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Cooking by Ear: Nouveau Cal Cuisine - April 25, 2018 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Cooking by Ear: Nouveau Cal Cuisine

(Ruha Devanesan)

Cal Peternell cooked in the Chez Panisse kitchen for more than 20 years, but he can still recall the first meal he ate there.

“I had pasta with chanterelles and breadcrumbs,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘This place is so good, and so simple. If I could afford —’ ”

He stops himself mid-sentence. We’re sitting at a small side table in his compact kitchen. The walls are painted white, the cabinets mint-green. Morning light streams in from every conceivable angle. From our vantage point, you can catch a glimpse of the backyard garden. It’s getting lush and saturated with spring colors.

His wife Kathleen is on her way to work. Peternell brews coffee to go with the frittata he’d made earlier. It’s laced with greens and spiced with cumin. One of his three exceedingly polite sons comes in to claim a mug before taking his leave as quickly as he came in. Benny, their small, black-and-white mutt sniffs around before cheerfully settling into his round bed in the corner. The galleys for Peternell’s third cookbook — Almonds, Anchovies and Pancetta: A Vegetarian Cookbook, Kind Of — are splayed out on the table. A sneak peak reveals brightly drawn vegetables, including a painted serpent cucumber drawn by his 13-year-old son. It resembles a vivid green finger whose curves are flanked by diaphanous leaves.     

Peternell revisits his earlier thought.

“If I lived here,” he says, “I would just eat here all the time.”

This corrective, whether delivered consciously or unconsciously, distills the raison d’être behind his new podcast, Cooking By Ear. A talented chef who honed his craft at one of the most celebrated restaurants in the Bay Area is now making audio recipes that are accessible to everyone, even if you can’t afford the grilled squab and green pea agnolotti in green garlic brodo at his former place of work. Peternell believes that “the kitchen is a natural place for the exchange of ideas and the exchange of skills, for talking and listening, and telling and hearing stories.” 

Kristina interviewing Cal (Ruha Devanesan)

The editing of those stories takes place at Studiotobe, a new “content development and production studio” in Downtown Oakland. Producer Kristina Loring is responsible for the sound design that incorporates the hiss and crackle of olive oil landing in a hot pan, and a knife mincing onions against a cutting board. A radio veteran, Loring says Cooking By Ear differs from other culinary shows in that “there really isn’t a podcast that is trying to teach you to cook. A lot of them talk about recipes but are not making them in real-time.”

Instead of a one-way discourse on restaurant culture, Loring says the podcast asks people to be more interactive.

“The show is designed so you would have a meal made by the end,” she says. “We’re giving instructions, and they are trusting us to go along and be their guide.”

Or you can just listen to it — and results may differ. One beta tester said Cooking By Ear reminded her of watching Cindy Crawford workout videos in the 1980s when she “could just sit back and smoke a cigarette and drink a Diet Coke while Cindy’s working out.” The first episode features Peternell teaching Frances McDormand the art of risotto. You can take his recommendation for the right kind of vegetable stock — homemade, never store-bought — or just listen in on their enviable conversation.

The frittata he’d made that morning is the same one that he makes with the poet Tommy Pico in Episode 2. When the film and theater director Mira Nair visited Berkeley last year, Peternell made fattoush (a Middle Eastern bread salad) and learned her recipe for homemade chai. More famous names — director Alexander Payne and New Orleans bounce rapper Big Freedia — round out the first season’s guests. (Season 2 is currently in pre-production.) But the chef, cookbook author, and now podcast host says his ideal guest is “the kind of person who likes to cook and eat, but is an amateur.”

He admits the idea of having a chef on the show is tempting, but “our reluctance about having chefs is that two chefs can get a little too chef-y.

“And we want it to be really accessible to everyone,” he adds. “It’s also an interview show and we need someone who has an interesting story to tell.”

After founding Chez Panisse and ensuring its legacy through education and the cooks she’s mentored, Alice Waters’ public persona resides in the imagination like a goddess of the hearth wielding her great wooden egg spoon over an open fire. Now that Peternell is venturing out of the kitchen and into a more public life, he’s settled on “a natural dad voice,” a logical progression from his first cookbook, 12 Recipes.

“I literally started it as a book for my son — for all three of my sons,” he says. “But primarily, at that time, for my oldest son because he was the one who was getting ready to leave home for college.”

Initially, it was meant to be a personal, family cookbook but Peternell kept picturing his son in his Brooklyn apartment with “a little galley kitchen,” and wondered what voice he could use to encourage him to cook. He’s self-aware enough to recognize such a project could come across as “too pedantic.” But that’s not how he presents in person or via Cooking by Ear.

“I try to think of it more as loving and encouraging the way one would do for one’s kids,” he says. “And that you can find the satisfaction in it, because you can cook for your girlfriend, or your boyfriend, or your friends, or just get into the act of cooking.”