With Mark Bittman
About His New Book, How To Cook Everything, Macmillan, 1998

StarChefs: What was your inspiration for writing this cookbook?
Mark Bittman: I wanted to create a book that would make anyone who picked it up want to go into the kitchen, a cookbook with something for everyone, even the most inexperienced cook. I am not a chef but a self-trained home cook, and I wanted to convey the simplicity and joy I bring to cooking.

S.C. : How was the title derived and what came first - the contents or title- and how have people reacted to such a bold title statement?
M.B. : The contents came first -- the goal was simply to create a massive, all-in-one cookbook, along the lines of the great pre-World War Two books but with contemporary ingredients and appliances. The title at first seemed inappropriate to me -- nothing contains everything, of course -- but now has a certain tongue-in-cheek quality that I like.

S.C. : Even though the cookbook is called, How to Cook Everything, are there things that you purposely left out?
M.B. : Yes. There is no foie gras, no caviar, no tempering of chocolate. How to Cook Everything can take anyone to the level of a really fine home cook. It cannot make you into a chef -- nor does it try.

S.C. : Who has been your biggest culinary influence?
M.B. : There are several. Everyone who has taught Americans that home cooking is something we can be proud of - this includes Julia Child, of course, Marion Cunningham, Marcella Hazan, and many others.

S.C. : In this era of hustle and bustle and 60 hour work weeks there are many people who would like to get in the kitchen and cook more but are unable to because of their time-challenged lives. What advice or recommendations can you give to these people that would encourage them to return to the kitchen and cook more regularly?
M.B. : The most important thing is to have the right equipment; it need not be expensive -- in fact I buy cheap pots and pans almost exclusively -- but it must exist. The second more important thing is to have a well-stocked pantry (I give a list in the book); with this, there are literally hundreds of dishes you can make in 30 minutes or less.

S.C. : What is your favorite dish created in under 30 minutes?
M.B. : I have no single favorite. I love to grill shrimp, make pasta, a good salad, a steak -- any of these things can be done in less than 30 minutes, and many in 15 minutes.

S.C. : What do you consider to be the five essential ingredients to have in your pantry and why?
M.B. :

  • Olive oil: You can use it as an all-purpose fat and it's delicious and healthful.
  • Pasta: No one ever gets sick of it.
  • Good vinegar: When a dish tastes flat, it's often because it lacks acidity. A few drops of good vinegar (or lemon juice) usually does the trick.
  • Soy sauce: The most distinctive flavor of Asia.
  • Garlic: Can't live without it.
  • Peanut butter: That makes six, but sorry -- I'm an addict.
S.C. : How about essential kitchen equipment?
M.B. :
  • A good, sturdy, 8-inch chef's knife.
  • A small (paring) knife.
  • Two skillets - one 8 inches, one 12 inches, both non-stick.
  • Two saucepans -- one small (one quart or so) one larger. A pasta pot is nice too.
  • Roasting pans and baking sheets.

With this minimum of equipment, you can make about eighty percent of the dishes that exist.

S.C. : What sections of the cookbook would be most helpful to the beginning home cook? To the experienced home cook?
M.B. : Beginners should focus on making dinner: Fish, meats, chicken, poultry, soup, and salad. Advanced cooks always wind up tackling bread, which is a good project for a beginner too, since it's not as hard as it looks.

S.C. : In How to Cook Everything you have addressed some valid modern day concerns like healthy eating and cleanliness. Can you please elaborate?
M.B. : The conventional wisdom about what is healthy and what is not changes every decade. I think it's safe to say that keeping the intake of fat within reason is a good overall strategy; beyond that, most people are safe to eat what they like, as long as it's good, natural food -- pre-prepared and packaged foods generally do not meet this standard. Cleanliness is just common sense. When you're handling raw foods, wash your hands and everything you work with as often as you think of it.

S.C. : What about your nemesis terms - "gourmet" and "convenience"?
M.B. : They're both enemies of good home cooking. The "gourmet" cook scorns normal, everyday food and prepares brilliant meals -- but only on weekends. "Convenience" food is a short-term fix that is expensive, unsatisfying, often unhealthy, and eaten without joy. Half the time it isn't even convenient; I can make real macaroni and cheese in the time it takes to make it from a box. Which do you think is better?