The real you, bathed in fluorescent light

Imported butter or Smart Balance spread? You are what you eat - and what you keep.

By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / August 25, 2010

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Try not to get caught. It’s best to wait until the people who live in the house are at least two rooms away, preferably engaged in conversation. You need enough time to open the door and make mental notes of everything inside. That “pffft-clink’’ sound the door makes is like a dog whistle — the inhabitants could come running. Once you’re peering inside, you might spot a jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce. In the fridge of a famous cook. How embarrassing.

The interior of a home presents the residents, but it’s easy enough to hire a designer to get the look you want. The refrigerator, and what lines its shelves, tells the truth. As 19th-century French philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.’’ Fridge contents belie carefully constructed impressions of museum prints, book shelves lined with classics, objets d’art, a fabulous couch. Open the fridge door and it mirrors you: What you are buying, eating, sipping, enjoying. Bathed in oracular fluorescent light is the real you.

Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian at Williams College and founder of the academic food journal Gastronomica, says, “The kitchen is the public face of the home. Yet the act of opening the fridge is a very intimate one that reveals some of our most private pleasures, desires, and aspirations.’’

If you’re expecting houseguests, you can put the organic tempeh in the front for everyone to see. But it will shift to the back, to the bottom, when, inevitably, you don’t eat it. Snoops will spot the organic soy block, well past expiration date, shoved aside by Chinese takeout.

But someone else’s refrigerator can also be a source of brilliant ideas. A friend keeps frozen containers of red wine in her freezer. The wine is from bottles she didn’t particularly like, but it’s good enough for beef bourguignon at some point. Another has extra-sticky Post-Its on every container with date and contents.

The urge to snoop, and draw conclusions is, of course, irresistible. Many of the chefs, writers, foodies, and others we talked to about their fridges were happy to describe the contents, but suddenly became less willing when they learned a photographer would be dispatched. Others excused themselves immediately with various explanations. “I no longer cook,’’ claims novelist Junot Diaz. “The only thing in my fridge is water. Sad but true.’’

A few people were brave enough to let us peek inside. Here’s what we found.

Andrew Hebert, 27, sous-chef at Rialto in Cambridge

Hebert certainly has a guy’s fridge. A guy who’s not afraid of sodium.

In the fridge: pickled onions, pickled jalepenos, anchovies (once out of the tin, they’re always packed in salt in a plastic bag), olives, a large jar of capers in brine, a big chunk of imported Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a jar of good-quality marinara sauce, and a hunk of pancetta. Polenta is in the freezer. No vegetables, few perishables.

Vegetables are in the fridge if they were bought that day. Often, it’s greens to be sauteed in olive oil with garlic and crushed red pepper.

“I’m not here enough to keep a lot of food around, but I like to grill a steak.’’ That would be a rib-eye, served with the pickled items. He enhances the marinara with the capers, anchovies, or olives, and mixes it into polenta or tosses it with pasta. Shaved Parmigiano works on all of it.

Rachel Alabiso, director of communications for a Boston-based nonprofit

Alabiso is an adventurous cook with a taste for the exquisite. Her husband, Michael, prefers frozen pizza. Their fridge has it all, side by side.

In the fridge: Alabiso has imported butter, burrata cheese, mascarpone; he has Smart Balance buttery spread. She has Miguel Gorry Cerises Noires jam, he has Smucker’s Concord grape jelly. He prefers the Taco Bell seasoning mix to the custom-made chili seasoning she gets at South End Formaggio. There is a large jar of Marshmallow Fluff (not hers). She has a whole pig’s head in the freezer. There are Kraft Singles and a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano. They seem to agree on only a few items: real maple syrup, sliced roast beef, clams.

“He’ll have chicken nuggets if I’m making Dungeness crab — sauteed with ginger, scallions, and rice wine — and that’s fine,’’ she explains, as she pours Bellinis made with a homemade syrup of star anise, vanilla, and black peppercorn. “We married in our 30s, and we love being who we are together.’’

Vanessa Connolly, 26, personal fitness trainer and David Busby, 26, martial arts instructor

Connolly is energetic and very fit. Boyfriend Busby looks like a tattooed action figure. Their fridge is a scientifically balanced refueling center, designed for optimum nutrition and speed.

In the fridge: bananas (“They do turn brown, but they keep longer, and they’re still OK for protein shakes,’’ she says), apples, Vitalicious brand 100-calorie low-fat VitaMuffins, eggs, Arnold Double-Protein bread, unsalted raw almond butter, peanut butter, chicken, a tiny carton of skim milk, a bigger container of almond milk, shake-on Parmesan, Absolut Boston black tea and elderflower-flavored vodka. She has Bud Select 55-calorie beer, he has Coors Light. She has tofu, and he has steak (not enough calories in the tofu). The freezer is packed with instant high-protein products, and frozen vegetables.

Breakfast here is, well, efficient. Connolly has one VitaMuffin, one apple, and black coffee. Busby has one egg plus six egg whites, beaten in a bowl with black pepper, microwaved, then eaten with Frank’s RedHot sauce. “You can have peanut butter and toast with it,’’ says Connolly, “then the protein-to-fat ratio works out.’’

Benjamin Knack, 35, chef de cuisine, Sel de la Terre, and wife Rosanna Diaz-Knack, 32

Knack was cast as a nasty on the TV reality show “Hell’s Kitchen,’’ but in real life he’s a sweet husband and dad. His wife is from Guatemala and the dishes they make together are from everywhere. The fridge is a cooking-activities center for 2 1/2-year-old Ella Maria.

In the fridge: queso seco (a dry cheese), nixtamalized corn masa (alkalized corn meal), lard, homemade tortillas, soy sauce, cilantro, lemons, tofu, miso, red bean paste, plum paste, coppa, proscuitto, provolone, salami, sealed containers of baking and pasta flours (they stay fresher), assorted vegetables, salmon, meats, and a collection of hot sauces.

The Knacks make gnocchi and tortillas with their daughter, who has a taste for family projects such as Vadouvan curry (a smoky French version), miso soup, and baked salmon with Japanese furikake. The hot sauces in the fridge go from kid-friendly sriracha (soups, eggs) and harissa (vegetables, potatoes, paprika-seasoned meats, clams) to the adults-only habenero sauce Rosanna’s father sends from Guatemala.

Anna Romagnoli, chef-owner of La Romagnoli and Son in Watertown

Romagnoli lives near her new open-kitchen casual eatery. Her fridge is unmistakably Italian, with some Latin American influences.

In the fridge: a gallon jug of Vermont maple syrup, nonpareil capers in brine, deviled eggs, anchovies in olive oil, Italian tuna (“tonno’’ she says with emphasis) in olive oil, cannellini beans, prepared Roman beans (sold by Goya as “habichuelas romanas’’), an assortment of pickles, hummus and baby carrots for snacking, pita, homemade mozzarella (“It’s not hard to do at home’’), watermelon, and a big chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Romagnoli’s 10-year-old son, Paulo, enjoys the maple syrup on pancakes and, in general, is getting an enviable culinary education. Here’s one thing he’s learned. “Think of the caper as a tiny sour pickle,’’ says mom. “Capers can be used anywhere you’d use pickles: sandwiches, potato salad, use your imagination.’’

John and Annette Lee, proprietors and farmers, Allandale Farm in Brookline

The couple operates the celebrated Allandale Farm, which is more than 250 years old. Nearly everything in their fridge is produced on the farm.

In the fridge: native peaches, wild blueberries, corn, eggplant, eggs, cubanelle peppers, leeks, celery, cipollini onions, arugula, carrots, beets, local cheeses made by friends, whole wheat flour, chestnut flour, three different grinds of corn meal, oatmeal, nuts, flax, maple syrup, four varieties of mustard “depending on what we’re cooking,’’ milk, cream, and hard cider. Lamb and beef they raise are in the freezer, along with local trout and salmon John caught on trips to Canada and Iceland.

“We eat vegetables three meals a day,’’ says John. It’s a lot of food for two. But the couple’s adult children come by to take home “shopping bags’’ of the contents.

Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at