This week’s guest on Special Sauce is food television personality and pioneering chef Sara Moulton, who is as unpretentious as she is accomplished. And when I say accomplished I mean accomplished. Sara is currently the host of the PBS series Sara’s Weeknight Meals and the co-host of Milk Street Radio. She previously was the host of the live television show Cooking Live on the Food Network for almost ten years. Suffice it to say, Sara should be familiar to anyone who has watched cooking shows on television.
Want an example of her lack of pretense? Here is her take on leftovers: “I’d rather open up a refrigerator filled with leftovers than start with a blank canvas. Leftovers talk to me.” Or how about this detail from one of her many food-related jobs in college: “I was a waitress at an all-night diner where we had to wear a DayGlo orange uniform and white nurse’s shoes.” It may have been the uniform, and it may just have been the job itself, but whatever it was, Sara’s mother was horrified by her situation, and tried to help her in a way that would only make sense to a parent: “My mother wrote to Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, did not ask me, and asked them what her daughter should do if she wanted to become a chef.”
After her many years on television, I was surprised when I found out that Sara was a reluctant TV host. “I thought that was vulgar,” she explains. “Being a good WASP, it’s like, “Oh, then you’re looking for attention.” I also loved hearing the advice she’d give to guests on Cooking Live: “Smile constantly for no particular reason.”
As for her pioneering days as a young woman chef, Sara has some harrowing stories, but for those you’re just going to have to tune into part 1 of her Special Sauce interview.
*Ed note: For those of you wondering where part 2 of my Special Sauce interview with Matt Goulding is, we’ll be publishing it in a couple of months.
EL: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
SM: I started at Gourmet in the test kitchen, and I did that for four years. And I loved it, but I missed the restaurant business. So, when the job in the executive dining room opened up, they let me have it. We had only maximum 16 seats and no food cost. It was a dream job. I got to make these amazing meals. My job was to make the magazine come alive.
EL: This week we welcome chef, cookbook author, TV personality, you have so many things I could describe you as, Sara Moulton. Sara has been described in the New York Times as a dean of food, television and magazine. She currently hosts “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” on PBS, co-hosts “Milk Street Radio” with Chris Kimball, and somehow finds the time to write regular food columns for both the Associated Press and the Washington Post. And, oh yeah, she’s the mother of two terrific kids … I guess they’re not kids anymore, are they?
SM: No, they’re young adults.
EL: And the wife of hip hop chronicler Bill Adler who’s so cool he donated the Adler Hip Hop Archives to Cornell University. Welcome to Special Sauce, Sara.
SM: Thanks Ed.
EL: Oh, man, where do we start? I guess we should start where we always start on Special Sauce, at the beginning. So, tell us about life at the Moulton family table growing up.
SM: Oh, my mom was an amazing cook.
SM: And, as you know, your wife’s mom was a good friend of my mom.
SM: Isn’t it funny how circuitous the whole thing is?
SM: And you and Bill knew each other through the music industry.
EL: The music, yeah.
SM: But any rate, my mom was an amazing cook and it was something that was always important to her. She moved to New York when she first got married and worked at Mademoiselle magazine. She and daddy lived in this wonderful apartment with my uncle, and she loved to throw dinner parties. What she used as her source was the New York Times cookbook. Which, I found out, was a very important cookbook for a lot of chefs back then and moving forward. But any rate, so she would throw these dinner parties and then she started traveling to Europe. And, like anybody else, when you come back you want to make the food, if you love food, which she did.
SM: You want to make the food of the place you’ve just been. So, back in the ’60s she was making moussaka and paella, and all of these things.
EL: Wow, man.
SM: Well, those were the dinner parties. But nightly dinner was pretty damn good, too. Talk about in the ’60s, I was exposed to fresh fennel and endive and she was cooking with mushrooms and anchovies and …
EL: She was Alice Waters before Alice Waters.
SM: Right. Right. Our own little private home. And she was religious about family dinner, and not only that we eat it, that we sit down, that she make it from scratch, for the most part. We did have frozen vegetables every so often and occasionally she would ignore us and we’d have to have a TV dinner when they’d have date night. But, she also was insistent on good quality conversation. So, that was a part of it. We all had to sit there and dine. We didn’t just scarf it down and watch TV.
EL: Wow, so did the conversation go beyond what was the best thing that happened in your day, kind of thing or … ?
SM: Occasionally, occasionally. Yes. And towards the end, absolutely. When Annie and I were in high school and my sister, my older sister and I, my brother was sort of … We refer to him as the “oops” baby, he doesn’t like that. He’s nine years younger than her and seven years younger than me.
EL: I was the “oops” baby. I was 11 years younger than my oldest brother.
SM: Wow, wow.
EL: I was supposed to be a girl.
SM: Oh, geez.
EL: Because I have three older brothers. One just died, so I have two older brothers, but, yeah, my mother kept going because her brother had kept going and had a girl on the fourth.
SM: Damn, your poor mom. And then she got you. Wow.
EL: And then she ended up with me. Losing on so many fronts.
EL: Did you automatically take to watching her in the kitchen?
SM: Yeah, as a matter of fact, I became her sous chef in high school, just because I wanted to. We would throw these amazing dinner parties and then on Sunday morning … Sunday was the only day my mom was on strike and said, “I’m not cooking for anybody at anytime for any reason.” So we all, back then, went to church, and we’d come home from church and we were all left up to our own devices. So, my dad would make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My brother would go to the corner deli and get a roast beef sandwich.
EL: This was in Manhattan, right?
SM: Yes, we lived downtown. My sister would get yogurt, and my mom would have an exquisite brie with a perfectly ripe pear. I would take last night’s leftovers and do something different with them.
EL: Like make fried rice out of it, or whatever?
SM: Yes, exactly. I would get wild with them. And everybody would look at me and have lunch envy. Well, probably not my mom because she was happy with her perfect pear and ripe brie.
SM: I think that sort of ingrained in my mom that maybe I had some talent. And I would say to this day I’d rather open up a refrigerator filled with leftovers than start with a blank canvas. I love leftovers, they talk to me.
EL: That’s awesome. Leftovers talk to me, too. I do the same thing with fried rice and you don’t even have to be a great cook to do that.
SM: No. No, Bill does it now, too, my husband. He throws things together and has fun.
EL: So you went off to the University of Michigan, and you got your BA in the History of Ideas, is that right?
EL: Wow, that’s very, very sophisticated.
SM: No, actually it was just cop out. It was a hippie major. I was in a small part of the U of M where we had no grades, just evaluations. So it was sort of this creative little hotbed called the Residential College, part of the College of Literature, Science, and Arts. And that was just one of the loosey-goosey majors I could have, so I did it.
EL: Yeah, I know all about loosey … I was an American music major and I did my senior thesis on Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.
SM: Wow, nice. I’d love to see that.
EL: Well, it actually consisted of three all night radio shows of me reading liner notes and playing music.
SM: Oh, okay, so yeah, you do know.
EL: And probably smoking some substance that may or may not be legal in the state of Iowa.
SM: Yeah, got it, got it, got it. Okay.
EL: So, you go to Michigan and did your love of food manifest itself there in any way?
SM: Well, the funny thing was, I always had a job because you’ve got to make extra money when you’re in college. And it was always in some food establishment. So, either as a waitress, including I was a waitress at an all-night diner where we had to wear a DayGlo orange uniform and white nurse’s shoes.
EL: Wait a minute, whoa, whoa, whoa.
SM: Yeah, yeah.
EL: A Dayglo orange uniform?
SM: Yeah, it was like polyester … Worse, it was like plastic, I don’t know, but we had to wear this uniform. And white nurse’s shoes. I had the graveyard shift on Friday and Saturday nights. But, aside from that, I ended up cooking for a couple, two professors, a couple nights a week, and their family. And I also then, my last job, I started as a waitress at this bar called the Del Rio, which was this wonderful jazz bar in Ann Arbor, and I ended up in the kitchen. And I loved it. It wasn’t fancy food, we’d make these-
EL: It was bar food.
SM: It was bar food, but it was also fun. The one thing I liked the most was we made soups, we had a different soup every day. And I’ll be honest with you, we did not use homemade chicken or beef broth. We would use that horrible, God-awful base-
SM: Then you’d add water to match. But, the rest of it was totally fresh. Onions and garlic and whatever the soup … I had so much fun with that. So that was the last job I had in school. So I’m doing that and living with Bill and making probably $65 dollars a week. I guess the parents must’ve supplemented the rent. Either that or you could live on $65 dollars a week, I don’t really remember.
SM: But, my mom was horrified, so she wrote to Craig Claiborne and Julia Child. Did not ask me, and asked them what her daughter should do if she wanted to become a chef.
EL: Wow, that’s so crazy. First of all, let’s think about this. There weren’t that many moms encouraging their daughters, their middle class daughters, to become chefs.
SM: No. We were all doctors, lawyers, those kind of people.
SM: We’re talking about 1974 when she wrote this letter.
EL: So did she write it cold or did she know people who knew people?
SM: Cold. Cold. She wrote it cold.
EL: She wrote cold?
SM: Yes. My mother was a good writer, though, remember she was a writer at Mademoiselle.
EL: Right, she worked at Mademoiselle.
SM: Right. By then she didn’t, but she was a writer, that’s what she did. So, she didn’t hear back from Julia, which is curious because later on I got to work with Julia and Julia answered every letter. But Craig did write back and he said … Craig Claiborne, for those people who don’t know, was the author of the New York Times cookbook. So he wrote her back and said, “If your daughter wants to become a chef, she should go to cooking school.” Which is interesting, because that advice has come back … I give that to young women now, sometimes, that advice because it’s hard for a woman to just … It’s getting less hard, but it’s still somewhat hard for a woman to just walk in a kitchen-
EL: To knock on the door and say …
SM: And say, “Let me wash dishes and I’ll work my way up.” It just wasn’t possible back then.
SM: So, he said, “Either she should go to the Hotel School in Lausanne,” which is where he went, “Or she should go to the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America.”
EL: Which wasn’t that old at that time?
SM: No. I found out actually it started right after World War II in New Haven, but it had just moved to Poughkeepsie in the early ’70s.
EL: Got it.
SM: But any rate, I thought, “Well, I don’t want to go to Switzerland, that’s too far away.” I was happy with my little life in Ann Arbor, but I’ll apply to the CIA, I’m sure they will not accept me because I don’t even know how to use a chef’s knife. I’d always thought this might be a fun thing, a bit of a lark. It wasn’t completely a cold idea. I’d researched it before but I hadn’t pursued it until my mom did. So, the CIA accepted me. And I was like, “Oh, shit. They’ve called my bluff here.” So I went to Bill and I said, “You don’t want me to leave you, do you? I mean, no.” And he said, “Actually, I do. I’d like to see other women.”
EL: Whoa. Whoa.
SM: So, that shot me out of there like a cannon. And I got to the CIA, and I started in ’75, graduated in ’77, and I have to say … And it always irritates the husband when I say this, it was the happiest two years of my life because I found myself. I’m very proud of my children, I’m very proud of many of my things I’ve done in the industry, but it was so exciting. Not that many people find their passion and can pursue it.
SM: I felt very blessed.
EL: I feel very blessed in exactly the same way.
SM: Yeah. Yeah.
EL: It’s like there’s that old cliché about if you find something you love you’ll never work a day in your life.
SM: Exactly. Exactly.
EL: So you went … You left Bill.
EL: Or maybe he … No, I can’t actually say who showed whom the door there, but anyway, one way or another you ended up at the CIA and were there many women?
SM: No. It was six to one, men to women. And also at that time, the demographics have changed over the years, there’s a lot of career changers now, but back then it was solidly … Most of the men were working class, blue collar, who had families who had restaurants and just wanted to get more training. And then there were the women. Most of us were … Well, we were a motley crew, but I’d already gone to college. So these were 18-year-old guys and I was 23 …
EL: Testosterone-driven 18-year-old guys.
SM: Yeah, and what do they have on their minds? They’re not really focusing on training. So, you know what they have on their mind. But they all … Most of them also were very disdainful of us women because what the hell were we doing there? This is not a profession for women. You know the classic, you can’t stand the heat, you can’t lift the pots, you can’t stand the pressure-
EL: Right. Anne Rosenzweig always talks about … I forgot the French chef that asked her to lift the stock pot which was 50 pounds, even though nobody else was asked to lift that stock pot.
EL: And you know Anne Rosenzweig-
SM: She’s my size. Maybe even smaller.
EL: Right. She’s a seminal woman chef in New York-
EL: She’s still around and doing well. And she said the stuff that she encountered-
SM: Oh, yeah.
EL: Was just incredible.
SM: Yeah. Definitely. That’s what was going on. But, for me, actually, that was catnip. It was like, “You tell me I can’t do it? Well, I am going to show you.”
EL: Fuck you.
SM: Yes, exactly. You said it. What I had that they didn’t was my Brearley education.
EL: We should say that Sara went to the same high school that my wife went to. Much more rigorous than probably most colleges.
SM: Oh, my God, I had no adolescence because all I did was study. But any rate, I learned how to study and even though I sort of didn’t bother with it at the University of Michigan, I more grew up there than anything else. By the time I got to cooking school, that kicked back in. So I became a really good student. Even though the teachers were pretty much like the male students in that we did not, us women, did not belong there, they couldn’t help but be impressed by us because we took it seriously, we did the homework, we came in prepared. That really helped me to get through and to do well.
EL: But women always do the homework. Like when I was in business school, I would always have to ask the women that had become my friends because they were so much better prepared and they … Is it a sense of duty or responsibility that you think young women have that young men don’t?
SM: I don’t know, Ed, that it a really good question. I’m going to have to ponder that one. I wouldn’t be surprised if part of it is responsibility. It’s not just a lust for knowledge and doing a … But it’s also doing the right thing, being a good girl.
SM: So maybe you’re right.
EL: So, did you have role models?
SM: When I was in school?
EL: Yeah, when you were at the CIA. Who … ?
SM: Well, certainly, some of the other students inspired me, including some of the men. I had this one friend, Mike Garfunkel, who had cooked at Escoffier all the way through and could recite all that stuff. I had other friends who helped me out and taught me a lot. So, fellow students. Certainly some of the professors. I loved Chef Zach, some people found him very intimidating but I found him very impressive. But, in the outside world, not yet.
SM: Julia did become a role model and an inspiration, but not at that moment.
SM: I was just trying to make my way through it. I wanted to be the best chef I possibly could.
EL: And it wasn’t gender driven. It was just like you were very focused.
SM: Yes. Absolutely.
EL: So then you graduated and you started cooking in Boston, and that’s where you met-
EL: Julia Child, right?
EL: How did that come about?
SM: Well, I moved back to Boston because that’s where Bill moved when I left and we eventually got back together again. I did my externship at the Harvest, a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
EL: Which was a seminal new American restaurant in Cambridge.
SM: And so many chefs worked there.
SM: Lydia Shire, Chris Schlesinger, Bob McKay.
EL: I used to say that the Boston chef scene grew out of the Parker House Hotel.
EL: But it may have been just as much out of that restaurant, the Harvest.
SM: The Harvest, yeah. Because Lydia worked at both the Parker House and the Harvest, too. So, I did my externship there and then when I was done with school they hired me back. But, management kept changing there. I was sous chef, I was always in over my head but it’s something you do. You just do what you have to. But they kept changing chefs, so I ended up at this catering company, as the chef manager of a catering company. Which I didn’t really enjoy, I don’t like catering, I don’t like cooking for the masses. I’d rather do small restaurant work.
SM: Any rate, one day I was peeling a million hard boiled eggs with one of my workers to stuff for some event, I don’t know, and we started talking about Julia Child. And she said that she actually was a volunteer on Julia’s show. Julia, of course, lived in Cambridge.
SM: I was like, “Wow. Really? Do you think she’d ever want another volunteer? I’d love to work on her show, too.” And she said, “Well, we’re just about to tape another season. Let me ask her.” So she came in the next day and she said, “I asked Julia if she needed anybody else and told her all about you, and she wants to hire you.”
EL: Hire you, not volunteer.
SM: Hire you. Yeah. I said, “Excuse me? She wants to pay me? She hasn’t even met me. Why?” The backstory, I’ll get to the punchline, is because I went to the CIA, she thought that I was just going to be everything she ever wanted.
SM: What she specifically wanted … So I went down to the corner pay phone to call her, and she gets right on the phone, she was listed-
EL: What a quaint notion, a pay phone.
SM: I know. I know. And I did go to the corner pay phone because I didn’t know where this was going to go and I didn’t want to make the call from work. And she gets right on the phone, she was listed, so people could call her at Thanksgiving or-
EL: Yes, I remember that. She was famously listed.
SM: Yeah, famously listed. So, she gets right on the phone and she says, “Oh, no, dearie, I’ve heard all about you. Do you food style?” Now, back in … This is 1978, nobody … It wasn’t the codified art that it is now. I thought to myself, well, hmm, I’d landed the food nicely on the plate when I was at the Harvest, we just did cold poached decorated salmon for 700, that looked pretty good. I did water colors in high school, I was really grasping for straws at this point. I think I’m just going to lie. And I said, “Yes, I’m very good,” so she hired me.
EL: That’s awesome.
SM: Sometimes I say this to young people who are scared of their shadows and don’t want to try something new or put themselves out there, and I’m like, “Sometimes you have to … ” I’m not encouraging lying, but sometimes you take a little bit of a leap.
EL: Yes. Creative license.
SM: Creative license. Well, we have to be careful in these times about lying-
EL: It’s true.
SM: It happens an awful lot.
EL: It’s true, especially at the top.
SM: Yes. This is true.
EL: Give us a concise answer to what you learned from Julia.
SM: Oh, there’s no concise answer. What happened is I worked on the show, it was called “Julia Child and More Company” and the cookbook that went with it, and that was a project that took three months. Oddly enough, unlike now when you do a public television show you just bang it out in five days or seven days or 10 days or in those kinds of chunks, but back then we spread it out over three months. So, three days a week we would work on it. I could only work two of the three because I ended up becoming chef of a restaurant. So the other five I worked at that place. I worked seven days a week for three months, it was worth it. But then that relationship continued for the rest of my life, Julia.
SM: So, I worked there with her and then later on at Good Morning America and we always stayed in touch. She gave me so many introductions to so many things. But, over the course of my whole relationship with her here’s what I learned. You never stop learning. You must always strive for excellence. It’s a good idea to have more than one job. I want to kill her for that one. At times, I had four. And sort of be humble. Be nice to everybody. She was very curious.
EL: She was. I only met her once or twice, and she was shockingly unpretentious and lovely.
SM: Down to earth. And wanted to know all about you.
EL: Yes, and was always able to laugh at herself. What a fantastic quality.
SM: She was one of the funniest people I ever met, and I think it’s because she was so refreshingly honest. But one last thing she taught me which was very helpful at the Food Network which was how to smile and how important it is to smile. And I taught that to Rachael Ray. Rachael Ray will say that. I used to say it to all of my guests when they come on because I had something like 500 guests when I was on the Food Network, and I’d always say them the last thing before we’d go on air, “Smile constantly for no particular reason.”
EL: That’s awesome.
SM: Because it really helps to get your message across.
EL: Did you and Julia ever talk about gender issues?
SM: Oh, gosh, it’s so interesting you should bring that up because yes and no. One thing is, whenever we’d walk in a restaurant, besides all of her immediate reactions to the restaurant, what it looked like, what it smelled like, she was famous for walking into a restaurant and saying, “Oh, no, I’m smelling bad fat,” because she hated it when people reused the fryolator over and over and over again.
SM: But the other thing she would often do when … Because she’d always end up in the kitchen, she’d always get invited, she’d look around for the women. And she’d point out, “Where are the women?”
SM: So she did make it an issue. But she got me an apprenticeship after I started working for her to go work at a restaurant in France and it turned out the chef owner, who was 72, short, fat, bald and ugly, which is relevant because if he wasn’t it might not have been such an issue, was a dirty old man, and not only would not let me work the line … I was there for two-and-a-half months, but also sort of chased me around the wine cellar and really put the moves on me.
EL: Right, and you told that story the Huffington Post.
SM: The Huffington Post. So, what happened … And I managed to survive because I was smart.
EL: Yes, you spent the night in a hotel room in Paris in twin beds.
SM: Right. Right. Thank you. You read that article.
EL: And it might as well have been the Grand Canyon-
EL: Because there was no way he was getting within five feet of you.
SM: No way. No way.
EL: And I loved that you said that you actually put your raincoat on.
SM: With my belt. With the belt around it. Yes, I did.
EL: That’s so awesome.
SM: Yeah, well, send a message there. But any rate, I survived. It took me six months to tell Julia that this guy was … And there was nobody I could talk to because I was working with his wife and his daughters and I just felt like I couldn’t say, “Your husband, your father, is … ” Whatever. Any rate, it took me six months to tell Julia. I thought she’d be devastated. When I first got back I said, “Oh, I learned so much,” and I did, by the way, I’m really glad I did it.
EL: But …
SM: But, when I finally told her six months later, she said, “Oh, dearie, what’d you expect? They’re all like that. Get over it.”
SM: At the time, I was like, “Okay. Hmm. Okay. She’s right. They’re all like that. Get over it.” And then years later I thought, “Okay, that’s Julia,” because she always kept her eye on the prize and she wouldn’t let a silly thing like feminism get in her way. I’m not throwing any shade on Julia, she is fantastic. However, had I been raped it would’ve been a different story.
SM: Really it’s not acceptable.
SM: None of it is acceptable.
SM: I don’t think, by the way, that’s the worst issue for women in restaurants is the sexual harassment. It’s very bad. I think there’s a bigger issue which we can talk about. But, aside from what I just told you, she didn’t really bring up gender issues. She never called herself a chef. She said she was a home cook. But, as I’ve come to learn, sort of specializing in home cooks for many years, starting at Gourmet and then in the Food Network-
SM: Home cooks can be every bit as proficient and excellent and amazing as restaurant chefs.
EL: Yeah. It’s genuinely apples and oranges.
SM: Yes, exactly.
EL: In 1982, which is 36 years ago, you founded something called the Women’s Culinary Alliance. Was that part a response to your experience in France?
SM: Well, actually getting back to Julia-
SM: This is something I’d forgotten when you just asked me that last question. When we were in Boston … So I was there from ’77 to ’81, working various jobs including with Julia, a bunch of women would always work with Julia. She’d do fundraisers for Planned Parenthood or something else and we’d all go help her, and we’d throw these dinner parties at her house. And we all were talking about the industry and we noticed that men seemed to have male organizations, male chefs. And they seemed to … The boys’ club, they support each other.
SM: So we thought, “Why don’t we don’t we form something for us?” So we did, in Boston, called the Boston Women’s Culinary Guild. We founded that in, I guess, 1980 or so. And I thought that was a great thing. There was two big flaws with it. One is, anybody could join who liked to cook. So we got people who threw a dinner party once every six months. And, we didn’t require people to be active. So, it was a great group, but it was flawed. So I moved to New York, and when I moved to New York in ’81, Julia gave me introductions to all the great restaurants.
SM: And, back then, all the great restaurants were helmed by male European chefs. They would have nothing to do with me. They would not hire me. Usually they didn’t tell me that, but they wouldn’t … Maybe I’d get an interview but I just wouldn’t be hired.
SM: And finally I got a job working for Sally Darr who had a wonderful restaurant called La Tulipe.
EL: First serious restaurant I ever went to in my life.
SM: Wasn’t it great?
EL: It was awesome.
SM: It was really great. It was really unique. Sally was not a trained chef but I probably learned more from her than anybody else.
SM: And that includes Julia and Jacques Pepin. I learned a ton from Sally. But any rate, I got a job there. But I still felt like, wait a second, what is going on here? We have the same problem here in New York, of course, it’s pretty pervasive, as we did in Boston only it’s worse.
EL: And Sally was the first serious woman chef at a restaurant in New York, I believe.
SM: Oh, Leslie Revsin.
EL: Oh, Leslie Revsin. That’s right. Yeah.
SM: Yes. Yes. Any rate, so by then I’d made friends with a bunch of people at Gourmet magazine because the Chef de Cuisine at La Tulipe … I was not the chef. I was the Chef Tournant.
SM: Sally was the Executive Chef and Guy Reuge was the Chef de Cuisine. His wife was Mariah. Mariah, a nice southern girl, worked at Gourmet. So I became friends with Mariah, and because of that I became friends with a lot of people at Gourmet magazine. Which I’d been getting for years and used as an inspiration when I was a chef.
SM: So I got a bunch of those women together and we founded the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance.
EL: Got it.
SM: It was originally supposed to be a baby Dames d’Escoffier. I’d won a scholarship from Les Dames d’Escoffier when I graduated from CIA. I was one of their first three scholarship winners the first year they did which was-
EL: And we should explain what Les Dames is.
SM: Les Dames d’Escoffier is sort of an offshoot of an organization called Les Amis d’Escoffier which is again a male … I don’t think it’s a chef’s organization but culinary organization, and Carol Brock, who worked at the Daily News, wanted to form a women’s equivalent. So she formed Les Dames d’Escoffier. I don’t remember what year but it was probably early ’70s. So that group already existed. The trouble with that group, from my point of view, was that you had to have been accomplished in order to be able to be considered as a member. I felt there was a need for young women just starting out to have a group for themselves.
But, nonetheless, Carol asked me if I’d form a junior Les Dames, would I bring a proposal to the board of Les Dames d’Escoffier? So, Mariah and I put together a proposal, we took it to the board meeting in 1981, which was held at my friend Jean Anderson’s house at One Lexington, and we were shot down by the board. Carol hadn’t really shared with them that she had this terrific idea for a junior Dames. Mariah was so angry, she’s a nice southern girl, but we went out to Gramercy Park and you should’ve heard the expletives coming out of her mouth at those women. But I was thrilled. I was like, “We’re free. We can now do what we want to.”
SM: So we did. So we formed this group, and we improved on the two fatal errors from the Boston group. So you have to be a full time professional. You don’t have to be a chef, but you have to be a caterer … You have to do it at least a minimum of 35 hours a week, whatever you do. That doesn’t seem like a lot but for people like caterers who have seasonal business it averages out to about 35 hours a week. And you had to be active.
SM: So, because of especially the second thing, we lost a lot of chefs. So we don’t have a lot of chefs. But it’s still going great guns many years later.
EL: Yeah. That’s great.
SM: And we want young women to join. We’ll take you right out of cooking school.
SM: New York Women’s Culinary Alliance.
EL: You mentioned Gourmet magazine, and you ended up being the Corporate Chef there.
EL: What did that entail? And why did you transition to that?
SM: Okay, very good, you are asking all these great questions, of course. Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves? So there you go. But I started at Gourmet in the test kitchen and I did that for four years. I loved it. We tested, developed and styled food for photography. There I finally was styling food for photography. But I missed the restaurant business so when the job in the executive dining room opened up I grabbed it. They let me have it. And what that was was a corporate dining room where we entertained clients. Clients being advertisers.
SM: We had only maximum 16 seats and no food cost. It was a dream job. And, at first I thought, “Wow, I’ve sold my soul to the devil. I’m working with advertisers. That’s terrible.” But it sort of was fun because a, our advertisers were very tony. They were the kind of advertisers you’d want. We didn’t have Cheese Whiz or anything. Although Cheese Whiz has a place.
SM: But, I didn’t have to do anything with Cheese Whiz or any of those kind of things. So, I got to make these amazing meals. My job was to make the magazine come alive. I would cook from their most recent issue. But also it sort of became a challenge and fun. An advertiser would come to us and say, “Well, we don’t think you’re a food and travel magazine,” and then I would cook a whole meal from one issue around the globe.
EL: Right. Wow.
SM: Or they’d say, “We don’t think your recipes are accessible enough,” and I’d have them in for a cooking class and make five recipes that were so accessible. I loved the challenge, and also helping advertisers to figure out how to improve their image or any number of things. So it was a great job.
SM: Loved it.
EL: And was it also because you realized if you were going to have a family that it was going to be tough to stay in the restaurant business?
SM: Oh, that’s absolutely why I left the restaurant industry. I always thought I’d go back but … To have kids. I left La Tulipe to do that and I thought at first I’d just do freelance recipe testing and development but then the job at Gourmet opened up, first in the test kitchen. I always thought I’d go back but then I realized kids don’t just need you … Because you work 80 hours a week when you’re a chef.
SM: I think it’s very hard for women to do that because, as a woman, I want to be with the kids. But, any rate, I just thought there’s no way I can have kids and do that. But, I realized, kids don’t just need you as newborns, elementary school, high school.
SM: Apparently they need you as young adults.
EL: Our kids even need us now, Sara.
SM: Yeah. We’re not dead yet as parents.
EL: And then you combined that with GMA, though, right?
EL: This is where you started juggling.
SM: Right. I blame Julia. So, Julia started coming to New York in ’81 to tapes episodes of GMA. She’d come and tape four or five. I missed her, because I wasn’t in Boston anymore, we weren’t making dinner parties at her house. So, I said, “Let’s go out to dinner,” and she said oh, she had too much prep, she didn’t think she’d be able to get out. So I said, “Let me come over and help you, for free. And then I’ll take you out for dinner.” And that happened. The next day, GMA hired me to start working there.
SM: Now, I only did that for a few months because Sally didn’t want me to have a second job, but I went back in ’87 and started doing it again. Then I did it for 10 years. I did it-
EL: So you did both Gourmet magazine and GMA?
SM: And that. I did, not just for her, but all the chefs on GMA. That was wonderful. That’s how I met everyone.
EL: Yeah, that’s interesting. But it also entailed getting up really, really early.
SM: Oh, yeah. That was brutal. Oh, my God.
EL: I’ve only done those morning shows two or three times-
SM: It’s brutal.
EL: It’s like, “I don’t know how people do this every day.”
SM: No, no.
EL: Then, though, the thing that young people who are into food don’t know that much about is you did a live television show on the Food Network, starting in 1996.
EL: Every night.
SM: Well, first, five nights a week for the first nine months.
SM: Then four nights a week after that for the rest of the time I was there.
EL: And that’s a totally crazy thing. First of all, people don’t do live cooking shows except on Facebook or whatever it is or-
EL: A social platform. What was that like?
SM: I loved it, Ed. If anybody ever asked me what’s your favorite thing you’ve ever done in the industry, it was that first show. I was on the Food Network for almost 10 years, I missed 10 years by two months, but that show was called “Cooking Live” and it was really live. It wasn’t live to tape. It wasn’t a live audience. It was live live, complete with dirty phone calls. I dropped it, I burned it, I didn’t finish the recipe. My guest fell off the riser. It was wild. I think you were on it, too.
EL: Yes, I think I was on it. It was a long time ago.
SM: Yes. Yes. It was so much fun. And whatever happened, happened. Every night … My friend described it as like a town hall. People would call in with their questions. We’d have a topic, and people would call in. That’s how I got a real sense of what home cooks were doing around the country. I fell particularly in love with the south because I discovered they cook more, can more, bake more, dine more, than anywhere else in the country.
But the other thing that was fun about it was that people would sometimes help me. We took about five calls a night and let’s say somebody asked me a question I didn’t know the answer, well, the next call they might know the answer. Because this was pre-Google.
SM: So there was no way to go. I’d go home every night and sometimes, if I didn’t know the answer, I’d say I’d get back to you with the answer tomorrow. It’s like the old days of the soap operas, “Tomorrow you’ll find out if Susie and Johnny really split up or did they get back together again?”
SM: Well, for me it would be really “What is the difference between golden and black raisins?” was one of the burning issues.
SM: So, yeah, that was great. But not only did I do that but I also morphed from doing behind the scenes at GMA to being their on-air food correspondent. Which I did from six to eight times a year. So, I did Gourmet and the Food Network at night, and then sometimes in the morning I would do GMA.
EL: This was supposed to make life easier for you as a working mother?
SM: No, it was ridiculous. Ridiculous. Yeah.
EL: But you survived, and you did it.
SM: I did. Well, you can do anything as long as you know there’s an end in sight. Yeah, in 1999 I did two live shows. One from seven to eight, and one from 10 to 11. We did that for nine months because they wanted to see if the later model would work.
SM: That was particularly hairy.
EL: You didn’t really set out to be on TV.
SM: Never. I thought that was vulgar. Being a good WASP, it’s like, “Oh, then you’re looking for attention.” But, of course, there’s Julia who’s fantastic who did it. But I thought most people who were on TV just needed a lot of attention. But how I got past it and decided that it would be a good idea, you know Lou, who trained a lot of …
EL: Sure. Yeah.
SM: He’s a great media trainer. He and Lisa, they were still together back then, trained me to do TV when I was invited to be on the Food Network, because I was terrible. How he got me to feel comfortable in front of the camera was he helped me to figure out that the reason … That I had a mission and it was to teach. I loved to teach. Once I decided, okay, I’m going to be helping people then I didn’t feel so self-conscious.
EL: Oh, that’s really interesting and-
SM: And it seemed like a good idea, which was your original question. I never wanted to be on TV, I always wanted to be a chef.
SM: Now, I believe that what I do best is actually teach.
EL: Yeah, and that’s what’s interesting is that that is the consistent thread in your work.
EL: Alice Waters was talking to us about how important it was that there be a family meal on the table every night. You were really doing that on live TV.
SM: Oh, and by the way, we did have family dinner when I got home from doing the show.
EL: Yeah, that’s what I was about to ask you. How did you do that?
SM: Well, it was a couple weeks in. I would go do the show, I’d have to be there at five and then I’d be done by eight, and then I’d get home by 8:15. So, two weeks in, Bill and I always ate dinner together anyway … In some ways, the show got us eating family dinner sooner. But, two weeks in, because I wasn’t seeing the kids as much as I wanted to, I said to Ruthie, who was the older, she was nine, I was like, “Why don’t you stay up and have dinner with me and daddy? Have a snack,” and then I got a serious babysitter, some really good people to help out.
SM: So, she did. Well, Sammy wasn’t going to be left behind. He was five. So he started having dinner with us. And that was sort of a joke because Sammy wasn’t ready for prime time eating dinner, but he didn’t want to be left out. But you got to start somewhere, so we did. So that’s sort of when we really started doing it religiously. Even when I did that live show, I’d come home in between shows to have dinner. So, we’d do seven to eight and 10 to 11, and I’d come home in between and we had dinner.
EL: That’s really impressive.
EL: Sara, we’ve covered so much ground but we haven’t even gotten to your current gigs hosting “Sara’s Weeknight Meals”, co-hosting “Milk Street Radio”, writing for the Washington Post and the Associated Press, so we’re going to wrap up this week’s episode of Special Sauce and then you and I are going to continue yapping.
EL: For part two of this is your life, Sara Moulton.
EL: So long, Serious Eaters.