Sunday, September 23 , 2018, 5:09 pm | Fair 66º

 
 
 
 

Noozhawk Talks: Leslie Dinaberg Sits Down with Michele Carbone

Montecito resident met family tragedy head on with creation of cookbook and celebration of life, Friday Evening: Creating La Dolce Vita, One Bite at a Time

Chef and cookbook author Michele Carbone knows a bit about savoring the good moments. She was working as a corporate engineer when her daughter suffered a catastrophic brain injury that brought life, as she knew it, to a screeching halt.

Carbone’s love of cooking and eating sustained her through years of sleepless nights, and her daughter’s therapy and ongoing slow rehabilitation, and became the catalyst for her new book, Friday Evening: Creating La Dolce Vita, One Bite at a Time. She recently shared time with Leslie Dinaberg and Noozhawk to reveal the work and life behind her new book.

Leslie Dinaberg: How did you go from being an engineer to writing cookbooks?

Michele Carbone: It was a very abrupt life change when my daughter had her brain injury. (After a long and complicated open heart surgery at UCLA in 1996, Carbone’s then 8-year-old daughter, Kristen, went into cardiac arrest while in the Cardio-Thoracic ICU. She was resuscitated to keep her alive, but during that time she lost blood flow to her brain, which resulted in the injury.)

I literally thought I was going to be taking four weeks off to help her recuperate from surgery and I just wasn’t able to go back. ... Now it’s been 13 years. What do you do to keep yourself sane when you suddenly find yourself yanked out of your life, your income is cut in half and you’re caring for a severely disabled, brain-injured person?

Cooking was something I’ve always loved and it was something I could do. While I was home caring for her and trying to get her mouth working again, I turned on the TV and that was when the Food Network had just really started ... so I would be taking care of her, making dinner and whatever we needed to do and always going “Oh, that’s how it happens,” or “Oh, maybe I’ll try that,” and then I just sort of transformed my way of life to make cooking be my creative outlet. It was also the one thing I could shop for because financially it was a big shock. As many people have now been figuring out, what do you do when suddenly your income is cut in half? Your budget for entertainment usually is one of the first things to go, so I entertained myself with food. Then I began sharing it and as things got better our lifestyle evolved for me around the Friday evening table.

Everyone would come to the house to eat at 5 o’clock on Friday. And our wonderful Montecito Farmers Market is Friday morning, which is how we started the day out. ... It became this ritual to get everybody at the table no matter where you’re running off to or what you’ve been doing, let’s at least sit down and have a great meal and talk about stuff.

I was having a flash of what is my life worth when I turned 50 years old and I had nothing to show for my life. And what I realized was, I did Friday evening really well. ... I decided I would write it down because people have forgotten how to have a relationship with food, have a relationship with their family, and have a relationship with the cooking process.

LD: And that inspired the book?

MC: Yes. I wrote about the whole process of making soup, here’s the meat. The meals progress from one night to the next. It doesn’t all start at 5 p.m. on Friday night; you would kill yourself if you tried to do it all like that. But the planning your life around dining is how I found happiness. Even though I had this terrible, terrible thing happen to me in my life, I wanted to share that with people. That all these other distractions that we go through in our lives don’t necessarily give us happiness, but finding perfectly prepared food and taking the time to dine, carry the groceries, share it with somebody, that’s what people really want in their life. They want to be with people they love. And what better way to do it than with a chicken and a glass of wine.

LD: It’s interesting. I’m sure you’ve read all these studies about how good it is for kids to sit down and eat dinner with their families, whatever they eat, just that sitting down and talking is so important.

MC: It’s a grounding thing. My oldest daughter had a brain injury after second grade; my youngest daughter was in kindergarten. She went to the same school, everyone knew her, everyone knew the situation and it was a very safe place for her to be. When she went cross-town to high school, she suddenly was in this whole new environment. She had to make all sorts of new friends, we didn’t know the parents, it was very different. We started having these dinners and we said, “Why don’t you invite a friend to dinner?” And she would say no. “What’s wrong, are you embarrassed by your crazy Italian family?” And she said, “Most of my friends don’t really know how to sit at a dinner table.” She said they don’t sit at the table and they wouldn’t know how to have a conversation with parents.

LD: Interesting.

Michele Carbone will be signing her book,
Michele Carbone will be signing her book, Friday Evening: Creating La Dolce Vita, One Bite at a Time, at 7 p.m. Friday at Borders, 900 State St., where she’ll also be conducting a short cooking demonstration.

MC: Yeah. It says a lot about where our society is going. What I’m trying to do with my book is bring people back, make it simpler. Number one, it’s much less expensive to cook at home, so I’m trying to help people understand how that process works, and to think. It’s not a book full of recipes. I’m not going to tell you it’s half an onion and a cup of milk. Look at what’s in your refrigerator, and if you go to the market and the onions are horrible, don’t buy onions that day, buy leeks, use those.

LD: I found that interesting with that engineering background, which is so precise. Have you always cooked without following recipes?

MC: Well, engineers always try to figure it out. It’s like, read the recipe last. A lot of cooking was trying to understand what I like to say is the physics of how things actually cook. To understand the difference between searing the meat and slow cooking it and figuring out when it’s done and what’s really happening here. Learning how to cut an onion so that you get chopped things that are all the same shape is a technique. It took me about eight years to figure out how to cut an onion. ... Cooking is very systematic; that’s probably why the engineer in me enjoys that part of it. And then I try to go faster and faster and faster so all of my fingers are chopped up. It’s kind of like how fast can I go? Ooh, not that fast! (Laughs) I always like to say there’s a little part of me in everything I cook, and frequently it’s blood.

LD: When did you start cooking?

MC: My mother went back to work to keep her mind from going insane when I was in seventh grade and I started learning the process at that age. She used to start with, “There’s a roast in the oven. When you come home from school, will you put it in the oven at 350? “And then she would say, “I didn’t season the roast, can you season the roast and put it in the oven?” And it eventually it got to, “Can you make the roast for dinner tonight?”

I’ve always liked to eat and I think it’s mainly driven by a love of wanting to eat and not wanting to spend $200 to go to a fine restaurant to eat, so you figure out how to do it yourself. And my grandfather was a butcher, so I think there’s some gene there that makes me want to work with large pieces of meat. My husband is Italian and I’ve embraced the Italian culture and I’m learning the language. We’ve been to Italy several times and I’m trying to live like an Italian here.

LD: Now that you’re this cookbook author, do you feel pressure to make something fabulous every night?

MC: Definitely when I go to a potluck I feel like, OK, it has to be fantastic.

LD: Tell me about the cooking demonstration you’re doing at Borders Downtown (7 p.m. Friday). I’ve never seen anything like that there.

MC: Let’s put it this way, there’s not a kitchen. I’m going to do chicken cacciatore, also known as pollo a la cacciatore. I’m going to demonstrate how you take a whole chicken, because everyone thinks that chicken only comes in boneless breasts and it doesn’t, and I’m going to cut it all up and I’m going to show how the good parts go into chicken cacciatore and the rest of the parts go into the soup pot, and how while you’re making one meal your unused parts go into the stock, which becomes the basis of the next dinner. I’m going to talk about the whole philosophy of the evolving kitchen. Hopefully, more people will go out and buy whole chickens and there will be less packaging in our landfills. ... It’s about timing it and getting people to recognize that this style of cooking isn’t more work; it isn’t more time consuming than what they’re already spending in their lives.

I’m changing diapers, hand feeding a kid, walking her through therapy paces, getting up all night long, and I can do this. So can you.

LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?

MC: Passionate, personable, energetic, or you could do vivacious.

LD: If you could be invisible anywhere in Santa Barbara, where would you go and what would you do?

MC: I would want to be in Oprah’s kitchen while she’s there.

Vital Stats: Michele Carbone

Born: July 19, 1956, in Trenton, N.J.

Family: Husband, Jim, and daughters Kristen, 21, and Kate, 19

Civic Involvement: Donates classes and dinners to charitable organizations in town

Professional Accomplishments: Founder of Pentola Press; author of Friday Evening: Creating La Dolce Vita; project engineer at Raytheon for 19 years

Best Book You’ve Read Recently: (Laughs) “My own!”

Little-Known Fact: “I was a balloon clown at Magic Mountain in my youth. I could hold 150 balloons at one time without getting them tangled.”

Michele Carbone will appear at Borders, 900 State St., at 7 p.m. Friday. Along with a book signing for Friday Evening: Creating La Dolce Vita, One Bite at a Time, she will conduct a short demonstration by breaking down a complete chicken.

She will also be teaching an Italian cooking class at the Ojai Culinary Studio on June 19. For more information, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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