Interview by Kalina Mazur
What kind of culinary education did you have?
None at all. I was a concert pianist. I went to Juilliard.
How did you get into cooking?
I had a hand injury and I was looking for something new to do. I always wanted to write a cookbook about Russia, so I did my first book. It was called Please to the Table, and it ended up going to a great publisher, Workman. It won a James Beard Award and became this classic book on the subject—and I was in this thing suddenly.
So what kind of cooking experience have you had over the years?
Well, I've written five cookbooks, so I've tested, I'd say, over 1,500 recipes. You learn on the job. And also I write a lot about restaurants all over the world—so between cooking the recipes for cookbooks and just tasting constantly all these different foods, you learn. I don't have the nice skills of TV chefs but I think I'm as good a cook as anyone by now.
If you weren't a cookbook author, is it safe to say that you'd be the concert pianist that you started out as?
I guess. I always wanted to be a film critic, but for no particular reason. It just sounds like a very cool job. But I think not being a professional chef is a great advantage for writing cookbooks, because you can really relate to the people who you're writing the recipes for. I'm as busy as everyone else: I like to take shortcuts, and I'm often very lazy. I'm not this very obsessive cook who smokes their own bacon.
In the Coca with Candied Red Peppers recipe [in this year's Best of the Best], you use roasted red peppers from a jar and pizza dough from a pizzeria.
I really understand the value of convenience and speed, but I also can bring a flair to the preparations that comes from having tested so many recipes in my life.
So what makes that particular pizza recipe so good?
It's very striking. It looks like just a pizza with flat bread, but there's vinegar and sugar in the peppers so they taste like a jam—it's a cross between a fruit tart and a pizza. Traditionally, you serve it sprinkled with powdered sugar. When I first tasted it in Barcelona, I was like, "Wow!" It's so simple, but it's really exciting because with Spanish cuisine, you never quite know where you are. It's a mix of the sweet and the savory; the Spanish introduce a lot of dessert elements into savory dishes, and vice versa, spices and salt in the desserts. So it's a traditional dish actually from Catalonia and Majorca, and it's just really funky and addictive. I've been making it on morning TV shows a lot. I had one host—you know, this young dude hosting this news show—who ate like 12 pieces and he took the rest home. People just become obsessed with the flavors because they're strong and striking.
Are there any young or new cookbook authors or chefs who you think are going to be the next big thing?
I think the next big thing is happening in Spain, which is one of the reasons I wrote The New Spanish Table. I've been incredibly inspired by Ferran Adriá . I first visited his restaurant about 10 years ago, and it changed my life. There's a whole generation of young Spanish chefs around him, and I think this is really where it's at, because they're using science and all this cyber cooking, but at the same time it has a lot of heart and soul and they haven't forgotten the tradition. That's what I think is important for chefs. No matter how scientific or experimental the cuisine is, you can't lose track of where it's coming from, and you can't forget the diner.
How do you decide what your next cookbook is going to be?
It happens to coincide with where I happen to be living or traveling or when I focus on a region that really excites me. But I want to stay with Spain for a while because, as I said, this is where it's happening both for traditional and for avant-garde food. The way they blend the two is just so fascinating.
These really experimental, creative chefs very often [reference] traditional recipes, and at the same time chefs from traditional restaurants are learning all of these new techniques about how to cook a piece of fish perfectly. It doesn't have to be outlandish, but the science has really transformed how everyone cooks in Spain. So you can go to a tapas bar and taste fish that has been cooked at 65 degrees centigrade, which is a very low temperature that really brings out its qualities. This experimental cuisine has filtered down to the traditional and the other way around.
What would you say is your biggest cookbook-related pet peeve?
I don't like instructions that are overdetailed. I'm always a little afraid of obsessive writers. I think chefs' cookbooks that have five different elements that you have to make separately that aren't listed in the recipe and require all this cross-referencing [are too demanding]—you know, "Go to page blah-blah-blah" to make the ganache and "Go to page blah-blah-blah" for something else—the recipe might look simple on the surface, but then all of a sudden you find yourself in the middle of this whirlwind of prep.
What's your guiltiest pleasure?
Hot dogs. During my book tour, I was in Cincinnati, and it's famous for those cheese Coneys—I had three in one day. I also went to this place in Chicago, Hot Doug's, that was life-transforming. And in New York, you know Gray's Papaya? I can't pass it by without having it. I'm just obsessed.
Do you have a favorite food splurge?
I don't like fois gras or truffles. I have them too much. Fancy cuisine with fancy ingredients reminds me of work, so a splurge is pizza or a good burger, because I really don't get to have these as much as I'd like to.
Do you have a current ingredient obsession?
I love piquillo peppers. I put them on everything—as a garnish, just sautéed—or I stuff them. I think they're just so sweet and so addictive.
What would you throw together from your pantry if you had only 10 minutes?
I love pasta with lots of olive oil and garlic and parsley. I like this spaghetti all'olio that Italians make late at night when they come home inebriated. I think that's just great, but with really good olive oil.
So let's talk about The New Spanish Table. What was your biggest challenge in writing it?
The biggest challenge was to find a balance between the traditional and the creative and to translate the recipes from all of these experimental chefs into something that Americans could easily do at home. As I've said, I'm not a huge fan of chefs' cookbooks. I think they exist for a reason, and it's great to see what the chef is doing, but I didn't want to go in that direction. At the same time, I wanted to capture the excitement that's happening in Spain. It's difficult to do all of the testing and retesting and to distill a recipe—which potentially had a lot of elements and novel techniques—to just the essence of the dish.
Is there anything about your cookbook that defies conventional cookbook wisdom?
No, it's pretty straightforward, because I believe that a cookbook should be user-friendly. There's a lot of text; but I also believe that a lot of people don't cook from a cookbook, they just read it before bed. I'm definitely one of those people, so there's a lot of text woven in, but nothing like large blocks of text—just some text sprinkled throughout the book for armchair travelers. It is as much a travelogue as it is a practical book for cooks.