When I phone Nick Malgieri in New York City, he’s busily cooking wax beans. I call him “Mr. Malgieri,” and he insists I call him Nick. I mention that I’m honored to speak with him, and he responds: “Millions of people do, all the time, so it’s no big deal.” A few minutes into the interview, he pauses, and I can hear him chewing. He’s testing the wax beans to make sure they don’t get overcooked.
Malgieri may be known for appearances on the Food Network and with Julia Child and Martha Stewart, for his work at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and Windows on the World, for writing award-winning cookbooks, a syndicated column and countless magazine articles, but he remains, first and foremost, someone who simply loves to cook.
When I ask him if he considers himself a celebrity chef, he laughs.
“I was elected to the Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America a long time ago. That’s meant to denote people whose reputation and influence occur on a national level, but does that confer celebrity status?” he says. “It’s not the same thing when you’re stuck in front of your computer, writing recipes 32 hours a day sometimes. It would be very hard for me to consider myself a celebrity.”
Early next month, Malgieri is teaching at the Western Reserve School of Cooking in Hudson and at The Cucina at Gervasi Vineyard in Canton, but it won’t be his first visit to the area.
“When I did my first teaching tour out of New York in 1985, Cleveland and Hudson were the second and third stops. Zona Spray (the founder of the Western Reserve School of Cooking) and I met at a convention through the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals), and I was going to her school one to four times a year to teach.”
He also taught cooking classes at Buehler’s Food Markets. “That’s how I got into all of those places like Wooster, Wadsworth, Dover and Coshocton,” he says. “I once had the honor of being delivered in a Buehler’s floral delivery truck to another cooking school in Pittsburgh because there really wasn’t a practical way to get from one to the other.”
Currently serving as director of the baking program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, Malgieri knows his field, inside and out. I explain that, locally, we’d like to think this area is playing a larger role in the national culinary scene and wonder if, among the foodies in the Big Apple, Ohio is even on the radar.
“‘On the radar’ has to do with being trendy, and being trendy is basically kind of stupid. It doesn’t mean you have good food; it’s doing something outrageous to attract attention,” he says. “Certainly Ohio is not like going deep in the Midwest, where food has stayed a little bit less up-to-date. Ohio is practically the East Coast.”
Feeling downright giddy at the sound of that, I ask whether he considers cooking an art or a science, and I’m surprised at his emphatic response.
“The science part of baking is greatly exaggerated for a couple of reasons. First of all, people who fear baking say, ‘Well, you know, baking is very scientific,’ which translates to ‘Well, you know, it’s impossible to do,’” he says. “And the other part is that a lot of people try to give explanations of what happens or what you need to do with baking, with a lot of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo. If real scientists were to explain it, you wouldn’t be able to understand what they were talking about. Scientific explanations should come from scientists, not cooks or bakers.
“You know, everything you do can be explained in terms of science. Tying your shoes is all about the physics of flexible flat planes. ... I always like to stay away from stuff like that. While it might make me sound like I know a lot to people who don’t know anything, you don’t gain anything by that. You don’t need to use terms that sound like you work in a lab in order to do it.”
Malgieri says his students often realize that a technique they thought was going to be difficult is really very easy to do. “You just have to see the right way to do it,” he says. “That’s 90 percent of what it takes, having somebody show you. Just like a mother or a grandmother (would say,) ‘If you want to make a pie, that’s not the right way to roll out the dough. It’s like this.’
“The other thing about cooking and baking that you can’t deny is that there are probably 500 different ways to accomplish the same thing for almost every process that exists. … It doesn’t matter, as long as you know a way to do it. That’s always been my feeling.”
I’m sure his local students will agree.