The legendary editor dishes on her creative process, respecting ingredients, and what your Thanksgiving turkey says about the the kind of person you are. 

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Photo of Dorothy Kalins
Credit: Roger Sherman

Editor's note: We could all use a little inspiration and light during these strange days. Enter Best Practices, an F&W Pro interview series where we share how leaders and creatives are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while still growing personally and professionally.

Have you ever stopped to think about the voice in your head while simmering tomato sauce? Maybe it's your grandmother or a friend who first guided you through the process. But if you're Dorothy Kalins, legendary magazine and cookbook editor, the distinctive low and raspy voice in that moment is from the late Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, reminding her that adding butter will round out the flavors. 

Kalins calls the people like Hazan in her life her kitchen whisperers, and she's written a beautiful new memoir of the same name that celebrates the lessons they've shared with her. After a storied career editing  and co-creating award-winning cookbooks like Gramercy Tavern chef Michael Anthony's V is for Vegetables, and editing magazines like Metropolitan Home, Garden Design, Saveur, and Newsweek, Kalins has finally turned the lens on herself, exploring a life well-lived in kitchens and on assignments around the world. 

Filled with stories about, as Kalins puts it, "real people who cook real food," the book is ultimately about shared knowledge. In many ways, the memoir is an extension of Kalins' work at Saveur, the magazine she, Christopher Hirsheimer, and Colman Andrews founded in 1994. During an era when many other food magazines were hawking "pork chops six ways" and "low fat cassoulet", Saveur, which focussed on origin stories about regional foods and the provenance of ingredients, quickly became a must-read for curious  home cooks and professional chefs alike. (The magazine's test kitchen on 32nd Street in Manhattan was also where I started my own magazine career in 2008.)

Kalins is known in part for her ability to motivate teams and get the best work out of them. "You're nothing if you can't make the people around you feel like they're excited about what they're doing, and that they're working for something larger than themselves," Kalins says. "I've always been the get-the-smart-people-in-the-room-and-we'll-figure-it-out kind of editor. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Kalins about her creative process for making cookbooks, respecting ingredients, and which chef has the best hands. Stick around for the end for a bonus speed round to find out about what kind of person you are based on how you cook your turkey.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I wanted to ask you first about your hands-on role as a producer and as a packager, most recently of books. How do you come to pick a project and what's your process for wrapping your hands and your head around that project? Is it relationship-first?

As you know, I'm a magazine editor. I've been a magazine editor for most of my professional life. So I look at a book as a blank page. It's important [to imagine] the size of it, the heft of it, the feel of it, the look of it. The book comes to me before the writing. The actual tactile experience of that book is important. Should it be big and hefty and authoritative? Or should it be small and easily accessible and useful, and idiomatic in its language? You're designing a communication product, and every one is different. I like to think it's appropriate to the spirit and the integrity of the chef I'm working with.

How did that process change as you began writing your own memoir?

This was a totally different experience. This was like writing a hundred thousand editor's letters. Because for years when I was editor of Met Home, Garden Design, and then at Saveur, I wrote a page in front of each magazine. It was meant to be a door opening into the idea and feeling of that issue. It was made for readers to connect. And I think really the books that I've worked on are always focused on the reader. And how does the reader connect with this material.  

When Michael Anthony and I were developing the Gramercy Tavern book, we said, this is a book that people are going to use at home. It's not just a voyeuristic experience of looking at beautiful pictures that they can't realize. So we really went through the intellectual process of boiling down the ideas to the things that could quickly communicate what the signature ideas of Michael Anthony's food is. And one of them is his fresh ingredients. Another is pickling things. Another is quickly sautéing a filet of fish or beef. Another is the saucing of vegetables and how you come to a flavorful sauce. We focused on skills that home cooks could use and could adapt to their own experience. For example, he has a pasta sauce that involves corn, and to make that corn broth rich, he cooked the corncobs after the kernels were taken off the cob. Well, duh, that's the smartest ... I mean, you throw a couple of onions in there and some herbs and you boil it down for 30 minutes, and you've got a very flavorful stock. That was a breakthrough for me.

Why are you so seduced by the way real people cook real food?

Because I think, as opposed to being in a restaurant, when we're in our kitchens, no matter how much we know, it's between us and the refrigerator and what are we putting on the table? So, we're real cooks. No matter our skill level, we're still trying to figure it out. What do I have? What can I work with? How can I do this quickly and painlessly? How can I make it delicious? Those are the things that go through a home cook's mind, I think.

I guess the defining idea of The Kitchen Whisperers is that we all have inside our heads, knowingly or not, voices that talk to us as we go through the process of putting together a meal. And as I was beginning to write this book, no matter who I was talking to, they connected with that idea. And I've gotten funny notes from people who've read the book who said, "Oh yeah, this reminded me of my uncle, the way he used to do this." I think it enriches our lives because basically we're all alone in the kitchen making dinner.

I started writing my list of Kitchen Whisperers as I was reading the book. I've always considered myself a culinary mutt, taking inspiration from different places and sort of Frankensteining things together. But your book made me step back and think, wow, what a gift. What a gift this career of editing is. And actually starting to take the time to think about who those voices are and where I learned this and where I learned that.

Good.

Danny Meyer wrote something that I was really taken with. In the forward of Kitchen Whisperers he said that when you cook for others, you don't let your guests see the amount of effort that went into what you prepared. And it made me think also about your writing and editing. The reader doesn't need you to show them the work. Do you draw a parallel between the kitchen and the keyboard?

Well, it's interesting. I never really thought about it that way. I think there's just a certain modesty and a certain connection with giving your guests an experience. It's not about you. It's about you giving. And to me, that's the joy of doing what we do, whether it's producing a book or a magazine or producing a dinner. The last thing I want people to feel when they come into my house is to think that I've worked so hard to make this happen. And then, of course, these last two years, there have been a precious few coming to the table. But we are beginning to have a few people around the table again and it's wonderful. 

I've heard from multiple people that you've worked with that you've got a tremendous ability to motivate people and get the best out of them. That they truly want to do a good job, not just on the project, but for you. How did you cultivate this skill?

Well, I was an editor-in-chief for 25 years, and you are as well, and you know that you're nothing if you can't make the people around you feel excited about what they're doing, and like they're working for something larger than themselves. I've never been an authoritarian, top-down, my-way-or-the-highway kind of editor. I've always been the get-the-smart-people-in-the-room-and-we'll-figure-it-out-kind of editor. I've been lucky enough to have projects where I work with very small teams. It's always, "Okay, how are we going to solve this problem? How are we going to do this? What's the right thing to do for the project?" And it makes people feel part of a team. And it's real because you are a part of the team. And everybody has a little different corner of the sofa to keep up in the air.

That's why I think that in certain creative fields, you have to be together. This Zoom-esque way of relating to people, it works. It's fine, but you don't have time for that off-the-wall bit of craziness that leads to something really good. So when I work on a book project, I define the team and it's a small team, usually the chef or chefs and a photographer. Not even necessarily an assistant, and no food stylist, ever. The chef knows what he or she wants that food to look like. And an art director, because I love the idea of seeing the page before you've even made the photograph. It's just parity—we're all the same. We're lying on the floor, trying to move the props around as you do when you're setting up a photograph. And it's always: "how does this best communicate and how will it look on the page?" 

I think what happens often is that chefs are misled by production teams that come in with their own aesthetic. And all of a sudden you have something that doesn't feel authentic. And I think that's the driving force behind all the books that I've ever done, and it was a Saveur impulse. It's nothing new. It's something that we did. Go to the place, find the way it's done. Shoot it, write about it, capture it, don't make it up.

This is a good transition to Saveur. That was my first magazine job, running the test kitchen from 2008 to 2011. And you were the founding editor in 1994 and left in 2001. We also have a lot of Saveur DNA among our editorial team at Food & Wine, that yearning to always tell a deeper story. Talk to me about those early startup days in 1994, especially in the context of what was happening with chefs in America and American ingredients and also in food media.

Basically, we tried to tell people what authenticity was. We did a cover story in the first year on saffron.Chefs were so interested in Saveur and in what it delivered, because [as] they said to me, 'We didn't have the time to learn about these things in culinary school when we were learning our knife skills. We were not learning the provenance of ingredients.' And we were really interested in that because inevitably, when you go down the rabbit hole of an ingredient, you find out things about the culture that are so interesting. And nobody was doing stories like that. That really interested us. 

I write in the book about Colman's thing about cassoulet. You know, if you're going to do a cassoulet, do a real cassoulet. Use real tarbais beans, use ingredients that live together and harmonize together. Otherwise don't eat it. Don't give me a "low fat cassoulet," which was actually a blurb that was on a magazine cover when we were launching Saveur. If it's too fat or too heavy or too whatever, make something else. But don't do low fat cassoulet. And don't do six ways with pork chops because that's not what we're interested in. We're interested in going narrow and deep. The other thing was this idea of photographing food so that it looked like it was cooked in a home kitchen. That was new, too. To not over-light something. It should look like it came from somebody's grandmother's kitchen.

Kitchen Whisperers is, to me at least, a book about shared knowledge. Whose voice was in your kitchen last night?

Man. So last night, the voice was, 'Use what you got, girl,' because I had gone to the market on the weekend, and I still had some fresh tomatoes, and I had some peppers, and I had some fennel, and I had some ricotta. It was really a reductive process. It wasn't somebody saying to me, "Make this," or ... It was just, there's a shaped voice, a chorus in my kitchen to say, "Use what you have well." And I've heard that from so many different people. I can't attribute it to one person. 

So I mixed up some ricotta with basil and made a little layer. I sliced some fennel and put the ricotta over that. And then I put some fresh tomatoes over that. And I had some long Jimmy Nardello peppers, so I put them in. And then I just put some tomato sauce on the top with some mozzarella, andI baked it. It was a non-lasagna lasagna, basically, there was no pasta in it. But it was delicious. It was a vegetable tian. I don't know who that [Kitchen Whisperer] is. That's not one human being. It's just the sensibility of a lot of people saying to me, honor your ingredients, revere your ingredients. 

There's a chapter in the book called The Cook and the Garden. And there's a wonderful farmer on Long Island named Patty Gentry, who I write about a little bit. And Patty always said, "You just have to do so little to these vegetables." Patty talks to me in my kitchen. She was a chef for 25 years before she became a farmer. And she always says, "Don't fuss. I don't even take the leaves off thyme anymore. Just toss a stalk." She said, "When I was a chef, we were taught to de leaf thyme sprigs, but it doesn't matter. Just throw it in, use it."

Call it the Hippocratic oath of vegetables, do no harm.

First do no harm, right?

In the same vein, I'm thinking about cooks who I watched and learned from. I always end up looking at their hands. You know, somebody like David Tanis. I remember an old Saveur story, where he was in his little Paris kitchen chopping vegetables. And you just look at the hands. 

Christopher and I did that story. Yep. After we'd left Saveur, we went back because we wanted to see what David knew.

Who are the cooks in your mind who have those most knowing hands? 

David Tanis' chapter is called "Cooking with your Hands." And there is nothing that he can't treat beautifully.  But so does Christopher, she has a care as if she's dealing with baby animals. I mean, there's a gentleness and a respect. But I think all the people I've been lucky to work with, all the professional cooks, are that way. That's one thing I revere about them, that they honor their ingredients and they do things that are very deep, but they're not necessarily complicated, if you get what I mean?

You've also worked with some chefs who've turned out to be human beings who have hurt and disappointed others. You referenced one of them in the book when you're talking about gumbo. And I assume that to be John Besh, I think you called him a "former sunshine man" without naming him. How do you move on from these collaborators and also maintain trust in other chefs moving forward and how do you separate your legacy from theirs?

I don't know. I would say with great difficulty. I think that when you have the kind of relationship that I have with the chefs with whom I produced books, you become invested in their lives, in their story, in their background. My job as an editor always is to try to pull out the things from them that they have to say. And when you get that intimately involved with a co-creator, you have to believe it yourself. And of course I did believe that. And I think it's with great difficulty that you move on from that. 

We deal with it almost on a monthly basis now. I feel like part of the job now is crisis management.

Absolutely.

You tell a story, and then, you find out that there were all these alleged victims of this person. And it just happens more and more now.

Mike Solomonov, he's very clear about his history. He had a bad history with drugs and he overcame it. And he never pretends that isn't part of who he is, but having overcome it, having then begun all these other restaurants and places and ideas that come out of the best part of him makes [his story] all [the] more poignant.

I was looking at a photo of you and Colman Andrews in Marcella Hazan's kitchen, and you've got your notebook. And I think that's one of the things I've missed during the pandemic is being able to be in other people's kitchens. At a time when younger cooks are learning from TikTok and YouTube, and are really interested in cooking, what do you think is lost in the digital medium and what might be gained?

Well, I think everything's lost, of course, but I have a son, Lincoln, who's 28 years old and who completely ignores these thousands of books I have in my office, and will go immediately online to get a recipe. And he knows how to handle himself in the kitchen. He's pretty good at it, he only wants to make what he wants to make, and he makes hard things. And he's totally TikTok and totally online. And if it's not online, he's not interested. And I would imagine that it's tough for you because your readers are at both ends, right?

I mean, they want your information and that's why you have such robust online content. And yet they want to get up in bed with your magazine and learn how to make that dough. I love that. That feeds me. Sometimes, if I think I don't have any time, I use recipes that I download immediately and just do it. But I don't think it feeds you in the same way. But I think younger people would disagree with that. I mean, Lincoln has 10,000 TikTok followers for his cat videos. So go figure. My son.

What's the one question I should be asking you right now that I have not?

Well, the thing that I was feeling when I got up in bed with your last couple of issues, I thought, "How long will words on paper matter?" And that worries me. I mean, there's something about reading a recipe and reading the food story like the ode to Faugeres in Food & Wine's September issue. That idea of place, and Steve Hoffman is a wonderful writer, isn't he?

And I just thought, are people going to read those stories this way .... And be fed by them? Will they continue to be? And you're in a better place than I am to answer those questions. I'm sure there's a ton of pressure for you to develop all these other ways of storytelling. I think it can be interesting. It can be challenging. How do you be authentic in that way? But words on paper to me are threatened.

Okay, time for a speed round. You wrote: "You tell me how you cook your turkey, and I'll tell you who you are." I know you're a salt and tangerine flavored roast turkey kind of human. So I thought we could do a weird and different kind of a speed round to close this out. I'm going to name a few different techniques of cooking turkey and you tell me how that correlates with a person who would be doing that technique.

Okay.

What's the first personality that comes to mind when I say turkey confit?

You're a chef. You hate Thanksgiving. But you prize flavor.

Love it. Fried turkey?

So you're Southern, you'd walk out to your backyard and you've got this thing you've been doing forever in this big, old wash tub, over a fire. And you fry your turkey. You're a good old boy.

Roulade?

Oh, that's another cheffy thing. You're just trying to fight against the idea of the bird and you're turning it into something else. And you also have to show off that you can do that.

Spatchcock?

I think you're looking for an easy way out.. Or, I've talked to many chefs who swear by that because they say you can carve it so beautifully and it looks so great on the platter, and you put the slices around it. So, presentation matters to you a lot.

Stuffing your turkey before roasting it?

I mean, we grew up that way. We grew up stuffing once frozen turkeys with the pop up tab things. I did at least. But I think that the health people, the health police say don't do that.

Last one, turkey in an Instant Pot?

Oh, you're definitely a millennial.