During the deep freeze that took up residence along the East Coast at the start of 2018, I hunkered down with one of the books I received for Christmas: At the Stranger’s Gate, a memoir about New York in the 1980s by New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik. Like me, Adam Gopnik and his wife arrived in New York at the beginning of the decade as newly minted adults making their way in the big city. In fact, we arrived within six months of each other. What’s more, our first apartments were three blocks apart, he and his wife at 87th and First Avenue and me at 90th and First. Surely we passed each other along the street, or brushed past one another in the crowded little green grocer at 88th (or was it 89th) and First.
I practically squealed with delight as he was describing Yorkville, the neighborhood that was my first home in New York. It still bore the marks of the predominantly German enclave that it once was. There was a little restaurant on the south side of 86th Street around Second Avenue where he and his wife dined called Kleine Konditorei and I used to frequent a German butcher on the same side of 86th Street called Schaller & Weber where you could buy all manner of German sausages and smoked meats.
We also shared the common experience of cockroaches living among us. They were a permanent fixture for those of us living in less-than-swanky digs back then. While I will grant that I lived in a palace compared to his 9’ x 11’ basement studio, my roommate and I lived above a liquor store which meant that all the cockroaches that arrived in liquor boxes delivered daily below us, made our apartment their first stop after emancipation.
From the vantage point of an insect-free home, I marvel at what we were willing to endure in order to make New York work. But that’s the point: Gopnik is describing what it was like to be young (and in his case, in love) in New York in the 1980s. Cockroaches came with the territory and we all knew it. We were there to take in a big city, culturally consequential, ambitious life. We lived off the hope that one day, we would live in a better building without vermin.
It’s the same story that is told over and over again. Like Ernest Hemingway in his rose-colored memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his youth in Paris, we tend to romanticize the hardships of early adulthood. Still, given the chance, few of us would go back to those days. I know I wouldn’t.
Unlike Gopnik, I did not have the benefit of being in love to see me through the transitional years of early adulthood. I was decidedly more financially secure, with a position in the management training program of a commercial bank that would ensure a long steady career up the corporate ladder if I so chose, but I lacked emotional support and suffered mightily from panic attacks and depression. We are never as whole as we outwardly appear.
In his memoir, Gopnik recounts the story of losing the pants to his one and only suit, which fell out of a garment bag on the way home from the tailor. It’s a story that becomes a metaphor for what it means to make your way in New York. “The city makes you the opposite of the emperor with the new clothes”, he writes. “He walked around unclothed, and everyone noticed but him. In New York, you walk around naked from the waist down for decades, and nobody knows but you.”
I had a similar sartorial experience that became my own metaphor for those early years in the city. On one of my first solo business trips to South America I made the rookie mistake of checking my luggage on the overnight flight to Santiago, Chile. When I arrived on Sunday morning for a week-long trip that would begin with back-to-back meetings on Monday, I discovered that my luggage did not make the flight. I had nothing with me other than a few toiletries and my briefcase. With only one scheduled flight per day, my luggage would not arrive at my hotel until sometime in the afternoon on Monday.
There were no shops open on Sunday, so on Monday morning I quickly phoned to move my first meeting to late in the afternoon and headed to a women’s clothing boutique to buy something suitable to wear. Back in the mid-1980s, Santiago was not the cosmopolitan city it no doubt is today and the pickings were mighty slim. With little to choose from and no time to spare I settled for what was on offer, which was mortifying at best. It was a blue and black polyester dress with a huge white, Peter Pan collar and a big black bow. It made me look like a veritable cupie doll.
When I headed out for the day my only thought was, I hope I don’t run into anyone I know from New York. Of course, I did. As soon as I walked into the restaurant where I was having a business lunch I was spotted by some fellow bankers I knew who greeted me as I walked past their table. I desperately wanted to tell them that the dress I was wearing was not really mine, wondering what they must think of my get-up. But that’s not how it works. You pretend that what you are wearing is absolutely perfect and that you are a confident, competent businesswoman.
I was never so happy to see my suitcase as I was that evening when I returned to my hotel. The dress stayed in Chile, but the memory of being out in the world wearing clothes that didn’t suit me has stuck. And, like Gopnik, I was the only one who knew.
In the Venn diagram of my shared experiences with Adam Gopnik in 1980s New York, the overlapping area is not very big. We arrived six months apart, are the same age, lived in the same neighborhood, dined at a few of the same restaurants and we both shared an interest in cooking.
As it turns out, cooking is the one pursuit where not having pants, or wearing an ill-suited dress does not go unnoticed.
Every September back in the ‘80s, the legendary food writer and New York Times restaurant critic, Mimi Sheraton, wrote an annual round-up of cooking schools. After my junior year abroad in France and a couple of years cooking out of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was keen to learn more about French cuisine. When I came across one of those cooking school overviews, my heart began to race with excitement. Banking may have been my profession but cooking was my passion.
I chose to take classes from Henri-Etienne Lévy at his Upper West Side cooking school, La Cuisine Sans Peur. This is how Ms. Sheraton described him in her Times article: “Henri-Etienne Lévy is a gracious, almost courtly Frenchman who tailors his classes to the needs of his students…The delicious cooking is French, with the emphasis on sound principles and techniques, and the goal is learning to cook on one’s own not simply preparing specific recipes.”
And, as she pointed out, he took only four students per class owing to the small (yet orderly) kitchen in his New York apartment where he taught. It sounded right up my alley.
I’m guessing I took my first course in 1983 or 1984. It was an introductory course that covered all the basics like sauces, pastry dough (pâte brisée) for tartes and quiches, sautéing, poaching and roasting.
Chef Lévy was as advertised, a courtly Frenchman with closely cropped gray hair and a well-trimmed beard. He referred to each of us formally, as Miss Pleasance or Mrs. So-and-so. He had a wry sense of humor and spoke perfect English (which he pronounced with and English accent). His instruction was very precise, and as Mimi Sheraton pointed out, he did not provide written recipes, encouraging us to take notes and not get too hung up on exact measurements. I still have both of my well-worn, treasured notebooks from the courses I took from him.
The weekly cooking classes were casual and chummy among us students and something that I eagerly looked forward to each week. I took studious notes and paid very close attention to his demonstrations, memorizing his techniques so I could practice at home the next day. Of course, we ate everything he cooked at the end of the lesson which was, for me at that tender age, the best food I had ever eaten. Every week was a revelation. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm.
But by far my most indelible memory is my first class. There we were, the four eager students, notebooks and pen in hand, keenly anticipating what we would learn that evening. After the congenial introductions that put us all at ease, Mr. Lévy pulled out a whole, raw chicken and began to break it down for us (his knife skills were mesmerizing). Then he put the carcass in a pot and talked us through making a stock.
What he did next was genius. He made a simple vinaigrette that—to my Midwestern palate used to bottled dressing—was an epiphany. Notwithstanding that I had spent a year in France (on a student budget) I had never tasted anything so good in my life. I remember the exact moment I tasted it and emoted with an enthusiasm that probably far exceeded such a humble offering, but I couldn’t help myself. (Mr. Lévy must have thought he had a live wire on his hands.) I can do this, I thought.
I realize how implausible that must sound, but it’s true. In hindsight, it was so revelatory because it was a lesson in the importance of quality ingredients. I doubt I had understood the difference between olive oil and extra virgin olive oil for starters. Or authentic Dijon mustard. Or good vinegar for that matter. And finally, shallots (Mr. Lévy always pronounced it shə-ˈlät , instead of ˈsha-lət—which, it turns out, is the first pronunciation in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary).
Demonstrating how to make vinaigrette was a lesson in knife skills (dicing the shallot), how to use a whisk, and the concept of emulsion (the mustard binds the oil and vinegar together). All of which are the building blocks of good cooking. And it is so easy to make.
The point is, just knowing how to make vinaigrette using the best quality ingredients you can find will give you confidence as a cook. And that was the genius of teaching us vinaigrette in the first lesson.
He went on to sauté a couple of boneless chicken breasts from the whole chicken he cut up at the beginning and served it with blanched, sliced cucumbers swimming in a sauce of warm cream finished with a little white wine and a splash of vinegar at the end. It was utterly simple and perfectly delicious (as Julia Child used to say). But it was the vinaigrette that was transformative.
Reading Adam Gopnik’s memoir about starting out life as a young adult in the New York of the 1980s sent me down my own memory lane. While he never explored the darker side of youth (and maybe he never really experienced disappointment or doubt or anxiety the way I did) but what he did capture was the hopeful side of being young and having life stretched out before you.
Late in the book, Gopnik describes an afternoon at the Frick with his friend and mentor, Richard Avedon (would that we all could have found as well-placed a mentor as Avedon). Standing in front of a favorite painting—Rembrandt’s Polish Rider—Avedon remarks, “My mother would bring me to see it when I was nine, and for a long time that picture meant everything in the world to me. I was that young man, and I was in love with him—with myself, my idealized vision of myself, what might be. I saw him as me, that possibility in life—everything lying ahead, and not yet knowing it, not looking at the road, but out. It sounds so grandiose, I know, when you say it, but the sense I had was so strong that someone else, Rembrandt, had felt everything I was feeling. I was so reassured by that picture.”
As grandiose as it sounds, that’s what those cooking classes meant to me. When I was in class, when I was cooking what I had learned from Henri-Etienne Lévy, I was never the person in the ill-suited dress. I felt so reassured.
A few words about ingredients since it makes all the difference. For Dijon mustard, I like Edmond Fallot, which is made—you guessed it—in Burgundy. Please don’t use Grey Poupon—the difference is enormous. As for olive oils, it is a matter of personal taste. First pressed (extra virgin) olive oils have a flavor spectrum from light and mellow to grassy to peppery. I keep a couple of good olive oils just for vinaigrette and use them according to the composition of the salad. I also keep a few bottles of good quality vinegar around. I have aged balsamic, red wine, white wine, apple cider and sherry vinegar. I buy several different vinegars from a company called All Things Olive. They sell olive oil too.
Yield: ¼ Cup
1 small or ½ large shallot, finely diced
1 teaspoon best quality Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon best quality wine vinegar
3 tablespoons best quality extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
This is how Chef Lévy taught me how to make vinaigrette:
Start by dicing the shallot into small dice. Place the diced shallot (about 1 tablespoon) in a small bowl and then add the mustard and wine vinegar. Whisk them together until incorporated.
Add the olive oil and whisk until everything comes together in a smooth sauce. (My notes say that the minimum ratio should be 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, but it is a matter of taste so do what you like).
If the oil doesn’t come together with the vinegar and mustard, add a little more mustard to bind everything together.
Add salt and pepper to taste and whisk again.