Tuesday, July 1, 2008

French Laundry at Home Extra: Q&A with Susie Heller

Susie Heller is a force to be reckoned with. This woman is a culinary and business dynamo, and even better than that, she's smart, funny, and one of the kindest, most accomplished women I've met.

She’s been a leader in the culinary world for more than two decades – she started out as a restaurant owner and caterer, became a consultant and food critic, has produced many of Jacques Pépin’s shows since 1985, and also worked as culinary producer with Julia Child on three public television series including Julia and Jacques, Cooking at Home, two Cooking in Concert specials with Julia and Jacques, and The Apprentice. Other public television shows include three series with Michael Chiarello, and Cooking In with Todd English.

In addition to all her TV work, Susie has worked with Thomas Keller on all his cookbooks -- The French Laundry Cookbook, Bouchon, and two more due out soon -- which is the reason I wanted to do a Q&A with her here on French Laundry at Home.

Susie and I conducted our interview below via email, but since the time we did that I actually had the chance to meet her at an event in New York where we were able to talk about food, family, and the things we enjoy in life. I already had an enormous amount of respect for her, but after spending some time with her, my respect multiplied times infinity. I totally dig her. I think you will, too. She's real, she "gets it," and she has the most infectious enthusiasm for what she does. It's so much a part of who she is, and I'm a better person for having spent some time with her.

Michael Ruhlman gets a lot of well-deserved credit for his role in The French Laundry Cookbook, and you all know how much I admire and respect him. It's important to me that you get to know Susie Heller, too, because her role in this book -- adapting, testing, and writing all the recipes -- is what allows me to do what I do on this blog. Michael's writing is what connected my head and my heart to this food, but Susie's translation of Thomas Keller's work feeds me in a wholly different and yet complementary way -- it's what makes me able to understand the reason and craft behind each and every dish. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

* * * * *

Carol: I asked Michael Ruhlman this question, and now I want to get your point of view, as well. Next year is the 10-year anniversary of The French Laundry Cookbook's publication. So, I'm guessing that 10 years ago today, you were probably still testing all the recipes. Can you tell me a little bit about what that process was like? Was it difficult to translate these recipes for the home cook?

Susie Heller: Believe it or not, The French Laundry Cookbook was the first book where I wrote all the recipes. Before that, I had tested recipes and translated recipes for television. In 1995, I assisted Jacques Pépin as he developed recipes for his two volumes of The Art of Cooking (still two of my favorite books). He would cook and his assistant would take down what he did, the measurements, timing etc. and then Jacques would taste and make adjustments. He is brilliant at this so I got to learn from the all-time great cookbook author.

It showed me the importance of watching the chef cook, being able to see the nuance in their method that makes them stand out. Originally, Thomas and I thought that the development could be done at The French Laundry, in their kitchen. I lived in Cleveland and flew out a couple of times, but realized that it didn’t work successfully. Parts of each recipe were done by different cooks so that the experience a home cook would have would be entirely different. Thomas and I decided to do the recipe development in his small home kitchen next door. I packed up my car with equipment and moved to Yountville during the development of the recipes. Each morning, Thomas would begin each recipe from scratch and cook it for me (and my assistant Angie Spensieri). It was astounding to watch Thomas, because he truly understood what we wanted to accomplish and the rule we used was that we would make it easier for a home cook if it didn’t compromise the quality in any way whatsoever. For example, freezing the brunoise...

On days when Angie and I tested, we would run the results over to the restaurant and all the chefs gathered to see how we did. Their biggest shock was when Thomas declared our Oysters and Pearls “perfect.” I tested many of the recipes this way, but also did extensive testing back home in Cleveland. I had home cooks come into my home and test as well.

Carol: How long did the recipe-testing/translating take?

Susie: All recipes were done from the beginning. I actually don’t particularly want chefs to give me their notes. So, I started with a blank page. I probably went to Yountville 2 or 3 times, tested those recipes, then moved out for about 4 months (and worked the whole time), then returned to Cleveland, tested for several months with a couple more trips to Yountville. It’s hard for any chef to consider a book done. So, as long as you are working on the book, they try to put in more recipes. In this case, they added the skate, the escargot, and the chocolate velouté once I thought we were done. The book process is really a 2-year process, about 1 year of development and testing, and 1 year of editing, design and printing. Of course it depends on the book.

Carol: I know you oversaw the home-testing of the dishes, but who else helped out?

Susie: I had an assistant, Angie Spensieri from the East Coast who was amazing. She moved to Yountville with me and when she returned home, continued to test the recipes and work with me. I had home cooks come to my home to test many of the recipes. I don’t believe in having home cooks work at home and give you results. I have no way of knowing if their oven is calibrated correctly, if they forgot to set the timer, etc. I prefer they test in my home. That way, we can analyze their results much better together. If they really get stuck, I’d rather make the correction to the instructions on the spot.

Carol: How did you all select which dishes made it into the book? Did any get tested/translated, then cut?

Susie: This is always really tough. It is very rare to write recipes and then cut them. If we decide a recipe isn’t right for the book, we usually know that before we develop it. More often, we have to cut recipes because the book is just too long and Thomas and I don’t want to give up any of Deborah Jones’s photographs. It’s always a struggle. The Bouchon book was supposed to be the length of French Laundry, but Artisan was willing to make it longer in the end to accommodate all the recipes, essays, and photos.

Carol: What was the most frustrating aspect of working on this book? Did you ever get so tired of looking at food that you wanted to run screaming out of the kitchen?

Susie: Maybe it’s because it was 10 years ago, but I can’t think of a time that I wanted to run screaming from the kitchen. Honestly, this was the most amazing experience right from the beginning. Our team (Thomas, Michael Ruhlman, Deborah Jones, Ann Bramson at Artisan, Level Design) really made this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Now, there are other books that have had me pull out a few hairs, but not this one.

Carol: Have you made any of these dishes at home for friends and family?

Susie: Yes, I still go back to the book. Of course, testing these dishes made me extremely popular 10 years ago.

Carol: What are your favorite dishes from the book?

Susie: This is like asking who your favorite child is. A few are: Gazpacho (so easy in summer) Truffle-Infused Custards, Creamy Lobster Broth (still make this, always a winner), all agnolotti, Sea Bass with Parsnips, Breast of Veal, Soft Shell Sandwich, Velouté of Chocolate….I could go on.

Carol: What advice do you have for the home cook who wants to attempt these dishes?

Susie: Don’t feel like you have to make the whole presentation. Try parts of recipes. There are such great techniques to learn too, like big-pot blanching and braising. Let the techniques become part of who you are as a cook, no matter what recipe you do.

Carol: I asked Ruhlman this question, and I'm curious to know your take on it -- The French Laundry Cookbook was and still is a defining cookbook of its time. A hundred years from now, when culinary and cultural historians look back on the book, what do you think it will say about the way we approached food?

Susie: I am so proud that this book is so much more than a cookbook. It is a look at the approach of one of our greatest culinary figures. I hope that the book conveys what is important to Thomas. That is, respect to take the time and put the care into everything you do. He has such respect for ingredients, for the process of cooking, and the importance of working as a team. He knows the farmers and artisans and is never wasteful, always honoring the product, the dish, and ultimately the diner.

I think that Michael Ruhlman wrote so beautifully about Thomas’s journey, and believe the book opened the door for other chefs to speak out on more than just recipes.

You've done quite a bit of work in the food television field, and have seen its evolution over the years. What do you think food television in general is doing well, and what could be done better?

Susie: I’m a producer of television shows for PBS. I have been so lucky to work with Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, and dozens of top chefs. Food is one topic that brings everyone together. My bank even has monitors playing Food Network when you walk in. So yes, piquing everyone’s interest in food is very positive, but from my perspective so much of what is on has become so “dummied down.” I come from the old school; I love programming that really teaches in the course of the show and I hope that we aren’t losing that.

Carol: What magazines or food blogs are your "go-to" for ideas, inspiration, education, or just great reading?

Susie: I’m always working with Thomas or another chef on a book, so my life becomes about their food. I worked with Michael Chiarello for 3 years and cooked Italian. I have spent the last year cooking sous vide for a book coming out in the fall, and now it is all about the food of Ad Hoc. I really stay away from blogs (although I love yours and Ruhlman's) because I get sucked in and spend too much time. As it is I spend too much time on the computer. I go through phases when I don’t read any food magazines and they pile up, then I’ll spend a couple of days going through them all.

Inspiration for me comes through the chefs I work with, as well as travel. Last year I traveled around South America, the year before to Asia, and this year to New Zealand. I also love to go to the World of Flavors Conference at the CIA, Taste Conference at COPIA, Aspen Food and Wine. For me talking to other food professionals is the best way to find out what is going on.

Carol: What are some of the up-and-coming food trends you're seeing?

Susie: I’m a BBQ fanatic. If you are in NYC don’t miss Daisy May’s BBQ. I think there will be more family-style dining. And, of course, more and more influences and products from Spain and South America. Sous vide will become used in more restaurants and make its way into the home kitchen. More and more chefs and cooks are conscious of the benefits of sustainability and, although not a new trend, it will become more mainstream.

Carol: As a woman, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on why we see more men in leadership roles in the kitchen, rather than women. Why do you think that is?

Susie: Well from my perspective, it’s a change that has taken a long time, however, probably no different from other jobs that were traditionally held by men. Women had to establish themselves in that forum, and unfortunately that took time, but in the course of my career, I have certainly seen more women in the kitchen.

Honestly, I have so many women from culinary programs come to me to find out about what I do and get advice on alternative cooking paths. They are looking for other options beyond the restaurant kitchens. They want to use their cooking skills. but also seem to be looking for what they see as more creative outlets. You really have to spend years working your way up in the professional kitchens and many of these women do not want the kitchen as their long-term goal.

Carol: What are your guilty pleasures when it comes to food? Does the Taco Bell drive-thru guy know you by name? Do you have a secret stash of Kraft Macaroni-and-Cheese in the cupboard?

Susie: Neither of those. I actually am not a big sweet eater. I can resist chocolate and ice cream. I really love savory food -- Ad Hoc’s fried chicken, a great burger and fries, a well marbled steak, and blue cheese dressing. I also love homemade artisinal bread, and the guilty part is then the great butter you spread on top. There is nothing like it.

Carol: Are there any foods you absolutely, positively will not eat, because even the thought of it makes you want to hurl?

Susie: Blood sausage. A great friend and chef Jean Louis Palladin once took me to a pig slaughter. My job was to clean the intestines for him to make the blood sausage. And I hate chitterling sausage….guess it is related.

Carol: One of my favorite books, My Last Supper, chronicles the hypothetical last meals of the world's greatest chefs. What do you want your last meal to be, and with whom?

Susie: I love that book, too. I’d want to be in Jacques Pépin’s kitchen with my husband, kids, and a few close family members and friends. Jacques and Thomas would cook at Jacques’ island while we all sat around with some great wine. I’d have my Mom, Grandmother, Julia Child and Jean Louis Palladin come back to share the meal and then take me with them, but before I left I’d let the dogs eat from the table.

Carol: Before we go, are there any projects or programs you're working on now that you want to give us a heads up about?

Susie: Sure….My company Full Plate Media produced a PBS special airing now called Artist’s Table featuring Jacques Pépin and Itzhak Perlman as well as the PBS series Made in Spain with José Andrés. Book-wise, this fall Artisan will publish Under Pressure -- it's sous vide recipes from French Laundry and Per Se, written for chefs. And, in Fall 2009, be on the lookout for Ad Hoc at Home.

* * * * *

Thanks, Susie.

* * * * *

Note: Great questions for the Q&A with Carol in the previous post's comments section and flooding my email inbox. Keep 'em coming.

Up Next: Lobster Consommé en Gelée

Read My Previous Post:
Double Rib Lamb Chops with Cassoulet of Summer Beans and Rosemary


Arundathi said...

Thank you so much for that. I've always wanted to know more about Susan Heller and her work. She seems a lot more behind-the-scenes, and this Q&A was just perfect!

Victoria said...

This is a simply wonderful interview - because your questions are excellent - interesting and fun.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! You're right about her attitude about cooking. I never thought about the process of "translating" Keller's recipes to the home kitche and the challenges that go with it. Interesting stuff.

I agree with her opinion on how many food shows are "dumbed down", a puzzling development during a time when interest in cooking is booming. Convenience cooking has it's place on television but there are only so many times you can watch some bonehead open a can of peaches and unceremoniously dump it on top of a stack of Fig Newtons before you question why you're watching this particular show. The Food Network should devote a little more time to advanced cooking techniques, though I suppose it all boils down to profit. Maybe we'll get lucky and see Chicken Stack-Ups on Rachel Ray.

Any word on your show?

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I love how your personality comes through in the questions...I get the Ad Hoc menu delivered to my email daily, and it is sooooooooo hard not to call in a reservation everyday. Can't wait for Susie's next book(s), and I really can't wait for your next entry!

Anonymous said...

What an amazing job she has :)

Thanks Carol (and Susie) for the terrific interview; Susie's description of her ideal last meal is powerful stuff.

Kitt said...

Great interview! So delightful to read. (The dog comment made me laugh out loud.)

Thank you!

pdxblogmommy said...

Hey girl,
That was a *really* wonderful interview. She sounds amazing.

I already know you are.

Unknown said...

Great interview! I loved hearing about the process of the recipe testing for the book. I've done a bit of recipe testing (on much simpler recipes) and it's fun to figure out those adjustments.

Anonymous said...

Good interview.
I loved her...until she skirted your question about guilty pleasures. Artisinal bread and butter...yeah not such a guilty pleasure.
I think it's important when you rise in the culinary world, or in any sphere for that matter, to not lose yourself, to start pretending you don't have a past replete with "normal" vices, likes and dislikes.

Casey said...

A first-rate interview with intelligent questions and thoughtful answers. Thanks for a lovely read.

Chris said...

I can only agree with everyone else in saying that it was a great interview.
I enjoyed learning about the number of PBS shows with which she has been involved.

As alway Carol your blog entertains and educates.

Anonymous said...

Again, great interview. I'm green with envy over her job. Thanks for bringing to light how invloved she was with TFLC. Sometimes you can get so engrossed with the recipes that you forget about the people that wrote and tested them.

I completely agree with her comment about T.V. cooking getting "dumbed down" for the sake of profit. I think that more people need to realize that no one expects them to put out FL type food everyday, but once or twice a month make something really good for your family and friends. When did sharing a meal become such a hassel and not an event of look forward to? I'm always shocked to see that Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee get paid to open a couple of boxes of instant pudding and smear some Cool Whip on top and call it good, acceptable food.

After reading your Q&As with Rhulman and Heller I can totally see you in a food writing type career.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for introducing Susie to us. While I've known Ruhlman from his books, blog and TV appearances and Thomas from Ruhlman, Susie was the one person I've always wondered about. Very nice interview. Now it's time for an interview with Thomas.

BTW, watched Bourdain, Ruhlman and Eric (sigh) at TFL tonight on A Cook's Tour. It was some kind of wonderful.

The Italian Dish said...

Thanks for posting this interview. Such fun to read "behind the scenes" stuff about the production of a book like that. Your questions were great.

Anonymous said...

Ok, Ruhlman, Heller...go for the trifecta and get Keller! Wouldn't that blow your mind and ours.

By the way, how much of the book is left? Not that I want it to end or anything....

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a wonderful interview. It was so pleasant to read! And the information about how the recipes were tested was fantastic.

I agree with Susie that many cooking shows are "dummied down". I would love to make a show or watch a show just about techniques. There are enough recipes in the world already.


Anonymous said...

A great interview. What a tremendous insight as to how much time and effort went into making the book, which is probably why it is extraordinary.

I couldn't help but notice that both Heller and Ruhlman slipped in a casual aside about how they love to make the agnolotti, as if it were no big deal. A little subtle, but friendly, needling?

Oh, and I have a question for the big Carol Blymire interview: Despite the fact the blog is about making things, you rarely use video, except to mock shellfish before their death. Maybe this was just a practical necessity of doing these dishes by yourself, but to what extent is the picture and text format something that forced you to be more creative. Or at least more expressive of your evident creativity? Do you think of stories to tell while cooking? When do you think about how you will tell the story of a dish, as it progresses or after you sit down to write it up?

Have a great Fourth.

Anonymous said...

Great interview.

Let's see....you've done Ruhlman.....you've done Heller. Perhaps as the final chapter in this French Laundry at Home blog, we'll be treated to an interview with the man himself, Chef Keller? I hope so...you've earned it!