In the Kitchen: Six Things from Sitwell

The best part about being a journalist is getting to know someone after the interview.  I recently met William Sitwell, author of A History of Food in 100 Recipes and the award-winning editor of Britain’s famed Waitrose Kitchen Magazine.  I had written the newspaper advance about his visit to White Square Books.  It was quite the evening, not only did I get to hear about the ten moments that changed culinary history but I also was invited to a dinner where I learned six very important things from him:

1.  Don’t take photos of your food in public.

Luckily, I did not commit this faux pas but was regaled by a comical story about an unfortunate soul who did.  Instagrammed the entire meal where Sitwell was guest.  He told how the too-soft snaps with terrible color balance and flash looked nothing like the actual meal and drove him crazy.  I wanted to high-five him.

Real food photography is tedious and definitely not for the faint of heart.  I mentioned the Eat Write Retreat in Philadelphia, where food was the focus of social media, and confessed the need to capture quaint chocolate shops in Boston and a Thai coconut latte that was instant happiness.  Notwithstanding, advice filed away and fellow bloggers take heed about etiquette from the co-presenter of A Question of Taste.  Yeah, so it’s a foodie quiz show but I’m pretty sure the answer to “Is it okay to take photographs in a restaurant?” would be a resounding “No.”

2.  Be enthusiastic.

Being a curious reporter, I asked Sitwell if he was thrilled or troubled that the tour for his US book launch had only three stops in Seattle, San Francisco and pastoral Easthampton.  As we walked to the restaurant, he told me how he really was pleased.  It meant a lot that people even liked the book that took an incredible amount of time and energy to research and write.  He most enjoyed having his talks at small, independent bookstores because they are so dear to his heart.  Running into colorful characters and taking me up on the offer to take him to the Dr. Seuss Sculpture Garden no doubt confirms that he knows the journey is indeed the destination.

Sitwell White Square

3.  Make new friends.

It would have been easy for Sitwell to retire to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep after a week of crazy travel and press but he didn’t.  He knows what every good traveler does:  The best bits of the trip happen when you stay out late with new pals.  Eileen Corbeil, the bookstore owner, and Susan Halls, ceramicist extraordinaire and Brit ex-pat who taught the workshop that produced the amazing window display, rolled out the welcome mat and picked Bistro Les Gras for our restaurant that night.  Between sips of Black Birch Vineyard Traminette and Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon, we talked about life in Western Massachusetts, his visit with Alice Waters, overfishing and Matt Rigney’s book In Pursuit of Giants, and my trials in making kimchi.  (Something you might not know about William Sitwell is that he’s got mad flow.  He rapped the first few lines of his great-aunt Edith’s notorious poem, “Façade”.  I wish I had been able to record it because it was freaking brilliant.  She’s amazing and eccentric, which you will see in this video interview.)

4.  Enjoy the damn wine.

When our server came to clear away some glasses and things from the table, I said aloud, and quite by accident, “Oh, I must finish my wine!”  About to take a gulp of a completely respectable wine, Sitwell did that slow-motion thing from the movies where you try to stop someone by yelling “Nooooo, dooooon’t!”  All right, so maybe he didn’t do that but he did insist that I just enjoy the wine.  I smiled sheepishly and took a tiny, self-conscious sip before settling back into the conversation at the table.  I had a good chuckle at myself because there is never a need to rush or be restless at dinner.  Why?  You’ll just look like the kid who’s never been to a fancy restaurant before.  Note to self:  Toss back cheap wine kalimotxos with friends at cookouts and chill out, girlfriend.

5.  Always share your food.

Food is the great connector.  Sharing it creates conversation and comfort, especially when you are a stranger in a strange land.  There is also a secret joy in getting to try a bite of what you wanted to order but did not since your guest picked it first.  Sitwell and I made plate-side trades of his Vermont lamb with yellow curry and my dry-aged River Rock Farm sirloin smothered in charcoal oil.  Speaking of, we had quite a laugh from the looks of my cut of beef.  My mind was sluggish from translating his slang from all the British television I’ve ever watched but I did triumphantly remember the episode where Anthony Bourdain visited Ferran Adria of El Bulli, the pioneer of this deconstructive gastronomy wonder that looks a whole lot like motor oil.  It tasted pretty good, ps.

6.  Encourage others. 

Sitwell left a truly sweet inscription in my copy of the book, no doubt because he stole a few bites of my maple crème brûlée.  I saved looking at it until later because reading a note right after a person writes it is all kinds of awkward.  Besides, the amazing desserts on the table distracted me…hello, pot de crème, Reine de Saba and bavarois à la fraise!  His message reminded me how supporting the efforts of the people we meet and encouraging them in their pursuits are fundamental.  There’s a saying that “someone you haven’t met is out there wondering what it’d be like to meet someone like you”…don’t ever let them down.  Kind and helpful words have a major impact and I’m very glad to have met you, Mr. Sitwell.

Want to learn more about William Sitwell?  Visit his website, http://www.williamsitwell.com, will soon have a record about his trip to the States.  Don’t forget to check out his behind-the-scenes TV documentary on the Michelin star phenomenon below.

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