James Oseland on His Latest Book: <i>Saveur's The Way We Cook: Portraits From Around the World</i>

"We all eat so similarly; how we procure our ingredients, how we cook them and how we share meals around the table. It is kind of fundamentally the same whether we're in a village in India or in New York City."
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If you are a foodie, then you're probably familiar with the magazine Saveur and its Editor-in-Chief, James Oseland, who also happens to be a judge on the Bravo television show, Top Chef Masters. James' latest creation, Saveur: The Way We Cook, Portraits from Around the World is a photo-intensive coffee table book and a breath of fresh air in a time when American culture is inundated with information overload (hello exploding inbox!) and celebrity overexposure.

Under Oseland's leadership, Saveur has won more than 30 major awards, including eight James Beard Foundation Awards for journalism. The release of Oselands' latest offering builds on the success of his previous books: Saveur The New Comfort Food, Home Cooking from Around the World and the James Beard Award-winning cookbook, Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. James is also a talented photographer and took more than 20 of the photographs in the new book.

This simple, gorgeous book focused on the unique, regional foods from across the globe and is hands down, the most exciting cookbook of 2012. Stunning, earthy photos of people from all around the world enjoying their local fare are accompanied by short stories. One simply can't help but fall in love; you begin to fantasize about what it would be like to be in each location, sharing each dish.

SAVEUR: The Way We Cook: Portraits from Around the World takes you beyond your everyday cooking routine and inspires you to think outside the box in a new way -- by simplifying your kitchen. It depicts a humbler life, away from the big city and the overcomplicated high-tech existence that has become, for many, simply exhausting.

Photograph by Todd Coleman, courtsey of Weldon Owen Publishing

As Francine Prose says in the introduction: Cooking really is magic. I truly believe that if you get into the ever-present moment, allowing for the inspiration that simple ingredients bring, and share your creations with loved ones, you too will find the magic in cooking as a way to experience true joy.

I caught up with James Oseland just a few days after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City where he resides. We discussed everything from the inspiration behind the stories and recipes in this book to his favorite international street food, how his culinary travels have influenced his life, which country he would fly to just for the food; and how his cooking travels prepared him for the after math of Hurricane Sandy.

Laura Klein: What's the inspiration behind The Way We Cook? Do we need another coffee table book about food?

The original impetus to make the book was honestly as simple as, "wow, I can't genuinely think of another book that's like this." What we strove to do was create a book where readers can see the great and amazing connectivity of how people all around the world eat. We tend to want to engage in a dialogue, usually about how differently we eat, but for me, when you look through the sum total effect of flipping through the book, there is that 'wow' moment, because actually, nothing could be further from the truth.

We all eat so similarly; how we procure our ingredients, how we cook them and how we share meals around the table. It is kind of fundamentally the same whether we're in a village in India or in New York City. And, really, that was the secret goal when we were putting the book together: to celebrate this extraordinary thing that usually doesn't get looked at in exactly this way.

Photograph by Landon Nordeman, courtsey of Weldon Owen Publishing

The culinary images in the book have a gorgeous, down-to-earth feel that draws a reader in and makes one feel as if they are in the same room, even in the same country. How did you choose from the thousands of photos and stories in the Saveur archives to include in the book?

This was a real labor of love; it was down to the Art Director, Dave Weaver, and myself. Because we didn't have time during the regular work week to go about poring over roughly 300,000 images to pull the few hundred that are ultimately in the book -- what we did over the course of a couple of months is meet over the weekend and start very early in the morning, sometimes as early as 7 a.m., and spend many, many hours just going through images and calling out when one particularly grabbed us. Of those 300,000, we probably found 2,000 that we really wanted to include in the book, and we were able to whittle that down to the few hundred that ultimately made it. It was a very laborious, but also a very joyous process.

Photograph by Todd Coleman, courtsey of Weldon Owen Publishing

What's your favorite story in the book?

There are just so many.... but one that is calling out to me right now, in particular, is an image on pages 140 and 141 (pictured above). This is a picture that was taken in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. One of our favorite contributors to the magazine is a Los Angeles based food blogger named Javier Cabral. He pitched the story about returning to his mother's birth place in Zacatecas, which is a state in northern, central Mexico. He had only passed through Zacatecas as a child and didn't really know the place as an adult. So, he put together the story that he and his mother would travel there and hopefully she would allow him to understand the food ways that he has sort of taken for granted his whole life. They traveled there and stayed with his mom's sisters (the other two women in the photograph -- that's his mom on the right in the pink blouse). The three sisters are standing around a large table. One of the things they are doing is making fresh cheese that was probably drawn a few hours earlier. For me, it exemplifies that great primal thing that people do preparing food -- that fantastic, unconscious communication -- and for me there is a sort of wonderment in the picture and it's just a great harmonious, beautiful image. And the fact that somewhere out of the picture, I know that Javier was there learning things about his mother and her past that he never knew before, that for me resonates so powerfully.

Let's talk street food. Many of the photos in the book have a deliciously rugged-yet-gritty feel (which I love). They transport me straight to the street food experience. What's your favorite street food experience in the book?

Photograph by James Oseland, courtsey of Weldon Owen Publishing

Indonesia is a second home of mine, I've been traveling there since the early 1980s, and street food figures very, very prominently in the Indonesian culture. It's kind of just interwoven very much into the fabric of daily life. These wandering street vendors who sometimes carry their wares on their backs literally, or by way of three-wheel pushcarts. They announce their presence by a variety of different clacking sounds, things that they hit to let people know they are coming.

My last trip to Jakarta, I was with my friend Amalia and we were in a southern part of the city, that neither of us were particularly familiar with, and it's sort of the part of the city where, 20th century Jakarta kind of gives way to the Javanese villages, and all of a sudden we were in a place with banana fields and homes that were essentially, just grass huts. We were wandering around and we made quick friends with the woman on page 162 (pictured above). She explained the part of the city we were in and what her family does. They grow bananas that they bring to market in the city. She invited us into her home and we all sat around and we had tea. She made her granddaughter a quick lunch. After hanging out about 45 minutes or so, one of those street vendors came roaming through -- a guy who was offering a particular kind of noodle soup. So, myself, my friend Amalia, this woman and her entire family gathered around this guy's cart, and had some of the most phenomenal noodle soup that I've ever eaten. It was garnished with fresh lemon basil and this amazing sambal hijau, a sauce made from green chiles. It was such an aromatic and beautiful thing. The 10 of us bonded very intensely over a simple bowl of noodle soup.

How has traveling the world, writing about and photographing local food and culture influenced your life?

You know, it's funny, I think I've always had this very intense natural instinct to be able to understand a place through what it eats. I can trace my initial interest in understanding the world that way through being a kid in northern California. I used to read National Geographic like it was going out of style, and especially held onto images, really not very different from some of the pictures that we're looking at here in The Way We Cook. For some reason, it just seems so different -- yet so similar -- to the experience of food I knew as a suburban kid; and I so wanted to be in the places that these photographs showed. I made my first real significant trip abroad in the early 1980s when I was 19 years old, and from that moment on, it stuck with me. It's immensely pleasurable and endlessly interesting discovering what the rest of the world eats.

Do you have a favorite obscure ingredient that you discovered through your culinary travels that you always keep in your pantry? How do you use it?

One ingredient I find to be of so many magical uses is kaffir lime leaf. It is not something that is intensely common in the American pantry, although it is certainly more known and more available than it was even 10 years ago. It just has so many really terrific, unexpected uses, even finely chiffonaded or julienned. (It is amazing in an omelet -- the most extraordinary omelette aux fines herbes -- using ingredients that would never be used in France.) It is an absolute necessity in a lot of Southeast Asian cooking. That is one ingredient I always try to have on hand, even though in New York it can be a little hard to procure.

How do you find it in New York?

You know, funny, here in the office, we have a kaffir lime tree growing. Whenever I need to cook at home, I pluck a few leaves before leaving the office.

How does it survive year-round in the office?

It does incredibly well! Our Managing Editor, Greg Ferro, has it in his cubicle; it's a 4-foot kaffir lime tree in a giant pot. Greg tends to have the greenest thumb of anybody in the office. If ever there is an ailing plant, if you bring it anywhere within two feet of him, the plant miraculously thrives. Thus, the kaffir lime tree does incredibly well. It has yet to bear any fruit, but the leaves are incredibly healthy.

Photograph by Penny De Los Santos,courtsey of Weldon Owen Publishing

What country would you fly to just to eat the food? What would you eat?

Malaysia. I would eat any of a hundred things I can immediately think of. Probably the first thing I would eat is street food -- classic Malaysian street food. I would be in Penang, Malaysia, and I would eat Char Kuey Teow -- fresh rice noodles that are very broad, very flat and have been very quickly stir-fried with Chinese spring onions, shrimp, chili paste, and a few other ingredients that tie everything together and make, what is to my mind, the most delicious noodle dish anywhere on earth.

Photograph by James Oseland, courtsey of Weldon Owen Publishing

Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?

I do, but it's sort of like picking among your favorite children. There are two that resonate the most, but the one that resonates most of all, the photograph is on page 233 and the recipe is on page 235, Wild Greens with Fried Eggs (pictured above). It was a dish that I ate, in fact that is a photograph I took in Northern Greece not far from the Albanian border in a small village tavern. It's a dish they had on hand, wild greens that had just been picked in a nearby field that morning, simply sautéed with olive oil and only seasoned with a little salt, with a just-fried egg placed on top. The dish was really transcendental, especially when eaten with good crusty, local bread. It's probably one of the most phenomenal dishes I've eaten. It made me think about wild greens in a completely new way.

What do you hope that readers take away from the book?

I sincerely hope that readers take away how not-too-different we are in our food ways around the world but, instead how fantastically similar we are. In this day and age where there is a lot of food media focus on celebrity chefs and high-end cooking, it's my hope that a book like this would send a small and subtle message out into the world -- that food is something we all do, gloriously, fabulously. It's not just the domain of the celebrity chefs.

Photograph by Penny De Los Santos,courtsey of Weldon Owen Publishing

I have to share with you -- it is so refreshing to see real people and real food in this book. And not just another book full of celebrities.

Is there anything more extraordinary, more human? There are a few celebrity chefs in the book. There is Grant Achatz, and there is, to my mind, Las Vegas' greatest chef, Paul Bartolotta. The fact that Paul Bartolotta and Grant Achatz are a part of the amazing fabric of human cooking, to me is just exciting and wonderful. They're certainly no better or no worse. What the book does is celebrate the egalitarian quality of what goes on in our kitchens all around the world.

Since we're talking about local foodie culture around the world, I can't help but ask what is your favorite James Oseland go-to, home-grown recipe?

The way I cook tends to be different from the way my parents cooked. But there is in fact one dish from my childhood that I do continue to cook as an adult, with great satisfaction. And that's a dish called "Joe's Special," which is a Bay Area favorite. It originally came from a restaurant called Original Joe's.

It's a skillet scramble of eggs, onion, garlic, fresh spinach and a little bit of ground beef. It sounds a little odd. You quickly scramble all of it together. It couldn't be more ugly when it comes out of the pan, and you put on top of it fresh grated parmesan and you serve it with greens alongside crusty bread. As ugly as it is, it is immensely satisfying to this day.

Do you have a favorite kitchen tool?

It's my Henckels carbon steel knife. I tend not be real inspired by very high-end cooking gadgets because I learned a lot of the cooking that I do in village homes in Indonesia, in kitchens that were the exact opposite of tricked-out where it's basically a wood fire with some wood to cut on and a wok to cook in, and that's it. I think unconsciously I try and mirror that, having seen that you just don't really need all that to make really good food. In fact, sometimes I think it can be a deterrent from making good food -- having too tricked-out of a kitchen. Nevertheless, my not-cheap, Henckels carbon steel knife is a thing of great wonder. I love this knife so, so much and I don't think I'll ever part with it.

One of my favorite stories in the book is about the woman living in Transylvania who has a wood fire burning oven and bakes her bread until it is black. She lets it cool and then beats away the black char with a rolling pin to reveal a tender golden brown crust. It's so counterintuitive!

So interesting, right? I wonder about the origins of that, it must go back to cooking the bread literally over an open fire, pre-oven days, and it's some tradition that's sort of stuck. You can imagine how extraordinary it must taste. What an odd concept, right?

It makes you start to think outside of the box and ask yourself, 'What can I do differently? What am I missing?' Maybe a mistake really isn't a mistake and it's really something beautiful -- a reminder to embrace the imperfections, because most people would throw it out and start over from scratch!

Photograph by Todd Coleman, courtsey of Weldon Owen Publishing

Yes, yes..... Wish us luck in New York as we sow our lives together. It's funny because how I am cooking right now in our kitchen at home is not so different from that kitchen in Jakarta that we were looking in. It's basically really like that.

So what are you doing after Hurricane Sandy?

Luckily, we still have gas. We don't have heat (the apartment is freezing). I've been getting food to cook in the part of the city where there is power and bringing it home; and basically cooking like it was 150 years in the past, where you couldn't store stuff. You had to cook what you bought that day. So that's what we've been doing pretty successfully.

All images reprinted with permission from Weldon Owen Publishing, from SAVEUR: The Way We Cook: Portraits from Around the World.

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