Sam Sifton Meet James Barber

Sam Sifton holds a very high place in the kitchens of the world. He is the brain behind the very popular New York Times Cooking site. His current passion is for what he calls “no recipe” recipes, which do away with exact measurements (Fanny Farmer is screaming “No!”) and fetishizes improvisation. I haven’t read his new book, but I have read Laura Shapiro’s review in the Atlantic and she calls Sifton’s ideas “an exciting, but daunting, invitation to improvise.”

“Conventional recipes that spell out each step are useful, he says, and if you follow them correctly, you’ll arrive at the destination planned for you. But that’s not the only way to get dinner on the table, and here he evokes the great jazz masters who wouldn’t dream of relying on a printed score. Each “no-recipe recipe,” Sifton explains, is “an invitation for you to improvise,” a skill that will turn you into an imaginative, stress-free cook able to wing it through the preparation of any meal.”

She does rather make it sound as if Sifton is onto something new. But …

When I came to Canada in 1978 at the age of 29, I was certainly able to cook for myself; however, boring, predictable, and safe is how I would describe my culinary arts at that time. Back then, before there were entire channels running food shows 24/7, there were a few cooking shows on TV; and the one I was attracted to was James Barber’s Urban Peasant series. It was that show that turned me into a passably good cook.

Barber’s whole method, it seems to me, was based on use what ingredients you have, improvise methods if needed, and make it as simply as possible. Having grasped those basics, I was then able to grab ideas from all over and make some really interesting meals without worrying about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. I’ve been doing that now for forty odd years.

James Barber was a Vancouver original. Sam Sifton should try some of his recipes.

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