When Johnny Brenda’s changed their menu and hired a new chef, sometime around 2010 (I think it was then, but someone let me know if they have a better memory), I was disappointed. The bouillabaisse was suddenly no longer available. Tough times for me, for sure.
I haven’t thought about this particular soup in easily over a decade, but this past week when the weather changed and announced that it was now definitively fall, the smell and color of the broth resurfaced in my mind and on my tongue.
Nina recently returned from a trip to visit her parents in Istanbul. When her plane landed at Schiphol airport, the weather was typically Dutch, gloomy, rainy and grey. To welcome her home I wanted to replicate that bouillabaisse from Johnny Brendas. I bought the fish, clams, shrimp and in-season mussels. Some hours ahead of serving, I prepared the broth with saffron, a slice of orange peel, thyme and other spices, and stored it in the fridge. I roasted red peppers on the stove and pureed them into a rouille.
When we arrived home, I added the fresh fish to the pungent broth and allow it to cook for a few minutes (for a true bouillabaisse, it is important to add the fish to the broth separately after the broth has had time to mature). The flesh of the fish becomes infused with the piquantly flavored liquid. The mussels slowly open up, letting me know the soup is ready to eat.
Why did I care so much about this Provençal soup and why did it reappear in my memory now? Perhaps it’s because I connect the smell, appearance and taste of the dish with the chilly Philadelphia November evenings that I spent in JB’s with friends, among the music and conversation, the sense of belonging. I wanted to impart these feelings to Nina.
As I get older, I’ve generally learned to slow down when doing pretty much everything, and this includes cooking. I’ve also learned to discern the difference between rushing and being in a hurry, and speed. Likewise the nuance between taking your time and being lazy. The fundamental ingredient here is attention. When you pay attention, you can be quick but not careless, and you can take your time without being slow. You don’t lose focus. Your experience deepens.
When I prepare food, I pay attention to how I cut things, being careful not to rush, to not have tension in my arms and back as I work. I pay attention to nuances in combinations of spices, to the smell, texture and weight of the ingredients I am working with. It’s always possible to go too far and become too precious and overbearing about details, but the point here is to notice things as you do them, and not to lose spontaneity or flexibility.
But most important is the act of paying attention to the people you are eating with. A consequence of slowing down is that sharing and cooking food becomes a deeper experience. It’s one of the main ways, if not the main way, that I show that I care for people. It’s something I haven’t been able to do very much of since I’ve been in the Netherlands.
Back in Philadelphia, every few weeks I would invite people to my house for dinner. I would try to mix up the guest list, people from my neighborhood, people from the music or art scene, people from the design world. I wanted to bring together people who might not normally come into contact with others. This approach is something I wanted to do with my work as a designer and artist as well, but looking back I’m not sure if I was as successful there as I was by simply bringing people to my house in Port Richmond and cooking for them.
At the table, custom built by John Taylor for this very communal purpose, we drank and ate and met each other. People would smoke cigarettes in the yard or on the roof. Sometimes we lit a bonfire, enjoying the glow of the fire until on one occasion a fireman appeared in my yard, politely explaining that this was not a good idea.
Cooking is also a way that I deepen my relationship with Nina. She brings a completely new palette into play, and a unique perspective on how to prepare and share food. I learn more about the Persian way of classifying food, either garmi meaning hot or sardi meaning cold. These classifications are not about temperature, but about the foods' intrinsic nature. Hot foods, like lamb, dates and grapes, are calorie heavy and very sweet or spicy. Cold foods, such as oranges, eggplants, peaches or rice are light and fresh. They slow the metabolism and if you have a fever, you’ll be served a dish containing foods known to be sardi.
Because different foods have different effects on the body, you will find that any Persian dish maintains a balance between hot and cold ingredients. I find this aspect especially interesting because the best cooks will seek to understand the personality of the eater and create a dish that responds to their unique characteristics.
Now, as the pandemic lifts, I’m excited to extend this to once again be able to invite friends into our home. It is an important time to bring people together in this way, around a table, the clamor of talking and clinking of knives and forks filling the room. I’m looking forward to having groups of friends from my social circles and Nina’s meet and interact, their interests and backgrounds combining to make something new and delicious. Their personalities and natures will mix together, complimenting and balancing each other, just like the ingredients in the Persian dishes Nina cooks for me in our Haarlem apartment.