The Kitchen Whisperers: Cooking with the Wisdom of Our Friends

Image of The Kitchen Whisperers: Cooking with the Wisdom of Our Friends
Release Date: 
September 7, 2021
William Morrow
Reviewed by: 

“Dorothy Kalins shares her own kitchen muses with such enthusiasm and exuberance that they stay with us long after we finish reading The Kitchen Whisperers.”

Dorothy Kalins’ kitchen is a crowded place. That’s because she is surrounded by the voices of old friends and family who critique her chopping techniques and offer cooking wisdom. Kalins, founding editor of Saveur magazine, has been inspired by these murmurers to pen an entertaining and tasty culinary memoir titled Kitchen Whisperers: Cooking with the Wisdom of Our Friends.

“Gifts from my kitchen whisperers may not be homemade cookies in fancy tins, or jars of fruit preserves tricked out in gingham headscarves, but they are greater gifts by far. . . . Each time I roll a lemon, or make a biscuit, or throw together a salad, or stuff a chicken, or stir a risotto, or slice an apple, or sniff a carton of milk for freshness, I hear their voices, and they comfort me, warm as a hug.”

Even though Kalins is known for her award-winning cookbook collaborations, this particular book has no recipes. Instead it reads like a love story, one that is told in lyrical prose and unfolds in complex layers like the best risotto.

For most home cooks, a kitchen whisperer might be a mother, grandmother, a favorite aunt, a grandpa, a cousin, or a friend. Kalins, however, hears the soft mutterings of many famous chefs and friends.

From her late mother-in-law, Lola Mae Autry, she learned that a biscuit is something more than just a flaky pastry.

“Not everyone who asks for a biscuit is food hungry,” Lola Mae wrote. “He may need a listener-comforter even more. And after that, he may be like the birds and want a biscuit, too.”

The only recipe in the book is Lola Mae’s Buttermilk Biscuits with just three ingredients. As she pulls a tray of perfectly browned biscuits out of a hot oven, Kalins feels a powerful connection to her dead relative.

“And in that moment, I came close to understanding the heady feeling of competence that making biscuits gave Lola Mae almost every day of her life.”

Each chapter is a loving and delicious tribute to people who played an important role in Kalins’ life. She learned the essence of making risotto (and other Italian dishes) from none other than the famed Marcella Hazan. Marcella’s advice on making the simplest of tomato sauces or salad dressing (Marcella disliked sweet dressings) or her famous risotto is shared with humor and humility. Kalins’ Marcella is no imposing figure; she is a real person with endearing and sometimes mischievous qualities.

Even though the book is not a strict memoir, we do get a glimpse into Kalins’ life and childhood. Memories of her mother are wrapped up in aspic, beef tongue with a sauce of gingersnaps and raisins and meat loaf.

“Childhood food memories so indelibly mark us that we run eagerly toward or defiantly away from them,” she writes.

From cookbook author and Chef David Tanis, Kalins learned the value of cooking with your hands. Whether making the simplest of green salads or a succulent pork roast, Tanis’ fingers are articulate and deft. Watching him make a Swiss chard gratin is a pleasure and revelation, and Kalins jokingly writes she has a degree from David Tanis U in Swiss chard.

In some cases, Kalins’s kitchen whisperers have their own whisperer. Take Michael Anthony of New York’s Gramercy Tavern who recounted that as a young cook in Daniel Boulud’s kitchen that exigent chef would stand behind him, breathing down his neck as he peeled away the pockmarked skin (of a celery root), always chiding him for removing too much of the root. Now whenever Chef Michael goes to peel a celery root, Daniel’s looking over his shoulder.

Her food photographer friend Christopher Humphreys is an artist behind the camera and in the kitchen. She cooks with a quiet flare and such efficacy that a guest would never notice she had cooked (and cleaned up) for eight people.

“I’ve learned to touch everything just enough to keep the plates spinning,” she’d say.

These are just a small sample of the kitchen whisperers featured in Kalins’ book. Each one offers an insight into cooking or even growing food. From farmer and former chef Patty Gentry, Kalins learned to revere the life cycle of farming.

“[Patty’s] hands may be in the dirt, but her eyes are always on the stove,” Kalins writes of her friend.

Kalins’ interest in gardening was expanded when she took on editing Garden Design. Composting, designing an octagonal garden, planting, weeding, and finally cooking with garden produce became part of her daily life.

In this age of Tik-Tok videos and Instagram posts, a reader might not have a personal kitchen whisperer. Luckily, it is easy to adopt one of Kalins’ kitchen whisperers as your own muse. She shares them with such enthusiasm and exuberance that they will stay with us long after we finish The Kitchen Whisperers.

After reading this beautiful and luscious book, your heart will be full of succulent stories and you’ll agree with Kalins, “So much to look at, to smell, to eat. So much well-being. Your heart swells and your eyes tear with the splendor of such generosity.”

A colorful persimmon salad or the comforting richness of arancini croquettes may nourish the body while The Kitchen Whisperer will satisfy the inner spirit. It is the memories of meals taken with long-gone family or friends that sustain the dark winters of the soul.