Kitchen Garden Goddess
"It's a hell of a backyard," Fred Landman says, waving his ubiquitous cigar at the nine acres behind the stately Georgian house he shares with his wife, Seen Lippert. That's one way to describe a sprawling Arcadian fantasy that features a grotto, an orchard, an arbor dripping with wisteria and roses, a spirit bridge winding through a sea of 12,000 budding Siberian irises, and, coming next spring, a Chinese pavilion on its own island. He pauses to do a quick calculation, then grins. "I've planted 350,000 bulbs in the last seven years." On this sunny afternoon in Greenwich, Connecticut, the couple is having lunch in the outdoor kitchen overlooking the pool. "We practically live out here when it gets warm," Lippert calls from behind a grill banked with roses.
If the flower gardens are Landman's domain, the kitchen garden has been Lippert's ever since the two got married on the grounds in 2003. Although she's a long way from her native Fresno, Lippert still looks the part of a California girl, with her streaky strawberry-blond hair and toothy smile. (Now her legal name, "Seen" was originally a childhood attempt on the part of one of her six siblings to pronounce "Christine.") After graduating at the top of her class from the Culinary Institute of America, Lippert cooked for 10 years at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters. In 1998, Eli Zabar lured her to New York City to open the critically acclaimed but short-lived Across the Street. Then, while scouting for space to open her own restaurant, she was introduced to Landman.
"I'd resigned myself to being the old lady with twenty cats, but I thought, I'll do it one more time," she says of her decision to go on yet another blind date after 10 years of being divorced. On their second date, Landman cooked her dinner. It's no surprise that the former president and CEO of PanAmSat, a global commercial satellite company, knows how to close a deal. "I thought that was a pretty bold move," Lippert says with a smile. "When you're a chef, no one ever wants to cook for you."
Growing up in the farming capital of California, her approach to food was "basically, going out and eating everything on the lawn." That's still true, even though today her "lawn" includes things like an exquisite and very intricate parterre. Lippert makes a fetish of freshness, and has spent her time the last two years developing seasonal menus for the Yale University's Sustainable Food Project in concert with Waters, now a friend. "I knew I'd succeeded when students started forging ID's to sneak into the dining hall where we ran the pilot program," she says.
The bagna cauda that begins today's meal pairs naked simplicity with intense flavor—each bite of peppery radish cuts through the warm anchovy-and-oil dip with absolute clarity. The vegetables were picked only an hour ago, a hundred yards from the table, but their journey began last winter, when Lippert combed through seed catalogs, tracking down heirloom varieties, like French Breakfast radishes, for her gardens. This dish, like her tender, sticky pork ribs with orange-tomato glaze—inspired by a recent trip to Umbria and Piedmont—epitomizes her kitchen philosophy. "We had so much great pork in Italy," she muses, then bursts out, "If someone said the end of the world was coming and I could save one animal, it would be the pig!"
The meal ends with a rich rhubarb-rose fool. Fool, unlike its cousin, trifle, is served in individual glasses, with alternating layers of cooked fruit and whipped cream. Rhubarb is a classic choice, but the rose syrup and petals are Lippert's distinctive twist, an homage to the six-tiered strawberry, rose and lychee cake her friend Pierre Hermé, France's most famous pastry chef, made for her wedding.
As the light fades, the couple walk down their "Golden Path," which snakes past the pétanque court to a woodland bench. They pause to reminisce about an artist friend who lost himself so thoroughly in this dreamy landscape last year that he missed dinner altogether—hard to believe when Seen Lippert was cooking.
Former cookbook editor Dawn Drzal's writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine.