The Bookmongers Book Review: Why We Cook

joyce goldstein in her kitchen
Joyce Goldstein in her San Francisco kitchen | Illustration by Lindsay Gardner

When artist Lindsay Gardner laid out her ambitious project of profiling women in the food world, from restaurateurs to line cooks, food historians to gardeners, and even a cookbook store owner like me, I loved the idea. Yet I couldn’t imagine how she would put together all the disparate information she wanted to include: essays, interviews, profiles, philosophies, conversations, and recipes.

What I had failed to grasp was that she would tie them all together with her beautiful watercolors.

I didn’t remember the snapshot she took of me in my library to paint my portrait for the book, and I was amazed by the details she captured when I saw it in print: the little ice cream sign hanging between two bookshelves, the two pink and white plates standing on the mantle, the “California Dreamin” written across my t-shirt, and, of course, the books behind me, as tempting as candies in a variety box.

Lindsay Gardener has created a book for browsing, and then browsing some more. In a book of musings from 112 women, you can open any page and find something delightful. Almost every profile or interview is contained within one or two pages, and rather than expecting to read through the book from front to back, it is meant to be read in a random and spontaneous way. You can’t go wrong. I laughed out loud as Osayi Endolyn described her Mormon landlord finding her bright pink waterproof dildo in the bathtub of her first apartment. A conversation with chefs about overcoming creative ruts has Caroline Glover of Annette in Aurora, Colorado saying, “I always go to the farmers market once a week, sometimes twice. Usually, ingredients that are in season at the same time go together perfectly. Nature makes the most balanced dishes, and I just try to get out of its way.” While Kristen Essig, chef and co-owner of Coquette & Thalia in New Orleans, notes, “I visit artists, whether in the form of museums or galleries, their Instagram pages, or large-format books. I find art to be extremely inspiring, from the content to the colors.”

While the book leans heavily towards the inspirational, there are also revelations of difficult journeys, tough decisions, and turning points. Women facing discrimination and harassment in wine and food is a oft-told story, but hearing about it directly from top chefs is both dispiriting and unifying. A conversation about obstacles women in wine have faced keeps them from coming off as victims by focusing on how they overcame those obstacles. Julia Coney, founder of Black Wine Professionals, says, “I’ve had a lot of loss in my life. My goals and perseverance come from wanting to make my family and myself proud. This work is a marathon, not a sprint. It is also not for the faint of heart.”

Gardner captures the spirit and image of each woman beautifully, both in physical portraits and in her writing style. Together, she gathers a powerful and inspiring group of women in the food world during the year before the pandemic changed everything. It is a snapshot in time and a timeless picture of some of the most important voices in food.

–Celia Sack

Excerpt from Why We Cook by Lindsay Gardner: Joyce Goldstein

Joyce Goldstein is a chef, prolific author, and restaurant consultant. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Goldstein lived in Rome as a young woman and traveled extensively throughout the Mediterranean region, an experience that exposed her to global flavors and developed her acute “taste memory.” After settling in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1960, Goldstein, who is a voracious learner and completely self-taught, founded the California Street Cooking School, San Francisco’s first international cooking school, before becoming the chef of the café at Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse.

In 1984, Goldstein opened her San Francisco–based restaurant, Square One, where she pioneered a menu that incorporated the foods of Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa. In the kitchen, Goldstein was keenly invested in educating her staff on the food they made and served and encouraged experimentation.

In the dining room, she viewed interactions with guests as a “wonderful partnership,” actively seeking feedback to relay back to the kitchen. “I never realized it was unusual,” she says. “That’s how I did it—I taught myself and I taught them.” The restaurant closed its doors in 1996, but she remains proud of the relationships she maintains with many of her staff to this day.

Goldstein says the highlights of her career include cooking many times for her culinary hero, English cookbook author and writer Elizabeth David, as well as for famed food writer MFK Fisher. Endlessly curious and ambitious, Goldstein keeps her cellar full of meticulously stacked homemade jams and preserves, made with fruit from the farmers market at San Francisco’s Ferry Building, which she visits every week.

“I am very proud of that restaurant. I’m proud of my writing. I’m proud of my family—I’ve got good kids. I was a single working parent. I’m proud that I did a lot of this on my own.”

why we cook cover

Excerpted from Why We Cook: Women on Food, Identity, and Connection by Lindsay Gardner. Copyright © 2021 by Lindsay Gardner. Art by Lindsay Gardner. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York. All rights reserved.