1959. What people were cooking at home. This was the frozen food revolution; right back in the heart of it.

Gremolata: She was pretty amazing, I guess.

Dorie Greenspan: I think she was the kind of woman who would have been successful at just about anything she wanted to do. Very, very smart and a great researcher. As funny as she was, and she loved to laugh and have a good time, she was also very serious. You know, if any question came up she couldn't go to Google and ask. So, she had an amazing library. She wanted to be right and she wouldn't take an easy answer for anything

I remember getting ready for the taping and I was working on which chefs we should get for which dish. And should we include a chiffon cake or whatever else. Julia called me and asked, "Do you have a bread machine?" I said, "Nope." She said, "Do you have any interest in bread machines?" I said, "Not really." And she said, "Well, you're wrong!" She said, "If you don't have one, and you don't use it, how can you know you don't have any interest in it?" She said, "I am going out to buy a bread machine today and I think you should too."

Gremolata: Did you?

Dorie Greenspan: Yes! We both went out that day and bought bread machines: her in Boston, me in New York. And we compared notes over the phone.

Gremolata: And?

Dorie Greenspan: In the end she decided she didn't like the breads that were baked in the machine, but she thought the machine was great for mixing the dough. So she used it as a mixer and a kneader and let it proof in the machine to take out and bake in her oven. But she was 85 - I don't remember exactly how old she was when we did this - and still trying new things.

My husband, Michael, is in the software business, and he came up to visit when I was in Cambridge. Julia had a computer in her bedroom and the hard drive wasn't working, so she asked him to go up and look at it-

Gremolata: Wait a second. This is a war generation octogenarian using a computer!

Dorie Greenspan: And knowing that it might be her hard drive that wasn't working. But this is Julia. So Michael got one of his tech guys to come over because he didn't want to be responsible for blowing up Julia Child's computer. And they're both working on it up there when Julia comes in and says, "What is it? What are you doing?" The tech guy says, "Don't worry, we'll fix it." And of course she says, "No. I want to know what you're doing. This might happen again and if it does, I want to be able to fix it." I just thought that was so typical of her. She was incredibly competent and wanted to work.

A journalist once called me up and said, "I'm working on a piece about Julia and my editor says it's one sided. I just can't find a dissenting view of the great Julia Child. Do you know anybody I can call who would give me another side of Julia?" And I really didn't know anybody. She really was beloved. When we were book signings, people would come up all the time and say, "You saved my marriage." She really taught people how to cook. And she made it more than just interesting. She made cooking fun and worthy.

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