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WHEN I ASKED MITCHELL DAVIS for a salad he loved, he immediately blew my mind: cherries, jalapeno, cilantro, garlic, olive oil. “It’s an Israeli salad that a friend of mine made. When she served it, I was like, ‘Oh, my world is different now.’
I felt the same way. He’d only described it over our Zoom call, but Davis’s salad is one of those rare dishes that you can practically taste the minute you hear the ingredients. I immediately wondered: Why hadn’t I grown up to be like him?
By which I mean culinarily precocious.
At age six, Davis would wake before dawn, head to the kitchen, and experiment with baked goods that often took the form of “cookies” (the mistakes were stowed in the drawer of his captain’s bed, until their odor tipped off his mother). “I had permission to bake,” he said. “In my memory, my mom said, ‘Sure—use the stove.”
By tenth grade, he’d started a catering venture and ran a chicken soup business on the side (“I manufactured 24 quarts of it 3 times a week; our apartment constantly smelled like chicken soup.”) His dream: to someday own a café.
He graduated from Cornell’s School of Hospitality, studied cooking in France and Italy, and was named executive editor of a super-fancy chef’s publication, Art Culinaire, at age 23. The job took him into the kitchens of chefs around the world.
A couple of years later, he joined the fledgling James Beard Foundation, the NYC non-profit that became famous for awarding the food world’s Oscars—the James Beard Awards. He spent the next few decades there, most recently as chief strategy officer, focusing on the role chefs can play in improving the sustainability and health of our food systems and moving the industry beyond food connoisseurship (watch him talk about some of that here.)
There’s one consistent element in his solid gold resume that makes civilians jealous: Davis’s multifarious career required him to visit great restaurants a lot more frequently than your average American.
Today, though, Davis absolutely could not care less about dining out.
“Restaurants were once all I thought about. But last night I went to dinner with friends, and I practically crawled back home. I don’t think I’m ever going to leave the house again,” said Davis—who left the Beard Foundation last October, after 27 years. (Learn more about his current food laboratory here.) “I still believe in people and I want to help them, and I want to connect. But I don't care which new restaurant just opened or whatever.”
Like a lot of us, during the pandemic he began cooking most everything at home, in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his husband, Dr. Nathan Goldstein, and their adorable dog, Milo.
He doesn’t cook in the “We can’t go out, so I guess I have to cook again” way. He cooks like someone reunited with a long-lost love. “I never cooked when I was working at the James Beard Foundation,” he said. “I was too busy, traveling constantly. But it's always been the thing I’ve loved most.”
And, boy, is he not kidding around. His Instagram feed is a small window into his kitchen: there’s Chinese five-spice pressed tofu one day, on another it’s Swedish knackerbrod, made with home-ground rye and winter wheat flour. Here he is frying chicken, serving a Moroccan tajine with turnips, making a birthday dinner for his friend, Chef Laurent Gras (ribs, biscuits, cornbread, potato salad, chocolate icebox cake), cooking miso-marinated black cod, and grinding spices for Thai red curry paste. There’s gateau invisible (“a Franco-Japonais cake with a hundred layers of apple held together with a slick of batter”), puffy pita breads, lobster dumplings, roast pork steamed buns, pappa al pomodoro, Chinese dumplings, salmon coulibiac, and BLTs.
“I live near Kalustyans,” he said, and his house filled with ingredients from his travels. “Plus, I have two refrigerators and two freezers,” he said. “I can make whatever we want without ever leaving.”
When I told Davis that he strikes me as a type-A personality, I may have hurt his feelings a bit. “I’m actually in the midst of two transformations,” he replied, laughing. In one, he said, he’s becoming “the suburban lesbian with the Subaru and a dog; the other is Taoist monk. I’m very involved in my Tai Chi organization, I’m doing Taoist chanting.”
This may explain why Davis is no longer sure if he believes in awards. “I actually thought this while I was with the Beard Foundation and on the board of The World's 50 Best Restaurants. It’s not that I don’t believe in awards, but I think they're all flawed. I mean, I went to socialist Jewish day camp, where everyone won every contest we ever had. So to think that one restaurant is #39, but the other one is #38—that that means anything is so absurd to me.”
Either way, he’s all about cooking now.
“I've always thought people needed to cook at home more. Not because everyone needs to be a great cook, but because it helps you learn something about food in a way that’s much different from just consuming it,” he said. “So many people think restaurants are magic. But I say to my husband all the time: it’s not magic. It’s the result of a long process, like Jewish women baking challah every Friday for thousands of years.”
I’m obviously pro-home cooking myself, but when we got around to discussing salads, I was dying to hear about the most memorable one he’d had during his restaurant days. He described the rabbit confit salad he had years ago at the glittery, Michelin-starred British restaurant Tom Aikens. It arrived in an enormous white bowl strewn with greens, like a field, with fencing made of rillettes and delicious surprises hidden under shaved carrots. “It was art,” he said.
I love the idea of a salad full of surprises. I’d like to dedicate my soul to it! Which is why I loved the cherry salad so much. When I finally made one, the result was so unexpected and simple—it uses no vinegar or other acid and employs savory elements rather than sweet—that I imagined whoever came up with it did so by accident. I know Davis doesn’t like the idea that food happens like magic. But I felt completely charmed that it came to me from a changeling—meaning Davis, of course—who was transformed from a solid-gold professional diner to a Subaru-driving Taoist completely dedicated to home cooking.
*RECIPE: Israeli Cherry Salad
In Israel, this salad is a culinary icon, made popular by Habasta, a restaurant tucked into Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market. Nicknamed “Lali salad” the recipe originated with Hila, whose kibbutz, Ma'ale HaHamisha, was the first in Israel to grow sweet cherries. She remembers hiding between the leaves while she was harvesting them so no one would notice her devouring the cherries straight from the branch. (From the Jewish Food Society’s website/archive)
Here’s how Mitchell Davis makes it:
About 12 ounces (2 1/2 cups) large, sweet cherries, halved and pitted
3/4 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely minced
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly grated black pepper.
Combine all of the ingredients together and toss to mix well. Can be eaten chilled or at room temperature. At room temp the flavor of the cherries is a little sweeter and more complex.
Recipe note from Emily: Davis told me to feel free to add acid if I felt like it. I tried it with a squeeze of lemon, and it was delicious that way; lime would also be good. But I preferred the way his original heightened the cherry flavor. It’s perfect to me. It would be delicious with a roast pork dish, but we had it alone and again with pizza and it was va-va-va-voom.
That’s It! We’re finished here. Midweek, for our paid subscribers, we’ll have another terrific salad from Mitchell Davis, plus a vinaigrette that I’ve been meaning to share for years, literally, from FOTDOS (Friend of the Department of Salad) Portia Hendrick. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with your friends and loved ones who deserve it.