Special Sauce: Cookbook Author Susan Spungen on Craving Togetherness [1/2]

Special Sauce has obviously changed a lot with the advent of the pandemic. But before we changed the format a couple of months ago to adapt to the times, we’d already recorded a couple of great interviews. One of them was with my old friend, cookbook writer and food stylist extraordinaire Susan Spungen. Susan’s new book, Open Kitchen: Inspired Food for Casual Gatherings, came out 17 days before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued his stay-at-home order. Susan’s bag was already packed for a national book tour, but obviously that tour never happened. With the country slowly opening back up for small gatherings, I thought it would be a great time to check back in with Susan. I figured she might have some interesting things to say about what a properly socially distanced gathering would look like and what we would eat there.  As she says, we’ve arrived at a moment when “people are craving togetherness and they like to eat together and be together.” We should note that Susan’s comments and mine are impressionistic and most assuredly not prescriptive. People should consult trusted sources like the CDC to find out how they can gather and eat. We also went back in and edited some of her original interview into this episode. With so many people out of a job today wondering about what the future holds for them work-wise, I found it comforting to hear about Susan Spungen’s circuitous career path. She went from dropping out of art school to making omelets to order at a hotel buffet to working side by side with Martha Stewart for ten years. I hope Serious Eaters will find it comforting as well.

Ed Levine: Special Sauce has obviously changed a lot with the advent of the pandemic, as it should have, but before we changed the format a couple of months ago we had already recorded a couple of great interviews. One of them was with my old friend, cookbook writer and food stylist extraordinaire Susan Spungen. Susan’s new book, Open Kitchen: Inspired Food for Casual Gatherings, came out exactly 17 days before New York Governor Cuomo issued his stay-at-home order. Susan’s bag was already packed for a national book tour, but obviously that tour never happened. So with the country slowly opening back up for small gatherings I thought it would be a great time to check back in with Susan. I figured she might have some interesting things to say about what a properly socially distanced gathering gathering would be like and what we would eat there. As she noted we have arrived at a moment when according to her, “people are craving togetherness and they like to eat together and be together.” We should note that Susan’s comments and mine are impressionistic and most assuredly not prescriptive. People should consult trusted sources like the CDC to find out how they can gather and eat.


Susan Spungen: You don’t want to introduce me? For some reason I just hate doing that, but I’ll try. I’m Susan Spungen. I have a new cookbook out that came out just as the pandemic was beginning. I’m here to talk to Ed Levine to update our conversation from a few months ago.

EL: Right before the pandemic hit. What’s the name of the cookbook Susan?

SSOpen Kitchen. Did I not mention that?

EL: No, man, you got to really, you got to get your self promotion thing down.

SS: Right. It’s Open Kitchen, the subtitle is Inspired Food for Casual Gatherings, and maybe that was not a good idea because nobody’s been gathering, but plenty of people have been cooking from the book. A lot of things have changed since we last talked because I don’t think the book was even out yet. I think we thought…

EL: No, I think the book was going to come out the next week or something.

SS: I think so.

EL: It’s good to have you. And yes, so much has changed since we recorded in the studio your first episode and much of what will be incorporated into your second episode. But that was literally a week before the shutdown, I believe, or maybe two weeks.

SS: Yeah something like that, a couple of weeks before, yeah. I wasn’t even nervous about getting a ride home with a stranger. We weren’t really too nervous about anything and there was zero talk of social distancing. The first talk of social distancing was actually at my book launch party, which was on March 3rd, the day that my book came out, and I was trying to bump … But still 150 people showed up and we were jokingly bumping elbows instead of shaking hands, and occasionally someone would put a sloppy kiss on my cheek and I was like, “Don’t do that.” I was like, “We’re supposed to not be doing that anymore.” So in other words, it was just the very beginning of all of this. I did two events for my book and then everything else was canceled, which was..

EL: Sucked.

SS: Yeah, it kind of sucked. I was literally packing my bags for California.

EL: Wow.

SS: Going to LA and San Francisco the very next morning. I just, I got cold feet and I just, it wasn’t like … None of the venues in California had canceled yet, so I canceled and then, it would have canceled or nobody would’ve showed up. So turned out to be the right decision because by the end of that week when I would have been doing my events in LA, everything had changed, so.

EL: You’ve just answered the first question, which was how has your work life changed since the pandemic and you just gave me the answer.

SS: Right. Well, so immediately I started doing a lot of stuff from home. I did a ton of video and IG Lives. I mean, partly I guess it was good that the book actually came out first because you know I had already done a fair amount of publicity and the book was out there. So there was some relevance to having me do stuff. I’ve also updated a couple other podcasts that I had done that week. I mean, I’ve been doing a fair amount of stuff from home, which was a great way to keep connecting with people out there, my audience, and hopefully my small base of fans.

EL: The book’s subtitle sort of leads me to my next question, because the book is about gathering. We’re about to at least be able to start gathering in some limited form, but how has your concept of gathering changed or evolved during the pandemic? And then also for you, it’s not a fussy visual aesthetic, but it’s a very strong visual aesthetic that you have. And so, what I’m wondering is now that whether you’re cooking for your husband or cooking for a couple of friends or whatever, properly socially distancing.

SS: Not yet. It’s just been well… it’s been a little bit of family crossover, but not really. We haven’t really gathered for meals exactly.

EL: But do you find even when you’re just cooking for you and your husband, for example, does it still matter to you how the food looks?

SS: Yes. Are you kidding? Completely. I mean, well first of all, I mean, even though the book has a sort of conceit of gathering. Of course, it’s food, so any occasion, I mean, I think some of the dishes are better geared towards a bigger group maybe, but I mean, people have still, I’ve seen people make everything that’s seasonal in the book. I’m sure everything will have its moment, even giant cakes and things like that. So, it hasn’t stopped anybody from making a giant sheet cake, which would be great for 20 people. But hey, leftovers are fun too. I mean, especially now, if you’re going to make my version of boeuf bourguignon, I mean, you’d have that for three or four days or freeze it for later or whatever. I don’t feel that that part has really changed the way people are using the book. I mean, people use a book because they like the recipes and they like the food, and if it fits in with what they’re doing. But of course, I’m always visual with my … Really my ideas come from visual some of the time. And again, I think we might’ve talked about this in our longer conversation. But…and don’t forget, there’s Instagram. You want to post what you’re making, but I don’t really cook with a post in mind ever. If something turns out beautiful, I’ll post it. Last night I made a salad that was so pretty. But I get inspired.

EL: Even now during the pandemic, when you have limited access to ingredients and there are various impediments and limitations that you’re dealing with, I guess you don’t stop being Susan?

SS: Well, no, I don’t stop being Susan. I did make something that was really ugly though last week in an effort to use up leftovers. It was like, it tasted good, but it was probably the ugliest brownest thing I’ve ever cooked. But that’s pretty unusual. Even I thought … When I was looking at it, I thought, “Well, it does taste good.” I thought, “But it really doesn’t look good.” It makes a difference. I mean, it was fine. It was just dinner, and you don’t want to make things that look awful. It’s just not as much fun to eat it.

EL: But what’s funny is I could probably tolerate that. It offends you almost?

SS: A little bit.

EL: Which is okay.

SS: I had bought this thing of broccoli rice from Citarella when I was in there. It was a use or … There’s been a lot of “use it or lose it” times during the pandemic. So I needed to use it and I mixed it with spaghetti squash. It just looked so bad. I had a homemade tomato sauce because I actually did a photo shoot and I had all of these extra fresh tomatoes so I had made this big batch of tomato sauce, which wasn’t necessarily the right tomato sauce because I just, it was a use up a bunch of tomato sauce. I mixed the broccoli rice and the tomato sauce and you know what color that makes. It was really, really just terrible looking.

EL: Do you find you’re doing more improvising in the kitchen?

SS: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I do still like to plan, but it’s good for me to kind of get out of that a little bit and be more spontaneous. Steve, my husband, who you know, well he’s amazing because he’s great at using leftovers. He loves looking at what’s in the fridge. He just made for lunch a big grain bowl. He used the leftover freekeh that I cooked the other day. He used the pickled onions that I made for taco night two weeks ago, and some beet greens. I had just gotten another bag from a local farm, a pickup order, you know order it and pick it up. The beets were really, really tiny and there was a huge thing of leaves. I just put him on his cutting board and I knew he used them. I was like, “Honey, use these beet greens.” Because I don’t want to throw them in the compost or the trash. I knew he would use them and I might not feel like making beet greens for dinner, but I knew he would use them in his lunch and he did. He’s great at using stuff up and I’m getting better at being creative with what’s around you know.

EL: Yes. I guess we all have no choice in that matter.

SS: Let’s face it…what you had, I thought about this last night with the salad, I made this beautiful, fresh salad, but you got to have the stuff in the house, then you can be creative. I’m shopping in a different way, so in other words, I’m ordering things that are in season and that are good, that are available to me, and preferably that can be picked up or delivered, really trying to still, even though rates are quite low where I am, I’m still really trying to limit my trips to the store because when you can get stuff other ways. So you might not know what you’re making, but you get all that stuff in the house. Then you can start thinking, then you can plan. I’m getting this with what I have. But it’s not like shopping for a specific recipe.

EL: Got it. Maybe that’s a tip that everyone can use as a way to think about cooking during the pandemic?

SS: Sure. Get stuff in. I mean, that’s what you got to do, whether you’re ordering beans from Rancho Gordo and I mean, that’s what I was thinking about making a salad with those Scarlet runner beans that I did order from Rancho Gordo. I waited like a month for them. And some those beets, the aforementioned beets, and some gorgeous arugula that I picked up at a farm stand. There’s a couple stands that are open, that are small enough that there’s no distance thing necessary because you drive up, there’s nobody there, you self service, take your asparagus and today arugula. I have some amazing … I’ve been really eating a lot of asparagus. We went back to the city the other day and I saw some lobster stock that has been in my freezer for, I’m telling you Ed, probably four years.

EL: And it hasn’t degraded?

SS: It’s stock. It’s fine. I’m actually going to call the fish store when I get off from you because they have contactless pickup too. I’m going to order something.

EL: And use the lobster stock.

SS: Make a little fish soup because I’m trying to use up even lobster stock that I had in my freezer, which was, believe it or not, also leftover from a job. I had all these lobsters for this TV show I was styling a couple of years ago and I had to make lobster stock with it. I think I made it there off site because lobster stock isn’t something I really like to make at home because then your whole house smells like lobster stock for a really long time and I’m kind of sensitive to that kind of thing. But lobster stock is like gold you know.

EL: For sure.

SS: I’m going to make something with it.

EL: I’m going to assume that by the time the second episode airs that you’re going to have done some… people will have gathered at your house.

SS: I’m thinking about that. I have some protocols. But I was thinking about it today, believe it or not. I was thinking maybe I would like, I have to … I mean, I think there are some protocols, but obviously I think buffet style serving is kind of out. I don’t know. I might have to make plates for everyone and cover them.

EL: It’s weird. I heard that somebody we know on the Vineyard, friends of ours, are like, they’re going to bring their own cutlery, their own plates, their own glasses, which I guess makes sense. But does it …I guess my question to you as a champion gatherer is, whether that’s going to change the nature of the gathering?

SS: Look, for now it is, but I think people are really craving togetherness, you know? I mean, that’s the thing and that’s what also, I think, drives home the central point of the ethos of my book is that people like to be together and eat together. And I think now that we have not been able to do that for so long, I mean who isn’t craving some convivial, social companionship with eating and drinking involved? So today was the first day because, actually, the farmer at the stand that I was mentioning has also become a friend. And I was saying, “Well, maybe we’ll have a socially distant picnic soon.” Because we can all be outside, but figuring out how to serve food to others is still… I saw like a headline on a online story the other day, but I didn’t click on it. So I don’t know what the protocols would be. I suppose if everybody washed their hands directly before serving food and we’re mastering that part of it, then we could all split up and eat. Right. Why not?

EL: Right. So here’s a question for you. In the book now that you’re starting to imagine gatherings, like what would be two or three recipes that would lend themselves to this new kind of gathering?

SS: Well, two things that I really like for summer, which normally would be kind of a big shared platter, could also easily be plated and one would be the… also, they can sit for a while at room temperature. One is the chicken tonnato, which is obviously a play on veal tonnato, but using just simple chicken breast. It’s delicious. You poach the chicken and you serve with tonnato sauce and fried capers and with arugula and cherry tomatoes and olives. Something like that could easily be either put on separate plates or take out containers. Maybe I have to go get compostable takeout containers, that kind of thing. Or the salade niçoise by the same dint. It’s all room temperature. It looks gorgeous on a big platter, but it could easily be divvied up. And that would be something you could even take to the beach or have everybody spread out on blankets on your lawn or whatever.

EL: Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. That makes sense.

SS: I feel like if people are still really limiting their contact and maybe this is wrong, but if we’ve all been in isolation and we’re all healthy and we’re all continuing to limit outside things, I think we can all start to feel like we can trust a small group of people. I mean, even the governor has said in New York that we can have gatherings up to 10 people. So somebody is saying that that seems safe, but preferably outdoors for gatherings, which is-

EL: For sure.

SS: … a great time of year for that. I think if there’s a certain amount of trust within the group and everyone takes the proper precautions, I think we’re getting close to being able to do that.

EL: Got it.

SS: I don’t think anyone’s like sending out the invites quite yet.

EL: Right. But maybe in a couple of weeks.

SS: Not ten either. I’m thinking more one other couple or maybe six people total or something like that, you know?

EL: It’s so great. I wish we could be a gathering at your house, man, but hopefully it won’t be too long before we actually see each other again.

SS: I hope so. I know we could talk forever. I mean, we talked way too long the first time and now we’re talking too long again. Aren’t we?

EL: Exactly. It’s very hard because you and I… We don’t see each other that much. There’s a lot of stored up things we want to discuss.

SS: Absolutely.

EL: All right. Take care, Susan. Thank you so much.

SS: Thanks Ed. Take care.

EL: All right. You too.

SS: Bye.

EL: We also went back in and edited some of her original interview into this episode. With so many people out of a job today and wondering about what the future holds for them work-wise, I found it comforting to hear about Susan Spungen’s circuitous career path. She careened from dropping out of art school, to making omelets to order at a hotel buffet, to working side by side with Martha Stewart for ten years. I hope Serious Eaters will find it comforting as well.

EL: So we always start with telling us about your life at the family table growing up. What was the Spungen family table like?

SS: That’s so funny that you asked that because I just had dug up some old photos recently for something else related to this book launch. And I came across this tiny little album of me at the kitchen table at six years old with my family. And I hadn’t thought about that place in a long, long time. And I wouldn’t really say that it was anything remarkable. We definitely did sit down for meals together, which people did back in the day more often than they do now. But well, it was a round white table. I will tell you that.

EL: It was a round white table.

SS: It was the sixties.

EL: And who did the cooking?

SS: My mother exclusively.

EL: Exclusively?

SS: Well, my dad would pull out the apron and grill in the summer, but it was my mom cooked and we did go out occasionally on special occasions, but we did eat at home and she did get dinner on the table. Even later as she got more into her career and worked, she still managed to get dinner on the table. And that’s kind of how I got my feet wet at first cooking is because I was a latchkey child. My mother worked and I had to help her get dinner on the table.

EL: Wow. And so what was your mom’s work besides keeping the house together?

SS: Well, she had a lot of different careers. One was she was a school teacher when I was really little. Then she actually owned a health food store before there were big chains, like Whole Foods. And you only had your small little neighborhood health food store. That was my favorite job of hers because I think as a kid, it’s always fun to have a store.

EL: Yeah, for sure.

SS: To hang out in the store and also have freshly ground peanut butter and fun stuff like that.

EL: Yeah. You can walk in and pretend you own the joint.

SS: Yeah. So that was kind of fun. But she also like worked for Western Union selling mail grams. She had various executive positions within like direct mail marketing when that was a thing.

EL: And how many children were there in the family?

SS: Ed, that’s a loaded question. You know that.

EL: I know it’s loaded a question, but-

SS: Three.

EL: Three. Yeah. We can not go into that. That’s your call.

SS: No, let’s not get into that right now.

EL: So when you left for college, like were you an enthusiastic participant in cooking the meals? And were you curious about food?

SS: Well, I didn’t exactly leave for college because the first year, this is how unambitious I was as a high school student. I actually just missed all the deadlines for applying. So therefore, I took a year off.

EL: They call that a gap year now.

SS: Yeah. I know they do, but for me I like just didn’t get my application in on time.

EL: So yours, it was an absent year.

SS: Kind of. And so I worked and I started working in food a little bit, like just working at like this… Again, like health food was all I knew. So I worked at like a little health food kind of restaurant in a very early food hall situation in the Mark Gallery at Market East in Philadelphia, which was an early urban mall, you know? And I worked at the place called Sunflower and I made salads.

EL: Of course they made salads.

SS: Yeah. So that was like the only experience I could really speak to is like health food. So I was like, all right, well, maybe I could get a job at a health food restaurant. So I worked there and it was just strictly counter service, but I was learning how to just handle food and handle people.

EL: And did you like it?

SS: I did.

EL: Was it fun?

SS: It was fun. I loved it. I loved working with food. And yeah, I really did. I just always just had a natural knack for it and I did cook and bake all through my childhood and high school.

EL: Inspired by your mom or just inspired by-

SS: Not really.

EL: … or just inspired by other things?

SS: Well, I mean, she did have a nice fat copy of the New York Times cookbook and I actually used to spend a lot of time looking through it and the Craig Claiborne version back in the day. And I would try recipes, my brother and I would kind of put on dinner parties sometimes for my parents and pick out recipes from… I probably veered towards slightly fancy Frenchy kind of recipes, like to just try things out.

EL: Aspirational.

SS: Yeah. Or I would bake out of like the McCall’s Cookbook. Those were like the things we had in the house. So I would bake cakes and cookies and things out of McCall’s and probably a few others. But those were the books that I remember using when I was a kid.

EL: Got it.

SS: And the McCall’s of course was… For those of you who are too young to remember that, was it a seven sisters magazine?

EL: Yeah, I think it was a seven sisters.

SS: So it was one of the early ones to fold, before Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s.

EL: It was huge.

SS: Yeah. McCall’s was a big magazine. And so this was like a big fat cookbook that was probably a compilation of all the rest.

EL: So what did you do post Sunflower?

SS: Then I started art school. And then right around then, I started working at a place in Philadelphia called the Commissary.

EL: Which was a famous restaurant.

SS: Yeah, it was a famous restaurant. And Steve Poses was a guy who had… First, he had a restaurant called Frog, which was a pretty fancy place that people got dressed up to go to. And it was really innovative at the time because it was kind of a French Thai fusion. And it was basically because he hired all of these Thai chefs who were like in a first wave of immigration to the US in the seventies. And he basically hired them to cook French food. And it created a really cool restaurant actually, that people wanted to go to. And then later he opened a place called the Commissary, which was not a sit down restaurant, but also innovative at the time, kind of a cafeteria-style restaurant, which doesn’t sound exciting now. But at the time it was.

EL: Yeah, it was a thing.

SS: Yeah, you walked… Did you ever go there, Ed?

EL: No, but I read a lot of it.

SS: You heard of it. Yeah, because they also had a really famous cookbook, which I think you can still get, the Frog Commissary cookbook, that is still loaded with some pretty good recipes. So you’d walk in, you would get a card and then you could go around to different stations within the restaurant and order what you wanted, which they didn’t realize is people could just sort of get a second card and cross out half the stuff that they ordered and just pay for like the cookie. But they did catch onto that eventually. But it was back in the day when we had honor systems and people were more or less honest. So I got to work all these different stations like charcuterie, desserts. There was an omelet station where you made omelets for people to order. So that was how I first started to kind of… It wasn’t really cooking, but it was-

EL: It was assembling slash cooking.

SS: I mean, I had to make an omelet in front of a person and it wasn’t supposed to stick, you know? I had to make it. And while smiling and chatting with the person. And then even just like cutting the desserts was actually a thing there, because you would just put out all these desserts, but it was like a Wayne Teebo kind of spread and you had to cut each one really nicely.

EL: Wayne Teebo, we should explain is just fantastic. Still alive.

SS: Yes. I know.

EL: American painter and frequently has retrospectives at major museums all over the world for that matter and does incredible food painting.

SS: And paintings, especially some of his most famous ones are sort of exactly of the kind of spread I’m talking about, rows of sliced desserts on plates that you would have seen in a cafeteria. So that was challenging. It’s where I learned to slice smoked salmon.

EL: You can slice smoked salmon?

SS: Oh, yeah.

EL: You could work a table?

SS: I worked behind the counter at Russ and Daughters one day in training for a shoot with Irving Penn for Vogue.

EL: That’s awesome.

SS: Herman, the artistic slicer.

EL: You’ve got skill and stories. You’ve got skills and you’ve got stories, man,

SS: Herman the artistic slicer, that was part of Jeffrey Steingarten’s story.

EL: Right. And actually, which came from, by the way, Calvin Trillin was the first person that named-

SS: Right.

EL: … Herman, the artistic slicer.

SS: So Herman kind of trained me. Is he still there?

EL: Yeah.

SS: Oh, that’s amazing.

EL: He’s totally still there.

SS: I thought I saw him maybe when I was in there, but it’s always so crowded. But yes. So I was already pretty good at it, but he taught me, make sure you can always see the blade of the knife through the salmon. But when I trained with Herman, he said it was like playing a violin, because a salmon knife is very long and very thin and very flexible. And you have to…

EL: So it’s like bowing on a violin?

SS: It is.

EL: Wow.

SS: So you can’t be afraid and chop up the salmon, you have to kind of take these long strokes.

EL: You really do have skills.

SS: I have skills. Yeah.

EL: That’s awesome. And so you work there.

SS: Yeah.

EL: And you were going to art school-

SS: It’s not a short story, Ed.

EL: It’s okay. We got time. But the interesting thing is listening to you is I’m realizing that your visual aesthetic and your food aesthetic actually began to be formed pretty early.

SS: And at the same time, because I was in art school and working in these food places with a lot of artists. So, in Philadelphia, most of the people that worked at the commissary who were older than me, the ones that were in the kitchen, who I looked up to, the bakers, the cooks. The savory kitchen was downstairs, the bakery was upstairs. I didn’t work in those, but still everyone that worked there got to touch food, which was what was kind of cool about it for an 18 year old. And I really looked up to these other people who were a lot of women. A lot of women, many of them artists who like to cook these. And also back then, people didn’t pursue cooking as a career in the same way that they do now. So it really was sort of a side hustle for everybody.

EL: Did you think it was going to be a career for you?

SS: Oh no, not in the beginning? No, I didn’t. I really thought I was going to be an artist. I was studying fine art. I thought that’s what I wanted to do. I never thought of anything else in my entire childhood.

EL: Really?

SS: I was like, “I want to be an artist. “That was it. I like to try and paint. And my parents didn’t really like nudge me into anything else. Like, “Well, you should really think about…”

EL: Finance.

SS: Well, they knew I wouldn’t be good at that. I was always a little…

EL: A little spacey.

SS: Maybe. A little bit. I was always arty.

EL: Yeah. Did you graduate from art school?

SS: I did not.

EL: Oh, okay. Well…

SS: I dropped out in the middle of my junior year.

EL: I really don’t think you were meant for school.

SS: I was not. I really didn’t like school, but also I did have some family difficulties in the beginning of my school, so that I think also just threw me off. So it just was not a good time in my life. I didn’t see the point in completing and getting my degree.

EL: Got it.

SS: And I suddenly got it into my head that I needed to move to Aspen, Colorado.

EL: The way everyone does.

SS: But I don’t ski.

EL: Okay.

SS: But still I needed to move to, I’d gone there for, I think a family vacation. I was like, “This place is really cool. I like it here. It’s nice.” And I just was like, “I’m going to go back.” So I did go back for a summer, I guess in between sophomore and junior year, my brother was going with his friends. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to come, too. I’ll stay with you for a few days. And then I’ll find a job and I’ll find a place,” like you do.

EL: Right.

SS: And then once I went for the summer, I went back to school for one more semester. And like, “I’m out of here. I don’t see the point.”

EL: Yeah. And so did you go back to Aspen at that point?

SS: I did. I did.

EL: And how long did you spend in Aspen?

SS: Two years.

EL: Working in kitchens?

SS: Well, the first summer I was there, I did. I worked at a place called The Golden Horn, which was a Swiss German… In those days there were a lot of these sort of ski chalet kind of restaurants and they were already leftover. There wasn’t really a lot of good food there at that time. And there’s probably is now, but in those days, not so much. And it was like schnitzel… But still, here was the thing, I got hired very randomly. I went to the Wheeler Opera House. Went to the job board. They said they had a job open for a prep cook. I went over there, I got the job. Then the cook who was above me, quit.

EL: So they said, “You have the job.”

SS: So they were like, “Yes, you have the job.” So suddenly I’m butchering venison and all this. I was the butcher. That was my prep for the shift, butchering. And I knew nothing about butchering, but I just learned the chef-

EL: You knew how to slice salmon.

SS: Maybe my knife skills weren’t too bad. And I just learned, and then I was basically on the saute station every night and I had zero experience. And then I did cook dinner for Henry Kissinger and many other people. People did come in that, it was a famous place, but the food really wasn’t very good.

EL: But Henry didn’t know it wasn’t very good.

SS: I burned myself kind of badly.

EL: He was just happy to be Henry Kissinger.

SS: Having had no training, I burned myself a few times.

EL: Really? Sure. But for a cook, that was a precursor to tattoos, right?

SS: Absolutely. Yes. That’s what tattoos are for, to cover all those burns on the forearms.

EL: So then you ended up in catering or did you end up in other restaurant kitchens?

SS: Somehow, I think I always just wanted to avoid the straight-up restaurant kitchen. So anyway, the rest of my time in Aspen, I was more interested in waiting tables so I can make more money because really, the wages in the kitchen were terrible. So after that I was mostly pushing croissant, as I called it. Yeah, because I just worked in this little called Pour La France, and it was just coffee and sandwiches.

EL: Right.

SS: Yeah. It was just more social and I liked it better. And at that time I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I want to be a cook,” you know at all.

EL: This was still part of your gap experience. You weren’t really…

SS: Yeah. And I’m still not even 20, so it was okay.

EL: Got it.

SS: It was an okay age to be doing that.

EL: When did you finally figure that, maybe I should and can do this and that it might be fun?

SS: Okay. So then I decided to move to New York because I thought, “I got to get out of this ski town, because I’ll just grow old here and that won’t be good.” So there were some instincts that told me just get out of town. And so I had an opportunity for an apartment in New York. So I was like, “I’m going to go to New York now.” So, I moved to New York and again, I thought, “Well, let me wait tables,” because I was more interested in making money at that point than anything else. But what I realized is New York, even for waiting tables, was the big time. So they were like, “How many trays can you carry?” I wasn’t that typical actress waitress. I tried one place and believe it or not, it’s still there, Knickerbocker.

EL: Oh my God. Great piano players.

SS: I had a connection. My dad knew someone. So I went one day and trailed there with a whole bunch of other people that were trailing. And they knew I wasn’t for them, and I knew it wasn’t for me, either. I was like, “I can’t even see working here.” And so I just kept walking around, trudging around New York, looking for a job. And I was completely aimless. And then I came upon this place called FOOD in Soho, on Prince and Wooster.

EL: Which was a really important restaurant.

SS: It was. So I have this weird knack of getting into like kind of important, memorable places. So yeah, FOOD had been originally started by the artist Gordon Matta-Clark. I didn’t know this at the time. I don’t think the whole time I worked there I knew who Gordon Matta-Clark was. Okay. Because it had… And look him up, people who are listening, who want to know about Gordon Matta-Clark because he was a very interesting artist who died very young and he did really, really cool and interesting work. And he also loved food and cooking and he started this restaurant, FOOD, really as a co-op, almost like a soup kitchen for the artists in Soho when Soho was a wasteland. Everybody had their studios there and there was no food. So they were like, “Well look, we’ll all work a shift a week.” And it was very altruistic and hippy dippy. And I think eventually they were like, “This is just not working.” Actually, I think MoMA, in their new permanent collection, has a bunch of stuff about FOOD right now. So if you’re interested, you can check it out, and menus and such. And so anyway, I worked there, this was after it had been bought and sort of turned into a more commercial enterprise, but not so many years later. And it was still basically everyone in Soho and I was seeing the same people I was seeing in Aspen come to FOOD, the same people. I was like, “Hey, wait a minute. I know you.”

EL: That’s really funny.

SS: Yeah. Every artist came through there, everyone came in there, and so it was really kind of a fun crossroads of the world. And again, counter service, I was giving people soup. So very quickly I became a manager there.

EL: Got it.

SS: Yeah.

EL: But it’s interesting, because it’s all of a piece, in a bizarre way. It’s all about your visual aesthetic meeting your kitchen experience.

SS: Somehow. Yeah. Even accidentally with FOOD, because I didn’t realize it… But again, everyone was an artist or a dancer or an actor or a musician who worked there. So again, I was surrounded by all of these creative people, and I was also taking art classes at that time. I hadn’t given up yet on art. That’s why I wasn’t really going towards food just yet. I was going to the art students league. I was going to Parsons, just continuing education stuff, taking classes. And I think I still thought, “Well, I’m going to New York, I’m going to give it a shot and be an artist.” And then I think I finally just realized that I just didn’t have what it took to do that.

EL: And so how did you end up working for Martha Stewart?

SS: So if we jump ahead, then I sort of fell into catering. and I used to work for this woman named Tinker Bell. I know. And now, her company was called Mood Food. So I was like, “Am I really destined to always work for these kind of weird sounding-”

EL: That’s weird because doesn’t Mood Food still exist?

SS: Maybe. Yeah. So it was FOOD and then Mood Food. And then, it was a very small company, very scrappy, at the least at the time. And so I did everything, I hired waiters, I created menus, I did tastings for clients. I cooked at parties. I did everything. So I was really learning a lot and they had a really pretty good chef there, who was also teaching me. That’s how I learned a lot of the classic technique.

EL: The craft of cooking.

SS: That I learned was from these. Actually, this chef wasn’t even school taught. He was taught in some of the… Auberge, up in North Salem, New York. He started working at 15 in restaurant in the country and in the French tradition, and really new techniques. So then I really just got to really learn technique from other chefs that I worked with, which was a great way to do it and not waste any money on cooking school. Sorry.

EL: That’s all right. But how did you get from there to food media?

SS: All right. So let’s just scrunch all the catering that I did into a bunch of years, but that suited me better. And I started cooking more and more while I was in catering, and I worked for another company and I started creating more food for them, like new hors d’oeuvres, whatever, cooking at parties. I was cheffing parties on a regular basis. So, I was learning how to cook rack of lamb for 100 in a proofer cabinet and things like that, which kind of teaches you how to cook because it’s not easy to do.

EL: No. I couldn’t do that.

SS: It’s hard. So I was doing that for a while, but then I did decide, “Okay, I want to cook.” There’s one more stop before Martha. So, I used to scan back in the day, there were a thing called want ads in the paper, which is how you found a job. That doesn’t exist anymore because we have online whatever. And so I decided that I wanted to try to get a chef job. So I just thought, “Fake it until you make it,” kind of thing and look for a job that I thought I could do. And I did finally find one, which was a new sort of Balducci, Dean and DeLuca type place, was opening on Houston Street called Fratelli Cangiano.

EL: I remember.

SS: You remember it? And long story short, I managed to get the job as the prepared food chef. Because, I was like, “Well, that I can do,” because it’s just make a platter of this, make a soup, make a whatever, put it in the case, people are going to buy it.

EL: Right.

SS: So I got hired through a long process of trying out and, and they liked me and I got the job and I did that for a while. And then the business started to kind of unwind. And then I went back to catering. Then at this catering company, along the way I met Susan Magrino.

EL: Right, Susan Magrino, the fame food publicist and all this.

SS: Met her socially through a friend, and we all went out to Nell’s one night. I know I’m really dating myself here.

EL: That’s all right. Nell’s was a famous hangout.

SS: Really fun club on 14th street. And we all went to Nell’s, and we spent the evening together. We had a mutual friend. In the meantime, I’ve been telling this story a lot lately, had read this article in the New York Times, and you can look it up. It’s called How to Make the Basil Blush. And it was a story about food stylists. And I thought, now that sounds like a good job for me. The money was good. The funny thing is I just reread this story. The rates have not changed since 1990. Okay?

EL: That’s funny.

SS: So at the time, it was pretty good money for a day’s work. And it also said it had a creative aspect. So I was always searching for a way to kind of bring art and food together. I really was. So when I read this story, I thought, “That is the job for me.” And also, with the lack of social media and the way you got information in those days, I didn’t know about these other jobs in other fields. It was very hard to discover something different if it wasn’t what you did. So I read this story, and so I got it in my head, “Oh, I got to become a food stylist.” I got to figure out how to do it. And talked to a friend who’s a photographer and knew someone who was a food photographer. He’s like, “Well, you assist for two years, and then you can go out on your own.” And I was like, “I ain’t got two years. I don’t want to do that.” So in the meantime, I guess, I met Susan. And I expressed my interest in all of this world when I found out she worked for Martha Stewart. She, at that time, worked for Crown Publishing, Clarkson Potter now, and mostly with Lee Bailey and Martha. And Lee Bailey was a famous cookbook author who’s no longer with us, but he was like Martha-level famous cookbook writer. And she mostly worked for those two. And they were both big authors, so she had her hands full with them. And I was like, well, she must know something about this. She didn’t really because she was a publicist, but she remembered me. And she took my number. I didn’t have a card or anything. And a year later she called me, a whole year later, and said, “Remember we met, and Martha’s starting a magazine, and would you like to meet her?” That’s literally what she said. Well, we’ll get to what Nora said, but very similar. And I, of course, said, “Well, sure. Yeah, I want to meet her.” And so, all of a sudden, I suddenly begin dreaming about what this job could be with a magazine.

EL: Right. And you ended up staying for a long time-

SS: I did.

EL: … becoming, not only the food editor, but almost the creative director.

SS: No. Not of the magazine, no. Of the food sec part or the food piece, yes, because Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, which it was called then, I don’t think it has that name anymore because that’s when we went public, it became Omnimedia. But we had so many projects. We had a line at Kmart. We had a catalog. We had-

EL: Yeah, it was a big effing deal.

SS: … 27 different magazines in one year because we had kids and weddings and babies and everyday food and the regular magazine. So I was the top of the heap.

EL: Right. Yeah. I remember when I met you. Everyone has their Martha Stewart stories. I’ll give you a couple of mine, but you have to give me a couple of yours too.

SS: Okay.

EL: For me, it was weird because no matter how many times I was introduced to Martha Stewart, she had never met me. I mean, we’re talking about-

SS: Sorry.

EL: … double digits.

SS: Sorry, Ed.

EL: I’m talking about double digits.

SS: Yeah, oh wow. Really?

EL: I think sometimes I even used your name, and that didn’t help.

SS: Not surprised.

EL: So how did you sort of figure out a way to get along with Martha, who couldn’t have been easy?

SS: Oh boy, that’s a tough one. Well, in the very beginning, I worked closely with her, and, of course, I was a little bit nervous and scared. But she was really nice to me. And she has a very, especially in those days, and I’m sure it’s still, a very down-to-earth side to her. And she had worked very hard herself, so she’s no stranger to hard work. So she knows what it’s like to work. I don’t know why I bring that up first, but I think that’s a lot of like who she is. But once the magazine really got going, we were a little bit separate. Martha was involved, but once she started doing her TV show, she was doing TV and we were doing the magazine. You know what I mean?

EL: Got it.

SS: So we kind of ran independently. Not that we didn’t have contact or that she didn’t have a lot of input into the magazine. She did. But as far as on an everyday basis, there were other people I reported to. Wasn’t like I reported directly to Martha.

EL: Right. So that must have made it easier.

SS: Right. But I also don’t want to say anything really negative here because, honestly, I’m not a masochist. Do you think I would have stayed there for 12 years-

EL: You did. You stayed there a really long time.

SS: … if it was unpleasant? It wasn’t.

EL: That’s true.

SS: It was a great experience for me, and obviously, kind of a seminal experience in my career. And I had so many opportunities to do new things and learn new things and be new things that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

EL: Yeah.

EL: In a future episode of Special Sauce, you’ll hear about Susan’s post Martha Stewart work life, which has included cooking on movie sets for Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. What a life Susan has led. Fow now, so long Serious Eaters. Please stay safe and healthy.