During his two-decade-long career helming the kitchen at Alice Waters' iconic restaurant Chez Panisse, Cal Peternell mentored countless breakout chefs, but the most important people that he's taught to cook are his three sons — Henderson, Milo, and Liam (ages 26, 22, and 13) — right in his home kitchen.
As you might expect, instilling a love of cooking within his kids came pretty naturally for Cal because teaching people how to cook is woven into his DNA.
Although his days at Chez Panisse are behind him, Cal is still determined to inspire others to take pleasure in the art of cooking. He recently launched his new podcast Cooking by Ear and is hard at work finishing up his third cookbook, Almonds, Anchovies, and Pancetta, which comes out in September.
We recently caught up with Cal to talk about what life is like cooking for three boys (turned men), his latest podcasting gig, and the gift he's been eyeing for Father's Day. (You're welcome, Henderson, Milo, and Liam!)
Your first cookbook, Twelve Recipes, was inspired by the experience of cooking with your oldest son, Henderson, before he went off to college. How did that go from father-son bonding time to a published cookbook?
Before Henderson moved away for college he told me he wanted to cook with me. He said, "This summer, let's cook together and make the stuff we love to cook at home. I'll learn those things so I have them for when I'm living off on my own." And we did — but not quite as much as we had hoped.
When he left, he started calling me and asking, "Hey, how did you do that thing?" Or, "What kind of meat goes in Bolognese sauce?" Things like that. I was glad that he was cooking and glad to talk to him, but I also thought about the times when I couldn't answer the phone. So I decided to put together a little family cookbook just for the two of us, and then pass it along to his brothers when they got old enough.
When I started putting it together, I realized more people would probably want this kind of primer too, so I found an agent and a publisher. I only realized this later, but the book really helped me to define my writing voice, because I was writing for my sons, who are people I really want to get into the kitchen.
It also helped me to avoid things that could be seen as intimidating barriers for other home cooks. Sometimes books call for fancy equipment or only the finest ingredients — and while of course I appreciate those things, I also think that if you only have a little galley kitchen, or you only shop in the convenience store, or you're in a dorm using a hot plate, you should cook anyway and make it happen with what you've got.
What was it like cooking for three growing boys — especially as an off-the-clock restaurant chef?
I cook all the time! Once you get to be the head chef, you find that you're not actually cooking that much — you're mostly telling people how to cook or doing managerial stuff. So I take advantage of my time at home to cook for my family. I love cooking for my kids. They all have their own favorite things.
My oldest son, Henderson, has become quite the good cook. He cooked with me downstairs at the café at Chez Panisse. He now goes to art school at Rutgers and does a lot of cooking for himself. He called me last weekend and said "Dad, I know your book isn't out yet, but can you tell me how to make pancetta? Because they're slaughtering a pig." He's really diving in.
My son Milo is really keen on chicken wings. I started out making the usual fried wings you'd get at a bar — and those are great — but I thought maybe there's another way to make them not so greasy. So I came up with a braised chicken wing recipe. Milo now works as a waiter at Reynard at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, and he loves to cook at home too.
My youngest son, Liam, who is still here living with me and my wife, Kathleen, loves soup. It's just so satisfying to sit there and watch him really tuck into a bowl of soup and go for a second round. Liam hasn't quite caught the cooking bug yet, but he'll make himself a quesadilla — and I think that's a pretty good place to start. I say, if you're just going to make a quesadilla, pay attention to how you're making it. I like to let the cheese melt out of the edges and kind of brown in the pan a little bit. Even the simplest recipes you can make just the way you want.
I love that your sons call you for cooking advice.
I don't know if there's any parent that doesn't want to hear that phone call from their kid saying, "How do you make this?" Cause there's a little bit of flattery, right? And it's nice to think of your kids carrying on your traditions.
What is the podcast experience like?
It's been really great and was a long time coming. I just have to worry about showing up to my guests' houses with the right groceries, cooking up a tasty meal, and having a really interesting conversation. So what could be better than that really?
In a way, this podcast is kind of a natural extension for you. Can you tell us a little more about it?
It's true that Chez Panisse was very much a teaching kitchen. We were always all learning together and I was happy to pass along my knowledge to cooks who were training to be professionals. But as much as I love restaurant cooking, I also love home cooking. It's a democratic skill that everyone can do — everyone needs to eat. So with this podcast, I'm really loving being able to focus on improving people's home cooking skills and repertoire. We've all pretty much learned the pleasure of eating together, but I think we're a little slower in coming to the realization that time in the kitchen can be pleasurable too.
The kitchen is also a natural place for the exchange of knowledge and stories. When you're cooking together, people's reservations kind of fall away. Every line cook will tell you that over the course of a long grueling shift, everyone tells a lot of stories. I'm finding that to be true as I go into people's homes and cook with them too. I think it has something to do with the fact that the kitchen is a place where we all have something in common.
Do you have any Father's Day plans?
We will likely be celebrating with some phone calls! I'm also planning to cook some dishes that I've never cooked before. This means grabbing a book of Chinese dishes from Cecilia Chiang or digging deep into the Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen cookbook, or pulling out Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern dishes. My family loves that.
My wife will offer to cook for me, but I want to cook together and be in the kitchen. That's what I prefer. I love divvying up tasks — that's a treat for me, to not have to be in charge!
When your sons were all under one roof, did you have any special Father's Day traditions?
They'd usually make me a cup of coffee and bring me some breakfast and then we would cook together. One great memory I have is when I taught my boys how to start the grill. I have a charcoal one with a chimney that you have to put paper in. I remember thinking this is the perfect thing for the boys to learn. They'll always want to do it because they're going to want to play around with fire. That was a good lesson.
Is there a certain gift you'd love to receive for Father's Day this year?
Now that you say that, yeah! I love using a mortar and pestle. I have two of them — one that's really small and another that is made of really good olive wood from Rome. But what I'd really love is one of those big, green granite ones. They're good for making anchovies and garlic, and crushing spices in a way that the wood one isn't because it's softer.
Here are Cal's official Father's Day plans this year:
"When my wife, Kathleen, asked me what I wanted to do this Father's Day, we decided to host a fund-and-awareness-raiser in our backyard to benefit Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which addresses the gap in legal services for unaccompanied children in the US. On Sunday, June 17, from 2-5 pm, I'll be cooking up some tasty snacks and pouring drinks in our garden in Berkeley. Kathleen and friends will have art for sale. A KIND SF team member will be on hand to provide more information and Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, activist, and author of Enrique's Journey will be joining via video call from Italy. Wine and drinks are being donated, cooks from Chez Panisse and Ramen Shop are stepping up to help make the food, and local artists are contributing work for sale. The event is nearly sold out already!"
If you would like to participate, visit this link to purchase tickets.