When Bath Beach author Sarah Zorn set out to write Brooklyn’s Chef Table, she wanted to string together her love of Brooklyn, her love of writing, and her love of food into a published work that fittingly featured all three.
Her goal was to highlight a recipe from as many neighborhoods as possible — from Bensonhurst to Sheepshead Bay; Red Hook to Borough Park.
“It’s a coffee-table book. It’s a great history of Brooklyn,” she says.
And, unlike so many cookbooks already on the market, Sarah decided to use her experience as a writer (she’s the food editor for Brooklyn Magazine and the L Magazine) to tell the second, parallel story of the chefs, pastry-makers, and pitmasters often richer than the food itself.
With narratives from Southern Brooklyn interspersed between the 50-plus featured recipes, Sarah spotlights the buttermilk nage, bucatini pie, pupusas de queso, and winter white pearl sangria — to name a few — that make Brooklyn’s food attitude so unique. From the get go, she says that her dream was not only to produce a book, chock full of pictures, about the chic-and-happening restaurant boutiques of Williamsburg. She wanted to write about the other guys, too.
“I never wanted to create a hipster book,” she says.
Sarah, a born-and-raised Brooklyn girl, and avid reader of former Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema, says she used to pick up the paper and read Robert’s column on the train first, to ward off creepy train-men from talking to her, and shortly after, because she began to adore their shared obsession for food.
And when Amy Lyons, editorial director of Globe Pequot Press, called and asked her to write a cookbook about Brooklyn restaurants, Sarah (upon realizing it wasn’t “a prank call”) set out to do just that.
In a book that profiles what Sarah calls “amazing food porn” she interviews renowned chefs and pinpoints their favorite recipes.
“I want it to say to the home-cook, ‘It’s gorgeous and it’s food and you can do it at home,’” she says.
Rather than instructing which meal to showcase, Sarah says she asked the restaurant owners for their most beloved works.
“Telling restaurants what I wanted would be a real injustice,” she says. “I’d tell them, ‘Give me something that you think really represents the heart and soul of your restaurant.”
Among her favorite foods, (“Don’t make me choose!”) are four meals from L & B Spumoni Gardens (2725 86th Street), Southern Brooklyn’s hometown staple for Italian-food addicts. The pisan farmhouse pasta, dueling pork chops, sardinian-style shrimp, and baccala-style lemon sole a la Romana are among the coveted recipes.
Chef and co-owner of L & B Spumoni Gardens, Lenny Kern, and his team especially stood out to Sarah. Unlike many of the other celebrated chefs in the book, Kern didn’t share his classic recipe via Word Document. He wrote it on the back of a napkin.
When they invited Sarah to the restaurant for a traditional four-hour Italian dinner, she says they told her, “We’ll feed you and write these down together.”
“They’re that kind of people. Their recipes come from the tips of the fingers and the depths of their souls,” Sarah says.
It was that authenticity that she fell in love with.
She adds, “It was such an experience. It was the true representation of food and love.”
Another author-favorite is the A.L.C. Grocery on 3rd Avenue. Modeled after Bensonhurst’s famous salumerias, like D. Coluccio & Sons, Sarah says current A.L.C. owner Louis Coluccio is modernizing the industry while preserving his family’s business.
“What he’s doing is expanding upon the tradition,” she says. “It’s not just a continuation of his family’s business, but a representation of where his family is today.”
Stories like this one, of an air-dried salami bodega in Bensonhurst that gave birth to the A.L.C. Grocery in Bay Ridge, are woven into the pages of Sarah’s book.
Brooklyn’s Chef Table hits bookshelves on December 2, 2013.