For someone who rarely turns on the oven, it could be an intimidating experience to discuss cooking with Sara Moulton, the former executive chef of Gourmet magazine. But over a lunch of chili and salmon tartines, Sara’s open manner immediately puts one at ease as she expounds on all things culinary.
Sara’s success as a chef led to a long stint at Gourmet (23 years until the magazine folded in 2009), frequent appearances on Good Morning America (GMA) and most recently a cooking show that airs nationally on public television, Sara’s Weeknight Meals.
Career paths are rarely linear and Sara’s success is the result of talent, good timing – and really hard work. Growing up in Manhattan in the 60’s and 70’s, Sara attended Brearley and then headed west to attend the University of Michigan, majoring in the history of ideas. Why Michigan? Sara smiles, “I followed my boyfriend there and even though the relationship didn’t work out, I really came to love the Ann Arbor vibe.” Like most college students – and some adults – Sara didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I thought about law school but considered it too male-dominated and eventually found myself living in Ann Arbor, with a new boyfriend and working in a bar. Needless to say, my mother wasn’t too happy about that.”
Perhaps our mothers do know us best because as Sara gratefully puts it, “My mother realized that I was a really good cook. I would often make really creative things with leftovers from my parent’s dinner parties and when my mother would return from trips she’d have us make the food of the countries she had just visited. “
Sara’s mother’s instincts were right and as only a mother would do, she wrote to Craig Claiborne, food editor of the New York Times, and Julia Child asking them for advice to give her daughter. Claiborne wrote back recommending that Sara consider enrolling in either the Hotel School in Lausanne, Switzerland or the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
Enrolling at the Culinary Institute Sara found her calling. “The moment I walked in the door I asked myself, why did I wait?” She not only found her calling but she excelled at it, graduating second in her class of 452. But stellar grades don’t always open doors – particularly for women in the food industry. “The industry has historically been controlled by men and Europeans. “
Sara’s first job after graduating from the Culinary Institute was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which proved fortuitous in more ways than one. Hired to do the salads and open oysters and clams at the Harvest Restaurant, Sara found a mentor in chef, Lidia Shire, who took Sara under her wing. And, it was in Cambridge, where Sara wrangled a job with Julia Child. “Julia was one of the funniest people I ever met. There was nothing phony about her and though Julia never had children of her own, she mentored many aspiring young chefs as if they were her children, including me.” (Photo above, from left, Julia Child, Sara, Marian Morash and Tami Hyde, at WGBH in Boston on the set of Julia Child and More Company).
Sara was part of the team that developed recipes and styled the food on Julia’s show. “Given time constraints on a cooking show, there were three back-ups for every recipe.”
Personal happiness also came to Sara. Her Ann Arbor boyfriend, Bill, missed her so much, he moved to Boston to be with her and in 1981 they were married at her parent’s farmhouse in Massachusetts. As a big fish in a small Boston pond, Sara was looking for new challenges. She and Bill decided to relocate to New York to explore career opportunities there. Bill, a writer and musician, had been the pop music critic for the Boston Herald.
Julia helped with New York introductions and Sara landed a job as chef tournant (relief cook) at La Tulipe in the early 80’s. It was during this time that Sara co-founded the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance designed to help women culinary professionals.
The hours were long and Sara eventually left restaurant work to pursue recipe testing and development, which gave her time to start a family. She spent two years as an instructor at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, where she discovered a love of teaching. In 1984 Sara took a job in the test kitchen at Gourmet. Four years later she became chef of the magazine’s executive dining room.
For several years she worked behind the scenes at GMA. Her friendship with Julia, led to on-camera work on the show, where it was clear she had great chemistry and fun with the then-co-host, Charlie Gibson. Her GMA experience led to Sara’s own show Cooking Live on the Food Network and she ended up working on air at the Food Network for almost 10 years.
These days Sara continues to do on camera cooking with her show on public television: Sara’s Weeknight Meals now in its second season and does free lance work. The trend in food shows is something of concern to Sara who thinks it’s important that the shows emphasize and teach good cooking with less focus on the celebrity component. “All I really want to do is help people cook more and get good, healthy food on the table every night of the week for their families.”
By all accounts Sara is a cook’s cook. What, I ask, makes a good cook? “A good sense of taste is crucial and it’s really all in the details. “As examples she mentions, “You need to sear the meat properly, dry the lettuce before tossing with the vinaigrette and taste and season as you go. “
Besides sharing her cooking with a television audience, Sara enjoys cooking for her own family and appreciates the importance of sharing meals together. Her most recent cookbook, Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners, features 200 new recipes for overscheduled home cooks who want to treat their family to something new without breaking the bank or spending hours in the kitchen. Given our hectic lives with little time for dining en famille, we can all thank Sara for inviting us to her kitchen.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Shop: Container Store, Kalustyan, Fish’s Eddy
Favorite Place to Eat: Le Bernadin, Nobu, Del Posto
Favorite New York Sight: High Line on a rainy day without the crowds; Flatiron Building
Favorite New York Moment: What happens when it snows on a full moon
What You Love About New York: The energy
What You Hate About New York: The crowds
iphone app: Sara’s Kitchen
Yield: Serves 6
6 ounces dried apricots (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup sugar plus additional for coating ramekins
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon dark rum if desired
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Accompaniment: Vanilla rum crème anglaise
2 cups half-and-half
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
5 large egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon dark rum, or to taste
In a heavy saucepan simmer apricots, water and1/2 cup sugar, covered, 20 minutes. Transfer hot mixture to a food processor and puree until very smooth. Force puree through a fine sieve into a bowl and stir in lemon juice, rum, vanilla, a pinch of salt. Cool puree completely. Puree may be made 2 days ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature before proceeding. Transfer puree to a large bowl.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter 7-ounce (3 ½ by 1 ¾ inch) ramekins and coat with additional sugar, knocking out excess.
In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat whites with pinch of salt until foamy. Beat in cream of tartar and beat whites until they hold soft peaks. Beat in remaining ¼ cup sugar, a little at a time, and beat meringue until it just holds stiff peaks. Whisk about one fourth meringue into puree to lighten and fold in remaining meringue gently but thoroughly. Ladle butter into ramekins and bake soufflés on a baking sheet in middle of oven 20 to 25 minutes, or until puffed, golden brown, and just set in center.
Remove ramekins from oven. With 2 forks pull open center of each soufflé and pour some crème anglaise into each opening. Serve soufflés immediately.
Vanilla rum crème anglaise:
In a small heavy saucepan bring half-and-half just to a boil with vanilla bean and remove pan from heat. Scrape seeds from bean with a knife into half-and-half, reserving pod for another use if desired.
In a bowl whisk together yolks, sugar, and a pinch of salt and whisk in hot half-and-half in a stream. Return custard to pan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until thickened (170 degrees F on a candy thermometer), but do not let boil. Pour sauce through a fine sieve into a bowl and cool, stirring constantly. Stir in rum. Chill sauce, covered, until very cold, at least 2 hours and up to 2 days. Makes about 2 ¼ cups.