A common phenomenon among the food obsessed is to game-plan the next meal while eating the current one, and it doesn’t stop at dinner, either; the musing just rolls over to tomorrow’s breakfast.
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Stanley Tucci talked to Frank Bruni about it recently in the New York Times but at a cooking demonstration and book signing of The Tucci Cookbook last night, organized by Gilt City, he delved a little deeper.
“I’d wake up in the morning and my mother would talk about what we were going to have for dinner that night,” Tucci said. “Then she would come home at night from work with my dad, because they worked in the same place, and start cooking that meal. As we were eating, we were talking about how good it was and also talking about what to eat the next day. On the weekends this conversation was only compounded because there was more time.”
More than 120 rather handsome guests crammed into the small showroom—an open kitchen with industrial-sized appliances and no fourth wall—at The Kitchen NYC. Champagne was served and hors d’oeuvres passed around—bruschetta, baccalà, eggplant tapenade on toast. The servers had a tough time making their way through the crowd. Getting trays to the back of the room was a chore on par with threading through the subway platform during rush hour, and the front of the room, near the stage was a veritable blockade as guests jostled for good views. Others, less concerned with a prime spot, mingled, outfitted as if nervous to be labeled a style don’t (as though perhaps Nigel, the caustic but friendly art director Tucci played in The Devil Wears Prada might show up).
After a half-hour of eating and drinking, Tucci’s publisher, Louise Burke, introduced him. Tucci’s wife, Felicity Blunt, shimmied into a nook beside the counter. His mother and father, Joan and Stanley Sr. (pictured below with Tucci), were partially tucked behind a metal rack in the kitchen.
“I’d like to thank Mr. Stan Tucci and Joan,” Burke said, “because without them, there wouldn't be any recipes. And behind every great man there is a woman, and that would be Felicity Blunt.” The evening would prove that in the kitchen, at least, it’s still Tucci’s mother who is behind him. Tucci took his place behind the kitchen’s counter and got to work.
“We’re doing a steak oreganata,” he said, flourishing a convincing Italian accent. “A recipe from my father's family. I think? Was it your family?” Tucci asked. (Tucci’s father is from Southern Italy, “the toe of the boot,” as he explained later.)
“And a very simple carrot salad,” Tucci continued, “And I'm going to ask my mom to be my sous chef.”
Joan inched her way to the counter rather sheepishly. Tucci unwrapped a bright pink slab of top round. His mother squirmed a bit then turned to chef Patrick Connolly, a James Beard Award–winner and The Kitchen NYC’s resident chef who was cooking along with Tucci at another stove just behind him.
“My mother is already giving Patrick orders and telling him to pat the steak dry,” Tucci said. “Otherwise, as Julia Childs taught us, it won't brown.”
“Stanley, that's too thick, isn’t it?” Joan said about the hunk of meat, “Shouldn't it be a little thinner?
Tucci held a large butcher knife vertically over the steak. Joan shuttered.
“This way,” she said quietly, restraining herself and then held her palm up to indicate a horizontal cut.
“So we are going to cut the steak lengthwise and then you want to give it a nice pound.” Tucci said, “That's terrible, it's all going to sound sexual from here on.”
The recipes in the book were culled from Joan’s stash, which had previously been handed down from her mother, Tucci’s maternal grandmother, Mrs. Tropiano. Tucci freely admits that all his skills in the kitchen come straight from these two women. He’s like a culinary Charles Van Doren being fed all the right answers from just behind the metal rack in the kitchen.
As the demonstration wore on, there was barely a moment when Joan didn’t chime in with quiet, knee-jerk comments here and there.
“Oh! That’s too thin. Stop.” Joan said as Tucci pounded the steak with his mallet. He began cutting the garlic.
“Oh! Don’t cut it too small.” his mother said, “It will burn.”
“This is absolutely how they cook together.” I overheard Louise Burke say to Tricia Boczkowski, his editor. “Actually they yell at each other.”
“I know, yeah," Boczkowski said. "That's why I'm so surprised Joan is so quiet."
Tucci seared the steak and set it aside, and then turned the heat down and added some wine and oregano. With a popping sound liquid splattered all over the stove; still too hot.
“That’s how I do it every time,” Tucci joked.
“Taste the sauce. Taste it,” Joan implored. “You lost half of the wine in the…” and then clapped her hands together to indicate the previous wine splatter. She gave him a pot holder, seconds before Tucci would have reached for it himself.
Tucci poured the sauce over the steak, finalizing the dish, and began on the carrot salad, which is really just shaved carrots in olive oil and lemon; not simple enough for Tucci to fend off further instruction, though (Joan looked mildly displeased at the thought of Tucci using the steak knife to cut the lemons.) With the salad ready, the demonstration came to a close
“Thank you all for coming and I wish you the best of luck in your culinary endeavors,” Tucci said. “Don't eat anything that I made, eat everything that he made,” he said, pointing to Connolly, “I'm the pretend chef, the pretend author. [My parents] are the real authors and [Connolly] is the real chef.
As Tucci made his way to sign some books, his mother sampled some of what Connolly had cooked.
“Oh Patrick did a really good job with this,” she said.
“Which one did Stanley do,” Stanley Sr. inquired. Joan pointed to Tucci’s bowl.
“Yeah, the other one is better,” he said with smile.