But it's when Petit cooks that his artistry makes itself most fully felt in the kitchen. Although Petit has always loved to eat, for most of his life he had no idea how to cook. A few years ago, wanting to honor O'Donnell, who has cooked for both of them for decades, Petit decided to learn. "I love the challenge," he says. Once a week, as his schedule allows, Petit prepares an elaborate themed dinner. One evening, he cooks a meal from Chanterelle, a favorite (though recently shuttered) New York City restaurant. After selecting recipes (deviled quail eggs with caviar, pork chops, and slow-roasted pears), he transposes each into rebuslike notes in which he diagrams each step of the meal, calculating sequence and timing with obsessive precision. As he works, he refers often to his notebook, where meticulously annotated sketches help him make the distinction between, say, flat-leaf parsley and cilantro. "I apply my nature as a wire walker," he says. "Every detail is important." Even so, something usually goes slightly awry—the crotchety stove doesn't behave quite as intended, or the recipe instructions were too vague or confusing. "I like to complain that there is no cookbook that tells you exactly what to do," Petit says. "But actually, in the end, the teacher who tells you exactly how to put your foot on the wire is a bad teacher. You have to figure it out for yourself."
Rebecca Saletan is the editorial director of Riverhead Books. This is her first article