The Education of Rochelle Palermo
by Martin Booerochelle palermo

For my money, Rochelle Palermo is the supreme goddess of culinary ass-saving. I met her soon after I stumbled into collaboration with the maniacally talented Ludo Lefebvre, who at the time was the 26-year-old wunderkind chef of L’Orangerie. I say ‘stumbled,’ because that’s really what happened. I’d fallen through a looking glass to find that, all of a sudden, people believed I was a food writer. Worse, they expected me to know things that food writers were supposed to know. This was going to be a problem.

The upshot of all this was that I signed on to co-write a cookbook of mind-twisting ambition (for me, anyway). As we got started, I spent some very uncomfortable weeks thinking it would be up to me to test the recipes. The division of labor for cookbooks is configured in different ways, but sometimes it’s the writer’s task to, well, write the damn recipes and test them. (A lot of writers do this, and not very well.) I felt more qualified to write the pilot’s manual for Boeing 737.

So along came Rochelle. I think I found her through one of my editors at the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. I can’t quite remember how the crushing burden of dealing with the actual recipes got shifted from me to Rochelle, but it may have been the luckiest day of my life. The following is a fairly unembellished version of an original recipe as dictated to me by my dear friend Ludo, which for the record is excerpted from my book, “A Recipe for Madness”:

Big Sack of Belgian endive (I don’t know how much, just get enough for everybody, some greedy person will eat two tarts)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Some of sugar
Little bowl of orange jooz you squeeze yourself then put through strainer
fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper
Puff pastry (What you mean I have to tell you how make the puff pastry? Everybody they know this already, why I have to tell them for?)

Take away the outside leaves of the endive. Heat up some of the oil and put in the sugar. What you mean how much sugar? Put in right amount and stir until it turn brown. Then you puts in endive leaves and sauté until they turn the right color. What you mean what kind of color? It turns the right color that means it’s ready. Put in your orange jooz then Mr. Ferry he come in and start yelling at you about some shit, but you don’t pay him any attention…

Well, you get the idea, and for the record, Ludo speaks a lot more of this English now. But most chefs speak a different language than home cooks, and have a hard time writing recipes that home cooks can recreate in their mini versions of grand restaurant kitchens. They work on instinct. And the writing of the actual recipes is a strange form of technical writing that at its best, combines explicit and almost scientific instruction with a warmth of tone that reassures the reader. Rochelle delivers that.

I could go on for quite awhile about the tribulations Rochelle endured in getting those recipes into shape, but two things about the whole enterprise stand out above all. One, Cassie Jones, our editor at ReaganBooks, declared “Crave” to be “the cleanest cookbook manuscript” she’d ever had submitted. (That wasn’t me; that was Rochelle.) Second, the three of us - Ludo, Rochelle, and myself - became and remained friends.

Her bona fides are extensive and cumbersome to list, but at this point she’s tested, written, and developed recipes for enough top-shelf cookbooks and magazines to fill a pickup truck. And a number of the best, brightest, and in some cases, best-looking chefs have come to rely on her - the ascendant Aussie culinary star Curtis Stone, not being the least among them. I lost the attention of enough dinner dates who fell into a swoon when I introduced them to Ludo, so while it’s a relief that I, personally, don’t have Curtis jamming my signals, I can say that another of Rochelle’s fine qualities is that the glam factor doesn’t affect her a bit. It’s the chef’s culinary imagination and skill that inspire her, enabling her to ride in the shotgun seat, no matter how luminous her collaborator may be.

Rochelle honed her skills for four years in the pressure cooker of all test kitchens, that of Bon Appetit, and she continues to work for the moniker as a contributing writer and editor on projects like The Bon Appétit Cookbook, comprised of over 1,200 recipes; the IACP 2009 award-winning Bon Appétit: Fast, Easy, Fresh; and the brand’s forthcoming cookbook to be published in 2010. Over time, I’ve seen her continually master new applications and emerging media, evolving into a crack culinary producer in video and digital realms, and she gets my vote for Queen of All Culinary Media.

She loves a challenge and she gets plenty of them. Confronted with the ever changing demands of the food world (and I’ve never heard her complain about this), she never gets her back up. Just keeps moving ahead, resolving whatever issues pop up and making it fun for everybody. Above all, it’s never about her. It’s the audience she keeps foremost in her mind.

I don’t know a lot of people who have Rochelle’s keenness of mind combined with that bigness of heart. The two don’t always groove together, but in Rochelle, they do.

Her curriculum vita speaks for itself. I’m just pleased as planter’s punch to step forward and tell you a few things about Rochelle Palermo she probably doesn’t even know herself.