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Fritz Sonnenschmidt of The Culinary Institute of America


NATURALLY, YOU’D EXPECT THE CULINARY dean at the CIA in Hyde Park to be an ambassador for fine cuisine. Chef Sonnenschmidt—who won gold medals at the International Culinary Competition in 1976, 1984 and 1988—is that. On the other hand, he’s an unrelenting cheerleader for food, period. The American Culinary Federation’s Chef of the Year in 1994 gets excited about meat loaf, of all things.

Fritz Sonnenschmidt: You see a lot of people who are afraid to cook because they aren’t taught anymore. They are so vulnerable to buying all this pre-made stuff: A lot of people suffer because it’s salt, it’s fat, it’s all the stuff which you really shouldn’t have. Sixty percent of America is at a disadvantage—they are not affluent, and they are not trained to cook right. What they do is deep fry, deep fry, deep fry. That’s not good for you. A large part eat at the fast-food service. The hamburger is very delicious because it’s more fat than meat. That’s why obesity is up, diabetes is up. There is a relation to the food you eat.

Convenience foods are a necessary evil. They can be incorporated in such a way that they don’t adulterate good, fresh food. We will never go back and make tomato ketchup ourselves, or A1 Sauce. But we can use these products to enhance what we use fresh.

People still have this thing that when they cook it’s going to be slaving in the kitchen rather than making it a whole family fun. But today, with the convenience, with the machinery we have, it is actually a very joyful task. You take a Cuisinart, for example, or any food processor. I did a demonstration recently and I did everything with the processor—I shredded, I sliced, I mixed, I made even dough for a pie. Boom boom boom boom—press the button and there it was. All I had to do was put it in the fire and cook it. That’s what a lot of people don’t realize. They think they still are going to have to work like crazy.

For example, take a pork roast, a loin of pork: Season it with salt and pepper, stick a couple of cloves in there, like with a ham. Put it in fat-side-up in a 400F oven and roast it for about an hour, 50 minutes. Then you take some fresh apples, core and chop them, put some sugar in, a little cinnamon, white wine, and cook it like an apple sauce—just a touch of water, but not too much. Then you purée it in a food mill (or just use applesauce) and about a half hour before the roast is finished put it on top of the pork. Put it back in the oven and it gets a golden brown. (You could serve a sauerkraut salad with that, and maybe some pickled prunes or something. That’s actually a Polish dish.)

As editor of the just-released American Harvest, which features recipes from 50 chefs across the country, Sonnenschmidt insisted each dish contain no more than five or six ingredients. Simplify, he said. Remove the mystery.

FS: The focus [of the book] is to go back to the farm, back to the ground—go back to what comes from the earth, into the pot, onto the table. You take one hour of your time to set up everything for the next day. Whoever comes home first puts it right in the microwave or oven. Everyone comes in, they sit down and eat, then watch the television or whatever. But you sit together and you talk.

We do it at home. We have everything ready for tonight: chicken legs, mashed potatoes and string beans. The beans are marinated; they just have to go in the microwave. The chicken goes in the oven. We have beets and mashed potatoes; the beets are peeled already, and cooked. We’ll put them in the food mill with some garlic. I have a wife and a dog and three cats—they help, too.

People don’t realize what you can do when it comes to cooking. They see recipes with 40 or 50 ingredients. I say: Go to the library. Look for cookbooks that are written by church ladies. And you’ll find the simplest of simple recipes. Don’t go for these cookbooks where they have the top banana in the cooking world—forget about it. Just go to the library. Go to the churches—every church has a cookbook by the ladies of the church society.

In most kitchens you have tomato ketchup and beer, two essential things in good cooking. Beer is yeast, which brings out the flavor in meat. (Beer actually is called liquid bread. That’s really why the monks made it: They had 40 days of fasting—the Bible says you can’t eat, but it didn’t say you can’t drink. So that’s why they created that heavy-duty, very strong, malty-type beer, which contained their whole vitamin structure. And alcohol to make them happy. When you think about it, it’s a very human thing.)

In most sauces you need tomatoes. At home, how many people have a can of tomato paste? Nobody—if you buy one you throw it away because you only need one tablespoon. But everybody has tomato ketchup. What’s in tomato ketchup is tomatoes, vinegar and sugar. Anytime you make a sauce, what you need is carrots, onions and celery. If you make a sauce, you put onions in it (which you have in the house), then you add tomato ketchup—the vinegar and the celery are the same in flavor—and the carrots and the sugar caramelize. So you have all the essentials you need right in the bottle.

There’s yin, and then there’s yang. Sometimes what looks simple really isn’t . . .

FS: I work a lot with fish. Fish is one of the most interesting and most difficult things to cook—such a delicate product that if you overcook it by just one minute it’s finished—it’s too dry.

First, know what kind of fish you have. Is it a firm fish, or tough, or is it light? A firm fish you can roast; you can braise. If you have a light fish, you have to poach it or saute it—it will fall apart otherwise.

The person who is not as familiar with fish could start out and do some pan frying. Make a trout, for example. (Take half bread crumbs, half hazelnuts, bread it with that, then fry it in a little olive oil.) Then go to other things.

You buy a fresh fish or a frozen fish. I would suggest if you use frozen fish, cook it frozen. Shrimp, for example—people ruin shrimps because first they defrost them, then they cook them, then they pour all the water out and they put them on ice and then they wonder why they don’t taste like anything.

Take water, add some carrots, some celery, some onion and maybe some bay leaf and some peppercorns. Let it come to a boil and let it simmer for about 10 to 20 minutes. While it’s simmering, pour the frozen shrimp in there. The moment they’re in, pull the whole thing to the side and let it just sit there as the shrimps defrost. Then you put the pot in the refrigerator til the next day. What happens is that the vegetable flavor goes right into the shrimp. They get nice and plump again. Then you peel them.

. . . and what tasted good really doesn’t.

FS: I’m in this business because in 1945 we had an American regiment in our village. I was 10 years old. The chef’s name was George and he allowed me to help him make pancakes and to pump the oven for the bread. Still today I can see the pancakes and smell them. I haven’t had a good pancake for years—pancakes have never yet matched the pancake of my memory. When you first have something that is excellent that you’ve never had, it’s in your mind always, but it gets destructive over theyears. We used to have sausage made from whey (the leftovers of the butter), and I remembered it was so good. I searched for years—I found it about 20 years ago. It was the worst thing I ever had.

He’s National Chairman of The American Academy of Chefs. He’s a Certified Master Chef. But he’s also a master storyteller and can come up with a dozen anecdotes about food at the drop of a toothpick.

FS: Food, I always say, is the center of the universe. I believe this very sincerely because everything, everything in our entire life is around food. Even love goes through the stomach. In any small part of our world there’s a food concept. It involves in many ways the family, the state, the country and beliefs. You read the Bible, for example, you find there’s food references in many forms. You look in any type of cult, there is food. You look at medicine, it’s food again.

Food has created wars. The Spanish, the Dutch, the English—they fought battles over spices and food concepts; they stole from each other. Cleopatra had ships built just to have spices moved. Columbus went out to find pepper. He found San Salvador and he found tomatoes. The Italians had no tomatoes before. No potatoes, no chocolate. Marco Polo went to China and found what was most like spaghetti. Hannibal brought garlic over from Asia Minor.

And then there are the legends. Truffles were believed to be the food of gods because Zeus himself ate truffles and once in a while threw them at other gods. When it missed the fellow, it fell off mount Olympus. Whoever found it and ate it became a half-god. In the fifteenth century, the Catholic church condemned truffles—it’s black, they said; everything black is Satan. (It is said that Jean d’Arc was actually caught eating truffles, which didn’t help her case.) Madame Pompadour, the mistress of Louis the XVI or somebody, had dishes made for him that had little truffles. So the people said there must be something in the truffles. It suddenly became an aphrodisiac.

Forks were forbidden by the Catholic church because they said the devil picks up souls with the fork. They were not allowed to have it until one of the French kings decided that nobility had to eat with satin gloves. That’s when they started eating with a fork. (At the same time, for every five people you got one spoon—they had to share. Imagine how many bacteria were running around! The thing I like: The guests actually cleaned their hands on the waiter’s hair. They had no tablecloth. I tell students when they go into service they’d better have short hair.)

On any given day you might find Sonnenschmidt in his office, surrounded by Sherlock Holmes paraphernalia (he’s a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society), dozens of frogs of every shape and size (he’s got this thing for frogs), and walls covered with awards and photos of students and friends like Jacques, Julia and Paul (as in Pepin, Child and Prudhome). You’re just as likely to spot him at a library giving a lecture on culinary history, cooking at a church supper, or demonstrating techniques at a wine store. It’s safe to say he loves his job, and he loves the Hudson Valley.

I like trout. I like rabbit. I especially like the Tivoli turkey (from Northwind Farm)—I think they have a specific flavor—there is a difference. I like geese, especially when they’re fresh. Venison—now we have domestic and we even have kosher. We have everything here. And the wine we have here really enhances food and everything else. We’re finding Hudson Valley wines in our restaurants and, finally, Hudson Valley food in our restaurants. Hudson Valley beer is outstanding. We have goat cheese here, which nobody makes better. We have foie gras here. We have it all right here.

Before the institute came, this place was what you called a culinary desert. I’m not saying this facetiously; it was. When the institute came here, in the beginning they were looked at as outsiders. The restaurants have changed—now we have some of the top restaurants in the country. I think the influence of the institute and the graduates who have stayed here have made that change. Our supermarkets have changed because of us. We’ve influenced our farms too, because we buy locally from the farms.

I always say, John Novi, I call him the father of American Cuisine. When I came up here in the ’70s, he had just bought his place. I didn’t know him; he didn’t know me. At that time he already had sushi on his menu. He had it in a carrot soup and he called it 14-carrot soup. He had sushi in there, topped with salmon caviar. Outstanding. Here is a man from the Hudson Valley who had an impact on what is today called American Cuisine. People don’t give him credit for it.

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!