Chef Interview With Ruth Gresser of Pizzeria Paradiso in Washington, DC
I met Chef Gresser after doing some research on pizza making in our outdoor wood-burning oven. I found her site and pizza videos and sent her an email. She was kind enough to answer my questions and after that take time out of her busy schedule to speak with me by phone for over an hour. You can see some of what I learned from Ruth on my fresh homemade pizza help blog posting.
Ruth may just be one of the finest pizza makers around and has been praised for her work by The Washington Post, The Washington Business Journal and the Zaget’s Restaurant Guide. She is a graduate of Madeleine Kamman’s Classical and Modern French Cooking School in Glen, New Hampshire and was a guest chef at the famous Chez Panisse in California.
I am very appreciative Chef Gresser took time to answer these questions and she offers great insight to anyone young or not-so-young thinking of going to culinary school to start a career in the food industry. Her honesty and frankness are quite refreshing. I hope you all enjoy what Ruth has to share with us and please be sure to check out her How to Make Pizza Videos. It starts with How to Make Pizza Dough here.
Chef Ruth, when we chatted on the phone you told me you were in the restaurant business for years before you decided to go to culinary school. What do you think originally attracted you to this industry?
Simply put I like to cook, I have always liked to cook and while I went to college to become a chemist, I didn’t like the way the labs smelled. Chemistry was the right path, just the wrong ingredients. Once I recognized that food chemistry could be a career, I was set on my present path. Food and chemistry brought me to the restaurant business and the pace, camaraderie, and exactitude kept me in it.
Your mom owned a catering business in Baltimore while you were growing up. How much of an influence was she on your chosen career path?
Food has always been a fundamental part of my family’s rituals and traditions, from steak sandwiches during football games to gefilte fish at the Jewish High Holy Days. My mother’s hearth was center of our household. So cooking and food became a passion for me and developed into a career. My mother also warned me that the path could be a difficult one. She cautioned that working in the food business meant that I would “be working while everyone else is playing”.
You mentioned you were working in San Francisco at various restaurants when you decided to take some classes and then eventually worked with Chef Robert Reynolds at his popular Le Trou Robert. How did you decide it was time to take classes, how did you find Chef Reynolds and what effect did he have on your culinary education?
This question tests my memory neuro-pathways. What I remember is that I was working at a French restaurant In San Francisco, and that I was completely enamored with French cuisine. However the restaurant offered limited exposure and learning opportunities. I wanted to grow more, and grow more quickly, so I began researching other ways to advance my cooking knowledge. This led me to Robert and his school. Robert introduced me to careful, fine cooking based on solid technique, and this became the foundation upon which I then built a career.
I found it very interesting both you and Chef Reynolds trained with legendary culinary instructor Madeleine Kamman, who I just read began her teaching career right here in Philadelphia at the Adult Education School in 1962. Was Chef Reynolds a deciding factor in your moving back east to New Hampshire to study at Madeleine Kamman’s Classical and Modern French Cooking School?
One reason that I chose to work with Robert was because of his association with Madeleine. At the time Robert was teaching in San Francisco and Madeleine was teaching in France, so I began my studies with Robert. Working with him reinforced my intuition that Madeleine’s teaching was essential to my personal growth as a cook. He whetted my appetite, and while I learned much from Robert, the notion of studying directly with Madeleine was fueled rather than dampened. When Madeleine returned to the US, I jumped at the chance to study with her and at the first opportunity landed at her school in New Hampshire.
Can you tell us a little about Chef Kamman’s philosophy towards cooking and how it changed the way you approached cooking professionally?
There was an intellectual and historical framework for the way she approached food. The first day of class included a field trip to view the path of icebergs through the Green Mountains. The lesson, food is part of history and there is a lot more to learn than recipes. In the kitchen, everything was done with care, using quality ingredients, simple flavor structure – often based on a triumvirate of flavors, and solid technique. I found that I had a great affinity to Madeleine’s food and her teaching style. I soaked it all in and it has influenced all the cooking I have done since.
After moving to Washington DC and working in a few high end restaurants, you decided to make a dramatic change in your career and open Pizzeria Paradiso ranked one of the best restaurants in the DC area by The Washingtonian for 15 consecutive years. Wow! Why the change and how did you decide to focus on pizza?
It was time for a change for me. I wanted to work in a less formal, more accessible environment. I was convinced that fine dinning didn’t have to be the only venue for fine cooking. I took my experience and my knowledge and utilizing solid technique and quality ingredients applied it to the most popular food in America. The result has been well received and lots of fun. Yes, it was a huge change, but it has been a rewarding one.
Lot’s of high school students thinking of going into the culinary industry as well as adults looking to change careers contact me about the pros and cons of attending culinary school. I would like to ask you some questions about getting a culinary education that may help them with their decisions.
First, what advice would you give someone thinking of going to culinary school today?
Work in a professional kitchen full time for at least one year before you decide to invest in school. During that time you should be able to determine if the food business suits you. If it does, your experience should lend some help in determining which school best satisfies your food interest.
How important is a formal education? Is it necessary? What are some alternatives?
I believe by formal you mean a traditional cooking school setting. That kind of training is not essential but it may advance your education more quickly. Notice I did not say that it will advance your career more quickly, it may, but it may not. The most obvious alternative to a structured school education, is to work different positions at various carefully chosen restaurants where you can learn the business from inside the business.
Do hiring chefs look at what school someone attended? How much does the school they graduated from influence them?
What school an job applicant attended will factor in a chef’s assessment of a cook along with the applicant’s job experience and goals. I believe, in general, that an experienced, well-rounded applicant who performed well at school will have a good chance of gaining a position regardless of which school they attended. Of course there is the story of the chef that I worked for a long time ago who said he would never hire people from a particular school because his experience with graduates from that school had been negative. So yes, it can influence a chef in their hiring decision, both positively and negatively.
Let’s say I decide I wanted to go to culinary school, what criteria should I look at when choosing a school? (location, reputation, cost, faculty, etc)
I would look at the faculty first. There are a lot of people who can teach cooking. The question becomes are you interested in the kind of cooking they teach. Then there are great cooks who are not great teachers. I would research the faculty to determine if the people teaching at a school you are interested in attending make the quality of food you are interested in learning and that they can teach you how to make it.
What personality traits do you think are necessary to be successful in culinary school and then in the restaurant world after you graduate?
Organized, resilient, goal oriented, a little compulsive, an ability to handle stress, social.
In your opinion, what are the “right” reasons for going to culinary school?
You love to cook and you want to learn more and more about food and cooking and you want to learn it quickly.
What about the “wrong” reasons?
These days, I’d say don’t go to cooking school because you want to be a star chef.
Let’s talk a little about novice home cooks like myself. I get lots of email from home cooks who tell me they are in a “cooking rut”, preparing the same 5 or 6 recipes, week after week because they are comfortable with these dishes and their families enjoy them. Any advice to help them climb out of their ruts?
Two things come to mind and the premise is the same for both, play. The first idea is take your family’s favorite ingredients and cook them in new ways. By using the favorite ingredients you know that the family will at least give them a try. Just do one new dish a week, so you don’t overwhelm yourself or your family. If you are lucky, your family will like all of the new dishes you try and you will over time have new dishes in your pantry. If you do this regularly, maybe not every week, but often, your favorite 5 or 6 will constantly change.
The second idea is to plan a dinner party and make all new dishes. I know they say never do this, but get your guests involved. Tell them. If you have friends who cook maybe you could do potluck all-new-dishes-dinner-parties and you can compare the results. Make it fun, play. Don’t be scared, it’s just food.
I’m hoping we will be having many more discussions about my pizza making techniques that I will be sharing with my readers but I’m wondering what top 3 or 4 cooking mistakes you see home cooks make and what can they do to correct them?
In terms of pizza making the biggest mistake that I see from home cooks is that their dough is not wet enough. Next would probably be working the dough too much when they are shaping the pizza. Third is overtopping the pizza, and fourth would be topping the pizza with ingredients that need different lengths of time to cook.
What are your 5 favorite cookbooks and why?
I’m a Madeleine fan, so she gets the first two spots with:
The Making of a Cook (otherwise known as my cooking bible and reference) and
When French Women Cook.
Then there is Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery. I have made bread from the starters I grew using her recipe for over ten years now. I have a white, a whole wheat and a rye starter. The starters, and the recipes work and the breads are delicious.
Next, is The Williamsburg Cookbook. It is a reprint of an historical American cookbook and it is a fascinating read.
Lastly I have to mention the cookbook from my mother’s kitchen-the American baker’s favorite- Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook. I wouldn’t go anywhere else for a simple white cake and pancake batter.
What 3 kitchen tools or gadgets should every home cook own and why are they so important?
I’m a fundamentalist, so I’m not much for gadgets, but, beyond the essentials, I would have a dough scraper, and a wooden spatula that fits your hand and a food mill. The first two are simply tactile for me. I love to make bread by hand and a dough scraper makes it so much easier and fun. Second, I always have a favorite spatula to use at the stove that makes me feel more connected to what I am cooking. And the food mill is because I love pureed cream soups.
What is your signature dish or favorite recipe. Can you share it with us?
I’m known for pizza, so I’ll include my whole wheat dough recipe. But a favorite recipe that I like to make periodically is curing my own corned beef then I make half-sour pickles to go with it. If you think anyone is interested in those I can point them in the right direction.
Whole Wheat Pizza Dough
- 1 and 1/2 cups warm water
- 1 teaspoon yeast
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 cups whole wheat flour
Place the water into the bowl of an electric mixer. Dissolve the yeast in the water and let it stand until it begins to bubble. Add the salt and oil to the water and mix well with a whisk.
Place the flour in the mixer bowl and place the bowl onto the mixer. Using the dough hook for the mixer on the lowest speed, mix the flour into the water until a rough dough is formed. Raise the speed of the mixer slightly and knead the dough until the texture is smooth and elastic, about 5 or so minutes.
To test the dough, turn off the machine, and press the dough with your fingertip. When it springs back the dough is ready to set to rise. Let the dough rise in a covered bowl for 1 hour or until double.
Cut into 2 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball, cover and let rise for 1 hour more. Flatten each ball and roll or stretch to a 12″ circle.
Where do you see yourself as a chef 5 years from now?
This is the hardest question you have asked. I am turning fifty this year and everything seems subject to examination. I can only say that as I continue to cook, I hope I continue to grow and learn, that I continue to satisfy my customers, and enjoy it all.
Thanks Ruth for a great interview filled with valuable information for anyone thinking of attending culinary school.