Chef Andy Baraghani doesn't just want to inflame your taste buds, he wants to inflame your curiosity. The gay Iranian-American's The Cook You Want to Be: Everyday Recipes to Impress (out this month), is more than a simple cookbook. Baraghani wants you to learn something about cooking -- and in the process, the world.
To do that, he's bringing his whole self to the table: the bullied first-generation American gay kid who liked to put everything in his mouth, the experienced chef, the editor known to spend weeks developing recipes in test kitchens, and the inquisitive world traveler.
"I really wanted to represent all the different lessons I've learned throughout my life as a cook or chef so far. Lessons I've gathered from being a child of Iranian immigrants and those flavors and those dishes to my time working in restaurants in California, in New York, on the line, to my solo travels, to working in test kitchens."
Baraghani's love affair with food began at home. "Iranian food is so distinct," he explains, acknowledging that most Americans aren't familiar with it. In part he says that's because the cuisine isn't easy to whip up. "It's very labor-intensive," he says. "There's...picking herbs and slicing and chopping and hours of prep and then afterward the slow braises and stews and the elaborate rice dishes -- they take a long time."
When it came to developing his craft Baraghani jumped right in, forgoing culinary school for hands-on training. By the time Baraghani finished high school, he had already worked in three restaurants, including Alice Waters's Chez Panisse. He credits time in those kitchens with teaching him "so much technique. And it taught me to be quick on my feet and agile and swift. And to think methodically."
In 2013 he left restaurants for immersion into the world of food media, within three short years he'd reached his dream job as an editor at Bon Appetit. "I learned many lessons as an editor," Baraghani reflects now. "But I think one of them was really thinking about the recipes I wanted to develop and have people actually want to make. People want to really celebrate delicious but also thoughtful, easy -- or easy-ish, at least -- recipes."
At Bon Appetit, Baraghani wanted his recipes to share more than simple instructions. "What's the context?" he would ask himself. "What are the different kinds of ingredients that can be used? Is there any cultural context to this dish? How can I provide that...so that it's not just, 'Oh, there's a delicious recipe,' but it's like, 'Oh, I actually learned more about this ingredient...or I learned more about where this food came from or I have finally conquered how to do this technique.'"
Baraghani's worldview about food has been heavily influenced by travel. He fell hard for New York when he went there for college, and he remains devoted. "I love this city," he says. "I feel more at home here than anywhere else in the world. And I want to be here for the long run. But I also want breaks; I want to satisfy different itches. I want to see as much of the world as I can. So I kind of made a promise to myself to try to go to a new country every year by myself."
Much of The Cook You Want to Be, Baraghani says, "is inspired by my travels all over, from Vietnam and Thailand and Taiwan to Mexico and Italy and France and Spain and Lebanon and Turkey. [Travel] made me really want to have a deeper understanding of all these different cultures, and...really opened myself up to different ingredients. And I want to kind of propose that to the reader as well to bring those ingredients and bring those flavors. And the worst thing that's going to happen is that you may not like it."
The best thing, Baraghani hints, is that trying his recipes could make you want to "become a more curious and evolved person in life." That may sound like a tall order, but the chef admits, "That's my greatest goal."
His desire to inspire others to learn more about the world may rise from one of his biggest fears: "To become stagnant. I think that is the enemy. And I want to make sure that that I don't, that that never happens, especially as a cook. I want to kind of change things up for the palate and for the mind and to keep you guessing."
With his drive to keep things fresh and new, it's no surprise that Baraghani is already looking to what's next while also taking inspiration from his experience, in this case Andy Explores, the video series he launched at Bon Appetit.
"That was a passion project," Baraghani muses. "I just wanted to showcase as many people and different cultures and techniques as possible. And I wanted to learn just as much as the viewers. Yeah, I have something on the horizon. I will say that I have no doubt that that...kind of curiosity will not be going away."
From The Cook You Want to Be:
STICKY, SPICY BASIL SHRIMP
I developed a habit of eating the entire shrimp when I was a kid. I don't mean sucking on the heads. I put whole shrimp in my mouth, shell and everything, and let my body absorb it. If that's too much for you, tear the shrimp apart, lick your fingers, and get messy with someone you love who'll never judge you. Don't even bring out the cutlery. Remove the head, slurp away, and get that concentrated sweet shrimp flavor. Then eat the body.
This intensely garlicky, spicy, and sweet marinade will truly make anything delicious. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs for the grill. Pork chops. Smothered on cauliflower and roasted. But it's particularly good with shrimp, the sweetest meat you can have. Shrimp can take this sticky-spicy sauce like a champ. The marinade is aggressive but, when it cooks down in the hot pan, it mellows the raw flavor of the garlic and chile. Have plenty of beer on ice when you serve this one. Serves 4
4 Fresno chiles, coarsely chopped
8 garlic cloves, smashed
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons neutral oil (such as grapeseed)
2 pounds head-on (for flavor!), shell-on shrimp (or prawns)
3 cups basil leaves
Lime wedges for serving
Sliced cucumbers for serving
In a blender, combine the chiles, garlic, ginger, sugar, fish sauce, salt, and 1/4 cup neutral oil and blend until very smooth.
Pour this marinade into a medium bowl and add the shrimp. Give the shrimp a toss and let them sit in the marinade for 15 minutes.
In a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons neutral oil. When the oil feels hot and you just start to see a wisp of smoke, use tongs to arrange the shrimp in the skillet, discarding the excess marinade.
Cook the shrimp until lightly charred around the edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook on the second side until the shrimp are pink and cooked through, another 2 minutes.
Turn off the heat, add the basil, and toss vigorously until the basil is wilted and your mouth begins to salivate.
Transfer the shrimp to a large plate or platter. Arrange the lime wedges and cucumber slices around the edge and serve.
Encourage guests to squeeze the lime over and munch on the cucumbers to offset the heat from the chile.
Reprinted with permission from The Cook You Want To Be. Copyright (c) 2022 Andy Baraghani Photographs copyright (c) 2022 Graydon Herriott. Published by Lorena Jones, an imprint of Random House.
This story is part of The Advocate's 2022 Entertainment Issue, which is out on newsstands April 2, 2022. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.