The Rustic Table

Interview by Kalina Mazur

What was your culinary education?
I wrote a restaurant news column for the Times-Picayune for about six years, and for about 10 years I was a food columnist for the cooking section. That was my education. So I haven't really had any culinary training, other than growing up in Louisiana.

When did you first become aware of your love for food and for cooking?
Oh, we just love food here. We've always loved food. I come from a big French Creole family and everybody cooks: That's the seat of power in our house. Whoever's in charge of the meal, they're in charge of everything for the day.

I stumbled backwards into writing about food because the person who was doing the restaurant column before I did used to eat at our house all the time. I was doing general reporting, and when she moved somewhere else she recommended me to take over that column. I learned by doing, but it was 15 years of learning by doing. My first cookbook, Gulf Coast Kitchens, won the IACP award for best American cookbook. Last year I had two books, The Rustic Table and the Williams-Sonoma: New Orleans book, which came out the day after Hurricane Katrina. We evacuated to a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and we had the book with us in the bar one night. People were looking at the pictures in this book and crying, and I thought, Well that's the last time anybody's ever going to cry over one of my cookbooks.

FOOD & WINE is including your recipe for Macaroni and Cheese in this year's Best of the Best. Mac and cheese is a pretty common dish. What's different about this one?
I think most people do more of a sauce, a cheese sauce. For this recipe, you make a custard and then you put the macaroni in the dish and put the cubes of cheese around it. Then you pour the custard over this and bake it. I think that's kind of unusual elsewhere, but there were a lot of Sicilians here, so I think it might be a Sicilian way of making it. You know, my mother would just laugh if she knew that you were using her old macaroni and cheese recipe in your book.

Do you ever travel for inspiration for cookbooks?
Whenever I travel, I always buy cookbooks in the place where I am. That's how I ended up writing the Gulf Coast cookbook. A lot of my assignments for a magazine that I write for are in the Gulf Coast area, and I kept looking for a general Gulf Coast cookbook and never found one. And that gave me the idea that I should write one.

When we're traveling, we want to go to the dives in town—those are the kind of places we like. In a lot of places, people can't even comprehend the idea that you want to go to a dive. They have no idea; they don't have a culture of that like you do in New York and like we do in New Orleans. People don't even know what you're talking about when you say you want to go to a place like that, or they're too embarrassed to send you there.

Is there a regional food that has particularly impressed you recently?
New Mexico is a perfect example. If you just have a few ingredients you can get really creative. If you have just beans and corn and chili it's amazing how much you can do with just beans and corn and chili.

What would you say was your biggest challenge in writing The Rustic Table?
Testing the recipes. I've dissolved in tears many times. But my husband is really good about taking over. He's really good about running to the grocery story after midnight. He's totally involved in these recipes, and the book should have both of our names on it. Especially at testing, when I give up on something, he'll take over and fix it. Most of the things turn out right away, but there are a lot of things that you make over and over and over again. In fact, the exact reason that I thought of doing a book on peasant food is because for a recipe in the previous book, Gulf Coast Kitchens, I had to buy lump crabmeat four times. So my husband and I joked that the next book I did was going to be on peasant food—beans and rice. And then I thought, That's actually a pretty good idea.And also it was really challenging because there were so many cultures represented. When we were traveling, or when we met new people or spent time with our friends, we would practically grill them about their family background and see if they had any ethnic connections that we could get a recipe from. A couple of times, when they found out we were writing a book about peasant food, they didn't want to give me one of their recipes because they didn't want people to think of their family as "peasant."

Are there any young or new cookbook authors or chefs who you think will be the next big thing?
I think Rachael Ray is wonderful. She's getting a lot of exposure, but I do watch her show and like what she does. I like the idea of her being freewheeling and encouraging younger people to cook. I think that's important.

What kind of cookbook do you have sitting on your nightstand right now, or which one are you referencing most?
I'm reading Essentials of Asian Cuisine by Corinne Trang, and it's a really good book. I love Nina Simonds. I love Mark Bittman. The thing I love about Mark Bittman is that his recipes are so simple but they always work. I've never had one of his things that didn't work. He's the person I look to when I really want a basic recipe, rather than a lot of people, who would go to Joy of Cooking or to James Beard or something like that. When I look into one of Mark Bittman's books, I always find something I want to make right away. I like no-nonsense cooking. I get irritated with recipes that have instructions like, "One tablespoon plus one-half teaspoon" of something, or with authors who say, "We made roast chicken 50 times and this was the way it worked best." That kind of thing makes people afraid to cook. That makes people afraid to experiment, and it just takes all of the joy out of it. I like books that encourage people to experiment and that give a jumping-off point, allowing you to substitute ingredients if you don't have something. You know, "If it calls for chervil, use parsley."

Do you have a favorite cheap eat?
Well, I don't want to call it a cheap eat, but Vietnamese food. You know, we have wonderful Vietnamese restaurants here, or at least we did before Katrina wiped out all of these low-lying neighborhoods. We probably went to Vietnamese restaurants more than anything else. My husband is a teacher for a New Orleans public school, so we know our cheap eats.

Do you have a current ingredient obsession?
I use a lot of ginger, but that may be just because I'm testing a chapter on Vietnamese cooking. It all ties in with the Vietnamese thing; I love fresh ginger, I love fresh basil and fresh herbs of all kinds.

Is there anything about The Rustic Table that you would say defies conventional cookbook wisdom?
Well, is there a conventional cookbook wisdom anymore? I would say that just because the recipes are short and easy doesn't mean it's one of those three-ingredient kind of cookbooks. It's playing to that same audience but trying to get them to realize that you can do something that fast and easy and it can still be real food, and real food doesn't have to be complicated. You don't have to make a roast chicken 50 times, but at the same time you don't have to use Cool Whip either. It is possible to have real food that doesn't leave you feeling exhausted or incompetent.