This passage from Marco Canora’s brilliant new cookbook, A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great sounded so familiar to Danny, after 2 decades of being a restaurant chef, that he laughed out loud when he read it in bed the night we returned from New York City.
“Amped by another cigarette and a final large cup of coffee, I head into service. Six hours of bright lights, heat, speed, and constant stimulation whiz by. Though I tasted dozens of bites and ingested a full dinner’s worth of calories, it never feels like they add up to a meal. Service winds down, and I’m thinking about relaxing with a smoke and a drink. After a few of each, I start to get hungry. I ate lunch at 4:30 pm, so now that it’s 1 a.m., I’m ready for dinner. It’s how plenty of people feel when they finish their day of work, but for most it’s 6 p.m., and for me and the rest of the working chefs it’s 1 a.m.
At this hour I’m not going home and whipping up a salad. I head to Corner Bistro for a few beers topped by a cheeseburger, or go to Great New York Noodletown for a late-night Chinese feast of roast baby pig. On the nights I don’t go out, I stop by the 24-hour bodega, order ham and cheese on a hard roll with mustard and watery lettuce, smash some potato chips in it, and nail that for my 1:30 a.m. dinner just before bed. I also make up for skipping the morning cigarettes by smoking ten in the last three hours of my night.
Remarkably, this was my routine for nearly twenty years. I was overcaffeinated, dehydrated, overstimulated, and full of starch, sugar, fatty meat, alcohol, and nicotine. Until my body started to stage a revolt.”
This is, of course, not a funny passage. However, Danny laughed because it so eerily, exactly matched his life before we met. “I could have written this,” he told me as we talked before turning out the light. “Thank god you came along.”
My life has been transformed since I received a celiac diagnosis in 2005. Everything in my life has leaned toward the light of good health, an impassioned discovery of good food, accepting imperfections, and a sense of belonging to a community in a way I never did when I was sick. What I have written here for nearly a decade has been a record of that transformation. But I rarely write about how fully Danny’s life has been changed by meeting a woman who could no longer eat gluten.
Like Marco Canora, Danny worked on the line in various restaurants for over 20 years. And like nearly every chef in the business, he lived on small tastes, gulped bread and butter, cigarettes, and late-night rushed meals. When we met, Danny was eating at a chain sandwich shop nearly every night after midnight, racing to get some food into him after six hours of dinner service and an afternoon of prep before that. He was smoking a pack and a half a day. (He quit pretty quickly after we met. Afterwards, he was amazed to realize that smoking was the only way he could step outside for a breath in that frantic world.) And his eating was haphazard and rushed.
Now, he hasn’t smoked in nearly 9 years. He quit drinking after Lucy was born. He eats breakfast on a daily basis. Off the line now, he spends his days thinking of ways to make our Thursday family taco nights more interesting every week — a new salsa, a marinade of lime juice, chile powder, chipotle pepper, charred peppers, cilantro, and olive oil for black cod, cabbage shells instead of tortillas. And he eats more vegetables than he ever dreamed possible.
When I first met Danny, and he was working six days a week as the head chef at a restaurant, his best tastes came from veal stock reduction sauces, slow-braised beef, mashed potatoes with butter and cream, and decadent desserts. These days, the man is fascinated to find every single way he can think to pull flavor from a carrot.
That’s why Danny — and I — are so excited about A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great. It’s food that is meant to heal, created by someone deeply driven by a love of food. As Marco writes, “Food is the center of everything for me: my heritage, my family, social life, and entire career. In short, it’s a key player in my overall happiness. For just about anyone, the thought of overhauling your whole diet is a tough blow, but for me it fell just short of cruel. My diagnosis lit a fire under my ass to make some changes, but I knew I would be a miserable person and unable to stick to a healthy diet if I had to eat rabbit food for the rest of my life.”
Why does this culture stubbornly believe that “healthy” food is bland, nothing better than steamed vegetables and poached chicken breasts? Why is pleasure divorced from health? Where’s the joy in celery sticks and nonfat dressing? Why can’t we eat great food, consciously, food that’s full of flavor from taking the time to make it right? Why don’t we define a good food day as one where we truly savored every bite we took, instead of feeling proud of how few calories we ate?
We met Marco Canora when we were in New York a couple of weeks ago. He’s a mensch: impassioned about life, open and voluble, kind and ready to talk about food for hours. We sat at the window seat at Hearth (one of our favorite restaurants in New York) before it opened and talked about grain mills, chia seeds, and buckwheat. Marco listens, hard. And he talks fast, happy to learn more and share what he knows.
That’s the thing about good chefs: they just love food. Once they open their minds and hearts to the idea that food can truly feed us, and not merely be an act of creation, a competition, a thing of beauty meant to blow people away with its precision? Those chefs can change the way the rest of us eat. Lentil soup with tomatoes and Tuscan kale may not be as sexy as an expensive restaurant dish on a long plate with a swirl of something, a block of pork belly, a touch of lardo, dolloped with sauce. But it’s a damned satisfying dish. (I lived off this soup of Marco’s the week after New York, when Lu and I were down with the flu.)
I could have sat talking with Marco Canora all day long, but we had a dinner party to cook that night. He gave us some of his Brodo broth: I recommend the Hearth broth with freshly shaved turmeric. (This piece about the benefits of bone broth was published in the New York Times when we were there, the morning we met Marco. I highly recommend it.) Next time, I want to try the chicken with Calabrian chili oil. It’s clear that Chef Canora is jazzed about all the new discoveries he’s making, the foods he’s trying, and the good health he feels from the choices he has made.
It’s all clear in his new book, A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great. Danny and I have been reading bits of it every day. I can feel Danny’s mind changing again, shifting more toward quinoa and kale, ways to play with umami tastes, creating homemade lemon confit and shaved fennel salads instead of the pork feasts we used to make. There’s no end to what Danny and I still have to learn about food.
We’re enjoying the hell out of it.