10,000 hours, or How do I get to Carnegie Hall?: Michael Roberts’ Bourbon Mushroom Pasta


In 1980s Los Angeles, on Trump’s sauté station, I made bourbon-mushroom pasta at least twenty-five times a night for a year—a single serving in one sauté pan or as many as ten servings in three sauté pans. My domain consisted of six burners (if I was in the weeds, I could claim the hot top) and they were always filled with mushrooms, chicken, shrimp, catfish, corn cakes, and skate wings—but mostly mushrooms. I could make that dish with my eyes closed and did just that many nights in my sleep. 

One night, a friend visiting from home came in for dinner and, of course, she ordered the bourbon-mushroom pasta. The next day she asked me for the recipe, which I gave her. When I saw her again, she said (with tone), “I made that bourbon-mushroom pasta, but mine didn’t taste as good as yours! What did you leave out?”

What I left out was ten hours a night, five days a week, for twelve months. To be Bourbon-Mushroom Queen, you’ve got to practice, practice, practice. After about a thousand plates, I knew what the mushrooms sounded like when they were ready for the bourbon, the exact sheen necessary in the pasta water for perfectly cooked linguini, and the color of the cream when the dish was was ready to be plated. 

In 1970s Vashon Island, I worked the line at Sound Food next to the Bob the Baker, who trained a revolving door of new, would-be Bobs. “Use your ears”, he said to one especially vague, long-haired apprentice. “Hear the slap that the dough makes when it hits against the side of the mixing bowl? It’s telling you it’s ready.” “What slap? Ready for what?”, said vague, hairy guy.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that according to research, it takes 10,000 hours of directed practice to become an expert. Yo Yo Ma, Bill Gates, and the Beatles put in at least ten thousand hours of playing the cello, writing code, and making music to reach their level of proficiency. No beginner wants to hear that. The other day at the pool, I heard a teenage student tell his swimming teacher, “I just want to swim like you.” His teacher was forty-five, started swimming when she was six, had been on the University of Washington swim team, was captain of the YMCA’s Masters class, and swam thirty laps a day, six days a week. “But, you make it look so easy!”

My fifty-two year old daughter started taking cello lessons when she was forty-nine. She has always had a musical gift, but the cello? What could be more difficult? The first several months were painful—both for her and for her family, but she persisted. She went to each lesson, did her homework, listened to the greats, and practiced, practiced, practiced. The glossy, romantic ending of the story would have her performing for capacity crowds at Carnegie Hall. The reality is better—the cello brings her joy, she has earned the confidence accomplishment brings, and she understands that it’s never too late. She and her cello give pleasure to her listeners, a sense of pride to her teacher, and an expanded awareness of who she is to her family. 

My daughter represents heroes who inspire me. My Sweetie who starts over and learns a different curriculum for each new project, my sister who (after thirty-five years as an upholsterer) can transform an ugly, discarded chair into a one-of-a-kind heirloom, my seventy year-old sister-in-law who began playing pickle ball at sixty-six, the teenage friend who turns off his phone at night to practice the flute, the Little Leaguer who plays catch with his Mom every day after school, the beginning cook who bakes bread every day for three months to master the art of the perfect loaf, and our young, golfing granddaughter who gets up early in the morning during her summer vacation to get in eighteen holes. It takes hours of concentrated practice, combined with some innate talent and more than a little grit, to become good at anything. 

BTW, the Sweetie’s semi-annual CT scan showed no signs of cancer. Yea!!

Michael Roberts‘ Mushroom Pasta

  • 1 1/2 pounds assorted trimmed mushrooms
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon finely minced shallots 
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup Bourbon, Sherry or Madeira
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 12 ounces fresh pasta or 8 ounces dried
  • Grated cheese—Pecarino, Romano, Parmesan or a combination of hard cheeses

Wipe mushrooms to remove any sand or dirt. Slice chanterelles and cultivated mushrooms, trim and discard stems of shiitake mushrooms, trim and discard root tips of oyster mushrooms.

Bring 4 quarts of salted water to boil over high heat on stove.

Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat and add mushrooms, garlic, shallots and salt. Cook, stirring, 10 minutes or until liquid has reduced to a syrupy consistency. Add a splash (a few tablespoons to 1/4 cup) pasta water. Reduce again to syrupy.

Add Bourbon, Sherry, or Madeira, increase heat to high and cook 2 minutes or until liquid is syrupy.

Add whipping cream and cook until liquid reduces to sauce-like consistency and is thick enough to coat a spoon. If the sauce breaks and becomes oily, add a slight splash of pasta water and swirl around in the pan. Remove from heat and keep in warm place until pasta is finished cooking.

Add pasta to boiling water, cook until desired doneness, drain and toss in sauté pan with mushrooms/bourbon/cream. Serve with grated cheese. Makes 4 servings.

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3 Responses to 10,000 hours, or How do I get to Carnegie Hall?: Michael Roberts’ Bourbon Mushroom Pasta

  1. Jenni says:

    Marla, this is the best post ever. Tears-in-my-eyes good! Thank you.

  2. Lara says:

    Ya did it AGAIN–“what I left out? –10 hours a night, 5 days/week for 12 months” lol

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