(Soundbite of traffic)

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

TV Chef Tyler Florence lives way downtown in New York City, a short walk from the heart of Chinatown.

Chef TYLER FLORENCE (Author, "Eat This Book: Cooking With Global Fresh Flavors"): Yeah, see, right now, we're at the corner of Grand and Chrystie Street, which is full--you know, 'cause this is where the hustle, bustle starts. Can you smell the ginger already?

WERTHEIMER: I can...

Chef FLORENCE: Can you smell it?

WERTHEIMER: I'm mostly smelling shrimp.

Chef FLORENCE: Well, yeah, which is kind of cool, too. There's lots of great fish markets here, too.

WERTHEIMER: Neighborhoods are where Tyler Florence finds much of his inspiration for food, neighborhoods around the world. But we're in his own neighborhood today, street stands, open-air markets selling shoes and shirts and shrimp, whatever you need to sustain life. We are gathering ingredients for a lunchtime feast, starting in a tiny restaurant called New York Noodletown.

Chef FLORENCE: Let me see that whole--can I get a whole duck cut up, please?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah. OK.

WERTHEIMER: Now why are we buying takeout duck?

Chef FLORENCE: Because what we're gonna...

WERTHEIMER: ...(Unintelligible) world-famous chef.

Chef FLORENCE: No. Yeah, well, this is, you know, delicious stuff. What we're going to make today...

Unidentified Man: Here's your duck.

Chef FLORENCE: Oh, thank you very much. We're going to make some pork and ginger sui mai, and we're also going to make a shiitake miso soup with steamed bass and udon noodles we're going to pick up. But I thought this was so great. Like, we're just going to, like, buy this, 'cause I want you to try it, and we're just going to snack on it later.

WERTHEIMER: Florence has a show on cable TV's Food Network called "Food 911." He swoops in and saves hapless chefs from destroying dinner, but he also writes cookbooks. His new one is called "Eat This Book: Cooking With Fresh Global Flavors." If you've seen his show, you'll recognize the dishy photo on the cover, the chef, himself, looking a little like a brooding Matt Damon.

Our next stop, a long, cool room with a fog of flour in the air: the Hong Hop Noodle factory, making noodles for 92 years.

Chef FLORENCE: We're going to walk in there and grab some udon noodles and some won tons. We're going to make some sui mai, which is small, little steamed dumplings.

WERTHEIMER: What do you put inside them?

Chef FLORENCE: Shrimp, pork, ginger, some shiitake mushrooms. It's really nice.

All right. So what you're looking at right now, it's--we're inside of a noodle factory where--you see those great little packages of won tons. This is where they make them, or one of the many shops here in Chinatown where they actually make these things. And they'll roll it out really paper-thin, these huge machines, and they'll stack it up. And there's probably, you know, 200 layers there. They're all cut by hand. So, yeah, these are the Cadillac of won tons wrappers.

OK, so we got that, and then we're going to grab some big, chunky udon noodles, which will be great, too, so it's going to be the base for our soup, all right.

WERTHEIMER: The streets in Chinatown are cobblestone, narrow and crowded. Brooklyn is just over the bridge. The Empire State Building is in sight. But right here, it feels more like Beijing.

Chef FLORENCE: OK, so we're going to--about to walk into the Deluxe Food Market which is right across the street. And right now, we're on the corner of Hester and Mott. This is--it's ...(unintelligible) really loud in there. It's really busy, right, so just stay tight.

(Soundbite of market activity)

WERTHEIMER: Here we go.

Chef FLORENCE: OK, so this is one of the great markets in Chinatown, and they have everything here, so this is, like, the market really kind of supports the neighborhood. OK, so what we're going to do here is we're gonna grab some ground pork. ...(Unintelligible) grab some ground pork from these guys. And we're also gonna grab--what can we get here? Some ground pork, and we're going to get some ginger, and we're going to get some other produce and stuff here.

WERTHEIMER: The market is packed with people. Refrigerator cases are filled with fresh things you'd like to see at your local supermarket, but they also have other parts of the poultry, and I noticed bricks of pig's blood. Tyler Florence fits right in, shouldering his way through the crowd, shopping fast and talking faster. Florence grabs ground pork and garlic, and we're off to find the next ingredient.

Chef FLORENCE: OK. All right. So what we're going to do now, we're going to walk into this fish market, and we're going to grab some shrimp.

WERTHEIMER: So this is the fish market you like?

Chef FLORENCE: Yeah, this is a fish market I like a lot--it's right on the corner of Chrystie and Grand, on the south side of the street--because I think the fish is the freshest. They usually have a really good selection. So we're going to grab some shrimp. We're also going to grab some black sea bass that we're going to steam, as well.

WERTHEIMER: He is meticulous about his fish, poking his finger in the gills, inspecting, smelling, directing the fishmongers and offering me words of caution.

Chef FLORENCE: Linda, watch out for the crabs, all right. You got to be careful, man, they'll bite you. We got everything, right? So we got the duck, which we're going to snack on. It's really good. And we got everything for the sui mai, which would be pork and ginger, and I got a little bit of jicama in there which is for a little bit of crunch. And we got ginger, and we got some garlic. We got some sesame oil and some cilantro. I think that's going to be really nice. We got that and...

WERTHEIMER: We've got the won tons.

Chef FLORENCE: And we got the won tons.

WERTHEIMER: The little wrappers.

Chef FLORENCE: We got the udon noodles. We got the bass. We got the ginger. So now we're going to walk back to my apartment, and we're going to make some lunch.

WERTHEIMER: Oh, boy.

Chef FLORENCE: Yeah.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

WERTHEIMER: Back up Chrystie Street to Tyler Florence's third-floor walk-up and into a big room with a flat-screen TV at one end and a sleek, open kitchen at the other, a stylish mix of stainless steel and antiques. First, the messy stuff, shelling shrimp for the dumplings, the sui mai.

Chef FLORENCE: OK. So what we're going to do with the shrimp itself--all right. So you got a paring knife?

WERTHEIMER: Right.

Chef FLORENCE: Grab a paring knife. All right. So what you're going to do is you're going to take the blade and kind of hold it in your hand between your thumb and your forefinger. All right. Pull the blade against you. And what we're going to do is we're going to take the tip of the knife and stick it up into the shell, that space right there. OK.

WERTHEIMER: All right.

Chef FLORENCE: All right. And you're going to hold the shrimp, and you're going to crack it open like a tin can, OK, all the way to the last segment. Kind of rock it back and forth like that. OK. And then the shell comes off in one big piece. See that?

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

What I was impressed with, looking at the book, was that there are some things that are exotic-sounding, but when you start reading the recipe, they don't look like they'd be hard to do.

Chef FLORENCE: You know, cooking is something that's really sort of basic, and it's the one thing that kind of ties it all together as culture. The recipes, you know, when you travel around and, you know, you go to, like, Bologna in Italy, and you watch someone make pasta, and then you go to, you know, south of France, and you watch someone make bouillabaisse, it's the subtle nuances that make a big difference.

And in my book, it's--all the recipes are written as if you and I are having a conversation. So it's subtle nuances about, you know, how long you cook the dinner, how thick the broth should be or, you know, how thin you should roll the pasta are all kind of well-explained, so you really kind of get it as if I'm just kind of standing there right beside you and kind of talking through it.

WERTHEIMER: Well, I like--one of the things you say in the book is you give it--you talk about before you fry something, say, you give oil a one-two count.

Chef FLORENCE: Yeah, a one-two count. Yeah, so instead of measuring one tablespoon. And that was something I really had to talk my editor into, 'cause she couldn't--she didn't understand, like, `What do you mean, a one-two count? I don't think anyone's going to understand that.' But you get what I'm talking about, right? You hold the bottle up, you go, `One, two,' and then it's about two tablespoons. 'Cause, you know, I think people are very intimidated when you start to talk about exact measurements. But recipes--and it should be about, like, intuition. It should be about something that you can just kind of think through and just kind of feel, 'cause, you know, that's the art of good cooking, is just sort of kind of understand and really kind of feel what the food is all about.

WERTHEIMER: Do you imagine that if you cook out of this cookbook for, you know, a few weeks, that you wouldn't necessarily look at the cookbook when you cook?

Chef FLORENCE: Definitely not. And let's just say you make the same recipe twice, you know, or you make the same recipe out of the book two or three times, then all of a sudden, you own it, it's yours. I mean, for the most part, you might want to go back for a reference, but you'll always have it. It will always be yours to...

WERTHEIMER: Maybe might go back and look at the list of ingredients.

Chef FLORENCE: Yeah, but other than that, you understand the method.

OK, so we got about two pounds of shrimp here.

WERTHEIMER: Here's another one.

Chef FLORENCE: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: You're faster than I am at this...

Chef FLORENCE: That's all right.

WERTHEIMER: ...to say the least.

Chef FLORENCE: You guys should see this. I've got a pile. I've got about 50 shrimp shells, and I think Linda's got about five.

WERTHEIMER: That's it. I know. You're right. You know, I think I could do this faster with my fingers, which is how I've always done it.

Chef FLORENCE: Oh, really, huh? That's all right.

WERTHEIMER: Chef Florence rinses the shrimp and starts chopping ginger, Asian greens and fresh shiitake mushrooms. We're sort of helping and snacking on that takeout duck which is delicious.

Chef FLORENCE: And I'm going to actually grind this stuff up in the food processor, just make sure it's really well-combined, but for the most part, this is it. I'll just...

(Soundbite of chopping)

WERTHEIMER: That poor mushroom never had a chance.

In goes the ground pork, the mixture to be stuffed into the delicate squares of pasta, the little silky won ton wrappers.

Chef FLORENCE: All right. OK. Look at that. Isn't that great? And then you have this really beautiful filling. And it's--'cause we incorporated the egg white, it's almost mousselike, you know, really soft. So when you bite into it--when you steam it and you bite into it, it really melts in your mouth.

(Soundbite of grinding)

WERTHEIMER: You have three pepper grinders.

Chef FLORENCE: One's got white pepper, one's got coriander seed, and one's got black pepper.

WERTHEIMER: I see.

Chef FLORENCE: It depends on what kind of mood I'm into.

WERTHEIMER: All of it goes into two levels of bamboo steamers, a tower set on a wok which is already filled with simmering spicy soup.

A man and his sharpening steel.

Chef FLORENCE: Dull knife, dull chef.

WERTHEIMER: Tyler Florence takes a knife to the fresh, black sea bass which will go in the top of the steamer with thin slices of ginger and sprigs of herbs.

Chef FLORENCE: Isn't that flesh beautiful inside, the red?

WERTHEIMER: Beautiful.

Chef FLORENCE: OK, so we're taking the top layer of our bamboo steamer, right, and we're going to add, sort of squeeze all our little fish pieces in like that, and that's it, done. I'm going to let this stuff cook up. And we got our starter, which is a pork and ginger sui mai, it's cooking away. And we've got our main course, which is our black bass, which is steaming with ginger, cilantro, salt and pepper and a little bit of sesame oil. So the whole thing's going to take about maybe 12, 15 minutes to cook. All right. And we have our shiitake miso soup. We have homemade ...(unintelligible). The bottom's sort of simmering away, kind of give everything lots of perfume. And we'll throw our chewy udon noodles in the bottom and make a soup out of fish and the shiitake miso, and that's lunch.

WERTHEIMER: The notion that if you get to know how to cook in another language or in another country, I mean, you've absorbed some of it?

Chef FLORENCE: Yeah, I think if you can figure out a different culture, if you can figure out the food, I think you can figure out who they are. I think you can have a deeper understanding who people are, you know, through the flavors from their country. And that's what I like to do, 'cause, you know, for me, you know, cooking, it's not about reinventing the wheel and trying to concoct the newest flavor. It's about researching the oldest tradition and trying to make that as perfect as possible, about mastering the wheel, mastering the art of brilliant simple cooking, and that's kind of what I do. But it doesn't really necessarily mean that it's going to take an entire day and leave your wallet empty and a sink full of dirty dishes. It's all about making something simple and perfect and beautiful, you know.

WERTHEIMER: The lunch is now steamed and ready to eat, and is, like Chef Tyler Florence just said, simple and perfect and beautiful.

Chef FLORENCE: So we take, you know, chopsticks, dip our sui mai into our little ponds of dipping sauce. Mmm, real good.

WERTHEIMER: Very good.

Chef FLORENCE and WERTHEIMER: (In unison) Mmm.

WERTHEIMER: Well, thank you very much.

Chef FLORENCE: I had a great time. I got my mouth full of sui mai dumplings, but I had a good time.

WERTHEIMER: Mmm.

Tyler Florence talking and cooking, tasting and noshing in his kitchen in Chinatown. His new cookbook is called "Eat This Book: Cooking With Global Fresh Flavors.

The fish is delicious.

You can find the recipes for the food we made and see pictures of what it ought to look like on our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News; I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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