For a brief while, she was interviewing for chef positions before settling into Prune, and she was invariably asked about her cooking style. She would answer: “My cooking style? For 15 years I have dedicated myself to your cooking style. That’s what I do. You tell me what you want, in what idiom, in what voice you want to tell the story, and I’ll make it go.” It would make a fun cooking show, I have often thought, to have contestants convincingly cook in the style of someone else.
Here’s how we work: I cook food for Ashley at home and set it in front of her and she takes a few bites and goes bananas and says, “I’m putting this on the menu tomorrow!” Or I tell her something I’m in the mood for, what I want it to remind me of, where exactly in time or place or mood or history I want it to take me — and she goes to work and creates it, then and there. You say: “I want steak, red leather banquettes, those heavy amber water goblets, an iceberg wedge — all in that style,” and she produces it. Exactly as you imagined it. Or she will wait until I am a little famished, around midday, and then say: “I am thinking of putting on a soup, maybe a fish soup. …” I will start to catalog with her out loud, fired up by my appetite: bouillabaisse? Cioppino? Soupe de poisson? Pan roast? Bourride? Billi bi? Cacciucco? Moqueca! Chowder?
Yes, chowder, she’ll say.
Then we go back and forth in lucid free association. If chowder, then oyster crackers. If not oyster crackers, then saltines. If saltines, then no bacon. We want to get our menu so in sync that you don’t know where one voice starts and the other leaves off. I may be slower on the knife work, but I know emphatically that sometimes toast is made its finest by what it sops up — the…