Buenos Aires – My first “interview” on the world of SaltShaker and our new restaurant venture just appeared over on FoodCandy. You shouldn’t have to register to read it, but it’s worth doing so anyway – lots of cool food and wine blogs from around the world! [The FoodCandy website closed down in early 2016, so the interview is now reproduced below.]
Also, for anyone who uses the FeedBlitz subscription in the righthand column to receive my posts via e-mail, it should be fixed now to provide the full text and photos instead of just the intro.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Interview with Dan Perlman, La Casa Saltshaker
Being a chef or owning a restaurant is a very social affair. You are invited to parties and shake hands with the famous. In your restaurant everyone wants to talk to you. But behind this success there’s often years of hard labor, sweat and, of course, an infinite dedication for cooking.
Few take the step of translating this passion into a real business. Today we are traveling to Buenos Aires to talk to Dan Perlman at Casa Saltshaker, a newly opened private and already successful restaurant at his own home.
DB: Cooking at home has been your long lasting passion. How did you land in the kitchen?
When I was growing up, my mom was a very good cook, and into experimenting with various cuisines; trying recipes from a wide array of cookbooks. I probably got my passion not only for cooking, but for collecting cookbooks from her. She and my father, who’s a pretty good cook himself, started a gourmet club for the neighborhood – this was in the mid-60s, the era of home economics – boxed and boil-in-the-bag food – so it was something pretty unique, and everyone in the group really got into it. I got to sample and help out in the kitchen. She died suddenly when I had just turned 15, and the housekeeper my dad hired to take care of us kids couldn’t cook boil-in-the-bag peas without burning them, so my sister and I did a lot of the cooking just in self-defense. I also started working at a neighbor’s restaurant, The Side Door, a little Italian home cooking kind of place, where I learned a huge amount from his father “Papa John”, who’d been a chef all his life, including being the personal chef for General Mark Clark during the Korean War. I just kept going from there, and ended up getting the opportunity over the years to work with some truly interesting chefs, both in the kitchen, and also as a sommelier – wine was something I also got very interested in while working in the kitchen, it wasn’t part of the culture while I was growing up, other than on Friday nights for services, so it was a fascinating new world.
DB: Living next to an Argentinean restaurant in New York I have a few preconceived notions. How regional is your cooking?
First, lose those preconceptions – in a good way. I have to admit to not having tried any of the Argentine restaurants when I was living in New York, I’m not sure I knew they existed, but at least based on rumor, they’re nothing close to authentic. Second, I don’t cook Argentine food, although I’m learning to, just because I’m always interested in something new in my repertoire – I only moved to Argentina last July, so it’s all still new to me. My training over the years has been in Italian, Japanese, and then “classic” Western cooking school – which I went to later in my career, just to refine my skills – and my food tends to be a mix of those. Not necessarily “fusion”, although occasionally, but more that I make stuff from all those genres.
DB: Most people can hardly organize a dinner party at home. What is the motivation for Casa Saltshaker, your home-based restaurant?
The reason for not being able to organize a dinner at home really comes down to lack of training in doing multiple things at once. I had this conversation recently on my blog with a regular reader who commented on much the same thing. Most people cook one thing, then move on to the next. When you work in restaurants you learn to have 4, 5, 6, or more different pans going with different things happening in them that all require different levels of attention and timing. Especially during the “prep” time, I often have all four burners and the oven going at the same time. You learn by practice what to start when and how much attention to give it. In terms of the home-based restaurant, it’s really just to try out some recipes on friends and folk in the area as I look for space to open a “real” restaurant. I want to create a buzz for my cooking and I want to make sure that people are going to eat it and not go “ewww” (Argentines can be very particular about what they eat – a large percentage don’t like things at all spicy, which is challenging for me), and I also just need something to do one or two nights a week.
I’m not even charging the way I would in a real restaurant; basically I’m just charging a flat cost for a 4-5 course menu that essentially pays for food costs and gives us each just a little bit of spending money (50 pesos for a four course dinner works out to less than $17).
DB: How different is a restaurant at home and what do your guests say about the cooking?
I’ve been doing multi-course dinner parties for friends for years, but less often and with fewer people. I haven’t been asking them to contribute to the costs of course. The one difference is that, at least for now, we’re treating timing more like a restaurant; i.e., we’re not planning on everyone coming at the same time, so there will be more stuff happening at any given moment. Over the years, I’ve had some pretty high praise for the food I cook, so I’m hoping that that continues to hold true when they find themselves paying for it!
Indeed as we have just gotten underway, folks have been very positive in their comments, and very helpful in their suggestions for tweaks. I have discovered that I have to think more carefully about the dishes – some things aren’t easy to prepare for a larger group in a home kitchen, especially the last minute touches, and when you don’t have anyone helping you cook! In a restaurant I’d at least have a prep person so if I suddenly realize I need some parsley chopped while I’m busy grilling something, I’ve got someone to do it.
I think Henry, my boyfriend, is involved mostly just because I’m excited to be doing it and he’s being supportive – we’ll see how long that lasts as he realizes how much work it is! The cleanup is also a pain when you have to do it yourself! No dishwashing staff or porters here.
DB: It sounds like the best kept secret! Do you occasionally make dinner for the landlord and the food inspection?
Let’s say that it really is a secret, and keep it that way. Of sorts. But home-based restaurants are not uncommon in Latin America. There’s actually a strong tradition of them. They’re also quasi-illegal dependent on the jurisdiction you live in, etc. I’m sure I’m in violation of my building association’s rules. I don’t plan to continue it for long, and it’s also part of why people are only coming via word of mouth, though that seems to be spreading quickly! The one governmental agency here that I’d need to worry about are the tax folk, so I’m including the income in my monthly freelance statements – just safer since that’s the kind of thing that here can land you in a whole lot of trouble. In terms of anything else, I’m probably not risking too much, worst case I’d be told to stop doing it.
In terms of food inspection, let’s just say that that’s a pretty U.S. based concept. There essentially are no such things here – you don’t need a food handling certificate, health inspection, fire inspection, safety inspection, building inspection, liquor license, or anything else to open a restaurant here. About the only thing restaurateurs seem to get hassled for is overcrowding and producing too much garbage. Those seem to get handled by “contribution” to the visiting building department person.
DB: We read about the Spanish / English food dictionary. What is your history online?
I’ve been pretty much online since online existed. Literally before there was such a thing as the internet and/or worldwide web. My high school was connected up with the university and government network ARPAnet that the University of Michigan was part of. We used teletype machines to communicate… and play Star Trek games of course. I participated in some of the earliest bulletin boards, and I was one of the early members of online services like “The Source and Genre”. I think I signed up for CompuServe the week it was founded. I participated in online food and wine chats – it happened that I went “back to school” to Peter Kump’s Cooking School in New York at that time and I chronicled my daily cooking school life on CompuServe for the food and wine community and then we had occasional Q&A chats for the members. I’ve had my own websitefor years, along with managing and designing a few others. I just joined the blogging world last year with SaltShaker. The Spanish-English food dictionary came about simply because of the lack of existence of one and I needed it myself for learning a new language – so why not share it online?!
DB: According to the numerous online references your blog is the most reliable and complete food resource for Buenos Aires. What part is writing in your life?
Writing has always been a big part of my life. I’ve been doing it since participating in school newspapers in junior high school and ever after. I freelance write for various publications on both food and wine and have for around twenty years. What I think my blog offers over the other restaurant/food sites in Buenos Aires is simply that I share my actual experiences and opinions about what I find here.
Most of the sites are more oriented towards that Zagat style – numerical ratings, maybe one sentence about the style of cooking or the atmosphere, and possibly some reader comments. That’s all well and good when you want to look up an address and phone number for a restaurant, but I’m sorry, I have no idea what the difference between a plate of food that rates a 25 and one that rates a 23 is, nor would I decide on going to a restaurant based on that. I want to know something about what to expect, and I’m finding that so do other people. In terms of writing itself, I write every day, whether it’s just the blog or working on one of my other projects.
DB: What’s next in Dan’s extraordinary affairs? Are you planning to write a book?
Well, I hope so, and I’m working on a couple of things. One is turning the Spanish-English food dictionary into something publishable – because while access to the information on the internet is all well and good, a lot of people have told me that they’d like a pocketbook version to carry around when they visit Latin American countries so that they can understand the menus and markets. So I’ve been working with a publisher on getting it into a format that will work. The biggest problem is there’s so much food out there, and so many regional differences, that I’m constantly finding new information to add. At some point, we have to just go with what we’ve got or the book gets too unwieldy and takes too long to get to market. I also think that I could turn my blog into a guidebook about food here in Buenos Aires; not to mention sort of a “Year in Provence/Under the Tuscan Sun” sort of travel adventure, though I’m beginning to feel like that market is kind of tapped out with all the books like that that have been written in the past few years. Or maybe a book about these dinners! I also have this book of short stories about ghosts that I’ve been working on and off over the years.
DB: Dan, it has been a pleasure! Thank you.