Even if you end up running the kitchen at Chez Panisse—the 43-year-old Alice Waters restaurant that changed the course of dining as we know it—the path to success doesn’t always unfold as neatly as you’d expect. Just ask Cal Peternell, who almost devoted himself to a life in front of the easel instead of a stovetop in Berkeley, California.
After getting his BFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Peternell tried to make it as a visual artist, moving to Lucca, Italy with his wife, who is also a painter. There, inspired by the Tuscan backdrop and the tonal landscapes of Giorgio Morandi, he passed time with oils, painting rolling hills onto wood panels. But then a funny thing happened: He found himself moved just as much by pasta as he was by Piero della Francesca’s frescoes.
One day, he and his wife stumbled upon Vipore, then the restaurant of a young Cesare Casella. That discovery was the beginning of a newfound appreciation of well-considered food. Light bulbs went off after the first taste of a stunningly simple tagliata grilled rare and drizzled with fresh herbs and olive oil, as well as that initial bite of chicken liver on bruschetta.
Eager to come back to the States but in search of a slower pace, Peternell and his wife relocated to Northern California, where he made the decision to work in the kitchen instead of an art studio. After San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake, he returned to the East Coast, honing his skills at Biba, Lydia Shire’s glitzy powerhouse in Boston, and serving Jamaican jerk alongside Szechuan scallops at Chris Schlesinger’s global fusion restaurant The Blue Room. Meanwhile, out West, luminaries like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower were pioneering California cuisine—a new, seasonally driven movement using French techniques. Farmers were named on menus, and plucots were served in copper bowls for dessert.
With the abundance of opportunity, California beckoned yet again, and Peternell made a final cross-country move to take a sous chef position in San Francisco, working at Loretta Keller’s progressive restaurant Bizou. In 1995, at the behest of his wife, he agreed to cook a try-out lunch at Chez Panisse. He made sweet pea and nasturtium soup, zucchini-herb frittatas, and crumiri with plums. He landed the gig at the café.
The chef initially had mixed emotions—“excitement mixed with fear,” as he describes it—about meeting the expectations of an institution that’s referred to as the birthplace of a culinary movement, and that has seen some of the country’s greatest chefs (Jonathan Waxman, Dan Barber, Suzanne Goin, to name a few) pass through its doors. But it slowly gave way to relief and the certainty that he’d found his true culinary north.
For the past three years, Peternell and fellow veteran Jérôme Waag have shared the dual role as chef at the Chez Panisse Restaurant, each leading the kitchen for half of the year. There, he still continues to channel local, sustainable, seasonal cooking, highlighting dishes that are often grounded in other cultures—whether a Tomales Bay clam brodetto with grilled fennel that draws from Italy, or a Moroccan-spiced Paine Farm squab inspired by North Africa.
When his eldest, Henderson, prepared to head East for college, Peternell realized he’d never really taught him the fundamentals of cooking. The chef’s culinary crash course, meant to be a booklet for his children about how to make a regular rotation of dishes at home, ultimately evolved into a much-lauded book, Twelve Recipes—a poignantly penned kitchen manual designed to provide even the most insecure of cooks with the framework to master everyday cooking.
But what keeps Peternell himself in love with everyday cooking? A yearly six-month sabbatical spent writing, reading, painting, traveling, cooking with the seasons, and eating, recharges him. But there are also these 10 foundational dishes, from birthday pork shoulder roast to puntarelle salads in Trastevere, that resonate on a much deeper level.
Mom’s Pork Shoulder Roast With Sauerkraut
As kids, my siblings and I were always encouraged by our mother to choose the meal that we wanted on our birthday, which she would then prepare for us. More often than not, I requested a pork-shoulder roast with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. I just loved it. The reality is that she made instant mash from a package—and she certainly didn’t ferment her own sauerkraut; that was out of a can. But I do remember she would put it in a pot with an onion that had a couple of cloves stuck into it, and stew it for a while. The rich, crispy, fatty pork with soft mashed potatoes and crunchy, acidic sauerkraut is something that I still love, and still make. But I don’t use instant mash. (Photo: flickr/Krista)
Fettuccine Alfredo at Davio’s
The first time I ate fettuccine Alfredo was at Davio’s in Boston, when I was still a parking valet. I would park the cars and then make my way back to the restaurant through the kitchen, where I would always stop and have a bite of something. They made fettuccine Alfredo tableside with one of those rolling carts. There would be a little bit left in the pan, and the staff would snack on that behind the scenes. It was always fun to watch them do it in the dining room. There was a little cart with a gas burner on it, and the pasta would already be cooked in the skillet, and they would make the sauce on top of it with cream, egg yolk, butter, and cheese. It was quite rich. Some of the maitre’d were better at it than others; the egg part can trip you up, and it can turn into little curds. I just loved it and was so impressed that I even had them give me a recipe for it. (Photo: flickr/Meal Makover Moms)
Pasta all’Arrabbiata at Purgatorio
My wife and I were restoring frescoes in a private villa in Tuscany, and during our commute, we noticed a restaurant close to a river that never seemed to be open. It was called Purgatorio, and it opened in the summer since most of the tables were outside. There, you could have maybe two pastas. The one that always intrigued me was their version of arrabbiata, which means “enraged” because it has hot pepper in it. We would ask them how it was made, and they would just say it had garlic, hot pepper, olive oil, and tomato—but it just seemed like there was something else going on. Eventually, I hit on the secret. I’m not sure if it was their secret, but it tasted to me like the way they made it. You start the sauce by really slowly blooming the garlic and hot pepper in the oil, just as slowly as possible, so that it just barely wiggles in the pan. You have to watch it carefully, and when it’s fully cooked but not browned at all, then you add the tomato. It gives the garlic a slightly different flavor. That was an eye-opener—just how something so simple and seemingly so familiar can be so very specifically delicious. (Photo: flickr/Sebastian Mary)
Puntarelle Salad at a Café in Trastevere
The first time I was in Rome I had my three kids, in addition to my father who was also traveling with us. We went to a little restaurant in Trastevere and we had the puntarelle salad. It’s a traditional Roman green in the chicory family and is sort of bizarre-looking—like a cross between dandelion and asparagus. It had an anchovy-garlic dressing. We took one bite and ordered another plate right away, because we all started fighting over this one salad and needed another one. The simplicity was impressive: that balance of bitter and acidity from the dressing, the pungent garlic, and delicious umami brought in by the anchovies. In America, anchovies are generally derided as something that nobody would really eat. But if you get good anchovies and mix them in in the right way, everybody loves ’em. (Photo: racheleats.wordpress.com)
Falafel Sandwich at Mamoun’s
The falafel sandwich at Mamoun’s in the West Village is a wonderful thing. It’s like a little salad stuffed in a pocket, with warm and crunchy chickpea fritters dressed with great tahini and hot sauce. You sort of just stand there at the counter or on the sidewalk and eat it. Whenever I’m in New York and I’m in the area, I make sure to go get one. It’s so satisfying, and I think it has to do with the fact that falafel gives you the same sort of satisfaction that you can get from eating meat. On an art student’s budget, it saved me. Now I see it every time I watch Louis C.K,’s show Louie, because he walks right by there before he walks into the comedy club. (Photo: Mamoun’s Restaurant)
Smoked Mozzarella from Joe’s Dairy
I used to go to Joe’s Dairy (now shuttered), a New York Italian deli located in Soho that sold dry goods. They would sell fresh mozzarella in the water, but they would also smoke these big balls of mozzarella, too. I remember in hot New York summers buying a ball of that mozzarella and bread from there. I would either go into the park or take it home, and that was sort of a meal in itself. The balls of cheese were quite big—the size of a small grapefruit—and they were an amazing caramel brown on the outside. They were simply beautiful. (Photo: hungrygerald.com)
Chicken Hash at Bix
While I was working at Bix in San Francisco, one of the first dishes I got put in charge of was the chicken hash. The recipe required us to poach a whole chicken, and it’s a process I ended up loving: We would put the chicken in the pot with water and aromatics and bring it to a boil, then cover it and shut it off. We counted an hour and pulled it out, and it was so perfectly cooked and moist. The idea of boiling a chicken was a first for me; I had always thought the great thing about chicken was that the skin gets browned and crispy. That doesn’t happen when you poach it, obviously. But instead you get this other quality: really moist meat that we would then pick off the bone. From the poach you would also get a nice, clean, sort of light chicken stock that you could use for something else. I still do it from time to time; it’s a good way to start a chicken soup. For the hash, we would pick all the meat off the bones, then chop it up and mix it with scallions, herbs, and potato. We’d make them into patties, brown them in a pan on one side, then turn them over and put the pan in the oven. We’d serve them with a tomatoey sauce on the plate. It was delicious, and taught me lots of different skills. (Photo: Bix Restaurant)
Fried Green Beans at Bizou
When Bizou was still open, one of the significant dishes that chef Loretta Keller made was fried green beans. That was revelatory to me because it made me realize that every vegetable is fair game for frying. We would make a tempura-like batter, and get blue lake beans and whole blossoms from anise hyssop, and fry them and serve them with a dipping sauce. The one that was classic in the summer was a fig chutney that you could dip the fried green beans into. It was really good, and I have continued to fry vegetables ever since. (Photo: Facebook/COCO500)
Coq au Vin at Chez Panisse
A dish in my early days at Chez Panisse that impressed me a lot was coq au vin. We would put a bunch of bottles of red wine into a pot to burn off the alcohol, then let it cool. The legs would go into the wine overnight, and they’d get turned around a couple of times so they got evenly marinated. We wouldn’t use any stock— just wine—and after we would cook the mirepoix, we’d put in a little flour so that the roux would give the wine sauce a bit of body. Then we’d braise the chicken in the wine and we’d put bacon and a little Cognac in there, and serve it in the winter with chunky croutons that we would toast with duck fat. Cooking with that much wine, and having croutons that were cooked in duck fat, just really impressed me as something wonderfully decadent and flavorful. (Photo: flickr/Will Clayton)
New olive oil with garlic on grilled bread
The first time I had new olive oil on bread was in a farmhouse in the hills above Lucca. When you have a really good version of grilled bread rubbed with a clove of garlic and new olive oil that’s so green and peppery and fruity, you are suddenly made aware of why people get so excited about olive oil when it first comes to market. I’m not sure if a lot of people have had that opporutnity. I read this article by Harold McGee that talked about how most people’s idea of what olive oil is supposed to taste like is actually the flavor of rancid olive oil, because it’s so common. But when you have that first green oil and you experience the incredible color, aroma, and flavor of it, that’s something that really sets you up for a lifetime of loving olive oil, and it becomes an essential part of your cooking. (Photo: flickr/Jorge Díaz)