The Beauty of Genuine Cooking

Despite the drizzle, dozens have gathered on the patio of Blue Water Cafe to celebrate the new book from New York Times recipe and opinion writer Mark Bittman. He signs, mingles, we move inside for sardines on ramp pesto, for spot prawns and clam ceviche, for sablefish with risotto, sturgeon with gnocchi…a kind of cooking that, though masterfully executed under chef Frank Pabst, is not Bittman’s favourite. Too international, too reproducible. Where’s the “here” in what he dismisses as, at heart, Cal-Italian?

At Diva at the Met the next day, we return to the topic of authenticity. A propos his new VB6 (eat healthy vegan until 6 p.m., then damn the torpedoes), people ask if they can put milk in their coffee, if he cheats, why he’s a part-time vegan. Yes, he says, and yes and “If there was another word for ‘vegan,’ I’d use it.” His is a far-ranging intellect, a well-read, probing, no-bullshit filtering of the world. He’s vegan because of health scares but only part-time because, “I’m pragmatic and I accept that no one’s perfect. It was pretty easy for me to devise this and to actually do it,” though that day’s brunch at Granville Island didn’t work. With nothing on the menu, he ordered eggs Benny, hold the eggs and sauce. “They said okay then brought me this paltry amount of spinach and mushrooms and charged me the full amount. It was obvious what I was after: they could have been generous and said, ‘We’ll give him two eggs and a hollandaise worth of vegetables.’ ”

Perhaps restaurant cooking has taken too central a role in our lives. “If you’re going for fun or you like it or whatever, fine. But it’s like people are not doing things they believe in; they’re doing concepts they think will work. That’s true everywhere. Everything is a chain, so they strive for, What’s going to work for us in Vancouver? It’s not, What does Vancouver do best? It’s, What do our clients who go stay with us in Vancouver want? Do they want it to be like New York? Like Seattle? Seattle, but slightly different? A more Asian version of Seattle?”

We’re sipping $20 ryes and bourbons, Diva is almost empty, and he’s skipping in his memory from Seattle to New York to Paris to Vancouver of a decade ago, his last trip here. He has about 100 deadlines a year for the Times across three columns, which might be some kind of record, he thinks. He takes the work seriously. “The tradition of the paper, which has not always been carried forward, but I try, is some excellence, some credibility.”

Overwhelming? “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. Rewarding and powerful. People hate me, people love me, but I’m not getting ignored.” He points to the success of VB6, about to be named a New York Times No. 1 bestseller. “If an unknown author had written it-if I’d written it under a pseudonym-it wouldn’t be there. And anyway, why tempt failure? I have a measure of success that’s almost guaranteed at his point. Do I not want success?”

David, the bartender, arrives to compliment us on our choices. He particularly appreciates that Bittman ordered Alberta Premium rye, a real rye unlike the blended fakes we think of as fundamental Canadiana. Anybody can make fake rye, it turns out. Few shoot for the real thing.