In the fall of 2015, I was hired to work as a recipe tester and project assistant for Emily Kaiser Thelin, author of the forthcoming biographical cookbook, UNFORGETTABLE: Bold Flavors from Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life. As Paula’s editor at Food & Wine, Emily developed a lifelong friendship with Paula. After Paula was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013, Emily assembled a cookbook publishing dream team to produce a book to celebrate some of Paula’s most iconic recipes and the stories behind them. Today is particularly exciting since it’s a photoshoot day!
6:00 am: I roll out of bed, flip the switch on my Mr. Coffee, and take a quick shower. On most days working as a tester I can wake up as late as 8:00 am, but on shoot days we run on a tight schedule. Clean and caffeinated, I go through my fridge and pack up deli containers and packages of food that we have carefully prepped, measured, and labeled in the previous few days in an epic exercise in mise en place.
7:15 am: I pull up to Emily’s house in North Berkeley where we pack up more mise. We check, double-check, then triple-check our master spreadsheet of everything we’ll need today down to the olive oil, aprons, and pepper grinder.
7:45 am: Stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, we go over the recipe list. One of UNFORGETTABLE’S goals is to explore the relationship between food and memory; as we cook and shoot Paula’s dishes with her, Emily is poised to record what memories they provoke to add to the book. It’s a fluid and fun way to approach the shoot.
9:00 am: We arrive at photographer Eric Wolfinger’s studio in Potrero Hill. We unpack my car and set up stations: a photo station by the windows, a food prep station by the kitchen, and a kind of hot-line station inside the kitchen by the stove. A prop table full of artful plates and utensils occupies a corner.
9:45 am: Out of all of the dishes that have garnered Paula icon status, her Cassoulet in the Style of Toulouse, in my opinion, most reveals her penchant for exactitude. After a great deal of research, testing, rewriting, and tinkering, her cassoulet recipe is counted among the best ever committed to print. It required very little updating, but it’s a doozy.
Over the past few months, Emily and I have been laboring to bring it to life in a fresh way for this shoot. We first tested it in October. In November, Emily ordered special cassoulet beans from our favorite supplier, Rancho Gordo. In December, I set up a batch of duck confit using Paula’s recipe, which I’ve since vacuum-packed to make transport and reheating a cinch. I also happened across Paula’s favorite brand of Toulouse sausages and, after a flurry of texts to Emily, secured them for the shoot. A few weeks before, we finalized our plan for making the cassoulet down to where to buy the six kinds of pork and when to presoak the beans. Earlier in the week, I shopped for the remaining ingredients and cured the pork for the dish. The day before, we cooked the beany, porky ragout.
Today, at Eric’s I take the heavy pot out and scrape off the layer of congealed fat, reserving it. I pull out the bouquet garni and pork parts, fold in a small container of fatback that I had pureed with raw garlic, and set the ragout on the stove to come to a simmer. Over the next two hours, I’ll be responsible for babysitting the cassoulet as it simmers, and ensuring it gets put in the oven in time for lunch.
10:00 am: Paula and her friend Nancy Lang arrive from Sonoma. Paula is a whirlwind of energy and excitement, and her positivity and optimism even following her diagnosis are incredibly inspiring. She greets us all with hugs and we kick into high gear, galvanized by her dynamism. She glows with pleasure when we prepare our first dish for photography, Prune and Armagnac Ice Cream.
For this recipe, back in October, Emily and I plumped unpitted prunes in chamomile tea, then soaked them in sweetened Armagnac. After three months, the prunes have transformed into boozy little bombs of flavor. Last night I chopped and folded them a French custard ice cream base, which I chilled and churned before packing it up for the shoot.
Eric pops one of the prunes into Paula’s mouth, and after she gives her thumbs-up, we all taste one, and sip some of the soaking syrup as well. Divine. Tasting the dish also helps Eric think about how to shoot it. The ice cream is so rich and boozy, he decides to let the ice cream melt a little rather than shooting it perfectly frozen. To capture the dessert’s melting softness, Eric has to shoot quickly. His skills reveal themselves as he turns the potentially stressful situation to his advantage. As the ice cream melts slightly, it looks even more decadent.
10:15 am: Meanwhile, in the kitchen, I’ve reheated the duck confit for the cassoulet by submerging the vacuum-packed pouches in a warm water bath. Once the fat is melted, I pick the meat off the bones, careful to keep the pieces of meat as large as possible; we can shred them more later if the photographer wishes, but keeping the pieces as whole as possible gives him the opportunity to make that decision from an artistic standpoint. You can’t unshred meat.
10:30 am: Emily invites Paula, Nancy and the rest of the crew into the kitchen to taste my confit, alongside a batch she made using an oven technique we’re experimenting with, to see which one they like better. My aged version wins! As it turns out, there really is no substitute for time. The month of ripening has made the leg meat moist and savory, with a mild cheesy note that is really pleasing.
11:00 am: We assemble the cassoulet. Emily is a big believer in the power of tactility in memory recall, so we try to give Paula several hands-on experiences throughout the day. Paula starts to layer ragout and confit in the dish and everyone gathers to watch. As Paula layers the elements of the dish, Emily guides her into recalling more memories, helping Paula along with the knowledge Emily has gathered in her exhaustive research. As Paula remembers she also notes some gaps that have appeared from her dementia, but she is such a gifted instructor, everyone is mesmerized, and Eric quickly ushers her over to the photography area to capture the process on camera. Despite the occasional moment of frustration or sorrow we all feel, she keeps the mood positive with her cheerfulness and openness. I slip away to start working on the duck breasts that we have to shoot next.
12:00 pm: The cassoulet goes in the oven for a few hours. Meanwhile, we work on the next dish, Gascon-style Pan-Seared Duck Breasts with Shallot Vinaigrette. Emily sautés the skin slowly to ensure that the flesh is rosy and vibrant for the photos. The smell of sautéing garlic and duck fat is enough to work everyone’s appetite into a near frenzy.
1:00 pm: The cassoulet is just about ready for the last phase of cooking, so I start to fry the Toulouse sausages in a smidge of rendered duck fat. Once they’re browned on all sides, I put them aside to cool slightly before we cut them in half and gently push them into the crust that is forming on the cassoulet. I sprinkle bread crumbs on the bubbling surface before sliding it back in the oven.
2:30 pm: The cassoulet is finally ready for its last step: a brief blast of heat to help brown the crust. We crank Eric’s oven up and crowd the kitchen to monitor the bubbling pot, hovering and peeking frequently to ensure an even, pleasing color. Emily and Eric are in the front row of the gathered group, and once we give our approval, Eric hefts the pot out of the oven and carries it to the set.
The cassoulet is absolutely gorgeous and it smells heavenly. Its crust is perfectly browned, with small patches of deeper color to help it pop in the photograph. Even though everyone is dying to try it, we all hang back so Eric can photograph it to his heart’s content. He plays with the position of the pot, adds props like plates and napkins, removes them, dips a spoon into the crust. We murmur appreciatively as steam billows out, and he serves several prop plates and captures them on film. Lights are set up then dismantled. Reflectors are placed and then removed.
We take our time because this dish is the culmination of so many things, and is in many ways the final step in our project.
3:30 pm: There is a collective sigh of relief when Eric announces that he is done photographing the cassoulet, but sadly, Paula has to leave to make the trip back up to Sonoma. She gets a taste of the finished dish, shares her appreciation, and then she gives us all hugs goodbye. She is an amazing person and I feel extremely lucky to have worked with her on this project.
4:00 pm: The rest of the cast and crew finally get to sit down and eat. Everyone helps themselves to big plates of still-steaming cassoulet, and we pass the rest of the salad and duck breast at the table. The day has been quiet compared to other shoots, which have gone on into the evenings and featured a larger quantity of dishes to prepare (in some cases up to 12 dishes!), but this one dish was a real project and everyone appreciates the final result.
4:30 pm: I pack up. Actually, I’ve been packing up and cleaning throughout the day — a good habit you learn day one of cooking school.
5:00 pm: The slog back to the East Bay begins. On our way back Emily and I conduct a bit of a post-mortem on the day: what worked, what didn’t, how we can improve. Working as a teaching assistant for classes at SF Cooking School taught me the true value of advance preparation and learning a recipe both inside and out in ensuring a smooth, fun day for everyone.
6:30 pm: I head home to Oakland. I’m exhausted but happy. That cassoulet had weighed heavily in my mind the last month or so, but we made it work and I have a nice little container of it to bring home for dinner. And after that, I’ll have a drink, a long shower, and some much needed relaxation.