Few chefs are as market savvy as Seen Lippert. As one of seven children, she learned to love grocery shopping because it was the only time she could spend alone with her mother. As a novice chef working for Alice Waters at the world-renowned Chez Panisse in Berkeley, she made her first pilgrimages to the farmers' market. And when she left California, it was to open a market-restaurant, Across the Street, for Eli Zabar in Manhattan.
Lippert grew up in Fresno, California's farming epicenter, where fruits and vegetables are practically overabundant. "We didn't know what to do with all the tomatoes; we usually used them for tomato fights," she says. Baby-sitters were her first cooking teachers. "A mean woman made the best fried chicken," Lippert recalls. "And Mrs. Nicols made a great chocolate mayonnaise cake"--so great that Lippert recently passed on the recipe to Pierre Hermé, the Parisian pastry genius who's teaming up with Manhattan chef David Bouley of Bouley Bakery. But it wasn't until Lippert attended The Culinary Institute of America in 1985 that she received any formal training. "I actually wrote my mom a letter about how to boil tomatoes so their skins would come off," she says, laughing.
After 10 years at Chez Panisse, Lippert moved with her cats and dogs to New York City. (Her two cats are unofficial foodies: Noce is named for the nuts in the Italian walnut liqueur Lippert was making the day she got him, and Miel, which means honey in French, was named for his golden color.) Lippert is currently scouting locations for her own restaurant, where she'll serve the seasonally driven dishes made from organic products that she's known for. Her ultrasimple recipes--crisp seed-crusted chicken with fennel salad, sizzling herb-garlic sauce tossed with pasta--feature ingredients from the farmers' market and are ready in less than 45 minutes.
As a transplanted Californian, it took Lippert a while to feel at home in New York City, but now she does. When Waters recently came to town, Lippert made violet syrup from hundreds of local flowers. "That's what I used to do at Chez Panisse," she says. And then there are the ramps that grow wild in Central Park: "I'm not ready to eat them yet, but at least I know they're there."