There's more to cooking than good recipes and terrific ingredients, chef Joanne Weir says. It's a matter of confidence, too.
It's a quality the James Beard-award winner, author and new restaurateur has in spades. It's also the topic of Weir's newest cookbook, "Cooking Confidence: Dinner Made Simple" (Taunton Press, $24.95, 218 pages). But the new book -- her 18th -- and her PBS cooking show aren't the only reason her name is ringing bells.
Weir launched Copita, a breezy, casual cantina that marries seasonal California ingredients with regional Mexican cooking, with longtime friend and restaurateur Larry Mindel in Sausalito this past spring. (If Mindel's name rings bells, too, it's no wonder: He's the man who turned a San Francisco bakery into the Il Fornaio restaurant empire.)
These days, Weir divides her time among her San Francisco home and Tuscany, Italy, where she leads culinary tours and cooking classes; and Sausalito, where she oversees Copita's kitchen and organic garden. On this particular, balmy Indian summer afternoon, Weir's to-do list was topped with nothing but delicious tasks. A new tortilla maker was auditioning, so to speak, and there was sampling to be done -- violet hibiscus refrescos, carnitas street tacos with tomatillo crudo and a cactus and crema-topped dish that showcased masa skills.
But there was time among all that noshing to chat about the restaurant, the new book and the question of culinary confidence.
Q Opening a restaurant is a huge undertaking. How is the reality matching up to the dream?
A It was three weeks before I realized I could see the water from the restaurant. I thought I'd be walking around in my cute clothes, saying, "Oh, this is my restaurant!" The chef left the week before we opened, so the first weeks I was on the (cooking) line. I was so naive. But I had one of the top mentors in the business, Larry Mindel. I learned a lot about the restaurant business -- and about me. At this point in life, you don't get a lot of second chances to change gears.
Q What did you learn about yourself?
A I'm a perfectionist. Before, I was a teacher or a guest chef all over the world, and I could control everything. Here, there are so many variables. It's a hard lesson. I've learned a lot about human relations and the culture and the Mexican people. This is a gift for me.
Q You come from a long line of cooks. What's your earliest food memory?
A I'm a fourth-generation chef -- my mother, my grandfather, my great-grandmother were all professional cooks. My mother grew up in a 28-room Victorian on 350 acres in the Berkshires. Everything came from the farm. We'd have chicken salad sandwiches -- the chicken my grandfather had raised and killed, homemade mayonnaise, homemade bread, heirloom tomatoes -- with hot potato chips. Then eat maple-walnut ice cream -- he'd churned the ice cream -- under the maple tree. I was an incredibly lucky girl.
Q What marked the start of your culinary education?
A When I was 6 years old, my mother made me a tomato sandwich with homemade bread -- tomatoes from the garden, homemade mayonnaise and salt. That's it. She said, "Remember, whenever you use tomatoes, you need salt to bring out the sweetness." I was 6! I thought, "What am I going to do with that?" (Laughs)
Q Salt, sweetness, seasonal cooking -- and "cooking confidence." Let's talk about the new book. It's based on your TV series, but you're concentrating on dinner here. Why?
A Alice Waters was always saying, someone needs to write a book about affordable food. This is doable dinner. It's about taking time with the food, but not spending as much. Tuesday it's for the family, Saturday you doctor it up for company.
Q The book is an eclectic mix of flavors and inspirations. What are some of your favorites?
A The Merguez Moroccan lamb burgers, pita with crispy, crunchy chickpeas and tzatziki, the chicken tortilla soup with meatballs. I'm so interested in how things have gotten there. When you're a chef, you're a chef in any cuisine. Food crosses borders.