Barbara Kafka: Always ahead of the culinary curve

By Michele Kayal

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Too bad American modernist chef Wylie Dufresne didn't know that before they met. In a widely circulated Internet video, Kafka tries a piece of the Michelin-starred chef's "beet gel" — think fruit leather — then roasts him over his use of "chemicals," and argues with him in favor of traditional ingredients, such as sugar and the naturally occurring pectin in fruits.

"I thought because of stuff like the microwave cookbook, that she might actually be mildly curious or interested," Dufresne says, making clear that he respects Kafka. "I was caught a little off guard by it."

But he needn't have been. In these days when so much in the food world is precious, so much overblown, Kafka remains practical to her core. She's your no-nonsense grandmother.

"She's our conscience," says the Beard Foundation's Davis. He recalls a remark she made to him years ago, when he was just staring out. "I was a young and eager food person and she said 'You know, honey, you didn't invent food. It wasn't invented today.' She was right. It's really good to have that link because we so easily forget."

Kafka's dislike of Adria and his modernist ilk seems less tied to their food than to what that food represents. Kafka says the era of high-tech presentations, celebrity chefs and cooking as reality TV has disenfranchised the people who should be cooking: home cooks.

"They think they're inadequate," she says, "which isn't true. It's really very simple. One just has to relax and do it."

The "intolerant" Kafka concedes that she's "a difficult person in some ways." Even the famously genial Pepin — who adores her, remembering the way she brought Champagne to his hospital room during a long convalescence — admits that working with Kafka can be "challenging."

"She's always full of ideas and always wants to push the envelope a little bit," Pepin says. "But certainly she was very good at what she was doing."

But that brashness and bravado has served her well. A woman when there were no women in the kitchen, Kafka consulted at some of New York's top restaurants. Just 5 feet tall and a mere 100 pounds, she went toe-to-toe with profanity slinging chefs, and told off anyone who tried to carry a pot for her. And what is sometimes interpreted as crankiness, says Davis, actually is something much more valuable: honesty.

"She tells it like it is," he says. "When someone says 'This needs salt' or 'This guy's a schmuck,' that's refreshing. And it's also telling of her time. She pre-dates the world of the publicist and everyone's on TV and every word is Twittered and blogged."

Kafka even famously took on James Beard himself — a hulking, giant of a man — the first time they met. The food world newcomer argued so vigorously with Beard about the merits of kidney fat that he stormed out of the room. Eventually, he came back. And a long, professional relationship was born.

"She often enjoys getting her hackles up, but that's just the beginning of the collaboration," says The Atlantic's Kummer. "It's just the intensity of the engagement that interests her. It doesn't matter who's coming from where."

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