They say you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, and that’s very much the case with Hank Shaw, author of the new Hunt, Gather, Cook. He’s so much more than a guy with a shotgun and a basket full of mushrooms; not often will you find a man (or woman, for that matter) who plans meals by taking into account the lifestyle of his ingredients, long before they hit the table.
A passionate cook above all else, Hank’s food has a style that is uniquely his, melding his seasoned culinary savvy with an extraordinary understanding of the natural world. Here’s an intimate look into Hank’s cooking philosophy. I guarantee you’ll be intrigued.
What kind of cook are you while in the kitchen? Stressed? Mellow? Defensive lineman?
It depends. At home, or when I am cooking for fewer than a dozen people or so, I am pretty serene. Cooking is my therapy, a place where I can unhinge my normally worried mind and forget about everything but the six inches in front of my face. There is a certain zen in a perfect knife cut, or in sensing the exact moment a duck breast needs to be flipped. I can lose myself in that.
But, when I am cooking for a real crowd, 50-plus people, I tend to get amped up. Those dinners require a lot of planning and prep, and they often turn on precise timing. A garnish that takes 15 minutes when cooking for a dinner party can take 2 hours for a dinner service of 130. I make a lot of lists, and I am constantly tasting, testing and refining. When I am working with others in those situations, I demand communication. I need to know what everyone is doing in the kitchen at all times, so I can adjust to the curveballs that always get thrown at me. But, I never raise my voice. Ever. To do so is to show weakness and a lack of leadership.
Why write about food? Why not just cook it?
Because I am as much a writer as I am a cook. My waking mind is controlled by urges to do both on a daily basis. I have written professionally, nearly every day, for the past 19 years. While I’ve only cooked professionally a few of those years, I am still driven by the need to refine my craft, to push boundaries, and, maybe someday, approach the level of art — in both of my chosen skills.
What is your core philosophy behind every dish?
Every original dish I create stems from something the great British Chef Marco Pierre White once said: “Nature is the artist. The chef is just the technician.” I work almost exclusively with wild foods — plants, fish, game — and all of that comes with a context. Ingredients that go together in life go together on the plate. Striped bass and crabs, for example: Stripers eat crabs. Add sea beans (where crabs tend to hang out) and you add another layer. I’ve paired doves with their favorite foods, wheat and sunflowers. I’ve made a fried rice with wild rice, wild duck, bulrush shoots, wild onions and black walnuts — all of which live within yards of each other. Last week I made an abalone dish with New Zealand spinach and sea beans; again, ingredients that all live within sight of one another. Nature defines what I do in the kitchen.
What’s your next cooking challenge? How to plan to continue your growth as a cook?
Technique. I am always honing my techniques, whether it’s something traditional like barbecue or something cutting edge like spherification or the use of modern hydrocolloids. To me, great cooking is the combination of great technique and heart.
What mark do you hope to leave on the culinary world?
When it is all said and done, my hope is that my cooking does something to elevate the status of wild ingredients in modern cuisine. So much in wild cooking — be it wild plants or fish or game — is either trapped in the 1960s or relies on bacon, ketchup or cream of mushroom soup. But wild foods are, in many ways, more interesting and more flavorful than domestic ingredients. But there is no comprehensive source out there about how to use these ingredients: What, exactly, makes working with bison or venison different from working with beef or lamb? How do you recognize a perfect bunch of elderberries? When is the right time to pick sea beans? How does diet affect the flavor of wild ducks? All of these questions are deeply relevant to a serious cook interested in wild food. My life’s work is to answer those questions. If I can leave such a body of knowledge to future cooks, I’d die a happy man.
For a continuation of this interview, please visit An Interview With Hank Shaw, the Hunter/Angler/Gardener/Cook on the Huffington Post.