I have a friend who prides herself on never having cooked a meal in her life.  When she was married, her husband manned the stove and oven, not to mention the sink and the fridge.  Since their divorce, she’s relied on takeout for her daily sustenance.  She points with perverse delight at her New York apartment kitchen’s pristine stove top:  It’s never been used!  To her, kitchen work, particularly when it’s expected of a woman, spells servitude. Her own considerable talents lie elsewhere.

 

At the other end of the spectrum stands a man I’ve admired from afar for many, many years.  He doesn’t know this, but André Soltner has been my culinary hero ever since my foodie days in Manhattan.  His world-renown restaurant, Lutèce, from which he retired in 1995, was the pinnacle of French cuisine in New York City for more than three decades.  Since then Soltner has been Master Chef and Dean of Classic Studies at New York’s French Culinary Institute.  Even now, at the age of 77, Soltner, who began his career at the age of 15 at the Hôtel du Parc, Mulhouse, in his native Alsace, can’t seem to get enough of the stove.

 

Why?  He loves to cook.

 

I read somewhere once that Soltner said, “The secret ingredient is love.”  This simple statement struck me at the time like a frying pan to the head.  If such a celebrated chef — in the days before television “celebrity chefs” dazzled us with their theatrics — could say such a thing, so humbly, so unpretentiously, then I, a small fry caterer, had to take heed.

 

Cooking is work, no question about it, whether you’re cooking for yourself, your family, or your clientele.  It takes time, patience, stamina, forethought, and more than a little know-how.  But if you can add “love” to that mix, the results will always be far more delicious.  Just ask André Soltner.

 

I’m reminded of the Kahlil Gibran quote regarding work, which I feel especially applies to cooking:

 

Work is love made visible.  And if you cannot work with love, but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.  For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half our hunger (The Prophet).

 

Most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes of my New York friend and my culinary hero.  When it comes to cooking, some days we love it and some days we’re just not in the mood.   Here’s a simple Soltner recipe to try on one of your “good” cooking days.  On the days when you just hate the idea of going near your stove, don’t even bother; the end result will be missing a key ingredient.  Instead, do what my friend does:  Order takeout.  Then hope that those who work there love to cook.

 

André Soltner’s Alsatian Cheese Tarts

 

1 sheet frozen puff pastry [Pepperidge Farm is a good choice], thawed, rolled thin on a floured board, then cut into four, equal-size rounds, docked and edges crimped; placed on baking sheets and refrigerated

 

2 tablespoons peanut oil

½  cup fromage blanc

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

½ cup crème fraîche

¼ pound smoked bacon, cut into ¼-inch strips

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

 

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

 

In the bowl of a food processor, combine 1 tablespoon of the oil with the fromage blanc, flour, crème fraîche, and a pinch of salt and pepper; process until smooth.

 

Sauté the bacon and onion with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil until tender.

 

Divide the cheese mixture among the four pastry rounds.  Top with the onion-bacon mixture.  Bake at 425 for 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown. 

 

(Serves 4)