Last month we had the chance to sit down with the wonderful Tamar Adler (author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace and Something Old, Something New: Classic Recipes Revised ) at NYC’s Freehand to talk about how she went from being an editor at Harper’s Magazine to fully embracing her passion for food on a professional level. Because of taking the big leap, Adler’s now publishing her own books, writing at Vogue, and living the overall dream.
Something Old, Something New was just released in April, and it falls in line with Adler’s refreshingly preservationist spirit – whether it’s cooking with leftovers or modernizing dishes that’ve been tossed to the wayside over the years, she has a clear appreciation for that which might otherwise be taken for granted in a culture of excess. Her zeal for food comes through on each page, and (combined with the accessibility of the recipes) you are certainly going to want to keep a copy in your kitchen.
In the meantime, read up on the origins of her food fervor (ironically, she was a picky eater as a kid; “My mom was sure I’d starve, and she stooped so low as to get me Carnation Instant Breakfast, Pop-Tarts and Cheez Whiz, because those were things I’d eat.”), how she worked for Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune to learn the restaurant ropes, her recipe testing fails, tips for how to stock your pantry in the event of cooking disasters and MORE:
So what was the moment that you realized that food was more than just a passion, and was potentially a career path?
I was an editor at Harper’s Magazine, and I was spending all of my time outside the office cooking, going to restaurants, fantasizing about having my own cooking show, and I realized I had this sort of nebulous aspiration. I petitioned Gabrielle Hamilton to let me work for free at Prune. She was an amazing teacher, and an amazing mentor, but I stopped doing it after about three or four months, because I felt like I wasn’t doing publishing or cooking in a wholehearted way. I was working at Prune once a week, and I was doing well at Harper’s, but I was an ambitious person in my mid-twenties, and I kind of felt like I should be fully going for something. So I told Gabrielle I was going to go back to being at Harper’s, and hopefully rising there, and then maybe six months later I quit Harper’s to cook. I didn’t know exactly what I was quitting for, but I knew food was going to be part of it.
So I worked as a personal chef, I took the LSAT, and I actually almost went to law school. It wasn’t explicitly “I want to be a chef now,” but there was something uneasy in me. I wasn’t content at Harper’s. So I think that was the beginning of it, and then I did love taking the LSAT and the idea of law school, but the other part of my life that I really liked was being a personal chef. I loved learning to cook better, and I also worked for Dan Barber at Blue Hill At Stone Barns as a research assistant, so I learned an enormous amount about the state of food and farming. Eventually, my best friend and a bunch of her friends opened a restaurant [Farm 255] in Athens, Georgia; it was connected to their farm, and I intended to just go help them open, and I walked in the door of the restaurant and fell in love with it. Within a week I’d quit my personal chefing job, quit my job with Dan, and intended to move to Georgia. Then maybe a month later I became a chef at the restaurant. I think that was the beginning.
So you’re mainly self-taught, then. Do you think it’s possible (theoretically, anyway) for anyone to be able to do that if the passion is there? Or do you think there needs to be some level of inherent ability?
I think you can learn anything. My brother and I became professional chefs, both without any formal training. I think that was because our mom was an amazing cook, and we had really good palates. We started out far ahead of where I think a lot of people come out of culinary school.
What sorts of things did you grow up eating?
It was so ridiculous compared to what other kids ate. I mean, in elementary school, I used to trade away sandwiches of grilled eggplant, homemade pesto, grilled peppers and smoked mozzarella on homemade focaccia.
What were you aiming to get out of those kinds of trades?
Anything. I mean, Ritz crackers with peanut butter, even! And then in high school, I’d ask for bigger and bigger lunches, and I’d bring them to school to give out to my friends. My mom would make these beautiful pita sandwiches with sprouts, avocado, cucumber and bacon, and I’d get a $1.50 gristly cheeseburger.
Oh my god, did she ever find out about this?
Not directly, no. She was (and still is) a great cook, though, so my brother and I were really ahead of the game. We also learned a lot by osmosis. My brother was a great cook by like, the age of twelve. I wasn’t, but I always did know when something was right or wrong, so it was very easy for me to learn. And in terms of the technical things, I slowly got better. My palate was much better than my technique for a long time. But the hardest thing for me, going from essentially zero experience to being a chef, is that there’s this whole part of restaurant cooking that is not about technique or palate – it’s how to actually produce food on a large scale, and be able to serve that. Running a restaurant kitchen without having been trained in that stuff was next to impossible. I didn’t know what containers you put things in, or how you thaw shrimp, or how you butcher anything. I didn’t know anything, really. So yes, you do have to learn it, but it is possible.
Well, sort of on that note, tell me about what it’s been like to not only develop your own recipes, but also publish them?
My husband always jokes that I approach recipe development like Jay-Z, because there’s this rumor that Jay-Z only ever does a track in one take. I think the hardest part for me is that as soon as I get out a measuring spoon or a scale, something instinctual in me shuts off. If none of that stuff is around, I can make the right decisions. But it turns out that’s fairly common, not just in cooking – if you ask someone to count the number of stairs as they’re walking down a flight, they’re more likely to trip. Your brain switches from automatic mode and it gets harder. I just read that Angie Mar at Minetta Tavern weighs an amount of an ingredient, then will cook, and then will just weigh what’s left at the end to determine how much she used. Genius! So I think that’s what I’m going to try to do from now on, because my style of cooking doesn’t necessarily easily translate into recipe writing. I hired a recipe tester for this second book of mine, and she was great!
And the one and only Mimi Sheraton did the foreword for this one, which is amazing! How’d you approach her about that?
I just asked her! At first she demurred, not entirely, but she was like, “I don’t know that I’m an expert or have anything to say.” But I thought she was the perfect person to do it, so I sent her the proposal, and she agreed to write it.
Amazing! So were there recipes you thought you’d include in the book but didn’t end up using because they went awry?
So many. So many.
What was one of the more extreme cases of that?
I mean, there’s easily a three-way tie, but maybe the winner is this: I had been trying to make a poached fish stuff with a seafood farce. In a literary sense, what sounded really beautiful to me was white fish fillets rolled up with scallop stuffing, poached in wine. It sounded really delicate and good, so I tried making it with scallops, shrimp, cream, spinach, champagne…a little bit time consuming and fancy, but I got these beautiful flounder fillets and seasoned them, and I poached them, and we had friends over who were celebrating their engagement. I thought, “This is a nice engagement meal!” And we had champagne, and I served them, and we all took bites. They were trying to be really polite, like, “Oh, this is nice!” And my husband and I were just like, “This is disgusting!” And so I cleared the table, and luckily I’d been testing duck confit with orange sauce. We didn’t have any orange sauce left, but there was a little bit of duck confit and a lot of bread, a lot of butter, thankfully a lot of champagne. There were a lot of failures overall, but that happens.
And so in closing, what are some things you suggest people should have on hand at home as backup plans in the event of similar cooking disasters?
That’s a great question. Eggs, frozen bread (already sliced), anchovies, olives, a kind of jarred mayonnaise that you feel comfortable with, canned chickpeas and cocktail franks. I recently discovered that a farm near me makes amazing cocktail franks from their own pigs, which is great. Now I try to keep those in my freezer, because nothing improves a party like a cocktail franks. That’s it, you’re done.
Photos by Lexie Moreland