Tireless Food Explorer

Lisa Gershenson. Photo © 2016 Eric Futran

When I met Lisa she had just bagged her career as a therapist and was cooking for small parties and events. I was supplementing my designer income by moon-lighting with a small group of interesting people including my friend Nadra. We tended bar, passed hors-d’oeuvre and served dinner at bar mitzvahs in Westchester, wedding receptions on Park Avenue and UN parties on the Upper East Side. We were hired by several caterers, Lisa was among them. Petite in stature, short, salt and pepper hair, twinkly green eyes, a beaming smile and large dangling earings—which she stroked almost as a nervous tick—she spoke in a husky voice, giving the team clear articulate instruction.

Our professional relationship quickly turned into friendship. Polite conversations were replaced by passionate exchanges over cuisines and markets. Eventually, I was to be invited into her “sanctuary”.  It was there, in her New York apartment on West 73rd and Riverside, that a privileged few had the pleasure to participate in the development of her culinary repertoire. She fretted about upcoming jobs and needed to submit her entire menu for critique before presenting it to clients. We were at least a half dozen women, but diverse enough to represent a reliable cross-section of New York’s demographic profile deeming us the perfect participants and tasters for her “test kitchen”. It was all in good fun: nowhere near a scientific market study, but a forum of friends who were the lucky recipients of Lisa’s huge talent and generosity.

The dining area was separated from a miniscule kitchen by an opening in the wall. The dining table, normally turned into a production area for lack of counter-space, was transformed for the occasion into an elegant setting complete with flowers and candles. We were in one of the world’s greatest culinary capitals sipping our sake or wine, overlooking New Jersey’s glistening skyline and savoring sips of soups, appetizer bites and samplings of entrees. Lisa served one dish at a time in small exquisite bowls. She never missed a beat, never forgot a thoughtful garnish and always announced and explained what was being served. She joined us for a few minutes at  a time, her eyes scanning our faces, intensely deciphering reactions and expressions. We purred over velvety concoctions, hummed to the melodies of tropical salsas and died and went to heaven over her chocolate and ginger confections. That was the time when “fusion” cuisine had begun to surface and that in itself was exhilarating enough. But with Lisa being our master guide, our guru and host, we felt snobbishly enlightened and initiated. Drenched in praise and compliments, our chef checked off another dish from the testing list.

Although I was sad to see her leave New York, Lisa’s culinary career took off after moving to Chicago. She took on one project after another while going back to culinary school and constantly traveling and exploring the world’s markets and eateries in search of knowledge and inspiration.

She and her husband established one of Chicago’s finest catering companies J & L Inc. She later became director of the Community Kitchen program at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. After that she wore many hats in various positions helping out non-profits and consulting for businesses, culinary start-ups and food entrepreneurs. She has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS. Her recent  Cook’s Gazette, an online journal which she started a year and a half ago, is the culmination of her life’s achievements and experiences. The content of her articles reflects her generosity of spirit, her curiosity about world markets and cuisines, her openness, her affinity and empathy with cooks from all walks of life bringing their stories, methods and ingredients into the limelight.

She has inspired and mentored many. We have kept in touch and visited each other a few times over the years. We call each other to check in but I often call her in a panic: “what should I do???!! I have twenty people for dinner and a huge whole grouper that will not fit in my oven!”
-“First”, she says, “you pour yourself a glass of wine, take a deep breath, and then you have two choices….”  —On a side note I no longer invite twenty people for dinner and have never again roasted a whole grouper in my oven, not that it wasn’t a success… it’s just that I have chosen to turn my kitchen into a stress-free zone ever since that experience.

Lisa has a gift of making you feel at ease no matter the situation. The wealth of her knowledge appeases all anxiety instantly. She is also tirelessly enthusiastic, always ready to jump in and help. And what do you think we do when we get together? After chatting over a cup of the “elixir of life” (Lisa’s name for the arabic/turkish coffee with cardamom I introduced her to when we first met), we shop the markets, we (she) cook(s) and we (I) eat! On her last visit to DC she made a delicious dinner that we shared with neighbors and friends. On the menu was an eggplant dish which I share below.

“Eggplant is my signature” she says proudly. There are many other eggplant recipes on her website that you might explore and enjoy.

Lisa’s Delicious Way of Making Eggplant 

Ingredients:
1.5 lbs eggplant
1 lb. onion
1 lb. tomato
Half a head of garlic
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp oregano
1/2 cup chopped parsley
Olive oil for tossing* onions and eggplant. You have to eyeball quantities.

Method:
Slice onions thin, toss with olive oil and saute until rich brown.  Do not hurry this step.  Add garlic when onions are almost ready cook 5 minutes or so more, add skinned chopped tomatoes, 1 cup water, herbs, salt and pepper and simmer for 15 minutes covered.

Toss eggplant with olive oil, begin to brown in saute pan and then add water, cover and cook until just soft all the way through.

Combine tomato mixture and eggplant mixture and bake in 350 F oven for around 45 minutes when tomato starts to caramelize.  Good hot, room temp, especially good the next day!