WHEN ANDY BARAGHANI was a teenager in Berkeley, California, in the early 2000s, his aunt and uncle told him about a famous restaurant near his home that serves California cuisine in a beautiful environment. “‘It’s been around for decades! Most famous in the country, if not the world,’” he remembers them saying. As a cooking-obsessed teen, he was shocked he lived so close to a restaurant of that caliber, and knew he wanted to go there to learn more about cooking. “We lived across the bay from San Francisco, not in the city, where I thought all the good food was,” he recalls. Soon he found himself in the dining room of that restaurant, interviewing with a manager.
The restaurant his aunt and uncle were describing was the renowned Chez Panisse, considered by many to be the ne plus ultra of American farm-to-table cuisine, and a standard bearer of fine dining since opening in 1971. “I gathered up the courage to walk in there and ask to work as an intern,” Baraghani says. Even though he was a high schooler at the time, he began working there on Fridays after school and Saturdays at 7 a.m. It was a formative period that would shape him, as well as his cooking, forever. “It very much provided a strong foundational knowledge of cooking and only deepened my love for food,” he says. “It was a very special time.”
Flash forward over two decades and now Baraghani is back at Chez Panisse — not as an intern but instead as guest chef for an evening, making dishes inspired by his upbringing and his new cookbook, “The Cook You Want to Be.” The book is a stylish yet approachable look at how Baraghani brings all parts of himself to his cooking. “There’s been a lot of small bursts of joyful crying,” he says to me on the phone while standing outside of the restaurant.
The menu for the evening consists of dishes from the book: a masoor dal, or lentil soup with yogurt and chili oil; clams cooked in a shallot-infused white wine broth, spiced with paprika and topped with crispy ham. All is served with a side of fried bread for dipping in the sauce. “I don’t have the desire to make perfect food, I don’t even know what perfect food is,” he says. “I think food should be kind of messy in nature. I enjoy that.”
Baraghani and his style of cooking are familiar to many connoisseurs of food media and cookbooks. As a former senior food editor at Bon Appétit and frequent star of the magazine’s viral recipe videos, including the “Andy Explores” series, he has helped shape the instincts and skills of a large swath of home cooks who are looking for good food without pretension. In each video, Baraghani’s main objective is apparent: pretty yet unfussy dishes with bold flavors and lots of herbs that showcase his talents, learned in notable restaurants like Estela in New York City and Chez Panisse. Nothing is precious and everything, including pleasure and joy, are within reach.
With his new cookbook, Baraghani offers a look at how travel has informed not only his cooking but also a sense of curiosity about the world and how we eat. “The discomfort of travel, especially solo travel, is something that I really want to practice in small or big ways,” he says. He compartmentalizes the four areas of his life that have shaped him and his “cooking DNA”: magazine test kitchens, restaurants, his upbringing, and travel. “I think every time I’ve traveled, I’ve tried to choose a place where I’m attracted to the food; but it’s also a time to check in with myself,” he says. “Traveling on your own, there’s a level of discomfort; it’s a little uncomfortable when I’m by myself. But there also have been many moments where I’ve really been able to absorb certain things that I just don’t think I would have been able to absorb if I was with someone else, be it a partner, a friend, or family.” A solo trip to Hanoi, for example, eating fish with turmeric and dill, gave him space to see the connections between Vietnamese flavors and the Persian flavors he grew up with. “Being able to spend all day running around the streets of Hanoi and eating every single thing I bring my eyes on lets me grow and challenge myself.”
It’s an ethos he hopes to pass on to readers of his book. “The original title was ‘The Cook I Want to Be’ because as much as this book is for the home cook and the reader, it’s also for me,” he says. “A big rule of mine is to cook the unfamiliar.”
With both travel and cooking, Baraghani embraces the unease that can arise within himself, and he encourages home cooks and travelers to do the same. And though it’s nearly impossible to execute travel and cooking perfectly (there are always delayed flights, closed attractions, ingredients that are out of stock or out of season, or cooking utensils that malfunction), both are worthwhile endeavors, in part because they require leaning into feelings of uncertainty.
Baraghani is looking forward to his next trip, 10 food-and-drink-filled days in Sicily — and adding Japan and Iran to the list of places he hopes to visit in the near future. “I don’t want to stay stagnant,” he says. It may be uncomfortable to be in unknown surroundings, but it’s all about growing as a cook and a traveler. “I used to think of it as maybe a weakness, but now I look at it like it can be both a weakness and a strength.”
AMERICAN EXPRESS® CARD MEMBER ACCESS
$240 Digital Entertainment Credit
Find other delicious recipes, tips from the experts and more with NYT Cooking. Get up to $20 back each month on NYT Cooking with your Personal Platinum Card®. You can also get this credit with other participating partners. Enrollment required and terms apply. Learn more here.
Korsha Wilson Writer
Korsha Wilson is a New Jersey–based food writer and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She is the host of A Hungry Society, a podcast that takes a more inclusive look at the food world. Her current obsessions include travel, Negronis, and authentic Maryland crab cakes.
Sinna Nasseri Photographer
Sinna Nasseri is a photographer and documentarian born in Los Angeles and based in New York City. In 2020, he traveled to 35 states documenting the U.S. election, pandemic, and social movements for the New York Times, Vogue, TIME, and the New Yorker.