David Salle Cooks with a Purpose

The painter turns to cooking as a refuge from work and a chance to live in the present.

The painter turns to cooking as a refuge from work and a chance to live in the present.

I did not know how to cook anything until I was in my last year at CalArts. I read, in The New Yorker, a profile of a chef named Michel Guérard, who was credited with the invention of cuisine minceur, a lean alternative to classical French cooking. Something about his persona appealed to me. He made cooking come to life. Also, although I had no real experience of it, the idea of eating well appealed to my emerging self-image. It animated me. Of course, at that time and for years afterwards, I couldn’t afford to go to restaurants. If I were going to have anything better than what the school cafeteria offered, I would have to learn to cook for myself.

I applied for a job as a kitchen apprentice at the Tarzana Country Club, a place in the San Fernando Valley with a faintly show-biz roster, a few aging female vocalists and their families. In the interview, the chef posed various questions: “When making vegetable soup, do you sauté or roast the vegetables first?” I had no idea, I was transparently ignorant of even the most rudimentary things. Instead of throwing me out, the chef took pity on me. He said, “Okay. I will teach you. Come every day at seven in the morning” Over the course of several months, I learned the basics, enough to be able function in a restaurant kitchen. Many nights I came home with my fingers bandaged from cuts or burns, or both. The chef—Alfred Dobslaw was his name—was German, a very theatrical character. He had come to America to be a dancer. Before every dinner service, carefully knotting the white handkerchief around his neck, he would call out, “Showtime!”

When I moved to New York I had a job in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant on Irving Place. Not fancy, but one with a bit of glamour: Some reputed gangster types were patrons. It was there I realized how much I didn’t know. The cooks were all culinary school graduates, and they saw me as the imposter I was. Unlike Chef Alfred, they did not take pity on me. They were ruthless, giving me the lowliest tasks, and were brutal in their criticisms. That job didn’t last long, although I did have one small triumph. I was at the pasta station one night, when a waiter came in with an order for linguine with clams, one of the signature dishes. He was trembling. “Make it good,” he said, “It’s for the family.” I knew what that meant. I executed the dish as I had been taught. After a while, the waiter came back in, looking relieved. “They loved it,” he said.  “They said to give their compliments to the chef.”

Now, many years later, I think of cook-ing as a respite from all the other things I do. I mostly spend my time painting, which even on good days is full of uncertainty and doubt. Sometimes I leave the studio and turn to writing, which is concrete—an antidote to the uncertainty of the studio.

There are some times, though, when even writing is too full of unknowns. Then I go into the kitchen, because cooking requires living in the absolute, knowable present. I feel that here, finally, I know what I’m do-ing. I actually do know how to chop vegetables (thank you, Chef Alfred), and I can experience the satisfaction that comes from making something free from ambiguity.

David Salle is a painter based in New York. His latest book, How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art ( W.W. Norton & Company), was published in October.

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