Abby Hocking / Food & Wine

And did Abby even know the White House has a wine cellar?

Yes, in most cases the White House chief of staff is supposed to know about everything that goes on in the White House. While we can only speculate how true that is under the current administration, Darby Stanchfield’s Scandal character Abby Whelan has found herself both out of the loop and caught up in a massive conspiracy to undermine the entire Republic.

Perhaps most upsetting is that, while all of the drama unfolds upstairs, Stanchfield admits Whelan was likely unaware that the perfect place to kick back and take the edge off all her sorrows was right beneath her feet the entire time. Stanchfield stopped by Food & Wine's wine room to chat with me about the soon-to-be concluding series, growing up in Alaska’s fishing community, and her eye-opening experience traveling to a tea estate in Indonesia for a new documentary with Pure Leaf.

A couple episodes back it was the revealed that President Grant had installed a massive wine cellar in the White House. Was Abby aware of this?

Abby has spent most of the time being out of the bubble. I would guess my character knows nothing. My bet would be she doesn’t. She knows about the bowling alley, not the wine cellar.

There’s a lot of wine flowing on the show, but you don’t use real wine, do you?

We don’t use real wine. We used to use a grape juice but it was so intensely high in sugar and if you have to do the scene over it can be a little much. So they found this tea, a really wonderful hibiscus I believe it is, that our brilliant props department brews really bright and strong and it ends up looking like red wine. But it’s very light and beautiful to drink so you can drink it for hours and not feel loopy. And your teeth don’t end up with little sweaters on them.

Is Abby a red wine, white wine or hard liquor kind of person?

Definitely a red wine drinker, you see her in scenes drinking red wine with Olivia. But Abby’s go-to drink is scotch. She has her powerful moment in the Oval Office with President Fitzgerald Grant where he’s been calling her Gabby for a whole season and she said “Look, my name is Abby and by the way I know all about scotch and this is the second best, I can get you a bottle of the first best scotch if you want.” So it’s a pretty great Shonda Rhimes moment of empowerment.

What’s your go-to you drink?

Tea, actually. I don’t have a wine cellar. Just tea day and night.

Are you a person who cooks a lot or goes out a lot of both?

I’m really a cook. I used to be the opposite, I used to go out a lot, but now I primarily cook. If I have a preference, I’d rather have a home cooked meal than go out to the fanciest place. I have a garden on my property, a small one, with herbs and whatever I can grow seasonally and I have some fruit trees, some lemon trees, and avocado trees.

What are you picking fresh right now?

Kumquats. We’re at the tail end of kumquats, and regular lemons, Meyer lemons. I have an orange tree that seems to produce year round. It's pretty great. But I am getting lettuces right now, I have about four different types of lettuces and arugula going and lemon thyme, Greek oregano, and parsley.

What are your go to things that you cook all the time?

My dishes tend to have a very carefree style, what’s ripe at the farmers market or what’s in my fridge, even if I’m cleaning out my fridge. It tends to be a very improvisational style. I major in salads. But a loose definition of salad, it can have a real robust skirt steak on top of it off the grill or quinoa or buckwheat of sprouted almond. it’s just lettuce. and I make my own dressings and sauces. I also like to do slow cook Crock pot type things on Sunday that last for a few days. Usually, it’ll be like a pot of beans but I’ll add kale and different things like that. I just came up with a recipe that I love from when I was traveling in Indonesia on this documentary with Pure Leaf, we ate a lot of Nasi Goreng it’s like a fried rice and uses a lot of leftovers so I decided to make my own version of that when I got back and I’m having a lot of fun with that one.

What was you food upbringing?

Seafood. My father was a commercial fisherman so we ate a ton of it—King crab, Dungeness crab, tanner crab, halibut, pollack, king salmon, coho salmon, reds, silvers, Dolly Varden trout, clams. And I get my cooking from my mom’s style. When it’s fresh you don’t need to touch it very much. It’s much better in its natural state.

Do you have a favorite food or dish?

Mexican food. Just the most simple things, tacos, enchiladas and in Los Angeles you can find a lot of really good Mexican food. But ironically I don’t cook Mexican, so there you go. I’ll hit a taco truck or there is a taco stand called Macho’s Tacos in Silverlake, it’s one of my favorites. It’s generations of families that have owned it and they’re really true to their form, things that are well made.

Do you have a favorite place to travel for food?

Probably Rome and Tuscany. I’ve never had a bad meal there, either I’ve been really lucky or it’s just incredible food. I also don’t typically go to the same restaurant twice while I’m there. Like we’ll have gelato every night but we’ll get it from a different place and try to find the best one. It’s a game that drives me crazy a little bit but it’s a fun challenge for myself to keep trying new things.

What’s a memorable trip or experience you’ve had?

One is about when I go home to Alaska, every time I go home I go fishing and pick wild blueberries and salmon berries because I’m usually there in the summer so there's something really wonderful about enjoying the natural foods that I grew up with that are there. The second one is Indonesia where I had this very similar experience. We traveled to this remote tea estate and village in the middle of nowhere and there was a very farm to table experience, there were chickens there was tea and every house has a rice patty. My experience cuisine-wise there really felt similar to how I grew up in Alaska, your experience food and beverage-wise is really indicative of the simplicity and purity of your environment. 

What was your trip to Indonesia like?

Most of the time I was there I was with a tea master and he will taste up to 500 cups of tea a day, so the two of us spent time with the owner of the tea estate. We went down this rabbit hole of showing me the art and craftsmanship of making tea. And much like good seafood in Alaska, the process which has been going on for thousands of years, is so minimal and so good. And he showed me this handful of tea leaves that go into every bottle and it’s very simple and pure. What I found was super fascinating is the quality of the tea has everything to do with how you pick the leaves and the part of the tea plant you pick. The people that work in this estate take great pride in their work and that part of their job. So while I was there I got lessons from them and I was just struck my how it’s such an intentional act, there’s an art to it. It reminds me of picking grapes for wine. Tea making is just as beautiful and sensual.

What’s one thing from that experience you’ll take back into your own tea rituals?

What I learned with is that Pure Leaf is doing things as carefully and fresh as I would do if I had the time, but even when I’m just having a cup of tea I know think of my time in Indonesia and the people and now I have a deeper appreciation or meaning for the care that went into it. It’s so easy to be mindless and just guzzle it down as you run off to your next thing, but I’m definitely reflecting on it a little more.

You can watch Darby’s entire adventure in Indonesia with Pure Leaf and tea master Alex White online now. Scandal’s sixth season finale will air Thursday, May 18th on ABC.

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