Cooking Disasters: Tales from the Kitchen As you start to prepare for Thanksgiving, here's a timely word of advice from chef Sara Moulton: don't trust the dinner to the chef in your family. Moulton, other chefs and food writers talk about their personal cooking disasters, along with other tales from the kitchen.
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Cooking Disasters: Tales from the Kitchen

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Cooking Disasters: Tales from the Kitchen

Cooking Disasters: Tales from the Kitchen

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.


And I'm Liane Hansen.

CONAN: Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and the pressure is on to prepare that perfect meal. Maybe you're debating whether to try that exotic new recipe or just stick with the tried and true. Maybe you're combing through cookbooks, flipping through magazines, studying the techniques of the chefs on the Food Network or looking elsewhere for inspiration. Those chefs make it seem easy to roast a mouth-watering bird, bake a magnificent pie and serve a side dish worthy of a standing ovation. But what you see on paper and on TV is not necessarily what ends up on your table.

Well, we've got news for you. Even the best professionals have their share of cooking disasters. Food writer and cookbook author Andrew Friedman is the co-editor of a collection of stories from some of the world's greatest chefs about their not-so-finest hours. The book is called "Don't Try this at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs." This hour we'll take you behind the swinging doors that separate the dining room from the mayhem and occasional improvisation that goes on in the kitchen.

HANSEN: Later this hour, we'll talk with a well-known cooking teacher and self-described food sleuth, Shirley Corriher, about why some commonly made cooking mistakes happen and how to avoid them.

CONAN: But, first, cooking catastrophes. What was your least-great culinary hour? We're especially interested in, oh, flaming yams or those turkeys that are crispy on the outside and half-frozen on the inside. Give us a call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Andrew Friedman joins us now from member station WAMC in Albany, New York.

Thanks very much for joining us today.

Mr. ANDREW FRIEDMAN (Co-editor, "Don't Try this at Home"): Thank you very much for having me. Happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: And happy Thanksgiving to you. I know that you're a writer, you're not a chef, but you're preparing Thanksgiving dinner, right?


CONAN: And what...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: I'm in the midst of it as we speak.

CONAN: I wonder if you have any culinary Thanksgiving catastrophes you'd like to share.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, it's funny. It's not much of a story, but it just so happens that I needed some shelled hazel nuts, and I didn't realize until I opened the bag this morning that I had, you know, hazel nuts right from the woods...

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: ...with the shell on and no nut cracker in my house. And my stuffing now features a combination of walnuts and pecans because I could not be bothered to run out to the store. I got up really early today to get the stuffing done, and it's actually a recipe from one of the chefs in the book and it's a very complicated one. And it was going to be done before the sun came up, so...

CONAN: You took a recipe from one of these people who've written these stories of disasters?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yes, I did. I did. It's actually a recipe that--it's actually very funny because I had lost the recipe. I had it in a file, and I couldn't find the file. It's Tom Douglas from Seattle, who has a story in the book. And years ago my wife had clipped it from a magazine and said, `Let's try this for Thanksgiving,' and we've always made it. And I didn't know this, but the recipe had--in the intervening years had found its way into Best American Recipes, this anthology that they do every year. So that was my salvation.

HANSEN: Andrew, this is Liane. Chefs are notoriously kind of a closed circle, kind of clique-ish. Are these the stories that they've told themselves and you had to kind of draw out of them to tell you?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, it's very funny. The stories kind of fall into I would say several categories of how--several degrees of how well-known they were amongst the cliques of chefs before they made it into this book. But there were actually some stories in this book that chefs had been tell--we learned when we got into it that chefs had been telling each other for years and that it almost obtained sort of legendary status, almost--if you know the movie "The Aristocrats" and how they talk about this joke that only comedians have known for years.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Erik Ripert, who's the chef of La Bernardin in New York City, had a story to share with us. And as we were discussing the story that he was going to put in the book, on the way out of the room, he said, `You know, you really should call Michele Richard,' who's a very well-known chef in the Washington, DC, area. And we said, `Well, why is that?' And he said, `Well, Michele has a really great story. He's been telling it for 25 years, and it involves a wedding cake and two Dobermans.' And we said, `Well, what's the story?' And he said, `Just call'--he said, `Call Michele.' ANd I said, `Well, we don't know Michele personally.' And he said, `Just call Michele Richard, tell him you want the cake story.' And, of course, he knew exactly what that meant, and that story is in the book.

HANSEN: Oh, you have to tell the story. It's such a great story. It involved this huge wedding cake, and he did some blown sugar doves on the top and the thing was huge. And he brought it...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Right.

HANSEN: Go on. He brings it into this subzero refrigerator...

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Exactly.

HANSEN: the back of the wedding. And what happens?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Well, what happens is, long story short, he arrives at a wedding, and the wedding cake that had been ordered--the one thing that they absolutely had to have was two blown sugar doves. He's racing to get to this wedding and this was at the--he's in DC now, but at the time of the story it was in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills. And when he's rounding a corner on his way to the wedding, one of the doves breaks. He gets to the wedding. He's told to put the cake in a subzero refrigerator in the garage. And as he's cramming this huge cake into this very narrow refrigerator, the shelf gives way, and the cake crashes and the second dove is shattered.

And what happens is he notices nearby that the--he's in the front of the house, and the entire wedding is taking place behind the house. And he notices that the people whose house this is have two Dobermans, who are in the driveway just watching this drama. And he calls them over and basically invites them by practically shoving their faces into the cake to start eating the cake. And as they're devouring the cake, he goes running for the wedding coordinator saying--and this is a very bad French accent, but this is--Michele Richard has a very pronounced accent--saying, `Madame, Madame, the dogs--they ruined my cake. They ruined my cake.' So he--you know, he obviously blamed it on the dogs, defenseless dogs who can't speak for themselves or tell the true story.

And he then very cleverly--as many of these stories end, you know, he triumphs. He goes out to a store, he buys some mint, he buys some whipped cream, he buys some strawberries and he turns--'cause not only did the dove break, but the cake itself had become very smushed, let's say. And he covers it with whipped cream and strawberries and mint and turns it into a giant strawberry shortcake wedding cake and becomes a hero to the people's whose wedding it was, although obviously he created the situation himself.

CONAN: Well, let's hope they don't read the book. You don't have to be a great chef to have a cooking disaster story, but it's nice to know they do, too. If you'd like to join us with yours, the number's (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us:

And let's talk with Matt. Matt's on the line with us from Oswego, New York.

MATT (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: How you doing?

MATT: Good. Good. How are you?

CONAN: All right.

MATT: This was only a few months ago. I had my family over and my wife's family over one night for Thanksgiving dinner early. And the morning of the dinner, I woke up and the turkey was still a little frozen, not entirely, but it still had to be thawed out. Well, my wife said, `Well, give it a bath in some warm water.' And, unfortunately, it was just a little too bit to fit in the kitchen sink, so I had to take it into the shower with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MATT: Fortunately, it worked. And, you know, my family came over, her family came over and we were having a good time. And I had the turkey all garnished, all dressed on a beautiful plate and a beautiful setting on the table. And I brought it out, and everyone started laughing because since I'd never cooked a turkey before myself...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MATT: turns out I had put it in the oven and served it upside down.


CONAN: But at least it was clean.

MATT: It was. It was.

HANSEN: Oh, Mike--Drew--Matt, I've done that. I've put the bird in upside down countless times and could tell the story of one day working during a holiday, and I only had one instruction for Neal: `Please put the turkey in the oven.' And I came home and I said, `Great. What time will the turkey be ready?' And he goes, `Turkey?'

CONAN: Hey, the Giants were on the television. What are we supposed to do? Matt, thanks very much for the call. And good adventures in cooking on Thanksgiving Day.

MATT: Thank you for accepting my call.



CONAN: Bye-bye.

HANSEN: Andrew Friedman, I have to ask you about another story that I just absolutely laughed out loud.


HANSEN: It's Claudia Fleming's story, `The Blob.'

Mr. FRIEDMAN: `The Blob.'

HANSEN: Yeah. Can you briefly tell us that one?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah. It's a funny story, and, you know, as with many of the stories in the book, what really makes it funny is the sort of mind-set that these chefs are in at the time of the story. Many of the stories take place early in their careers. Claudia became one of the best-known pastry chefs in New York, best known for the work she did at Gramercy Tavern, which is one of New Yorkers' favorite restaurants probably for years now. And--but the story took place: She was a pastry chef at Tribeca Grill, which is the restaurant that Robert De Niro and Dru Nieporent run downtown in New York City. And she would be alone all day in what was referred to by the other cooks there as the sugar tower, which was the pastry kitchen up a floor above where the rest of the kitchen facilities were, and she would be alone there all the time.

And because she was alone and had a lot of work to do and was sort of feeling overwhelmed a lot, she would look for ways to shortcut things, which is very common among young cooks, to try to find your own way of doing something to save time. Oftentimes it works. This one thing she tried did not work, which was she had to whip egg whites, and instead of whipping the amount she usually did, she got this 40-gallon industrial mixer and put eight times the amount of yolks in and I think went down the hall for something. And when she came back, this thing had basically turned to suds essentially and was in this beehive formation over the vat whereupon, you know, it falls over, starts running over the counter, coming toward the door.

And, again, the way she relates it is so funny because it's just egg whites. And she starts to have visions, though, of this egg white creature finding its way down the stairs, through the kitchen, you know, out into the streets of Tribeca, you know. Probably Robert De Niro's going to see it and wonder who the hell they hired to be their pastry chef. And she runs downstairs and finds Gerry Hayden, who was the chef du cuisine at the time at the restaurant. And she's just screaming, doesn't know what to do, doesn't know what to do. And he just looks at her as--he can't believe she's asking him this question and says, `Turn off the mixer,' which she had forgotten in her moment of panic, which again she knew this, but she was so freaked out--was that if you just turn off the mixer, this would--the volumizing would cease.

And she had forgotten that, just as she forgot that if you leave egg whites to whip endlessly, they'll go way beyond what most people have probably seen and they'll go to, you know, eight times--I think eight times their volume is the--for the factor. So she runs upstairs and shuts it off. And the kind of funny PS to the story is, you know, Gerry and some of the line cooks come running up to help her because she seemed so alarmed, like the world was ending. And they all just start laughing, and it became this very funny sort of in-joke there. And then years later she and Gerry reconnected at the James Beard Awards in New York and got married. So that's...


HANSEN: Happy ending.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: ...a very--it's a very sweet ending to the dessert story.

CONAN: Andrew Friedman is co-editor of the book "Don't Try this at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs." We're going to continue talking about cooking disasters when we return from a short break. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us:

I'm Neal Conan.

HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Liane Hansen in Washington.

CONAN: And I'm Neal Conan. Liane, of course, normally hosts NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday," but this week she's with us here on TALK OF THE NATION.

HANSEN: And we're talking about cooking and meals that don't quite turn out the way you'd planned. Still with us is Andrew Friedman, co-editor of "Don't Try this at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs." And you're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

CONAN: And we got an e-mail from Linda: `I was a new bride making a yule log. The jelly roll-type cake recipe called for me to line the cooking pan with wax paper. Having no wax paper on hand, I used Saran Wrap, which promptly melted into the cake batter, which I also forgot that I had used. Everyone eating the yule log picked Saran Wrap out of their teeth for days.'

HANSEN: We also had an e-mail from Carrie in Ohio. I know this has happened to a lot of you, but when she was in college, she was introduced to Lebanese food, and she tried to make humus. And when she was growing up, garlic came to the house in the form of a small jar of powder, so she'd never used real garlic. Recipe called for one or two cloves of garlic, but, of course, she ended up using bulbs--all the cloves, put them in a food processor. And she talked one of her roommates, Heather, into trying the stuff. `The roommate turned bright red, gagged, ran from my room. She recovered, but I haven't seen Heather in years. I wonder if she has forgiven me. I now cook with garlic regularly and still laugh every time I get out my garlic press.'

CONAN: Chef Sara Moulton joins us now from her home in New York City. She's Gourmet magazine's executive chef and on-air food correspondent for "Good Morning America." She also hosts the Food Network's cooking show "Sara's Secrets."

And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. SARA MOULTON (Gourmet Magazine; Host, "Sara's Secrets"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Your tale is really one of food gone wrong, but it happens to revolve around Thanksgiving.

Ms. MOULTON: It does. It does. And, you know, this is sort of a one-message disaster. You know, once you do what I did, you'll never do it again.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MOULTON: It's just so irretrievable. I think there's only--this is one thing that's irretrievable, besides burning something. You cannot fix something that's burnt. It's just re--you can't pretend. You can say, `I smoked it,' but people see right through that.

CONAN: Blackened doesn't convince anybody.

Ms. MOULTON: Yeah. You can try, but it just doesn't work. There's a very unique taste to something that's really been burned unintentionally. We're not talking about charring on the grill. But my particular mistake, if you want me to recount it here...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MOULTON: ...which I assume you do, was I was--and it has to do with hubris, too. You know, when you're in cooking school, you think that you are a chef, you know, the second that you walk into the door, even though they tell you about every 10 seconds you're not. So I had my first break the first year I was at The Culinary Institute, and, you know--so that was in 1977. That's how very old I am. Anyway, so I come to my sister's house in Rhode Island, and my sister and I have had a rivalry going on for years--she's two and a half years older--and I always sort of annoyed her because I used to flirt with her boyfriends and sort of--I don't know, I was competitive with her. She was competitive with me, but I was sort of obnoxious.

And so, any rate, she sort of didn't mind when I got into trouble every so often. Can't blame her, you know. So I arrived to her house--her and her husband in Rhode Island. My parents are there, and, frankly, I don't think I'd ever cooked a turkey before. But I was making the whole meal. And, you know, damn it, I was, you know, a fancy chef so I was going to make the best meal on the planet, of course, 'cause I just knew, even though I'd only been in cooking school--What?--like three months, OK? So I go to make the mashed potatoes and they do not have a food mill, or actually I didn't even know there was such a thing as, you know, that ricer.

CONAN: Oh, yeah.

Ms. MOULTON: Really the best tool for the job. Books like a big garlic press. It's also the best tool, I think, for gnocchi. But, you know, I didn't even know that that existed, but I certainly wouldn't have minded a Foley Food Mill. We still call it Foley Food Mill, although there's many brands. So what did I reach for? You know, the quickest, easiest thing, and it was pretty new on the market, which was the Cuisinart, right? That was in the early days when they had sort of the Model-T versions of the Cuisinarts. And I thought, `OK. That'll do fine. That'll puree it. Sure.'

So I follow all the other procedures for mashed potatoes that were taught on the Food--Food Network, listen to me--at The Culinary Institute, which is, you know, you boil the potatoes whole and then you dry them in the pan to make sure there's no excess liquid, and you use absolutely the right potato, which is the russet potato. And you have the buttered softened and the milk heating on the stove so it doesn't cool off. So I get all that right, but then I take the potatoes and I throw them into the food processor. Well, what happens when you put a self-respecting, high-starch potato into a food processor? It turns to glue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOULTON: I mean, irretrievable glue. There's nothing you can do. You could let it rest for two weeks, you could add more butter, you could, you know, add more milk. There's just nothing you can do. It's only good for...

CONAN: Well, did you try gunning the food processor?

Ms. MOULTON: What'd you say?

CONAN: Did you try gunning the food processor?

Ms. MOULTON: Oh, I just let it rip. And it just--you know, it was all over. It...


Ms. MOULTON: ...(unintelligible). And I think the food processor sort of jammed. Remember, this is the early model.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. MOULTON: This is the Model-T. I think it stopped running because that's how powerful the starch is in them--those russet, you know, potatoes. It was all over. And my sister is just loving it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOULTON: Ms. Know It All, you know, is just making a big mess of Thanksgiving, and what did everybody want the most, of course, because of all that turkey gravy that was coming later, but the mashed potatoes?


CONAN: So I assume she's never let you forget it.

Ms. MOULTON: No. She brings it up frequently, yes, although she and I are very close. Since we've had kids, we've really gotten very close.

CONAN: And your moral of this story is to never let the chef in the family prepare the Thanksgiving feast.

Ms. MOULTON: Particularly not when they're right out of cooking school. I mean, you know, I was like turning off people right and left right after I graduated from cooking school because--my husband used to cook. I mean, he at the time was my boyfriend, but because I would be, like, so--`Oh, the pan's not hot enough.' `You didn't add enough salt.' `You're doing that completely wrong.' He stopped cooking. And this is a man who used to make calves liver and omelets and brisket and all this delicious stuff. He stopped because he didn't want to be, you know, subjected to my, you know, criticisms.

Likewise, you know, my sister, my mother--well, my sister, we know about that, but my mother also found me a tad obnoxious, and she and I had been cooking buddies when I was in high school. So the moral, the lesson is: Don't every throw your potatoes in the food processor. But also understand when you're a fledgling, quote, unquote "chef"--and that's a title you earn; that's not a title that's just given to you--you know, you don't know anything.

HANSEN: Sara, this is Liane. Who's making Thanksgiving in your household this year?

Ms. MOULTON: Actually, me and the kids.


Ms. MOULTON: The kids have been enlisted because I don't know why I've been on book tour, so I haven't been home at all, and you'd think I'd just want to go out or something, but I'm just so excited. We're making a million dishes and we're not making turkey.


HANSEN: Sara, I want to ask you, do you think to a certain extent the late Julia Child might have been the patron saint of how to deal with cooking disasters? I mean, do you remember watching her on her show, and she'd say, `Oh, you know, if you just drop it, pick it up, wipe it off, nobody will notice'?

Ms. MOULTON: Well, Liane, I was actually very privileged to work with her in the late '70s also, shortly after this terrible story. I met her in Cambridge and then ended up working with her on a television series for PBS, you know, one of her GBH shows, and also at "Good Morning America," and also we did a special on her last year before she passed away. So she is absolutely my personal patron saint, although everybody else's as well.

And, absolutely--I mean, I was actually at her house one time, again, in the late '70s, you know, once you sort of became friends with her--we all hung out together, a bunch of us--many friends. And we were making dinner for 12 people who were coming over. And one of them was Simone Beck, who I heard was, you know, one of her partners on "Mastering The Art of French Cooking." And I'd heard from everybody that Simone Beck was a tad prickly, which is an understatement. So I was nervous anyway. And Julia and I are making dinner, and Julia went to cut her butternut squash, and we had one of those "Saturday Night Live" moments where she cut herself, went off to the hospital and there I am left making dinner for 12.

And I don't really remember how it--why or how it happened or that we managed to make dinner and everything went well. But, you know, things happen. They happen to all of us. And I did learn from her--and certainly it happened to me when I did my live show for six years--that it's OK to make a mistake. We all make mistakes. And certainly when you're doing a television show, if you're willing to make a mistake on live TV--well, in her case, it was taped--but she would go ahead with the mistakes anyway and not retape them--then why should anybody in the privacy of their own home all by themselves be nervous to make a mistake in their own kitchen?


CONAN: Sara...

HANSEN: Parsley covers a multitude of sins, right?

Ms. MOULTON: Oh, yes. As I say, as far as--you know, there are only two things you can't fix and one of them is gluey mashed potatoes and if you burnt something.

CONAN: Sara Moulton, we wish you an ungluey and well-cooked meal tomorrow.

Ms. MOULTON: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Appreciate your time.

Ms. MOULTON: Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sara Moulton is Gourmet magazine's executive chef and on-air food correspondent for "Good Morning America." She hosts the Food Network's cooking show "Sara's Secrets" and joined us from her home in New York.

Get a caller on the line. This is Sally. Sally calling us from Denver, Colorado.

SALLY (Caller): Hi there.


SALLY: We--a friend of mine and I are both teachers, and a few years ago--she has never been a cook and is a little bit intimidated by the kitchen. So she decided--after I urged her to just think about doing a turkey, she said, `OK. Well, my dad's coming from Thailand. I'll try a turkey. I'll do it. You walk me through it.' So I learned a valuable lesson through all this, which is don't cook long distance. And she decided to go out and get her turkey, and I talked with her how to put it together and put it in the oven and told her about how long it should cook. And we left it at that.

We hung up and I was making my meal at my house for my husband and I. And about two hours later I get a phone call. And my friend is on the phone and she is in tears. And she said, `I've taken it out of the oven, and it's not done. It's just not finished, and I don't know what to do with it.' And I said, `Well, that's OK. That's easy to fix. We can just put it back in the oven and cook it a little longer.' And she said, `But, you know, I've moved it around, and I don't think it's right.' I said, `Really. It's OK.'

Well, while she's talking to me, her two cats...

CONAN: Oh, no.

SALLY: ...snuck up--what?

CONAN: I'm just anticipating here.

SALLY: Right--have snuck up onto the counter behind her back and have found the turkey. And all of a sudden I hear a crash, I hear a scream. She drops the phone, and these two cats have started to drag this turkey out of the kitchen. Now I don't know how they did it, but they were so fast that before she knew it, they had drug it under her bed, and they had it at the back of the bed, behind everything else and she couldn't get it. She couldn't get the turkey away from them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SALLY: And I'm hearing this with the phone hanging in the kitchen. I can't--she's actually not talking to me. I can just hear her yelling, and I have no idea what's happened. Finally, after about a minute, she comes back and she says, `Now the cats have the turkey!' You know? And--but yeah--and obviously a brand-new cook, she's completely traumatized. So I ended up--we live about 10 miles apart. I ended up going to her house with my turkey and giving her my turkey to feed to her father. And I said, `Just don't tell him what happened.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

SALLY: So ever since then, she will not cook turkey for Thanksgiving. It's ham only. But, you know, it worked out OK because she ended up getting a turkey and her father never knew the difference.

CONAN: Andrew Friedman, a lot of the stories in your book end up, as you say, the same way. People figure a way out of this.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: They figure a way out. They improvise a way out of it. And often the diner, the guest, whomever, is none the wiser and it all works out fine.

CONAN: Hmm. Sally, thanks very much for the call.

SALLY: OK. Take care. Bye.

CONAN: OK. Appreciate it.

Here's an e-mail we got from Ken in Cleveland, Ohio: `Pressure cookers save time and energy and produce a wonderful meal. Following a recipe for cooking an entire whole chicken, I made the mistake of taking the spinner off the top to let the pressure cooker decompress faster. This more expedient decompression method somehow pushed the entire chicken, bones and all, through the tiny vent in the top and pasted the whole thing to the ceiling.'


CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

HANSEN: Chef Michael Lomonaco joins us now. He started his career at legendary New York restaurants like Maxwell Plums and Le Cirque. He eventually became executive chef at the famous 21 and Windows on the World. He's presently host of the show "Epicurious" on the Travel Channel and he's working on developing a new restaurant. Michael joins us from his home in New York City.


Mr. MICHAEL LOMONACO (Host, "Epicurious"): Hi. Hi.

HANSEN: Hi, Michael...

Mr. LOMONACO: Good to hear your voice.

HANSEN: Thank you. Michael, you have a story in this collection, "Don't Try this at Home," and it's not quite a culinary disaster, but it was when you were working at 21 and you were expecting a very special guest. Tell us briefly that story.

Mr. LOMONACO: Well, one night we got a phone call just before dinner service began that one of our regulars wanted to host a dinner party to host Luciano Pavarotti following a performance of an opera that he was appearing in. And they wanted to bring 20 people to dinner at 11 PM. And this being an ordinary night, we said fine, not a problem. We kept the restaurant open for these people, and it was a regular guest, it was one of our really restaurant regulars who wanted to do this. But the anticipation of cooking for Luciano Pavarotti was a near disaster just in how it felt in my gut, because the idea of Luciano showing up for dinner at 11:30 with this party, this group just--it was really a spasm. It was definitely a spasm for everybody. There are few more formidable people than the Maestro Pavarotti, I think.

HANSEN: And he was late. And you basically had, oh, been driving yourself crazy making sure that everything was set up, that anything he could've wanted would be all set. And he finally arrived, but he was about an hour late, right?

Mr. LOMONACO: He was a little bit longer than--you know, the anticipation and waiting for the maestro to arrive was, I think, setting everyone, including the dinner guests--you know, those 20 people were all waiting for him. And when he didn't arrive really on time and they were there before 11 and they started to drink and they were ready to eat and he wasn't there, I think this really--it kind of set a new edge to this evening. What would happen? What kind of a mood would he be in? What would his experience be like? So it was really ver--it was as operatically dramatic, and I think Andrew did a wonderful job in taking this and making it a very visual--in the reading of it, in reading the story. You know, a near disaster is as intimidating as a disaster, perhaps more so, because when you are on the edge of something, like an evening running very late and the star of the dinner, you know, the real superstar not being there on time or--well, he finally did show up.

But when he showed, when he appeared, it was an otherworldly experience because he appeared in full costume, full regalia, full makeup from this opera. And the wonderful--really he brushed it all off in a minute by saying, `I was much too busy to change, signing autographs and greeting my fans backstage at the Metropolitan Opera.' And so it was really this very dramatic moment where he is now having dinner in complete full costume. And the opera was "La Maschera di Ballo," and he was playing the Duke or the Count.

And so he was--it was just a real wonderful--the wonderful part of it was that he was very gracious, warm, ingratiating. And I, as the chef, you know, I was the one who got to kind of--you know, there were--we had captains and waiters and managers and all kinds of people, and the host wanted to show the level of commitment they had to making it a wonderful time for him, so the host said, `Bring the chef out to take the maestro's order.' In other words, let him talk to the chef so he can get anything he wants. And that began just a wonderful exchange and one that was memorable and I shall never forget.

HANSEN: Michael Lomonaco was executive chef at legendary New York restaurant 21 and Windows on the World. He's presently the host of the show "Epicurious" on the Travel Channel and working on developing a new restaurant. And he joined us from his home in New York.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

Mr. LOMONACO: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, Shirley Corriher will join us with advice on the science of cooking and how to avoid those culinary mishaps.

I'm Neal Conan.

HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen from NPR News.


HANSEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Liane Hansen in Washington.

CONAN: And I'm Neal Conan.

Here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. Iran's nuclear activities are on the agenda of the International Atomic Energy Agency again. The IAEA meets in Vienna tomorrow. Russia has put forth a plan that could resolve the tensions between Iran and the West. And sectarian tensions flared again today in Baghdad. A prominent Sunni Arab tribal leader was killed in his home along with three of this sons. The assassins were reportedly wearing Iraqi army uniforms. Sunni leaders blame the country's Shiite-dominated government for the killings. It denies any involvement. You can hear details on those stories and much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

HANSEN: Tomorrow it's Thanksgiving Day and we'll talk about homecomings. If you have a story about coming home after a long absence, we'd like to hear from you. What did you think it would be like, and how did that turn out? Send us e-mail at, and put `homecoming' in the subject line.

CONAN: Today we're talking about cooking disasters. In a moment, we'll hear from somebody who can help us understand the science of cooking and how to avoid or maybe repair some of those mistakes you may have made. And right now we're talking with Andrew Friedman, co-author of the book "Don't Try this at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs."

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Marcus calling from Fenton, Michigan, where--Marcus, you getting a seasonal dusting of snow up there?

MARCUS (Caller): Yes, actually. It's been snowing pretty good since about 6 in the morning.


MARCUS: I'd say we have about an inch, maybe an inch and a half accumulation right now.

CONAN: Well, happy holidays. Go ahead with your story.

MARCUS: Yes. My friend met this girl and we decided to make her a really nice dinner to try and impress her and talk him up a little bit. So we're making this wonderful glazed ham and some bread, some nice homemade bread, and I was using my friend's grandmother's corn casserole recipe. It's just a phenomenal corn casserole. And I neglected to add the sour cream into the recipe. So instead of having this wonderful corn casserole, it--obviously, it didn't fluff out very much and it ended up condensing into a nice corn casserole cookie. So--and the funny thing was--is we gave it a try and the corn cookie ended up tasting pretty good. So it kind of helped lighten the mood a little bit.

CONAN: So you told everybody that's really the way you'd planned it, right?

MARCUS: No, we're humble people and we told her that we messed up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARCUS: It was rather amusing. But the ham turned out wonderfully. So that helped save ourselves as well.

CONAN: Saved the bacon? Ah! I'm sorry--Marcus, thanks very much for the call.

MARCUS: Yep. Happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: And to you.

HANSEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Andrew Friedman, there's a funny story in your book, and I'm forgetting which of the chefs tells it at this point, but it also involves a cookie and a battle between the chief and the waitstaff.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Yeah, that's Tom Valenti of Ouest and 'Cesca restaurants in New York City. It's--once again, early in his career, I think actually his first time as an executive chef and he took over a restaurant called Chelsea Central or took over the kitchen, I should say. It was owned by somebody else. And he was replacing a very, very popular chef who was very well-liked by the staff, especially the waitstaff. And there was no general manager at this restaurant, so Tom essentially had to act as general manager and also as chef. And since there was no one there to sort of enforce rules on the front-of-the-house staff, meaning the waiters and the whatnot, they decided they would just ignore whatever Tom told them to do.

So needless to say, this is very humbling and very frustrating to him and there's very little recourse. And the thing that became sort of the nightly centerpiece of his anger was there was a little old-fashioned dessert trolley that they would bring around to all the tables, and there homemade cookies on this trolley, and they would somehow run out of cookies very early every evening. And the reason they were running out was that waiters would come over to make a coffee or an espresso or something for a customer, and if the dessert trolley was parked there at the moment, they would help themselves to a cookie. And it was so bad that they would literally be coming into the kitchen, you know, saying, you know, `Where's'--you know, `Is dinner ready for table 42?' And they'd have just a mouthful of cookie as they were doing it, even though he had told them time and time again not to do this. So it becomes this ongoing battle.

And Tom comes up one day, as he's fixing himself a coffee one morning, and he looks down at the espresso machine and he notices or observes that the spent pods, the little--I mean, a lot of these now come prepackaged, but if you have coffee grounds, espresso grounds that you tamp down into the portafilter, which is the thing through which the water runs to make an espresso, the spent grounds look not unlike a little chocolate cookie or chocolate shavings. And Tom decides, `You know, what? I've got an idea.'

And he proceeds to make these little spent espresso-ground patties. He pressed them between his hands so they look like little cookies. And he pipes whipped cream on top. And as a little private joke for himself, he puts a little chocolate-covered espresso bean on top of that and he puts a doily on a plate and arranges it as though those are the cookies for the evening. And there was this one waiter who was sort of the ringleader of the front-of-the-house gang. And they start dinner service that night, and very early in the evening, this waiter comes running into the kitchen choking on this, you know, mouthful of wet, disgusting, used espresso grounds. And Tom sort of gives him a look, and the guy sort of gives him a look like, `Well, you know, you got me.' And the story's called The Trojan Cookie. And what's funny about it was not only was that a turning point, but Tom actually remembers this guy and most of the people who worked at that restaurant very fondly once they turned this corner.

It kind of speaks to this sort of--you know, it's funny, Bill Telepan, another New York chef who's in the book, has a story called Neverland about the time he spent in a kitchen in France and this big food fight he gets into in the walk-in refrigerator there, where essentially he and a bunch of guys, instead of throwing food at each other, as he says, they throw themselves at the food 'cause there's shelves of food all around, and they destroy the entire prep work for that night's service.

But there is this sort of element in a lot of kitchens of sort of--Bill's story is called Neverland 'cause there's this element, sort of, of not growing up. And, you know, Tom's triumph over those front-of-the-house guys, it's not unlike the kind of thing, you know, you might deal with your first week of college or your first day at a new high school. You know, this sort of having to prove yourself by sort of outwitting and being more clever than your opponents. And that's how you sort of win respect. It's a very--it's funny. A very funny element of it.

CONAN: Those tales and many others are included in "Don't Try this at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs," edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman, who joined us from the studios of member station WAMC in Albany, New York.

Thanks so much for being with us and happy Thanksgiving.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: And to you. Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: Well, from disasters in the professional kitchens to how to avoid disaster in your own kitchen, like lumpy gravy and dry turkey and cold, clumpy mashed potatoes and those army-drab green veggies--they don't sound very appetizing, but those are some of the frequent Thanksgiving food mistakes that people make. Shirley Corriher is a syndicated food columnist, a cooking teacher and author of the cookbook "CookWise." She's also known as the food sleuth because she explains not only how to avoid these mistakes but also the science behind why they occur in the first place.

If you have a culinary conundrum and you'd like it solved, give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

Shirley Corriher joins us now from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta, Georgia.

Shirley, thanks for being on the show. And it's nice for me to talk to you again.

Ms. SHIRLEY CORRIHER (Syndicated Food Columnist): Well, it's my great pleasure.

HANSEN: So what is your big kitchen disaster story?

Ms. CORRIHER: Oh, my goodness. When I was a new bride, my former husband and I had never been away from home for Thanksgiving. So we were in Far Rockaway, this little strip of land between the bay and the ocean, and we were so homesick. And I said, `Well, I've got to do something special.' And I made a duck. I was going to do this duck. So armed with "The Joy of Cooking," I mixed up a recipe of stuffing, the dressing--see, that's my favorite part. And I put it in the duck and it disappeared. So I put another recipe. I said, `That won't do, I want a lot of dressing.' So I made another recipe and put it in the duck, and it disappeared. And I made over recipes of the stuffing and put it in that poor duck.

Anyhow, the duck was in the oven and we heard this huge (makes noise) explosion. My poor duck--I didn't know that ducks were just full of tons of fat, and when that fat got into the dressing, it would swell and swell and swell. And I just had this enormous mountain of stuffing with a few bones sticking out.

HANSEN: Oh, you blew up the duck!

Ms. CORRIHER: Did I ever blow up the duck. I totally exploded the duck.

CONAN: I think the only way you can recover from a disaster like that is to go out to the Sabretts stand and offer your guests some hot dogs.

Ms. CORRIHER: Well, if you like dressing, that was really wonderful because, see, it was full of all that duck fat and it was really delicious.

HANSEN: Well, you know, everybody tomorrow--I mean, the focus on many family tables is going to be that beautiful turkey.

Ms. CORRIHER: Right.

HANSEN: They want it to be moist and they want it to be brown. So your best advice...

Ms. CORRIHER: Right. Right.

HANSEN: create and achieve that kind of bird?

Ms. CORRIHER: Number one, brining. Soak the bird in saltwater overnight or for at least eight hours. And this is one cup of salt per gallon of water. And you want to keep it refrigerated. Now brined--normal meat in cooking loses 30 percent moisture, but brined meat only loses 15 percent. See, that mild salt solution goes into the muscle itself and it makes some of the proteins in the muscle pop open and your little bonds are sticking out, and water actually attaches to these bonds and so it's held, the liquid is held, in the muscle itself. And that bird is juicy. I mean, unless you cremate it, it's going to be incredibly juicy. So that's my big, big major tip.

And the other thing: Remember, the bird's going to increase if you're using an instant-read thermometer. It's going to increase in temperature about 15 degrees after you take it out of the oven. So please don't overcook it.

CONAN: We're talking with food sleuth and cooking teacher Shirley Corriher. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

HANSEN: Shirley, we have an e-mail here from Steve Wineridge(ph), and this is something that I'm sure you can relate to. He was an amateur cook and was going to make his daughter's chocolate Bundt cake recipe which called for baking soda as well as baking powder, but he errantly doubled the portions of each...


HANSEN: ...and wondered whether or not it would alter the outcome. Well, you can imagine it did. It poured all over the top edge of the Bundt pan in the oven. So it matters. He writes, `Cooking is an art, but baking is a science.'

Ms. CORRIHER: Does it ever matter. And many, many recipes are actually overleavened, and people will think, well, they--you know, they do explode initially. But what happens is the bubbles get huge and they float to the top and pop. And there goes your leavening. So actually overleavened cakes and things, after they explode, become very thin and dense, which is just the opposite of what you'd think.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Sue in Binghamton, New York. `As I listen to Neal and Liane chuckle over Thanksgiving disasters, I'm straining the pureed squash soup I'm making for tomorrow because I just realized the label was still on the side of the squash when I put it in the pot.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Well, see, improvising--she's improvising and taking care of it.

Sara Moulton told us a story about those gluey, glutinous mashed potatoes. I mean, obviously, how to avoid getting that kind of glueyness to your mashed potatoes, but I think the one question everybody has is, how do you keep them hot?

Ms. CORRIHER: The big thing on hot--see, everybody waits until the last minute to do the mashed potatoes so they'll be hot, but they're never hot because you've just beat all that cold kitchen air into them. The thing to do is do them ahead. Make them completely. Add as much cream and butter--you know, nobody's looking, put what you want in them. And make them just a little juicier than you want the final product. Then--you can do them a day ahead even and cover them in the refrigerator. But you pull them out and put them in a big casserole dish covered tightly with foil and heat them in a 325 oven for 40 minutes. And those potatoes will stay hot the entire meal.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, if you would. Let's go with Matthew. Matthew calling from Reno, Nevada.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

MATTHEW: Thanks for taking my call. I had a really strange problem last holiday season. I'm kind of the family chef, and--I can barely hear you; can you hear me?


CONAN: Yeah, we're fine. Go ahead.

MATTHEW: Oh, great.

HANSEN: Yes, we can hear you.

MATTHEW: And my brother-in-law loves banana cream pie. And I take a lot of pride in my ability to make dessert. So I said, `No problem, I'll make a banana cream pie.' I made the whole thing from scratch. It looked wonderful; it seemed firm enough. And when I served it up, everybody took their first bite and got initial rave reviews. And after about 15 or 30 seconds, our lips started burning, and then our tongues and our throats.

CONAN: Funny now, Matthew, but I bet not then.

MATTHEW: No. It's hilarious now, but not when you see your five-year-old nephew choking on some banana cream pie. And I've asked everybody I know, from casual cooks to chefs with formal training, and nobody can tell me for sure what I did wrong.

CONAN: Any ideas, Shirley?

Ms. CORRIHER: Absolutely not. I think somewhere along the way something hot, as in, you know, some form of pepper, managed to sneak in. I can't imagine anything in your normal ingredients that could do that to you.

MATTHEW: And, you know, I tend to cook with hot stuff, although I didn't in this particular meal. But it wasn't like that jalapeno burn; it was more like something had fermented, like an alcoholic aftertaste, and it was just bizarre.

Ms. CORRIHER: Oh, my.

CONAN: Well...

Ms. CORRIHER: I'm afraid I'm at a loss for you there.

CONAN: Well, Matthew, better luck this year.

MATTHEW: Well, thank you very much. I think I am going to try it again.

CONAN: All right. Good luck.


One more question, Shirley, to you...


HANSEN: ...about people who want to keep their vegetables green. How do you get them to stay green?

Ms. CORRIHER: Right. There two forms of chlorophyll, beautiful bright green and yucky army-drab. And acid turns green vegetables yucky army-drab. Now this means don't add an acidic ingredient. If you want a lemon asparagus, use lemon zest, the grated peel; not the juice...


Ms. CORRIHER:'ll turn it army-drab. But the cooking time is vital because the acid is coming out of the vegetables themselves, leaking out with the heat. So you want to keep cooking time under seven minutes. And that sounds like all for now, folks.

HANSEN: Under seven minutes, you're absolutely right. I'd like to thank our guest, Shirley Corriher, a syndicated food columnist, a cooking teacher and the author of the cookbook "CookWise." We call her a mad scientist of cooking. And she joined us from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. You can also check out the NPR Food page,, to find some recipes from our online column Kitchen Window.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen in Washington.

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