Chef finds mental health is recipe for success
The emotionally intense chef is a well-worn trope at this point. Gordon Ramsay’s outbursts are the stuff of legend — and ratings — while Anthony Bourdain, Gabrielle Hamilton and others share their internal struggles on the page and on screen. The public seems to delight in the sometimes mercurial antics of those engaged in the art and craft of making food.
Chef Jeremy Fox of Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon has written a cookbook that adds to the body of literature, exploring the psyche of this particular genre of creative person. But drama for drama’s sake is not the primary goal of his book, “On Vegetables,” written with Los Angeles chef Noah Galuten. Fox’s raw honesty also blows apart all cliches associated with the myth of the tortured chef.
Fox’s story recounting the journey of “how I finally learned to unite my food and my brain,” as he writes, is the rare cookbook to bring me to tears. Still, above all, it is, indeed, a cookbook, not a self-help book.
“On Vegetables,” published in April (Phaidon), isn’t exactly what Fox, 40, thought he’d write when he got the contract seven years ago. He was still in the afterglow of the media attention he attracted at Ubuntu, the pioneering Michelin-starred, farm-to-table vegetarian restaurant in Napa. At that point, in 2010, he had left the restaurant, and his troubles were worsening.
“There was a time when everybody told me I was a really big deal,” Fox writes in the book’s introduction, a section he calls “Adulthood, Accolades & Anxiety.” “I was also miserable.”
He lays bare his struggles with anxiety and depression, as well as attention-deficit disorder that was diagnosed while he was a culinary student in Charleston, S.C. An unmanaged prescription drug regimen only made matters worse. The autobiographical portion of “On Vegetables” expands on a story Fox wrote for “Lucky Peach,” the cult favorite and recently folded print publication that retains a website.
Fox’s parents divorced when he was young. His father is from the Chicago area and his mother is from Chattanooga, Tenn., where her parents ran a pizzeria for 25 years. Growing up, he spent time in Philadelphia, Cleveland and Atlanta, where “we had a lot of family.”
“My sister had a bat mitzvah. I never had a bar mitzvah. By then, I was back and forth with my mom and my dad, so there wasn’t stability to focus on that,” he said. “I went to Hebrew school a little bit but we were not very religious.”
Major holidays were spent with his father’s parents, who had moved to Philadelphia. “I always wanted to build a sukkah but never did,” Fox said.
Now a father, he said he is exploring his Jewish roots — “something I think about as my daughter gets a little older.” His wife, Rachael, is the co-founder of Solstice Canyon, an artisanal almond butter company.
While Fox had no inkling of a food career until he saw the Stanley Tucci movie “Big Night” (1996), he credits his grandmother as an inspiration.
“My dad’s mom was a great cook,” he said. “She made slow-cooked veal tongue, chicken dumplings, sweet-and-sour meatballs. She cooked all the time. I don’t think she cooked from recipes.”
Even as a child, Fox said he knew that food was a unique family bonding opportunity. “Veal tongue felt cool because me and my grandfather would eat it, and everyone else thought it was gross,” he said. Otherwise, he was raised on a steady diet of fast food and pizza.
Fox’s emotional life and his cooking are inexorably intertwined. In the book, he describes his food at Ubuntu as “precise and exact … the polar opposite of my mental state, which was scattered and foggy. It was unhealthy and unsustainable.”
That’s not exactly a great match for a restaurant committed to the highest environmental and dietary principles. He eventually went from being Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef in 2008 to being broke and jobless in Los Angeles.
In February 2013, he found a new career home at Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan’s acclaimed neighborhood restaurant, Rustic Canyon, where he realized that being out of the limelight and cooking in someone else’s kitchen was grounding and healing. His food became more down to earth and less fussy as he lost interest in applying dainty garnishes with tweezers, for instance. The restaurant thrived, and he reined in his self-destructive emotional patterns. Nominations soon followed for James Beard Best Chefs awards.
As for continuing the personal narrative he began in “Lucky Peach,” “it felt good to finish the story. That definitely helps explain why the food is the way it is,” Fox said of “On Vegetables.”
“On Vegetables” isn’t “an over-stylized book,” Fox said. “There was no stylist or designer. [It was] just me, Noah and the photographer.” The cookbook has an earthy feel throughout, and even though he’s written a one-page chapter called “I Am Not a Vegetarian,” all of the 160 recipes are. (He’s a proponent of whole-plant, minimal-waste cooking.) He also dedicates pages to farmers at the Santa Monica Farmers Market who inspire him and help inform his menus at Rustic Canyon.
Fox has worked hard to reconnect the concept of food as nourishment with managing his mental health and, in turn, nurturing his creativity. Last month, he opened Tallula’s, a casual Mexican restaurant on Entrada Drive in Santa Monica, in partnership with Loeb and Nathan.
He hasn’t cooked overtly Jewish dishes at Rustic Canyon, but his grandmother’s spirit infuses his work with a hamish spirit.
“We use schmaltz to cook our chickens, for pan roasting. And making gribenes,” he said of fried chicken skins. “We’re always doing something with it.”
Here, Fox shares his recipe for a Sunday spread, including Poor Man’s Lox, which substitutes tomatoes for upscale smoked salmon. It’s an old family trick from the days before he had access to some of the country’s finest ingredients.
POOR MAN’S LOX
Adapted from “On Vegetables: Modern Recipes for the Home Kitchen” by Jeremy Fox.
This spread is inspired by a Sunday morning staple in my house growing up. In my Jewish household — and every other as far as I knew — lox and bagels were just what you ate on Sunday. But quite often we could not afford the steep price tag that real lox carried, so this assortment of toppings was the next best thing. The saltiness of the tomatoes made it pretty easy to close your eyes and imagine it was the real deal.
- 1 cup Horsey Goat (recipe follows)
- 6 Jun’s Focaccia (recipe follows), made without rosemary, halved across (like a bagel)
- 6 orange or red tomatoes, cored and very thinly sliced
- Kosher salt
- 2 or 3 shallots, sliced
- 2 tablespoons drained capers
- 1 English cucumber, sliced
- Fresh dill, to garnish
- 2 teaspoons white sesame seeds, lightly toasted
- 2 teaspoons poppy seeds
- 1 teaspoon flaxseeds
- 1 teaspoon sunflower seeds
- Flaky sea salt
Prepare Horsey Goat; set aside.
Prepare Jun’s Focaccia; set aside.
Sprinkle the tomatoes with kosher salt. They should be nice and salty, but not inedible. Smear the goat cheese on half of each focaccia, and top with the salted tomatoes. Add the shallots, capers, cucumber and dill. Sprinkle with sesame, poppy, flax and sunflower seeds and finish with flaky sea salt.
Makes 6 servings.
- 8 ounces soft fresh goat cheese, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons heavy (double) cream
- 2 ounces prepared horseradish
- Kosher salt to taste
Using a silicone spatula, gently fold together the goat cheese, cream and horseradish until thoroughly combined. Season to taste with salt. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Makes about 1/2 cup.
- 1 1/4 cups water heated to 110 F, plus more as needed
- 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed, and for greasing
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 4 1/3 cups all-purpose (plain) flour, plus more as needed
- 2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon active dry (fast-action) yeast
- Flaky sea salt
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- Fresh rosemary leaves
In a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the warm water, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and the honey. Add the flour (this creates a barrier to keep the yeast from hitting water right away). Then add the salt and yeast and knead the dough on medium speed for 10 to 15 minutes. You’re looking for dough with a nice sheen and tacky, but not sticky, consistency; it should pull away neatly from the bowl. During the kneading, if you find that the dough is overly dry, add a touch more water. If it is too wet, add a little bit more flour.
Turn out the dough ball onto a lightly floured surface and roll it with your hands into a smooth, even ball.
Lightly coat a large bowl with olive oil and place the dough inside. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside to proof at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours, or until the dough ball roughly doubles in size.
Preheat the oven to 400 F.
Punch down the dough and divide it into 6 portions of 5 ounces each. Lightly flour your work surface. Working with one dough piece at a time (keep the other pieces lightly covered with plastic wrap to prevent them from drying out.), roll it into a smooth, even ball. Pinch the bottom of the ball to seal it closed, being careful not to trap any big air pockets while rolling it. The texture of the dough should be smooth when rolled. Set the balls onto an 18-by-13-inch baking sheet coated with olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and proof for another 20 minutes — the balls will increase slightly in size and become much more workable.
Set each dough ball onto a lightly oiled surface and, using the tips of your fingers, shape the dough into rounds while creating a dimpled pattern on top. (Those dimples will trap the oil and other condiments when you serve it.) As you shape the dough, it will get slightly wider in diameter, but don’t worry about trying to spread it out thin. Once you have a round shape with good dimples, you’re ready to go.
Pour the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil into an 18-by-13-inch rimmed baking sheet. Place the shaped focaccias on top and season with flaky salt, pepper and rosemary leaves.
Bake for about 5 minutes, then rotate the pan front to back and bake until the focaccias are light golden on the top and bottom, another 3 minutes. (If your oven isn’t large enough to fit all 6 breads at the same time, divide everything in half and bake in two batches.) If making in advance, you can warm them again in the oven at 350 F for about 2 minutes.
Makes 6 5-inch focaccias.