If you love to cook and you cook well, “Breaking The Rules,” is a must-have in your library of cookbooks, and here’s why:
Imagine you’re 8 years old, and it’s Christmas morning. You awaken to find every toy you’ve ever dreamed of waiting for you under the tree. Your parents tell you to have fun playing. But not only that, they encourage you to play rough and promise that if you break them, they will be replaced with something better!
Can we say, Best. Christmas. Ever?
That’s what “The Laws of Cooking” feels like to a person who loves to cook: a license to ill in the kitchen with a guarantee you’ll have fun in the process and feel joy in the outcome.
So, what about the person who doesn’t know the difference between a left-handed pot and the one to use for the right hand? (There’s no such thing, but that’s how it feels for a person who does not cook). For the person who generally does not cook, there’s an even greater advantage in that, since they don’t know the rules, there’s nothing to break, and so every endeavor is just fun!
“If you pick up this book and you’re not a cook, you’re already a curious person and I won my battle already,” said Warner. “The goal is to simply get people curious about their kitchen. I want them to think of it like their recording studio, their jam space, their garage where they can practice something. There’s a whole realm of possibilities within their world, and that’s in their kitchen.”
And that’s basically how he breaks it down. He lays out 11 primal laws of food pairings—pairings that generally play well on the tongue—and then he offers 110 sample recipes of how it all works!
In the book, he explains, “We know that rich, salty peanut butter (a fat) is complemented by grape jelly (sweet and fruity), and the combination is best experienced when spread evenly between two pieces of bread (the canvas). This primal truth is the Law of PB&J.”
Other laws include the “Law of Pesto” (herbs meet fat), the “Law of General Tso’s Chicken” (spicy meets sweet), the “Law of Lemonade” (sour meets sweet), the “Law of Cheese Fries” (sharp meets mellow), the “Law of Coffee, Cream, and Sugar” (bitter meets fat and sweet) and more!
The book was two years in the making and released only months after Warner closed his popular Bed-Stuy eatery on Bedford Avenue, “Do or Dine,” famous for its unconventional food “mashups.” Warner’s recipes at Do or Dine earned his restaurant a loyal following. One of his more well known menu items, the Foie Gras Doughnut, is a classic example of the “Law of Peanut Butter and Jelly” (fat meets fruit), a savory-sweet dessert that baits, baffles and beguiles the taste buds all at once.
“Certainly we all make food to please each other. But for me, I make food to please myself,” said Warner. “Maybe that sounds a little self-serving, but I think we live in a culture where it’s bad to do something good for ourselves. By finding a new way to express myself through an ingredient, I actually learn a little bit more about myself, what I like and don’t like.
“And I feel like, we don’t have enough of those conversations. We spend our whole lives getting to know other people and I feel like we don’t get to know ourselves enough.”
Warner enjoys his own company, considers himself shy and says he’s a bit of a recluse. Ironic, since most would describe Warner’s personality as magnetic, a big reason for his restaurant’s success. But even Warner admits, it’s the camaraderie of his clients and staff that he misses most.
“We had a really great team there. A restaurant is like an exercise in chaos and sometimes a soap opera,” said Warner laughing. “I just miss being able to see the customers. I always viewed them as my friends, and that made me happy to go to work every day.”
Warner said his point of view on food has a lot to do with where and how he grew up, in Appalachia, where he led a humble, scrappy (and hilarious) life. Where canned tuna and noodle casserole for dinner was not uncommon occurrence, but also where his mother, a foodie of sorts herself, always paid attention to flavors, pairings and how to properly set a table.
It was during these days that Warner’s approach to food was formed. To him, food was sustenance that needn’t be chi-chi, repetitive nor pleasing to the eye, necessarily, to be considered good. But with a little creativity, Warner discovered, food could always taste wonderful.
The Laws of Cooking is a printed expression of Warner himself. The lengthy introduction is a fun and easy read– a hilarious and unbelievably wild re-telling of how Warner ended up a “celebrity chef” in Bed-Stuy, winning back-to-back reality cooking shows while running a successful restaurant that sold doughnuts with duck liver…
So by the time you arrive at the recipes, you literally are hungry for whatever it is Warner’s about to serve up.
Take, for example, some of his recipes and try to guess which law would apply: Chilled Yellow Beet and Watermelon Soup with Turmeric Cream (Law of Coffee, Cream and Sugar); Scallops with Black Sesame and Cherry (Law of Coffee, Cream and Sugar); Riesling Curry with Squid (Law of General Tso’s Chicken); or Ginger-Brûléed Grapefruit (Law of Lemonade).
Then, at the end of each recipe, there are instructions on how to “Hold it” (preserve left-overs); “Plate it” (present it on a plate); and “Break it” (add one more ingredient or twist to bend the rules further).
Warner said another way to make-and-break the rules is to play with some of the more under-utilized spices, including star anise, fennel, lavender, nutmeg and coriander.
“Anytime you have dairy, you gotta have nutmeg,” he said. “And also on meat. One of the first dishes we made at Do or Dine, which was a smash hit was a cheater sauce. It was half crème fraiche, half Dijon mustard and enough nutmeg to taste and we would put that over our steak, and it was just like, ‘Wow!’
“Also lavender doesn’t get enough respect, especially fresh lavender with other green things like a salad. You feel like, Christ, did I just take a shower? It just feels so good.”
“And coriander,” he added. “Grow cilantro and after a while, it begins to produce seeds. That’s coriander. Most people don’t know that. But take fresh coriander seeds, take a bite out of it and it’s like eating fruit loops,” he said. “No really, try it!”
With so much experimentation and food play, it’s a wonder, does Justin Warner ever take food seriously?
“Yes, we should take food seriously. Because without knowing how to deal with it, we will die,” he said. “In the Zombie Apocalypse, guess who’s going to be the controller of the food? Me! Because I know how to make food work. Someone else can get the guns and the anti-zombie gear. But I’ll do the food. I think we should all know how to manage our galley. So I’m serious about that.
“The things I’m not serious about? Well, sometimes I eat a 7-Eleven. I love food that rolls! It’s just rotisserie, if you think about it. There’s something intriguing about watching a jalapeño cream cheese taquito roll slowly around,” he said laughing.
“Everything has to balance out. You shouldn’t take anything too serious because if you are ignoring an important part of life. I mean even surgeons are probably like, ‘Oh hell yeah, I just nailed this reconstruction!’
“I just got a tattoo the other day, and when the guy finished, he told me, ‘This was a really fun tattoo, dude.’ He’s doing a very stressful thing that requires deep concentration, but he still finds the joy in it.
“… And that’s how we should approach life. Always find the joy.”