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Clifford Wright's kitchen: worldly, with a dash of Three Stooges

February 10, 2012 | 10:33 am

Clifford A. Wright
Clifford A. Wright is an earnest culinary scholar who has worked at the Institute of Arab Studies and has written 14 books. His kitchen is a history of his travels. But over his kitchen sink hangs a Franklin Mint plate on which Larry, Curly and Moe, wearing chef’s jackets, are about to get to work on a turkey.

Wright takes food seriously, with a dash of Three Stooges demeanor.

Three Stooges plateA careful look around reveals charm and humor again and again. As he puts it: He is a scholar who writes for people who watch their happiness before their weight.

The author of the classic “A Mediterranean Feast” was testing recipes one recent morning: Frittata‘i Rosa Marina (eggs and smelt) and Chiculliata (a salad of tuna, capers, anchovies, olives and chile). He has thousands of tested, unpublished recipes in his files and two new books — “Hot & Cheesy,” released this month, and “One-Pot Cookery” due out in 2013.

Wright, who worked for years at think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Institute of Arab Studies, found his way to culinary scholarship combined with good food on many journeys; the mementos fill the galley kitchen and adjacent dining area of his house in Santa Monica, where he moved in 1996, just a few blocks from the Pacific.

Coming up the stairs and into the room, rows of colorful plates on three sturdy shelves grab the eye. There are a few, from France, where Wright lived as a child. Others come from Sicily, the subject of one of his cookbooks; still others from Turkey. And that institutional-style white one decorated with a pineapple? That came from the Encyclopedia Britannica cafeteria in Chicago, where Wright held his first job, as a proofreader.

“So I stole it,” he says.

Clifford Wright kitchen
On another shelf is an emu egg, or rather the empty black shell of the $26 egg. The insides made scrambled eggs for six. “It is the most amazing egg,” Wright says. “It’s so rich.”

There’s an Alaskan ulu knife, with a rainbow-colored wood handle and a semicircular blade. A red and white lobster buoy was $2 at a Cape Cod flea market. Nearby are a copper mold of two fish he bought on Rhodes, red and blue Sicilian puppets, dried Hatch chiles from New Mexico and an Ikea Dutch oven.

Clifford WrightOne of his favorite items is a 25-year-old Black & Decker combination toaster oven, broiler and microwave.

“I’ve always been into combination stuff, because I always lived in small places,” he says.

The objects reflect Wright’s views about food: “We talk about cuisine as if it’s this immutable form. In fact, it’s a living thing.”

The refrigerator is covered with photos, each in a magnet sleeve, all arranged in very straight lines. “That’s me, Mr. Organized,” Wright says.

There are family photos, Wright at the ruins of a Crusader castle in Syria, and of Wright with Julia Child.

Wright, 60, and his family lived near Child in Cambridge, Mass., for a time. The photo was taken at a magazine shoot for a Christmas dinner story, staged in May, Boston’s hottest May in 90 years, Wright says. They were all wearing winter clothing and drinking wine. “Everyone was blotto,” he recalls.

Inside the freezer is just as fun: It’s packed with pita bread, chestnuts, lobster stock and a whole lamb’s head (“I found it, so I bought it,” he says.)

A cupboard near the refrigerator has dozens of jars of spices, many repurposed with labels Wright made, including some written in Arabic. There’s ras el Hanout and baharat (both popular blends), Korean crushed chili, ground shrimp. On the counter, there’s a toothbrush caddy holding candy and oven thermometers.

Wright gets up at 5 and starts work at 5:15, one floor up from the kitchen, reading, writing, researching. At 1 he goes for a walk. Then he tests recipes.

The table sits in a triangular-shaped area, with windows taking most of one wall. On another wall are 11 of Wright’s photographs, including a fish market in Greece, spices in Fez, red mullet, bread in a Tunisian restaurant and fresh almonds in Damascus. That wood-paneled wall actually is closets, filled with part of his batterie de cuisine, as well as Smart & Final plastic containers repurposed for flour and such.

Up high on a ledge sits a black wooden triangle, with legs, made by his now-grown son Seri in kindergarten. It was one of three he made in consecutive years. When asked why he kept making dogs, he said, “Because they’re easier than cats.” It’s the story as much as the object that appeals to Wright.

Nearby is a small bookcase. One shelf holds the books Wright has written. The other is empty. It, he says, is for the books he has yet to write.

-- Mary MacVean

More profiles of chefs at home have appeared as part of our series Mission: Kitchen.

ALSO:

 0-Smith-Others-bedroomDaily Dish: The Times food blog

Landmark Houses: The Times series

Homes of the Times: Southern California design in pictures

Photos, from top: Clifford Wright in his kitchen; the Three Stooges plate on the wall; dishes from France, Turkey and elsewhere; Deruta ware, presents from friends, sitting on Wright's dining table.

Photo credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times

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