Chef James Haller: Cooking From the Heart

Welcome to February!

I like this month because it means we are closer to spring and up here on the Wisconsin tundra, we usually get a few warmer days. February is the month that my husband and I mark the anniversary of our first date and our engagement, which came just before Valentine's Day — by sheer coincidence, not planning.

So I thought I would concentrate on matters of the heart this month. What is cooking, if not a matter of the heart?

I asked Chef James Haller (see Jan. 5 post) to write a guest post to kick off the month. He kindly did so, in his usual graceful style. I have added a link to his site at the left, someting I should have done weeks ago. He is, as you can see, in a class by himself.

Cooking from the Heart
By James Haller

I've always thought that cooking for someone is one of the most loving
things you can do. The nourishment of the food, and the nourishment of
someone knowing they are "being cared for" make it truly a gesture of love.

A few years ago a friend was celebrating a birthday and wanted to have his family for dinner including seven children: the eldest aged six, the youngest age two.

For the birthday cake I made a chocolate Genoise cut into three layers and filled with a lavender mousse. I made a plain white, powdered sugar frosting for the cake. When dinner was over we cleared the table and I filled seven little pastry bags with different colored icing, handed them to the kids and said, "Okay, why don't you all decorate Uncle Jack's cake?" I showed them how to hold and squeeze the bags and with-in minutes the artful decoration was underway. The youngest, the two year old, had to stand on top of the table over the cake to have room. The event lasted for almost a half hour, a very long time to keep kids interested, and when they finished, the cake was truly lovely though I must admit it was a little abstract, a sort of multi-colored, very sweet Jackson Pollack.

But the enjoyment and the effort and the involvement of the kids to make Uncle Jack's cake beautiful was a gesture of love they still talk about.

Cooking has always been a passion for me, even before I ever thought I would become a chef. Part of that passion was a desire to see people enjoy what I had cooked for them. To hear the oohs and ahhs as they smelled the aromas of a wonderful chowder made from wild mushrooms and prosciutto, or a chicken breast stuffed with pears and duck breast in an orange and fig dressing, is the reason cooking continues to make me happy almost forty years since I first walked up to a stove professionally.

My whole approach to cooking has always been instinct, almost what you might think of as design. The dinner is designed with tastes rather than presentation, and although presentation is commendable, I feel the dinner is going into your stomach and not the Louvre. Never repeat an herb during a dinner, use cream only once, either in a soup or an entrée or maybe an
appetizer, don't repeat foodstuffs. Designing each taste so that it compliments the last and sets you up for the next is a constant effort to create a new taste. In the sixteen years I owned Blue Strawbery I never repeated a menu.

So it doesn't matter if you only make hamburgers, creamed chipped beef on
toast or a chateaubriand, this Valentines day set the table, light a couple
of candles, open a bottle of wine that you like, and as you're dishing out
the food lean over and whisper to that wonderful person, "I love cooking for


Lydia said…
Vie de France remains one of my all-time favorite books, and I had the great pleasure to dine at the Blue Strawbery in Mr. Haller's early days there. Mimi, thank you for inviting this post!
Mimi said…
Thank you, Lydia.

Vie de France is the book that most colored my week in a country village in France — I heard Mr. Haller's voice in my head as I prepared food in a real French kitchen.

I'm sorry Blogger is Up and Down Today. I may leave this post up at the top for a few days to make up for it.
Terry B said…
Wow! I wanted to eat everything he described. And that he never repeated a menu at his restaurant in sixteen years is stunning.

The more I cook, the more I understand the instinctive aspect of cooking. More often than not, as I look at recipes [in cookbooks, online, in magazines], I find a technique or an intriguing pairing of ingredients that will have me improvising a completely different dish in my head. That's one of the things that keeps cooking exciting for me.

Of course, so is cooking from the heart. You're right about that, Mimi.
Lu said…
What a wonderful post, Mimi. James Haller is amazing. I absolutely loved Vie de France and when I was nearly finished with it, I prolonged his August 15 departure by slowing down my reading. I was glad he ended on a high note in his final comments, otherwise, honest-to-goodness, I would have cried my eyes out.

I can't wait to get my hands on his Blue Strawbery cookbook.

Thanks for introducting me to James, Mimi.
Mimi said…
Terry B and Lu, what I loved so much about "Vie de France" was how Chef Haller cooked. He never seemed to need recipes — of course, many people cook like that, including me, but this was different somehow.

There was a rhythm to it, a music that he could hear.

I did the same thing with the book Lu!

I am really honored that he agreed to do a guest post.
Fiona said…
This post was a great read, thanks James and Mimi !

Food should be a celebration all the time.

I will take much more notice of what I feed myself this Valentines Day ;)
Mimi said…
Really, food is love, Fi. Because it is pleasurable and nutritious. I think I am enjoying life more since I made up my mind to allow myself to enjoy cooking.
Husband said…
As always, I love your blog and love that you brought Chef Haller in. I couldn't agree more about the issue of designing around flavors.

When I read that, all I could think about was the wife and I were in NYC last weekend. We had a meal at a very happening place and it was terrible for cost and effort. The place was quintessentially style and presentation over substance. The next night we went out to a very famous french chef's bistro and had nearly the opposite experience. If you don't build from those flavors, what's the point of eating.

Thanks for hosting the chef!
Mimi said…
Hey, Husband, good to see you! Your blog is looking mightly good! Consistently good, I might add.

I agree with Cheff Haller, too. I like unusual taste pairings but when they are chosen for presentation instead of flavor, it kind of makes you wonder if the chef is a chef or an "arteest." LOL.

Of course, a chef can be both.

Flavor trumps presentation in my book too.
Husband said…
Thank you as always. We adore you and your blog. I'm a lurker who is trying to openly break that habit of late.

Also, I love your comment about chef as "arteest." My wife and I were discussing this yesterday. I think it's very funny that has become the MO of the high profile chef of late. I think it's a real mistake because they are really true artisans, not artists. It's all about using your hands and body to make the food something better. I suspect this Arteest mindset is why we are getting the towering dishes and splashes everywhere.
FarmgirlCyn said…
OK, Mimi, Seriously...I think I'm in love! "Guest chef" is a good thing!!!
Mimi said…
Husband, you are spot on!

I've been feeling so - so - frumpy and unstylish because my food looks like globs of stuff.

I've been looking around for something I could stack and maybe tie, thinking it might boost blog traffic.

Yeah, some of those towering dishes are pretty weird.

I want good food. Made with love.

Cyn, Cheff Haller is a sweetheaert - who better to launch February?

Now, I am off to stack and tie.
Wow, I couldn't get to this one yesterday. I'm certainly glad I remembered to check back for it! What beautiful thoughts put into practice!
Mimi said…
Thanks for checking back, Tanna. I feel terrible that Blogger had so many problems on the day I posted my first guest post here.
I'm coming late to this party, but felt I must make a comment. I had eaten many times in Chef Haller's Blue Strawberry and to this day, it is still my most memorable dining experiences. His 2 books from the Strawberry are still 2 books that I treasure (and am going to pull out this weekend and prepare a meal from in his honor). His belief of name any 3 ingredients you want, and I'll make you a meal that you'll never forget still sticks in my mind every time I get ready to cook.

Thank you Chef Haller, for making a meal an enjoyable event for me to this day...
Thank you, Dining Companion. I think of Chef Haller when I am cooking in France, because I so loved his book on his month there and that was the catalyst for my story on him. He;s a delight!
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous, he has never turned his back on family. He has always been an important part of our family. His home has always been opened to family visitors; he just lives so far away. We love him dearly and are proud of his accomplishments. He is not a "stubborn old man" he is kind and caring, talented in many ways, has a great sense of humor and has been an asset to society; not to mention his culinary artistry.
Well, the James Haller I have interviewed is sweet and thoughtful and a true gentleman. Had I noticed the April 2010 anonymous comment, I would have erased it. My apologies to the second poster: I have had some family illnesses to deal with in the past year, and have not been watching comments as I should.
I erased the first comment which was mean spirited. I have no tolerance for meanness here. Sorry I did not erase it earlier.

My blog, my rules.

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