Nostalgia is an Ingredient

First impressions count. Let them guide you in the kitchen

By Jody Williams

Published on January 12, 2015

Tap, tap. I begin to dice an onion. I have a tic in the kitchen. Tap, tap. Someone brought it to my attention once: I tap my knife twice on the cutting board before I begin to chop. It happens spontaneously; I barely notice.

From these brief introductory beats, I launch into the meditative state of work. The smell of white wine hitting butter and rice floats through the air of the kitchen and I snap out of my trance. Suddenly and uncontrollably, the memories come flooding back. Now I am reminded of the very first time I made risotto, when the steam of the white wine hit my face. I love it—smell and memory, both. My mind wanders and I'm off thinking of a risotto, thinking of all the risottos I ever made and all the risottos I could make.

Nostalgia is a key ingredient for me in the kitchen. Most of the time it catches me off guard, sending me after elusive memories. Sometimes it's specific dishes, other times it's an abstract craving for comfort translated into sweet, salt, or fat that I'm after. What I choose to cook is often nothing more than an attempt to recreate a lost moment in time—like the first time I tried squash blossoms on pizza with anchovies in Rome. Or raw porcini mushrooms sliced paper thin under a few shavings of parmesan in Florence. I don't know why I hold on to these first tastes so strongly. I do know that they are incredibly important in guiding me in the kitchen.

The first time I tasted truly good extra-virgin olive oil from California, I held a spoonful under my nose and took in the herbaceous freshness and the lush green color. I was confused and surprised by its complexity, the spiciness and bitterness. Now, every time I use olive oil, that original impression is there with me. It informs how I coax the oil into vinaigrettes, drizzling it over fish to keep its purity and balance, its depth. Part cooking, part homage to the elemental beauty of the ingredient—that's the power of memory.

It's not always sweet, this nostalgia. Certain dishes haunt me, to be honest. Here I sit glumly, facing my poor rendition of bagnun di acciughe, an impressive bread anchovy soup I first had on a rainy Sunday down on the wharf in Genova. I can't seem to perfect or match my first and powerful feeling for this soup. This kind of memory forces me to act: I've got to make the recipe my own, create something new in the hope of triggering some new memories and not just sad comparisons.

I'm attracted to simplicity in things. So inspiration might take the form of a few green apples soaked in white wine and added to a sage and butter risotto. Or a small twist, like a handful of beans and cabbage stirred into a pot of polenta. Part of creativity is letting yourself stray from memories. A dish doesn't have to taste exactly as it did that day you first tried it on the wharf. A little daydreaming helps loosen things up.

Recipes have their place, but for me the nuances of experience are locked in my gut. My mind recreates a scene. I'm standing at a large old rondeau, frothing butter and toasting rice. Somewhere I learned how to do these things, studied and practiced each move in the proper conjuring of a risotto. But now sense memory turns to muscle memory and these smells are all the guidance I need. I shake the pan with my left hand. Quickly stir the rice and throw in the butter with my right. The risottos of the past are there to help me figure out what to do with the one before me in the pan. Nostalgia is a good teacher.

Jody Williams is the chef-owner of Buvette in New York and Paris and one of the chef-owners, with Rita Sodi, of Via Carota in New York.

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