April 10, 2008
Dave Lieberman keeps it hot in the kitchen
He's only 28, but Dave Lieberman already has two cookbooks and two television shows on the Food Network. With no formal culinary training, Lieberman is among today's hottest young celebrity chefs. |
As a young boy in Philadelphia, instead of playing with GI Joe action figures and reading comic books, Lieberman was in the kitchen with his stay-at-home dad learning how to cook.
"I just loved the comfort, creativity and smell of food," he said.
He spent hours reading his father's cookbooks, watching the Discovery Channel's "Great Chefs, Great Cities" and analyzing culinary programs. His first wannabe gourmet meal was steamed salmon wrapped in romaine leaves and dripping with Italian dressing.
"It was pretty awful," Lieberman concedes, "but my parents bravely pretended to like it."
Flash forward 12 years. While a political science major at Yale University, Lieberman often entertained friends with extravagant dinners. He became known for throwing legendary dinner parties, single-handedly roasting, frying and baking while mixing drinks for dozens of friends.
On a whim, Lieberman recruited some friends who were film students and together they created a weekly television cooking show titled "Campus Cuisine," for New Haven's Citizen's Television. Topics ranged from how to cook with a budget, cooking for a date or cooking for a hook-up. Lieberman soon gained fame among his peers, who would stop him in hallways to ask for a "hook-up" recipe. He was also often recognized off-campus, as tapes of the show were passed around to New Haven foodies.
In 2003, Amanda Hesser, a New York Times reporter, heard about the young chef and featured him in a front-page article in the Dining section of the Times. Immediately his phone began to ring.
"I remember walking out of a class and finding six messages from television producers and publishers," he said. "The best advice I received that day was to get an agent -- fast!"
He immediately signed with Hyperion for a two-book deal. His first cookbook was "Young and Hungry: More than 100 Recipes for Cooking Fresh and Affordable Food For Everyone," which included chapters like "Lazy Mornings" and "Cooking for a Crowd." His second, "Dave's Dinners," offered recipes designed to satisfy everyone from novice cooks to meticulous gourmets to busy families.
He also landed a gig with the Food Network. He is the host of two shows: "Good Deal With David Lieberman" and the web-based "Eat This." In addition, he hosts Yahoo! Food's "In Search of Real Food."
Such success had brought other notoriety as well. In 2006 he was named one of People's 50 hottest bachelors.
"I took a lot of flack from my friends for that one," Lieberman said with a laugh. "And contrary to popular belief, it didn't exactly help my love life either."
One thing people are not laughing about is his straightforward, yet inspirational and creative approach to cooking.
"I like to keep things simple," he said. "I don't try to get too fancy."
His easy approach and paring down on ingredients appeals to his young audience. "Use as few ingredients as possible," he advises new cooks. "Don't try to do so much or use complicated recipes."
Lieberman applies his same approach to cooking for Jewish holidays, especially Passover.
"I think people have a hard time thinking outside the box on Passover, because it is a holiday for which the food is heavily steeped in tradition," he said. "We tend to only think of making the things that we grew up with, which in reality is really a very short repertoire. I think people have this unjustified, unnecessary feeling of being really restricted by Passover, when, in fact, there are lots of things that we enjoy throughout the year that are also in line with the traditional Passover diet.
"Something that I like to do is look at mainstream food magazines around Passover time and realize just how many things are Passover friendly," he added. "I think more people should do that. It would make them feel a lot freer at Passover time.
"Take traditional Passover foods and put a new, interesting spin on it by adding one or two different ingredients," he suggested. "There are many things you can eat during Passover with minimal substitutions. For instance, matzah meal is an effective substitute for breadcrumbs to make breading for things like fried chicken or eggplant Parmesan. It is also an effective substitute for breadcrumbs or rice in recipes where they are used to hold ground beef together, such as stuffed peppers, meatloaf or meatball recipes. Or if you need to thicken your sauce for beef stew or pot roast, use potato starch instead of cornstarch. And don't forget, matzah farfel is not only a useful substitute for noodles, rice or pasta as a side dish, it can also be used much like croutons on a salad, or can be used as a Kosher-for-Passover stuffing."
Another tip is to cook with ingredients you have: "The idea that leftovers are the mother of invention is a great attitude to have. Don't forget to use what you already have in the fridge and try to be creative with it. For instance you can make matzah sandwiches by putting cold cuts, tuna or egg salad on top of matzah."
The holiday holds many precious memories for Lieberman.
"My father is a really good cook," he said. "He makes a wonderful charoset, with plenty of almonds and sweet red wine. It is delicious. He also insists on using freshly grated horseradish at the Passover table, which was always a feat in the kitchen because grating fresh horseradish is like 10 times harder on the eyes than an onion. I have fond memories of my Zayde grating fresh horseradish on the eve of the first seder, balling his eyes out."
When not cooking for Passover, Lieberman describes his style as a fusion of his grandmother's cooking with Indian and Asian cuisine. "My dad got a lot of good recipes from my grandmother, so he often made a lot of traditional Jewish food, such as brisket and ribs." And, he says, "to this day, there's nothing like my grandmother's kugel, brisket or tongue. And my father's ribs. No matter what I do, I still can't make ribs as good as him."
Marcie Somers is a freelance writer who loves to cook.
Dave and his Bubbe make chicken salad