By Joan Baum
Peter Gethers, who lives in Sag Harbor when he’s not in the city or “whenever possible” in Sicily, has had two memorable loves in his 62 years that stand out from all others in their having generated deep connection between his personal and professional life. One love, which went public 26 years ago, was his “purrfect” Scottish Fold, cat Norton, whose travels with the author were chronicled in the best seller, “The Cat Who Went To Paris” (the first of a trilogy). Gethers’ other and greater love was his mother, the remarkable Judy Gethers, who at the age of 53 turned her life around with “an extraordinary second act” as a world-class gourmet chef (she modestly preferred the word “cook”) and, in the process, turned. Gethers’ life around. “My Mother’s Kitchen,” most of which was written before she died last year at the age of 93, celebrates how Judy Gethers inspired Peter Gethers — and so many others — to find, as the subtitle of the memoir puts it, “the meaning of life” by way of cooking and enjoying good food with family and friends.
Early on in the memoir Gethers describes how he started obsessing about his relatives and realized that ”going back generations, there was one thing that unquestionably dominated my family dynamic in a bizarre variety of ways: food.” He admits he really didn’t know about the foods his mother loved most of all, especially after she became famous. He determined not only to find out what they were — not easy after she succumbed to a recurring stroke — but to learn how to make those dishes for her as a great final dinner. Alas, he never got to do the dinner, but he had started writing the memoir before she died, and thus he decided to keep as much as possible in it in the present tense.
The granddaughter of a famed dairy restaurant owner on the Lower East Side, Ratner’s — his mother always liked to eat well but was never actively involved with the family business, which was eventually sold. (Meyer Lansky, among many famous and infamous regulars, particularly loved the cheese blintzes.) Fast forward to L.A. and Judy Gethers, one day sitting with her producer-director husband in Ma Maison, Wolfgang Puck’s tendy upscale restaurant, when she suddenly decided she wanted to learn to cook. She told the celebrated chef who said he’d put her to work as a unpaid intern in his kitchen: “You’ll be our slave but after a year you’ll be a real French cook.” Her loving husband, the author’s father, was totally supportive, proud of the little lady from Brooklyn’s desire to be her own person. And middle-aged Judy Gethers, who, before this decision, hadn’t worked a day in her life outside the home, found an identity.
She took to her new career con brio, exuding a generosity and warmth that made her the confidante and loving colleague of many a leading culinary light, including Julia Child, who taught alongside her at Ma Maison, where Puck appointed Judy Gethers the first manager of his cooking school. As Puck reportedly said, Judy Gethers was the “Ma” in Ma Maison, “its heart and soul.” As for her younger son, Peter, 22 at the time his mother made her life-altering move, he was, at turns, shocked, disbelieving, amazed, challenged and finally, movingly, deeply in awe of his mother’s determination, taste and expertise.
A testimony of admiration not only for his mother but also for his father, a failed actor turned successful playwright, TV producer and wine expert, “My Mother’s Kitchen,” with tears and joy, pays tribute to the importance of passion, perseverance and love. After getting imminent death sentences from the age of 40 on — eventually for four kinds of cancer and two major strokes —Gethers’ mom defied the odds, even going out with her hospice nurse weeks before she died last February to eat a pastrami sandwich. With mustard and pickles. Judy Gethers also developed a good appreciation of wine and mixed drinks and especially of Yquem, which Gethers writes is, “without question, the greatest dessert wine on the planet” (at a recent auction a bottle from 1811 went for $117,000).
The book is a bit overly detailed and not that revealing about the author’s own life, but it swells with engaging anecdotes augmented by easy-to-follow recipes and folksy family photos, and makes a strong case for food as the ultimate prompt to learn about others . . . and ourselves. Though he does include some complicated dinners, Gethers’ comments on preparation and ingredients are down to earth, especially as he invites readers to make substitutions and do what they can. After describing how to make country-style Italian bread crumbs, for example, he says it’s OK to buy store-bought. “If you serve them in a little bowl with a saucer, people will think they’re better than they are.”
Of course, not everyone is blessed with loving parents who loved each other as well as their children and grandchildren, and Gethers does acknowledge family tensions, some of them ugly. “Love can fade. Families can break apart. Nothing you do in the kitchen can really alter that,” he writes. But what “My Mother’s Kitchen” shows, joyously, nostalgically, is that cooking can give hope. “Hope that by combining different ingredients we can somehow create something newer and better. Something magical. It gives us hope that if we try again, maybe we’ll get it right.”
Peter Gethers will be talking about his memoir on Saturday, June 10 at 5 p.m. at Book Hampton, 41 Main Street in East Hampton. For more information, visit bookhampton.com
Though Judy Gethers’ special favorites included Wolfgang Puck’s Salmon Coulibiac, it’s too long and complicated to copy here. The recipe that follows, however, was also a “must have.”
Soulferino’s Steak with Truffle Cream Sauce,
¼ cup heavy cream
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Thinly shaved fresh truffles, to taste
Whisk together the cream and the egg yolks until thoroughly mixed. Place in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the lemon juice and olive oil gradually, whisking as you add. Add the shaved truffles. Stir gently for about 5 minutes.
1 small tournedos of beef per person
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Over high heat with a bit of olive oil, char each side of the beef. Don’t cook through, just brown each side.
Put the tournedos in the oven and cook for exactly 15 minutes (although check after 10, just to be safe). This should leave you with perfect, medium-rare tournedos for everyone.