Talking All Things Food With Chef Sara Moulton | Bite Club

Talking All Things Food With Chef Sara Moulton

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From Sara Moulton's Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better - COURTESY OF SARA MOULTON
  • Courtesy of Sara Moulton
  • From Sara Moulton's Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better
You might remember chef Sara Moulton as one of the Food Network’s original celebrities during its first decade of television. Maybe you recognize her from her current show, "Sara's Weeknight Meals," which is set to air its sixth season in January 2017.  Or perhaps you own one of her best-selling cookbooks. Her latest, Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better is an opus of home cooking, relevant to those with and without experience in the restaurant world.

With more than 30 years of culinary experience, Moulton’s other distinctions include being a protégé of Julia Child, executive chef of Gourmet Magazine, cofounder of the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance, and a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage.

On July 9, I had the privilege of meeting the acclaimed chef at the 2016 Grafton Food Festival. Moulton and I settled into two armchairs at the Grafton Inn to talk about Child, culinary media and Vermont's influence on the food world. 

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1977,  your first foray into the restaurant industry was in Boston. Where did you begin?

I started at the Harvest in Cambridge, a great restaurant with so many great chefs. The Harvest was my [culinary school] externship in '76, but it was hard to get a job back then. It was a different food era; there were not a lot of great restaurants. … [and] it was all male chefs. In those days, especially on the East Coast, European chefs sort of had a lockdown on the territory. They’d say, “This is our kitchen; women don’t belong here.”

I don’t know why [the chef at the Harvest], who was a man, decided to give me a shot, because I had tried a lot of other places. But he decided to hire me. He got fired before I came in for my externship, but the restaurant honored it, anyway.

Guess who was the new chef? Lydia Shire — one of the great female chefs of that time. Lydia was a pioneer. She was wonderful. I’d be on the cold station opening oysters and clams and salads, et cetera. When I was done [with my prep], she’d say, “Come on over.” I’d hang out and watch her cook on the line. She tutored me in that way.

Did you stay at the Harvest after your externship?

Yes. Lydia was gone — the Harvest went through a million chefs. Her sous-chef was a women named Laura Schmalhorst, and she became the chef when Lydia left. Laura hired me as her sous-chef.

That’s a quick jump. How long were you working the line before you were hired as sous-chef?

I never worked the line … Now that I think about it, I’ve never said that before. When I came back, I suddenly worked lunches [as sous-chef.] I never thought about that before. 

You know what it was? Having graduated from the Culinary Institute then, which is a two-year program, everybody assumed all sorts of things, including that you were a very experienced chef. Of course, you and I both know that’s not the case. I learned on the job. I was there for nine months, but a lot happened in nine months. 

When did you meet your would-be mentor, Julia Child?

I met her while working for a catering company in Boston, shortly after leaving the Harvest. One of my coworkers worked for Julia’s show, and I thought, Hey, I’d like to do that. I mentioned it to my coworker, who came back the next day and said, “Julia would like to hire you.”

Which brings me back to that myth about the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. I called Julia, and she asked if I food styled. That was ’78 — food styling wasn’t the codified industry it is now. Because I graduated from the CIA, she thought I knew how to do it. I thought, Well, I just did cold-poached, decorated salmon for 700, and I think I plated it pretty nicely. So I lied and said, “Yes, I’m very good.” And she hired me.

That started a relationship that lasted until she died. She was a mentor, like another mother. And I wasn’t the only one — there were lots of people she looked out for.

You must have absorbed a ton of culinary knowledge while working with Julia. What are a few things you learned from her that don’t have to do with food?

So many things. One, that you never stop learning. She also taught me how to smile on camera, and that’s a huge one. I had just started working for the Food Network and she came to do a show with me. There was a photographer taking pictures of us after the episode, and Julia put her big arm around me and said, “Come on, dearie, just say ‘champagne!’ Smile!” I thought, “Wow, this woman doesn’t have a phony bone in her body and she’s telling me that I should smile. I guess it’s important.”

When you started at the Food Network, you went from working “back of the house” to performing in front of the camera. What was that transition like?

It was frightening. Before that, I worked prepping for the guest chefs at "Good Morning America." I worked there from ’87 to ’96 — any big-time chef in those days was on the show. GMA was the first time I met Emeril [Lagasse], Charlie Trotter, Wolfgang Puck, Martin Yan … But I always wanted to be behind the scenes. I never wanted to be on camera.

A couple years later, when the Food Network started, the network asked if I wanted to run their kitchen, since they knew I ran the kitchen at "Good Morning America." At that time, I had full-time job [as the executive chef] at Gourmet Magazine. But here’s another thing Julia taught me: It's fine to have three or four jobs.

So I had lunch with Reese Schonfeld [cofounder of the Food Network]. I said no to running the kitchen, because I had a job with benefits at Gourmet. Then he said, “Would you like to be food editor?” I replied, “No, I’m a chef, and that’s a desk job.” Then he said, “Do you want to do on-air?” And I thought I'd give it a try.

I auditioned for a 15-minute pilot for a show called "How to Boil Water," and I was terrible. I was very educational and said what I wanted to say, but I never once smiled. My hands never stopped shaking. I would hold up a piece of asparagus, and it’s shaking all over the place.

I walked out of there saying, forget about it, they won’t hire me. But the Food Network was so desperate in those days. They had no money. Somebody must have said I was a good teacher. Although I flunked that pilot, they invited me back to do something called "Chef du Jour." It was there that I learned how to be on TV. I learned on the job.

Let’s talk about Gourmet, where you spent 20 years as the executive chef. The magazine has a legendary and lasting presence in the food world, but ceased publication after almost seven decades of existence. In your eyes, what caused the closure?

It was a perfect storm. The short answer is that Condé Nast owned Bon Appétit and Gourmet at once. Bon Appétit was more of a mass magazine — it had a huge subscription base and never lost it. Gourmet was more “haute,” or whatever you want to call it. Its subscription rate grew, as well, but never matched Bon Appétit. Eventually, financially, Condé Nast had to choose between the two.

It was very unsettling, though. An iconic magazine goes bye-bye? It's sad. They never put out the last issue that we finished. 

We have a wide range of food information to sort through, from print publications to virtual food helms. As a food writer, I’d like to know: what are we getting right? What are we not talking about enough?

I don’t know if I’m the right person to answer that. So many food magazines are struggling. Others are doing solidly well, and I’m not sure why. Here’s what I feel hopeful about: Everybody thought books would go out of print when the Kindle showed up. But libraries and bookstores are having a resurgence. I hope print publications will continue to exist — I mean, I still get the New York Times newspaper every week. I like the hard copy.

Do you think one medium has monopoly over food information, or do you think it’s an explosion in every direction?

Oh, it’s an explosion in every direction. And I think that’s why information often gets diluted. You have to keep up with it to find out where the good stuff is.

You mentioned it was tough to find a job when coming into the male-dominated realm of the restaurant kitchen. How has navigating that world become easier for women and other minority chefs in 2016? What hurdles do we still have to clear?

The food world is better, not best. When I first tried to get a job in NYC, I had a hard time. Male chefs at those European restaurants would give me interviews because Julia told them to, but they didn’t want to hire a woman.

New York City is no longer a city of old, grand French restaurants. Now there are a lot of female chefs, and some of them are getting good press. I get to hang out with [these women] every year at a New York fundraising event called SHARE. It’s about 24 women chefs. They each have a booth to hand out food, people pay a lot of money, there’s wine — you know the drill.

I’m always at the Pearl Oyster Bar stand with Rebecca Charles and her girlfriend, Deborah DiClementi. Every year I ask how it’s going for women in the city, and they also say, "It’s better, not best." There’s two things: Men still get the lion’s share of the publicity and the lion’s share from the investors. Men still get most of the offers.

I worked in restaurants for many years. I’ve worked in an environment that’s all men, as well as one that’s all women and another that's mixed. Hands down, my favorite situation was a kitchen with both men and women. Everything went more smoothly.

And here’s something I noticed about women cooks. We heard all that bullshit in cooking school that women can’t stand the heat, women can’t lift the pots, women are not hardwired for restaurant work, et cetera. But, in my experience, women were less likely to throw a fit on the line. Say a waiter comes back with a rack of lamb that a customer wants cooked up a bit. More often, the male chef would have a temper tantrum, while the women chef just kept going. And talk about multitasking — that’s what a mother does. I actually believe that women are better at handling the pressure from a more even-keel point of view.

And that’s a general view, of course, because I loved a mixed kitchen and I prefer a mixed kitchen. And in terms of creativity, that has more to do with the individual than the gender. But that’s why it bothers me when more investors approach male chefs — they think male chefs are more suited to “handle it.” I don’t think that assumption is true.

Let’s talk again about food media. In a recent Seven Days interview, Ruth Reichl remarked that chefs have been leading changes in the national food world since the ’70s. Why do you think people are currently gravitating toward chefs, cooking competitions and other culinary trades?

Two reasons: the Food Network and the internet. The Food Network got a lot of people interested in food. The internet then gave us access to a huge amount of food information, including ingredients. When I first started at Gourmet, something like toasted sesame oil, for instance, was only available in specialty food stores. When I graduated cooking school in ’77, we used one salt — table salt. Just regarding salt, think of how things have changed.

I do think chefs lead current changes in the food world. And particularly now; because of the internet, we have information that we didn’t used to. We know what chefs are doing, and we know it fast.

You mentioned visiting Vermont before. What’s your relationship to this state?

I think it’s beautiful, for one. And it’s like a candy store [for chefs]. There are so many farms and artisans up here — it’s just amazing. My first time in Vermont was for a story on maple syrup with the Food Network. I loved it. King Arthur Flour was a small sponsor for my show, as well — they became a sponsor because I used to mention how much I liked them, even though we had no prior relationship. I came to Vermont again to teach a class at King Arthur Flour, and on that trip we went to the Mill at Simon Pearce for lunch. We loved it so much we had dinner there, too.

Then, my mother died in July 2013. When she died, my dad said, “I want to go to the Vermont Country Store. Your mother always ordered stocking presents there.” My brother and I drove up with him and stayed overnight. We stayed at an inn nearby and had fantastic meals. We loved it there. I’d like to visit the whole state.

Do you think Vermont is a role model in the national food community?

I do, absolutely. Especially within the farm-to-table spectrum. The connection between farmers and food, the celebration of the local — those concepts are central here. Vermont is the farm. Not that I’m not proud of my city [New York City] for what it’s trying to do, but [farm-to-table] feels more straightforward here. There’s not always this sense of posturing regarding farm-raised food. I hate the snobbery around “organic” and “farm-to-table,” and I hope that the rising awareness about food helps create [a food world] that is less separated. The snobbery has to go out the window for us to move forward.

I’d like to end with “Seven questions from Seven Days,” and I’ll begin with my favorite: What was your most-loved meal as a kid?

Veal scaloppini was one of them. I also loved my mom’s meatball Stroganoff with egg noodles.

What’s your favorite breakfast?

Huevos rancheros.

What is your preferred food publication?
I read Cook’s Illustrated cover to cover.

If you were to eat anywhere in New York City tonight, where would you go?
If somebody else is paying? Le Bernardin.

What’s your most-used ingredient?
Oh, God, I have several. Lemon and lemon rind. Always garlic. Hot pepper flakes.

Any favorite Vermont cheeses?

Oh, I love the cheddars. We’re in Grafton, so we have to mention Grafton Village aged cheddar. And there are beautiful goat cheeses here.

What’s your favorite thing to eat in the summer season?
Here’s a salad I love: sliced heirloom tomatoes salted and left for 15 minutes. Layer the tomato slices with avocado and mozzarella, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. That's a favorite.


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