After a life insurance company refused to issue a policy for Peter Kaminsky, pointing to a blood sugar level heightened by such gluttonous habits as eating two slices of pizza a day, the food writer spent months drinking red wine, eating steaks and developing a cookbook featuring recipes for crepes and chocolate eclairs - and lost 25 pounds in the process. Sensing his miracle story was the stuff of a self-help book, Kaminsky formalized his weight-loss theories: His newly-published Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (And Really Well) outlines how eaters can reconcile physical well-being with sensual pleasures.
Kaminsky is not a stickler (which may explain the loose grammar of the title, which recklessly puts an adjective where an adverb should go.) He loves beer, cheese, butter and bacon. But he especially loves them in moderation, which is why he believes that eaters should savor very small bites of very fatty foods, instead of loading their plates with white flour pasta slathered in cream sauce.
It's not a new idea: Viewers of Mad Men know Weight Watchers was preaching a similar message more than 40 years ago. Yet Kaminsky has the culinary cred to float the concept with eaters who would never buy a diet book. He appeals to fellow epicureans by validating their desire to try everything, a quirk that doesn't sound pathological when Kaminsky describes it. And he advocates dietary principles that owe more to Dean & DeLuca than Dean Ornish: Kaminsky suggests readers maximize their "flavor per calorie" count by eating umami-packed anchovies, Brussels sprouts, Parmesan cheese, caponata and dark chocolate cacao nibs.
The Book Larder is hosting Kaminsky this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. for a reading and discussion. I reached him yesterday by phone to talk about the book. Here, an edited and condensed version of our chat:
Hanna Raskin: When you promote a book that's not about overindulgence, are the parties as fun? As you've gone around have people taken inspiration from the book in any way?
Peter Kaminsky: That always happens with my books, you know, like when the pig book [Pig Perfect: Encounters With Remarkable Swine] came out, a lot of great chefs did nose-to-tail pig dinners. This is just getting started now, but what I really want to do is serve flavor-per-calorie stuff: Smaller portions, and let people be satisfied the best ham, the best cheese, the best beef and seasonal vegetables, and a good beer or a good wine. You will be surprised how a little goes a long way if it's a good little.
HR: That seems to be the overriding message of the book.
HR: That seems to be the overriding message of the book.
PK: That's the takeaway, and it's really critically important, but the whole three-part message is one, don't eat processed food. Two - and that's where flavor-per-calorie comes in -- eat the best, most full-flavored ingredients you can afford. And notice I said you can afford. It doesn't all have to be uni from virgin urchins.
From that a lot follows, it's often local because it doesn't lose flavor being transported. It's often seasonal, which means it's at peak of flavor. Sustainable follows from that, organic often follows from that.
The third thing is to cook. You need to cook. Human beings were not born to eat out and take in.
HR: It seemed like a lot of this advice you're giving is really common sense advice, and much of it would probably be familiar to people who've struggled with their weight and read lots of diet books, but I imagine your audience includes lots of people who've only thought about how to eat well.
PK: That is certainly true. You're right on the money on how simple it is. It is simple. People seem to think you need a complicated diet with a regiment that has every meal sketched out for the next month and, believe me, that's as spontaneous and anxiety-producing as scheduling sex for the next month. We think we need thousands upon thousands of recipes to pick from when putting good food together, once you know a few techniques, is a matter of great ingredients and common sense.
Nutritionists come out with endlessly complicated studies and, as Marion Nestle once pointed out to me, for every PhD. there's an equal and opposite PhD. The studies can drive you crazy. Can I eat fat, can I not eat fat? It was carbs, then it was no carbs. Simply chasing nutrients is going to make you nuts.
I hope in addition to recovering gourmets, [the book] is also good for normal people who are just frustrated by the complications of diet systems, scientific studies and complicated recipe books.
HR: Speaking of recovering gourmets, what do you think of these gourmets who tend to look down at Paula Deen and...
PK: Yeah, they're clueless. I have issues with, you know, the kind of food Paula's promoted or featured, but yeah, it's just snobbery of the worst kind to think you have your foie gras or your lobster poached in butter. It may be more expensive, but its' no less caloric
HR: What was your feeling about [former New York Times food critic Frank] Bruni writing about his gout experience?
PK: I got [him]. All of us in this business have occupational hazards. It's too much food, and too much of the kind of food that can give you problems. I've seen it with everyone I know in the business.
HR: You still think it's worth doing, to stay in the business and take the risk?
PK: Listen, it's very tempting when it's offered to you. Is it worth it? I've had great experiences; I've loved them. I think if I never again have a chefs multi-course meal, where I get super-extra multi-courses, I'll be fine. I much prefer a few things that I can order, anticipate, savor, remember. But it's an interesting and nice world, the world of chefs. So no huge regrets.