Q&A With Chef Cathy Pavlos of Provenance

Cathy Pavlos

Q: Eating as a family and cooking as a family can really be its own tradition. How have the traditions of your upbringing influenced your craft?

Chef Cathy Pavlos, Provenance: I grew up in Orange County when it was rural in the 50’s and the 60’s (yeah, I know, do the math, I don’t believe it myself), and I grew up Italian with my grandfather’s farm a stone’s throw away from my grandmother’s stove. I was her sous chef from the age of 4, and she was the best cook around. That same stove stands in the entry to my restaurant as a reminder of who I am. We had Sunday Supper every Sunday after church, and attendance at the Bottari family supper, like Sunday Mass, was mandatory. Everyone brought something to contribute to the dinner, and my grandma cooked. She never knew what we were going to make until she saw what each family had brought. She was ingredient-driven, extremely gifted in her craft—trained as a Baker in her small village in Italy—and never broke a sweat while she cooked for 50 guests. She taught me well.

Q: Sunday dinner can be defined by the marrying of food and the marrying of family. What dishes tie things together for you? What are the staples that bring everyone to your table?

CP: I will always associate Sunday Suppers with pasta. My grandmother made Sunday Sauce (if you come from east of Chicago, you call this Sunday Gravy). She always made it with meatballs and tomato sauce, but if she was feeling rich, we also had sausage, and sometimes pork chops and braciole (tenderized round steak rolled up with herbs).  That southern Italian meat sauce was incredible, braising on the stovetop for hours, and the smell of it simmering will forever transport me back to a simpler time and place. Sunday Sauce will always be the defining food memory of my Sunday Suppers. Today, however, I like to eat a little healthier. Like the suppers of my youth, I still eat in courses, starting with antipasto. Italians love the variety, and I find that when I put out a first course spread of prosciutto, salamis, coppas, roasted peppers, grilled eggplants, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, grilled artichokes, fried zucchini … it doesn’t really matter what comes next, I’ve already got them by the tastebuds.

Q: Twenty years ago, the Food Network looked very different. Do you think that the rise in food-culture and food-social media brought more families to the table on Sunday or apart?

CP: I have found that people’s lives today are far more complicated than even five years ago. We have so many choices/commitments for spending our time and money. I am not certain that the Food Network or social media has brought more families to the table. I am certain, though, that we should ask ourselves what is the quality of this time together at the table? What does together really mean anymore? Do people really spend time together, or are they simply sitting together while each of them communicates with someone else or something else on a digital device?

Q: How do your choices for Sunday dinner differ from the dishes on special occasions and holidays?

CP: Sunday Suppers are about comforting food and building a dinner out of the ingredients that we have that day. They are a moment in time that allows us to live in the present through the food that we eat. We share day to day small memories: “How was your week? Did you get that promotion? How was that math test?” Holidays and special occasions are about marking the passage of time and celebrating something larger than we are. And in this celebration of the passage of time, we need special recipes, and often customs and protocols that were set for many of us long ago.

Q: How does Sunday dinner differ from season to season? And what are your favorite seasons when it comes to the produce available?

CP: My favorite season for produce is summer, not only for the remarkable crops that it brings but for the memories of picking the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants that went into a sauce simmering over an open flame at the edge of the very same field. Running to clip the basil growing nearby, and remembering to put it in at the end so that the herb kept its own identity. Because we are a global economy, we do not have to eat in season, if we choose not to do so. Especially in California, we are bombarded in the winter with produce grown in the southern hemisphere— and it is often less expensive than the locally grown produce. Eating in season using food grown locally, though, is a blessing. I believe that there is a memory in every ingredient, just as there is a back story. I prefer ingredients that were grown wild or preservative and hormone free, those without pesticides, those that were raised humanely and kindly, those that not a lot of hands have touched or altered, and those grown in season. These are the memories and stories that I want to consume.

Q: If you had a time machine and got to witness how family and friends made Sunday dinner 50 years ago, what do you think we’d see? How has it changed?

CP: I was a teenager in 1967. The 60’s were a time when nothing stayed the same, not even Sunday Supper. Like most of the Italians in this country, my family still ate together on Sundays, with ethnic food made from scratch, gathered around a large table in my grandmother’s kitchen, or out in the enclosed patio with the wood burning stove. By the late 60’s, however, the homely topics of conversation around the dinner table had shifted from family events to global events. The television, for the first time, brought the war in Vietnam, civil unrest, and human rights onto our dinner table in living color. Even glancing at my smart phone while I say this 50 years later, I cannot convey how epic it was to watch a simple color television set, and how prophetic. It forever altered the innocence and intimacy of family Sunday Suppers. For better or worse, I watched how television changed the character of my family table, and I struggle today with all of our devices and media distractions to change it back.


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