I remember a piece Elaine Tait, the former food critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote 15 or more years ago. She predicted that in the year 2000, people who cook for themselves would become minor celebrities. Amidst all the convenience foods popping up in supermarkets in the 1990s, Tait saw the demise of home cooking. And this before Wegmans ever came to Pennsylvania!
I often think about this prediction. On one hand, I disagree. Who could’ve foreseen the success of the Food Network? Or that cooking would become a spectator sport? Americans seem more into cooking than ever.
Then, on the other hand, part of me agrees with Tait. At the risk of sounding immodest, I sometimes cook or bake things that people don’t believe I actually made. “Where did you buy this?” they ask. “You made it? No!” I think I’m a decent cook, but I’ve eaten in enough fine restaurants, not to mention in the kitchen of my brother, a former professional chef, to know my place in the standings.
And then there’s Sharon.
Sharon Schwartz isn’t just a good cook. She’s not just a foodie. Among our friends, her cooking is legendary. An invitation for a meal at her house is always accepted. I hope you’re fortunate enough to have a friend like this, the kind of person Elaine Tait may well have been thinking of when she wrote “minor celebrity.” In Sharon’s case, anyway, the moniker fits.
When I sat down to interview her a few weeks ago, Sharon provided for lunch an exquisite Greek lemon soup, made moments before, followed by a simple but perfect Greek salad. Mark was jealous. All in a day’s work for me.
I wanted to interview Sharon for several reasons. She’s lived in Bucks County for twenty five years and has seen the changes to its food scene up close. She’s also evolved from someone who simply likes good food to a discerning, semi-professional cook.
Professional chefs live in a different world from the rest of us. Their kitchens are set up for cooking. Their equipment is top-notch. They have studied. They have sweated. They are not like the rest of us. Really. Just watch the Food Network.
So I was fascinated by Sharon. How did she make the transition from Mom-cook to Wow-cook? I also wanted to pick her brain about where to get the best ingredients in Bucks County, but that will have to wait for another blog, a kind of “Sharon Schwartz: Part Two.”
Background and influences. Sharon grew up in a “food family” on Long Island. Her father and grandfather both had food businesses – delis, restaurants, catering companies. Her maternal grandmother was a personal chef. Oh, you say, so she has it in her blood. True, Sharon acquired a taste and appreciation for good food early on, but she earned her cooking skills through effort and attention.
Although she started cooking in her teens, picking up tips from her father and the chefs he employed, the earlier part of her cooking life was much like the rest of ours. In 1983, Sharon and her husband, Mark, moved to Bucks County. Working full-time as a teacher and raising a family didn’t leave a lot of time for experimentation in the kitchen. When her son, Joshua, started showing an interest in cooking at 11 years old, she encouraged him. “We would play games in the kitchen,” Sharon remembers. “Competing at who could make the best onion soup or whatever.” (Just your normal 11-year-old boy!) Joshua is now a professional chef, trained at the New England Culinary Institute, and working as a chef at a Napa Valley vineyard.
Sharon’s interest had been primarily in French cooking. That changed in the mid-90s when her daughter Jennifer moved to Italy. Sharon was exposed to a whole new world of cooking, particularly Northern Italian. When she retired from teaching in 1999, Sharon thought, “Now what?” She’d always enjoyed cooking and entertaining for friends. Could she turn this into a new profession?
A new career. “My initial idea was to do what my grandmother did – become a private chef for a family,” says Sharon. “In exploring this I came across the idea of being a personal chef, that is making multiple meals for a family to freeze and then reheat.” Remembering her days of having to make dinner after a long day of work, she liked the idea of being helpful to people.
It was when she started this business in 2000 that her cooking changed. “That’s when I really, really developed everything about my cooking style, my palate,” Sharon says, “My approach to cooking really became refined. It was the thing I needed to take me to the next level of how I cooked and what I cooked, and how I approached it.”
Digging through recipes. “I spent a lot more time comparing recipes from different sources. I have tons of cookbooks and food magazines,” explains Sharon. She would compare recipes for the same dish, then combine things from different recipes that looked interesting.
Start with the basics. She also had a solid understanding of cooking basics, like how to make a basic sauce and how to make a basic soup. She refined that knowledge with new ideas she picked up from different places. “I found it all came easily to me, and things were becoming just more interesting. My food was becoming more interesting,” she says.
Even her children noticed. “Before, Mom, all your stuff tasted the same. Now you make different things,” Sharon remembers them saying. Big praise indeed from two culinary professionals. “I made different things (before) but there was a sameness about it,” reflects Sharon.
I think many aspiring cooks struggle with this. We want to create interesting and fine cooking, but too often we fall back on what is familiar, be it certain ingredients, techniques or cultures. How did Sharon move beyond this?
Paying attention to technique. “To some degree, part of it was that I was doing more cooking from different cultures,” she says. “But the other part was paying more attention to what I was doing – to my technique.”
Because the personal chef business required cooking on a more professional level, Sharon became more concerned about doing things right. She picked up tips from Joshua and instead of just trying to figure something out, she found out the right way to do it. In so doing, she discovered unique ways she might not have thought of before. She also took some serious cooking classes, to fill in her weak areas.
Even though Sharon closed her business in 2002, she continues to delight friends and family with fine cooking. She scours the county – and beyond – for quality ingredients, especially organic foods, and enjoys stretching her skills in new ways.
Next time, we’ll talk more about how Bucks County has changed and where Sharon finds her favorite foods.
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