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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Steve Albini on Mario Batali, Ham, Slider-Lust, Olive Oil, and Why Cooking Isn't at All Like Engineering a Record (Except Maybe It Is)

Posted By on Tue, May 24, 2011 at 12:05 PM

  • Cássio Abreu/Wikimedia

Legendary audio engineer (don't call him a producer) and Shellac frontman Steve Albini eschews name-brand technology in the studio, despises digital. He's analog; this is common knowledge, championing the visceral over the virtual. As a stalwart traditionalist, he's as uncompromising in his opinions on music as he is about food. At the end of March, he started (or, as it's been revealed, wifey Heather started) a food blog to chronicle the dishes he serves her, as told in the canon of famed chef Mario Batali. The blog, mariobatalivoice, encapsulates the Albini tenets of good eating: to forgo the use of any extraneous ingredients or instruments and to respect the craft. Hell, he can spin gold out of copper coil; how hard can it be to eyeball olive oil and egg yolk to perfection? He spoke with us to discuss his stance on food, and though he finds no correlation between his cooking process and sound recording, there's something to be said about a man whose treble crunch is as fundamentally simple yet compelling as the culinary craft he's taken on.

What spurred the idea to document everything you cook for Heather on mariobatalivoice?

It came about in a kind of organic way. When I would make her dinner, she'd take a picture of the plate of food and post it on her Facebook account. And then I started adding in the comments section in her photos a description of what I had made her in a kind of mimic of the way Mario Batali would present his food on his TV shows. That's the way I would bring it to her. I would present the food to her and describe it, mimicking Mario Batali's voice. So on her Facebook page, I started using a little HTML tag to close the comments to signify that I was shutting off the Mario Batali voice. So it would be like "bracket slash Mario Batali voice bracket". It was basically an inside joke. I would imitate Mario Batali when I was presenting her the food, and then she started the blog one day. I don't really know why. Just as a place to take pictures of all the food I'd been making her. In almost every way, my wife is responsible for me having a food blog. This gives me an excuse to write a more detailed descriptions of the food I've been making for her.

And you skew more towards Italian foods; is it the Batali influence? What's with all the Italian food?

My heritage is Italian, and most of the foods I had when I was a kid growing up were Italian, so I see food through an Italian food lens. And also, pasta is just really versatile, very quick to prepare. Most of the time, I have to make a meal fairly quickly or, at the very least, I'm making a meal at the end of the day to feed both of us, and I don't want to drag the process out. I also just feel like there's a lot of room to work with pasta; all the different shapes of pasta have different utility. I don't feel like there's anything you couldn't do with pasta. You can make a soup or a dessert or a main course or a salad or almost anything. And I can serve it immediately as opposed to stuff that requires any preparation.

And you don't own any cooking tools; you just eyeball everything?

Yeah, I don't really own any measuring equipment. I suppose somewhere in the bowels of the kitchen there are probably a set of teaspoons or measuring cups that somebody sent me as a Christmas present, but I've never used them.

  • Polenta with Coarse Ragu

So since it's all intuitive, how does the sound or sight figure into your cooking?

In the most significant way, when you're cooking something, there are some critical moments. And sometimes those critical moments are audible rather than visual. When a sauce is dried out enough in a pan and it's ready to serve, the sound of the simmering changes. Or if you're frying something, the sound of the frying oil changes as the water leaves, and it starts being done. So you have to be conscious of the way something sounds when you're cooking, but I'll admit, I don't really see much of a parallel between cooking and my professional sound obligations.

You've said that when you record a band, you try to preserve them exactly as they sound; do you apply this type of thinking to your food, with a purity of ingredients?

No, I mean most of my cooking is simple for practical reasons. I would love to do a big, fancy layered terrine or a beautiful presentation of tornadoes of vegetables. I would love to be able to do that, but I don't have the time to prepare a meal like that. Like I said, most of the cooking that I do, and what skills I have in the kitchen, are honed with the idea that I'm making dinner to be served and cooked immediately, so I don't really have any ambitions to have a more complete vocabulary as a cook, because I'm getting the job down right now, and the missus is happy. I'm okay with it, but I recognize my limitations. I realize that I'm not a real cook.

Does Heather cook much? Or is this just your deal?

No, not really. She picks her spots that she makes for family get-togethers. She'll do the macaroni and cheese or green beans and bacon and that kind of stuff. And when I'm out of town, she eats worse.

Do you get to cook much on tour?

No, it's almost impossible to cook when I'm on tour. Most of the time we don't have a kitchen available. When we're on tour in the U.S., our tour food regimen is that we just try to either eat at a place that's been recommended by a friend, or at the very least, just avoid fast food. The only times I've had unpleasant experiences with food on tour was when we've broken the "no fast food" rule.

Have you had any memorable experiences with San Francisco's food?

I know I've eaten a couple of really great meals in San Francisco, but off the top of my head, I just can't remember where. San Francisco's such a famous food town, especially the cafe and bar culture and the seafood are legendary.

And you'll be on tour again soon, traveling to Barcelona for Primavera Sound again; what do you think of Spanish food?

Spanish food is great, though I'm not as enamored with Spanish as I am with Italian food, but they're not miles apart. The one thing I've noticed that's odd about Spanish food compared to Italian food is that I actually prefer Spanish olive oil to Italian olive oil. I don't know why; I think there's something about the harvesting or the processing or the timing of the olives, where it seems like Spanish olive oils are slightly less bitter while still being just as substantial as olive tasting. I also really like the jamón ibérico, the cured ham, the raw ham from Spain. It's like prosciutto but it's different; it has a different mouthfeel, a different level of salinity. It's a little bit firmer, a little bit dryer, and I love both of them. I think they're both fantastic. I don't actually prefer the jamón ibérico, but I do like it.

So we're experiencing this insane resurgence where people are more excited than ever about food. What are your thoughts on this food revolution? Oversaturated?

Anything that makes it so people can eat better, I'm fine with. The sort of celebrity aspect of cooking -- where certain chefs become famous for teaching people to cook better, that doesn't really bother me. What bothers me is when there's an inversion of that and you have people who are celebrities first and cooks second, you know? I feel like those people are doing a kind of a disservice to all of the professional kitchen people by making bad food seem cool. What's great about people like Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver and Mario Batali and Jacques Pepin is they make good food; they didn't bullshit people about what is involved with making good food. They show you actually have to work at it, but it's not that hard. And their celebrity status was earned by making good food easier for people. I don't have a problem with that. I'm not crazy about the sort of celebration of the mundane, like lusting after sliders, or slapping bacon on everything.

Eat this giant burger, and try not to yak!

Yeah, the gluttony challenges that are becoming more popular, like, "If you can choke it down, you don't have to pay for it." That's not how I see food in my life. Food is necessary, but because I'm compelled to eat every day, I want to eat something that's really great if I can. If I'm cooking for somebody else, I don't want to just stuff their mouth and shut them up. I would like to make something that would give them some satisfaction in having eaten it.

  • Skirt Steak with Jasmine Rice

Life's too short to eat shitty food.

Yeah, and I didn't really take food that seriously until I left for college. My mom was a great cook, a very inventive and creative cook, so it didn't occur to me that we could eat badly. We always had home-cooked meals; we virtually never went out. My father was an avid hunter, and he brought home all kinds of game, so we had a varied menu. We ate a lot of wild game; my mom would make a lot of Italian specialities but incorporate wild game. I would have bear ravioli or elk sausage with pasta. I had a varied menu as a kid, and then when I came to college and had to start cooking for myself, I realized it was possible to eat poorly. I kind of went on a personal quest to figure out how to cook so I didn't have to eat badly.

Did you hunt much?

I didn't; I was an unsuccessful hunter. I was pretty bad at it. I shot a few squirrels; that's about it.

And did you cook squirrel?

Sure. Squirrel tastes basically like a tiny rabbit.

What do you think of nose to tail dining; do you enjoy eating heart, feet, that sort of stuff?

I'm actually a bit of a ghoul. I like awful and organ meats and all the secondary cuts of an animal. I think my willingness to eat strange or unusual food comes from the way I was brought up. We didn't have a lot of resources when I was a kid, so whatever was being cooked was what we were eating. And in a lot of cases, that just ended up being things like wild game or just sort of desperation meals made out of whatever was in the house. I'm not a terribly picky eater.

You said you've successfully fed the cats? What have you prepared for your kitties?

Well, we had a very brief episode when we didn't have any cat food in the house, and the cats were starving, and it was either a holiday or something, but I couldn't go get cat food. I ended up taking some lunch meat and blanching it to get some of the salt out of it, cutting it up, and then serving it with a little handful of mayonnaise. The cats, [laughs], they loved it.

And what ingredient is absolutely precious to you? You mentioned a love for olive oil.

There's actually a little bit of history there. My great-grandfather Serafino Martinelli, after whom I was named, started an olive oil pressing plant in Madera, Calif. My grandfather, Adolfo Martinelli, ran the olive oil plant along with his father and after his father passed. My mom basically learned to cook with olive oil and rarely used butter and any other fats. She just sort of passed that on to me; so I think olive oil is indispensable. If I have pasta and olive oil, I can feed myself and my wife.

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