The Secret Ingredient Is the Chef

The Unteachable Technique Behind a Great Bite

Story by Jacqueline Sheehan, Photography by Marykate Smith Despres

One of the satisfying bits of writing fiction is doing research. And sometimes the research happens to be delicious. For my new novel, The Tiger in the House, I needed to get to the heart and soul of bakers and chefs. Four stellar local culinary entrepreneurs that I interviewed all confirmed the same thing: Great cooking is all about the transference of energy.

First, I spoke with Anna Fessenden, maker of Anna’s Breads in Ashfield, Massachusetts. As we sipped cups of strong coffee in Elmer’s Store in the heart of Ashfield, Fessenden explained that her career in baking was not a straight line. She didn’t learn to cook until her husband died; he was the cook in the family. 

Three years after his death, Fessenden lost her job in website management. As her mood plummeted, two memories offered her a lifeline. The first was her grandmother’s fine cooking, and the second was the sensory memory of her childhood years in Paris. She began to bake bread. “It’s the ultimate safe medication,” she said.

In 2010, she tried out seven loaves at Elmer’s Store, just to see if they would sell. She now bakes 150–300 per week. Fessenden said that she is a conduit for yeast, that it grabs her and she has to treat it with care. She insists it won’t behave for everyone. 

If this is beginning to sound spiritual, it will only become more so. When she makes the starter, she treats it like a living thing. Even her way of describing bread (which I promise you is like no other) is sentient. “It’s a culture,” she told me, “and if you prepare it right, the skin holds in the methane gas. Then there is a lightning bolt of connection, something god-like.” Fessenden feels that she is looking down at a whole world of micro-organisms.

“Bread is deep in humanity’s soul.” She says she sometimes places one ear near the starter and listens to the pulse of life—it can sound like a sigh, a puff into her ear, it can even be erotic. And the good people of Ashfield wait at Elmer’s Store to receive her bread, delivered by Fessenden on her bike, as if they were receiving a sacrament. (Or the makings of an orgasm, either one.)

Twenty miles away in Easthampton, I interviewed Julie Copoulos and Amanda Milazzo, owners of Small Oven Bakery. They explained that their relationship with food is intimate, and without any prompting from me, they quickly mentioned the transfer of energy from baker to bread to customer. Other senses play prominently for them; each had to train her sense of smell, which works hand in hand with the sense of taste, to discern even tiny amounts of seasoning, to tell if a spice has lingered too long on the shelf, or if there is a happy marriage in the ratio of whole wheat to white flour in the bread. They have each honed their keen sense of smell to block out non-food scents. “The world of food scents is like a language,” said Milazzo. 

They must be able to smell and taste not only the ingredients, but they must be able to detect the process of baking, factor in the interplay with humidity on a hot summer day, or the delicate impact of fresh lemon zest on their muffins. 

I asked them if the issue of transferring their personal energy into the food might have a downside. What happens if they are angry or depressed? Wouldn’t that go into the food? 

“We take care of each other and don’t let the other one go down,” Copoulos said. “If Amanda is having a terrible day, I can step in and take over and she can do something less sensitive. But sometimes the act of making bread can be meditative and medicinal.” 

Copoulos and Milazzo knew that they hit the bread recipes right when older women from Eastern Europe starting to buy their bread. They told the bakers, “This is the kind of bread that our mothers and our grandmothers made.” They are bringing the energy of Old World bread to the streets of Easthampton.

Next, I interviewed a chef, Unmi Abkin, owner of Coco’s in Easthampton. She is a master at developing new recipes and understanding how to hire other cooks to work with her. “I watch to see how they treat food, to see if they have respect for food,” she said. After dining at Coco’s, it tasted like all of her staff treated the food very respectfully. 

Abkin mentioned how energy was transferred into cooking, filtering through her emotions and her artistry, to the customers who consumed her food. Even the drinks at Coco’s are infused with herbs and spices that draw upon her sense of seasonal energy. She often peers into the dining room from the kitchen to see how food is received in her restaurant. “It is deeply satisfying when a customer enjoys what I have prepared.” 

Despite her new, creative weekly additions to the menu, there is one staple that never leaves: buttermilk fried chicken served with garlic mashed potatoes and jalapeño slaw. Patrons simply cannot do without this dish, the epitome of comfort food. I understand. It takes every bit of my willpower to order something different, and while I am always richly rewarded, I still order the buttermilk chicken the next time. More than once, seated in Coco, I have stopped mid-meal, wishing the plate of tender chicken could last longer, that the peak of desire could keep going, and now I know that if Abkin was watching my reaction, she would understand that the cycle of artistic energy was complete.

What I learned from the bakers and chefs took me down a path more complicated than simply using the finest ingredients, following career dreams, and taking risks associated with starting a bakery or restaurant. Instead, something less tangible emerged. The energy that they transferred was critical; in fact, it was the essence of their art. As it turned out, the intense degree of passion found in these talented chefs was the perfect seasoning for my novel.